Karl Barth: The Most Important Election Ever

No, we are not talking about the 2008 U.S. election between Senators McCain and Obama. We’re talking about the election that affects all nations and all people who have ever lived: the election of Jesus Christ.

Many theologians have attempted to grasp the mystery of election attested to in Scripture. One of the most influential commentators on the doctrine of election is the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. For Barth, the doctrine of election is the sum of the gospel and the foundation for understanding God.

God’s free choice

“Election” simply means “a choice.” The Christian doctrine of election involves a choice made by God. For Karl Barth, this doctrine — the decision of God before all time to be who he is for humanity — is the basic truth on which all other Christian truths are built. The doctrine of election involves two aspects, the electing God and the elected man. As the electing God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together make a choice. The choice God makes is that the Son of God will become the elected man, Jesus of Nazareth.

The Triune God eternally elects, or chooses, in divine freedom, to be for humanity the God of grace and love. Therefore, in Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully man, God is both the elector and the elected. Barth wrote, “In the midst of time it happened that God became man for our good. While underlining the uniqueness of this event, we have to reflect that this was not an accident, not one historical event among others. But it is the event which God willed from eternity.”1

Theologian and Barth scholar John Webster describes it this way, “God elects to be this God, God in this man, God known in and as Jesus Christ.”2 As the act of grace and love, the Son of God is elected to give of himself to become united with the Son of Man for the specific purpose to save sinful humans. This is the act of free grace where God gives “love in the deepest condescension,” that is, he reaches down to pull humans to himself (p. 10). The Son of God empties and humbles himself so that humans may be united in fellowship with God (see Philippians 2:6-8; John 17:22-24).

This is the work of the Triune God: Father, Son and Spirit, in perfect love and perfect unity for the sake of humanity. Barth wrote, “This work of the Son of God includes the work of the Father as its presupposition and the work of the Holy Spirit as its consequence.”3 We know the Father loves us because we know Jesus loves us, and we live in this assurance by the Spirit.

The Greater Truth

“To pronounce the name of Jesus Christ means to acknowledge that we are cared for, that we are not lost. Jesus Christ is man’s salvation in all circumstances and in face of all that darkens his life, including the evil that proceeds from himself. There is nothing which is not already made good in this happening, that God became man for our good. Anything that is left can be no more than the discovery of this fact. We do not exist in any kind of gloomy uncertainty; we exist through the God who was gracious to us before we existed at all. It may be true that we exist in contradiction to this God, that we live in remoteness from Him, indeed in hostility to Him. It is still truer that God has prepared reconciliation for us, before we entered the struggle against Him. And true though it may be that in connection with our alienation from God man can only be regarded as a lost being, it is still much truer that God has so acted for our good, does it and will also act, that there exists a salvation for every lost condition. It is this faith that we are called to belief through the Christian Church and in the Holy Spirit.” — Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, page 71.

 

Scripture tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). As the Triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have freely shared their perfect love and fellowship within the Godhead eternally, and by God’s own free choice, he elects to share that same love with humanity through Jesus Christ, who is the elect man on behalf of all humanity.

How do we know about this choice? Barth explains, “It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and elected man in One.”4 We only need to look to Jesus Christ to know about this election. Theologian Robert Jenson explains, “Jesus Christ is therefore the basis of the doctrine of election. All its statements must be statements about Him.”5

Predestination

For Barth, predestination is identical with the election of Jesus Christ. God freely chooses or predestines himself and all humans to be in loving relationship with and through Jesus Christ. God will have it no other way; he loves humanity and will not be without humanity.

The problem is that humans are fallen, sinful beings who reject God and need redemption in order to stand in that fellowship from their side. Scripture testifies to God’s foreknowledge — before creation — that human beings would be sinful and would be in need of redemption and reconciliation (see 1 Peter 1:18-21; Revelation 13:8; Romans 5:6-11; 8:28-30; Ephesians 1:3-14; Colossians 1:15-20). Barth explains, “Yet these transgressors are the ones on whose behalf the eternal love of God for Jesus Christ is willed and extended” (p. 123).

You may say, “Predestination? Doesn’t that mean that God accepted some (the elect) and rejected others (the reprobate) before he even created humanity?”

Barth challenged this hyper-Calvinist version of “double predestination” because of its lack of scriptural support. For Barth, God is not a capricious tyrant who elects some to salvation and elects others to perdition by some abstract absolute decree. On the contrary, all knowledge we have about God and his election is in and through Jesus Christ — there is nothing hidden beyond or behind that knowledge.

Double predestination in Jesus Christ

For Barth, “double predestination” has to do with the election of Jesus Christ for crucifixion and resurrection. Before time began, God accepted us by electing Jesus Christ in our place and on our behalf through the Incarnation, the cross and the empty tomb.

At the crucifixion, God rejects and says NO to disordered human sin that caused alienation from him. However, God’s NO is not directed at us — even though we deserve it because of our rejection of God. Instead, Jesus takes the rejection and the NO of God totally upon himself as the human representative of and substitute for all humanity.

The NO is absolutely necessary so that we can hear God’s YES. Jesus Christ does not come to the world as “an accuser, as a prosecutor, as a judge, as an executioner.” Instead he is “the herald of this Yes which God has spoken to it [the world]…. God has loved it from all eternity, and…He has put His love into action in the death of Jesus Christ.”6

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s YES to Jesus Christ. It is the acceptance of Jesus Christ’s obedient submission to God’s will. In and through Jesus Christ, the YES of God is freely given to all human beings. Therefore, we may say that Jesus Christ is our elected representative.

You may ask, “What does the NO and YES mean for me?”

Theologian Joseph Mangina writes, God’s No is “a death-dealing rejection of sin and evil” and Yes is “a life-giving affirmation of covenant love.”7 The NO passed away at the cross; Jesus Christ bore the NO and totally removed it. There remains only the covenant or relationship of YES with the resurrection of Jesus Christ (see 2 Corinthians 1:19-20).

Ultimately, double predestination involves Jesus dying for the sins of every human being who ever lived—not just a closed number of elect—so that all might have eternal life (see John 3:16-17; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 John 2:2). At the resurrection, the Father gave acceptance to Jesus Christ and everyone with him. Barth states, “We have to see our own election in that of the man Jesus because His election includes ours within itself and because ours is grounded in His. We are elected together with Him in so far as we are elected ‘in Him’” (p. 120).

The good news

Barth calls the doctrine of election the sum of the gospel, for it reveals the heart of God: “God’s eternal will is the election of Jesus Christ” (p. 146). He is the loving God who has freely chosen and created human beings to be in his image and in fellowship with him. This is the absolute good news. There is no bad news mixed with the good news, no fear mixed with terror, no certainty mixed with uncertainty. We are not left to blind fate or some unknown will of God. Our election and predestination by God is certain in Jesus Christ, and in him alone and in him fully we have and know the will of God for the meaning and direction of our lives.

1 Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (Harper & Row: 1959), 69.

2 John Webster, Barth: Outstanding Christian Thinkers (Continuum, 2000), 91.

3 Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 71.

4 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 (T&T Clark, 2004), 3. All quotes, unless otherwise cited, come from this source.

5 Robert W. Jenson, Alpha and Omega: A Study in the Theology of Karl Barth (Wipf & Stock, 2002), 144.

6 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1(T & T Clark, 1956), 347.

7 Joseph L. Mangina, Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness (Westminster John Knox, 2004), 75.

Eric Wilding
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