Inconceivable Grace

God’s remarkable response to our impossible situation. /

Karl Barth was certainly the greatest theologian of his era (1886–1968), and he's making somewhat of a comeback today in evangelical circles. One reason is his electric writing on the theme of grace. The following passage, which has been condensed and edited (with a paraphrase or two as well), comes from his Church Dogmatics, Vol. 4.1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation. Barth explains one dimension of the rich biblical phrase "God with us" (Matt. 1:23). —The Editors

The situation of man is this: He occupies a position quite different from that which God intended for him. God gave himself to be man's partner in redemptive grace, but man does not conduct himself as a partner. He has turned his back on the salvation that actually comes to him. He does not find the fulfillment of his being by participating in the being of God, which comes as a gift of God.

Instead, he aims at another salvation, one found in the sphere of his creaturely being and attained by his own effort. His belief is that he can and should find self-fulfillment. He has himself become his own end.

This is the man with whom God is dealing in this particular redemptive history: the man who has made himself quite impossible in relation to the redemptive grace of God. In doing this, man who has made himself quite impossible; he has cut the ground from under his feet; he has lost his whole reason for existence.

This redeeming event can be conceived only in the form of a Yet and a Nevertheless, which means that it cannot be conceived at all.

What place has he before God when he has shown himself to be so utterly unworthy of that for which he was created, so utterly inept, so utterly unsuitable? What place is there for his being as man, when he has denied his goal, and therefore his beginning and meaning? Despising the dignity with which God invested him, he has obviously forfeited the right that God gave and ascribed to him as the creature of God.

But it is with this lost son in a far country, with man as he has fallen and now exists in this sorry plight, that God concerns himself with. And this is what reveals the gulf. This is what shows us how it stands between God and man. . . . This redeeming event can be conceived only in the form of a Yet and a Nevertheless, which means that it cannot be conceived at all. If man has forfeited his salvation, what do we have to grasp in this event but the inconceivable fact that all the same it is given to him? If in so doing, man has lost his creaturely being, what do we have to grasp but again the inconceivable fact that all the same he will not be lost? Is it not the case that only here, in the light of the antithesis that is here revealed and overcome, is grace really known as grace, that is, as free grace, as mercy, pure and simple?

For who really knows what grace is until he has seen it at work here: as the grace which is for man when, because man is wholly and utterly a sinner before God, it can only be against him, and when in fact, even while it is for him, it is also a plaintiff and judge against him, showing him to be incapable of satisfying either God or himself? . . . At this point, at the heart of the Christian message, it means that God has made himself the One who fulfills his redemptive will. It means that he himself in his own person—at his own cost but also on his own initiative—has become the inconceivable Yet and Nevertheless of this event. It means that God has become man in order as such, but in divine sovereignty, to take up our case.

What takes place in this work of inconceivable mercy is, therefore, the free over-ruling of God. It is not an arbitrary overlooking and ignoring, not an artificial bridging, covering-over or hiding. It is a real closing of the breach, gulf, and abyss between God and us, for which we are responsible. At the very point where we refuse and fail, offending and provoking God, making ourselves impossible before him and in that way missing our destiny, treading under foot our dignity, forfeiting our right, losing our salvation and hopelessly compromising our creaturely being—at that very point God himself intervenes as man.

Because he is God, he is able not only to be God but also to be this man.

Because he is God, it is necessary that he should be man in quite a different way from all other men, that he should do what we do not do, and not do what we do.

Because he is God, he puts forth his omnipotence to be this other man, to be man quite differently, in our place and for our sake.

Because he is God, he exercises the power as this man to suffer for us the consequence of our transgression, the wrath and penalty which necessarily fall on us, and in that way to satisfy himself in our regard.

Because he is God, he exercises the power as this man to be his own partner in our place, the One who in free obedience accepts the ordination of man to salvation, which we resist. In that way satisfies us, that is, achieves that which can positively satisfy us.

That is the absolutely unique being, attitude, and activity of God to which the "God with us" at the heart of the Christian message refers. It speaks of the peace that God himself in this man has made between himself and us.

© Karl Barth, 1956, 1984; Church Dogmatics, Vol. 4.1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation. T&T Clark, International, an imprint of of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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