Holiness and Grace

God is the God who loves in freedom. There’s Karl Barth’s core contention about God. But what does this love in freedom look like?

§30 of The Church Dogmatics is devoted to exploring the perfections of divine loving. It begins with the apparent opposites of Grace and Holiness.

Holding together these two dynamics of the Divine action and being is a perennial difficulty.

The Grace of the Stamp Comes With the Judgment of the Postmark

It becomes rather easy to point to people, usually on our right, who seem so excited about the divine holiness that their version of grace seems rather… well… ungracious.

With equal ease, we can turn to the people on our left who affirm grace (probably with the unassailable adjective “radical” or something) to the extent that their vision of divine love removes God’s otherness, God’s holiness.

For Barth, these must be held together. And this means that God’s grace will be known as God comes to people whose sin must be overcome. This love, found in grace and holiness, is truly divine love because it is not conditioned on the creature’s merit and cannot be dissuaded by the creature’s demerit.

We truly are sinful. God truly does love the sinful world. And it requires the overcoming of sin for God to do so.

I have a couple of words of concern.

First, I was uneasy with Barth’s projection of grace into the eternal divine identity of God. Grace, as Barth defines it, is about God overcoming the sinner’s resistance with divine love. So he must appeal to “mystery” as to what this attribute of God might look like in God’s eternal self-relations.

This sounded to my ears like special pleading: anything that doesn’t make sense we just call it “mystery” and anyone who challenges us is impious.

Second, and perhaps related to the first, this section could have used a lot more cross. Where is the place where mercy and justice kiss if not there? Yes, he brings in the cross in the small print toward the end, but I think that should have framed this whole conversation.

We know grace when we know the work of God in Christ–the son-giving Father and the self-giving Son; the son who knew no sin being made sin for us; God did what the Law could not, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering.

Overall, however, the chapter resonated with me. I read it fresh off my evening walk, in which I had listened to my favorite podcast right up to the point where it was asked, “Did Jesus have to die for our sins to be forgiven? He forgave sins on earth, so was the cross really necessary for that?”

I answer yes.

What Jesus shows as his kingly prerogatives in Mark 1-8 are those that become fully and eternally his through his cruciform coronation and resurrection in Mark 15-16.

We learn in his life who Jesus is for us–the grace of God among us; but there is a judgment that is due us as well, and this judgment must be dealt with for the rescue to be consummated.

Barth’s insistence that the God of grace is known only in his holiness, and that the holy God is known in grace, is a helpful corrective–corrective to me, who would much rather have the grace without the attendant judgment.

But God is the “holy one” precisely as the God “of Israel.” God is holy as God is in covenant relationship with God’s people.

The Holy One is the God of Grace.

9 thoughts on “Holiness and Grace”

  1. So you believe God requires blood? And in that regard the pagans were correct? Didn’t Jesus teach that forgiveness of others was the prerequisite for our own forgiveness? I’m still struggling with the atonement aspect of the cross.

    1. Wyatt,

      Perhaps we can see the cross as a “triggering event” in the divine process of atonement that God has provided in Christ’s incarnation, life of faithfulness, crucifixion, resurrection, exaltation rather than atonement per se.

      In Leviticus, blood sacrifices (burnt, peace, sin/purification, and guilt offerings) involved not only death/pouring out of blood, but included essential “manipulation” of the blood in proper presentation to God–after the death of the sacrifice. Both elements–not to be comprehensive here–were necessary for the sacrifice to effective.

      David Moffitt’s recent (2010) dissertation at Duke,*A New and Living Way: Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews*, illuminates the relationship of death, blood, sacrifice, bodily resurrection, and the presentation the glorified Jesus’ self/blood before God. Here are four excerpts that may be helpful for you:

      “Jesus’earthly life (and death) per se is not the means by which Jesus’ blood and flesh, that is, his body, were offered to God. Jesus’ glorified incarnational existence, his resurrected flesh and blood entering the holy of holies in heaven effected atonement” [pp.371-372].

      “For the author of Hebrews, the death of Jesus is a *sine qua non* for the atoning offering he makes in heaven. It is the first element in a sequence of events that culminates in Jesus’ elevation to the throne at God’s right hand. The death, however, is not conflated by the writer with the moment at which atonement is obtained. Rather, it precedes, logically and temporally, the offering of blood/life that Jesus brings into God’s presence.

      “Perhaps because Jesus’ death is not viewed synecdochally, the author can throughout his homily place unparalleled emphasis on the exemplary nature of Jesus’ suffering. Again, that is not to say that he has no concept of the sacrificial character of Jesus’ death. As with the ratification of a will, Jesus’ death inaugurates the new covenant, which in turn provides the context for the service and offering that brings perfect atonement to those for whom Jesus mediates. But the author can also isolate the significance of Jesus’ faithful endurance as a crucial element in the process. Jesus’ faithful endurance in testing led to his resurrection. In this way Jesus becomes the ground for the author’s parenesis. As the paradigmatic righteous sufferer, Jesus exemplifies how one should endure and how God ultimately rewards such faithfulness” [pp.387-388].

      “The writer’s claim that Jesus can only serve as a high priest in heaven is consistent with his claims that Jesus presented his offering before God and that this presentation occurred in the heavenly tabernacle. Furthermore, the language he uses to identify Jesus’ offering is, I have argued, more adequately explained if Jesus’ bodily resurrection is confessed by the author. That is to say, the author speaks of Jesus’ body, blood, and self to identify the atoning offering he presented to God. The usage of these terms fits the Levitical picture of blood sacrifice, the historical and literary contexts of Jewish blood sacrifice, and the larger argument of Hebrews better if Jesus’ resurrection life is the notion that unifies them, rather than if—as is almost universally assumed—Jesus’ death (and the notion that blood offering is centered on death) holds them together. Jesus’ bodily resurrection makes coherent the author’s references to his body, blood, and self as the offering Jesus brought into God’s heavenly presence” [p. 389].

      Atonement is much more encompassing than the death of Jesus on the cross perceived in isolation. Integrating the resurrection of Jesus into the story of the Gospel is critically significant (1 Cor 15:12-19; Romans 4:25)for proclamation and teaching.


  2. Very interesting. As I’m reading Bonhoeffer, one of Barth’s criticism was that Bonhoeffer makes too much of grace in the ethical sphere…Barth adding that he doesn’t allow for ethical moments convincingly, which I find interesting given Barth’s Reformed background and Bonhoeffer’s Lutheranism. I have to agree with you, Barth tends to move into mystery a lot. And I find that this sometimes trends towards universalism, which I am and am not altogether comfortable with (that’s my dialectical contribution). Although I like the idea that Jesus not only takes on the judgment of God but is the judgment upon all of us as well. Judgment as orientation to Christ in Barth and Bultmann lacks in Bonhoeffer. I like this idea. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  3. Great post, Daniel. I’d like to hear more about the necessity of the cross. Some would say that Jesus’ death on the cross was needed by both God and humans—by God so that wrath is satisfied; by humans so that their penalty for sin is properly paid. Others would say that the cross was an inevitability because that is the path that God’s anointed takes, and the result of standing in opposition to the dominant forces of evil; in the death of Jesus, God takes on all that sin and death can dish out and overcomes both for the sake of the world.

    How would you see it?

  4. I take Rom 3 as stating that God could pass over past sins (before the cross) because Jesus would/did die. Jesus death was the sacrafice that satisfies Gods requirements (i think thats propitieation). I also do my best to avoid the “alternate reality theology” of what would/could/had to happen or else… I leave that kind of discussion to Star Trek :-)

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