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.

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