Why I Am A Universalist, § 4: The Doctrine of God, Part 3: The Attributes of God (Section II)
Section II: Grace
In this section, I wish to let Barth speak for himself as I have done in the past. We turn our attention to the subject of God’s grace. What is this grace? What is the relationship between grace and holiness? These are questions which we will consider. I will segue between quotes, but Barth will be the one to address and answer these and other questions. All parenthetical page references are from Church Dogmatics II.1 (The Doctrine of God). If you read only one quote, read the last one (subsection 5), in which I have placed the most important passage in bold letters for emphasis. If you read two subsections, read nos. 3 and 5. I will return to the quote in #3 later, since it is especially relevant to the topic of universalism.
1. First, what is grace?
Grace denotes, comprehensively, the manner in which God, in His essential being, turns towards us. This turning, which is that of a superior to an inferior, and takes place in the form of a condescension, is contained even in the meaning of the word charis, the Latin gratia, our English grace, and most strongly of all the German Gnade. Especially the Old Testament contexts in which the word appears make it clear that in His turning everything which God confers on man as a benefit is implied: His truth, His faithfulness, His law, His mercy, His covenant (Dan 9.4), or, according to the apostolic formula of greeting, His peace. All this is primarily and fundamentally His grace also. (354)2. Second, what it means to speak of God as the gracious God, as the God of all grace? How does the God who is the “one who loves in freedom” revealed as the God who is gracious?
When God loves, revealing His inmost being in the fact that He loves and therefore seeks and creates fellowship, this being and doing is divine and distinct from all other loving to the extent that the love of God is grace. Grace is the distinctive mode of God’s being in so far as it seeks and creates fellowship by its own free inclination and favour, unconditioned by any merit or claim in the beloved, but also unhindered by any unworthiness or opposition in the latter-able, on the contrary, to overcome all unworthiness and opposition. It is in this distinctive characteristic that we recognise the divinity of God’s love. (353)3. Third, what is the relationship between the grace of God and the sinners who are the recipients of God’s grace?
God is gracious, merciful and patient both in Himself and in all His works. This is His loving. But He is gracious, merciful and patient in such a way—because He loves in His freedom—that He is also holy, righteous and wise—again both in Himself and in all His works. For this is the freedom in which He loves. Thus the divinity of His love consists and confirms itself in the fact that it is grace, mercy and patience and in that way and for that reason it is also holiness, righteousness and wisdom. These are the perfections of His love. (352)
The biblical conception of grace involves further that the counterpart which receives it from God is not only not worthy of it but utterly unworthy, that God is gracious to sinners, that His being gracious is an inclination, goodwill and favour which remains unimpeded even by sin, by the resistance with which the creature faces Him. Again, the positive element to be discussed here will fall for special consideration under the heading of God’s mercy. Grace in itself means primarily that the sin of the creature, the resistance which it opposes to God, cannot check, weaken or render impossible the operation of divine grace. On the contrary, grace shows its power over and against sin. Grace, in fact, presupposes the existence of this opposition. It reckons with it, but does not fear it. It is not limited by it. It overcomes it, triumphing in this opposition and the overcoming of it. (355)4. Fourth, what is the relationship between grace and holiness? Are these competitive concepts?
We now place this concept of the grace of God alongside that His holiness. This cannot mean that we imply a need either to qualify or to expand what is denoted by the concept of grace. In grace we have characterised God Himself, the one God in all His fulness. We are not wrong, we do not overlook or neglect anything, if we affirm that His love and therefore His whole being, in all the heights and depths of the Godhead, is simply grace. (358)5. Fifth, what do we mean when we say that God is both gracious and holy? What connects God’s grace and God’s holiness? How do they relate to the overarching description of God as the “one who loves in freedom”?
The common factor linking the biblical concepts of the grace and the holiness of God is seen in the fact that they both in characteristic though differing fashion point to the transcendence of God over all that is not Himself. When we speak of grace, we think of the freedom in which God turns His inclination, good will and favour towards another. When we speak of holiness, we think of this same freedom which God proves by the fact that in this turning towards the other He remains true to Himself and makes His own will prevail. How can we properly separate these two aspects? The freedom with which God remains true to Himself cannot shine more gloriously than in the freedom with which He turns towards the creature without regard to the latter’s merit and worthiness. And again, this freedom cannot be manifested and understood except as the freedom with which He remains true to Himself. The bond between the concepts of grace and holiness consists further in the fact that both point to God’s transcendence over the resistance which His being and action encounters from the opposite side. When we speak of grace, we think of the fact that His favourable inclination towards the creature does not allow itself to be soured and frustrated by the resistance of the latter. When we speak of holiness, we think, on the other hand, of the fact that His favourable inclination overcomes and destroys this resistance. To say grace is to say the forgiveness of sins; to say holiness, judgment upon sins. But since both reflect the love of God, how can there be the one without the other, forgiveness without judgment or judgment without forgiveness? Only where God’s love is not yet revealed, not yet or no longer believed, can there be here a separation instead of a distinction. In this case forgiveness would be inferred in abstracto from sin, and judgment from condemnation. It would not be God’s judgment in the one case or God’s forgiveness in the other. If we speak in faith, and therefore in the light of God and His love, and therefore of God’s forgiveness and judgment, as our insight grows we shall distinguish, but we shall certainly not separate, between God’s grace and God’s holiness. The link between the two is decisively summed up in the fact that both characterise and distinguish His love and therefore Himself in His action in the covenant, as the Lord of the covenant between Himself and His creature. (360)