Why I Am A Universalist, § 5: The Doctrine of God, Part 4: The Doctrine of Election (Section IV)
Section IV: The election of the individual
Karl Barth says all that needs to be said on the subject of individual salvation in one lengthy passage from § 35 of the Church Dogmatics. If you are looking for Barth’s most clear and unequivocal endorsement of universalism, look no further. It is important to note that in this passage, he speaks about how the church community should present the Good News to unbelievers, to those who reject God entirely. He speaks first about the godlessness within the church and then about the godlessness of those who remain outside of it. What Barth says here has important ramifications for how we conceive of ecclesiology, to which we will return at a later time.
This, then, is the message with which the elect community (as the circumference of the elect man, Jesus of Nazareth) has to approach every man—the promise, that he, too, is an elect man. It is fully aware of his perverted choice. It is fully aware of his godlessness. It consists itself of godless men who were enabled to hear and believe this promise, and who still need to hear and believe it. It does and must reckon continually with the original godlessness of its members. It is fully aware, too, of the eternal condemnation of the man who is isolated over against God, which is unfailingly exhibited by the godlessness of every such man. It knows what his perverse choice must cost him. It knows of the threat under which he stands. It knows of the wrath and judgment and punishment of God in which the rejection of the man isolated over against God takes its course. And it also knows of the shadow into which every man does actually move because he desires and undertakes at all costs to be a man isolated, and therefore rejected, in relation to God; because he behaves and conducts himself at all costs as though he were this rejected man.Karl Barth’s argument rests on the “But” in the second paragraph: “But it [the community] knows, above all, about Jesus Christ.” This could be a summary of Barth’s entire theological program. Jesus Christ is “above all” human concerns about our eternal state, because in Jesus all concerns are rendered null and void. In him we have our answer. In him we hear the promise of God to each individual: Because you were there in my Son—because he stood in your place—you are my beloved, my elect. This is the gospel, the “good news” which we must proclaim to the world: We belong to God, and to no one else—especially not to ourselves. No one can escape the gracious grasp of the Holy One in our midst (Hos. 11:9), the God who “loves in freedom” and displayed this holy love in the incarnation of Jesus Christ as the realization of God’s infinite grace. The verdict has been given, and Jesus took upon himself the punishment which we deserved. Apart from God we are doomed to perish. But we are never apart from God, because God claims us as God’s beloved children. Thus we may rejoice! We are not lost. We are not guilty. Our lives are hidden with God and we are promised an eternity of fellowship with our Creator as the special guests at the banquet table. Whether we all know it or not, we are invited as the elect of God, no longer rejected as God’s enemies. God determined before the creation of the world that we would share in the wedding feast for all eternity. And so we shall! Praise be to God!
But it knows, above all, about Jesus Christ. It is the community founded by His death and resurrection. It belongs to Him as His property. Its existence is defined by witness to Him. It proclaims Him and nobody and nothing else. It knows men, therefore, only to the extent that it knows Jesus Christ. And so it knows the full extent of their godlessness, and the rejection that accompanies it. But it knows something greater than that. And it knows even that only in relation to this greater thing. It knows what has become of this threat, how and where it has been executed. It knows that God, by the decree He made in the beginning of all His works and ways, has taken upon Himself the rejection merited by the man isolated in relation to Him; that on the basis of this decree of His the only truly rejected man is His own Son; that God’s rejection has taken its course and been fulfilled and reached its goal, with all that that involves, against this One, so that it can no longer fall on other men or be their concern. [...] Their concern is still to be aware of the threat of their rejection. But it cannot now be their concern to suffer the execution of this threat, to suffer the eternal damnation which their godlessness deserves. Their desire and their undertaking are pointless in so far as their only end can be to make them rejected. And this is the very goal which the godless cannot reach, because it has already been taken away by the eternally decreed offering of the Son of God to suffer in place of the godless, and cannot any longer be their goal.
This is the contradiction with which the community opposes the godless, who do not know all this. It testifies to them that the way in which they find themselves was aimless even before they entered upon it; that their desire and undertaking were nullified before the world began. The revelation of this contradiction is the basis of the community itself. How can it meet any other man otherwise than with this contradiction? But it knows more than this. It knows that God has removed the merited rejection of man, and has laid it upon His own Son, so that He might draw man to Himself and clothe him with His own glory. It knows that God is gracious to man, not only in a negative sense, not only by the removal of his rejection, but positively, in that He elects him. Indeed, the first and essential thing that He has decreed for him in His Son is his election to covenant with Him. He loves His enemies, the godless: not because they are godless; not because they seek to be free of Him; but because He will not let them break away; because in consequence they cannot really break away from Him. What is laid up for man is eternal life in fellowship with God. (CD II.2, 318-19; paragraph breaks added for readability)
After reading this passage, I am reminded of the quote I posted earlier on grace, from CD II.1:
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)
Karl Barth proves to be a theologian of grace from beginning to end—the grace of God’s self-revelation, God’s gracious being-in-act as the “one who loves in freedom,” and now God’s election of Jesus Christ as the divine election of grace for all humanity. What is significant is that this grace is not only connected to God’s wrath and judgment but is, in fact, realized in God’s judgment of sin on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ.
I close now with a selection from an earlier section in CD II.2, but one which connects the election of individuals to the topic that will be presented next: Jesus Christ as the Judge judged in our place. Barth does not address this fully until the fourth volume, under the doctrine of reconciliation. So with this quote we finally end our discussion of the doctrine of God and move into Christology, reconciliation, justification, and the atonement.
Who is the Elect? He is always the one who “was dead and is alive again,” who “was lost and is found” (Lk. 15.21). That the elected man Jesus had to suffer and die means no more and no less than that in becoming man God makes Himself responsible for man who became His enemy, and that He takes upon Himself all the consequences of man’s action—his rejection and his death. This is what is involved in the self-giving of God. This is the radicalness of His grace. God must let righteousness reign, and He wills to do so. Against the aggression of the shadow-world of Satan which is negated by Him and which exists only in virtue of this negation, God must and will maintain the honour of His creation, the honour of man as created and ordained for Him, and His own honour. God cannot and will not acquiesce in the encroachment of this shadow-world upon the sphere of His positive will, an encroachment made with the fall of man. On the contrary, it must be His pleasure to see that Satan and all that has its source and origin in him are rejected.
But this means that God must and will reject man as he is in himself. And He does so. But He does it in the person of the elected man Jesus. And in Him He loves man as he is in himself. He elects Jesus, then, at the head and in the place of all others. The wrath of God, the judgment and the penalty, fall, then, upon Him. And this means upon His own Son, upon Himself: upon Him, and not upon those whom He loves and elects “in Him;” upon Him, and not upon the disobedient. Why not upon the disobedient? Why this interposition of the just for the unjust by which in some incomprehensible manner the eternal Judge becomes Himself the judged? Because His justice is a merciful and for this reason a perfect justice. Because the sin of the disobedient is also their need, and even while it affronts Him it also moves Him to pity. [. . .] That is why He intervened on our behalf in His Son. That is why He did no less. He did not owe it to us to do it. For it was not He but we ourselves in our culpable weakness who delivered us up to Satan and to the divine wrath and rejection. And yet God does it because from all eternity He loves and elects us in His Son, because from all eternity He sees us in His Son as sinners to whom He is gracious.
For all those, then, whom God elects in His Son, the essence of the free grace of God consists in the fact that in this same Jesus God who is the Judge takes the place of the judged, and they are fully acquitted, therefore, from sin and its guilt and penalty. Thus the wrath of God and the rejection of Satan and his kingdom no longer have any relevance for them. On the contrary, the wrath of God and the rejection of Satan, the free course of divine justice to which God Himself has subjected Himself on their behalf, has brought them to freedom. In the One in whom they are elected, that is to say, in the death which the Son of God has died for them, they themselves have died as sinners. And that means their radical sanctification, separation and purification for participation in a true creaturely independence, and more than that, for the divine sonship of the creature which is the grace for which from all eternity they are elected in the election of the man Jesus. (CD II.2, 124-25; paragraph breaks added for readability)