The Sermon on the Mount, Karl Barth, and the (Already-Fulfilled) Law that Does Not Accuse

Jason Micheli —  February 6, 2020 — 2 Comments

This Sunday’s lectionary Gospel raises the question of how Christians are to understand the law Jesus lays down in his Sermon on the Mount. Is Jesus a New Moses? Or, is Jesus the Faithful Israelite who perfectly obeys the law for the rest of us who cannot? Karl Barth wrestles with the relationship between the law and the gospel in volume II.2 of his Church Dogmatics, saying ““the doctrine of the divine election of grace is the first element, and the doctrine of the divine command is the second.” By prioritizing election (God’s choosing of humanity in Christ) over command, Barth reverses Luther’s distinction between the law and gospel in what becomes his gospel-law thesis. 

Because of his experience watching the German Church incapable of maintaining its Christian distinctiveness during the world wars, Barth was wary of permitting human experience to be the starting point or the interpretative lens into revelation. Barth believed Luther’s distinction between the law and the gospel did just this, privileging the subjective experience of the individual when confronted by the accusing demand of the law and the gospel promise of its fulfillment for you. Instead Barth reversed the ordering of law and gospel, prioritizing the electing God whose decision to save us from sin precedes creation itself.

The Word that is Jesus Christ is prior to God speaking creation into being; therefore, the gospel always comes before any demand of obedience from God to God’s creatures.

Not only is the gospel prior to the law for Barth, the two are one inseparable word, for the giver of the Sermon on the Mount is the word who was with God, who is God, and through whom all things were made. To begin with the gospel means to begin with the doctrine of election: “The doctrine of election is,” according to Barth, “the sum of the gospel.” In election, God wills to be for humanity and for humanity to be with God as his covenant partner. Election makes a claim on the one elected in the form of the law.

As David Hunsicker writes in The Making of Stanley Hauerwas:

“The problem, for Barth is that Lutheran theology overdetermines the difference between law and gospel in a manner that results in the eventual emancipation of ethics from dogmatics. 

Barth’s insistence that the gospel and the law are the one in- separable Word of God is a self-conscious determination to keep dogmatics and ethics together. Barth is concerned that establishing the law as a separate Word of God apart from Jesus Christ means that you can have competing claims to what the Word of God commands: one based in universal laws and represented by worldly ordinances such as civil magistrates and the other based on God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

A law independent of the gospel and an ethics independent of dogmatics threatens the freedom of the gospel itself, leaving us subject to “the worldly ‘ordinances’” and “the ‘competence of experts.’”

This was what Barth and the Confessing Church movement had specifically rejected eight years prior at Barmen:

“Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear, and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”

Says Hunsicker:

“Luther sows the seeds for what will be eventually known as “the introspective conscience of the West.”The second use of the law, as Lutherans would later call it, acts as a judgment on all our sinful doing and leads us to the truth of the gospel, that is, that our being is determined by our passive (nondoing) reception of God’s grace. Human action becomes obsolete with regard to the question of human being. In this regard, personhood is now reconstituted along the lines of a sort of “inside-out” Cartesian dualism.

In contrast, Barth’s insistence that the law and the gospel are the one in- separable Word of God registers as a strong protest against inside-out dualism. For Barth, the person is constituted as a being-in-becoming, or a being-in-action. Barth’s actualistic ontology means that human being is self- determined by human doing as it corresponds to divine action. God acts toward humanity in the gospel. Then, in a corresponding action, humans act in receiving the good news and responding with obedience to the law.

The result is twofold.

First, humans are given a real agency with regard to the gospel. Obedience to the law does not lead to God’s grace, but it does arise as a genuine human response of gratitude to God’s grace.

Thus Barth’s refusal to separate law from gospel grounds his claim that ethics cannot be independent from dogmatics. This move immediately affects questions related to Christian social witness and divine and human agency. For Barth, both sorts of questions must begin with the subject of Christian dogmatics, the covenantal God who determines to be for hu- manity and who elects humanity to be with him.

This brings us to the two remaining components to the gospel-law thesis: the priority of the gospel to the law and the law as the form of the gospel. Both components differentiate the gospel from the law in the larger context of the unity they share as the one Word of God.

To say that the gospel is prior to the law is to affirm that “the very fact that God speaks to us, that there is a Word of God, is grace.”

In other words, to place the gospel before the law is to say that humans always encounter the Word of God in the context of the covenant of grace.

Even when the one Word of God is law, it is law as the form of the gospel. That is to say, the law always confronts us from the perspective of what has been accomplished by Jesus Christ on our behalf. In this respect, the already-fulfilled law does not hang from our necks like a millstone. Unlike Luther’s second use of the law, it does not accuse us or drive us to repentance; instead, it demands that we “allow [Jesus’] fulfillment of the law . . . to count as our own.”

Jesus’ fulfillment of the law, however, does not mean that Barth forecloses on human agency. To the contrary, the reversal of law and gospel “is at heart motivated by a desire to register a place for human agency.” Above I noted that a law which is separate from the gospel as a second Word of God risks appeals to competing sources of divine revelation. Similarly, a law that precedes the gospel always threatens to become an independent law (e.g., natural law) that points to an idol instead of the true God. 

The law that is rejected is the law that suggests “we must do ‘something’ to make the gospel apply to us,” while the law that is affirmed is the law that expects humans to do something on account of the fact that the gospel already ap- plies to us. This is why Barth’s recharacterization of the law as the form of the gospel avoids Luther’s original concern: works righteousness.

Luther’s solution is to suggest that humans are utterly passive; humans do nothing, God does everything. For Barth, this solution is problematic,“What is wrong about works righteousness is not the fact that the human does something, so that in her passivity she would be in concordance with the grace of God. The wrong thing is that human action stands in contradiction to grace, competes with it rather than conforms to it.”

Jason Micheli


2 responses to The Sermon on the Mount, Karl Barth, and the (Already-Fulfilled) Law that Does Not Accuse

  1. Very helpful discussion. One of the advantages of teh COVID life is that one has time to reflect on concepts such as this.

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