Karl Barth’s Revolutionary Doctrine of Sin

Rubens: Adam och Eva.

I’ve been recently going through volume IV.1 of Karl Barth’s magnificent Church Dogmaticsin which Barth outlines the doctrine of reconciliation. I’ve read parts of this volume before, specifically §57-59, and they remain some of my favorite texts from Barth. This volume is an incredibly beautiful work of theology. Here Barth masterfully outlines the good news of Jesus Christ and of what He has done for us in reconciling us back to the Father.

(A brief summary in Barth’s own words: “To say atonement is to say Jesus Christ.” … “He took our place as Judge. He took our place as the judged. He was judged in our place. And He acted justly in our place.” 1)

But today I want to examine sections from §60, which includes what I consider Barth’s “revolutionary” doctrine of sin.

Karl Barth’s Revolutionary Doctrine of Sin (IV.1, §60)

To begin, there are two particular reasons why I feel this doctrine so important, so “revolutionary”, especially for today’s evangelical church, and for how the gospel is often preached.

First of all, the placement of this doctrine is critical. As Barth notes, he has intentionally placed this doctrine of sin after the doctrine Jesus Christ the reconciler and not before it. He does not, as it is commonly done in evangelical theology, place sin before Christ. This is profoundly important. For Barth, the context and meaning of Jesus’ coming is not sin, but the eternal will of God for man. Jesus was an event of self-determination, not the side-effect of sin and death.

And second of all, following this structure, Barth has made certain that sin is not defined in a vacuum, but only as it is found in relation to Jesus Christ, the victor over sin. It is therefore only in Christ’s defeat of sin that Barth claims we can know sin at all. “The reality of sin cannot be known or described except in relation to the One who has vanquished it.” 2

So this essentially means that the way we understand sin cannot be an abstract moral definition of it, or even worse, what we judge ourselves to be what is right or wrong. Because this is in no way sin as God has defined it. Following the way in which we know God, only through Jesus Christ, the way we know sin is the same. Was can only come to form a doctrine of sin in the light of Jesus Christ and particularly in the light of our reconciliation in Him. Only in the context of sin as it is defeated can we identify what it is.  As Barth writes, “…we maintain the simple thesis that only when we know Jesus Christ do we really know that man is the man of sin, and what sin is and what it means for man…” 3

In § 60.2, under the heading “The Pride of Man”, Barth follows the same outline he has already presented in other sections of this volume, but reverses them. In examining what Jesus Christ has done for us, we understand the sin Christ has conquered.

Barth begins first by asserting that the chief sin of all is “unbelief”. Saying, “It is true enough that unbelief is the sin, the original form and source of all sins, and in the last analysis the only sin because it is the sin which produces and embraces all other sins.” 4

But unbelief in what? In God? But which God? Surely not just any abstract God? Barth continues by narrowing down the exact God who man has disbelieved. He writes, “Man’s sin is unbelief in the God who was ‘in Christ reconciling the world to himself,’ who in Him elected and loved man from all eternity, who in Him created him, whose word to man from and to all eternity was and will be Jesus Christ… In Him God Himself is revealed as the One who commands in goodness…” 5

The sin of mankind is unbelief in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, the God who is for mankind, the God who has from all eternity determined Himself to love us and elect us, to be our God. In short, our sin is unbelief in the goodness of God as revealed in Christ. We have failed to see that this God is for us, and not against us!—loves us and embraces us and is good to us. And Barth says that this unbelief is the chief sin and the root of all other sin.

It reminds me a lot about what C. Baxter Kruger has said about our need for assurance. We must know that we are loved by God and know it with certainty. We must believe in the goodness of God and bask in it. Only when we know that we are loved from before all time by God, can we learn to be free from sin and shame and guilt. When we see ourselves embraced by the goodness of God, we leave sin behind.

But Barth continues, as I mentioned, to outline the counter-action of man that is healed in Christ’s redemption. He does this in four points.

First, that the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. This is the humility of God, the God who in freedom became man for our sakes. Sin, in this light, is that we as a human race desire to be Gods. God became a man to cure us of this sin. He humbled Himself and became one with us to destroy our prideful illusions of ever becoming God.

Second, that Jesus is our Lord as a servant. Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and this reveals the nature of God as the Lord. He is not Lord as we imagine, but Lord as the servant. He humbles Himself and becomes the servant of sinful man. Mankind, on the other hand, wants to be Lord over all, to pridefully command all things. Yet Jesus comes to heal our evil fixation with this illusionary Lordship, by revealing that true Lordship is servanthood.

Third, that Jesus is the Judge judged in our place. He alone is the righteous Judge of man, and He has, as this judge, suffered and died in the judgement we deserved. He is the Judge who steps down and dies the judgement He proclaims in the place of the unjust. Yet we, in our prideful humanity, desire to be our own judge. We desire to be the masters of our own lives and to judge for ourselves what is right and wrong. Yet Jesus reveals the high price of the Judge, and unveils the truth that only God’s judgement is truly righteous.

Fourth, Jesus dies helpless and in complete abandonment on the cross. He was crucified and buried in full trust that despite His helplessness, God, His dear Father, would come to help. Humanity, in our pride, attempts self-help, self-salvation. We try to be our own hero. But God in Christ shows that it is only when we are helpless and fully abandoned to His salvation, that we are free from our illusion, and He saves us. 6


The implications to this doctrine are incredible and essential for the evangelical church today. The gospel is often preached in this way: First, that we are sinners, and only then that Christ came to save us. But here Barth has placed Jesus Christ, yet again, at the center of our Christianity. We do not preach Jesus Christ with sin tacked onto the end of our sermon, as if Jesus is a footnote to our salvation! I know from personal experience that there are camps of Christian theology that believe we must preach sin 90% of the time, and only long after everyone is condemned and feeling bad about themselves do we preach the good news of what Jesus has done. Barth’s doctrine of sin flips this whole enterprise on it’s head. We can only know sin in the light of the Conquerer of sin. Only in the light of Jesus’ redemption can we truly understand the depravity of our existence. And in this way, even in preaching sin we preach the grace of God for all mankind, because we cannot preach sin apart from the conquerer of sin, Jesus Christ. Sin is never without this grace!

Whenever our efforts are on anything other than the gospel, we are wasting our time. If we focus more on morality, on self-improvement, on how bad people we are, or on any other topic except for Christ and Him crucified, we are not preaching the Gospel. Sin, legalism, and morality are not the message of the church. Only Jesus Christ, His life and work, are we to proclaim. And when we do, we truly preach the gospel. And perhaps, if we get our focus once again on Jesus Christ and Him crucified, we might become once again relevant to society. Because we will no longer be preaching religion or do-goodery, we will preach grace. And the world is starving for real grace.

This was also the main point of the “On Preaching the Gospel” chapter in my book, We Belong. As I wrote there, “The Gospel is an announcement, not a threat!” My hope is that the church today would come to recognize this, and following Barth’s example, learn once again to preach sin in the light of Jesus Christ. And only then can we echo Paul’s mantra, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2)

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  1. Karl Barth Church Dogmatics IV.1, P. 158 and 273 respectively, Hendrickson Publishers, 2010
  2.  Ibid. P. 144
  3. Ibid. P. 389
  4. Ibid. 414.
  5. Ibid. P. 415
  6. This section follows the outline of Barth from pages 418-478

2 thoughts on “Karl Barth’s Revolutionary Doctrine of Sin

  1. This was the most edifying encouraging soul breaking piece of writing I’ve read in months possibly years I’m a new convert if you will to Bart especially I’ve suffered from unbelief and the fear that I wasn’t elect for decades

  2. This was absolutely everything I needed to read! This should be the first and last thing we teach everywhere! We start with the Lord Jesus, then proceed to our fall, then back again to our redemption. My life is forever changed! Thank you so much Professor Morrison for this life-changing treatise into some of Barth’s seminal works. I am blessed for it. May GOD reward you on all our behalf.

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