Anyone studying theology will eventually come across the perplexing problem of predestination. Is Calvin correct about God’s double-decree? Or is the Arminian approach correct? Do we choose God or does God choose us?
This was the first reason why I ever read Karl Barth. I had learned, through reading Thomas Torrance and C. Baxter Kruger, that Barth had written a new, revolutionary way to understand election.
But Barth can often be difficult to read. For the everyday Christian its challenging, nearly impossible for some, to pick up his large volumes filled with daunting paragraphs of dense theology. Is there any easier way to understand his doctrine of election?
Barth Summarizing Election
Barth summarizes his doctrine of Election in several places, but one of the best I’ve come across was just recently while reading Deliverance to the Captives. The book is a collection of eighteen sermons Barth preached to prisoners in Basel, Switzerland. It’s a brilliant book, and a great example of Barth preaching the heart of the Church Dogmatics in a simple manner. As such, he talks about election in a way that is simple to understand, but backed by volume upon volume of brilliant theology.
In a sermon titled “Teach us to Number our Days” Barth gives this summary of election:
What happened in the death of Jesus did not happen against us, but for us. What took place was not an act of God’s wrath against man. Quite the opposite holds true. Because in the one Jesus God so loved us from all eternity—truly all of us—because He has elected Himself to be our dear Father and has elected us to become His dear children whom He wants to save and to draw unto Him, therefore He has in the one Jesus written off, rejected, nailed to a cross and killed our old man who, as impressively as he may dwell and spook about in us, is not our true self. God so acted for our own sake.
…The old man has already been extinguished in the death of Jesus, because you may no longer be this old man, because your own case has been disposed of by the power of Jesus’ death, therefore you yourself are now the new man, loved by God, chosen, saved and accepted by Him who has said to you and will say to you His divine “yes”. 1
We could break this up into four points.
- God elected first Himself to be our God in Christ, to be not just a God in the abstract, out there somewhere, but to be the God of mankind. He has chosen not to be only God alone in Himself, but to be God for us.
- He eternally elected to be our Father. And therefore, in electing Himself, from all time He elected mankind in Jesus Christ, His Son, to be His adopted children. In electing Himself as Father, we are elected to become His children.
- Jesus was excluded and rejected so that we might be included and accepted. Only(!) Jesus was rejected, and no one ever will be rejected as a result.
- The old man is crucified and gone, taken away in Jesus’ death. We are free, included, saved, and healed in Christ.
These four points lead to the following conclusions. First, that God has chosen all people in His Son Jesus. Therefore no one is excluded from all eternity (compare this with Calvin’s horrible decree). Though this does not mean God takes sin lightly, and rejects no one. Instead, Jesus Christ, God and man, has taken up our cause, shouldered our responsibility, and undone our corruption in His death. He is the rejected man. God excluded Himself in order to include all people. None are excluded!
This contrasts starkly against Calvinism and Arminianism alike. For me, this solves the dilemma. We can now say that God is 100% for the human race, for each and every single person on the planet. He has no hidden decree about mankind, but has spoken a clear word in Jesus Christ, a “yes!” to mankind. It also means that we can affirm the grace of God in election, that we do not save ourselves but God saves single-handedly.
This, in simple terms, is what Barth has done with the doctrine of election. Barth places the central question back on Jesus Christ as both the electing God and the elected man. Election is about Him, and about us in Him.
For more on the doctrine of election see these quote from CD II.2. Also see my book We Belong: Trinitarian Good News, chapter one.
I recommend this book of sermons to anyone daunted by Barth’s reputation, but interested in hearing from how he presents the gospel. (Amazon link)
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- P. 122-3 ↩