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Karl Barth on Gospel and Law


Karl Barth


Gospel and Law



Prefatory Comments


B. reverses the traditional Lutheran order: law and gospel.

For L. the law is the instrument of God’s judgement and issues in our condemnation.

the gospel is the instrument of God’s mercy, the word of reconciliation, and leads

to our salvation.

For L. the law is God’s “strange (alien)” work, while the gospel is God’s “proper” work.


For B., however, there can only one Word of God (or else God is two-headed).

The one Word of God is grace.  When grace meets out sin it both judges us and saves us.

The one Word, pure gift, then claims us.

The gospel is therefore the content of the law, and the law is the form of the gospel.



Because the gospel is the substance of the law,

(1)   theol’l ethics is not accountable to ethics-in-general

(2)   theol’l ethics doesn’t reserve one sphere to itself and assign another to phil’l ethics

(3)   theol’l ethics must not coordinate itself with general (i.e., natural law) ethics (as is so much RC thought.)





Barth’s Understanding of the Law of God



The Command as the Claim of God


Its basis: God’s self-giving to us in JC, especially in the cross; i.e., his costly salvage operation.


Its content: our restoration to the divine image.

The basis and content together entail

(a)    our accepting this as right,

(b)   our admitting that we do not belong to ourselves,

(c)    our acknowledging specifically the rightness of God’s mercy and righteousness.


Its form: permission, invitation.


Note: because the gospel is the substance of the law, the command of God imposes obligation without legalism and permission without license.




The Command as the Decision of God


In issuing his command God makes the decision of grace.  His decision necessitates ours; i.e., we are responsible (antwoertlich).


The commands of God are always God’s personal address to persons.

The Ten Commandments are first commands, and therefore like electrical cables along which God “transmits” specific, personal claim to individuals.