Barth’s Impossible Possibility: It’s Not That We Can Fall From Grace, It’s That Grace Can Be & Is Rejected

Karl Barth CD II_1554Five key statements by Barth in C.D 2:1 help to deliver a better understanding of his belief that ‘sin can only ever be the impossible possibility’ (p.505)[i].

In God permitting us to respond to grace, the rejection of grace [sin] is made possible.  Essentially, this is the possibility of self-annulment; the rejection of our own existence, primarily attached to an outright rejection of God’s.

If I’ve heard Barth correctly, his idea of sin as an impossible possibility is formulated as follows:

First: ‘The fact that the creature can fall away from God and perish does not imply any imperfection on the part of the creation or the Creator.’ (p.503)
Second: ‘[It is an] incomprehensible fact that the creature rejects the preserving grace of God.’ (p.504)
Third: ‘It is not by His abandoning His opposition [to sin], but by His maintaining and exercising it that the world is saved from the evil of its own opposition [to itself and Him].’ (p.504)

Fifty pages on and the idea pops up again.

Fourth: ‘We may fall into sin and hell, but whether for salvation or perdition, we cannot fall out of the realm of God’s knowledge and so out of the realm of His grace and judgement. This is the comfort and the warning contained in the truth of the divine knowledge.’(p.554)

Finally, Barth claims that although God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, God is not the author of defects. He is not the author of sin. In creating the possibility of a human response to grace, God also grants us along with the answer to sin, the possibility to sin or not to sin. God is not, therefore, the author of sin.

God hasn’t changed: He wills to be with us and that we should not be without Him[ii].

God does not will that we should be puppets. Even though God in His power is capable of commanding puppets, for Him to do so would be inconsistent with who He is and has revealed Himself to be.  In His loving freedom and patience, He allows. This allowance is His will; a gracious permitting that does not desire the absolute rejection of Himself. Nor does He desire the total annihilation of His creature.

As Barth sees it, within God’s omnipotence and constancy we are summoned to walk away from sin. Here we are not abandoned. We are given an empowering permission, not to sin. More precariously, this permission also contains the potentiality to sin. However, God does not desire that we should sin willingly, thereby exchanging what Bonhoeffer termed as costly grace for cheap grace. Instead, God wills, as Paul Tillich rightly stated it, for us to “accept that we are accepted.”

According to Barth,

‘God has thereby done what we cannot do. He has made a distinction between the sinner and his sin. He has hated the sinner’s sin but does not cease to love the sinner (IV/ 1, 406).[iii]

The impossible possibility is a human paradox. The battle against sin is, in Christ, won. Sin has been answered by the holiness and grace of the free and loving God. Yet, sin still oppresses humanity.  In it a state of deceptive revolt exists against the omnipotence, knowledge and will of God.

Even in the grip of grace humanity is still held back by its own will-to-power. Sin is possible in that humanity acts on the gift of freedom God gives and rejects the very fact that in Jesus Christ, God ‘condescends and humiliates himself to befriend us’ (p.517-518)

The consequence of possibility rests on God’s omnipotence and constancy. God acts in freedom and in condescending gives humanity the gift of freedom[iv].

Put simply: That we have an empowered freedom not to sin, means we ought not to sin. That God has already acted means we can act. That we can sin, doesn’t mean we should give in so easily to it.

Barth’s use of the phrase “fall from God” should not be read as a “fall from grace.” As such, there is no “fall from grace,” but rather only a rejection of it; or the possibility of rejecting it.

In this volume of his Dogmatics, Barth outlines that God’s omnipotence and constancy is grounded in the fact that He is the one who loves in freedom. God is free. He gives freedom and that gift of freedom includes the principle of taking responsibility for that gift. The onus of responsibility in freedom falls on men and women, who are recipients of it.

 ‘Surrounded by His knowledge and His will, governed by His Spirit as by His omnipotence, they can have their creaturely independence and even the freedom of self-determination. But they can also be subordinated to the all-predestinating omnipotence of God as the concrete power which differentiates and judges.’ (p.544)

God’s gift of freedom means that humanity is held to account for how it employs and has employed that freedom.  Because of God’s act in freedom, he is not the cause of all things that contradict or seem to contradict Him; or contradict what God does or who He has revealed Himself to be.

What He allows and disallows is to be equated with who He is; ‘the one who loves in freedom’[v]. E.g.: what God does comes from who He is[vi]. On the other hand, what God allows and disallows is not to be equated with what He does. E.g.: God’s disallowing is not His disavowing. The creature in relationship with Him is granted the responsibility to act. Not just the responsibility to act responsibly, but the grace to do so.

Instead, we find ourselves contradicted. God’s grace shows us our sin and empowers us towards personal, communal, religious, political and ideological reformation.

As Busch noted:

‘We discover sin only in the encounter of divine opposition to it. We discover that we have evaded the knowledge of our sin by denying our existence as sinners[vii] […] God’s opposition to sin is also the command of the gracious God that frees humans to rise up from their sin, humans in their sloth do that which is almost “impossible . . . has no true basis . . . cannot be deduced or explained or excused or justified” (IV/ 2, 411).[viii]

Since, God has in His freedom lovingly and decisively chosen to save us from ourselves, the capability of rejecting the only genuine source of our true freedom becomes a potentiality, even under grace.

God is almighty. God is constant.  Humanity changes, the Almighty doesn’t. Humanity enslaves itself, God sets us free.

In Jesus Christ, God has chosen not to reject us. Yet, the possibility exists where the rejection of God is made a potentiality. This human rejection contains the possibility of self-condemnation; total extinction – (self-annulment). Any attempts made by humanity to save itself outside of God’s will, furthers this rejection by displacing God with false gods, false religion, false ideologies or idolatry.

In the wilful rejection of His grace and self-revelation humanity commits itself to the task of circumventing God and by doing so commits itself the reality and freedom of the impossible possibility.

God wills freedom for His creature.  This means permission. Risky, but all of this is encompassed within the sphere of God’s omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience. God is the full-stop. He knows what He is doing. Nothing passes Him. By allowing His creature the freedom to sin, God willed to make it possible for humanity to be free from sin. Subsequently, God desires that we act, in, through and on His grace. Working with Him in participation against that which seeks our’s and our neighbour’s total annihilation.

To be so convinced that true reality (or freedom) is existence without the One who birthed that existence, is to give in to an arrogance which rejects grace, and chains humanity to the Dark agenda of total extinction.


[i] This is also a phrase repeated by Barth in, Prayer.

[ii] Barth, K 1940, CD.II.I p.274

[iii] Busch, E,  Barth (Abingdon Pillars of Theology) Abingdon Press. Kindle Ed. – This is also a distinction pointed to by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the final chapter of Life Together, 1938 (p.111)

[iv] ‘The truth is that both freedom and the necessity which belong to the creature exist only by the will of God.’ (Barth, p.563)

[v] Barth K 1940, CD.II:1 pp.328-350

[vi] Ibid, p.334

[vii] Busch, E, Barth (Abingdon Pillars of Theology) Abingdon Press. Kindle Ed.

[viii] ibid

Image is mine. The photo is of the Hunter Valley Gardens chapel in NSW.

See also:

‘The grace of God is not merely an optional extra; it is the solid basis and wholly effective condition of existence…Of all creatures only humanity seems to have the impossible possibility of repudiating our preservation [salvation/liberation] by God as a preservation within appointed limits. [Grace may be rejected] But we cannot alter [reverse what was achieved in Jesus Christ]; the fact that humanity is preserved [by God] in this way.’

(Karl Barth, God the Father & Lord of His Creature, CD.3.3:85-86)

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