Monday, April 13, 2009

Karl Barth on faith

At my church we're going to be doing a sermon series on Paul's letter to the Philippians so in preparation for this I picked up Karl Barth's commentary on the letter. Now this commentary isn't like you typical reference that should be consulted for whatever verse your preaching on, rather it is more like your typical book that should be read from front to back. In doing this I have been rather moved. His reflections on Philippians have made that letter come alive to me like it never has before.

With this said I wanted to share with you some of his explication of what Paul meant by faith. It is a rather illuminating reflection. The passage that he is launching off from is Philippians 3:9 which reads:
Philippians 3:9 not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…
Barth begins by saying that here Paul is laying out in judicial terms the fact that he cannot exist relying on the flesh (i.e. his own power, humanity, ability to fulfill the law, etc…), but in fact exists as a beggar and is rich only as such. With this said I'm just going to let Barth do the talking:
"The believing relationship to Christ altogether excludes any thought of righteousness in which I have to place myself or assert myself any thought of righteousness of my own, because Christ is at once the end of all religion, including any sort of Christian religion… Insofar as belief in Christ is identical with disbelief in this righteousness, Christ is the end of the Law (Rom 10:4), the end of all religion over against its Object (God)" (100 parenthesis mine)…
Here Barth is reflecting on Paul's word, "not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law…" With this in the Background Barth now goes on to give his illuminating discourse concerning faith in the latter half of Philippians 3:9. He writes (What follows is rather heady, but stick with it and read it a couple times I promise it will be worth it!) that in talking about faith:
"Paul sets parallel to it the expression (righteousness from God)—that is, to make faith as little as possible a definition of human action by man himself and place the whole emphasis on the Object that is the ground of faith" (101)…
"The decisive thing in the concept of faith is of all things, not the variously colored psychological capacities that the believer discovers in himself and whose subject he is (although Barth says this often comes with faith)… On the contrary, the decisive thing in all that is the absolute limit of all psychological capaciousness, the limit of his subjectivity, to which the believer is brought—that limit which in fact is designated only by the word God in all its salutary severity, the limit which man, confronted by the Personality, the Subjectivity of God, knows himself for lost and can know himself only as lostgives himself up, and can take comfort in the righteousness of God only in this self-surrender. 'I would have perished, if I had not perished' is Calvin's description of this believing righteousness—and later: 'man is completely naked when faith offers him to God'" (101).
What Barth is getting at here is the way that God kills us through faith. Here Barth is making sense out of all the death/life language in Paul. Why is this important? Because so often when talking about faith in God we look at what we will get out of the deal rather than the One we are having faith in. Just listen to any sermon that has to do with salvation. It is always about how God will add meaning to my life, how he will improve the quality of my relationships, etc… Now it's true, Barth also points this out, that these things often come as a result of faith, but they are not the center. When we make these things the center faith and God becomes agents to fulfill our agendas and desires and in the end we are believing in and worshiping our own self and feelings. I know this might seem heady and unimportant, but look at much of Christianity in America is it not this?
Scripture, as Barth discloses, shows faith as something that brings us to the end of ourselves. In other words, "the righteousness from God that depends on faith" that is apart from the law is the end of everything us. We have nothing to bring to the table and that which we bring to the table, in light of God's Grace, is brought to nil. That's why Paul can say in the previous verse, "I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish (Greek: dung, excrement, refuse, dirt), in order that I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3:8 parenthesis mine)… In other words, as Barth says, faith makes us realize the limit to everything we bring to the table including our desires. In finding this limit we are brought to the end of ourselves and die; completely naked before the Grace and Mercy of God.
With this said I want to finish with Barth's closing thoughts on faith. He writes:
"From man's point of view, faith in its decisive act is the collapse of every effort of his own capacity and will, and the recognition of the absolute necessity of that collapse. In it he is truly lost. If man sees the other aspect: that as lost he is righteous, that in giving himself up he can take comfort in God's righteousness, then he sees himself—but it is from God that this vision comes—from God's point of view… Thus, the righteousness, integrity, correctness of man does not become a psychological capacity. It remains in God's hand. It is to be sought and found there, not here" (102 bold mine).
I know this was rather heady today. Thanks if you read it the whole way through. As I said in the beginning, this blog site is going to be the fruit of trying to understand my lived faith which is based on the objective truth of a God who "loved the world so much that he sent his only Son." The words of Barth that I shared with you really spoke to those parts of me and I hope that they spoke to you too.
Karl Barth "Epistle to the Philippians"


Jay Miklovic said...

Very good Shawn. Barth seems to expose the humanism of professing Christianity, ie "what will we get out of it", which is the wrong question all together.

I have not read Barth, though I am currently picking my way through a compilation of Detreich Bonhoeffer's works called 'A Testament to Freedom', of course Bonhoeffer was influenced greatly by Barth.

Have you read 'Cost of Discipleship'?

Shawn said...

thanks jay... no i haven't picked up the cost of discipleship yet. it's on my shelf screaming to be read. maybe soon. have you?

Jay Miklovic said...

that was the first truly good christian book i ever read. it was right after i had become a christian, and i am so grateful to the man who put it in my hands.

it is a very good read.

btw, have you listened to any paul washer? i've listened to so much preaching, but very few come close to what the lord is doing in him. if you google his name you will find plenty.

also check out and when you have a few spare moments