Salvation for All, but for Some: The Universality of God’s Grace, and the Particularity of Christ’s Faith in Salvation

Okay, I don’t know how else to do this, so I am going to transcribe George Hunsinger on Karl Barth and Barth’s understanding of the dialectic between the universality of grace, and the particularity of existential faith (for individual homelesshumanpeople); and how all of this reflects a kind of tension latent within the pages of the New Testament itself. So this gets at what I am often asked in regard to how I, as an evangelical Calvinist, can sustain a view that believes in universal atonement, but not universal salvation (or Christian universalism). This quote is quite lengthy, but I want something of substance to refer my readers to; and I also want there to be enough context present so you the reader can appreciate (even if you end up disagreeing somehow!) how Barth reconceived of this ongoing problem for the classical theological approach (and I mean the debate between the classical Calvinists and Arminians). I think most people who are classical (indeed all of them) will be dissatisfied with Barth’s approach, because Barth does not give in, and thus resists the human philosophical urge to provide explanation in the kind of classical scholastic kind of rounding off way of things. Let’s get started (caveat: in the future, if anyone wants to challenge how I can maintain the universality and efficacy of saving grace [so called], and the particularity and efficacy of saving faith [so called] the only way I will engage with you around that, is if you actually read this whole post first).

Here is Hunsinger on Barth and the dialectic of the universality of grace and the particularity of faith:

. . . just as the inexplicability of the mode by which the events are related is taken as a sign that in and of itself the created order has no access to ultimate reality.

For reasons such as these, theology must content itself with description and resist the temptation to explanation. In the case of such events it must content itself with describing the mysterious facticity of the that, which facticity intrinsically excludes the possibility of explaining the corresponding how. It is in just such terms that Barth disavows the possibility of explaining the mode by which the events of grace and faith are related. The patter of this relation—its ordered and differentiated unity—can be described, but its mode defies explanation. The pattern is a conjunction of opposites and therefore of irreconcilably antithetical assertions. The unity of grace and faith occurs in such a way that grace is always universal and unconditional in its objective efficacy and validity, yet at the same time faith is always necessary and indispensable in its existential receptivity and freedom. A theology which could explain how this unity occurs as it does or how it occurs as a unity would be explaining the modus operandi of the Holy Spirit.

How gladly we would hear and know and say something more, something more precise, something more palpable concerning the way in which the work of the Holy Spirit is done! How does it really happen that the history of Jesus Christ, in which the history of all human beings is virtually enclosed and accomplished, is actualized, in the first instance only in the history of a few, of a small minority within the many of whom this cannot so far be said, but even in the history of the few typically for the history of the many? How can it really be—the question of the Virgin in Luke 1:34—that there is an actualizing of this history in other human histories? By what ways does God bring it about that in the perverted hearts, in the darkened knowledge and understanding, in the rebellious desires and strivings of sinful  human beings—for that is what even the few are—there takes place this awakening, in which they can know Jesus Christ as theirs and themselves as his? How is there really born in them the new human being who knows and recognizes and confesses Jesus Christ? How can there be in history such a thing as Christianity, and human beings who seriously want to be Christians? (IV/1, 648-49 rev., emphasis added)

It is as important and unavoidable to formulate such questions, Barth contends, as it is to leave them unanswered, except for the obviously indispensable appeal to the miraculous and mysterious mode which informs the work of the Holy Spirit as confessed by faith. “The confession credo in Spiritum Sanctum does not tell us anything concerning this How. It merely indicates the fact all this does take place, did take place and continually will take place” (IV/1, 649). Moreover, the evident reticence of the creed at this point is simply a reflection of the reticence of the New Testament itself. “Even the New Testament . . . does not really tell us anything about the How, the mode of his working” (IV/1, 649). Beyond simply describing and asserting the facticity of the Holy Spirit’s working, all questions as to its explanation are consistently repelled. To try to go beyond the New Testament at this point would obviously, Barth believes, be futile.

Barth therefore resolves to work within the terms of this inexplicability. The pattern of dialectical inclusion is used, as indicated, to describe (but not explain) how the history of each and every human being is objectively enclosed in that of Jesus. That same pattern is then used in conjunction with the pattern of actualism to describe (but not explain) how the history of Jesus is in turn objectively included in that of each and every human being. The objective moment of salvation is thereby understood as being at once fully actualized once and for all and yet not encapsulated for imprisoned within its central and definitive form of temporal occurrence. Without compromising this central and definitive form, the objective moment as such assumes secondary and derivative form by actualizing itself in relation to the history of each and every human existence. The actualization of the objective moment of salvation in this twofold form (central and derivative) is (descriptively speaking) a condition for the possibility of its subjective actualization by faith. The existential moment of salvation is thereby understood as occurring entirely within the context established by the objective moment.

The existential moment may therefore not be spoken of as making the the [sic] objective moment real or concrete, as though the objective moment were somehow unreal or abstract as such until the moment of its existential appropriation (a commonplace but ultimately blasphemous way of speaking). Nor may the existential moment be spoken of as effecting a transition from being outside to being inside the objective moment, as though the objective moment did not already include each and every human existence within itself, or as though the existential moment could somehow contribute itself to the objective moment in such a way that the objective would otherwise be deficient. Nor, finally, may the existential moment be spoken of as effecting a transition from being potentially to being actually saved, as though the objective moment were not already in itself the real, valid, and efficacious actualization of salvation for the sake of all. Each of these mistaken ways of speaking makes the event of existential appropriation less incomprehensible and mysterious, Barth believes, than it actually is in its scriptural attestation.[1]

For Barth to think about grace and efficacious faith (saving) must be done through the mystery of godliness,

By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:

He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.[2]

There is no wiggle room for trying to construct causal concepts that are both foreign to the text of Scripture’s disclosure, and to the categories revealed in God’s Self revelation in Christ. The conditions and context is descriptively provided for in Christ, and the subsequent understandings of grace and faith therein; but, for Barth, there is no room to move beyond what ends up being a resounding tension between these two ontic and salvific realities; the tension is preserved by the christological tension present, itself, in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. We are left in a spot where we can engage in description, and attend to the implications of that as we can; but we have no warranted allowance to move beyond, in order to satisfy our sense of manageability and control in these matters.

As you read this accounting of Barth from Hunsinger, what should have stood out to you most prominently is the role that the vicarious humanity of Christ plays in this. Salvation is objective, actual, efficacious, and realized in Christ for us and with us, in his vicarious humanity. All that needed to be accomplished for salvation for the world (Jn. 3.16) and humanity, has already taken place in the humanity of Christ for all of us. If we want to posit, like classical Calvinism & Arminianism does, that salvation is only real and efficacious when the elect humanity (of individual people, in this account of things) appropriates salvation by faith, then we have just predicated the actualization and realization of salvation upon certain human beings instead of God (even though these human beings were unconditionally elected by God). But I hope you can see the problem with this. It abstracts God’s salvific work from his person in Christ, and makes an aspect of it contingent upon creation and human reception (even if it has been vouchsafed by an artificial, but necessary for this system, positing of an absolute decree of election and reprobation by God). This is a problem for various reasons, which we will have to tease out at a later date (but hopefully you can see how this is a problem on your own).


[1] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 113-14 [nook edition].

[2] I Timothy 3:16, NASB, Updated.



  1. This is very good. Amazingly, I have never read Hunsinger’s famed book on Barth, but I have really enjoyed everything you’ve posted from it.

    I am interested to see this communicated more at the lay level, to see how it takes hold (or not). Is it too loose-ended to take hold? I think that is a common assumption, but perhaps Eastern Orthodoxy (notoriously loose-ended as well) is a good example to the contrary. My own anecdotes have been mixed — it clicks with some people, with others it sounds too paradoxical. Anyway, as you know, there is a lot of work to be done in terms of lay communication, something that The Gospel Coalition, Ligonier, Desiring God, and other Calvinist networks do very well.

    While I’m thinking off the top of my head, I think one of our problems — those of us who advocate for Barth’s theology in the life of the church — is that we are still too fuzzy about biblical inspiration and authority, as was Barth himself. This has massive implications for any sort of united front. Some students of Barth are basically Bultmannian, while others are more neo-evangelical (Bernard Ramm) or something in-between. For better or worse, the new Calvinists (TGC and friends) at least have inerrancy as defended in the Chicago Statement. I don’t want the Chicago Statement — it’s too positivist and clearly targeting Barth in a few places — but we could use something like it, bringing together the best insights of Barth, Torrance, Childs, Vanhoozer, and Webster.


  2. Kevin,

    It is an excellent book!

    And I have these heavy kind of pastoral concerns as well. I struggle, to know how to translate this all to the laity. It is a massive undertaking, and so far I see almost no one trying to do that! At best, it gets translated for pastors in training at PTS and like places, but only translated to that level, and then never really moves into concrete pastoral terms. This is a huge loss for people who want to advocate for Barth’s theology, or even what we are trying to do with Evangelical Calvinism. I want to genuinely attempt to write something (a book) that actually communicates much of this stuff at lay levels.

    I think John Webster (like in his new book The Domain of the Word, and his old book Holy Scripture) really offers the best “hybrid” or constructive approach for a doctrine of Scripture that would be readily acceptable to many in the church (even preferable) if they were ever exposed to it. I have explained Webster’s approach to my mom–a strong lay Christian–and she found it totally refreshing and totally acceptable in contrast to the usual evangelical approach she has been fed for so many years. So I think we already have something that is accessible and actually more preferred once people hear about it and understand the significance of it.


  3. Ah, Webster’s ‘Domain of the Word’ is yet another book that I need to read…I’m waiting until I can get used copies or overstock for cheaper. His “dogmatic sketch” on Holy Scripture is indeed one of my all-time favorites. Yet, it was actually Brunner who I first read — with his slightly more liberal approach — and who freed me from my dogmatic slumber! Amazingly enough, I had never truly conceptualized the God “behind” Scripture as the agent of revelation until I read Brunner. That may sound odd to say, but I think you know what I mean.

    Glad to hear your anecdote about your mom. My own parents have also shifted, in small steps, away from their dispensationalist Baptist thinking. I encouraged them to study church history, which was actually enough to revolutionize their assumptions. My mom is a history teacher but just U.S. history and government. Like a true Baptist she basically assumed that the Bible dropped from the sky, with an owner’s manual about the Trinity and justification by faith alone.


  4. Kevin,

    I think Webster’s book on Holy Scripture is actually better at describing and even prescribing a doctrine of scripture than Domain of the Word; I would say that his little book on Scripture is my favorite of all time, and is the one book that has done more to radically transform my understanding and view than anything else. It is amazing how the Lord works–like even through Brunner ;-)–to orient our lives and views more toward Him. Webster has been a blessing to me in this regard.

    We have very similar backgrounds it seems. Glad to see that you are able to have a good impact in this way upon your parents as well.


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