God’s Grace, Absolutely Free!: Barth’s Antidote to Seventh Day Adventism and Other Such Systems

I had an interesting (and sad) discussion with a guy at work the other day. I knew that he was a Christian (or I had thought), but of the Seventh Day Adventist variety. As we got talking it seemed that we were clicking right along in regard to things spiritual and biblical, but then he somewhat dropped the bomb. He said, essentially, “I know you will probably disagree on this, but the real
crucifixion_phixr (2)problem is that people go to church on Sundays, instead of Saturdays, thus they are disobedient to God and breaking the Sabbath Law.” We discussed/debated that a bit, and my response was that according to Hebrews 3–4 Jesus is our Sabbath rest, which means that we can worship God everyday; that the Sabbath rest pointed to the reality that God has for us in His finished work of His dearly beloved Son, and for whom all creation exists (my co-worker didn’t really have a coherent response to this other than to double down on his assertion that Sunday worship was Sabbath breaking). But it went further down than this, he also pointed out that God’s commandments/Laws do not change, and therefore in order for us to be “saved” we need to keep the Law to the best of our ability; where we fail, he asserted, Jesus’ righteousness can fill in the gap. Once he became this clear about his view on salvation I immediately went to Galatians, and in particular Galatians 3, and highlighted how the Law was really only to function as a school-master or tutor until the faith of Christ came. In other words, the Law was to underscore the fact that we could never measure up to God’s holiness, and that we were thus held captive under sin (even if we attempted to keep the Law). The Law was given, I highlighted, to magnify the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and that He alone could ‘keep’ the Law for us, and bear its consequences by which He became a curse for us hanging on a tree (the cross).

Unfortunately, in cult-like way, my co-worker just kept doubling and tripling down on his views, even in light of Scripture. I found out further into the discussion that he even thinks Seventh Day Adventism is apostate for the most part, and that there needs to be a movement back to their founding prophet’s teachings (Ellen G. White’s), in order to restore the purity of the Sabbatarian faith (apparently he meets with a small group of 10 people who seem themselves as a faithful remnant).

In keeping with the pride of our lives, as in any religious system, grace becomes a casualty. If we are going to make our way to God at all it will have to be under the muster of our own effort; it will involve cooperation with God; a synthesis between of some sort between my effort and God’s effort. For some this type of religious salvation is more overt than others, but any system of salvation that emphasizes cooperation with God in salvation, in the end, is ultimately anti-Christ, even demonic.

Karl Barth has an antidote to such systems of salvation; he emphasizes the grace of God in Christ in predestination and election. My co-worker needs a heavy dose of this reality, as do so many others out there. Unfortunately, even within Protestant Christian theology, evangelical and not, there are many who see salvation as a cooperative effort, even if they contribute the energy of their cooperation with God to the grace of God. But Barth sounds a resounding Nein! a resounding No! to all of this, as he gives us a clear portrait of what the grace of God entails in Christ; with all of its unilateral beauty giving shape to our real hope in Jesus Christ. He writes (as he is responding to classical understandings of predestination and God’s grace in Protestant theology):

We may establish first a point which all serious conceptions of the doctrine have in common. The all find the nerve of the doctrine, the peculiar concern which forces them to present and assert it, in the fact that it characterises the grace of God as absolutely free and thereby divine. In electing, God decides according to His good-pleasure, which as such is holy and righteous. And because He who elects is constant and omnipotent and eternal, the good pleasure by which He decides, and the decision itself, are independent of all other decisions, of all creature decisions. His decision precedes every creaturely decision. Over against all creaturely self-determination it is predetermination—prae-destinatio. Grace is the divine movement and condescension on the basis of which men belong to God and God to men. Whether offered or received, whether self-revealing and reconciling or apprehended and active in faith, it is God’s dealing, God’s will and God’s work, God’s lordship, God Himself in all His sovereignty. Grace cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature. Nor can it be held up or rendered nugatory and ineffective by any contradiction or opposition on the part of the creature. Both in its being and in its operation its necessity is within itself. In face of it there is no place for the self-glorifying or the self-praise of the creature. It comes upon the creature as absolute miracle, and with absolute power and certainty. It can be received by the creature only where there is a recognition of utter weakness and unworthiness, an utter confidence in its might and dignity, and an utter renunciation of wilful self-despair. What the creature cannot claim or appropriate for itself, it cannot of itself renounce when it does partake of it, nor can it even will to deprive itself of it. The decision by which it receives and affirms grace takes place in fulfillment of the prior divine decision. It cannot, then, be asserted over against God as a purely creaturely achievement, nor can it be revoked. As the fulfillment of that prior divine decision, it redounds per se to the praise of the freedom of grace: of its independence both of the majesty and of the misery of our human volition and achievement; of the sovereignty in which it precedes and thus fully over-rules or human volition and achievement. All serious conceptions of the doctrine (more or less exactly and successfully, and with more or less consistency in detail) do at least aim at this recognition; at the freedom of the grace of God. We can put it more simply: They aim at an understanding of grace as grace. For what kind of grace is it that is conditioned and constrained, and not free grace and freely electing grace? What kind of a God is it who in any sense of the term has to be gracious, whose grace is not His own most personal and free good-pleasure.[1]

God’s grace, if it is God’s grace, is and always is His and never ours. We cannot add or substract from it, we can just receive it as gift and live in it as if God is God and we are not. Religious systems of salvation out there will never be able to grasp this, and so all we can say to such systems is: Repent!


[1] Karl Barth, CD II.2, 17-18.