Karl Barth, St Paul, and the stickiness of sin

A homily for Evensong at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland


It is said that Karl Barth once commented upon the Anglican style of liturgy:

“If the Anglo-Saxons would not make their phylacteries so broad and so long! I went to an Evening Prayer at which the Lord’s Prayer was said twice and the Gloria five or six times. I said to them afterwards, ‘If I were the good God, I would reply to you in a voice of thunder, ‘All right, that will do. I’ve heard you!’”[i]

Which is to say that I feel a little shy about bringing Barth to church with me this evening. But Barth was not one to shy away from the conflicts and ambiguities and frank paradoxes of religion and theology and our strange and wonderful relationship with God, our Creator, Christ, our Redeemer, or the Holy Spirit, who defies definition.

Take this passage from the Epistle to the Romans, in which Paul, converted and convinced of his salvation nevertheless wrestles with the stickiness of sin and its ability to contort his every effort of will into something less than righteousness, so that he cries out for deliverance.

Barth, in his commentary on this passage, is almost as sunny and gay as St Paul himself.

“Religion,” he writes, “spells disruption, discord, and the absence of peace.”[ii]

“Conflict and distress, sin and death, the devil and hell, make up the reality of religion. … Religion possesses no solution of the problem of life; rather it makes of the problem a wholly insoluble enigma.”[iii]

So that’s helpful.

Perhaps putting Barth into some biographical context might shed light on his frightening insights. He wrote his commentary on Romans relatively early in a career that would sink him deep into the mire of systematic theology and draw out of him the utter and devoted dependence upon God’s grace that looking into the vortex of our incomprehension will evoke.

He lived through two world wars. In the shadow of the first he was accused of pacifism; in the gathering clouds of the second he was criticized for militarism.[iv] Yet he was consistent in his strong belief that the justice and mercy of God do not authorize the kind of bullying might that characterizes nationalism, and he was appalled at the capitulation of too many churches to those dangerous forces. One might say that any compromising of the gospel in order to achieve greater power to proclaim it is at least misguided, self-defeating, perverse. 

There is a reason that Barth still resonates in our public theology amphitheatres.

While Barth knew clearly on which side he stood when it came to the sin of anti-Semitism, the siren song of nationalism, not to mention the seductive destructive power of the atom bomb, and while he was not shy of his duty as a political man to, as he once put it, “make it clear with whom I would like to be imprisoned and hanged,”[v] yet he knew just as clearly that salvation comes from somewhere very different.

“The kingdom of God is a foreign country, so foreign that even the saints must pray …” he wrote in his commentary on this passage from the Epistle to the Romans.[vi]

And here is the key to the hope, even joy, that both Paul and Karl embody even as they decry their own sinfulness, their own helplessness in the vice of sin that grips them.There is no political program nor self-justification that can free us from the consciousness that we fall short of the good that we feel so strongly should be available to us. But there is Jesus.

The good that I want to do I cannot, and the evil that I would avoid, I cannot. “Now,” says Paul eagerly, “if I do what I do not want, is it no longer I that do it?” That is, can I separate my actions from my will, my impact from my intention, my life from my imagination?

But these, Barth writes, “are perilous opinions.”[vii] They offer false comfort, when the only true consolation is Christ. They are perilous, too, I might add, ethically, offering a kind of acquiescence with the messiness and mercilessness of the world: “I hate that this is the way that the world works (I will good and not evil), but I am helpless to change it, so it is enough to despair of it.” Even Barth fell prey to it. As he has said, “There is no sinless Christian.”[viii]

This, too, is not the gospel of repentance that Christ calls us into. It is the hymn of the compromised conscience, the power-hungry church, the secular creed of false unity.

No, says Barth, the fact that my conscience is piqued at every turn is correct, and should not be denied. It reminds me daily that as often as I pray, “Thy will be done,” (which is too often in our liturgies for Karl, you might recall); as often as I pray it, I am reminded how far I am from doing God’s will, and how great the gulf is between Creator and this creature made dimly in Their image.

But the corollary is glorious. For, “Who … is aware of man’s real wretchedness, save he who is aware of God’s mercy?” Barth lectured his students in Bonn.[ix] We know our sin, we are convicted of it, Paul discovered his error in persecuting the followers of Jesus only when he was confronted by the living Christ himself, the revelation and reality of God’s saving mercy.

“The kingdom of heaven does exist already; from God’s side action has been already taken for our good. To pronounce the name of Jesus Christ means to acknowledge that we are cared for, that we are not lost. Jesus Christ is man’s salvation in all circumstances and in face of all that darkens his life, including the evil that proceeds from himself.”[x]

So it is that Paul can proclaim in one breath: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

In this season of Advent, when we are advised by the prophets and the preachers to prepare ourselves for the coming of the kingdom, the second coming of the Christ, while our consciences are chilled by apocalyptic fires and the dumpster fire of the world around us, when we despair of doing the good that we will and denying access to evil even in our own jealous hearts, it is the Incarnation of Jesus that reminds us that all is not lost; that nothing, in fact, is lost, since God, the originator of all things, abides in mercy and sustains us. 

Therein lies our freedom, this is our hope, our way, our truth, our life: not a reconciled conscience but a reconciling Christ, God with us, God for us, and a grateful sinner, weeping at his feet, drying his soft body with her hair.

Amen. 


[i] Mark Galli , Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals (Eerdmans, 2017), accessed via Scribd: https://www.scribd.com/book/482210637, p. 164. A footnote attributes the source of the quote to Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 1–32

[ii] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, translated from the sixth edition by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (Oxford University Press, 1933), 266

[iii] Barth, Romans, 258

[iv] Galli, 127, via Scribd

[v] Galli, 98, via Scribd

[vi] Barth, Romans, 263

[vii] Barth, Romans, 262

[viii] Barth, Romans, 263

[ix] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (Harper Torchbooks, 1959), 71

[x] Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 71

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing (Upper Room Books, 2020). She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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2 Responses to Karl Barth, St Paul, and the stickiness of sin

  1. That was the most satisfying sermon I have heard or read in a long time. I go to St. Bart’s in Manhattan and every Sunday’s sermon is excellent, but this is even better.

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