The Nature of Grace

“Elisha Refusing the Gifts of Naaman” by Ferdinand Bol

2 Kings 5:19-27

19 He said to him, “Go in peace.”

But when Naaman had gone from him a short distance, 20 Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, thought, “My master has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered. As the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something out of him.” 21 So Gehazi went after Naaman. When Naaman saw someone running after him, he jumped down from the chariot to meet him and said, “Is everything all right?” 22 He replied, “Yes, but my master has sent me to say, ‘Two members of a company of prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim; please give them a talent of silver and two changes of clothing.’” 23 Naaman said, “Please accept two talents.” He urged him and tied up two talents of silver in two bags, with two changes of clothing, and gave them to two of his servants, who carried them in front of Gehazi. 24 When he came to the citadel, he took the bags from them, and stored them inside; he dismissed the men, and they left.

25 He went in and stood before his master; and Elisha said to him, “Where have you been, Gehazi?” He answered, “Your servant has not gone anywhere at all.” 26 But he said to him, “Did I not go with you in spirit when someone left his chariot to meet you? Is this a time to accept money and to accept clothing, olive orchards and vineyards, sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves? 27 Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you, and to your descendants forever.” So he left his presence leprous, as white as snow.

It is no secret that I find great inspiration and wisdom from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His life and witness is a powerful example of following Jesus no matter the cost. In his well-known book Discipleship, Bonhoeffer begins by identifying cheap grace as the “mortal enemy of the church” and that the struggle in the church is for costly grace. For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace is the result of ignoring or abusing gift of God in Christ Jesus on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. It denies God’s living word and the incarnation. It is selfish and impersonal at the same time. It requires nothing except a weak wink and nod at its general truth and is not a lived faith. Cheap grace is only sought for the benefit of appearance and/or personal gain.

Costly grace, on the other hand, is grace that cannot ignore Jesus. It is grace that requires us to hear his command and obey. It is the grace that encourages us to count the cost and follow Him. It is the grace that makes no sense to an upside-down world of gratuitous living and indulgence. Costly grace reminds the Christian that the freedom we live in was not achieved by some throw-away event; it was achieved by the horrific death of the Eternal Son of God. Costly grace is the grace that unites the Savior with the sinner so that the sinner may live because the Savior dies. It cannot ever forget nor take for granted the cost of such an amazing grace.

For Bonhoeffer, it was cheap grace vs. costly grace. For Luther, it was a theology of glory vs. theology of the cross. In 2 Kings, it’s Elisha vs. Gehazi. Elisha has gone to great lengths to make clear that the one who heals is the Living God, not Elisha. He is not the authority or the power. He is only a messenger and vessel. His refusal to greet the great Naaman with an elaborate welcoming ceremony leading to a powerful service of healing testifies to his humility and submission to the LORD. Instead, Elisha speaks the words that God gave him and Elisha steps aside and God does the healing. This humility and submission is further witnessed when we see Elisha refuse the gifts from an appreciative Naaman. Why would Elisha accept gifts for something he didn’t have the power to do? Any response of Naaman should be directed in the form of worship of the Living God, not Elisha. We see this witness impact Naaman when he requests two mounds of dirt so he can worship the God who healed him. 

Gehazi is not like Elisha. While Elisha points attention away from himself, Gehazi sees an opportunity for personal enrichment and perhaps even a bit of disdain with Naaman seeing that he is a Gentile. Gehazi stops at nothing to find a way to benefit from this miracle of God. He follows Naaman out of the city and tells Naaman a lie—that Elisha has requested some money and clothing for two prophets who have returned from Ephraim. This lie is especially sinister because Gehazi is not only attempting to benefit himself, he is manipulating Naaman, who no doubt is excited to return home healed from leprosy. In the goodness of Naaman’s heart, he is genuinely concerned with pleasing not only Elisha, caring for two returning prophets, but the LORD who had healed him. Naaman approves the request of Gehazi and gives him what he requests. Phase 1 of “Operation Get Rich Quick” has been completed.

Now for phase 2—to hide these new possessions without Elisha finding out. He brings them back to his house, stealthily hides them, and then returns to the service of Elisha. However, we know that Elisha is not easily deceived. It is hard to believe that Gehazi, who had seen first-hand how God works through Elisha in mighty ways healing uncurable disease, would think he could pull a fast one on God and Elisha. Elisha knows the answer to his question before he asks it of Gehazi. In many ways, this echoes the question God asked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, “Where are you?” God knew the answer. He knew they had fallen into sin. The question was asked to see how they would respond—with repentance or pride. As Adam and Eve chose pride, so does Gehazi. Elisha’s question to Gehazi, “Where have you been?” is an opportunity for confession and repentance for Gehazi, but he chose to protect his deceitful selfishness and lies to Elisha. He thinks his lie, “I went nowhere.” was sufficient. But because God knew different, so did Elisha. The falling of Gehazi is made complete in the lie and then the punishment for sin was delivered—Gehazi is now a leper along with his descendants. 

Cheap grace consumes us because it does not require us to confess or repent. It doesn’t take seriously the offenses of sins. Cheap grace is a perversion of grace, plain and simple. As we think about our lives and our faith, do we ever act like Gehazi? I would say we do when we try to reap all the good things of God with the sole purpose of becoming rich or comfortable. Cheap grace doesn’t consider God’s grace as sufficient. It becomes a “plus-and” situation where we can find ourselves not trusting God as we pray. Cheap grace treats prayer as a habit we must do, but then after we pray, we think, “Now what are we REALLY going to do?”

May we never forget the riches of God’s grace and promise. He has promised to provide for his children because he is a good Father. May we not fall into the trap of Gehazi and allow selfish ambition and hopes to supplant the promise of God. Trust God. Obey God. Know he is for you and he provides your every need. Amen.

Two Mule-Loads of Earth

Elisha Refusing the Gifts of Naaman by Ferdinand Bol

2 Kings 5:15-19

15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” 16 But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused. 17 Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord. 18 But may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” 19 He said to him, “Go in peace.”

Naaman’s life has changed. His experience with the Living God and his messengers in the world has shown him the power and reality of truth. He desires to respond with gratitude and to give Elisha gifts, but Elisha has no interest in what Naaman has to offer. If anything, Elisha wants Naaman and us to understand one key truth about this event: Elisha has no power to do anything miraculous on his own. He is a prophet only at the behest and calling of God. God has provided for him in all he does so he doesn’t need to peddle miracles for personal gain. The LORD is sufficient and only the LORD is due glory, praise, credit, and honor. More importantly, Naaman’s gratitude should be solely focused upon the God who healed him.

Naaman understands this and asks for something else instead. He desires to take two mule-loads of earth from Israel back to Syria. Though the request sounds bizarre, we are more familiar with it than we realize. Naaman desires to take dirt from the land where he was healed so that he may make a space where he can worship the Living God. He has had a change of heart from earlier when he was offended by Elisha telling him to dip himself in the Jordan seven times to be healed. Before his healing, the water of the Jordan was not valuable to Naaman, but after, the very dirt evoked new respect and worship in Naaman’s heart. 

It is important for us that see the fine line between worship of the Living God and empty sentimentalism which could evolve into idolatry, but nevertheless, Naaman’s impulse to take holy ground back home to worship the Living God is something that strikes a cord with me. We live as strangers in a foreign land surrounded by the idols and desires of sinful flesh. Reminders of how God has saved us can be helpful for us as we tell our stories of salvation to others. But what is certain, nothing can bear witness of the power of God quite like our changed lives empowered by Jesus Christ.

May we understand and know that we are living testimonies of the One true God who has saved us in Jesus Christ. May the two mule-loads of dirt that is our lives be reminders to all who see and know us that God is great and worthy of all praise.

Prayer: Merciful God, you alone are great and worthy to be praised. Strengthen us and guide us as we serve you in this world. May our words and deeds declare your majesty and splendor so that all nations and all peoples would know Jesus Christ and his salvation. Amen.

Why All the Rage?

Moriah’s Hope Reflected by Iris Carignan (http://www.iriscarignan.com)

2 Kings 5:1-14 (NRSV)

1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4 So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5 And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”

He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 6 He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Why is everyone so angry in this passage? Things start out well enough. We are introduced to Naaman, a mighty warrior who is greatly favored yet suffers from leprosy. He is a Gentile seeking a cure. Where does he go? God’s sovereignty in this passage has delivered the messenger of the gospel in the person of a little girl from Israel who was carried off by the Syrians and now works in the service of Naaman’s wife. The situation appears to be one of great frustration and loss to this young Israelite girl, but she is undeterred. She is faithful and true. Her message to Naaman that there is hope in the presence of God changes everything for both the Gentile and the Israelite. However, everyone seems to be angry in this passage. The King of Israel seems to be put out by Naaman’s request and when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s home and is prescribed a healing dip into the Jordan, he appears to be offended by the cure. Yet, he goes forward in a reluctant faith to be washed. The result—he is cleansed. He is made good as new. 

Ironically, the one person in this story who has the greatest occasion to be angry is the one who continued in faith and lived boldly. The little unnamed Israelite girl who was taken from her home and family and put to work in a house away from her family did not allow resentment, anger, or sorrow to obstruct her purpose in life.

We often find ourselves in situations that are difficult and unfathomable. We may be tempted to lose our hope and vision, but our faith points us to the greater reality in life. Our God is sovereign. He knows the paths we will travel upon. He goes on before us and prepares the way. Paul tells us in Ephesians 2 that all the good works we do are prepared for us in advance by Christ who leads us to walk in those works. Today, as you see your life, be hopeful. Know that you are living in service to Christ who has prepared you and placed you to be a witness for the glory of God. 

Prayer: Merciful God, grant us the strength to live our lives trusting you. May we understand that we are to speak your Gospel to others, see people as you see them, and serve others in your name. May we do these things with the humble mind that we were lost and far from you, but you brought us into your family though your most precious blood. In Jesus name, Amen.

Christ Living in Us

Elisha Raises the Son of the Woman of Shunam by Benjamin West, 1765

2 Kings 4:32-37 (NRSV)

32 When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. 33 So he went in and closed the door on the two of them and prayed to the Lord. 34 Then he got up on the bed and lay upon the child, putting his mouth upon his mouth, his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands; and while he lay bent over him, the flesh of the child became warm. 35 He got down, walked once to and fro in the room, then got up again and bent over him; the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. 36 Elisha summoned Gehazi and said, “Call the Shunammite woman.” So, he called her. When she came to him, he said, “Take your son.” 37 She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground; then she took her son and left.

This is a bizarre moment in the story of Elisha. However, that is a loaded statement for a prophet. Bizarre moments are more rule than exception for the life for the prophets of God. Elisha’s actions here in 2 Kings are very similar to his predecessor Elijah in 1 Kings 17:17-24. Both prophets are presented with grieving mothers who have suffered the death of their beloved sons; both prophets lay upon the deceased sons; both prophets respond to their deaths by physically giving life to the lifeless bodies. These intimate actions of Elijah and Elisha cause us some discomfort because of how intentional they are—putting mouth to mouth, eye to eye, hand to hand. It is the reality that the purpose of the prophets is to certainly speak for God, but that is not the end of their purpose. They are an embodiment of the promise of God. God speaks through them and God acts through them. The things they do are the power of God to bring life to those who suffer and freedom to those who are captive. 

In other words, the prophets are the power of God sent to declare the majesty and victory of God over the powers of evil, sin, and death. 

The prophetic CPR touches every aspect of the life of the son in 2 Kings. Not only does this child have new life, he has new reason to live. His words will be different. He will see things differently. He will encounter the everyday things with new energy and purpose. 

Perhaps the most bizarre inclusion in this passage is the seven sneezes. We may be tempted to skip over this detail, but we would be foolish if we did. Fun fact: Charles Spurgeon preached an entire sermon on this part of the story. Seriously. (Read it here.) Why does the author include this detail of seven sneezes? Spurgeon reminds us that sneezing is an involuntary reaction. We cannot sneeze because we want to sneeze. They happen whenever and wherever they happen. Sometimes we can fight a sneeze. Sometimes we can feel like we will sneeze, but we cannot force ourselves to do it and we lose it. So, it is with life in the Holy Spirit. We live it. Its an involuntary reaction to what God has done for us. Life is a crazy thing. None of us decided to be born. We are dragged dirty, kicking, and screaming into this world and we must settle into this little thing called life. It’s a bizarre thing indeed.

So, it is with the life of Christ. We were all the deceased child in our sins. Jesus gave his life for ours. Just as the prophets, Jesus intimately gives us his life. It is the life of Christ that becomes ours. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) Praise be to God for this life that we have in Him. May we know and understand that Christ has raised us from the dead and given us his words, eyes, and hands to live and serve him. Amen.

Prayer: Merciful God, grant us the strength to live our lives trusting you. May we understand that we are to speak your Gospel to others, see people as you see them, and serve others in your name. May we do these things with the humble mind that we were lost and far from you, but you brought us into your family though your most precious blood. In Jesus name, Amen.

As the LORD Lives

Elisha Raises the Son of the Woman of Shunem by Benjamin West, 1765

2 Kings 4:18-31 (NRSV)

 18 When the child was older, he went out one day to his father among the reapers. 19 He complained to his father, “Oh, my head, my head!” The father said to his servant, “Carry him to his mother.” 20 He carried him and brought him to his mother; the child sat on her lap until noon, and he died. 21 She went up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, closed the door on him, and left. 22 Then she called to her husband, and said, “Send me one of the servants and one of the donkeys, so that I may quickly go to the man of God and come back again.” 23 He said, “Why go to him today? It is neither new moon nor sabbath.” She said, “It will be all right.” 24 Then she saddled the donkey and said to her servant, “Urge the animal on; do not hold back for me unless I tell you.” 25 So she set out, and came to the man of God at Mount Carmel.

When the man of God saw her coming, he said to Gehazi his servant, “Look, there is the Shunammite woman; 26 run at once to meet her, and say to her, Are you all right? Is your husband all right? Is the child all right?” She answered, “It is all right.” 27 When she came to the man of God at the mountain, she caught hold of his feet. Gehazi approached to push her away. But the man of God said, “Let her alone, for she is in bitter distress; the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me.” 28 Then she said, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, Do not mislead me?” 29 He said to Gehazi, “Gird up your loins, and take my staff in your hand, and go. If you meet anyone, give no greeting, and if anyone greets you, do not answer; and lay my staff on the face of the child.” 30 Then the mother of the child said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave without you.” So he rose up and followed her. 31 Gehazi went on ahead and laid the staff on the face of the child, but there was no sound or sign of life. He came back to meet him and told him, “The child has not awakened.”

“As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” 

This phrase echoes across the first few chapters of 2 Kings. In chapter 2, Elisha is told three times by Elijah to stay behind as Elijah journeys toward his chariot ride to heaven and three times, Elisha responds with those words. Between the taking up of Elijah into heaven (2:1-14) and this moment with the Shunammite woman and her child, quite a bit happens. 

Elisha is commissioned to follow Elijah (2:15-25); Israel defeats the rebellious Moab (3:1-27); the LORD provides oil for a widow through Elisha (4:1-7); and a childless Shunammite woman graciously provides for Elisha and then the LORD gives her a precious son in response to her prayer (4:8-17). 

“As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”

Elisha’s life has certainly provided moments of triumph and fullness as well as rebellion and loss. During these extremes, Elisha is the embodiment of the presence of the LORD. When the Shunammite woman has her prayer answered for a child, the child becomes to her a great blessing. When that blessing is threatened by illness, her world falls apart. Amid her trial, when her son has seemingly died, she responds, “All is well.” However, the story doesn’t seem to be well. With her son amidst illness and death, she travels to Elisha because he represents the very presence and blessing she has received from the LORD. Though her circumstances weren’t well, her reality was well—not because of she felt well—but because of the presence of the LORD.

“As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” 

These are the words of faith. The words that we have as our confession. These are not empty words of weak soothing. These are the realities we have in Christ. Just as Elisha and this Shunammite woman have uttered these words, Christ has guaranteed them in his word: “I will not leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)

May you be filled this day with this faith as you serve Jesus. May you be filled with the reality that regardless of your circumstances, all is well—because Christ is alive and present in your life.

Prayer: Father God, thank you for this day. Give me strength and vision to see your presence in my life as I live to serve you. Help me to see that though things around me appear to be falling apart, that all is well. Thank you for your word and never forsaking me. In Jesus name, Amen.

Advent with Barth: The Miracle of Christmas

Christmas Eve, Monday, December 24, 2018

The assertion conceptus de Spiritu sancto must now be protected from an imminent misunderstanding.

It does not state that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Holy Spirit according to His human existence.

On the contrary, it states as emphatically as possible–and this is the miracle it asserts–that Jesus Christ had no father according to His human existence.

Because in this miracle the Holy Spirit takes the place of the male, this by no means implies that He does what the male does.

Because Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, it does not, therefore, mean–or can mean only in an improper sense–that He is begotten by the Holy Spirit.

The idea is completely excluded that anything like a marriage took place between the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.

The Holy Spirit by whom the Virgin becomes pregnant is really not a kind of divine spirit, and therefore not in any sense an apotheosized husband, but He is God Himself and therefore His miraculous act is to be understood as a spiritual and not a psycho-physical act, not in any way analogous to the effects of creaturely eros.

The positive fact which fills the space marked off by the natus ex virgine is God Himself, i.e., in the inconceivable act of creative omnipotence in which He imparts to human nature a capacity, a power for Himself, which it does not possess of itself and which it could not devise for itself; in the inconceivable act of reconciling love by which He justifies and sanctifies human nature in spite of its unrighteousness and unholiness to be a temple for His Word and so for His glory; in the inconceivable act of redeeming wisdom in which He completely assumes His creature in such a way that He imparts and bestows on it no less than His own existence.

Here, as so often, it is not true that such statements by early dogmaticians are the products of an idle and irrelevant scholastic cleverness.

Rather is it the case that in the statements an attempt is made as a spiritual understanding of the spiritual; and no one who at this particular point takes the trouble seriously to think himself into the task set him will deny that in the decisive issue this was the right line to take.

In conclusion, let us remember that it is particularly this positive factor in the miracle, expressed in the conceptus de Spiritu sancto, that belongs to the sign of the miracle of Christmas which the dogma aims at stressing.

Noetically, i.e., for us to whom this sign is given, who have to recognize it in and by this sign, the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God come in the flesh stands or falls with the with the truth of the conception de Spiritu sancto.

But it could not be said that ontically, in itself, the mystery of Christmas stands or falls with this dogma.

The man Jesus of Nazareth is not the true Son of God because He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

On the contrary, because He is the true Son of God and because this is an inconceivable mystery intended to be acknowledged as such, therefore He is conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

And because He is thus conceived and born, He has to be recognized and acknowledged as the One He is and the mystery in which He is the One He is.

The mystery does not rest upon the miracle.

The miracle rests upon the mystery.

The miracle bears witness to the mystery, and the mystery is attested by the miracle.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 200-202

Advent with Barth: The Prototype

Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018

But why is it precisely God the Holy Spirit who is named here?

The answer to this question follows from what we have to learn from Holy Scripture of the significance of this the third person or mode of God’s being for the act of divine revelation or reconciliation, understanding it in terms of what the Church has expressed and laid down as right knowledge of Scripture in its dogma of the three-in-oneness of God and particularly in its dogma of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is God Himself in His freedom exercised in revelation to be present to His creature, even to dwell in him personally, and thereby to achieve his meeting with Himself in His Word and by this achievement to make it possible.

Through the Holy Spirit and only through the Holy Spirit can man be there for God, be free for God’s work on him, believe, be a recipient of His revelation, the object of divine reconciliation.

In the Holy Spirit and only in the Holy Spirit has man the evidence and guarantee that he really participates in God’s revealing and reconciling action.

Through the Holy Spirit and only through the Holy Spirit does God make His claim on us effective, to be our one Lord, our one Teacher, our one Leader.

In virtue of the Holy Spirit and only in virtue of the Holy Spirit is there a Church in which God’s Word can be ministered, because it has the language for it, because what it says of revelation is testimony to it and to that extent the renewal of revelation.

The freedom which the Holy Spirit gives us in this understanding and in this sphere–gives, so far as it is His own freedom and so far as He gives us nothing else and no less than Himself–is the freedom of the Church, of the children of God.

It is the freedom of the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Spirit that is already involved in the incarnation of the Word of God, in the assumption of human nature by the Son of God, in which we have to recognize the real ground of the freedom of the children of God, the real ground of all conception of revelation, all lordship of grace over man, the real ground of the Church.

The very possibility of human nature’s being adopted into unity with the Son of God is the Holy Ghost.

Here, then, at this frontal point in revelation, the Word of God is not without the Spirit of God.

And here already there is the togetherness of Spirit and Word.

Through the Spirit it becomes really possible for the creature, for man, to be there and to be free for God.

Through the Spirit flesh, human nature, is assumed into unity with the Son of God.

Through the Spirit this Man can be God’s Son and at the same time the Second Adam and as such “the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29), the prototype of all who are set free for His sake and through faith in Him.

As in Him human nature is made the bearer of revelation, so in us it is made the recipient of it, not by its own power, but by the power conferred on it by the Spirit, who according to 2 Corinthians 3:17 is Himself the Lord.

The specific mention of the Holy Spirit as a more precise determination of the sign of the Virgin birth is obviously significant in a twofold sense.

In the first place, it refers back the mystery of the human existence of Jesus Christ to the mystery of God Himself, as it is disclosed in revelation–the mystery that God Himself as the Spirit acts among His creatures as His own Mediator, that God Himself creates a possibility, a power, a capacity, and assigns it to man, where otherwise there would be sheer impossibility.

And the mention of the Holy Ghost is significant here in the second place, because it points back to the connection which exists between our reconciliation and the existence of the Reconciler, to the primary realization of the work of the Holy Spirit.

For it is on this ground that the same work, the same preparation of man for God by God Himself, can happen to us also, in the form of pure grace, the grace manifested in Jesus Christ, which meets us and is bestowed upon us in Him.


from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 198-200

Advent with Barth: A Pure Divine Beginning

Saturday, December 22, 2018

To the full elucidation of the conceptus de Spiritu sancto belongs the recollection that where in the sphere of Christian revelation and the Christian Church legitimate and significant language is used about the Holy Spirit, what is meant is invariably God, God Himself, God in the fullest and strictest sense of the term–namely, the Lord of all lords, He who is Lord because of Himself and not because of another, the Lord to whom man belongs before ever, and to an infinitely greater extent than, he belongs to himself, to who he owes himself entirely, and to whom he remains in utter obligation, the Lord upon whose grace he is utterly thrown, and in whose promise alone his future consists.

He and no other and nothing else is the Holy Spirit by whom Jesus Christ was conceived according to His human nature, in order to be born of the Virgin Mary.

It is important to make this quite clear, first, because in so doing we reject in anticipation the attempt to parallel the saying about the Virgin birth of Christ by assertions from the realm of heathen mythology which sound very similar.

In the case of these alleged parallels the similarity can never be more than verbal, because the divine agents in the miraculous births spoken of in this connection are definitely not God in the full and strict sense of the word, but at best gods, that is, hypostatizations of the feeling of man for nature or his reflection on history, hypostatizations behind which man is everywhere only too visible as the proper lord of the world and as the creator of deities.

Accordingly, these mythical miracles are not real miracles, i.e., signs of God, the Lord of the world, signs which positively limit this world of ours as a created world.

They are prodigies, i.e., extraordinary occurrences within this world of ours, and therefore objects of our human worldview.

It follows from this, secondly, that when we regard the Holy Spirit by whom Jesus Christ is conceived as in the strictest sense God Himself, God the Lord, we forestall and eliminate any attempt to come to the assistance of the saying about the Virgin birth of Christ with any speculation from physics or with any more or less genuine scientific information of a biological sort.

In other words, if we are clear that with the Holy Spirit God Himself is declared to be the author of the sign of the Virgin birth, then we know that in acknowledging the reality of this sign we have a priori renounced all understanding of it as a natural possibility, even when we are tempted to do so by a consideration so inviting as that of natural parthenogenesis, for example.

We are already committed, then, to an acknowledgement of a pure divine beginning, of a limiting of all natural possibilities, and this forbids us at the very outset to indulge in any reflection as to whether and how this reality can be anything else but a pure divine beginning.

It is this strict acceptance of the divinity of the Holy Spirit by whom Jesus Christ is conceived, and along with that the strict acceptance of the miraculous character of the Virgin birth, that makes the latter the sign of the mystery of Christmas.

It is of significance for the thing signified, of which it is the sign, because here, too, in the incarnation of the Word in the strict sense, we are concerned with the action of God Himself, with a pure divine beginning.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 197-198

Advent with Barth: Conceived by the Holy Spirit

Friday, December 21, 2018

We now turn to the previous clause in the confession, conceptus de Spiritu sancto (conceived by the Holy Spirit).

The natus ex virgine (born of the virgin) described the negative side of the miracle of the miracle of Christmas.

The birth of the Lord was a birth without a previous sexual event, without a male to beget.

It is thus the sign of the inconceivable, of the incarnation of the Word, the Holy One, the Lord of all things.

As just shown, an independent meaning cannot attach either (in the sign) to the person or the sex of Mary, or (in the thing signified) to human nature.

Actually no one is left to be God’s fellow-worker.

All that “Mary the virgo” actually signifies is that man is really the other upon whom and with whom God acts in His revelation.

We have had to say all this already in elucidation of the negative formula.

Its necessity, i.e., that it is spoken with exegetical correctness, is established by the first and positive formula, conceptus de Spiritu sancto.

It states that the conception of Jesus Christ prior to His birth of the Virgin Mary was the work of God the Holy Spirit.

To that extent it was a miraculous birth and as such the sign of the incarnation of the eternal Word.

The formula conceptus de Spiritu sancto thus fills the blank, as it were, indicated by the formula natus ex Maria virgine.

It indicates the ground and content, where the latter indicates the form and shape, of the miracle and sign.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 196

Advent with Barth: The Sign of Divine Agape

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Human virginity, far from being able to construct for itself a point of connection for divine grace, lies under its judgment.

Yet it becomes, not by its nature, not of itself, but by divine grace, the sign of this judgment passed upon man, and to the extent the sign of divine grace.

For if it is only the virgo who can be the mother of the Lord, if God’s grace considers her alone and is prepared to use her for His work upon man, that means that as such willing, achieving, creative, sovereign man is not considered, and is not to be used for this work.

Of course, man is involved, but not as God’s fellow-worker, not in his independence, not with control over what is to happen, but only–and even that because God has presented him with Himself–in his readiness for God.

So thoroughly does God judge sin in the flesh by being gracious to man.

So much does God insist that He alone is Lord by espousing the cause of man.

This is the mystery of grace to which the natus ex virgine points.

The sinful life of sex is excluded as the source of the human existence of Jesus Christ, not because of the nature of sexual life nor because of its sinfulness, but because every natural generation is the work of willing, achieving, creative, sovereign man.

No event of natural generation will be a sign of the mystery indicated here.

Such an event will point to the mighty and really cosmic power of human creaturely eros.

If our aim is to discover and set up the sign of this power, the event of sex still forces itself upon us as the sign which is unmatched by any other in importance and persuasiveness.

The event of sex cannot be considered at all as the sign of divine agape which seeks not its own and never fails.

It is the work of willing, achieving, creative, sovereign man, and as such points elsewhere than to the majesty of the divine pity.

Therefore the virginity of Mary, and not the wedlock of Joseph and Mary, is the sign of revelation and of the knowledge of the mystery of Christmas.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 192.