The Gospel is Law: Karl Barth on the Relationship between Law and Gospel

The relationship between Law and Gospel is a fierce perennial debate, especially between the Lutheran and Reformed Churches. The Lutheran doctrine of Law and Gospel tends towards dualism and the Reformed tends towards identity, and although the Lutheran approach has had wider acceptance (even by much of the Reformed Churches), the Law and Gospel debate is far from reaching an unanimous resolution.  

Karl Barth proposes a new solution to the Law and Gospel debate. Barth says that the Gospel is Law, and sides with the Reformed strategy of identifying Law and Gospel (contra the Lutherans). However, Barth is not merely repeating the old Reformed solution (Barth hardly ever repeats anything without modification!) In this post, I'll share Barth's solution to the Law and Gospel debate, and provide a helpful explanation of it by John D. Godsey.

Karl Barth's solution: Gospel is Law

Barth identifies Law and Gospel such that the Law is the result of the Gospel: Gospel is Law! I was immediately impressed by Barth's solution to the Law and Gospel question when I first read it in the Church Dogmatics, Vol II/2, because Barth evades the pitfalls of both the Lutheran and Reformed solutions. When Barth said the "Gospel itself has the form and fashion of the Law", he means that the Law is living out the Gospel, not returning to the Mosaic Law. Barth is not setting aside the Old Testament Law, like the critics of Lutherans claim, nor is Barth conflating or replacing the Gospel with the Old Testament Law, as critics of the Reformed theologians claim; Barth is maintaining the unity of Law and Gospel, without separation or division (like the words of Chalcedon). 

There can be no question, therefore, of having to speak of anything other than the Gospel. . . . Ruling grace is commanding grace. The Gospel itself has the form and fashion of the Law. The one Word of God is both Gospel and Law. It is not Law by itself and independent of the Gospel. But it is also not Gospel without Law. In its content, it is Gospel; in its form and fashion, it is Law. It is first Gospel and then Law. It is the Gospel which contains and encloses the Law as the ark of the covenant the tables of Sinai. But it is both Gospel and Law. The one Word of God which is the revelation and work of His grace is also Law. [1]  

—Karl Barth

John D. Godsey explains Barth's Gospel is Law

Barth's Gospel is Law is an elegant solution to the Law and Gospel debate, yet it is nuanced enough that it is difficult to further explain in plain language. So I was pleased to find a short and helpful summary of Barth's theology of Law and Gospel in the introduction of John D. Godsey's Karl Barth's Table Talk

Directly following the Doctrine of God's Gracious Election, we have in Chapter 8 a discussion of God's Command. This is by no means an accident. Election and command belong inextricably together and must be viewed in that order. The correspondence to Professor Barth's famous coupling of 'Gospel and Law' over against the Lutheran 'Law and Gospel' is obvious. The two are to be differentiated, but never separated, and Law is always to be seen in the light of the Gospel. In Christian theological thinking it is of critical importance that we always move from Gospel to Law, just as we must go from justification to sanctification, from faith to works, from Church to State. In other words, here we have a Christological concept of the Law that excludes any foundation in natural law or orders of creation: God's nomos and God's logos are ultimately identical, for Law is the form of the Gospel. There is no Law and no Gospel in and for themselves, but only the one Word of God. This means that God's command is an event, not a general proposition. In our context it also means that the concrete form of election is sanctification. Jesus Christ is the sanctifying God and the sanctified man. [2]

—John D. Godsey


Karl Barth's Gospel is Law is a brilliant solution to the Law and Gospel debate that has divided Lutheran and Reformed Churches since the beginning of the Reformation. Barth's elegant Gospel is Law requires further elaboration in practice, and John D. Godsey's explanation (quoted above) is a handy explanation in plain language of what Barth means by Gospel is Law. 

To further understand Barth's the Gospel is Law solution, I recommend reading the first paragraph of §36 "Ethics as a Task of the Doctrine of God" Church Dogmatics, Vol. II/2, and to understand how Barth's interpretation of the Old Testament Law, read Barth's assessment of J. Coccejus' Federal Theology from the Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV/1, in §57 "The Word of God the Reconciler". 


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[^1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, Vol 2.2: The Doctrine of God. Trans. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Vol. 12. London: T & T Clark, 2010. 7. Print. Study Edition. [511]
[^2] Barth, Karl. Karl Barth's Table Talk. Ed. John D. Godsey. London: Oliver and Boyd, 1965. 7. Print.

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  1. Thank you for your reflections. It stands to reason that Barth is going to preserve ethics as event, just as he preserved the notion of God in the event of Jesus Christ. He wants to avoid any notion of ethics as a general proposition, and thus, as a hearing of the command of God. However, where in human experience are we to conceive of hearing such a command? You see, I think a good reading of Paul, in contrast to Barth, recognizes honestly that ethics does rely to some degree on general propositions available to all. We are moral creatures. Paul is an example in his well-known reliance upon household rules (see Plato and Aristotle) and his virtue/vice lists (see Greek philosophy generally). Paul is not as afraid as Barth to rely upon commonly available moral philosophy of his day to describe new life in Christ. I should also say that his voluntaristic approach to ethics is highly questionable. Granting that his theological ethics focuses on the encounter with Christ, it remains close to Kant and the notion of hearing the duty within ethical rules. Personally, my parting with Barth begins with his view of ethics as command or event, and spreads out from there. However, I hasten to add that he has challenged me greatly in this area. As I indicated, I just do not think he is Pauline enough when it comes to his ethics.

    • Initially, this post included a highly critical section of the extreme ends of the Law and Gospel, where I criticized Lutheran dualism and Reformed theonomy. Barth’s beginning with the Gospel as justification and interpretation of Law as Sanctification, is incredibly helpful for me to confront the extremes of disgrarding the law, and reestablishing the law, respectively.

      I agree with your criticism, and maybe I should have provided criticisms myself. Maybe it’s barth’s aversion to natural theology from recognizing establish ethical norms (e.g. household norms / ethical lists) as you mentioned. I understand his position, because the political climate in WWI / WWII Germany. After that time period past, he allowed for a natural theology, that may be more open to the categories you just described.

      Barth is a great starting place, but needs a bit more to be fleshed out. Thanks for your illuminating comments George! I alway appreciate your insights.


  2. I received a couple comment saying that the title “Gospel is Law” is confusing, because it implies identity. Choosing titles isn’t easy, so I can see how it might someone who hasnt read the article. I chose the title “Gospel is Law” to summarize Barth’s theology of Law and Gospel to summarize Barth’s quotation “Law is the form and fashion of the Gospel”, and to show how Barth flipped the order of Gospel and Law (from normal order of Law and Gospel), and to show Barth’s maintaining the identity of the Law and Gospel (like the Reformed Theologians) in distinction to Lutheran separation of Law and Gospel. I explain in the article, that Barth is not equivocating Law and Gospel.

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