Ethics and the Holy Spirit as Reconciler

[Updated 5/10/19]

This is part 2 of a 3-part series reviewing Karl Barth's 1929 lecture reproduced in the book The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life, the Theological Basis of Ethics. For part 1, click here. For part 3, click here. We looked last time at what Barth says about the Spirit as Creator. Now we'll see what he says about the Holy Spirit as Reconciler, working to make us "fit for God" (p. 20).

Descent of the Holy Spirit (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Holy Spirit does this work by coming against the evil that keeps humanity from being open to God. In particular he comes against our greatest sin, which is unbelief. According to Barth, our unbelief flows from an innate "hostility toward grace" (p20)--a sinful disposition toward God himself, which the Apostle John refers to as "lawlessness" (1 John 3:4). Barth comments:
We must understand the Holy not simply some sort of spirit like the spirit of the true, the good, the beautiful, but as being the...Holy Spirit who is striving with man's hostility in this battle and victory of grace.... This operation of the Spirit has to be seen in its radical and inevitable erection of a barrier against all that is our own action. When man's own action, whatever its pretense or form, is made into a condition with regard to fellowship with God, then the Holy Spirit has been forgotten.... (p. 20)
Thus we err grievously when we place human effort alongside the work of the Spirit as the basis for fellowship with God. Though a "works-righteousness" might aim to uphold grace, in fact, it denies the sovereignty of grace, making it "null and void" (p. 23). Barth comments further:
When God's grace and man's doing are looked upon as two sides of an affair, where one can turn it round and say, instead of the words "Holy Spirit," with just as good emphasis, "religious fervor," "moral earnestness," or even "man's creative activity"--then it is a simple fact that man has been handed his sins. Sin is not taken in deadly earnest when it is regarded as something that can be radically overcome by the enthusiasm of "good intentions," and then, by and by, can be removed by practical activity. You may cure a wound by such treatment but you cannot restore a dead man to life." (p. 23)
A dead person can only be...resurrected, and by grace sin can only be forgiven... We are compelled to believe this as God's action, without our seeing it. (p. 24)
And so Barth emphasizes that humans (sinners all) are transformed--they become ethical beings in fellowship with God--only and precisely by the grace of God through the work of the Holy Spirit in reconciliation. Do we then have no part in this work? As we saw, Barth pointed out that dead men cannot raise themselves and thus cannot sanctify themselves. Only God can do that. And he does! Just as it is God who justifies us entirely by grace, so too it is by grace that he sanctifies us--it is his work, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit's work of sanctification includes our repentance (the changing of our mind toward God). Again, this is the Holy Spirit's work in us, convicting us of sin: "Man, even the Christian man, is not aware that he is a sinner, particularly a sinner against God" (p. 27). As noted above, our greatest sin is unbelief--a refusal "to live by God's forgiving mercy" (p. 28) and instead live by our own efforts. This works-righteousness is the most egregious expression of our unbelief (p. 28). And the Spirit leads us to repent of this as well--it is his gracious work upon us and in us. Repentance is "not an affair that we can accomplish on our own resources." (p, 28)

And so it is with faith. It too is God's gift to us through the work of the Holy Spirit in reconciliation. This gift of faith is assurance flowing from sure confidence (trust) in the Word of God that declares that our sins have been taken away and that Christ's own righteousness has been imputed to us apart from any works or merit of our own.

And so we understand that all aspects of our sanctification are unmerited and unearned. Our personal efforts do not bring them about. Indeed, from first to last, all aspects of our salvation  (repentance and faith included), are the gracious work of the Holy Spirit upon us, in us and with us (p, 29).

Works (Christian living)
We thus must conclude that what gains the victory in our lives over sin and death, and transforms us into ethical people, is not our own works, but the Holy Spirit who graciously is at work in us, producing faith, joy and assurance, despite the presence of doubt and temptation (pp. 31-32). Though this work is often hidden to us, it is a stunning miracle that brings forth in us action (works/ethical behavior), for the Spirit is pouring into us his gifts and guidance, yielding the Christian life. As Barth notes, this life of faith "is active"--it yields an activity that when truly Christian, "takes place in the Holy Spirit" (pp. 32-33).

This life of sharing in the faith of Christ (see Galatians 2:20, KJV) through the Holy Spirit cannot be reduced to a formula, a set of points, or a list of laws. As we look at any particular human act (work), "only in the Holy Spirit is it decided whether it is obedience [to God's word] or disobedience" (p36). Stated more emphatically, "the Holy Spirit is absolutely and alone the umpire with reference to what is or is not Christian life" (p. 37).

And thus, when it comes to ethics--Christian living--we seek after the life and love of God made present to us in the work of the Holy Spirit our Reconciler. And so we pray, come Holy Spirit and show me Jesus!

Next time we'll look at what Barth says about ethics and the ministry of the Holy Spirit as Redeemer.


  1. One of our readers emailed me the following comment on this post:

    I understand that faith is the gift of the Holy Spirit but I have always thought that repentance (turning from unbelief to trusting Jesus) was my doing. The reason I think that is if I or anybody has the power to say "no" to Jesus, then they also have the power to say "yes." If it is the Spirit that flips that switch then it seems like that is universalism and God would be obligated to move everyone to repentance.

  2. I appreciate this comment/question. It is important and one that is commonly misunderstood.

    Barth’s point is that from first to last, salvation (which includes faith and repentance), is God’s work of grace in and through us. That work includes the work that the Holy Spirit does to open our hearts and minds, leading us to repentance (a change of mind). That does not mean that the Spirit takes over our minds and does our thinking for us. But it does mean that it is God who grants repentance to us as a gift of grace (meaning that it is unearned and not based on any merit of our own).

    We make an error when we think of repentance as "our decision” as though one day we wake up and decide to change our minds concerning God. The reality is that the Spirit works in us, perhaps for many years, and typically in ways unknown to us--preparing our hearts, opening our minds and leading us to repentance.

    God does not force this gift, this change of thinking, upon us. Rather, he grants us the freedom to either receive it or to reject it. But unless he opens our hearts and minds (thus saying "yes" to us), there is no possibility that we can say our "yes" in reply.

    And so, as Tom Torrance was fond of saying, this grace--this salvation in all its aspects--is “all of God and all of us.” God's grace includes and accounts for everything about us, including our freedom to reject him. But note that it is God’s action that precedes any response of our own, and thus it is appropriate to say that when it comes to all aspects of salvation (repentance included), it is God’s work, not our own.

    One more thing to note here: Our response of "yes" to God when he opens our minds, is always flawed in that it is incomplete and partial at best. There is never a time when we can say, "I have repented fully and perfectly." Once again, we must rely on God entirely, even when it comes to the issue of our repentance.

    The reality is that Jesus, as our representative and substitute (in his vicarious humanity), has repented for us all completely and perfectly (he was even baptized for us!). And so we look to his gift of grace in trust. But, once again, God does not force us to look to Jesus--he does not remove from us our freedom to look the gift in the eye and turn away.

    Hope this helps.


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