Barth’s Word to the Captives: “Saved by Grace”
“Saved by Grace” is yet another one of Barth’s “infamous” one-verse sermons, but in contrast to some of Barth’s early preaching, what we see in this 1955 sermon is a deep Biblical imagination at work as he crafts his words around the theme of salvation (as opposed to what could be called an existential imagination on display in his early sermons in Safenwil. See sermon preached on April 29, 1917, on 2 Peter 3:12a). Barth is clearly drawing on the deep world of scripture for the content of his sermon; although only referencing directly one verse (though he also quotes without attribution Matthew 7:7 at the end of the sermon), he has the entire salvation history from Creation to Eschaton in view. Barth employs Ephesians 2:5 in a manner akin to a rhetorical device (by my count, variations on “By grace you have been saved!” occur thirteen times). This is a purposeful strategy by Barth to get his listener to assent to the idea that when we gather on Sunday morning, “everything...is but an answer to this word [Ephesians 2:5] spoken to us by God himself” (36). Everything in the sermon, everything in our worship, everything in the lived life experience of a Christian, flows from the proclaimed promise, “By grace you have been saved.”
Four moves stand out and should be considered for conversation. First, Barth masterfully implies and operates under the assumption that he and the prisoners comprise the Church, which is nothing more or less than “the company of Christians, of human beings called and willing to listen together to the bible and through it to the word of God” (36). Their material location (as many behind physical bars, as one free to come and go as he pleases) is not determinative of their status as Church. Their gathering together as Christians is “needed” to spread this word of God “among us” (37). All need to hear this word from God. From the start of this sermon, Barth moves to stress their commonalities, a feature which will continue as he posits that all are captive to sin, and all are free in Christ, because “by grace [we] have been saved.”
Barth moves then to emphasize a common imprisonment by sin, a motif he stresses continuously. I find that Barth here is being deeply contextual, addressing his hearer both as prisoner behind bars and prisoner to sin, and not excluding himself as one imprisoned. We are all prisoners, according to Barth. “Believe me, there is a captivity much worse than captivity in this house. There are walls much thicker and doors much heavier than those closed upon you. All of us, the people without and you within, are prisoners of our own obstinacy, of our many greeds, of our various anxieties, of our mistrust and in the last analysis of our unbelief.” Yet common sin leads to personal grace. “Into the depth of our predicament the word is spoken from on high, ‘By grace you have been saved’!” Barth employs powerful imagery -- salvation is like a log being pulled from a burning fire! -- to drive home that we can be saved from the sin which imprisons us. “Yes you, yes we!” One can almost hear the verbal staccato, the rising of the preacher’s voice (37). It is Jesus who saves us. “He is the Word of God for us” (38). And this word is? “By grace you have been saved.”
From here Barth shifts into his Lake Constance illustration:
You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down, horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider (38).
What I like about this illustration is that it is short, serves its purpose well, and doesn’t draw attention to itself but to the greater theological point Barth is trying to make. Lake Constance brings Barth to the cross. Imprisoned by sin, yes, yes we were, but now because of Jesus we are saved, and there is no turning back. We know the perilous road we have traveled only in hindsight, only once we find ourselves at the foot of the cross and receive the grace which saves us. “Look at our Saviour and at our salvation!” Look to God on the cross, not the icy lake we just crossed. Barth directly addresses his listeners:
Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our sake--because of our sin -- sharing our captivity [again note the prison reference] -- burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross (38).
Turn to God, and be free, because by this grace, the grace of Christ on the cross, we have been saved.
Then comes, surprisingly to me at least, an application phase of the sermon. When I think of Barth, application is not the first thing that comes to mind. But it is entirely logical that Barth turns to prayer, because if all we do is a response to the gift of grace, prayer is thus our first and necessary response to the Word, prayer is our first and constant application. And, strikingly, our prayer is not for our salvation. Our salvation is accomplished, Barth says, regardless if we pray for it or not. Barth closes his sermon with a challenge that our prayers not be for our salvation, but that we may pray to become more and more formed into the image of Jesus. Prayer is to be offered:
to believe, to accept, to let it be true for us, to begin to live with this truth, to believe it not only with our minds and with our lips, but also with our hearts and with all our life, so that our fellowmen may sense it, and finally to let our total existence be immersed in the great divine truth, by grace you have been saved, this is to be the concern of our prayers (41).
What could his original audience hear but the truth that even if in a physical prison, we are free to be immersed in the free and freeing grace of God, empowered to shine like a star in the night, humans saved by God on the cross so that we can be like Jesus. “No human has ever prayed for this in vain” (41).
In this sermon, Barth preaches gospel, not law, salvation, not perdition, deliverance, not captivity. His sermon is an invitation to live into hope. As the late Donald Capps wrote in one of his last published articles, in Barth’s view, “although his listeners are incarcerated for crimes that they have committed, we all, in effect, are living in prison houses of our own making and are in no less need of the liberating gospel promises based on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Barth challenges the 21st century reader of the sermon to discover solidarity with the prisoner behind Basel’s bars by acknowledging the reality of sin that binds us together, and the free, overwhelming gift of Jesus Christ that which, that who delivers us all from our captivities.
This is a most excellent sermon, and most deserving of the praise Updike and Marsh assign to it. If anyone ever asks me how Barth’s theology can preach, I will point them towards “Saved by Grace.”