Karl Barth and the Backward Glance of Grace

Amy and I did our last long hike in Scotland before we fly to South Africa on Tuesday. It was the incredibly beautiful mountain called Suilven in the Northwest Highlands. It is a really long walk in, a very steep climb almost straight up, and then a thrilling ridge walk to the summit.

Here is a view looking back from the summit.


It shows the narrow ridge that you have to traverse to get to the summit. As I was coming upwards, taking it one step at a time making sure my handholds were firm and my footing secure, I didn’t get a sense of how exposed we were to the sheer drops of the mountainsides to our left and our right. However, when I looked back from the summit across the ridge we traversed, I must say, I shuddered a bit. On either side of that thin path you can make out now and then mountainsides drop almost straight down for well over a 1,000 feet. Gulp!

This looking back over the ridge we traversed reminded me of a story Karl Barth told to illustrate the shock we get when we realize that we are saved by grace alone. Barth preached regularly in the prison in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland. It was a congregation of people who had been officially judged and condemned as guilty. In one of his sermons he reminded the inmates of an old Swiss legend.

He said, “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. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe!

“You ask: ‘Do we really live in such danger?’ Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Saviour and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross, accused, sentenced and punished instead of us! Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our sake, because of our sin, sharing our captivity, burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: By grace you have been saved!”


Barth’s sermon was addressed to the particular congregation of prison inmates – and it must have been a powerful message about salvation for them – but I also think much of what he says pertains to us as well. I am especially struck by his insight that we only really come to know the precariousness of our broken, fallen, sinful human condition after we have been grasped by the promise of salvation by grace alone.

Isn’t that right? Isn’t that how it really works? Isn’t only after I am grasped by the overwhelming message of God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness, that I then look back and realize how lost, broken, and sinful I was and am? Recognition of our need for forgiveness is more of a backward glace after I have become aware of how much God has indeed forgiven me.

That’s the human condition according to Barth. We are going along pretty much oblivious to precariousness of our situation, like crossing a frozen lake in the nighttime or traversing a narrow ridge to a summit. When by God’s grace we safely reach the other shore or summit and by the light of God’s grace we recognize that we are safe, only then do realize how precarious our situation was. In a certain sense recognition of our sinfulness only happens after we have been grasped by the grace and forgiveness of God.

Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria!


Amy at the top of Suilven with Quinag in the background.

  1. “Grace ,grace ,Gods grace grace that is greater than all our sin Great old hymn. Thank you Joe. Love to you beloveds Deede

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 2 people

  2. I find myself using the term, “By the grace of God”, many more times in life. When you looked down and saw how high you had climbed, you knew God had been by your side. I find myself thinking this when I pull the car into the garage and have had a safe trip.
    Thinking so often of you and Amy.
    Judye Jarema

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Judye. “By the grace of God” pretty well describes much of the life of faith — hence the Reformer’s cry of sola gratia. Miss you! Blessings, Joe


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