Karl Barth on worship and the cost of discipleship (on Romans 12:1–2)

To celebrate my recent success, I awarded myself with a copy of The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon. Thus far, I’ve resisted the temptation to post on it, to rave about the homiletical energy of the twentieth-century’s greatest theologian, his exegetical insights and proficiency in what is arguably the preachers’ most difficult task, namely application. But I give in. Here he is on Romans 12:1–2, from a sermon preached on 3 March, 1918:

‘In the words “well pleasing to God” it is said that our thoughts, words and works are in need of God’s blessing if they are truly to be a worship of God. It is indeed right when we search for God and wish to bring about better conditions in the world, but God must also be able to say yes to the ways and means we have of doing it, for otherwise nothing will come of our efforts. It is indeed good, for example, to pray for and pursue the conversion of persons, but if one cannot put aside an evil way of being that pricks and stings, God is not in it. To give the needy from one’s surplus is also good, but whether or not God rejoices in it will depend, for example, on how one has gained the surplus. To turn the world upside down, like the Bolsheviks now want to do, would also be good and much needed, but when they wave around their automatic weapons, the blessing of God cannot be in it. Good, pure persons are needed in order to serve God in a good, pure way, a way that is well pleasing to God. What passes by this good and pure way of being can never lead to the goal.

I think that we now understand a little of what Paul meant when he said that a sacrifice is needed for a reasonable worship of God. Here we must look deeply into what is holy. Something must be brought, presented, given. In the words themselves we already notice something of that serious, radical, and personal decision that the Bible requires of us and before which we are rightly perplexed. It is difficult for us and even hurts to give something away, even if it were only a little money that we would rather keep, or a friendly word, when we would rather say something sullen or rude, or an hour of our time that we would rather have for ourselves. The word “sacrifice” always attacks us, like a sharp knife. We would rather serve God in some other way than through sacrifice. In what Paul calls a reasonable worship of God, the giving of a little money is not enough, nor is a good word, nor a little time. One must seriously question whether any of these is a “living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God.” In fact, they are holy sacrifices only when another and much greater prior sacrifice has taken place, so that it now stands behind them.

For there is only one sacrifice that God acknowledges and accepts from us, and if you do not make this sacrifice, the rest collapses like a house of cards. This one sacrifice, according to Paul, consists in “presenting your bodies.” What he means is your personhood, your own self, without making a difference between the outer and inner person or of what is spiritual in us and what is natural. He says expressly “your bodies!” and not “your souls!” What Paul means is that there is no difference, that when he speaks of the body he includes the soul. We like to make fine and seemingly intelligent distinctions, as when we say, “Inwardly I am also of this opinion, but outwardly I do not wish to show it”; or, “In my heart I stand on this side too, but with my person I would rather not confess it”; or, “In my soul I want to belong to God, but my body – which means all that I am outwardly in the concealment of my private life, in my family, in my business, in my position in the village – this body of mine may keep going along as usual and often goes fully other ways than the ways of God.”

The Bible does not make such fine and clever distinctions. Paul prevents them simply by saying, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God.” Here none of those distinctions and the like are acknowledged, such as when one reads worshipfully in the hymnbook on Sunday morning, but on Sunday afternoon goes a completely different way, as many of our teenagers in the confirmation class do. Here one is not allowed to be an idealist that reads good books in the evening, but in the factory during the day acts on the basis of the same principles, or rather lack of principles, as everyone else. Here one is not allowed to be a child of God who today cannot boast enough of the glory of truly trusting God, but tomorrow gets entirely out of sorts when their store of goods has dwindled in some small way.

Such fine distinctions are not possible for Paul. “Present your bodies as a sacrifice!” Then God will receive what God wills to receive from you and what God can use. As long as we do not wish to present our bodies, we wish to give nothing of ourselves. If we have once understood the inner and the outer, what belongs to the soul and what belongs to the body, one’s personal human spirit and one’s physical person – then we will sacrifice what must be sacrificed; then it will be a living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God, just as God is living and holy; then we will give ourselves into the power of God!

That is what is meant by a reasonable worship of God. What a pity it is and what a distress that at bottom we all fear the gods so much that we are all so religious and full of endeavor, and yet understand so little of this sacrifice, of giving ourselves, our bodies, as sacrifices into the power of God. Oh, how would the doors that are now closed to us open – all the doors of sin and care before which we so helplessly stand; the doors of persons we do not understand nor they us; the doors of sad social conditions that we presently cannot change – how would truth and salvation come to light, how would the change of things that we wish for happen, if we would only break out of all our so-called worship of God, our religions, convictions, and endeavors! We would break out of all these prisons, over which is written, “My intentions are good,” and instead enter into what God intends, into that reasonable worship of God in Spirit and in truth. This is what the Bible places before us in such a great, natural, and healthy way!’ – Karl Barth and William H. Willimon, The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon (trans. John E. Wilson; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 51–3.

5 comments

  1. All about Paul (and Barth, not to say…Calvinism), but little to do with the teachings of …JC.

    Barth’s an eloquent Pat Robertson, more or less (sort of like that clown Benji Myers).

    For authentic spiritual fire, read the sermons of John Wesley

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  2. Thanks for this, Jason. The whole person has been a theme of the week here on my end. The “whole” of a person has such a profound effect–God has created us and invited us into such a vast spacewow, how we need God’s grace!

    If all goes well, I may get to hear and meet the good Rev. Willimon next month in my neck of the woods!

    Peace,
    Mike C.

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