Peccator Justus! Thoughts from the Final Words of Karl Barth

2044-1Peccator Justus!

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” -1 Tim. 1.15
The phrase “peccator justus” is Latin for, “justified sinner.” I am not a Latin expert, or anything close to one actually, but the two words are reverberating through my mind and heart as I type today. Here is the reason why:
On December 9th, 1968 a man named Karl Barth- a Swiss/German theologian- was preparing for a lecture. Barth was arguably the most well-known and influential theologian of the 20th century. He was a controversial man, who was known to challenge the categories of both Liberal and Conservative theologians, and to shake the dusty definitions of God that had often crippled the world of theology in his day. He resisted the Nazi Regime’s falsely concocted version of Scripture and Church, personally mailing his statement to Hitler himself, for which reason he lost his esteemed position as a professor in Germany at the University of Bonn. The beloved Evangelical scholar F.F. Bruce noted that Barth’s 1919 commentary on Romans dropped “like a bombshell on the theologians’ playground, and we are still feeling its reverberations today.”
He challenged the entire landscape of 20th century theology, jolting systems of thought and calling scholars and pastors to let God be God over their labors and studies. He said that we needed to recover the “Godness of God,” and to hear Paul’s spirit beneath the surface of the NT texts. He hand-wrote more than 30,000 pages of theology over the course of 50-plus years in theological work. You and I may not be in harmony with every one of his theological conclusions, but I really appreciate the man and what the Lord brought to the Church through him. The fruit of his labors goes on in the lives of many believers who have never heard his name and who are not likely ever to read one of his books.
Back to December 9th of ’68. Barth was 82 year of age, and by this time he “spoke of his death remarkably often and even wanted to talk about the details of his funeral.” Being the thinker, theologian, and pastor that he was, Barth had reflected upon the reality of death and eternity very long and very hard for many decades. When he visited the U.S. in 1962, he was put on the cover of TIME magazine in painted form, standing in front of Jesus’ empty tomb with his own words as a banner above: “The goal of the human life is not death, but resurrection.”
Now, in 1968, he was aged, and even seemed to sense that his days were drawing to a close. In some of his last letters written, he made these awesome statements:
Looking back, I have no serious complaints about anyone or anything: except my own failures today, yesterday, the day before yesterday and the day before that- I mean my failures in real gratitude. Perhaps I still have bitter days ahead, and certainly my death will come sooner or later. One thing remains, for me to remember and impress upon myself…. ‘Do not forget the good that He has done!’
… How do I know whether I shall die easily or with difficulty? I only know that my dying, too, is part of my life… And then- this is the destination, the limit and the goal for all of us- I shall no longer ‘be’, but I shall be made manifest before the judgment seat of Christ, in and with my whole ‘being,’ with all the real good and the real evil that I have thought, said and done, with all the bitterness that I have suffered and all the beauty that I have enjoyed. There I shall only be able to stand as the failure that I doubtless was in all things, but… by virtue of His promise, as a peccator justus. And as that I shall be able to stand. Then… in the light of grace, all that is now dark will become very clear.
It’s remarkable how tender and sensitive to mercy a man becomes when he is on the edge of eternity. All of a sudden, the grudges we have held, the suspicions we have harbored, the fears which have ruled us, the possessions we’ve coveted, and the self-righteousness we’ve carried, all become utter vanity before the reality of standing face to face with the God of all creation. Before the Light of His unveiled glory, every one of us bear marks of the intensest kind of soul-stains, and we realize that all of our boasting has no merit whatsoever. All of our religious and social facades are exposed for the falsities that they are, and we are moved to cry out anew for the gift of mercy. “…cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall by clean…”
On the night of December 9th, 1968 Barth was interrupted in the midst of writing his lecture by the phone calls of two friends. One of them, a man named Eduard Thurneysen, had “remained faithful to him over sixty years. They talked about the gloomy world situation- the Vietnam war, among many other troublous goings on in the nations. Then, with a gust of prophetic hope, Barth interrupted his friend, ‘But keep your chin up! Never mind! He will reign!‘”
Those would become his last recorded words.

“… Barth did not go back to his draft which he had left in the middle of a sentence, but put it aside until the next day. However, he did not live that long. He died peacefully some time in the middle of the night. He lay there as though asleep, with his hands gently folded from his evening prayers. So his wife found him the next morning, while in the background a record was playing the Mozart with which she had wanted to waken him.”

Interestingly enough, before he breathed his last “he had been writing a few sentences of the draft for his lecture in which he was saying that in the church it is always important to listen to the Fathers who have gone before in the faith. For ‘God is not a God of the dead but of the living. In him they all live.'”

If we would walk with a greater consciousness of the fragility and preciousness of life, and the reality of death, we would become in a more concentrated manner, a people of mercy. We all fall under the category of ‘peccator.’ We have sinned, and worse, our souls actually consist of the substance of iniquity and wickedness. Sin is not only a litany of things we’ve committed, it’s a part of our very fiber and nature as humans. Yet death approaches for each one of us, and immediately following the breathing of our last breath, we encounter the One Who made heaven and earth. As Barth said, “I only know that my dying, too, is part of my life…” The only hope that any of us have is in the cross of Jesus Christ. Only He has the power to yank us from the category of sinner (peccator), and to place us within the glorious family of those who have been justified and transformed by the power of His indestructible life. (peccator justus!)
When Christ has transformed our hearts, we can face the adversities of life, and the shakings and tumblings of the Kingdoms of this world in the same vein that Barth encouraged:
“… keep your chin up! Never mind! He will reign!
He will reign, saints, and no matter what befalls the nations in these last days, however dim your vision is at present, there is a vital and eternal hope for those who have repented of sin and believed upon the Son of God. He will reign, and the proof is in your own justification before the throne of God. Rejoice, then, in so great a salvation! Let your heart send streams of enraptured gratitude to the Savior!
There will come a day when the saints will inherit the manifested reality of resurrected and glorified bodies. The propensity for sin, the pulls of temptation, the stubborn presence of pride and self-consciousness, fatigue and sickness will once and for all be removed from our experience. Our fallibility and dim sights will be totally submerged in the Light of His wonderful perfections. Glorious day!Until then, we turn to Him day by day, that His likeness and glory might rise in our present experience. We’ve been justified by the power of a Blood which speaks better than the blood of Abel. We have a radically opened access to righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. One day, our justification before God will be manifested in full, but until that day dawns, let us receive the Spirit of Holiness in increasing measure. Let us go from glory to glory and from faith to faith, hastening the day of His return, and letting our newfound light shine before men. As A.W. Tozer once stated:

What God is seeking is a people in the earth who will trust him now as completely as they know they must at the final day.

“… keep your chin up! Never mind! He will reign!

Peccator justus!

(All Barth quotes taken from Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, Eberhard Busch; Fortress Press, 1975, pp. 497-499; Tozer quote from an audio message)

One thought on “Peccator Justus! Thoughts from the Final Words of Karl Barth

  1. What clarity we find when we can honestly face our own mortality. I pray God would give more grace to see things clearly in light of our brief span here. Thanks for calling us to the things of substance and our desperate need of mercy. I am reminded of the Lord’s words, “forgive us our sins and we forgive those who have sinned against us.” “God, help me be as merciful to others today as you have been to me.”

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