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Death & Dying

Death & Dying

This will be my third post on the little book Deliverance to the Captives from Karl Barth. It is a collection of sermons. Most of the sermons were delivered to inmates of the prison in Basel. I read the book many years ago and have struggled to find something that spurs me more mightily ever since. My latest reading has not disappointed.

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In a sermon entitled "Teach Us to Number Our Days," Barth deals with the subject of death. The uniquely shared experience of all men is that we are dying. This has been reinforced recently with the death of many public figures who had been fighting cancer. In times like these, there is a renewed tendency for men to consider the subject of death. There is no disadvantage to spending more time thinking about our own eventual deaths. Yet, Scriptures says that wisdom is found somewhere else.

Barth spends some time discussing the value of thinking about our future, impending death. He acknowledges that there is a modicum of value. Yet he relates that this value is not wisdom from God. In the end, Psalm 90:12 instructs Christians to petition God for teaching to "number our days" — the Scriptures require us to be taught how to think properly about death. Barth goes on to say that this is done by submitting to what God says about human death. This is the key of wisdom. That all men must die is the result of God's universal "no" to our sinfulness (2 Cor 1:17-20). And in that manner, we cannot help but look to Christ to see the "yes" God says about human death,

"To remember, and to remember aright, that we must die is to remember that Jesus has died for us." (121)

In full disclosure, there are hints of Barth's objective justification (or universal atonement) throughout this sermon. The totality of Barth's view on the atonement benefits his discussion about how a man dies in the death of Jesus Christ. The most important thing about Christ's death is that it is a full death and not a partial death. It is not a death that retains our best parts. The "no" of God extends over the entirety of who we are. Nothing escapes God's judgement — "there is no health in us" (Book of Common Prayer). Jesus Christ dies for the whole of who we are. And subsequently, the whole of who we are dies in Him, 

"This old man in us is judged, sentenced and killed in Jesus' death. He is extinguished from head to toe, including his heart, his mind, his will, his feelings, his low instincts and his high aspirations, his superficiality and his depth, his bestiality and his spirituality, his evil deeds and his good works, his misery and his glory. God has spoken his 'no' to the whole inventory of the old man in us, having no use for him, discarding him, delivering him to death." (121)

I would love to share more from this beautiful sermon, but I will leave that joy to the reader. Let it suffice to conclude that we best "number our days" when we acknowledge like Paul that "if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him" (Rom 6:8) and more thoroughly,

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. - Galatians 2:20
Art and J. R. R. Tolkien

Art and J. R. R. Tolkien

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