Gospel Before Law
I have in the past covered that Karl Barth rejected the Lutheran understanding of law/gospel. As with many things, a rejection by Barth is never straight forward. It is typically the result of his approaching things from a different paradigm.
In reading his lectures — The Faith of the Church — on Calvin's catechism (analysis of the Apostle's Creed), Barth explains why the gospel proceeds the law in Calvin. It should be noted, Barth is not directly contradicting the Lutheran understanding, or saying Calvin is correct. But he sees this distinction in Calvin's theology (something akin to Peter Lillback's understanding),
When a savior is spoken of, the necessity of salvation is thereby implied. Calvin did not and would not say: he is Savior because we know we need to be saved, because of sin, death, and all sorts of mean. Calvin does not show us our state of misery—that we can realize anyway—and, then, Jesus who comes to meet us and whom we call Savior because we happen to find him such. It is not so! There is first of all even before we understand that we need to be saved, there is the savior. It is the savior who reveals, who makes clear to us that need to be saved. Hence we do not have to ask ourselves at first: what is man? Who are we? What do we think of Christ? Rather we can follow the witness by which God brought the Savior into existence. By reason of his name we have to accept what he is and consequently what we are. It is not a question of thinking first of ourselves and then of Christ, but of Christ then of ourselves. (59-60)
Whether one agrees or not, it is worth noting Barth's intent in highlight this within Calvin. Anthropology and hamartiology cannot be allowed to proceed theology proper. Knowledge starts with who God is and then moves outward. Full knowledge of God starts with Jesus Christ. Barth argues in the revealed truth of Jesus Christ we understand our sinfulness. Perhaps at this moment Barth has John 3:18 and John 15:22 in mind.
For Barth, even in the proposed law/gospel dichotomy, God must first reveal Himself as one who can be trusted and His law — in terms of revelation — always remains a grace. And Barth has a strong tie between God's revelation and salvation. In his sermon entitled "Saved By Grace," Barth puts the whole event of salvation this way,
"We are not told: you may be saved sometimes for a little bit. No, you have been saved, totally in for all times. You? Yes, we! Not just any other people, more pious and better than we are, no, we, each one of us. ..
You probably all know the legend of the riders across to the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told once 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! ... Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our savior and at our salvation!… He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: by grace you have been saved!" (37-38)
Later in this lecture on Calvin's Genevan Catechism, Barth would clarify with a succinct "Gospel first. Then the law" (70). He makes this statement evaluating Calvin. One wonders if he would also make it generically.