The apostle Paul said, “we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23). Christ’s death on the cross is the payment to God for the sins of His people and this teaching is central to the reformed faith. So it may come as a surprise that people who call themselves reformed now find Christ’s death on the cross an offence. They question whether a loving God would do this to His Son and whether such a sacrifice can really pay for sins. It comes as a surprise that people connected with the Reformed Theological University in Kampen would question this because the reformed faith summarised in the Three Forms of Unity is very clear about how Christ, throughout his earthly life, and especially on the cross, paid for our sins. One such ‘reformed theologian’ is the prolific writer and popular speaker Reinier Sonneveld, about whom D G Bolt has written recently.[i] We need to know what these fellows are saying (similar views come up in the English-speaking world through Tom Wright and other theologians) so that we can recognise their errors and reject them.
I’ll come back to Sonneveld in a moment, but first a bit about a forerunner of this type of thinking by a guy named Socinus, condemned by our Canons of Dort (CoD) as an “ungodly” man! (CoD 2:4 Rejection of errors). Born in 1539, this Italian theologian and jurist established what became known as socianism, a doctrine that was fiercely attacked at the time of the Reformation. Later H Bavinck and K Schilder also denounced his ideas.
What did this man teach? D J Bolt points out that Socinus taught, amongst other errors, that:
- Christ became our Saviour, not by His death on the cross, not by His payment for our sins, but by His moral example. His death is a confirmation of His teaching.
- There is no Triune God. Jesus was a person but not the Son of God. Nor is the Holy Spirit God but a power.
- Nothing in the Bible can be contrary to human reasoning.
- There is no original sin.
- People have a natural ability to put the teachings of Jesus into practice.
- Election and rejection are contrary to God’s love and man’s free will.
There’s nothing reformed about any of this; it’s all blatant heresy and contrary to what we confess in the Heidelberg Catechism LD 3-7, Belgic Confession art. 20-26, and CoD ch. 2.
Yet, says Bolt, there is a lecturer at the Theological University at Kampen (TUK), Dr G R Roest, who read a book that reflects these heretical ideas and calls it “a deep and refreshing insight into the crucial question about how Jesus conquers the evil in this world, sheds light on aspects of the gospel that many Christians no longer know, though they have the old papers, and explains it all in a stimulating, challenging, clear and relevant way.” With such glowing terms the book must be extraordinarily good!
The book to which Roest refers, says Bolt, is Het Vergeten Evangelie (The Forgotten Gospel) by Reinier Sonneveld, formerly of the RCN (GKv) and now member of a house congregation in Utrecht. This Dr Sonneveld had “rediscovered the faith” after years. “But that crucifixion of Jesus” bothered him. “Basically I did not understand it,” he writes. He could not live with that ‘model’ of ‘reconciliation through Christ’s crucifixion’ that reformed people cling to. It seemed to him too much like heathen idolatry whereby the punishment of the gods had to be appeased. That’s why Sonneveld tries to breathe new life into an old conviction that was held in the church in the past. In summary, Sonneveld saw the person Jesus as a victor because he was the first person to pass all the tests in complete obedience. For this obedience He was eventually executed. Sonneveld says that thereby:
“God became king in Jesus’ life; God is crowned in Jesus’ spirit. In other words, God’s kingdom is now established. For the first time in history there is a place, namely Jesus, permeated by God.
This is the ultimate breakthrough. From now on it is possible to build a sort of heaven on earth, to establish a good world wherein everyone can experience the good life. And that began with Jesus.
That is the gospel according to the Bible.”
Sonneveld’s basic question is consequently: “… what is the meaning for humanity of Jesus’ individual fight? Why is the victory of a man the salvation of the human race?”
Bolt says that according to Sonneveld the crucifixion has paved the way for the “approaching, communication and unity between God and man”. That occurs by conquering that which separates — the evil within and outside of us. However, Sonneveld believes that reconciliation through Christ’s completed work “places the problem mainly with God, who is so holy that he cannot endure us unless we become sufficiently righteous”. And he places very critical questions there. For example:
How can a single person undergo the punishment for all? A few hours of martyrdom on the cross weighed up against the evil of millions of people in the past and future? How can suffering be the payment for debt? How can Jesus’ righteousness be imputed to others? Doing what is right is surely different than atonement, is it not? Doesn’t ‘reconciliation through payment’ look a lot like heathen cult sacrifices? To see the sacrificial services in the OT as dispelling God’s wrath is heathenism.
Sonneveld’s conclusion is, says Bolt, that ‘reconciliation through Christ’s satisfaction’ is psychologically and theologically really incomprehensible. God’s wrath and judgement upon mankind? Sonneveld says that exists by God permitting people to do evil to one another. He believes that Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection ensure that man’s evil will eventually stop. He says that the gospel of Paul is that Jesus is the inspiration for our good works and in this way we overcome the evil within us.
This new ‘chapter of humanity’ that Jesus began is worked out by Sonneveld in all sorts of actions and activities such as, for example, organising rebel movements in order to absorb the evil and promote the perfect world.
Back to Socinus
The observant reader, says Bolt, will identify various elements of Socinus in Sonneveld’s ideas. The departure from the Biblical teaching of reconciliation leads to a new activism based on the idea that we with our efforts will create the new world in which righteousness dwells.
Sonneveld believes he is returning to the early Christian ‘gospel’. But does he realise that his propositions are a spiritual Plagiarism of Dr H Wiersinga and Dr C J den Heyer (of the synodical reformed churches) who have also strongly rejected the Christ’s offer of satisfaction for sins? Thereby the gospel was not forgotten but denied by them! And the synodical-reformed churches went to rack and ruin …
Sonneveld still knows the questions of the reformed confessions but unfortunately, he’s forgotten the answers. Lamentable, because they summarise in a clear Scriptural way the joyful gospel of our salvation through Christ’s blood. That is the joyful message of Good Friday and Easter.
Bolt reminds us that in order to see how great our salvation and redemption is we need to see the enormity of our sin. Let’s listen to Paul when he confronts us with our shattering guilt in Romans 3: We apply it to ourselves:
“There is none righteous, no, not one;
There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.”
“Their throat is an open tomb;
With their tongues they have practiced deceit”;
“The poison of asps is under their lips”;
“Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
Destruction and misery are in their ways;
And the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
That is the rebellious situation in which we found ourselves when, in Adam, we rebelled against almighty God. That sin devours humanity like a cancer. We see the results daily. Sometimes ignored; at other times the destructive consequences are presented by the media.
We have wrecked, ruined, defiled God’s monumental work of creation. And still do that daily. That angers God. We see a worldwide example of His wrath in the catastrophic Flood in Noah’s days. That was not just a natural calamity ‘permitted’ by God but God’s judgement upon a world in which almost everyone had turned away from Him.
God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). He cannot allow sin committed against the most high majesty of God to go unpunished (HC q&a 11). Death, the punishment announced in Paradise, will take effect.
With great joy we may know more! A way out has been prepared, adds Bolt. For our God is
perfect in love,
That is incomprehensibly great for us, people. We cannot with our reasoning, our thoughts, reach God’s thoughts and ways, which are always higher than ours (Is. 55). God in His majesty is in everything always simultaneously perfect, awesome, and to be revered.
This God has made that so visible and tangible in the suffering, death and resurrection of our Saviour Jesus Christ. Already in the OT this was movingly conveyed:
we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed…
And He bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for the transgressors (Is. 53).
He was in our place! The debt, the blood-guilt we incurred before the LORD, has been paid. God and man have been reconciled. The sins of millions of people have been erased by God’s Son throughout His life on earth, but particularly in the hellish hours on the cross when all the devils pounced upon Him and did everything in their power to as yet win the crucial battle against the Saviour. “A few hours on the cross as martyr”? How little insight do those who belittle Christ’s sacrificial payment for sin display. How blind they are to Christ’s work of carrying the burden of the curse and eternal anger of God…
Christ won the battle and arose.
Now, adds Bolt, we no longer fear death because, all is paid for! The conclusion of Christ’s redemptive life — His resurrection from the dead — cannot be ignored. Without resurrection we remain eternally dead. But with deep thankfulness we remember at Easter: Christ is the firstfruit, the first of all those who will be raised to a new life and will eternally live with Him who saved us (1 Cor. 15:20). That is how He makes us share in the righteousness He earned on the cross!
That is the festive gospel of Easter after Good Friday!
[i] D J Bolt, “Volstaan – Opgestaan”, De Bazuin, 17 April 2019, Vol. 13 No. 8, pp. 97-99. The article in De Bazuin is a summary of a broader coverage on his website eeninwaarheid