H. van Dijk
Cruciaal: De verrassende betekenis van Jezus’ kruisiging [Crucial: The surprising meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion] is a recently published collection of essays edited by Hans Burger and Reinier Sonneveld. Dr. J.M. (Hans) Burger, a researcher at the Theological University in Kampen, has contributed an essay called “Beyond a critical reading of sacrifice (the image of sacrifice).” He considers the following line of dogmatic thinking, and claims that it does not appear in the New Testament:
“Jesus offers a sacrifice by taking our place in receiving the punishment for our guilt. Hereby he makes the necessary satisfaction for God and acquires salvation for us.”
This way of thinking is reflected in the Heidelberg Catechism. However, Burger argues that this approach developed in the Middle Ages, when the image of the sacrifice was tied to the sacrament of penance and atonement, which is juridical in its nature. Calvin also understood Christ’s suffering in terms of paying our debt and buying our redemption. This interpretation, says Burger, is understandable given Calvin’s Medieval background, but we need to understand that this is a later theological and historical development.
Burger wonders if the way Western Europeans have, for centuries, thought about sacrifices really does justice to what the Bible means with regards to the death of Jesus. It may be that we are just adopting a Medieval idea that really belongs to the sacrament of penance. Furthermore, the sacrifice is then separated from Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom, from his resurrection and ascension, and from the history of Israel. Strictly speaking, says Burger, Jesus’ death was not a sacrifice (p. 54): he was not a Levitical priest, nor were any priests involved in his death; nor did he die in the temple or on an altar, but on a Roman place of execution – an unholy place.
It is striking, Burger notes, that the New Testament does regularly use the language of sacrifice with respect to Jesus’ death. The New Testament writers had their reasons to express the meaning of Jesus’ death in terms of the liturgy of sacrifice. If we want to understand them, we need to try to grasp what they mean (p. 55).
According to Burger, Jesus’ death does, admittedly, give a negative judgment about our sin, but at the same time, the New Testament emphasizes that Jesus’ death has a positive significance for us. Burger sees this idea developed especially in the book of Hebrews. The sacrifices of the Old Testament high priests could not truly free people from sin, because maintained their evil consciences. Jesus did what they could not do, and so he is the perfect high priest. The result of his sacrifice shows that he really does renew people and removes every trace of sin in their hearts and consciences (p. 58).
What is Jesus’ sacrifice? It is his utter devotion to his Father in order to complete his mission. He also changes us to be people who are devoted to God, just as he is. And so our whole life becomes a sacrifice as well (p. 59). The goal of Jesus’ life and death is that true fellowship with God once more becomes a viable option for every person (p. 60). Jesus achieves this by living out that devotion and dedication himself.
So the Bible doesn’t present us with a stern God who wants to see bloodshed, as if there must be death, at any cost. The Bible doesn’t portray God as a Father who is so bloodthirsty that he sacrifices his own Son – a nasty and immoral God (p. 64). Rather, God goes to great lengths to win back the hearts of people. Jesus' sacrifice is a loving invitation not to reject God's love but to respond to it.
This sacrifice is also a gift that enables us to respond. Jesus is, in fact, given to us, and we can “put him on” (p. 65). We are able to identify with him. His holy devotion to God is given to us, and can become ours in our daily life.
Giving and sacrificing is not an expression of weakness, but a way of becoming like God, and to pass on the selfless love that we have received from him. And so Jesus’ sacrifice is the secret of our life devotion.
So far our attempt to summarize Burger’s essay.
An initial response
Burger does not speak about God’s wrath in his essay. But Lord’s Days 11-19 of the Heidelberg Catechism do use that kind of language. Take, for example, these words from Lord’s Day 15: “Christ bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. Thus, by his suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice, he has redeemed our body and soul from everlasting damnation…”
Is the idea of propitiatory atonement merely an idea that was invented in the Middle Ages? Certainly not! Consider these passages of Scripture (all quoted from the ESV):
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. (Is 53:4)
… whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. (Rom 3:25)
Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Cor 5:7)
And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 5:2)
So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Heb 9:28)
And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all… For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Heb 10:10,14)
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 Jn 2:2)
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 Jn 4:10)
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal 3:13)
More examples could be given from Scripture. In any case, it is clear that propitiatory atonement is not an idea new to the Middle Ages, but one that the Reformers rediscovered.
Will we look like God?
Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit to be his image, so that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for his benefits, and he may be praised by us (HC LD 32, QA 86).
Is every trace of sin in our heart and conscience removed (cf. Cruciaal, p. 58)?
We are still inclined to all evil (HC LD 23 QA 60). But we more and more hate our sin and flee from it (HC LD 33 QA 89-90). Yet, in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience (HC LD 44 QA 114).
God sees us in Christ. This means that the redemptive work of Christ stands between God and us. Christ is our surety! However, we should not say that there is no longer any trace of sin in our heart or conscience. We know better than that.
Dr. Burger’s ideas are not new. Much is recognizable from N.T. (Tom) Wright (see the articles written about him on this website). Burger’s essay in Cruciaal also does not give a surprising significance to Jesus’ crucifixion – and certainly not in a positive sense. It is particularly disturbing that also in the GKV, there is a distancing from the idea of propitiatory atonement, by which, in effect, man is once again given over to himself.
In conclusion, it will be clear that we believe this to be a crucially important matter. And we wonder: before the publication of Cruciaal, did Dr. Burger disclose his ideas (which diverge from the confessions) to the ecclesiastical assemblies in the proper ecclesiastical way?
 Cruciaal, (Buijten & Schipperheijn, 2014). ISBN 978-90-5881-810-2.
 Quotations from the Heidelberg Catechism come from the Book of Praise (Premier, 2014).