The Sad Case of Bert Zandstra

Bert Zandstra is a 30-year old adulterer.

Married with three little children, he fell in love with a younger woman. He then abandoned his wife and children, to live with his lover. Within a year, he divorced his wife and married the object of his lust. Whether she too had been married and had children, so that Bert Zandstra destroyed two families in his passion, is not clear. It makes no difference to the story.

Bert Zandstra’s is a sad case.

What makes his case still sadder is that Bert Zandstra sinned against better knowledge. He was a church member. He was member of a Reformed church. The church is conservative. It claims to be a true church of Jesus Christ, based solidly on the “Three Forms of Unity,” if not the only true church. When Bert Zandstra left his family, to take up with his paramour, the consistory admonished him. He quickly left the church, asking for his membership papers.

Zandstra moved to a town some 60 miles from his old home and church. There within a year he married his new wife and set about making a new start in life. This included church life. Bert and the new Mrs. Zandstra began attending regularly the Reformed church in town. It is a congregation in the same denomination as the church that Bert left a year earlier. It is a sister church in the federation with the church 60 miles away of which the original Mrs. Zandstra is a member with her, and Bert’s, children. Soon Bert and his second wife appeared at the consistory meeting asking to be admitted to the church as members in good standing.

Now the sad case of Bert Zandstra becomes tragic.

The Reformed church accepted Mr. and Mrs. Bert Zandstra as members. It worked with them first, especially Bert. It charged him with sin and required confession. It looked for evidence of sorrow in Bert’s attitude. Bert even came to cry some tears over what he had done a year or two earlier. The church forgave him in the name of Jesus. The consistory had him write a letter to his first wife, expressing that he was sorry that he had sinned against her and asking for her forgiveness. In a postscript, the letter added that one day, when the children had grown up, Bert would also confess to them. On a certain Sunday morning, the minister read an announcement to the congregation, informing them of Bert’s repentance and of the admission of him and his new wife to the fellowship of the church.

Why, then, some will ask, is this a sad case?

Bert and the second Mrs. Zandstra are happy, are they not? They are now good church members, are they not? There is already talk that Bert may be deacon, even elder, someday. Has not the church earnestly worked for repentance? Did not Bert show sorrow to the point of tears? Who dares to speak of a sad case?

Yes, there are, unfortunately, the original Mrs. Zandstra, now alone, and three children growing up without a father. It could be wished that this were different. But that is the way life is: there are hardships. And life must go on.

Nevertheless, the case of Bert Zandstra is a sad case. Nor is this merely a personal opinion. It is the judgment of God upon this case and all who are involved, with the exception of the original, and true, Mrs. Zandstra and her children. This is the judgment of God in His Word, which will stand regardless of the contrary words of Bert Zandstra and of the Reformed churches that are conniving at his sin.

Bert Zandstra is an adulterer, an impenitent adulterer, according to God’s Word: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her” (Mark 10:11). So also is his new wife: “. . . and whosoever shall marry her (or him) that is divorced committeth adultery” (Matt. 5:32b). No adulterer or adulteress will inherit the kingdom of God (I Cor. 6:9; Gal. 5: 19-21).

The Reformed church that has admitted him and his new wife to the fellowship of the congregation has admitted a man and a woman to the Lord’s Table who by their life “declare themselves unbelieving and ungodly,” to use the language of Q. 82 of the Heidelberg Catechism. The consistory has profaned the covenant and brought the wrath of God down upon the whole congregation (Heid. Cat., Q. 82). The denomination that tolerates and approves such wicked behavior on the part of a member and on the part of a local church shares in the guilt and exposes itself to the divine judgment. One certain, dreadful aspect of the divine judgment will be that the number of Bert Zandstras in the church will increase and multiply (I Cor. 5:6).

Bert Zandstra is fictitious. He represents real men (and women), as his case represents real cases, in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”). But he is imaginary. The editor of the church paper of this denomination, De Reformatie, invented him so that the editor could write about such real cases in his churches in a concrete, vivid way. In three articles in De Reformatie, under the rubric, “Church Life,” Prof. Dr. M. te Velde urged the readmittance of such as Bert Zandstra into the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”) in the way outlined above (see De Ref., 18 Mei; 25 Mei; and 1 Juni 1996).

We recognize that the editor of De Reformatie is concerned lest readmittance of the Bert Zandstras become too easy. He fears that the churches are, in fact, accepting the Bert Zandstras without confession of sin and reconciliation. He has good and important things to say about the need today for ministers to preach sharply against divorce. He calls on the members of the congregation to pray for and talk to married persons whose marriages are troubled. But in the end, he and his churches take Bert Zandstra back, remarried.

This is a sad case.

It is a sad case, first, because of the nature of the sin. Divorcing his wife and abandoning his children, the adulterer broke the vow that he made to God at his marriage and the vow, thrice repeated, that he made to God at the baptism of his children. Divorcing his wife, he not only cruelly injures her but also likely causes her to commit adultery, and perish everlastingly, as Christ teaches in Matthew 5:32. For now it is likely that she will remarry, “and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” He himself tramples upon that ordinance of God that is fundamental both to society and to the church and that has the glorious significance that it symbolizes the covenant of God with His people in Christ (Ezek. 16; Eph. 5:22ff.). He dishonors God, and he hates his nearest neighbors, his own wife and children.

It is a sad case, second, because of the faulty handling of the case, church politically. Bert Zandstra is allowed to seek readmission to the denomination in another congregation (hypothetically, Boshuizen) than the congregation that he left (hypothetically, Hoogbergen). This is permitted by the church, even though he lives only 60 miles from the church that he left. But there in Hoogbergen are the elders who knew his case well and who worked with him when he fell into sin. There is the body of Christ that he offended and then forsook. The autonomy of the local church and, with this, the Dordt church order’s prohibition against one church’s lording it over another church demand that a penitent Zandstra betake himself to the church which he left, when he seeks readmission.

It is a sad case, third, because the gospel-grace of repentance is corrupted both by Bert Zandstra and by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”). Repentance is not mere acknowledgment, under pressure, that one has sinned, not even when the confession is made public. Nor is repentance a mere feeling of sorrow, not even when this feeling produces a few tears. (After all, even Bert Zandstra, before he falls pleasurably off to sleep in the arms of his young wife, must have a fleeting thought of the real Mrs. Zandstra, crying alone in her bed, as well as of three little children without a father.) Repentance is heartfelt sorrow over one’s sin against God that turns in abhorrence from that sin. The penitent sinner turns from his sin to God, not only as one seeking forgiveness but also as one fleeing his sin, resolved to live now according to the will of God (Heid. Cat., LD 33).

The repentance of a man who says, “I am sorry,” while living deliberately and contentedly in his sin is hypocrisy. It is disgusting to God. It meets with no forgiveness from Him, regardless what a church may say.

Let Bert Zandstra bring forth works worthy of repentance. These works are not that he lives faithfully with his new wife. These works are that he stop committing adultery with a woman who is not his lawful wife in the sight of God. The church must not brush this off by saying that once the man has remarried “the way of return to the first marriage has been cut off.” Perhaps this is so. But the way of breaking with his adulterous marriage has not been cut off. The church faithful to the Word of Jesus Christ will say to Bert Zandstra, “Are you truly repentant? Do you now indeed know your despicable sin against God, your wife, your children, and the woman to whom you are now married? Then you will no longer live with your new wife. This is part of genuine repentance, and the proof of the reality of it.”

The gospel is at stake here: the free grace of God in Jesus Christ that forgives sins and reconciles the sinner to God and the church is a grace bestowed and received only in the way of repentance. And repentance is such a sorrow over sin as breaks with the sin. Therefore, salvation is also at stake here. Bert Zandstra goes to hell, as does his new wife. Only now he goes merrily to hell, supposing that all is well with his soul. The Reformed church is responsible.

How frivolous Zandstra’s repentance really is comes out in his behavior toward his real wife and children. The church permits him to write his wife a letter confessing his sin against her. From 60 miles away, he writes her a letter! One imagines the letter:

Dear Mrs. Bert Zandstra,

This is to inform you that I am sorry that I sinned against you. Please forgive me. Tell the children that I am sorry.

Yours faithfully,

Bert

Were such a man sorry, truly sorry by the grace worked by the Spirit of Christ, he would crawl from Boshuizen to Hoogbergen on his hands and knees. He would confess to his wife and children to their faces in tears. He would assure them that he now finds it absolutely impossible to live with the other woman, as impossible as Christ finds it to live with another than His church. And he would plead with his wife to have him back, if she possibly could.

If the man sends a letter, his wife should throw it in the wastebasket unopened.

It is a sad case, fourth, because it shows that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”) have caved in to the world. They have caved in to the world, not in some incidental matter but in the fundamental matter of marriage. Marriage is basic to God’s continuing His covenant in the line of the generations of His chosen people. Marriage is the earthly symbol of God’s covenant with His people in Christ. The articles in De Reformatie make clear that the occasion for procedures to accept the Bert Zandstras and their new wives is an “epidemic” of divorces and remarriages in the churches. The churches become worldly. They cannot withstand the pressure of the godless, adulterous, faithless world. It is not so much that wicked members divorce and remarry as it is that the churches make their peace with the sin. They permit Bert Zandstra and his new wife to sit at the Lord’s Table. This is shame to the church. This is scandal to the saints. This is dishonor to God and His Christ.

If this is happening in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”), it is happening also in most of the other Reformed churches in the Netherlands.

It is happening in the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in the United States as well.

For the case of Bert Zandstra is sad, fifth, in that it shows the bitter fruit of the erroneous conception of marriage that has prevailed generally in the Reformed churches. This is the view of marriage as a contract that sin and sinners can break. Until recently, sounder Reformed and Presbyterian churches have restricted the right of divorce and remarriage to the “innocent party,” that is, the husband or wife whose mate has committed adultery. The churches have forbidden remarriage to the guilty party. They have not allowed the Bert Zandstras membership in their fellowship.

Now the churches approve the remarriage of the guilty party. Church membership is open to them. Men and women may divorce and remarry for any reason and be received as members in good standing in the congregations. This is actually what is going on in many, if not most, of the churches that loudly proclaim their conservatism. Many in our country do not write this for the public. They are not honest, as is the editor of De Reformatie. In their public utterances, they insist that only the “innocent” or “deserted” party may remarry. In the life of their churches, guilty parties—the Bert Zandstras—are received with their new mates. In this country too, it is now an epidemic.

This is what it comes to, when the church does not confess and practice the lifelong, unbreakable bond of marriage.

The sad case of Bert Zandstra.

—DJE