Rev. Daniel Kleyn, missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, stationed in Manila, Philippines

Previous article in this series: September 1, 2022, p. 472.

In our previous article we noted that when Reformed churches are criticized for a lack of missionary zeal, the blame is often directed against the Reformed creeds, and more specifically, against the Belgic Confession. The reason for the latter is because the Belgic Confession is the most comprehensive summary of Reformed doctrines, and the critics judge this defining creed to be deficient in the area of missions. In fact, some will even say the Belgic Confession hinders mission work because the creed is overly doctrinal and overly polemical. The claim is that doctrine, and thus also the confessions, are antithetical to and thus do not aid the spread of the gospel. The Reformed creeds are considered a hindrance to missions—documents that squelch missionary zeal.

These accusations are thoroughly false. The Reformed creeds are not a liability to missions, but an asset. And that is especially true of the Belgic Confession. In numerous ways this creed demonstrates a missionary awareness and specifically addresses the church concerning her calling to bring the gospel to all the nations of the world.

In this article we hope to see that the missionary character of the Belgic Confession is evident, first of all, from the history surrounding the writing of this creed, and specifically from the purposes for which it was written.

The Belgic Confession was written at a time when Reformed churches and believers were severely persecuted. The man behind that persecution was King Philip II of Spain. He considered himself a defender of the faith (the Roman Catholic faith) and was determined to do this by eradicating all heretics (all who opposed or differed from the Roman Catholic religion). He targeted the Reformed, considering them rebels and revolutionaries. Under these trying circumstances for the faithful, a pastor by the name of Guido de Brés composed, in 1561, the Belgic Confession of Faith.

One thing to keep in mind is that although Guido de Brés was its chief author, the creed was generally accepted among the Reformed at that time. This is indicated by its original subtitle, which states that it was “made with common consent (agreement) by the believers who are scattered throughout all the Netherlands.”1 It is also indicated by the opening words of Article 1 (which words are repeated throughout), namely, “We believe….” This confession was not merely the expression of the faith of one man, but it set forth (even prior to it being officially adopted in 1566) the faith of many Reformed believers and churches in the Netherlands.

One of the purposes de Brés had for writing the Belgic Confession was to present it to King Philip II. The goal was to demonstrate to the king, and thereby to all Roman Catholic authorities, that the Reformed believers were not rebels as charged, but law-abiding citizens. The aim was to persuade the authorities to be more tolerant toward the Reformed.

But that was not all. In addition to the goal of convincing the authorities concerning their legitimacy and pleading for fair treatment, de Brés and the Reformed churches also intended to give a witness to the authorities and to the Roman Catholic Church of the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This arose from the fact that they did not regard Roman Catholics as fellow Christians, but as those who were unfaithful and apostate. The Roman Catholic Church and her members were therefore legitimate objects of mission work. Rome consisted of those who had departed from the faith and were lost in unbelief. The Romish church and her members needed therefore to hear the true gospel of Christ.

That this was their perspective concerning Rome is clear from what was stated in the letter that accompanied the copy of the Belgic Confession that was given to King Philip II:

From this Confession we trust that you will see that we are wrongly called schismatics, promoters of disunity, rebels and heretics, for we not only uphold and profess the chief heads of the Christian faith, comprehended in the Symbol and Common Creed [the Apostles’ Creed], but also the whole teaching, revealed by Jesus Christ, for our life, justification, and salvation, proclaimed by the evangelists and apostles, sealed with the blood of so many martyrs and preserved true and complete by the primitive Church, until at length it was perverted through the ignorance, greed and ambition of the ministers, who have corrupted it with human inventions and traditions contrary to the purity of the gospel, by which our adversaries deny that it is the power of God for the salvation of all believers.2

Convinced that the Roman Catholic Church needed to hear the truth, the Reformed saw to it that the Roman Catholic rulers received the Belgic Confession. Soon after it was written, various copies were produced, and one was given to the Spanish king. This was done with a missionary purpose—that the king and all in the church of Rome might be instructed in the truth of Scripture, turn from their idolatry and wickedness, and heed the command to believe in and serve the only true God.

The Belgic Confession, along with the petition that was sent with it to the king, did not have the desired effect of persuading the authorities to be tolerant of the Reformed. The persecution continued. But this does not take away from the fact that the Reformed had a missionary purpose in writing and publishing this confession. Note the following:

Today, various kinds of documents—tracts and pamphlets, for example—have a missionary purpose.… We might be tempted to think that these sorts of publications are a modern phenomenon. Very few people pause to consider that missionary documents were also written and published during the Reformation. One of those is the Belgic Confession.3

This answers to the charge that is often leveled at the Reformation and at the Reformers that they lacked missionary zeal and were only interested in themselves. The fact that one of the purposes of the Belgic Confession was that it give a testimony to the Roman Catholic Church of the truths of the gospel shows that the Reformers were mission minded from the very outset. Through this confession, they sounded out the gospel truth to the ungodly and to those caught up in false religion.

This is supported by the fact that the Belgic Confession is a creed. The name “creed” literally means “I believe.” As the history of the writing and distribution of the Belgic Confession shows, the Reformed churches were making a public declaration of their beliefs. What leaves no doubt about this is the fact that the words “we believe” occur some 34 times in this creed, along with the fact that at least 30 articles (out of a total of 37) begin with those words.

What further confirms the missionary character of the Belgic Confession is that the early editions were accompanied by a small booklet in which de Brés, among other things, directed his readers to the duty of witnessing before men. He did so by quoting five passages of Scripture that address the missionary calling of the church, namely Matthew 10:32-33, Mark 8:38, I Peter 3:15, Romans 10:10, and II Timothy 2:12.4 This illustrates that the Reformed churches realized they were (so to speak) on a mission field, surrounded by many God-given opportunities to do mission work.

Next time, the Lord willing, we will explore the actual content of the Belgic Confession to learn even more concerning the missionary character and significance of this creed.

1 P. Y. De Jong, The Church’s Witness to the World (St. Catherines: Paideia Press, 1980), 33.

2 As cited in Daniel Hyde, With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession (Grandville: Reformed Fellowship, 2008), 502.

3 Wes Bredenhof, To Win Our Neighbors for Christ: The Missiology of the Three Forms of Unity (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 7.

4 P. Y. De Jong, The Church’s Witness, pp. 34-35.