Happy Birthday, Confession of Faith (aka “Netherlands Confession” and “Belgic Confession”) esteemed firstborn of the Reformed family’s confessions. We commemorate the year of your birth—written as you were in 1561 and soon adopted into the Reformed family by our fathers in the nether lands. In 2011, you have now lived ten times longer than your author, martyred as he was at the youthful age of 45, in part because of you. What place his martyrdom had in the providence of God to endear you to us, God may show us some day. But we confess (by your lead), that “nothing happens in this world without God’s appointment,” and “with greatest humility and reverence…adore God’s righteous judgments, which are hid from us” (BC Art. 13).
With other Reformed churches we commemorate this 450th year of your birth, with denominations in America and Europe and all the other continents in God’s “elegant” (BC Art. 2) creation. Our reformation cousins in Presbyterianism—part of the “one catholic or universal Church” (Art. 27)—rejoice with us, as they recognize both your beauty and the influence you had on their great standards of Westminster, almost 100 years younger than you. But you are our confession, along with the preachable Heidelberg Catechism and the pastoral Canons of Dordt.
We publicly celebrate your birthday, not because we are proud owners of some antique—to call you that would be to insult you—but because we have in you a God-given treasure. We thank God for your help in confessing our faith according to “His holy and divine Word” (Art. 2).
In commemoration of this celebration and special issue, I read through the Confession in one sitting, twice—in two different translations. Like other Reformed preachers, I am as familiar with this creed as I am with the Heidelberg (for preaching) and the Canons (for its pastoral approach to the “doctrines of grace”). And I love it as much. But as I read the Belgic Confession again and contemplated its place in the churches, I was renewed in esteem for our creeds generally. Creeds define us. They give substance to our identity as “Reformed.” We are not interested so much in what identifies a Calvinist (a common, but unprofitable debate) as in what makes one Reformed. And whatever others may say, we say that central to being Reformed is being confessional—adopting and using the Reformation creeds.
The confessions are the official testimony of what we “believe with the heart and confess with the mouth” (Art. 1). What we believe is not to be found in Bavinck or Hoeksema, but in the confessions, and in very few places more succinctly and clearly than in the Belgic Confession. What binds us officebearers is not some unspoken promise to uphold the notions of this or that great theologian, but the written pledge to uphold the creeds. If someone asks me what I believe, I may give my personal testimony and refer to favorite Bible passages; but my answer ought never omit reference to our confessions. True, we do not “consider any writing of men of equal value with the divine Scriptures” (BC Art. 7). Yet the confessions are our public and official testimony of what we believe Scripture teaches.
The Value of the Confession
The unique value of the Belgic Confession for us begins there: it is a simple and clear testimony of our faith. Guido de Bres wrote the confession because he wanted the people of God to testify the gospel to their neighbors. In the original introduction to the creed, de Bres quoted three Bible passages that speak of witnessing, and then added, “according to which all believers are exhorted to make confession of their faith before men.” Then, as the creed was adopted officially by the churches in the Netherlands, it became the Church’s Witness to the World, as Rev. P.Y. DeJong entitled his worthwhile commentary on the creed. The creed is our answer to the question, “What do you believe?” which is why almost every article begins with some variation of, “We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that…” (BC Art. 1).
The unique value of the Belgic Confession includes itssystematic treatment of a full range of doctrines, following the traditional division of “God, Man, Christ, Salvation, Church, Last Things.” Although we might wish the creed were more complete in its treatment of some doctrines (eschatology, predestination, and the covenant, for example), it is surprisingly complete in so many other areas: Scripture (Arts. 1-7); the Trinity (Arts. 8-11); Creation, Providence, the Fall, and Sin (Arts. 12-15); Faith, Justification, Sanctification (Arts. 22-25); even the Church and Church Government (Arts. 27-35).
The Belgic Confession’s value includes its exemplary polemics. I say exemplary because not all polemics are to be emulated. The Confession’s approach is instructive.
First, the creed boldly opposes errors, mostly of Roman Catholicism. Reformed believers are unafraid to say what may later be used against them, even to ‘prove’ their worthiness of death. de Bres’ explicit confession of the truth and condemnation of error—of the necessity of joining the true church, “even though the magistrates and edicts of princes [are] against it” (Art. 28)—brought the Roman Catholic hang-man’s noose around his neck. With thousands of his friends and colleagues, he was bold to speak for truth and against error even if they “should suffer death or any other corporal punishment” (Art. 28).
What also makes the polemics exemplary is the willingness to expose errors on more than one front. Some enthusiastic ecclesiastical warriors content themselves to rage against one enemy while ignoring another, either afraid of consequences or (as likely) unwilling to own up to the fault toward which they may lean. But this creed turns from left to right, and does battle against the Anabaptists too—their revolutionary spirit, their inclinations to communism, their unwillingness to baptize infants of believers, etc.
The exemplary nature of the polemics is, third, its willingness to be positive as much as possible, indirect in criticism at other times, and vehement (even violent) when necessary. We are all aware of the explicit and offensive references to “the Jews, Mohammedans, and some false Christians and heretics” (regarding denial of the Trinity), the rejection and abhorrence of the error “of the Manichees” (regarding the origin of evil), the “damnable error of the Epicureans,” the “error of the Pelagians,” and others like this. But a thoughtful reading of the creed will reveal how many times restraint was used when one might have expected a blast. I think of the delightful Article 26 describing Christ as our intercessor: “…this Mediator, whom the Father has appointed between Him and us, ought in no wise to affright us by His majesty, or cause us to seek another according to our fancy. For there is no creature either in heaven or on earth who loveth us more than Jesus Christ….” And the article ends with the penetrating question, obvious but not explicit in its antithetical nature: “To what purpose should we then seek another advocate, since it has pleased God to give us His own Son as an advocate?” At places where one would expect an all-out assault, there is restraint. “We are satisfied,” the Confession says with some softness, “with the number of sacraments…which are two only” (Art. 33). Without mentioning purgatory, that damnable doctrine, does not the Confession nevertheless allude to it when it confesses that “Christ poured out His precious blood to purge away our sins” (Art. 21)?
The final value of the creed I mention here is itsbreadth of expression. I sometimes sense that this breadth is not always known or appreciated among us, but it is the proper expression of the Reformed faith. The language of the creeds ought to be our language, fully. Avoiding error, we avoid also the error of incompleteness, an inability or unwillingness to confess what our fathers confessed and use the language they used—all of it—lest we be less than Reformed. Let me give some examples, in no particular order. (The examples themselves indicate the narrowness that pastors sometimes find among members trying to be “righteous over much.”) 1. God’s will and permission regarding evil (Art. 13). 2. Angels are God’s messengers who serve His elect (they stilldo); and the devils expect their horrible torments daily(Art. 12). 3. We have permission to read and take profit from the apocryphal books, with limits (Art. 6). 4. Christians know the truth of the Trinity in part from what they feel within themselves (Art. 9). 5. God promised Adam that He “would make him happy.” Happy! (Art. 12). 6. Regarding salvation in Jesus Christ, we “embrace” Jesus, we “possess Jesus Christ,” we “receive” Jesus Christ, we “apply and receive Christ” to ourselves (Arts. 23, 29, 35). 7. We “do good works,” and our works are “good and acceptable in the sight of God.” A working faith “excites us to practice good works.” I am no longer a slave to sin, but “freed from the bondage of sin” (Art. 24). With due care and the necessary cautions, our young people ought to be taught to use, and not be afraid of such language. Our Confession teaches us to use it.
Maintaining the Belgic Confession
Ah, the use of it! We must use the Confession! One church historian worth reading compared the churches creeds to CDs. Stored, CDs do nothing. They can be handed down from parents to children without ever being used or heard. What worth are they? But put them in a player and immediately they become powerful—the beautiful sounds come forth. Confessions are like that. They have value only as they are “played,” that is, as we use them. Pass them on to the coming generations, so that the church’s children may hear the beautiful confession the church proclaims.
First, consistory members who promise to teach, defend, and reject errors that militate against earth the confessions, ought to be fully conversant in the creeds. Each elder, deacon, and minister may ask himself when he last read through the creeds. How familiar is he with these documents he has so solemnly sworn to uphold? How important are they to him?
Second, the creeds should be taught. I have suggested on other occasions that the Belgic Confession ought to have a larger place in the instruction we give to our youth. How many of the young people know Hoeksema’s Essentials of Reformed Doctrine better than the church’s Belgic Confession? They should learn Reformed doctrinefrom our creeds. Not, of course, instead of“Essentials,” but “Essentials” through the creed(s). If that catechism book is ever revised, more attention can be given to the language and approach of this official statement of our faith.
Third, preachers do well to make reference to the other creeds in their Heidelberg Catechism preaching and in other sermons. The more the people of God become familiar with the comforting doctrine of all the confessions, the more they will be determined not to lose the creeds in their generations. Also, in the privacy of the study, many preachers have led the people of God to gospel assurance via the confessions. And how many pastors have not led newcomers to the faith through patient explanation of the gospel as it is outlined in the Belgic’s 37 articles?
Fourth, let us manifest unity with other Christians by means of the creeds: formal unity with churches of like faith, and informal unity as believers with other Christians. The Belgic Confession, remember, is the firstborn of the Three Forms of Unity, by which the Reformation churches not only expressed their unity, but sought out other Christians in the world. Can two walk together except they be agreed? What better way to show that unity than by agreeing on this venerable document?
Finally, let the creed more and more lead us to the Scriptures themselves, and to our great God and Savior revealed in the Scriptures. Let us never esteem the creeds more than we esteem their source, any more than we would esteem faith more than the Christ embraced by faith. Let the creed lead us to Christ, “true, eternal, and almighty God, whom we invoke, worship, and serve” (Art. 10). More and more, Christ’s Spirit will “kindle in our hearts an upright faith” (Art. 22), so that we are “new men” who live a “new life” (Art. 24), and reveal ourselves to the world by the “marks of Christians…we avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and our neighbor…and crucify the flesh with the works thereof” (Art. 29). When we find in ourselves “great infirmities,” we will “fight against them through the Spirit all the days of our lives, continually taking refuge in the blood, death, passion, and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Art. 29).
And “when the time appointed by the Lord (which is unknown to all creatures) is come, and the number of the elect complete, our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven… with great glory and majesty to declare Himself judge of the quick and the dead….” And after we have given “an account of every idle word [we] have spoken” and we find refuge in the blood of Christ, we will be “crowned with glory and honor; and the Son of God will confess our names before God His Father and the elect angels” (Art. 37).
If the Lord tarries, may our churches confess their faith in Him by this creed for another 450 years.