Belgic Confession

The Impossibility of Good Works Apart from Justification by Faith Alone (Belgic Confession Article 24)

It has been rightly said that faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone (i.e. sanctification and good works must necessarily follow). You can even go so far as to speak of the necessity of good works, although certainly not as the grounds or basis for our justification.

But have you ever considered the fact that good works are actually quite impossible apart from justification by faith alone? The first paragraph of Belgic Confession article 24 makes this abundantly clear:

“We believe that this true faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith working through love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.”

Here the Confession addresses one of the most common objections to the gospel of God’s free grace in Christ. People sometimes hear of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone (i.e. not by works), and conclude that if we are not saved by our works, and if salvation is really a free gift of God’s grace, then it does not matter how we live. Legalists will often go so far as to suggest that the gospel of free grace will invariably lead to licentiousness. (Paul addresses this same objection in Romans 6:1-14.)

In answer to this objection the Confession states,

“Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith working through love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.”

And so not only does justification by faith not lead to people being “remiss” or lacking in pious and holy living, but the Confession goes so far as to say that, “on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation.”

Justification by faith alone is the only real source of truly good (not perfect) works. Salvation by works (which is what every other religion in human history ultimately teaches) is really what results in the utter absence of good works, as truly good works are done of out a living faith and a true love for God, whereas the religion of works or legalism spurs people on to works “only out of self-love or fear of damnation.”

In the end all forms of works-based salvation (false gospels all) ironically end up destroying or preventing the very possibility of good works, while only the free grace of the gospel and justification by faith alone can ever truly lead to good works, which must be done out of love to God.

Another way of saying that is to say that good works are utterly impossible for us outside of justification by faith alone.

 

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The Belgic Confession – Article 7 (The Sufficiency of Scripture)

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.

Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all: for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore, we reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us, saying, Prove the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: if anyone comes unto you, and brings not this teaching, receive him not into your house. (Belgic Confession, Article 7)

The Sufficiency of Scripture for Faith and Practice

Article 7 of the Belgic Confession deals with the sufficiency of Scripture. It states that the Scriptures alone “fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein.”

To say that the Scriptures “fully contain the will of God” is to say that nothing that we need for faith or practice is lacking in it, and so nothing may be added to or taken away from it. The Scriptures themselves teach this:

  • “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (2 Peter 1:3–4, ESV, Italics added)
  • “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:18–19, ESV, Italics added)

To say that the Scriptures “fully contain the will of God” is also to say that in the Bible God has revealed to us everything that we need to know about faith (what we are to believe) and practice (how we are to live). Similarly, the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (Q.3). These are the principal or primary aims and ends of Scripture.

  • The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;” (Psalm 19:7, ESV)
  • “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:32, ESV)
  • “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16–17, ESV)

This, however, does not mean that God has revealed everything that there is to know about everything, much less that the Scriptures are somehow encyclopedic in nature. There are many things that God has not revealed to us in the pages of Scripture:

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29, ESV)

Even the history (for example) that is contained in the Bible, while true & inerrant, is not exhaustive in nature – it is not intended to be. The Gospels do not tell us everything that we might want to know about Jesus. The Apostle John plainly states that if he were to have included everything that the Lord Jesus did, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). But the Scriptures do tell us everything that we need to know about the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be saved.

The Sufficiency of Scripture as Our Infallible Rule (or Standard)

Belgic Confession Article 6 dealt with the right way to view the Apocrypha – as non-canonical, extra-biblical writings that may be read and possibly even learned from, “so far as they agree with the canonical books,” but which are not authoritative, and must be judged according to the testimony of Scripture, which is our sole authority for faith and practice.

Here Article 7 similarly deals with how non-canonical, extra-biblical writings (as well as customs, councils, confessions, etc.) are to be viewed in light of the sufficiency of Scripture in particular. The Confession states:

“Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God . . . .”

All too often even when the authority of Scripture is affirmed, its sufficiency is either implicitly or explicitly denied. And so (to use the phrase from this Article) the Scriptures alone are to be our “infallible rule,” by which we are to test all things.

  • “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20–22, ESV)
  • “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1, ESV)

And so the ancient ecumenical creeds, and the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms (to name just a few examples), however true, useful, and helpful they may be, are not (and should never be) our ultimate standard for faith & practice. That is a place rightfully reserved for the Scriptures alone. They are subordinate standards, and must themselves even be tested by the Word of God.

The Belgic Confession – Article 6 (The Difference Between the Canonical and the Apocryphal Books)

We distinguish those sacred books from the apocryphal, viz: the third and fourth books of Esdras, the books of Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Jesus Sirach, Baruch, the Appendix to the book of Esther, the Song of the Three Children in the Furnace, the History of Susannah, of Bel and the Dragon, the prayer of Manasseh, and the two books of the Maccabees. All of which the Church may read and take instruction from, so far as they agree with the canonical books; but they are far from having such power and efficacy that we may from their testimony confirm any point of faith or of the Christian religion; much less may they be used to detract from the authority of the other, that is, the sacred books. (Belgic Confession, Article 6)

Article 6 of the Belgic Confession deals with the Apocryphal (i.e. non-canonical) books, and so clearly and explicitly distinguishes them from the canonical books.

Many in our day might see any discussion of the Apocrypha as unnecessary, or even as a waste of time, but surely it is significant that the authors of both of the most prominent Reformed confessions of faith that were produced in the 16th and 17th centuries (i.e. the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith) saw fit to include explicit statements on this very subject.

The Background of the Apocrypha

The apocryphal books were so named because the origin and authorship of these books was unknown.1 (The word “apocrypha” means “hidden”.) They were rejected as being non-canonical by the ancient church.

The apocryphal books were included in the Septuagint (LXX), which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures. The apocryphal books, however, were not included in the Hebrew Canon. When Jerome (347-420 A.D.) later translated the Septuagint into Latin, he then included the apocryphal books as well.

The apocryphal books later came to be accepted as canonical by both the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Eastern Orthodox Church. In fact, the Council of Trent (1546) went so far as to declare that anyone who failed to receive the apocryphal books as holy and canonical “as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately condemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema” (i.e. accursed or condemned).

The Rejection of the Apocrypha

The Protestant Reformers, following the lead of the history of the early church, rejected the Apocryphal books, and made a clear distinction between them and the canonical books. The first part of this Article’s statement on the Canon says, “We distinguish those sacred books from the apocryphal . . . .” And for the sake of clarity the Confession lists both the canonical books (Article 4) as well as the apocryphal or non-canonical books (Article 6).

The reasons for the rejection of the Apocrypha are many. First, they were not considered to be a part of the Hebrew canon. Their origin was some time after the writing of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. Not only that, but the apocryphal books were also not accepted as being canonical by the ancient church.

with-heart-and-mouthNot only was the authorship and origin of the apocryphal books in question, but their content was found to contain blatant historical inaccuracies and theological errors that contradicted the teachings of Scripture. Daniel R. Hyde notes:

“Finally, the basis for the doctrine of purgatory is supposedly found in the words of 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, which mentions prayer for the dead (v.44).”2

Seeing that the Roman Catholic church uses these non-canonical books to establish or support unbiblical doctrines and practices serves to show why this issue was found to be important enough to be included as one of the articles of faith in the Belgic Confession (as well as the Westminster Confession of Faith – 1.3).

The Use of the Apocrypha

Article 6 of the Belgic Confession, despite explicitly rejecting the apocryphal books as being non-canonical, nevertheless does not forbid or prohibit the church from using them. It goes on to state:

“All of which the Church may read and take instruction from, so far as they agree with the canonical books; but they are far from having such power and efficacy that we may from their testimony confirm any point of faith or of the Christian religion; much less may they be used to detract from the authority of the other, that is, the sacred books.”

So, according to the Belgic Confession, we may read them and even”take instruction from” them, but only as they are found to be in agreement with the teachings of Scripture. No point of doctrine may be established or confirmed by them (e.g. purgatory), nor are we to view them as authoritative. Whenever their teachings are found to contradict those of Scripture, those teachings of the Apocrypha must be rejected.

Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith states:

“The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.” (1.3)

And so it is clear that we are to view the apocryphal books as not being inspired or canonical, but simply as any other merely human (and so fallible) writings. That means that we may certainly read them, and at times may even learn from them. But when all is said and done, they must be carefully weighed and judged according to the Scriptures themselves, which are our only inspired and authoritative rule for faith and practice.

1  See With Heart and Mouth, p.90.

2 Ibid, p.98

The Belgic Confession – Article 5 (The Authority of Scripture)

We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith; believing without any doubt all things contained in them, not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled. (Belgic Confession, Article 5)

bible-808633_1280The Authority of Scripture

Article 5 deals with the Authority of Holy Scripture. Only the canonical books (see Belgic Confession Article 4) are the final standard & authority “for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith.” The Westminster Confession of Faith likewise also affirms this, saying that only the canonical books of Scripture “are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life” (1.2).

The ancient ecumenical creeds (such as the Apostles’ Creed) and Reformed confessions (such as the Belgic Confession) are not our final or ultimate authority for faith and practice. Rather, they are what we would call “subordinate standards.” That is, they are subordinate to Scripture. And that is because the Scriptures alone are the very Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

The Source of the Authority of Scripture

The authority of Scripture is often called the “formative principle” of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, in distinction from its “material principle,” which was justification by faith alone. The surface issue (so to speak) that was debated was justification, while the foundational concern underlying that debate was the issue of the authority of Scripture.

Where does Scripture derive its authority from, and why does it matter? Another way of framing this question would be to ask, which comes first, the church or the canon of Scripture? Does the church create or decide the canon of Scripture, or does the canon of Scripture create the church? The official Roman Catholic position is that the church decided or determined the canon of Scripture. In stark contrast to that, the Reformed faith has instead taught that the church is founded upon the Scriptures, rather than vice-versa.

The Scriptures themselves teach this very thing:

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2:19–21, ESV, Italics added)

That is why article 5 (above) states that we receive and believe the Scriptures to be holy, canonical, and authoritative, “not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such” (the Roman Catholic position), but rather because she recognizes them as the Word of God.

Of this subject John Calvin writes,

“Many people commit the fatal error of believing that Scripture has only such value as the church agrees to accord it, as if God’s eternal and inviolable truth depended on men’s good pleasure!”1

And again:

“So when the church receives and assents to Scripture, it does not confer authenticity on what was before doubtful or uncertain. Because it acknowledges it to be its Lord’s truth, it at once reveres it, as indeed it should.”2

Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith states:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” (1.4)

We must reject any teaching that implies, affirms, or otherwise states that it is somehow the church that confers authority upon the Scriptures. This is to get things quite backward.

The Proof of the Authority of the Scriptures

The Belgic Confession specifies two (2) reasons3 or proofs as to why we receive and believe the Scriptures as being the authoritative Word of God:

“ . . . but more especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.”

The first reason given here is the inner witness or testimony of the Holy Spirit Himself. It is the Spirit of God (the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures – 2 Peter 1:20-21) who “witnesses in our hearts that they are from God,” leading us to recognize the voice of God in the Scriptures.

Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith states:

“ . . . yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. ” (1.5)

Ultimately we believe that the Scriptures are the Word of God, and receive them as such precisely because that is what they, in fact, are, and because the Author of the Scriptures attests to them as being His Word. The Apostle Paul says this very thing in one of his epistles to the church at Thessalonica:

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13, ESV, italics added)

The second reason given here is the self-evidencing nature of the Scriptures. The Confession adds that we also receive and believe the Scriptures as the Word of God, not only because of the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, but “because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith again likewise states:

“And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God . . . .”

The Scriptures themselves are their own best evidence and self-authentication. The fulfillment of prophecy, the truthfulness of the Scriptures, the “consent of all the parts” – how the Bible not only does not contradict itself, but rather speaks with a united voice, despite being comprised of 66 different books, having been written over a period of over 1,500 years by approximately 40 human authors, in different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), on different continents, and in varying circumstances and cultural settings.

The Bible has been described as ‘an anvil that has worn out many hammers.’ It has withstood the constant attacks of skeptics and atheists alike down through the centuries. God has supernaturally preserved His Word to this very day, and that will never change.

The message of the Bible, primarily being centered on the promise of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 24:27) has saved and transformed an untold multitude of sinners, and will no doubt continue to do so (Revelation 7:9). And that is because it is the Word of God and the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16), which never returns to God void, but always accomplishes His will (Isaiah 55:8-11).

The best cure for doubt or skepticism regarding the Bible is to read the Bible. If someone persists in unbelief or skepticism, it is not for a lack of evidence to the truthfulness of Scripture, as the Belgic Confession puts it, “For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.”

1 Institutes of the Christian Religion (Translated from the first French edition of 1541), p.18

2 Ibid., p.19

3 Daniel R. Hyde, With Heart and Mouth, p.84

The Belgic Confession – Article 4 (The Canon of Scripture)

“We believe that the Holy Scriptures are contained in two books, namely, the Old and the New Testament, which are canonical, against which nothing can be alleged. These are thus named in the Church of God.

“The books of the Old Testament are the five books of Moses, to wit: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; the book of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, the two books of Samuel, the two of the Kings, two books of the Chronicles, commonly called Paralipomenon, the first of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther; Job, the Psalms of David, the three books of Solomon, namely, the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs; the four great prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel; and the twelve lesser prophets, namely, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

“Those of the New Testament are the four evangelists, to wit: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the Acts of the Apostles; the fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul, namely, one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Galatians, one to the Ephesians, one to the Philippians, one to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, two to Timothy, one to Titus, one to Philemon, and one to the Hebrews; the seven epistles of the other apostles, namely, one of James, two of Peter, three of John, one of Jude; and the Revelation of the apostle John.” (The Belgic Confession, Article 4)

The Canon of Scripture

Article 4 of the Belgic Confession deals with a subject that many (perhaps most) of us give little or no thought to – the Canon of Scripture. As Article 3 of the Belgic Confession dealt with the written Word of God and the inspiration of Scripture, the next logical thing to deal with is the canon of Scripture (i.e. which books are included as the inspired Word of God).

The word “canon” means a rule or a standard. (This is also the use or meaning of this term in the “Canons of Dort.”) The canonical books (and only the canonical books) are the inspired Word of God, and so are our only rule for faith and practice.

Both the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith1 include a list of Canonical books. We might be tempted to think that this is superfluous or unnecessary. (If we were to draw up our own confession of faith today, would we even think to include it?) But considering the historical context in which they were written (the 16th century Protestant Reformation), it should not be surprising to see the need for such confessional statements on the canonical books. And we no doubt still need that same clarity regarding the canonical books today.

with-heart-and-mouthIn his book, With Heart and Mouth, Daniel Hyde writes,

“The Confession lists the canonical books in opposition to Roman Catholicism (as well as Greek Orthodoxy), which added the Apocrypha to the Old Testament and regarded the tradition of the church as authoritative.” (p.76)

And so we see that the underlying issue regarding the idea of the Canon is the question of authority. (That subject is dealt with more directly in Article 5.)

The first part of this Article’s statement on the Canon says,

“We believe that the Holy Scriptures are contained in two books, namely the Old and the New Testament, which are canonical, against which nothing can be alleged. These are thus named in the Church of God.”

This is simply affirming that the list of canonical books that are included here is nothing new or controversial, but is the same list and number of books that the church down through the centuries has always held to be the canon of Scripture. Again, the writers of the Confession are seeking to demonstrate commonality and unity with the faith of the church throughout its history, not to innovate.

The Old Testament

Of the Old Testament the Belgic Confession lists the same books, in order, that we have in our Bibles today. When it speaks of “the two books of the Chronicles” as being “commonly called Paralipomenon,” that means that those two books were sometimes known as “Paralipomenon,” which is a Greek term that means “things left over” or “things omitted.” In some sense 1 & 2 Chronicles were thought of as containing details that had been left out of the books of 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings.

The book of Psalms is here referred to as “the Psalms of David.” This does not necessarily mean that the Confession teaches that David himself is, in fact, the human author of all the Psalms, but the book itself was commonly associated with his name.

The book of Lamentations is not explicitly listed by name here, but rather is included as part of the writings of Jeremiah. The Confession here lists the names of “the four great prophets” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) themselves, rather than the names of the books written by them.

The New Testament

There is nothing unusual about the list of books included in the New Testament here. The only thing of note that one might find interesting is that the Confession here speaks of the book of Hebrews as being one of the epistles of the Apostle Paul! This was not an uncommon view in the history of the church, although it is far less common today. (Either way, the book of Hebrews has always been held to be canonical, even if anonymously written.)

When the Article 4 speaks of “the other apostles,” and includes James and Jude, it is not mistakenly including them as if they were included among the original 12 apostles & Paul, but rather that the books which were written by them were apostolic in nature, and therefore received as canonical by the church through her history.

The next two (2) Articles in the Confession deal specifically with the authority of the Scriptures (Article 5), as well as how we are to view the non-canonical books (i.e. the Apocrypha – Article 6).

1 The Westminster Confession of Faith lists the books that do (1.2) and don’t (1.3) belong to the Canon of Scripture.

THE BELGIC CONFESSION – ARTICLE 3 (The Written Word of God)

“We confess that this Word of God was not sent nor delivered by the will of man, but that men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit, as the apostle Peter says; and that afterwards God, from a special care which He has for us and our salvation, commanded His servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit His revealed word to writing; and He Himself wrote with His own finger the two tables of the law. Therefore we call such writings holy and divine Scriptures.” (The Belgic Confession, Article 3)

Article 3 of the Belgic Confession deals with the written Word of God. It answers the following questions: How are we to view the Scriptures? What is their source – are they from man or from God?

The Inspiration of Scripture

This article expands upon what was said in the previous article about God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture (special revelation). The primary thing that this article affirms and teaches is the inspiration of the Scriptures. Notice that in doing so the writer of the Confession borrows the language of 1 Peter 1:19-21 (specifically v.21):

“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (ESV)

The passage in 2 Peter (above) more or less describes the process involved in the inspiration of the Scriptures – it was not the product of “the will of man,” but rather “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (v.21). Men (the prophets and apostles) spoke or even wrote from God as they were moved or “carried along” by the Holy Spirit.

We get the word “inspiration” (or “breathed out”) from 2 Timothy 3:16, where the Apostle Paul writes,

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness . . . .” (ESV)

To say that all Scripture is “inspired” (or “given by inspiration of God” – NKJV) does not mean that the writers of Scripture were simply inspired the way an artist might speak of feeling inspired by a sunset or something like that. Rather, to say that the Scriptures are “God-breathed” means that God Himself is ultimately and primarily the one doing the speaking in the Scriptures. In other words, the Scriptures are the very Word of God!

Not only that, but the Apostles clearly viewed each other’s writings as Scripture. For example,  the Apostle Peter writes,

“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:15-16, ESV)

So the Apostle Peter speaks of the letters of the Apostle Paul being included in the Scriptures. For Peter to say this so early on in the history of the church shows that the apostles were self-aware of what God was doing in speaking & writing through them.

Having established the inspiration of the Scriptures in this Article, the Confession next goes on to deal with the canon of Scripture (Article 4), the authority of the Scriptures (Article 5), the Apocrypha or non-canonical books (Article 6), and the sufficiency of Scripture (Article 7).

Of course, it is the inspiration of the Scriptures that sets them apart from all other writings, gives them divine authority as the very Word of God, and assures us of their sufficiency for our faith and life.

The Belgic Confession – Article 2 (General & Special Revelation)

We know Him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says (Romans 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation. (Belgic Confession, Article 2)

How is it possible for us to know God? What must happen in order for us (as creatures and as sinners) to know God?

Article 2 of the Confession speak of two “means” (or ways) by which we know God – the “most elegant book” of nature (i.e. God’s creation & providence), and the book of Scripture. These are often referred to as general and special revelation.

General Revelation

According to the Belgic Confession, there are two “books,” so to speak, by which we know God. The first is what is often referred to as “general revelation.” This consists of the universe itself, including (as the Confession puts it) its “creation, preservation, and government.”

The Confession holds that both Creation (See also Article 12.) and Providence (See also Article 13.) are means by which God reveals Himself to us. These things testify to God’s “everlasting power and divinity.” The Scriptures plainly teach this in both the Old and New Testaments:

  • “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. here is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world . . . .” (Psalm 19:1–4, ESV)
  • For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20, ESV)

As Daniel Hyde notes,

“The Confession follows the apostle in saying that this knowledge of God in creation, providence, and governance is of God as our creator. The content, then, of general revelation is not of God as redeemer but simply as the wise, eternal, powerful, and creative God that he is.” (With Heart and Mouth, p.57)

So the knowledge of God that we have in that “most elegant book” of nature is sufficient to render all of mankind “without excuse” (Romans 1:20) for our sin and rebellion against our Creator. But the gospel is not found there. That is where the second book comes in – the Bible. This is often referred to as “special revelation” (as distinct from general revelation).

Special Revelation

Special revelation refers to God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture. The word “special” here is used in the sense of being more specific, clear, and explicit.

Note that the Belgic Confession states that God reveals Himself “more clearly and fully” in Scripture (“His holy and divine Word”), so the Scriptures are primary. The Scriptures are more clear (or perspicuous) and more complete in revealing God to us. Both are true, but Scripture must be primary. Our reading or understanding of God in the “book” of nature must be informed or guided by the book of the Scriptures.

And, most importantly, it is only in the Scriptures that God makes Himself known to us, not just as Creator, but also as Redeemer in Jesus Christ. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it:

“Q. 2. How does it appear that there is a God? A. The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God; but his word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation.”

The Scriptures, of course, bear this out:

  • “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:20-21, ESV)
  • “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:15-17, ESV)

Belgic Confession Articles 2-7 all basically deal with the doctrine of Scripture (i.e. what Scripture says about itself & how we are to view the Scriptures as the Word of God). Considering the fact that there are only 37 Articles (points of doctrine) in the Confession, we can see how important and foundational a right view of Scripture was thought to be in the life of every believer, and in the life of the church.

Not only that, but the Confession focuses our attention squarely on the doctrine of Scripture even before resuming its handling of the doctrine of God (including the doctrines of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the deity of the Holy Spirit, etc.) in Articles 8-13.

Clearly the writer of the Confession held that a firm grasp of the doctrine of Scripture (i.e. having a right view of the Scriptures as being the very Word of God), was (and still is) essential to a proper affirmation and grasp of a great many other doctrines taught in Scripture (such as the Trinity, for example). And so the Confession takes its time firmly establishing the doctrine of Scripture first, before dealing with anything else.