Three Forms of Unity

The Belgic Confession (An Introduction)

A Brief History of the Belgic Confession

The Belgic Confession was written in A.D. 1561 (the better part of 100 years before the Westminster Confession of Faith). Its primary author was a man named Guido De Brès. De Brès was born around 1523 in the Netherlands, and was “educated in the Roman Church, and by diligent reading of the Scriptures converted to the evangelical faith.”1

After a period of exile from his home country, he became an itinerant evangelist in parts of Belgium and France. During a second exile, he “traveled to Lausanne, France, and then on to Geneva, Switzerland, where he studied under Theodore Beza and John Calvin.”2

with-heart-and-mouthHe was martyred, being executed by hanging in May of 1567 for his work in the gospel. Pastor and author Daniel Hyde notes,

“The Belgic Confession, then, contains doctrine worth dying for. This is not dramatic hyperbole, either. In fact, just having a copy of the Confession in your home during the sixteenth century meant certain death if the authorities caught you with it.”3

To borrow a line from Hebrews 11:4, “through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (ESV). It would be nearly impossible to overestimate the impact that this document has had all over the world for hundreds of years, despite its current neglect.

It has been said that the Belgic Confession gives evidence of being heavily influenced by at least two (2) sources, the French Confession of Faith4 (1559) and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.5 As to the former, there are parts of the Belgic Confession that follow it nearly word-for-word. Philip Schaff notes that “The Gallican Confession is a faithful summary of the doctrines of Calvin.”6

As for the latter, it has been observed that the Belgic Confession closely follows the outline and structure of the Institutes. Considering the fact that John Calvin was also involved in the formulation of the French Confession,7 his influence upon the Belgic Confession can hardly be overstated.

The Belgic Confession was officially adopted at a number of church synods, including the Synod of Dort (1619), the same synod where the Canons of Dort8 were adopted and ratified. Originally written in French, it was also translated into Dutch, German, and Latin.

The Contents of the Belgic Confession

The Belgic Confession consists of 37 “articles” or points of doctrine, and basically follows a systematic theological outline of sorts. Philip Schaff notes that, “It is, upon the whole, the best symbological statement of the Calvinistic system of doctrine, with the exception of the Westminster Confession.”9

Articles 1-7 deal with God (Article 1) and His revelation of Himself to us in Scripture. These articles deal with the doctrines of the inspiration of Scripture (Article 3), the Canon of Scripture (Articles 4-6), and the sufficiency and authority of Scripture as our only rule of faith and practice (Article 7).

Articles 8-13 deal with the doctrines of the Trinity (Articles 8-11), and God’s works of Creation (Article 12) and Providence (Article 13).

Articles 14-17 deal with the Fall of Man in Adam (Articles 14-15) and God’s plan of Redemption (Articles 16-17).

Articles 18-26 deal with the work of the Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ, including His incarnation (Articles 18-19) and satisfaction for our sins (Articles 20-21), justification through faith alone in Christ alone (Articles 22-23), sanctification (Article 24), the abrogation of the ceremonial law at the coming of Christ (Article 25), and Christ’s Session at the right hand of God (Article 26).

Articles 27-35 deal with the church of Jesus Christ, including such things as the definition of the church (Article 27), the marks of the true church (Article 29), the government of the church and her officers (Articles 30-32), and the Sacraments (Articles 33-35).

Articles 36-37 deal with matters of eschatology (the doctrine of the last things), including the proper relationship of the church to the state (Article 36), and the Return of the Lord Jesus Christ to judge the living and the dead (Article 37).

Many of these 37 articles are the better part of a full page in length, but the Confession nevertheless serves as a rather brief (even if not by today’s standards) summary of the Christian faith, especially that of Calvinism or the Reformed (Protestant) faith.

Being a confession of faith, and so intended as a consensus and confessional document, it is not given for the purpose of settling minute differences of opinion, nor does it go into great detail about debatable things (e.g. varying Reformed views on eschatology). These are things that all believers of the Reformed faith “believe with the heart and confess with the mouth” (Article 1). Each article begins with the phrase, “We believe . . . .”

1 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. I, p.504

3 With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession, p.2

4 Also known as the Gallic Confession of Faith.

5 With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession, p.20

6 The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. I, p.495

7 Philip Schaff notes that Calvin himself “prepared the first draft” of the Gallic Confession. (The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. I, p.493)

8 The Canons of Dort were formulated as a response to the Arminian teachings of a group called the Remonstrants. The Canons basically set forth in great detail what we now often refer to as the so-called five points of Calvinism. The Canons of Dort, along with the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, comprise what is known as the “Three Forms of Unity,” which are the doctrinal standards for the continental Reformed churches (much like the Westminster Standards are for the Presbyterian churches of the British Isles).

9 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. I, p.506

Teaching Election Properly (The Canons of Dort)

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It is often said that there is a right way to do things, and a wrong way to do things. And that is true even when it comes to how we are to teach and preach the doctrine of election.

The 1st point of doctrine in the Canons of Dort is “Divine Election and Reprobation.” It then further breaks out the various aspects of this point of doctrine into no less than 18 “articles” (or sub-points).  Article 14 is about the proper way to teach the doctrine of election.  It says,

As the doctrine of divine election by the most wise counsel of God was declared by the prophets, by Christ Himself, and by the Apostles, and is clearly revealed in the Scriptures both of the Old and the New Testament, so it is still to be published in due time and place in the Church of God, for which it was peculiarly designed, provided it be done with reverence, in the spirit of discretion and piety, for the glory of God’s most holy Name, and for the enlivening and comforting His people, without vainly attempting to investigate the secret ways of the Most High.

Notice that the first thing this article establishes is that the doctrine of election is thoroughly biblical, and so because of that it is most certainly to be taught. So the first thing about teaching the doctrine of election properly is, well, to teach it. It is to be taught. If we fail to teach it, we are failing to teach the whole counsel of God. If we fail to teach it we are failing to teach what was “declared by the prophets, by Christ Himself, and by the Apostles.”

The second thing we see in this article is that there is a proper time and place for teaching the doctrine of election.  It is still to be taught in the church of God. It is clearly taught in Scripture, and is clearly taught throughout Scripture, but it is not found in every text. If it is in the text, preach it, and preach it plainly. But don’t look for it under every bush, so to speak.

The third thing that this article tells us about the right way to teach the doctrine of election is that it is to be done “with reverence, in the spirit of discretion and piety.”  Election is an act of the grace and mercy of the most holy God in saving sinners, and so it should be preached in such a way that it reflects that truth properly. It should not be used as a means to show how wise or learned we are (or how foolish or unlearned those who disagree with us on this issue are).

It should also be taught “for the glory of God’s most holy Name.” At times the doctrine of election can be taught in such a way that the glory actually seems to go to us for having believed it properly or for teaching it unashamedly. (There is something highly ironic about someone being proud of a right understanding of God’s sovereign grace, isn’t there?) If we are guilty of that, we are not teaching the doctrine of election properly, not by a long shot. The doctrine of election, whereby God has chosen us in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4) is to be taught “to the praise of His glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6). This doctrine should lead to doxology!

The doctrine of election is also to be taught “for enlivening and comforting” God’s people.  In other words, for believers in Christ election and predestination have to do with comfort and assurance. If we are teaching election in such a way that we are in effect beating people over the head with it, we are doing something wrong. Genuine believers may find the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace confusing at times, but they should never find the manner of our preaching and teaching of it to be deflating or disturbing. It should be clear that we are seeking their growth in holiness and godly comfort in teaching it. If our teaching of election leads to laziness or discouragement, there is  something amiss.

The last thing that article 14 tells us is that we are to teach the doctrine of election, but not in such a way that we go beyond what the Scriptures actually tell us about it. We should not use it as a springboard to vainly attempt “to investigate the secret ways of the Most High.” This is probably most often done with regard to the implications of the doctrine. For example, we might wrongly suppose that if God chooses whom He is going to save, then we do not then need to go and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). If our understanding of election leads us to disregard or downplay the clear commands of God to His church, we are doing something wrong.

So while we must certainly be careful that we are understanding and stating the doctrine of election accurately as it is taught in Scripture, we must also be careful to teach it properly, in the correct context, and with the right purposes in mind as well. To simply teach it in the first place is certainly a good start (and is doing more than most), but that is not nearly enough.