Why Study the Belgic Confession?
WHY STUDY THE BELGIC CONFESSION?
GOD’S COVENANT AND OUR RESPONSE
It all begins with Triune God. In compassion unlimited, before we reached out to Him, He established a bond of love with believers and the children He gives to these believers. In this bond of love the Lord God claimed for Himself people lost in sin. Such a claim comes complete with rich promises. The “Form for the Baptism of Infants” (Book of Praise, pg 584) summarizes God’s promises clearly.1 Those promises are not extended to all men in general, for His covenant is not made with all. As God speaks specifically to those who are baptized, I take the liberty to replace the third-person references in this Form with first-person references. That helps us to see how personal God’s promises actually are.
- “When I was baptized into the Name of the Father, God the Father testified and sealed to me that He established an eternal covenant of grace with me. He adopted me as His child and heir, and promised to provide me with all good and avert all evil or turn it to my benefit.” That is: in my infant days, before I consciously knew how to do good or evil, when all I had done was fall into sin together with Adam and Eve, God the Father said to me, “You are Mine, I will be a Father to you.”
- “When I was baptized into the Name of the Son, God the Son promised me that He washed me in His blood from all my sins and united me with Him in His death and resurrection. Thus I was freed from my sins and accounted righteous before God.” That is: God the Son promised to make me clean before God, and to forgive all my sins – both those committed consciously as well as those committed unconsciously.
- “When I was baptized into the Name of the Holy Spirit, God the Holy Spirit assured me by this sacrament that He would dwell in me and make me a living member of Christ, imparting to me what I have in Christ, namely the cleansing from my sins and the daily renewal of my life, till I shall finally be presented without blemish among the assembly of God’s elect in life eternal.” That is: God the Holy Spirit promised to recreate me. Though I was dead in sin, He would make me alive again so that I could live for Him.
One cannot help but notice: the claim God lays upon undeserving people is rich, so incredibly rich!
PROFESSION OF FAITH: RESPONSE TO GOD’S COVENANT
We never asked God for any of these riches, nor did He offer them to us in the sense of: ‘are you perhaps interested in a relationship?’ No, God imposed His promises upon us. For that reason, each of us is to consider what our response is to God’s gift. Do I get excited about it? Am I indifferent to it? Do I simply reject it? God has given so much wealth in the covenant that one’s response must be one of excitement, of eagerly embracing God’s mercy, delighting in it. Given the glorious nature and life-renewing content of God’s covenant with the undeserving, indifference or unbelief are simply unacceptable responses, and provoke God’s judgment.
One gives expression to one’s delight in God’s covenant promises through confessing God’s Name publicly. Historically the churches expect baptized children, once they come to an age of maturity and independence, to state openly their response to God’s promises in a ceremony known as Pubic Profession of Faith. As the young adult makes profession of his faith, he (or she – let us, in accordance with Scripture, include both genders in the pronoun ‘he’) effectively says to God, “Yes Lord, I believe what You said to me concerning Your love for me. I love You because You have made me Your child, because You care for me, because You forgive my sins, because You have renewed me. I delight in the rich gospel You gave me, and I want to live as Your child.” Profession of faith, then, is nothing other than a response to baptism.2
The wealth of God’s promises in the covenant points up why such privileged sinners as we ought to make profession of faith – in hearty gratitude for the abundance of God’s mercy to us. Reality, though, does not always follow the norm. There were those of us who made profession of faith so many years ago because we knew it was the expected thing to do, or because we wanted to get married, or perhaps wanted to be done with Catechism instruction. Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that adults in faithful churches of God around the world, with scarcely any exception, have publicly professed the faith. That is to say, we have stood before the Lord and His holy congregation, and confessed that we love Him, believe all He has said in His Word, and will serve Him. Saying such a thing in the presence of God means that our words have the weight of an oath – irrespective of our motives at the time. Today we remain bound to the oath we swore so many years ago (Numbers 30:2).
PROFESSION OF FAITH: ITS IMPACT ON DAILY LIFE
Is making profession of faith, though, simply a once-off statement that I can easily divorce from my life today? Is profession of faith perhaps something that must determine my life on Sunday, but not on Monday? By no means! The oath I swore so many years ago (with whatever motive at the time) remains binding on my life today, each day of the week, any hour of the day. God is no small god, touching only a small portion of my life and claiming only a small portion of my allegiance. He is none less than the Creator without whose will and direction not a moth can move. How much more, then, does His claim upon me reach into every corner of my life, every moment of the day, for as long as I live. In fact, one who is excited by God’s glorious promises in the covenant seeks to live each moment of his existence in grateful obedience to and trust in this God. Professing the faith, swearing to love and serve the Lord, impacts the way I live my whole life.
Psalm 119:97-112 captures David’s enthusiasm for his God and His promises. “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (vs 97). “How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (vs 103). Here is a man in love with God’s law! That means in turn that David did not leave his Bible on the shelf to collect dust. Rather, David was eagerly busy with that Word, keen to meditate continually about the wonderful God who established His bond of love with a sinner as himself.
BUSY WITH GOD’S WORD
Being busy with God’s Word is not just the fitting response of all upon whom God lays His claim of love. Such absorption with God’s Word is also the express command of the God who claimed sinners for Himself. In fact, it is the will of this God that His people delight in the entirety of His revelation to sinners. One cannot pick and choose what doctrine of God’s revelation to believe, or which Bible book to treasure.
“But as for you, stand here by Me, and I will speak to you all the commandments, the statutes, and the judgments which you shall teach them, that they may observe them in the land which I am giving them to possess. Therefore you shall be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess.”
God would pass on to Moses all the commandments he must teach the people. Those commandments include God’s instruction about Israel’s feasts, the laws about clean and unclean animals and clothing, the sacrifices of the tabernacle, etc. These laws and so many more embodied God’s instruction about the doctrines of sin, redemption, depravity, election, and so many more, etc. Moses must teach them all to the people, and must insist that the people not turn to the right or left of anything God has revealed.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Just before His ascension into heaven, Jesus instructed His disciples to teach all things He commanded them; no apostle could pick and choose what he would teach his converts. Jesus added that disciples everywhere were to “observe all that I have commanded you.” No Christian could pick and choose what he would believe.
“And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”
With the term ‘these’ John refers to all Jesus’ deeds and words recorded in his gospel. He has written about the providence of God (9:3), salvation in Christ (10:28), the Savior’s sonship (1:1ff), our adoption (1:12f), the incarnation (10:30ff), the suffering of Christ (19:12ff), the two natures of Christ (16:28; 14:16ff), the ascension of Christ (14:16), Christ’s enthronement in heaven (5:22f), the Holy Spirit (15:26), the doctrine of the church (10:11, 27ff), forgiveness of sins (3:17f), the life everlasting (17:3).3 If “these are written that you may believe”, it will not do for any Christian to reject any of these doctrines.
Texts as these make plain that the Lord wishes His people to be busy with the entirety of His Word, and to delight in it all.
CONFESSIONS AND CREEDS
God has given us the Bible, and in it revealed all He wishes us to know about the covenant He made with us. It is because of what the Bible is that David could say, “Oh, how I love Your Law” (Psalm 119:97). His love for God and His Word caused him to believe what the Lord had told him in His covenant claim upon David. When someone, then, asked David what he believed he could summarize God’s message with words of His own. In Psalm 23, for example, David echoed the glorious gospel he heard God say to him in Scripture, “The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” This echo or summary of God’s gospel is at bottom a confession. The Greek equivalent of the term ‘confession’ means literally, to say the same thing. One listens to God’s promises, and enthusiastically repeats in one’s own words what he has heard God say – that is a confession.
Inherent to a confession is that one believes what the Lord has promised. One does not repeat-after-God only with the mind, intellectually, but one embraces those promises with the heart, receives them for gospel truth true for oneself. That is faith. That is why a Confession is also a Creed – for the word creed describes a statement of faith (Latin: Credo = I believe). One believes (creed) what God has said, and repeats it after him in one’s own words (confession).
Reformed churches around the world typically have six creeds or confessions, subdivided as follows:
The creeds are not theological treatises, though they do contain theology (see, for example, the Athanasian Creed or the Canons of Dort). Rather, they are personal statements of faith wherein believers (one or more) expressed in their own words the glorious promises God in mercy had extended to them. Since these confessions capture accurately what the Lord has promised to His people, and since His promises have not changed over the centuries, we today can take on our lips the summaries of faith penned by those who went before us, and repeat them as our own statement of what God has promised us. That’s a lot easier than reinventing the wheel!
THE PURPOSE OF CREEDS
Over the centuries of church history, the nature and purpose of creeds have often been misunderstood. Some of the more common misunderstandings are the following:
- ‘A creed is an infallible decree,’ and is to be accepted without any question. This is a distinctive view of the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope makes decrees, and one must simply agree. Refutation: Creeds are written by people, who are all sinners. No Creed, therefore, is infallible. For that reason no one may attach to any of the creeds the same authority they attach to the Bible.
- ‘A creed is an iron chain,’ something that ties you down. This description is typical of the Anabaptists at the time of the Reformation. They wanted to leave room for the Holy Spirit to speak truth in one’s heart apart from the Bible, and so one’s heart must remain open to new truths or further insights the Spirit may yet give. Refutation: The Spirit does not give any new revelation to us. The Bible is the definitive and complete revelation of God, and it’s to this revelation God wishes sinners to respond. As long as Creeds echo faithfully what the Bible says, they are never more restrictive than the Bible itself is.
- ‘A creed is a sign-post,’ indicating the personal faith of a long-dead author. Primarily a creed has historical value in telling us what persons of a previous generation believed. We for our part should remain free to decide what we wish to believe today. Arminians have historically held this position. Refutation: To say that creeds are primarily of historical value is to say that the truth can keep changing, or at least our understanding of the truth can keep changing. But the truth does not change, and God has been clear over the centuries in what He actually promises to mankind. Instead of reading the Bible as if we are the first to do so, we may stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, glean from their insights into God’s revelation, and even confess the faith with words borrowed from them.
A creed, then, is a faithful echo of what the Scriptures teach. In a creed (or confession) I repeat in my own words (which I perhaps learned from students of Scripture who have gone before me) what I hear God promise me in His Word. So there is no contrast between the Scriptures and the Confessions. The content of the two are identical in substance, though not necessarily in scope.
THE AUTHORITY OF THE CREEDS
From the above it is clear that Creeds have “derived” or secondary authority. Only God’s Word is infallible, and the final authority in all questions. Creeds come from people, and therefore are subject to error – and so in principle can be revised if a conflict between Scripture and the creeds is found. However, since a) I’m convinced I’ve caught accurately what the Lord has said in Scripture, and b) a creed is my echo of what I have heard God say in the Bible, I readily concede that a creed has authority.
THE FUNCTION OF THE CREEDS
From the above it is evident that creeds and confessions are intrinsically personal. In a creed I state my faith. Yet that does not make creeds and confessions individualistic. God’s promises are the same for people of any tribe or time, and so all people ought to be able to repeat God’s promises after Him with the same words. Agreeing together on a limited number of Confessions – tested and tried as they have been over the years – points up something of the unity of faith these Christians have together.
Reformed churches around the world of continental origin commonly have three Ecumenical Creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed) and three Reformational Creeds (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort). Guido deBres wrote The Belgic Confession in 1561. The purpose of this statement of belief was to inform the oppressive authorities concerning the beliefs of the people they were persecuting. The Heidelberg Catechism, compiled in 1563 upon command of Elector Frederick III, was a teaching aid for the people of the kingdom, so that they might get to know what the Lord says in Scripture. The Canons of Dort, prepared at the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619, defended the teaching of Scripture on particular points of doctrine concerning which heresy had arisen. Despite the varying backgrounds of these confessions, each drew the believers together, for each confession captured what Christians believed, and shoulder to shoulder they repeated after God the glorious promises He gave them in His Word. So these three confessions have become known as the Three Forms of Unity.
GETTING DOCTRINE RIGHT IS THE KEY TO GETTING LIFE RIGHT!
What you believe determines how you live. Taking seriously God’s bond of love with you affects every decision you make. If I believe what God says about Him creating the world and entrusting its care to the human race, I cannot in good conscience exploit the environment for personal gain. If I believe what God says about marriage reflecting the relation between Christ and the church, I cannot marry someone who denies God’s existence or one who serves Him in a self-chosen manner. In a Confession I echo in words what I have heard God say in Scripture; in my lifestyle I echo in deeds what I have heard God say. Between Scripture and my lifestyle is my confession; my confession determines how I live. Where there is a disconnection between my confession and my lifestyle, I need to investigate whether I am in fact sincere in my confession. There may also be need for greater maturity and understanding of God’s Word and will.
Right doctrine produces right ethics. Right doctrine determines the way one lives. If one errs in doctrine, this will be evident in his life, and vice versa. Many of Paul’s letters can be divided into two parts: the first part is devoted to doctrine, and the second to the practice resulting from this doctrine. See, for example, Romans 1-11 on the one hand, and Romans 12-16 on the other.
Here, then, is the reason why those who have once professed the faith ought to continue to study the Scriptures, and hence also the Confessions – including the Belgic Confession. Getting doctrine right is the key to getting life right!
1 The “Form for the Baptism of Adults” mentions the identical promises for believing adults. See Book of Praise, pg 588.
2 The reader is further referred to K. Deddens, Response to Your Baptism, Inter League Publication Board, 1985.
3 These topics and texts are gleaned from a browse through the proof-texts mentioned in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lords Days 8-22.
Points for Discussion:
- Discuss how Triune God initially reached into your life. What promises did He give you? On what grounds did He extend these promises to you?
- List the possible responses to God’s promises. Which response(s) is/are legitimate before God? How have you responded to these promises? How does your lifestyle manifest the sincerity of your response?
- God has revealed Himself to sinners through Holy Scripture. Reflect upon your Bible reading habits, in light of David’s words in Psalm 119:97-112. Would giving an account to another of your daily performance assist in improving your habit? If so, consider practical ways to give account to another.
- One hears from time to time that the Bible is more important than the Confessions. The statement, of course, is true inasmuch as the Bible is inspired and the Confessions are not. Still, the statement harbors a false dilemma. Explain what the false dilemma is. In the process, give consideration to what a creed (or confession) actually is.
- Explain how Creeds from centuries ago can be valuable to the child of God today. Does change in culture or technology render an ancient creed useless today? Why or why not?
- Is there merit in today’s Christians drafting a modern creed? Why or why not?
- Discuss why “getting doctrine right is the key to getting life right.” What implications follow?