HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE BELGIC CONFESSION
Thirty of the thirty-seven articles of the Belgic Confession begin with the phrase “we believe”. Who is meant by the pronoun ‘we’? In first instance this refers to the author and the people around him. To give some color to this refrain in this confession, we need to familiarize ourselves with the situation of the author and his congregation.
Guido deBres was born in 1522 in Bergen, Belgium (then known as the Southern Netherlands), to devout Roman Catholic parents. Five years before his birth, on October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Church in Wittenberg, attacking the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church – to which all Christians of Europe officially belonged. His attack on the doctrines of the church earned him the wrath of the Pope, so that Luther –just a year before deBres was born was excommunicated from the Church. As young deBres was growing up, the Great Reformation spawned by Luther’s work was washing over Europe. By the time deBres was 24, he was a convinced Protestant and had joined the Reformation in Bergen.
EXILE AND TRAINING: 1548-1552
As a young man deBres experienced first hand that joining the Reformation came at a cost. When deBres was 24 years of age (1548), two Protestant ministers and their wives spent a few days in Bergen while journeying from Geneva to England. The two men took the opportunity to speak with some of the Protestants in Bergen. Scarcely had the four left Bergen when one of the men and the two women were arrested; the other minister was captured later. Because of their Protestant faith the two ministers were publicly burned at the stake, and one of the women was buried alive. (What happened to the second woman is not certain). While the one minister was being burned, Franciscan monks reminded the crowd that this man was possessed of the devil. With the fires burning at his feet, the minister replied with the words of Ps 6:5 (rhymed):
“Depart from me, transgressors.
Flee now, all you oppressors;
The Lord did heed my cry!
He heard my supplication,
My plea for consolation,
And with His help is nigh."
One can readily imagine that such an event did not leave the town’s folk unmoved – and certainly not the Protestants. The cost of embracing the faith of the Reformation was distinctly high! Yet deBres and many with him did not turn back from the faith they had come to love. The episode of the two ministers alerted the authorities to the fact that a Protestant Church was flourishing in town, and so they initiated persecution against these ‘heretics’. That fact compelled the faithful, young deBres included, to face the question head on: was the wealth that came with believing God’s Word in Scripture really worth persecution??
DeBres was convinced it was. In the face of the persecution, deBres did not give up his new faith. Instead, he left his hometown and went to London in 1548 and lived there till 1552. During his time in London he came into contact with some other leading Reformers of the time, such as Maarten Micron, Johannes a Lasco, and Johannes Utenhove. During this time deBres received his ‘training’ to become a preacher of the Gospel. What Satan sought to achieve by persecuting the Church, God worked for good.
In 1552 deBres left London and went to Rijssel, a town close to Bergen. The minister of the Protestant church of that town, Pierre Brully, had recently been burned at the stake. It was obvious that becoming a minister in Rijssel would certainly not lead to a peaceful life! Yet deBres agreed to minister to the persecuted people of God in this town. For four years deBres proclaimed the gospel in Rijssel, but always the persecution forced him to do his work in secret.
In reaction to the persecution in the Netherlands, deBres went in 1556 to Geneva where, amongst others, he met Calvin and spent time being instructed by this great reformer. Here, we may say, deBres completed the training he needed for his future work. In 1559 he married Catherine Ramon.
DeBres returned to the Southern Netherlands in 1559, and settled in a town called Doornik, where he was a minister for 3 years. Due to the threat of persecution, deBres had to labor in secret. He went habitually from home to home under cover of darkness, where he met the members of his congregation in small groups of 6 to 12 persons. DeBres opened the Scriptures for them, explained it, encouraged his listeners and then went on his way. Many congregation members did not even know his real name.
As a result of his work, a considerable number of residents in Doornik embraced the faith, including also some leading figures in town. The day came that some of the Protestant people in town considered their numbers to be adequately substantial to go public. They did so, singing psalms openly in the streets. This action, however, provoked the authorities to send in the troops. Just prior to this event, deBres, in 1561, had written an introduction to the confession he had been working on during the past few months. With the arrival of the troops, he tossed a copy of this Confession, together with the Introduction, over the wall of the regent’s home in Doornik, who in turn passed it on to King Philip II. DeBres’ aim was to make clear that “the adherents of the Reformed faith were no rebels, as was laid to their charge, but law-abiding citizens who professed the true Christian doctrine according to the Holy Scriptures” (p. 440, Book of Praise). The king, however, was not persuaded, and Doornik felt the wrath of the authorities by way of persecution. DeBres was again forced to flee and live as a ‘wanderer’ for five years.
In 1566 deBres was called to minister to the town of Valenciennes. Support for the Reformation continued to grow, and the people grew bold, meeting in the fields in crowds numbering 4000 to 12000 to hear deBres preach. In March 1567, the authorities thought to put an end to the Protestant church in Valenciennes, and so captured the town and imprisoned many. DeBres managed to escape, but during a pause at a hotel was recognized, betrayed and arrested. He was taken back to Doornik, imprisoned, and two and a half months later, on 31st May 1567, was hung on the gallows.
CONFESSION OF FAITH IN THE FACE OF PERSECUTION
One might well question the value of knowing all this. DeBres began the Belgic Confession with the remarkable words of Article 1: “We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth....” So many of the following articles repeat this same statement, be it with the abbreviated form “we believe”. Such a statement (“we all believe”) gains color and perspective when we realize that deBres, together with his persecuted congregation, made the statement in a time when doing so could mean one’s death! They stated their faith in an environment of radical hostility, in an environment in which both the Roman Catholic Church and the government hated anything and anyone Protestant. Again, they did so in the full awareness that the authorities had at their disposal the horrid tool of the Inquisition, persons specialized in torturing in order to force people to recant the Protestant faith and return to Roman Catholicism. Yet in that environment, deBres and the people said, “We believe.” The wealth of God’s redeeming grace in Jesus Christ was to them well worth the price of persecution, imprisonment, even death! More: all the articles of the Confession were for deBres and his congregation of such importance and value that they were unwilling to deny or alter any for the sake of freedom and peace. They knew: if God revealed it, it was worth more than life itself.
Just how much the faith meant to deBres is evident from a letter he wrote his wife while in prison, dated 12th April 1567. This letter reads (in part) as follows:
My very dear Catherine Ramon, my precious and most loved wife and sister in our Lord Jesus Christ... You know well enough that when you married me, you married a mortal man whose life was not sure for a single minute. Yet it has pleased our good God to give us about seven years together, and five children. If the Lord had wanted us to live together longer, He has the means to make it happen. But it is not His pleasure; so, His will be done and that be sufficient to you.
Remember too, that it was not by chance that I fell into the hands of my enemies, but through the providence of my God.... My God, You have let me be born at a time and hour determined by You, and through all the time of my life You have preserved and protected me in the face of unimaginable dangers, and You have fully delivered. And now, if the hour has come in which I must leave this life in order to go to You, Your will be done...
Especially forget not the honor which God has shown to you by having given you a man who was not only a minister of the Son of God, but also a man so esteemed and privileged by God that He honored him with the crown of martyrdom. I am joyful and my heart rejoices. I lack nothing in all my troubles. I am filled with the over-flowing riches of my God.... I had never thought that God would be so merciful to a poor creature as I am...
Adieu, Catherine, my dear good friend...”
Reading such a letter can hardly leave one untouched. One asks oneself, ‘how was it possible for deBres to speak like that, having been persecuted throughout his life, in jail, fully aware of the fact that he was about to die for the faith, yet speaking of joy, and of not lacking anything in all his troubles!’ What this is?? This is FAITH! By the grace of God this man knew more than biblical facts. He also knew the words of Scripture to be true for him! He knew himself forgiven of his sins through the blood of Jesus Christ, and consequently felt secure in the almighty hands of His heavenly Father – who is “eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good.” So he was content, though he knew it was this very same God who directed his recognition and arrest in the hotel, and now gave him a cold prison cell. In faith he worked with the promises of Scripture in passages as Psalm 57, singing of God,
“Beneath Thy mighty wings I’ll seek protection
Until the storms pass by. To God I flee –
To God Most High who charts my life’s direction” (Book of Praise, Psalm 57:1).
He believed that his God led his life the way it went, this God made no mistakes, even worked all things for good. So he could be content. His was the same faith as is pointed up in the examples of Hebrews 11:
“Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance [from their tortures], that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword...” (vss 35-38).
Here was faith in action, a faith that knows and trusts the promises of God in the midst of the real struggles of this life. Because of his faith in Jesus Christ, deBres awoke from the event on the gallows into the presence of God Most High, and received from Him “the crown of glory that does not fade away” (1 Peter 5:4).
EVIDENCE OF FAITH
To us it seems too much. Confess that the almighty God who let deBres live in a time of persecution, who let His children be hounded, chased, arrested, burned is “just” and “good”?? Confess that such a God is the “overflowing fountain of all good”?? It doesn’t sit well with our sinful minds. But this is faith! This is the material deBres found in the Bible and so he confessed it and said ‘this is the way it is. I cannot understand God and I cannot understand why He does what He does, but this is my God, my Savior! So I accept it, I’m content.’ He could confess in Article 13:
“We believe that this good God, after He had created all things, did not abandon them or give them up to fortune or chance, but that according to His holy will He so rules and governs them that in this world nothing happens without His direction.”
Similarly, despite the pronounced danger of belonging to the church, he could confess in Article 28:
“We believe, since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his state or quality may be. But all and everyone are obliged to join it and unite with it.... They should do so even though the rulers and edicts of princes were against it, and death or physical punishment might follow.”
He could confess in Article 36:
“We believe that, because of the depravity of mankind, our gracious God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers.”
What a statement, given that the king of his day was the tyrant Phillip II of Spain, and his regent was the vengeful Margaret, who persecuted the Church so cruelly in Belgium! Even under the rule of such kings, deBres confessed what he read in Scripture: “our gracious God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers.” So he could add too, despite the difficulties of obedience in the grind of real life, that “everyone –no matter of what quality, condition, or rank – ought to be subject to the civil officers...,” and that included obedience to King Philip II. Truly, this is a confession borne in the grind of real life! As Guido deBres analyzed his daily circumstances and considered what he ought to think and how he ought to act, he took God for real and included Him and His promises in his calculations. That is faith in action. It produces a manner of living and a confession that countless millions cannot comprehend. But those who take God seriously understand deBres’ confession and share it eagerly.
FAITH: EVIDENT THROUGH WORD AND DEED
We live more than four centuries after deBres wrote this confession, in very different circumstances. Many of us have made profession of our faith, and so stated in the presence of God and His congregation that we love the Lord, want to serve the Lord, and believe His Word. Despite the passage of time and the change of circumstances, we profess the same faith deBres professed. That’s why the words of his confession can be our words also. Readily we today take deBres’ confession on our lips and join with the saints of his day to say, “We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth….” DeBres’ God is our God; this God has not changed with the passage of time! Since He has not changed, we may dare with deBres to speak the faith and live it publicly, despite the reactions of those around us. DeBres’ example is encouragement to take God seriously, and so include Him in one’s calculations as we decide what to say and what to do.
GOD GIVES STRENGTH TO LIVE BY FAITH
As we read of deBres’ faith, and consider how he lived that faith in the trials of life, we may well begin to feel so inadequate in our faith. Compared to deBres, we are so weak, so frightened, so easily cowed…, we feel. We do well to bear in mind that deBres was a man like any of us, with no strength within himself. That he could see God’s hand behind his arrest, that could be joyful in prison, that he could entrust his wife to the care of his God and go readily to the gallows, was not an expression of his personal strength of character; it was rather an expression of God’s faithfulness to this child of His. Here is an example of the promise of 1 Corinthians 10:13:
“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”
DeBres was what he was by the grace and blessing of God! This God does not change, and holds on to His own today still. That is why I need today not worry about what will happen tomorrow. Faith says: I know I am safe in the hands of the God who gave His Son for my sin. This gracious and mighty God leads my life today in perfect wisdom, and so His way with me is always good. This is my faith, one that repeats after God (as deBres did) all He promised me and expresses itself readily in the dirt and dust of daily living.
Should I despair then if my faith seems so weak in comparison to the faith of deBres? Should I conclude that I am not a real Christian after all? Should I be envious of deBres because in the struggles of my life I stumble so often? No, I should not! I believe that God holds on. Yes, I stumble, I have my shortcomings. But I am confident that the God Who claimed me as His will always hold on to me, and so I am safe in His hands. This, after all, is the promise of His Word.
Points for Discussion:
- The Belgic Confession is a confession of faith. Discuss what faith is.
- What is the cost of being faithful to the Lord – and hence to His Word? Is every doctrine God revealed so important that one would rather choose death than deny that doctrine? In the light of 2 Timothy 3 (vs 12), are you willing to pay this price?
- Read and discuss the Introduction to the Belgic Confession, as printed on page 440 of the Book of Praise.
- If the Belgic Confession was deBres’ confession in the face of his persecution some 400 years ago, is it right to say the Belgic Confession is also our confession? Why?
- Read deBres’ letter to his wife. How does this letter display deBres’ faith? Do you think you could write a letter in the same vein? Why or why not?
- Need ones faith simply be believed or also lived? Why? See James 2:14-26.