"Notes" to the Belgic
Confession - Rev. C. Bouwman
ARTICLE 1 - Belgic Confession - There Is Only One God
We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth1 that there is only one God,2 who is a simple and spiritual Being;3 He is eternal,4 incomprehensible,5 invisible,6 immutable,7 infinite,8 almighty,9 perfectly wise,10 just,11 good,12 and the overflowing fountain of all good.13
1 Rom 10:10. 2 Deut 6:4; 1 Cor 8:4, 6; 1 Tim 2:5. 3 Jn 4:24. 4 Ps 90:2. 5 Rom 11:33. 6 Col 1:15; 1 Tim 6:16. 7 Jas 1:17. 8 1 Kings 8:27; Jer 23:24. 9 Gen 17:1; Mt 19:26; Rev 1:8. 10 Rom 16:27. 11 Rom 3:25, 26; Rom 9:14; Rev 16:5, 7. 12 Mt 19:17. 13 Jas 1:17.
Article 1 commences with the words, ""We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth ..." To believe is the same as to have faith. But what is faith? What does it mean to believe? From Lord's Day 7 we learn that faith has two aspects:
Faith is not the equivalent of knowledge, knowing that there is a God or knowing what the Bible is all about. Although faith does involve knowledge, it involves more than that. Faith also involves confidence, meaning that I accept as true for myself all that God says in His Word. See Lord's Day 7.
Faith has a PERSONAL DIMENSION. To have faith means to have a bond with God, a personal relation between myself and God, in which I know Who God is and what He has done, and that I accept that what He said and what He has done is true for ME. That is what faith is, that is believing: that I know and that I cling to the reality that God has placed a relation between Himself and me. (Note: these notes contain more discussion of Faith in Article 22.)
HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE BELGIC CONFESSION
"We all believe," states Article 1. Who is meant by 'we'? In the first instance this refers to the author, as well as the people around him. To give some colour to this introductory line of Article 1, we need to familiarise ourselves with the situation of those people at the time they made this statement of faith. In what circumstances did they make this statement: "we all believe"?
The Belgic Confession was written in 1561 by Guido deBres. (Refer to the introduction to the Belgic Confession, p. 440 in the Book of Praise).
Guido deBres was born in 1522 in Bergen, Belgium (then known as the Southern Netherlands). His parents were devote Roman Catholic, and so he received a devote Roman Catholic upbringing. He was born at the time when the Reformation was about to begin. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Church in Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517, and in 1521 he was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. The reforming movement spawned by Luther eventually affected also the lower lands of the Netherlands, including Bergen. By the age of 24 young Guido deBres was a convinced Protestant and had joined the Protestant reformation in Bergen.
EXILE AND TRAINING: 1548-1552
In 1548 a group of four people, consisting of two ministers and their wives, spent a few days in Bergen while journeying from Geneva to England. The men were ministers of the Protestant faith, and spoke with some of the Protestants in Bergen. This group had scarcely left Bergen when one of the men and the two women were arrested; the other minister was captured later. Both ministers however were publicly burned at the stake because of their Protestant faith, 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 need have but little imagination to appreciate that this incident could not possibly have left deBres (and other Protestants with him) cold. Was this the cost of breaking with the Roman Catholic Church?! Was the price of one's life really a price worth paying for the Protestant faith?!
That the cost of being faithful to Scripture was indeed high was further driven home to the Protestants of town. It appears that the reaction of the town to this event was such that the authorities became aware of the fact that a Protestant Church was flourishing in town. Up to this point in time this church had worked 'underground,' but, now that its presence had become apparent, persecution broke out. Again the faithful, young deBres included, had to face the question: were the riches of believing God's Word in Scripture really worth persecution??
In the face of the persecution, deBres did not give up his new found faith. Instead, he left his home town 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 disbanding and persecuting the Church, God worked for good.
RETURN TO THE NETHERLANDS (RIJSSEL): 1552-1556
In 1552 deBres left London and went to Rijssel, a town close to Bergen. Persecution was still very much a reality. His predecessor in Rijssel, Pierre Brully, had been burned at the stake. It was certainly far from exciting to become a minister in such circumstances. Yet deBres did it! DeBres proclaimed the gospel in Rijssel, but during his four year stay there, fierce persecution forced him to do his work secretly.
EXILE IN GENEVA, FURTHER TRAINING, MARRIAGE
In reaction to the persecution in the Netherlands, deBres went in 1556 to Geneva where, amongst others, he met Calvin and spent time under his tutelage. Here, we may say, deBres completed the training he needed for his future work. In 1559 he married Catherine Ramon.
RETURN TO THE NETHERLANDS (DOORNIK): 1559-1561
He returned to the Netherlands in 1559, and settled in a town called Doornik, where he was a minister for 3 years. This too was a period of underground work, due to the threat of persecution. During this time he brought the gospel to the members of his congregation, though not in the conventional way of preaching to the flock on Sunday. The hatred of the authorities for all things Protestant prevented the congregation from meeting together for public worship. Instead, under the cover of darkness deBres went from home to home where people met in small groups of 6 to 12 people. DeBres opened the Scripture, explained it, encouraged his listeners and then went on his way again. The 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. As a result, 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. However, this provoked the authorities, and the troops were sent in. Just prior to this, deBres, in 1561, wrote an introduction to the confession he had been working on during the past few months. Now 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.
RETURN TO THE NETHERLANDS (VALENCIENNES): 1566; A MARTYR'S DEATH: 1566-1567
In 1566 deBres was called 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 - 12000 to hear deBres preach. The people came armed with their pitchforks in fear of the Roman Catholic authorities, who after a year, in March, 1567, captured the town and imprisoned many Protestants. DeBres managed to escape, but during a pause at a hotel was recognised, 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 purpose of knowing all this. DeBres was the man who wrote the Belgic Confession, and introduced his confession with those 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 colour and perspective when we realise 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 Roman Catholic Church was sanctioned by the government to have at their disposal the horrid tool of the Inquisition, namely, authorities specialised in torturing in order to force people to recant the Protestant faith and return to Roman Catholicism. Such persecution was far from easy to withstand, embracing methods of torture worse than burning at the stake. Yet in that environment, deBres and the people said, ""We believe." The riches of God's redeeming work of 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.
That the faith deBres confessed in this Confession sustained him in the face of persecution is apparent from a letter deBres wrote to his wife during his imprisonment, 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 that 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 honour 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 honoured 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 gaol, fully aware of the fact that he is going 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 therefore secure in the almighty hands of His heavenly Father. So he was content, despite his situation. He worked with the promises of Scripture in passages as Psalm 57, singing of God,
"Beneath Thy mighty wings I'll
Until the storms pass by. To God I flee -
To God Most High who charts my life's direction."
He believed that his God led his life the way it went, this God made no mistakes, worked all 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 35ff).
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.
DeBres, together with his congregation in Doornik, said together that they believed this God. They knew who God was: God had given His Son to pay for their sins, and now God loved them so much that they were safe in His hands. This God led deBres' path to that hotel which led to his arrest, and deBres could say that it was all okay! Even in the face of death, he could say he was happy and that he lacked nothing! THAT IS FAITH! These were real people, like each of us today. They knew the Bible and the God of the Bible, and worked with His promises, acted accordingly. They accepted what God said and did it; they went where God led: quietly and peacefully. That is the context in which we read Article 1. In his difficult circumstances deBres confessed his faith in the God who is "eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good."
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 Saviour! So I accept it, I'm content.' He could confess in Article 13:
We believe that this good God, afterHe 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."
In the face of the persecution that characterised his life, he could confess 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."
In the face of all that persecution, how tempting it would be for deBres and the other Protestants to stick with the faith of the Bible and meanwhile go through the motions of being Roman Catholic. But deBres and those with him knew that this was not the will of God. So they acted in accordance with the will of God revealed in Scripture, despite the possible cost to their lives. This is faith in action.
So too is the confession of 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 King Philip II. Truly, this is a confession borne in the grind of real life! This man lived as real a life as each one of us, and in his particular circumstances he believed what God said, "In Jesus Christ, you, Guido, are my child, and so I love you and care for you." If God says so, that is how it is! So deBres could be at peace. That is faith.
FAITH: EVIDENT THROUGH WORD AND DEED
We live 435 years after deBres wrote this confession. We have all made profession of our faith, and so stated in the presence of God and His congregation that, "Yes, I love the Lord, I want to serve the Lord, I believe His Word." We made that good profession years after deBres died, and in circumstances different from his. Yet the faith we profess is the same as his; his Belgic Confession is our confession, the faith he confessed is the faith we confess. That's possible because the God we confess is the same God deBres confessed, and this God hasn't changed. The God of Hebrews 11 is the God of Guido deBres in 1561, and is My God in 1996. This God does not change, His Word does not change, His promises do not change. Therefore I am safe in the hands of this God, as safe in His hands as were the saints of Hebrews 11 and the saints of 1561. Together we all confess one faith. Just as God held on then and was trustworthy then, so He is trustworthy today. And I believe it. It is not just an academic knowledge. No, it affects the way I live. It is a knowledge and a confidence, accepting what God says and knowing myself safe in His hands despite the circumstances. This faith is not idle, nor is it pushed into the 'corner of one's heart.' Rather, this is a faith that determines what one does and says.
Article 1 speaks of confessing with the mouth: it comes out of the mouth in words, and it is expressed through deeds. In deBres' case, he left behind a wife and five children, and yet he could say that he was happy. For faith, reliance on God, gives a peace which enables one to be content in any circumstance (cf Philippians 4:11). Such a faith cannot be hidden. As the apostle James writes:
"What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,' but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (James 2:14-17).
No, faith cannot remain hidden. In the example of James 2 faith becomes evident in the way one shows care for the needy. In the days of deBres faith became apparent in being content in the face of leaving a wife and children without a husband and father. Faith comes out in our circumstances too, in being content with what Father gives us. Faith comes out in what we say: "God, is this Your command for me? I ask no questions but I do it." Faith is a life of obedience, it is shown by a life of obedience.
GOD GIVES FAITH AND THE STRENGTH TO LIVE BY FAITH
Possible reactions to all this on our part might be: "If this is what faith is all about, I surely haven't got faith! How was it possible for deBres to do and say all he did? How was it possible for the saints of Hebrews 11 to persist? I would never be able to do so!"
It was God who gave to deBres what it took to be steadfast. God does not change. God gives to us also what it takes to be steadfast. If life's circumstances close in on us, God will give the strength. 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."
Since this is the case, I accept and believe that if in the future I should find myself in the position deBres was in, God will hold on to me. God has said so! Therefore today I need not worry about what will happen tomorrow. THAT IS FAITH: I accept what God says. Admittedly, that is far from easy. We all know so well what a battle that is. To use the words of Lord's Day 44, "even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience." Nevertheless, it is a beginning: a beginning worked by God.
Should I despair then if my faith
is nothing 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
battle way too much? No! I believe that God holds on. Yes, I stumble, I have my
shortcomings. Nevertheless 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