During the 16th century, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands experienced severe persecution at the hands of Philip II of Spain, an ally of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1561, Guido de Brès prepared a confession in French as an apologetic for a band of Reformed believers in the Low Countries who formed the so-called “churches under the cross.” Today, his confession is known as the Belgic Confession. De Brès was most likely assisted by fellow pastors, who wanted to prove to their persecutors that the adherents of the Reformed faith were not rebels but law-abiding citizens who professed biblical doctrines. He famously threw the confession over a castle wall as a testimony to Roman Catholic authorities that the Reformed faith was not heretical.
The year after it was written, a copy of de Brès’s confession was sent to King Philip II, along with a statement that the petitioners were ready to obey the government in all things lawful, but would “offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to the fire, well knowing that those who follow Christ must take His cross and deny themselves,” rather than deny the truth expressed in the confession.
The petitioners were ready to obey the government in all things lawful, but would ‘offer their backs to stripes’ rather than deny the truth expressed in the confession.
Treasure House of Biblical Doctrine
The Belgic Confession of Faith is one of the oldest Reformed confessions used by churches today. It predates the Westminster Confession of Faith by more than three-quarters of a century. In Latin, “Belgica” referred to the whole of the Low Countries, both north and south, today divided into the Netherlands and Belgium.
Among the Three Forms of Unity used by the Dutch Reformed Churches and others, the Belgic Confession is least well known. The Heidelberg Catechism is still taught to our children and in some Reformed churches preached for one of the services on the Lord’s Day. The Canons of Dort are famous because of the controversy with Arminianism. But the Belgic Confession tends to be passed over despite being a pristine model of the Reformed faith, even following the general order of loci for standard Reformed systematic theologies today:
- prolegomena and revelation (articles 2–7)
- theology proper: the doctrine of God (articles 1, 8–11, 13, 16)
- anthropology: the doctrine of man (articles 12, 14–15, 17)
- Christology: the doctrine of Christ (articles 18–21)
- soteriology: the doctrine of salvation (articles 22–26)
- ecclesiology: the doctrine of the church (articles 27–36)
- eschatology: the doctrine of the last things (article 37)
The church neglects the Belgic Confession to its own loss.
Melodic Theology and Pastoral Piety
Not only is the confession a treasure house of biblical doctrine, but at times its theology sings. After listing the attributes of God, the confession adds that he is “the overflowing fountain of all good” (article 1). It compares God’s creation to “a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God” (article 2).
Not only is the confession a treasure house of biblical doctrine, but at times its theology sings.
The confession also highlights the classic orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, devoting no less than four articles to the exposition of this precious teaching (articles 8–11). The Trinity is the foundation of our comfort, for the Father’s providential care over our lives “affords us unspeakable consolation” (article 13), in the wounds of the sin-bearing Son “we find all manner of consolation” (article 21), and the universal church “is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost” (article 27).
One can sense the confession’s evangelical piety and pastoral wisdom in its affirmation of both justification by faith alone and good works by a living faith (article 24):
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 as is called in Scripture a faith that worketh by love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word. . . . Therefore we do good works, but not to merit by them (for what can we merit?)—nay, we are beholden to God for the good works we do and not He to us, since it is He that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure. . . . In the meantime we do not deny that God rewards our good works, but it is through His grace that He crowns His gifts.
From the Church, for the Church
The Belgic Confession expresses theology mined from God’s Word and forged in the fiery trials of God’s church. Neither the confession nor the petition ultimately persuaded Spanish authorities to be more tolerant of the Protestants. In 1567, de Brès became one martyr among thousands who sealed their faith with their blood. Nevertheless, de Brès’s work has endured as a convincing statement of Reformed doctrine.
The Belgic Confession expresses theology mined from God’s Word and forged in the fiery trials of God’s church.
The confession was readily received by Reformed churches in the Netherlands after its translation into Dutch in 1562. After tweaking a few statements, the Synod of Dort (1618–19) adopted the confession as a doctrinal standard to which all office bearers in the Reformed churches had to subscribe. But the confession has far greater usefulness than simply holding church officers to sound doctrine. It’s a confession from the church, for the church, frequently using the personal language of “We believe,” and “We confess.” I commend it to every Christian for reading and meditation, and to use as fuel for godly endurance and joyful praise amid fiery trials.