Category Archives: Confessions

Discern the Doctrine of the Trinity

Athanasius, who warred against Arianism and lent his name to the Athanasian Creed.

How well do you know your Christian truth from error?  Are you able to discern when the theological wool is being pulled over your eyes?  In this series of blog posts, I want to cover some common errors that are easily overlooked.

We’ll start today with the doctrine of the Trinity.  It doesn’t get any more basic than this.  It’s crucially important to follow the biblical teaching regarding God.  Numerous battles have been waged in ages past to get this right.  The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is found in its most precise form in the Athanasian Creed.  There Bible-believing Christians confess that there is one God who eternally exists in three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  To deny this is to deny the Christian faith and to endanger one’s salvation.  A lot is at stake!

When someone is in error regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, that error is labelled as a heresy.  Heresy is serious, soul-endangering error.  When we think of heresies in this area of theology, usually our thoughts go first to Arianism.  Arianism denies that God is triune.  Instead, Jesus is a creature — an exalted, almost god-like creature, but still a creature.  The Holy Spirit is the impersonal power of God.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses are modern-day Arians.  It’s fair to say that we quickly realize this one as a heresy and dismiss it as unbiblical.

The other common error is not so easily detected.  Consider this quote from a church’s statement of faith:

Our God is One, but manifested in three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, being coequal.

Or this quote from another church’s statement of faith:

We believe in one God revealed as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Does that sound orthodox to you?  To many people it does.  It looks like all the elements are there.  We have one God, three persons.  We have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It may look orthodox at first glance.  But if you look closer, there’s a hitch.  The hitch is in the words “manifested” and “revealed.”  Those words indicate the presence of heresy.

This is the heresy known as modalism.  Like Arianism, this heresy dates back to the early church.  It’s commonly associated with Sabellius.  Sabellius believed in monotheism (one God), but he also recognized that the Bible spoke of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  How do you reconcile those two truths?  Sabellius taught that God is one, but he manifests or reveals himself at different times in one of three different ways.  Sometimes he manifests himself as Father, sometimes as Son, and sometimes as Holy Spirit.  It’s like God has three different masks he wears.  Sabellianism or modalism was recognized in the early church as unbiblical and heretical.  The Bible speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three distinct persons who are the one true God.

Where do you find modalism today?  Mostly in what are called “Oneness Pentecostal” churches.  The churches quoted from above are Oneness Pentecostal.  One of the largest Oneness Pentecostal churches is the United Pentecostal Church.  They’re found globally, in Canada, Australia, and many other places.  The UPC statement of faith says it plainly:

There is one God, who has revealed Himself as our Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and as the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is God manifested in flesh. He is both God and man.

Another way of detecting modalism is in the administration of baptism.  Many (but not all) Oneness Pentecostal churches baptize only in the name of Jesus Christ.  They do this because they reckon that baptizing in the name of Jesus Christ is also baptizing in the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Orthodox Christianity considers such baptisms to be invalid.

Modern-day modalism testifies to how ancient Christian creeds (and the biblical truths they contain) have been so often forgotten or forsaken.  Those creeds and their formulations came to us via many hard-fought battles.  The church strove to express biblical truth with careful precision.  Today these creeds give us a ready tool to detect unbiblical teaching when it comes to the basics of who God is.  It’s the height of foolishness to think we can do without them.


You are a Disciple!

How we think of ourselves matters for how we live our lives.  For many of us, if asked our religion, we’d readily identify ourselves as Christians.  But we live in a world where that answer can sometimes mean nothing more than I was baptized in a church and I used to go to church at Christmas and Easter.  Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean you have a true faith in Jesus Christ and walk in his ways.

Interestingly, the word “Christian” is only used three times in the New Testament.  However, there’s another term used to describe a believer in Jesus Christ.  This term is used nearly three hundred times in Scripture:  “disciple.”  A disciple of Jesus Christ is a student, but far more than just in the intellectual sense.  A disciple in the biblical sense not only imbibes information from his teacher, but aims to follow his life.  Our Lord said it in Luke 6:40, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”  A disciple is like an apprentice.  Believers are disciples.

Yet it seems like Reformed people seldom if ever think of themselves as disciples.  They rarely refer to themselves as disciples.  Why is that?

Why Not “Disciples”?

The notion of Christians as disciples of Christ isn’t prominent in our Reformed confessions.  In its discussion of providence in article 13, the Belgic Confession refers to us as “pupils of Christ, who have only to learn those things which he teaches us in his Word, without transgressing these limits.”  The original 1561 French had “disciples de Christ.”  However, here discipleship is used mainly in the sense of taking data into our mind.  Something similar can be said for Lord’s Day 12 of the Heidelberg Catechism where Christ is described as “our chief Prophet and Teacher.”  He is our Teacher in the sense that he has “fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption.”

It might seem as if Reformed theology is allergic to this biblical idea.  Yet if you go to the Reformers, they don’t have a problem with it.  For example, in his commentaries on the gospels, John Calvin acknowledges that Christians are disciples of Christ.  He works with the idea – if you take the New Testament seriously, it’s impossible not to.  So, it’s not as if there is an objection in principle in historic Reformed theology.  It’s simply the case that, more often than not, they used the word “believer” or “Christian” instead.

It could be that the term “disciple” has received more attention because of the modern mission movement.  I’m thinking here especially of the importance of the Great Commission of Matt. 28:18-20 and its key imperative to “make disciples of all nations.”  In Reformation times, the Great Commission was recognized by some (like Martin Bucer) as being an abiding call for the church to do mission.  However, it wasn’t until the late 1700s that it rose to prominence.  In more recent times, it’s become common to hear missionaries speak of discipleship as a focal aspect of their work.  Missionaries taught many new Christians to think of themselves as disciples – not just at the beginning of their Christian walk, but throughout.

The Benefits of “Disciples”

Regardless of the history, the Bible describes true Christians as disciples of Jesus Christ.  It’d be beneficial for us to think of ourselves as such and to identify ourselves as such.  I’ll explain why.

Thinking of yourself as a disciple is beneficial because it reminds you that there’s a goal in your sanctification:  to be Christ-like.  No, you can’t be him like in every respect, yet there are certainly ways you can and should (cf. 1 Cor. 11:11).  For example, you want to be humble and follow his model of servanthood (John 13:15).

It’s beneficial to identify ourselves to others as disciples of Christ because the word “Christian” is increasingly losing its true significance.  People often claim to be Christians while disregarding huge swathes of what Christ teaches in the Bible.  Identifying yourself as a “disciple of Christ” indicates that you aim to follow him and what he teaches – you want to be like him.  You aim to abide in his Word  (John 8:31).

Two Clarifications

Let me end with a couple of clarifications.

First, it’s important to distinguish between the practice of discipleship (while not necessarily using the term) and consciously self-identifying as a disciple of Christ.  Reformed churches, if they’re faithful, are actually good at discipleship.  For example, catechism instruction for the youth of the church is a fantastic discipleship program, even if it’s not spoken of in those terms.  My focus above is on how we identify ourselves and how we regard ourselves.  Do we ever consciously think in terms of being disciples of our Lord Jesus?

Second, the idea of being a disciple of Christ doesn’t exhaust the Bible’s teaching on who we are as redeemed people.  The Bible’s teaching on our identity is multi-faceted.  For example, another important aspect of our identity, often overlooked and underemphasized, is our union with Christ.  This certainly isn’t to say that we should abandon the word “Christian” either.  If we understand it properly for ourselves and clarify it for others, there’s no reason to abandon it.   What I’m simply suggesting is that we give more prominence to discipleship than we have in the past – just remember that if you’ve got true faith in Jesus Christ, you are his disciple!


De Brès, the Belgic Confession, and Persecution

The hanging of Guy de Brès and Peregrin de la Grange on 31st of May, 1567.

Did you know the Belgic Confession is the only officially adopted Reformed confession written by a martyr?  True, other confessions were written by martyrs.  The most notable is the Guanabara Confession.  It was written in 1557 by three Huguenot martyrs in Brazil – it bears the distinction of being the first Reformed confession written in the Americas.  Yet, unlike our Belgic, the Guanabara Confession was never adopted by any church.  The Belgic Confession stands alone.

If we closely survey the Belgic Confession, we’ll find the themes of martyrdom and persecution pervading it.  It’s common knowledge that Guido de Brès borrowed heavily from the French Confession of 1559.  However, one of the significant differences between the French Confession and the Belgic is the emphasis in the Belgic on persecution and martyrdom.  In fact, there is no European Reformation confession as oriented to this subject as the Belgic.

De Brès — A Life on the Run

This is owing to the life and times of its author.  After his conversion to the biblical, Reformed faith in 1547, the life of de Brès was marked by persecution.  He lived in the Low Countries, which William Monter called the “epicentre of heresy executions in Europe.”  Because of persecution, de Brès had to flee to England in 1548, one year after his conversion.  There he received some theological training.

After things started to become difficult in England too, he returned to the Low Countries in 1552.  He became a pastor in Lille, a city where many believers had been martyred by the Spanish authorities.  Several members of his church in Lille were martyred during his time as their pastor too.  Soon, de Brès himself had to flee again, first to Frankfurt, and then later to Lausanne.

By 1559, there was more religious freedom for the Reformed in the Low Countries and so de Brès returned.  He became pastor of the church at Tournai.  There he enjoyed relative peace for about two years.  Things took a turn for the worse in 1561.  The Spanish authorities again cracked down on Reformed believers and de Brès was again forced to run for his life.  Shortly before this, he wrote the Belgic Confession for the Reformed churches.

The Belgic Confession and Persecution

As mentioned earlier, the Confession was penned in the context of blood and death.  It shows throughout.  Our English edition today contains a brief introduction.  That introduction is, of course, fairly recent.  The original Belgic Confession had different introductory material.  It was published as a small booklet.  After the title page, there was a poem, likely written by de Brès.  It pleads for the ruling authorities to give the Reformed believers a fair hearing.  The possibility of another kind of verdict looms in the background.

Then follows the Dedicatory Epistle to Philip II, the Spanish ruler.  The theme of persecution and martyrdom permeates this epistle like no other writing of de Brès.  This writing is not often quoted, but when it is, usually it is this remarkable passage:

The banishments, prisons, racks, exiles, tortures and countless other persecutions plainly demonstrate that our desire and conviction is not carnal, for we would lead a far easier life if we did not embrace and maintain this doctrine.  But having the fear of God before our eyes, and being in dread of the warning of Jesus Christ, who tells us that he shall forsake us before God and his Father if we deny him before men, we suffer our backs to be beaten, our tongues to be cut, our mouths to be gagged and our whole body to be burnt, for we know that he who would follow Christ must take up his cross and deny himself.

That passage speaks powerfully of the determination of de Brès and his fellow Reformed believers.

Right before the actual body of the Belgic Confession, de Brès included “Some passages of the New Testament in which the faithful are exhorted to render confession of their faith before men.”  Four of the six passages quoted come from a biblical context of persecution, suffering, and martyrdom.

Then throughout the Confession itself we find references to enemies, persecution, and martyrdom.  In article 12, we read about the devils and evil spirits who “lie in wait like murderers to ruin the church and all its members…” They wait “to destroy everything by their wicked devices.”  In article 13, concerning the providence of God, de Brès writes about the consolation this doctrine provides:  “In this we trust, because we know that he holds in check the devil and all our enemies so that they cannot hurt us without his permission and will.” Article 27 is perhaps the most pointed.  De Brès writes of how God preserves the church “against the fury of the whole world.”  He makes a reference to the reign of Ahab during which “the Lord kept for himself seven thousand persons who had not bowed their knees to Baal.” Article 28 continues the theme when it speaks of believers joining the assembly of the church “wherever God has established it.  They should do so even though the rulers and edicts of princes were against it, and death or physical punishment might follow.” In article 29, de Brès mentions the characteristics of the false church.  Among these is the fact that “It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God.”  Finally, in the last article, de Brès writes about the last judgment.  He says the righteous will be vindicated:  “Their innocence will be known to all and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring upon the wicked who persecuted, oppressed, and tormented them in this world.”

The booklet containing the Confession was concluded with a remonstrance addressed to the magistrates of the Low Countries.  In this remonstrance, de Brès called for them to carry out their God-given task of delivering justice.  Not unexpectedly, this document also contains the themes of persecution and martyrdom.

The Enduring Testimony of Pastor Guido de Brès

Eventually, de Brès himself faced the gallows.  After Tournai, he fled south to France where he served the Reformed churches from 1561 to 1566.  De Brès returned north to his homeland in July of 1566, but the following year Spanish repression resumed.  De Brès escaped for a time, but eventually was betrayed and captured.  On May 31, 1567 he was hung for ostensibly celebrating the Lord’s Supper contrary to the commandment of the magistrates.

De Brès left us a beautiful gift with his Belgic Confession.  Yet it’s also important to remember he was a pastor and as such, he soundly blessed those under his ministry.  In his Histoire des Martyrs, Jean Crespin writes of an entire Reformed family that was martyred by the Spanish.  The Ogviers were put to death in Lille in 1556.  The family consisted of Robert, his wife Jeanne, their son Martin, and their daughter Baudechon.  Their pastor had been none other than Guido de Brès.

While they were in prison, Martin Ogvier wrote several letters and Crespin reproduces them, some in full and some in parts.  At a certain point Ogvier mentions his pastor:

Flee from those who teach you the wide road, and hold in reverence those who teach the straight way, for it will take you to salvation.  This is what our brother G. (whom you well know) has up till the present very faithfully and with exceptional diligence proclaimed to you…

“Brother G.” here is a reference to Guido de Brès.

Before he went to be with the Lord, Martin Ogvier spoke to his fellow prisoners and again he mentioned his pastor Guy (Guido) de Brès:

Lift up your hearts, my brothers, take courage, it’s done:  I’ve endured the last assault.  I pray you, don’t forget the holy doctrine of the Gospel and all the good teachings which you have heard from our brother Guy.  Show that you have received them in your hearts and not only in your ears.  Follow us, we’re going on ahead, and do not fear, for God will certainly not forsake you.  Good bye, my brothers.

I think that’s what every pastor would want to hear if his people were about to face the same death:  remember what he preached!

These days we might sometimes wonder whether we’re heading into a time of persecution, or maybe even martyrdom.  Certainly there is much more anti-Christian sentiment today than, say 25 years ago.  Whether intense persecution is on the horizon or not, we like Martin Ogvier, must learn to imitate the boldness of men like Guido de Brès.  We can treasure and hold forth our Belgic Confession, a faithful biblical summary, but also a testimony reminding us that the blood of the martyrs is always seed.


Pastoral Q & A: Is Catechism Preaching Biblical?

Reformed churches have historically practiced catechism preaching, typically in the afternoon or evening service.  This practice dates back to the Reformation.  However, in today’s milieu the practice is under threat.  Some Reformed churches have long abandoned catechism preaching while others are heading in that direction.  Sadly, even in churches that maintain it (like the Canadian Reformed and Free Reformed of Australia), there are members who not only question it, but actively repudiate it.

One of the chief objections often raised against catechism preaching is that it isn’t preaching on the Word of God.  Instead, churches doing this are preaching on a human document.  In so doing they’re actually repudiating the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura.  The infallible Bible alone should be our “text,” and yet Reformed churches are preaching on a fallible Catechism.

Such an objection arises either from a caricature of catechism preaching or a misunderstanding of it.  The caricature portrays a Reformed pastor who dryly exegetes the Catechism, perhaps even referring at length to the original German vocabulary and grammar, but who fails to open the Bible or even mention the Bible.  In this caricature, the Catechism has indeed replaced the Bible.  I say this is a caricature because I’ve never once encountered this type of “catechism preaching,” nor have I heard of it anecdotally.  I doubt it exists.  If it does, may it soon become extinct.

The common misunderstanding relates to the notion of what biblical preaching is.  Nowhere does the Bible indicate that preaching must be on one isolated text, a verse or perhaps a series of verses.  There’s no reason to conclude that preaching can’t exposit or explain the doctrine found in a number of Bible passages.  In expository preaching, the preacher focusses on one isolated passage (naturally taking context into account as well) of Scripture.  In catechism preaching, the preacher teaches the “whole counsel of God” on a doctrine while taking the whole Bible into account.  If there ever is such a thing, catechism preaching that doesn’t work with the Scriptures is not worthy of the name “preaching,” and it isn’t biblical.   However, done properly it too is the preaching of the Word of God.

In a lecture several years ago at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, I heard Dr. Jason Van Vliet suggest we think of the relationship between regular Bible-text preaching and catechism preaching in terms of nouns, verbs, and adverbs:

The nouns are the same — if done properly, in both instances our subject material is the Word of God.

The verbs are the same — if done properly, in both instances we are preaching the Word of God.

The adverbs are different — in the first instance we are preaching from a single text of Scripture (in what I would call an expository manner); in the second instance we are preaching catechetically from a broader range of God’s revelation in Scripture.

When things are put in this manner, no one should have a difficulty in agreeing that catechism preaching can and should be biblical preaching.

Hosea 4:6 says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…”  Lack of knowledge, including knowledge of the doctrines of Scripture, is destructive.  Catechism preaching aims to build up God’s people in their knowledge of what his Word teaches.  Catechism preaching is constructive — and so why wouldn’t any Reformed believer cherish it?

(Adapted from chapter 13 of my forthcoming book Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship)


CanRC General Synod Edmonton 2019 (3)

We now have some provisional Acts to survey.  For those interested in the details, the Acts can be found here at the CanRC website.  Let me just mention a few of the highlights from the last few days.

In article 23, the synod considered a request to update the Lord’s Supper forms.  This is in regard to the use of masculine pronouns.  The synod decided to mandate the Standing Committee for the Book of Praise (SCBP) to study the matter and propose any linguistic changes they might think necessary.  From my point of view, that’s a good development.  The use of the masculine pronoun in the Lord’s Supper forms grates on me (along with other infelicities in the forms).  However, I will be interested to see how the SCBP will work around this.  An easy way to fix it would be to switch it all to first or second person:  “Let us all consider our sins and accursedness that we may humble ourselves before God” or “All of you ought to consider your sins and accursedness so that you may humble yourselves before God.”  It shouldn’t be difficult to fix.

In article 41 we find the decision about the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  I’ve already commented in general about that decision.  Now that we have the full text, I find the following consideration noteworthy:

Ecclesiastical Fellowship is extended to churches where we find the marks of the true church (Article 29, Belgic Confession).  The presence of the marks of the church are premised on a given church accepting the authority of the Word of God.  Now that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands approve of developments contrary to the Lord’s instruction in his Word, the marks of the true church cannot with confidence be said to be consistently present in these churches.

This is well-worded.  It doesn’t go to the extreme of saying that the RCN are a federation of false churches.

Last of all, I would note the synod’s discussion of an item from the Blessings Christian Church in Hamilton, ON.  This is in article 64.  Blessings sent a “request for revision” of a decision made by Synod 1983 regarding the forms for baptism and public profession of faith.  They asked Synod 2019 to judge that Synod 1983 erred in inserting “confessions” into the questions where once stood “articles of the Christian faith.”  Synod 2019 decided that this request had come improperly — Blessings has to go back and follow the ecclesiastical route of presenting a proposal via classis and regional synod.  The proper process needs to be followed.  Now I have to say that I don’t have the “request for revision” from Blessings in front of me — I haven’t seen it.  All I have is what we find in the Acts.  The quoted summary in 3.2 of article 64 reads:

In light of new research, the emergence of a new ecumenical landscape, and the conviction that previous appeals to synods (1986, 1989, 1992) were inadequately considered and therefore unjustly denied, the Blessings Christian Church requests a revision of the 1983 (Cloverdale) General Synod’s decision to modify the questions in the liturgical forms for Baptism and Profession of Faith by replacing the phrase “articles of the Christian faith” (or the tentatively approved “Apostles’ Creed”) with the term “confessions.”

I would be curious to know what this “new research” is, as well as details on how we now have a “new ecumenical landscape,” to say nothing of how previous synod decisions fell short.  Previous synods decided that “confessions” is a linguistic revision (improvement) upon “articles of the Christian faith.”  It clarifies what was meant by “articles of the Christian faith.”  Because of the use of a similar expression in Lord’s Day 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism, it could have given the impression that CanRC members only commit to the Apostles’ Creed.  So why would anyone want to go back to the ambiguous expression?   Clarity is always better.  What we read in the Acts of Synod 2019 could give the impression that Blessings wants to move the CanRC away from confessional membership, i.e. the communicant members commit to the Three Forms of Unity.  I’m glad that it didn’t go anywhere this time and I pray it never will.