Tag Archives: Guido de Bres

The Reformation and Doxology

Five hundred years!  Today is the day we mark a half millennia since God brought Reformation to his church.  Over these five centuries, Reformed biblical theology has spread far and wide.  Its influence has infiltrated into various cultures and sub-cultures around the globe.  For this, we ought to praise God and vigorously.

One of the surprising sub-cultures where Reformation theology has found a home today is American hip-hop.  One of the leading voices in this development is Shai Linne.  In the spoken word intro to his album Lyrical Theology Part 2: Doxology, Shai makes this astute observation:  “If you have theology without doxology, you just have cold dead orthodoxy…If you have doxology without theology, you actually have idolatry.”  He’s right.

Theology (the study of who God is and what he’s done) should lead us right to doxology (proper praise for God).  The two belong together and must never be separated.  So when we consider the Reformation, we’re not doing it right if we’re not ending up on our knees in adoration for God.  There are all sorts of reasons why remembering the Reformation should bring us to worship — the chief being the recovery of the biblical gospel.  Without that gain, everything else is meaningless.  Praise God that he peeled away the ignorance, brought back the Bible, and brought widespread gospel preaching back to his church!

Let me mention three other reasons why we ought to be praising God today for the Reformation.

The Recovery of Certainty and Assurance

When many medieval Christians went to church, they were immediately confronted with an image of Christ.  It was not an image of Christ as Saviour, but as the coming Judge of heaven and earth.  The medieval church wanted to put the fear of Jesus into its members.  You were always supposed to be afraid and wondering whether you would be good enough for him.  You would never know the answer to that question until after you died.  For the average believer, the prospect of purgatory always loomed.  You could not be sure that you would go to God’s blessed presence the moment you died, because most likely you wouldn’t.  What a horrible distortion of the Christian faith!

The Reformation brought back the Bible’s message of justification.  If you believe in Jesus Christ, you are declared right by God.  The Judge is now your Father.  As his beloved child, you need not fear judgment.  When you die, because of God’s verdict in your justification, you can be absolutely 100% certain that you will be going to his blessed presence.  As one Reformation catechism put, “Our death is not a payment for our sins, but it puts an end to sin and is an entrance into eternal life” (Heidelberg Catechism QA 42).  Praise God that we are not left wobbly and doubting!  Praise God for the Reformation’s recovery of gospel certainty!

The Restoration of the Voice of God’s People in Worship

Prior to the Reformation, when you went to mass you mainly went as a spectator.  Almost everything was done by someone else, mainly the priest and his assistants.  Congregation members were typically passive participants.  Since much of the service was in Latin, it could not be otherwise.  The idea of congregational singing was known, but not widely practiced.

With the Reformation, this began to change dramatically.  Christian worship becomes a more active affair for congregation members.  They are not only to watch or listen, but also to participate and particularly in song.  One of John Calvin’s priorities was the preparation of a metrical Psalter in the language of the people.  This was because he understood that the congregation should be lifting up its voice in worship.  In Reformed churches today, this continues to be the practice.  We emphasize congregational singing, the priesthood of all believers melodiously lifting up the Name of God.  We don’t go to church to listen to a choir sing or listen to soloists, but to lift up our own voices in praise to God.  This is as it should be.  Let’s praise God that we can praise him each Lord’s Day from our own hearts with our own tongues and lips!

The Humanity of the Reformers and their Example

When we look closely at the men whom God used to recover the gospel in the Reformation, one of the striking things is that they were just, well…men.  They were not super saints.  They had warts and blemishes.  For example, Luther famously ran off his mouth and was known for saying some things a bit strongly, if not strangely — and even sometimes wrongly.  Yet through their weaknesses, the power of God was made strong.  God amazingly worked through weak and sinful men to bring something about that’s still having a ripple effect to this day.

They were people with families.  When they faced death or martyrdom, they wrote like regular people because that’s what they were.  If you haven’t already, you need to read the powerful last letter of Guido de Brès to his wife.  See if you can read that without praising God for the example of this Reformation pastor.  I read that letter and I can’t help but doxologize.  God worked steadfast faithfulness in his servants and it was not in vain.  The gospel for which de Brès died outlived him and spread far beyond his little corner of the world.  God worked through them, through their humanity, and he left examples for us to follow.

There are many more reasons why we can be praising God today as we remember the Reformation.  Along with the recovery of the gospel as number one, those three above certainly rank up there for me.  They lead me to this:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song,

for he has done marvelous things!

His right hand and his holy arm

have worked salvation for him…

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;

break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

Psalm 98:1,4


The Reformation and Martyrdom

In parts of Europe, the Reformation was marked with the spilling of blood.  In the first half of the sixteenth century, nowhere were more martyrs murdered than in the Low Countries.  Reformed believers experienced intense persecution from the Spanish authorities.  One of those believers was the author of the Belgic Confession, Guido de Brès.  As a leading pastor in the Reformed churches, De Brès was a wanted man.  Finally, on March 28, 1567, he was arrested and imprisoned.  As he waited for his inevitable death sentence, de Brès wrote several letters.  These letters survived and were later published.  The most notable among them is the letter he wrote to his wife Catherine.  You can hear the author of the Belgic Confession speak tenderly as a husband and father.  In these words he comes alive, not only as a human being, but as a redeemed sinner bought with the blood of Jesus Christ.  He went to his martyrdom on May 31, 1567 with full confidence in Christ.  It was through martyrdoms like that of de Brès that God continued to spread the Reformation.  Not only his preaching, but also his martyrdom served as a witness to the Son of God.

Here’s the letter.  See if you can read it out loud without tears welling up — I never can.

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Letter of Comfort from Guido de Brès to His Wife

The grace and mercy of our good God and heavenly Father, and the love of His Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, be with you, my dearly beloved.

Catherine Ramon, my dear and beloved wife and sister in our Lord Jesus Christ:  your anguish and sadness disturbs somewhat my joy and the happiness of my heart, so I am writing this for the consolation of both of us, and especially for your consolation, since you have always loved me with an ardent affection, and because it pleases the Lord to separate us from each other.  I feel your sorrow over this separation more keenly than mine.  I pray you not to be troubled too much over this, for fear of offending God.  You knew when you married me that you were taking a mortal husband, who was uncertain of life, and yet it has pleased God to permit us to live together for seven years, giving us five children.  If the Lord had wished us to live together longer, he would have provided the way.  But it did not please him to do this and may his will be done.

Now remember that I did not fall into the hands of my enemies by mere chance, but through the providence of my God who controls and governs all things, the least as well as the greatest.  This is shown by the words of Christ, “Be not afraid.  Your very hairs are numbered.  Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?  And not one of them shall fall to the ground without the will of your Father.  Then fear nothing.  You are more excellent than many sparrows.”  These words of divine wisdom say that God knows the number of my hairs.  How then can harm come to me without the command and providence of God?  It could not happen, unless one should say that God is no longer God.  This is why the Prophet says that there is no affliction in the city that the Lord has not willed.

Many saintly persons who were before us consoled themselves in their afflictions and tribulations with this doctrine.  Joseph, having been sold by his brothers and taken into Egypt, says, “You did a wicked deed, but God has turned it to your good.  God sent me into Egypt before you for your profit.” (Genesis 50).  David also experienced this when Shimei cursed him.  So too in the case of Job and many others.

And that is why the Evangelists write so carefully of the sufferings and of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, adding, “And this was done that that which was written of Him might be accomplished.”  The same should be said of all the members of Christ.

It is very true that human reason rebels against this doctrine and resists it as much as possible and I have very strongly experienced this myself.  When I was arrested, I would say to myself, “So many of us should not have traveled together.  We were betrayed by this one or that one.  We ought not to have been arrested.”  With such thoughts I became overwhelmed, until my spirits were raised by meditation on the providence of God.  Then my heart began to feel a great repose.  I began then to say, “My God, you have caused me to be born in the time you have ordained.  During all the time of my life you have kept me and preserved me from great dangers and you have delivered me from them all – and if at present my hour has come in which I will pass from this life to you, may your will be done.  I cannot escape from your hands.  And if I could, I would not, since it is happiness for me to conform to your will.”  These thoughts made my heart cheerful again.

And I pray you, my dear and faithful companion, to join me in thanking God for what he has done.  For he does nothing that is not just and very equitable, and you should believe that it is for my good and for my peace.  You have seen and felt my labours, cross, persecutions, and afflictions which I have endured, and have even had a part in them when you accompanied me in my travels during the time of my exile.  Now my God has extended his hand to receive me into his blessed kingdom.  I shall see it before you and when it shall please the Lord, you will follow me.  This separation is not for all time.  The Lord will receive you also to join us together again in our head, Jesus Christ.

This is not the place of our habitation – that is in heaven.  This is only the place of our journey.  That is why we long for our true country, which is heaven.  We desire to be received in the home of our Heavenly Father, to see our Brother, Head, and Saviour Jesus Christ, to see the noble company of the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and many thousands of martyrs, into whose company I hope to be received when I have finished the course of my work which I received from my Lord Jesus Christ.

I pray you, my dearly beloved, to console yourself with meditation on these things.  Consider the honour that God has done you, in giving you a husband who was not only a minister of the Son of God, but so esteemed of God that he allowed him to have the crown of martyrs.  It is an honour the like of which God has never even given to the angels.

I am happy; my heart is light and it lacks nothing in my afflictions.   I am so filled with the abundance of the richness of my God that I have enough for me and all those to whom I can speak.  So I pray my God that he will continue his kindness to me, his prisoner.  The One in whom I have trusted will do it, for I have found by experience that he will never leave those who have trusted in him.  I would never have thought that God would have been so kind to such a poor creature as I.  I feel the faithfulness of my Lord Jesus Christ.

I am practicing now what I have preached to others.  And I must confess that when I preached I would speak about the things I am actually experiencing as a blind man speaks of colour.  Since I was taken prisoner I have profited more and learned more than during all the rest of my life.  I am in a very good school:  the Holy Spirit inspires me continually and teaches me how to use the weapons in this combat.  On the other side is Satan, the adversary of all children of God.  He is like a boisterous, roaring lion.  He constantly surrounds me and seeks to wound me.  But he who has said, “Fear not, for I have overcome the world,” makes me victorious.  And already I see that the Lord puts Satan under my feet and I feel the power of God perfected in my weakness.

Our Lord permits me on the one hand to feel my weakness and my smallness, that I am but a small vessel on the earth, very fragile, to the end that he would humble me, so that all the glory of the victory may be given to him.  On the other hand, he fortifies me and consoles me in an unbelievable way.  I have more comfort than the enemies of the gospel.  I eat, drink and rest better than they do.  I am held in a very strong prison, very bleak, gloomy, and dark.  For its gloominess, the prison is known by the name “Brunain.” [Brownie].  The air is poor and it stinks.  On my feet and hands I have irons, big and heavy.  They are a continual hell, hollowing my limbs up to my poor bones.  The chief constable comes to look at my irons two or three times a day, fearing that I will escape.  There are three guards of forty men before the door of the prison.

I have also the visits of Monsieur de Hamaide.  He comes to see me, to console me, and to exhort me to patience, as he says.  However, he comes after dinner, after he has wine in the head and a full stomach.  You can imagine what these consolations are.  He threatens me and says to me that if I would show any intention of escaping he would have me chained by the neck, the body and legs, so that I could not move a finger; and he says many other things in this order.  But for all that, my God does not take away his promises, consoling my heart, giving me very much contentment.

Since such things have happened, my dear sister and faithful wife, I implore you to find comfort from the Lord in your afflictions and to place your troubles with him.  He is the husband of believing widows and the father of poor orphans.  He will never leave you – of that I can assure you.  Conduct yourself as a Christian woman, faithful in the fear of God, as you always have been, honouring by your good life and conversation the doctrine of the Son of God, which your husband has preached.

As you have always loved me with great affection, I pray that you will continue this love toward our little children, instructing them in the knowledge of the true God and of his Son Jesus Christ.  Be their father and their mother, and take care that they use honestly the little that God has given you.  If God does you the favour to permit you to live in widowhood with our children after my death, that will be well.  If you cannot, and the means are lacking, then go to some good man, faithful and fearing God.  And when I can, I shall write to our friends to watch over you.  I think that they will not let you want for anything.  Take up your regular routine after the Lord has taken me.  You have our daughter Sarah who will soon be grown.  She will be your companion and help you in your troubles.  She will console you in your tribulations and the Lord will always be with you.  Greet our good friends in my name, and let them pray to God for me, that he may give me strength, speech, and the wisdom and ability to uphold the truth of the Son of God to the end and to the last breath of my life.

Farewell, Catherine, my dearly beloved.  I pray my God that he will comfort you and give you contentment in his good will.  I hope that God has given me the grace to write for your benefit, in such a way that you may be consoled in this poor world.  Keep my letter for a remembrance of me.  It is badly written, but it is what I am able to do, and not what I wish to do.  Commend me to my good mother.  I hope to write some consolation to her, if it pleases God.  Greet also my good sister.  May she take her affliction to God.  Grace be with you.

At the prison, April 12, 1567.

Your faithful husband, Guy de Brès, minister of the Word of God at Valenciennes, and presently prisoner for the Son of God at the aforesaid place.

 


The Reformation of Purgatory

Our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation continues.   One of the most important Reformers in the Low Countries was Guido (or Guy) de Brès.  Martyred in 1567, we remember him primarily as the author of the 1561 Belgic Confession.  Today let me share with you a little known fact about de Brès:  he reformed the doctrine of purgatory.

This came out when he was in prison in Tournai.  He and another Reformed pastor (Peregrin de la Grange) were initially imprisoned there and then shortly afterwards transferred to Valenciennes.  While awaiting transfer, de Brès and de la Grange were visited by many people.  He had become a celebrity.  He wrote, “…I was visited by a large number of gentlemen, women, and young girls, who said that they wanted to see me because they had heard so much of Guy de Brès, and had never seen him before.”

Among those visitors was Monsieur de Moulbay, the commander of the Tournai castle where de Brès was imprisoned.  He came looking to debate points of theology with the pastor.  They first tried to argue with de Brès about the invocation of Mary and other saints.  De Brès stumped them with quotations from Scripture and Augustine.  Their next attack came with the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, Jesus’ mother.  De Brès affirmed that he believed that she was always and still is a virgin — not an uncommon position among sixteenth century Reformers.  The answer surprised his accusers.

Then de Moulbay alleged that de Brès did not believe in purgatory.  By that, he meant the Romanist idea that most believers, after they die, would have to go to a place of fiery cleansing.  Purgatory was an unpleasant experience necessitated by the fact that most believers were going to die with unconfessed and unforgiven sin.  De Moulbay thought that de Brès rejected this teaching.  This was the response of de Brès and the follow-up:

Pardon me, sir, I do not belong to those who deny a purgatory.  For I hold the blood of the Son of God to be the purgatory of the sins of those who repent and embrace this benefit by faith.  But I do not recognize the burning and roasting of souls as held by the fables of the priests.  Then he answered me in anger, saying that I might as well deny that there is a hell.  But I said that I held that there is a hell for the sinful and wicked, just as the Word of God teaches us, but that I did not hold to such a purgatory as the priests had invented because the Scriptures teach us nothing about it.  Then they said that I should find out if there is a hell, when I would be damned.  To which I responded to him that I have my Judge in heaven and he would judge altogether different — and concerning that I was confident because of his Word.

We read nothing of anything further between de Brès and de Moulbay.  Immediately after this, de Brès and de la Grange were shipped out of Tournai on their way to Valenciennes.

It is possible that de Brès’ thinking about purgatory was influenced by John Calvin.  In Institutes 3.5.6, Calvin wrote:

For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction of sins is paid by the souls of the dead after their death?  Hence, when the notion of satisfaction is destroyed, purgatory itself is straightway torn up by the very roots.  But if it is perfectly clear from our preceding discourse that the blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers, the sole expiation, the sole purgation, what remains but to say that purgatory is simply a dreadful blasphemy against Christ?

Notice how Calvin speaks about Christ’s blood as “the sole purgation” (or the only cleansing).  That’s similar to how de Brès answered de Moulbay.

However, there is a late medieval letter which may be an earlier influence.  Wessel Gansfort was a Dutch theologian who lived about a century before de Brès.  He was writing to Jacob Hoeck, another theologian.  They had been arguing about the role of tradition and Scripture, specifically with regard to the issue of indulgences.  Indulgences were the church’s means for reducing the believer’s time in purgatory.  Hoeck had asserted that the Bible said nothing for or against indulgences.  Gansfort completely disagreed.  He wrote,

In my opinion it was not the first Pope, Peter, but the Holy Spirit through Peter who issued the one and only permanent bull of indulgence.  Peter testifies that this bull is permanent because it provides ample entrance into the kingdom of God and of our Saviour Jesus Christ.  And Peter further testifies that the bull is the only one and adds, ‘Whoever lacks these things [the ten things enumerated in 2 Peter 1] is blind and feeling his way by hand and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.’  Therefore no other bull is to received or authorized which does not include this.  Every other bull is superfluous and, therefore, Scripture does speak about indulgences, because it refers to ample entrance into the kingdom. (Forerunners of the Reformation, ed. Heiko Oberman, 103).

Gansfort was speaking about a different (but related) issue, yet we find him using the same polemical method as de Brès about a hundred years later:  co-opting your opponent’s terminology.  Had de Brès read Gansfort?  It’s impossible to say.  More likely, both Gansfort and de Brès were using a method of argument that had been developed by someone else in an earlier period.  Regardless of where it came from, de Brès rejected the Romanist doctrine of purgatory and insisted that, if we are going to speak about the purging of sin, it must be done only in connection with the blood of Christ shed on the cross.  That’s the only way to reform purgatory.


The Reformation and the Apocrypha

Did you know that the first editions of the Belgic Confession included two proof-texts from the apocrypha?  Did you know that our contemporary editions continue to include one small quote from the apocrypha?  Elsewhere in his writings, Guido de Brès referred more often to these non-canonical writings.  Moreover, de Brès was not exceptional in doing this.  Other Reformers did likewise, and so did other Reformed confessions.  In this paper, I outline de Brès’ use of the apocrypha, put it in the historical context of the Reformation, and attempt to explain it.


De Brès vs. Richardot: A Reformation Debate

If there’s one Reformation figure who deserves more attention, I would argue that it’s Guido de Brès.  Since I wrote my dissertation on the Belgic Confession (later published as For the Cause of the Son of God) in 2010, I’ve invested more effort in researching and writing about its author and his work for the gospel.  A few years ago, one of my projects was to translate and annotate one of the debates that de Brès had while he was in prison awaiting execution.  This was published in the 2010 issue of The Confessional Presbyterian.  Today, in commemoration of the 500th birthday of the Reformation, I’m pleased to offer you the full text of the debate, along with my introduction and notes: “De Brès versus Richardot: A Sixteenth-Century Debate Regarding the Lord’s Supper.”