Tag Archives: Heinrich Bullinger

The Synod of Dort and the Sabbath

The following is a talk I did for the Dort 400 Conference held in Caruaru, Brazil on March 22, 2019.  The Portuguese version can be found here.  Especially for some of the historical material, I acknowledge my indebtedness to Daniel Hyde’s article, “Regulae de Observatione Sabbathi: The Synod of Dort’s Deliverance on the Sabbath,” published in the 2012 issue of the Puritan Reformed Journal.  

It was Sunday August 3, 1924 in Jamestown, Michigan, USA.   Pastor Henry Wierenga had not even been the minister of the Jamestown Christian Reformed Church for four years.  This was his first congregation.  Back in those days, every Christian Reformed Church had a morning and an evening service.  In the evening service, it was the custom to listen to a sermon based on the Heidelberg Catechism.  On Sunday August 3, 1924, Pastor Wierenga was at Lord’s Day 38.  He was preaching about the Fourth Commandment.

In his sermon, Pastor Wierenga said that the Sabbath commandment was not applicable in the New Testament era.  He maintained that Sunday had no special status in the New Testament and it was not to be seen as a replacement of the Jewish Sabbath from the Old Testament.  Christ had fulfilled the Sabbath, which was entirely ceremonial.  The Fourth Commandment has no moral requirement for Christians today.  Therefore, he said, Christians are under no obligation to regard the day as special.   They might still choose to worship on this day, but every day was equally holy.  If one desired, one could certainly work on Sunday or do anything that one might do on any other day of the week.

Pastor Wierenga’s consistory did not like what they were hearing.  The elders completely disagreed with their minister.  The matter was brought to a classis.  The classis appointed a committee to investigate.  This committee advised the elders in Jamestown to ask Rev. Wierenga to preach on Lord’s Day 38 again.  They asked him and he did this on December 7, 1924.  His second sermon was no better than the first.  The elders were still concerned and so was the classis committee.  On February 20, 1925, the Jamestown Christian Reformed Church suspended their pastor for teaching false doctrine.  Then on March 6, 1925, he was deposed by Classis Zeeland.

Henry Wierenga decided to appeal his suspension and deposition to the Christian Reformed Synod in 1926.  However, his appeal was denied.  His deposition was upheld.  The Christian Reformed Synod agreed that it was right and proper for Wierenga to have been disciplined for his views on the Sabbath.  During all these discussions, a decision of the Synod of Dort was mentioned many times.  It was at the heart of the Wierenga case.

We naturally remember the Synod of Dort because of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons were the response of the Synod to the Arminians.  However, it is often forgotten that this Synod discussed many more things.  They decided on many more things.  The Synod began in November of 1618 and finished in May of 1619.   On May 17, 1619, in the 164th session, the Synod of Dort issued a doctrinal statement about the Sabbath.  Unfortunately, for us today, this is one of the most neglected contributions of the Synod of Dort.  But this doctrinal statement was well-known in the Christian Reformed Church in North America in 1924-1926.  It had been well-known before that too.  In fact, the Christian Reformed Church had adopted the Synod of Dort’s decision on the Sabbath already in 1881.

The Synod of Dort on the Sabbath

Let’s just take a quick look at what the Synod of Dort decided on the Sabbath.  We will take a quick look now and then come back for a closer look later.  There are six points:

  1. There is in the fourth commandment of the divine law a ceremonial and a moral element.
  2. The ceremonial element is the rest of the seventh day after creation, and the strict observance of that day imposed especially on the Jewish people.
  3. The moral element consists in the fact that a certain definite day is set aside for worship and so much rest as is needful for worship and hallowed meditation.
  4. The Sabbath of the Jews having been abolished, the day of the Lord must be solemnly hallowed by Christians.
  5. Since the time of the apostles this day has always been observed by the old catholic church.
  6. This day must be so consecrated to worship that on that day we rest from all servile works, except those which charity and present necessity require; and also from all such recreations as interfere with worship.

I first want to explain the background of this decision.  Then we will come back and look at the decision itself.  We will also look at whether it is biblical and how it is relevant for us today.

Background

After the Reformation took place in Europe in the 1500s, there was a healthy understanding in Reformed churches of the importance of God’s law, including the Fourth Commandment.  They understood that our salvation is through grace alone.  We are only saved because of what Christ has done for us.  Then we respond to God’s grace with love and thankfulness expressed by a Christian life.  We respond to the gospel by taking God’s law seriously as the guide for our lives.  The Holy Spirit makes us love God’s law and want to follow it.

For example, the Reformer Heinrich Bullinger preached a sermon on the Fourth Commandment.  He explained that the Fourth Commandment still applies to Christians today – through it God commands us to rest and worship.  Bullinger explained that if you go about your daily work on Sunday as if it is a normal day, you are sinning against the Fourth Commandment.  He also said that if you stay in bed all day and refuse to go to worship God, you are also sinning against the Fourth Commandment.[1]  Bullinger was not alone – this was the standard way for the first Reformed churches to understand the Fourth Commandment.

When the Reformation first came to the Netherlands, the region was under Spanish control.  Of course, that meant that religiously it was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.  But eventually there was the Dutch Revolt.  Led by leaders like William of Orange, the Dutch rebelled against their Spanish rulers.  They were not successful in the southern part of the Netherlands – what we today call Belgium.  But the story was different in the north, the modern day region we call the Netherlands.  The important thing for us is that politics and religion were connected.  Many of the leaders in the Dutch Revolt were Reformed.  After the Dutch Revolt, many of the political leaders in the Netherlands continued to be Reformed.

However, that does not mean that the Kingdom of the Netherlands was actually Reformed.  In 1587, Reformed church members only made up 10% of the population in the Netherlands.  By 1622, after the Synod of Dort, it was still less than 25%.  As you can imagine, being a minority meant that the Reformed churches were not always able to influence society the way they wanted to.

This was also true when it came to honouring the Fourth Commandment.  Most Dutch people ignored it.  And the rulers did little or nothing about it.  Before the Synod of Dort, Sunday was just like another day for most Dutch towns and cities.  In fact, some conservative Reformed preachers started calling it “Sin-day” (Zondendag) instead of “Sunday” (Zondag).  The Reformed churches were concerned that the society in which they lived did not care about God’s good law, and their rulers, even if they were Reformed, made no effort to change it.

That brings us to 1619 and the Synod of Dort.  The topic of the Sabbath came up quite late in the Synod.  It was mentioned on May 1, 1619, in the 148th session.  The Canons of Dort had already been adopted.  The revised text of the Belgic Confession had been adopted.  And finally, on this day, the Heidelberg Catechism was discussed and all the theologians agreed that it was biblical.  Now the interesting thing is that the official Acts of the Synod of Dort do not mention anything being said about the Sabbath in this session.  Our information about this comes from correspondence sent by someone from the British delegation to the Synod.

As you know, the Synod of Dort was international in character.  Amongst the countries represented was Great Britain.  One of their delegates was Walter Balcanqual.  He sent reports to Sir Dudley Carlton, who was the British ambassador to the Netherlands.  Towards the end of the Synod, he simply sent the notes of his secretary to the ambassador.  In these notes of the 148th session, we read that the British delegates had publically noted how the Sabbath was neglected in the city of Dort.  They took offense at this on the floor of the Synod.  They urged the Synod to ask the civil magistrates to ban business on the Lord’s Day or Sabbath.  There is nothing in these notes to tell us whether there was further discussion at that moment.  This does tell us, however, that the official Acts of the Synod of Dort do not record absolutely everything that was discussed.  Sometimes there are gaps.

Others raised the issue afterwards.  There were only 17 elders at the Synod of Dort.  Part of the reason for that low number was that all the synod’s work would be done in Latin, and most elders did not speak Latin.  One of the elders delegated from Classis Zeeland was Josiah Vosberg.  He was a lawyer, a well-educated man, and thus he spoke Latin.  Zeeland was a province of the Netherlands where the Sabbath controversy was most intense.  Josiah Vosberg was on the orthodox side.  He made a motion that the Synod should take up the question and make a statement on it.  So, notice:  besides the Canons of Dort, this was one of the most important accomplishments of the Synod.  And the motion for it did not come from one of the academic theologians or ministers, but from a godly elder.

The involvement of the international delegations ended on May 9, 1619.  All the international delegates returned to their home countries, but the synod continued.  Without the foreign delegates, the Synod of Dort now focussed on several issues that only had to do with the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.  One of those issues was the Sabbath.  Since it had been raised as a question, the Synod decided to discuss it properly.

There were two aspects to the issue as raised at the Synod.  There was the political question and then the theological question.  The political question came first.  In the 163rd session on May 17, the Synod decided to urge the Dutch government to develop new, stricter legislation regarding the Sabbath.  The Synod did not specify what they meant by “stricter.”

Concerning the theological question, the Synod decided the following:

When the formulation concerning the removal of the dishonouring of the Sabbath [was discussed], a question is aired concerning the necessity of observing the Sabbath, which was beginning to be agitated in the churches of Zeeland: the professors are requested to consider this question with the brethren of Zeeland in a friendly conference, and to see whether certain general rules can be prepared and set forth by common consent, within whose limits both parties involved with this question may delay until such time that the question can be given further consideration by the next National Synod.

We can note that these “general rules” were meant to be a temporary answer.  They hoped the matter could be revisited at another synod soon.  However, as it turned out, there was not another national synod in the Netherlands for many, many years.

Professors Johannes Polyander, Franciscus Gomarus, Anthonius Thysius, Sibrandus Lubbertus, and Antonius Walaeus were those appointed to meet with the Zeeland delegates.  Now one of the amazing things is how quickly they worked.  The Synod broke for lunch.  When they returned for their 164th session in the afternoon on the same day, there was a proposed set of rules.  We do not know how long the discussion took that afternoon on the floor of synod, but we do know the outcome.  The Rules for the Observance of the Sabbath or Lord’s Day were officially adopted by the Dutch Reformed churches.

Looking Closer at the Rules

Now I want to take a closer look at what the Synod of Dort decided.  Each of the rules is short, but they actually say a lot.  I will go through each of the rules, explain them, and make a few comments.

  1. There is in the fourth commandment of the divine law a ceremonial and a moral element.

In theology, we speak of a three-fold division of the law.  This is an old division which was recognized even long before the Reformation.  In the law of God, there are ceremonial, moral, and civil aspects.  The ceremonial law was for Israel and pointed ahead to Christ.  This included things like the sacrifices for sin.  After Christ has fulfilled the ceremonial law, we can still learn from it, but it does not apply to us like it did to Israel.  The civil law is similar – it was for Israel as a nation in their own context.  There are general principles that are still important for us, but the details are not always binding on us.  However, the moral law is always binding.  The moral law is summarized in the Ten Commandments.  When we talk about the Fourth Commandment, there are ceremonial aspects, but there are also moral aspects.  Only the moral aspects are binding on us as Christians today.

  1. The ceremonial element is the rest of the seventh day after creation, and the strict observance of that day imposed especially on the Jewish people.

So what exactly is the ceremonial aspect of the Fourth Commandment?  The Synod of Dort recognized that there are two parts to it.  The first is the original day of the week for the Sabbath.  Originally it was the seventh day or Saturday.  Of course, this is reflected even in the Portuguese name for this day (sabado).  This day was the day God rested from his work of creating, thereby setting a pattern.  The second ceremonial aspect is the “strict observance” that was given in the Old Testament for this day.  For example, there was a command  in Exodus 35:3 that the Israelites were not to light a fire on the Sabbath.  That is “strict observance.”

  1. The moral element consists in the fact that a certain definite day is set aside for worship and so much rest as is needful for worship and hallowed meditation.

Next, the Synod identified the abiding moral aspect of the Fourth Commandment.  Here there are three things that need to be mentioned.  There is the principle of a “definite day.”  One day per week must be set aside, or regarded as holy.  Second, this definite day is to be set aside for worship.  It is a day for worship.  But third, it is also a day for rest.  So putting it all together we have a definite day for rest and worship.  This is permanently binding on us.

  1. The Sabbath of the Jews having been abolished, the day of the Lord must be solemnly hallowed by Christians.

This part of the decision deals with the progress of redemptive history.  The Synod acknowledged that the Sabbath of the Jews (i.e. the strict rest and worship on the seventh day) has been abolished.  The day to be honoured has now shifted to the first day of the week – it is the “day of the Lord” as Scripture calls it in Rev. 1:10.  It is the day Christ rose from the dead.  It is the day that changed everything, including the calendar.  We “solemnly hallow” this day in his honour.  How we do that is mentioned in the sixth point.

  1. Since the time of the apostles this day has always been observed by the old catholic church.

History and tradition are important for Reformed believers.  While it is not binding on us, we do recognize that it if there is a long history of thinking a certain way about a theological issue, we should not throw it away without thinking carefully.  We need to understand why believers in history thought the way they did.  We need to compare their thinking with what the Bible says.  When it comes to the Fourth Commandment, the Synod of Dort pointed out that ever since the time of the apostles, the church has observed Sunday as the Lord’s Day.  There is a long tradition of understanding that the Fourth Commandment still applies to us today, but now it applies to the first day of the week instead of the seventh.

  1. This day must be so consecrated to worship that on that day we rest from all servile works, except those which charity and present necessity require; and also from all such recreations as interfere with worship.

The final part of the Synod’s decision speaks about how to properly set apart the Lord’s Day.  The focus of the day is to be on worship.  That echoes the approach of the first part of Lord’s Day 38 in the Heidelberg Catechism.  The Catechism called it “the day of rest” (in German: “the festive day of rest”).  But aside from that, the Catechism said nothing more about physical rest.  The Synod did.  In order to keep the focus of the entire day (not just the church services) on God, we are to rest “from all servile works.”  What are “servile works”?  That is a term with an ancient history in the Christian church.  It was used in the Latin Vulgate translation of Leviticus 23:7.  It originally referred to physical work of the kind done by servants.  In history, if you had servants, servile work would often mean every kind of work.  You would get your servants to do just about everything.  The English Standard Version of Leviticus 23:7 translates the Hebrew expression there as “ordinary work,” and I think that captures for today what “servile works” really are.  It is ordinary work.  It is the work you would be called to do at any other time.  Traditionally that would be physical work, but in our day, that is going to naturally expand to include all types of work.  Now there are two exceptions.  There are works of charity.  If you have to work to help someone out on a Sunday, you are not breaking the Fourth Commandment – in fact, you should!  This was taught by our Lord Jesus in Matthew 12:9-13.  He said that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”  Then there are also works of necessity.  We need ministers to work at preaching, we need police officers to enforce the law, we need nurses and doctors to take care of the sick.  They have to do this work also on the Lord’s Day.  It is no sin.  Finally, we can note that the Synod said that all recreations that interfere with worship are also ruled out.  So, as an example, you can go for a walk on Sunday, but you cannot go for a walk when God calls you to be in church.

Let me make two more general observations about these rules.  First, the Synod of Dort did not go into exhaustive detail about every aspect of interpreting the Fourth Commandment.  There is still some room for minor differences of opinion.  For example, we know that two of the professors involved with writing these rules had different views on the origin of Sabbath-keeping.  Thysius was not sure where it came from, but Gomarus insisted that it did not come from creation/Paradise, but came from Israel’s time in the desert.[2]  These rules are concise, but not overly precise.

Yet, second, they are precise where they need to be and where we need to be.  They precisely distinguish and identify the ceremonial and moral aspects of the Fourth Commandment.  They identify the Lord’s Day as a day to be set apart for rest and worship.  These rules speak clearly of exceptional work:  works of charity and necessity.  These are wise and biblical rules for Christ’s church.

Relevance for Today

Are Reformed churches today bound to this doctrinal decision of the Synod of Dort?  Reformed churches hold to the Canons of Dort.  They hold to the decisions of the Synod of Dort that were made against the Arminians or Remonstrants.  However, that does not mean that they hold to every other decision made by Dort.

We can go back to the Christian Reformed Church in North America for a moment.  In 1881, a Synod of the Christian Reformed Church decided to adopt Dort’s decision on the Sabbath.  From that point forward, Dort’s decision officially belonged to them as well.  They regarded the decision as an official interpretation of Lord’s Day 38 of the Heidelberg Catechism.  Not only every office bearer, but also every member was bound to it.  I am not aware of any other church having done that.  Since the CRCNA did that, when Pastor Henry Wierenga started teaching falsely about the Fourth Commandment, they could quite easily suspend and depose him.

Today as Reformed churches, we could adopt Dort’s decision if we wanted to.  If there were a need or a desire, a church could make a proposal to take it over and make it our own.  But we could also simply receive it as part of our history and tradition.  We can and we should read it, study it, and learn from it.  Pastors can use it as a guide for their teaching and preaching – I certainly have done that in my ministry.  As I mentioned, it is a good, solid statement of Reformed thinking about the Fourth Commandment.

There is one more thing I want to say about the relevance of this decision.  Especially in North America, you will sometimes hear people speak about two different views of the Sabbath.  They will say there is the Puritan view of the Sabbath, which is very strict, and then there is the Continental view of the Sabbath, which is looser.  Daniel Hyde has done a good study on this and he has compared the Synod of Dort’s decision with some Puritan thinking about the Fourth Commandment.  He concluded that “Dort can be called a moderately Puritan position on the Sabbath.”[3] I agree.  Historically speaking, the so-called “Continental view” is much stricter than many modern people realize.  And, I would say, it is biblical.

Conclusion

I grew up in Canada.  I can remember a time when all the stores were closed on Sunday.  There was a law called the Lord’s Day Act.  It reflected Canada’s Christian heritage.  When unbelievers started pressuring the government to remove the Lord’s Day Act, many churches and Christians protested.  I even have an article at home written by Billy Graham trying to argue for the holiness of Sunday, keeping it as a day of rest and worship.  In 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada voided the Lord’s Day Act.  They said it was unconstitutional, that it was an infringement on the freedom of religion.  Something strange happened after that.  Many Christians started shopping on Sundays, working on Sundays, going to professional sports events on Sundays.  Before long, many Christian churches were teaching that the Fourth Commandment only applied to the Jews.  Do you see what happened?  Many churches changed.  Why?  Because of better insight into the Bible?  No, because these churches became like the culture.  Then they shifted their explanation of the Bible to fit their culture.  When that happens, a church is losing its salt and light.

That will have an impact on the preaching of the gospel.  The French philosopher Voltaire once said that if you want to destroy Christianity, you have to destroy the Sabbath.  The French tried to do that in the time of the French Revolution, but they failed.  How ironic that Christians themselves would try to destroy something which will lead to the very destruction of our faith!  If the Sunday is no longer hallowed as a day of rest and worship, the churches where the gospel of salvation is proclaimed will steadily empty.  People will always find something better to do than go to church regularly.

Brothers and sisters, God gave us Ten Commandments, not nine.  The Synod of Dort has reminded us that the Fourth Commandment is still God’s will for our lives as his people.  Let us listen to God’s law – it is good for us, it is good for society, it is good for the gospel, and it serves for God’s glory.

[1] Bullinger, Decades (vol. 1), 262.

[2] See Leiden Synopsis, vol. 1, 521.

[3] Hyde, “Regulae…,” 180.


Reformation Confessions and Evangelism

We’re continuing to celebrate what God did in the Reformation starting 500 years ago.  For today, I’m sharing the notes from a talk I did in Brazil back in August.

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Introduction

One of the most important contributions of the Reformation was its production of confessions and catechisms.  Only a few of them are still well-known today.  For example, Reformed churches continue to use the Heidelberg Catechism written in 1563.  They also continue to use the Belgic Confession written in 1561.  What many people do not know is that there were numerous confessions and catechisms produced during the time of the Reformation.  If we only look at the Netherlands, there were at least 18 Reformed confessions and catechism produced between 1530 and 1580.[1]  James Dennison has produced a four volume set of Reformed confessions from the 16th and 17th centuries.[2]  Volume One covers 1523 to 1552.  It contains 33 confessions and catechisms translated into English.  These come from all over Europe:  Switzerland, Germany, Spain, England, the Netherlands, Bohemia and more.  Moreover, this is not even close to a complete collection.  The number of Reformed confessions is simply amazing.

Why did the Reformation produce so many confessions?   After all, was not the Reformation all about Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone?  They said they believed in the Bible alone.  Yet they had all these manmade documents for their churches.  How could they fit those things together?  The answer is simple.  They believed that their confessions were just faithful summaries of biblical teaching.  Their confessions and catechisms never replaced the Bible or stood over the Bible.  They were guides to the important teachings of the Bible.

The Reformation churches saw that confessions and catechisms were helpful.  They were helpful as statements of faith.  When someone wanted to know what their church believed, they could turn to the confession of the church.  They were helpful as teaching tools.  When someone was going to be brought into the church, the confessions were a pedagogical tool for teaching the important doctrines of Christianity.  When young people were being discipled in the church, they would be taught with the help of confessions and catechisms.  They were also helpful as something to bind the church together in doctrinal unity.  These documents contained the faith that the church agreed upon together as the basis for fellowship.

In some instances, Reformation confessions were also regarded as evangelistic tracts.  This is certainly true for the Belgic Confession.[3]  It was addressed to a Roman Catholic world lost in darkness. It was an effort to win Roman Catholics with the gospel.  The Belgic Confession was originally written in French, not in Latin.  It was written in the language of regular people in order to win the regular people.  It was also originally written in the format of a tract.  It was printed in a small convenient format which would fit in your pocket.  It was meant to be printed cheaply and in great quantities so that it could be widely shared.  And it was.

In what follows, I want to look at some of these Reformation confessions and what they have to say about the evangelistic calling of the church.  I’m going to mention the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, of course.  I’m also going to be discussing some of the confessions and catechisms that are not as well known.  I should say that I will not be discussing the Westminster Confession or Catechisms.  These were written in the post-Reformation period in the 1600s.  Our focus is going to be on the Reformation in the 1500s, particularly on the non-Lutheran side of the Reformation.

William Farel’s Summary and Brief Declaration

One of the earliest Reformers was William Farel.  Farel is most remembered for the role he played in getting John Calvin to stay in Geneva in 1536.  Calvin was just passing through on his way somewhere else.  With fire in his eyes, Farel told him that if he would not stay in Geneva, Calvin would be cursed by God.  However, there is far more to Farel than this one incident in his life.  He became a Protestant in France already in 1520.  He was known as a powerful and passionate preacher of the gospel.  Farel also had a strong sense of the missionary calling of the church.  In 1529, he was preaching in the Swiss town of Aigle.  While there he drafted up one of the first Reformed confessions, his Summary and Brief Declaration.[4]   This confession was a personal effort and it doesn’t appear to have been ever officially adopted by any church.

In his introduction to the Summary, Farel speaks about his purpose in this confession.  He says that he was writing “for the well-being, profit, and salvation of each one.”  He expressed his desire “that the whole world give honor and glory to God alone.”  Finally, in the introduction he prayed that God would shine the light of his salvation in Jesus Christ “to such a degree that those from all parts of the world may come to worship our Father…”  This confession had a missionary purpose behind it.

Chapter 16 of Farel’s Summary is about the doctrine of the church.  The most important calling of the church is to preach the gospel.  The true church of Christ must preach the gospel not only to those of a high social status, but also to the simple.  Like Paul says in 1 Cor. 9:16, we will be cursed if don’t preach the gospel.  And if we don’t bring the good news to the lost and wayward, Farel uses Ezekiel 3 and 33 to remind us that we will be accountable for the loss of their souls.

In chapter 17 he develops this a little bit further when he writes about the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  These keys do not come from human beings, but from God.  Specifically, Farel says that the Holy Spirit helps us to understand the Bible, but also sends us out to preach the gospel.  Here Farel refers directly the Great Commission as found in Matthew 28, Mark 16, and John 20.  Farel understood that the Great Commission to bring the gospel to the world is still a commission for the church today.

Chapter 35 is about the Power of Pastors and here too we see a missionary and evangelistic emphasis coming through.  Listen to what Farel writes:  “When the true pastors evangelize purely, ‘God speaks in them’ (Matt. 10:19-20) by such a great power that believers have eternal life, and unbelievers are confounded.  And never will the messenger of God be overcome.”  The greatest portion of chapter 35 is a prayer to God – quite unusual for a confession.  Farel prays about how the Word of God has been kept out of the hands of the people for so long.  He then says,

Must your holy gospel be so lowly revered so little that it is neither spoken, nor regarded, nor read?  Why have you commanded that it is to be preached throughout all the world to every creature” (Mark 16:15) so that every creature may hear it and know it, if it is not permissible for each one to read it?

Notice again how he refers to the Great Commission in Mark 16.  He believes it is God’s command for the church of all ages.  Let me give just one more quote from chapter 35.  Here again, Farel is praying:

Rise up, Lord, show that it is your pleasure that your Son be honoured, that the ordinances of his kingdom be publicized, known, and kept by everyone.  And that everyone know you through your Son “from the greatest to the smallest” (Jer. 31:34).  Make the trumpet of the holy gospel be heard to the ends and tip of the world.  Give strength to the true evangelizers, destroy all sowers of error, that all the earth may serve, call upon, honor and worship you.

Another form of this prayer is found at the very end of Farel’s Summary.  From this confession dated 1529, it is readily apparent that this Reformer had a heart for the lost and an eye for the calling of the church to bring the gospel to the lost, not only nearby, but also “to the ends and tip of the world.”

Calvin’s Catechism (1537)

Moving on to another Reformation confession, we look at something written by John Calvin.  Calvin is well-known for his book, the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes in March of 1536.  He arrived in Geneva later that year, in August of 1536.  The Institutes were then quite a bit smaller than the final edition published in 1559.  While the book was meant for theological training, it was not suitable for teaching children or the less educated.  Consequently, one of the first things that Calvin did in Geneva was to summarize the Institutes into the form of a catechism.  This was Calvin’s first catechism and it was published in French in 1537 and in Latin in 1538.[5]  This catechism would have been used for teaching in the Reformed church at Geneva.

The 1537/38 Catechism is not written with questions and answers, but with articles or paragraphs.  It’s still called a Catechism because it was used for teaching, and also because it contained the three essential parts of Christian teaching:  the Law of God, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Historically, having those three parts is what defines a catechism, not having questions and answers.

Like his friend William Farel, Calvin too had a missionary heart and it shows in this first catechism.  It’s especially evident when he deals with the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.”  What was Christ teaching his people to pray for?  Calvin writes, “We pray…that God’s reign may come, that is to say, that the Lord may from day to day multiply the number of his faithful believers who celebrate his glory in all works…”  We are praying for the success of the gospel.  Calvin adds, “Similarly, we ask that from day to day he may through new growths spread his light and enlighten his truth, so that Satan and his lies and the darkness of his reign may be dissipated and abolished.” According to Calvin, the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer has to do with evangelism.

Calvin’s Catechism (1541) and the Large Emden Catechism

In 1541 Calvin wrote a new catechism for the church in Geneva.[6]  This time, however, he didn’t use paragraphs or articles.  Instead, he tried the question and answer format.  This catechism was large — it contained 373 questions and answers.  But again, as before, it covered the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Just as with the earlier Catechism, Calvin links the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer to evangelism and the growth of the church.  Christ was teaching us to pray that “day by day the Lord may increase the numbers of the faithful…”  Note how he speaks of an increase in numbers.  In the next question and answer he says something similar.  The question asks, “Is that not taking place today?”  The answer, “Yes, indeed – in part, but we pray that it may continually increase and advance…”

This understanding of the second petition was common amongst Reformation catechisms.  I can mention two other examples.  The Polish Reformer John à Lasco wrote the Large Emden Catechism in 1546.[7]   This catechism too speaks of asking God to “sanctify, increase, strengthen and preserve in the unity of the faith, the gathering of the faithful…”  The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 speaks in a similar way, “Preserve and increase your church.”  The word that was used in the original German for “increase” means multiply numerically.  There was a consensus amongst Reformed churches that the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer involves Christians praying for God to grow his church through evangelism and mission.  Just in passing you should note that this understanding is found in the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms later on too.

The First and Second Helvetic Confessions

The First Helvetic Confession was published in Basel, Switzerland in 1536.  There were several authors, but the most well-known of them was Heinrich Bullinger.  The First Helvetic Confession was written to unite Reformed believers in Switzerland, but it was also hoped that this document could be instrumental in bringing unity with the Lutherans in Germany.

The First Helvetic Confession was therefore sent to Martin Luther for his review.  It was hoped that he would approve of it and that would lay the foundation for closer relations with the Lutherans.  Along with the Confession came a declaration or introduction written for the Lutherans by Heinrich Bullinger.[8]  That introduction speaks of the evangelistic calling of the church.  Bullinger wrote the following:

Although the Lord has expressly said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44), yet it was his will that the gospel of the kingdom should be preached to all nations and that bishops should discharge this duty of the ministry, with great care and diligence, and with special watchfulness, and be instant in season and out of season, and by all means, that they might gain as many as possible unto Christ.  For therefore, when he was ready to depart hence into heaven in his body, he said to his disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). [9]

I really do not understand how any serious scholar can say that the Reformation churches didn’t believe in the abiding relevance of the Great Commission.  We see it here again.  Bullinger and the church at Basel believed that the gospel was to be preached to all nations by the church today.  And it’s also noteworthy that Luther did review this confession and did approve of it – he had some reluctance but only about some of the wording in the articles regarding the Lord’s Supper.[10]

Since there was a First Helvetic Confession, there must also be a Second.  And perhaps you’re wondering what that says about evangelism.  The Second Helvetic Confession was written by Heinrich Bullinger and appeared in 1566.[11]  The first chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession is the most well-known part of this document.  It’s about preaching.  Bullinger famously said that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”  What he meant was that when the Scriptures are faithfully proclaimed, God is speaking to us through such preaching.  Bullinger goes on in that first chapter to point out what Scripture says about inward illumination.  The Holy Spirit has to bring light to a dark heart before there will be faith.  But, he says, that does not eliminate the need for preaching.  Bullinger writes, “For he that illuminates inwardly by giving men the Holy Spirit, the same one, by way of commandment, said unto his disciples, ‘Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15).”  So the gospel needs to be preached, and not only in the church, but “to the whole creation.”  Again we ought to note the abiding relevance of the Great Commission for the Church.

Many Reformation confessions spoke about the marks of a true church.  Three marks are often mentioned:  faithful preaching of the gospel, the faithful administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of church discipline.  One of the confessions that mentions these three marks is the Scottish Confession of Faith of 1560.[12]  Six men with the first name John were responsible for writing it, the most famous of these Johns was John Knox.  The Scottish Confession of Faith says in article 18 that the first mark of a faithful church is “the true preaching of the Word of God.”  Now you might be tempted to think that this is referring only to preaching done within the church, and not missionary or evangelistic preaching.  However, there is a proof-text for this statement in the original Scottish Confession.  The proof text is Matthew 28:19-20 – the Great Commission.

The Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism

We find something similar with the Belgic Confession of 1561.  This was written by Guido de Brès as the official confession of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.  Article 29 deals with the marks of the true and false church.  Just like with the Scottish Confession, the first mark of a true church is that she practices the pure preaching of the gospel.  In the first editions of the Belgic Confession, one of the proof-texts for that teaching was again, Matthew 28:18-20.  The Reformed Churches were not just thinking of preaching within an instituted church in a worship service.  They were also thinking of Christ’s continuing call for the church to preach the gospel to the nations.

That brings us back to the Heidelberg Catechism to finish off.  I’ve already mentioned it a couple of times.  The Heidelberg Catechism is the most well-known of all the Reformation catechisms – and for good reason.  It was commissioned by a godly prince named Elector Frederick of the Palatinate.  It was first published in 1563.  It was mainly written by Zacharias Ursinus, a professor of theology in Heidelberg.  He was assisted by Caspar Olevianus, a pastor in Heidelberg and others as well.  The Heidelberg Catechism is loved all over the world for its warm and personal presentation of the faith of the Bible.  It also deserves to be known for the way it speaks of our calling towards those who are lost.  I’ve already mentioned what it says about the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer – we pray for the increase of Christ’s church.  But there are other places where the Catechism speaks about evangelism, about our calling to be God’s instruments in increasing his church.

In Lord’s Day 12, the Heidelberg Catechism speaks about the three-fold office of Christ.  Other Reformed catechisms do that as well, including the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms.  It’s common to confess that Christ is prophet, priest, and king.  However, it is rare to confess that Christians share in Christ’s three-fold anointing and office.  In fact, I have not been able to find any other Reformed Catechism which says that besides the Heidelberg Catechism.[13]  The Heidelberg Catechism asks in QA 32, “Why are you called a Christian?”  Answer:  “Because I am a member of Christ by faith and thus share in his anointing…”  Christ was anointed with the Holy Spirit to be a prophet, priest, and king, and so have Christians.  We have the same Holy Spirit living in us giving us the same calling as our head Jesus Christ.  As part of that, I may “as prophet confess his name…”  This is a calling to speak to everyone we can about the Saviour.  A prophet must speak.  A silent prophet is unimaginable — a silent prophet is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  If we truly are Christians, then we are prophets.  Then we truly need to witness to Jesus Christ to whomever we can with the words from our mouths.

The Heidelberg Catechism also speaks about our lives having an evangelistic purpose.  The Catechism divides up into three parts:  our sin and misery, our deliverance, and our thankfulness.  Lord’s Day 32 begins the third part of the Catechism on gratitude.  The question is:  since we are saved by grace, we must we still do good works?  There are four reasons given.  One is for us to show our thankfulness to God.  Another is so that he may be praised.  The third reason has to do with our assurance.  And the fourth reason has to do with our neighbours:  “that by our godly walk of life we may win our neighbours for Christ.”  Living in obedience to God sets us up for evangelistic opportunities.  Unbelievers watch and see that we are different from others.  That can make them curious.  That can make them ask us questions.  Questions like, “Why are you different?”  Then we can tell them about the Saviour who has redeemed us and who is working in our lives with his Spirit to make us different.

Conclusion

The Reformation produced this vast quantity of confessions.  In each instance, the Reformed people behind these documents were seeking to be faithful to the Word of God.  I haven’t told you about all the proof-texts and Scriptural support for everything you’ve heard.  A lot of it is obviously biblical — at least I hope it is.  Certainly we can all agree that the missionary calling of the church is biblical.  The Bible calls us to evangelize.  Since this is such a strong message in the Bible, we should not be surprised to find it being expressed in various Reformed confessions and catechisms.  Now I should add that you will not necessarily find it in all Reformation confessions and catechisms.  But definitely in the best ones, and especially in ones that have stood the test of time – ones like the Heidelberg Catechism.  In conclusion, one of the most important ways to understand the Reformation is as a missionary event.  Because it was a missionary event, many of its creeds and confessions also speak of the evangelistic calling of the church of Christ.

[1] See Williem Heijting, De catechismi en confessies in de Nederlandse reformatie tot 1585 (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1989).

[2] James T. Dennison, Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008-2014).

[3] See my For the Cause of the Son of God: The Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession (Fellsmere: Reformation Media and Press, 2011) and To Win Our Neighbors for Christ: The Missiology of the Three Forms of Unity (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015).

[4] In what follows, I’m using the translation found in vol. 1 of Dennison’s Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, 53-111.

[5] In what follows, I’m quoting from the translation found in vol. 1 of Dennison’s Reformed Confessions, 354-392.

[6] I’m using the translation found in vol. 1 of Dennison, 468-519.

[7] Dennison, vol. 1, 590-642.

[8] Luther and Calvinism, eds. Herman J. Selderhuis, J. Marius J. Lange van Ravenswaay, 195.

[9] Peter Hall (ed.), The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1992 reprint), 255.

[10] “The Myth of the Swiss Lutherans,” Amy Nelson Burnett, Zwingliana 22 (2005), 48-49.

[11] See Arthur C. Cochrane (ed.), Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 224-301.

[12] Cochrane, Reformed Confessions, 163-184.

[13] Craig’s Catechism (1581) speaks of Christians sharing in Christ’s office as a priest, but not as prophet and king.  The Large Emden Catechism asks (QA 135):  “Are there no priests any more?”  Basically, the LEC’s answer is no.