"Notes" to the Belgic
Confession - Rev. C. Bouwman
MAN'S NEED FOR REDEMPTION
Article 17 concerns itself with man's redemption, with God's actions towards man after he had fallen into sin. To make clear what man had to be rescued from, deBres first describes man's sin and misery, and how desperately man needed to be rescued. DeBres describes this sin and misery with these words, "man had thus plunged himself into physical and spiritual death and made himself completely miserable ..." Man was as good as physically dead in that, though he was still capable of breathing, the grave was his destiny. Man was spiritually dead in that he had alienated himself from God - though he had been created to live close to God. Man was dead, fully dead, and the dead are not capable of reaching out or crying out for help; the dead can't do a thing. See further Article 14, page 62.
Worse still, man did not just find himself in a state of physical and spiritual death; no, says deBres, "man plunged himself into physical and spiritual death and made himself completely miserable..." It is our own fault. We plunged ourselves into this situation. We made ourselves repulsive to God, bankrupt, with nothing at all to offer God. As if that weren't already bad enough, we (in Adam) then "trembling fled from (God)." Man didn't want God; we didn't want God's mercy. DeBres' description of man is far from attractive. Yet this realistic portrait of man is so essential to our understanding and appreciation of redemption. Hence deBres commences this article on redemption with a statement repeating man's sin and misery.
In the awareness of our sin and misery, the Gospel message is all the more surprising. It was no secret to God who we were. God certainly knew man to be dead, miserable, repulsive and yet He -of all things!- sought us out to see what we were doing; God looked for us to save us. "And (Adam and Eve) heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, "Where are you?" (Genesis 3:8,9). Though Adam and Eve had joined Satan's side and were hiding from God, God yet sought them and called out to them! God's act of seeking out our parents in Paradise constitutes a most surprising act!
GOD'S MOTIVATION FOR REDEEMING MANKIND
What motivated this God, my God, to seek out such wretches? Why did God call out to us in the face of our fleeing? Says article 17, "... our gracious God in His marvellous wisdom and goodness set out to seek man when he trembling fled from Him." Scripture speaks graphically of God's graciousness. In Luke 1:78, for example, the Scriptures describe God as moved to the pit of His stomach on account of the plight of the human race. Zachariah speaks of "the remission of their sins through the tender mercy of our God." In Greek, the words translated as 'tender mercy' literally mean "bowels of mercy". The Lord is presented as having no appetite on account of the misery into which we had plunged ourselves. So moved was God by that misery that He sent His Son into the world for the remission of our sins.
Article 17 speaks of God's wisdom and goodness with regard to God setting out to seek man. See Art 1b, page 36 and 41, for the meaning of these terms.
PROTEVANGEL: GENESIS 3:15
In Genesis 3:15 we read God's words as spoken to the serpent, Satan, whose side man had joined. "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel." God would put a strain on the bond that had been forged between Satan and the fallen human race. Though Satan would be successful in bruising Christ's heel (ie, Christ would die on the cross), God would ensure that in the process Satan's head would be bruised. Contained in these words is the whole gospel in a nutshell. (Genesis 3:15 is often referred to as 'the Mother Promise.' This is a literal translation of the Dutch term 'Moeder Belofte' for which 'protevangel' is the common English term; 'prot' means first, and 'evangel' means 'Gospel'). In this First Gospel God told fallen man what He was going to do to deliver him from his misery.
The rich revelation captured in Art 17 points up again who my God is. This God does not change, ever. When Adam so long ago ran to hide from God, deserted God, God yet sought him out. Likewise, God, moved to the pit of His stomach at my plight, seeks me out. To me He said, "You are My child; I have given Christ to make payment for your sins." In the midst of the struggles of my daily life, I am much comforted by the awareness that God loved me so much that He Himself sought me out in order to save me. God Himself has declared me precious in His divine eyes. Such a thought is humbling and at the same time so exceedingly rich. This awareness of God's grace gives each of us the encouragement we need in the face of life's struggles.
1) The covenant is one-sided in its origin.
God's act of seeking was and is done in the context of the covenant. The Covenant is a relation of love from God to man whereby God binds man to Himself (in Christ). In Genesis 17:7 we read, "And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you." Here we read that God makes His covenant; it is God imposing the covenant upon man. It was with these words that God addressed Abraham, thereby imposing the covenant on him. God did not ask Abraham for his permission to do so, but simply decreed that He would do so.
2) The content of the covenant.
In Genesis 17:7 we read, "to be God to you and your descendants after you." God states 'I am going to be your God.' With these words God returns to the situation of Genesis 1. When God made man in the image of God, He made man to be His, the Father's children. In so doing, God established a father/child relationship. That father/child relation involved the notion of tender care, as was also demonstrated by the abundance of the Garden of Eden into which God placed man in the beginning. Adam and Eve in Paradise were fully safe in the hands of their almighty, loving covenant Father.
That God sought out fallen man, and established with him again His covenant, makes fallen man so exceedingly rich: God will again be our God! When God re-established His covenant with Israel (after the exodus from Egypt), God said, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2). No matter how much Israel resisted, God bound Himself to Israel, bound Israel to Himself; God imposed a relation of love between this people and Himself; 'I am your God, you are My people; I care for you.' Israel's unworthiness to be included in the covenant was pointed up by their identity as a nation of slaves. Yet God was sovereignly, mercifully pleased to be God for this sinful people, to restore with them the relation of the beginning.
3) The covenant is two-sided in its existence.
Once the covenant is there, imposed and established by God, then God and the people with whom He made the covenant are to keep it going. The continuation of the covenant is dependent upon both parties of the covenant honouring their respective commitments to the promises and obligations upon which the covenant has been founded. God was obligated to continue to be Israel's God because He had promised at Mt Sinai to be their God, and Israel was permitted to appeal to God to remember and fulfil this promise to them. Likewise, Israel was obligated to act as God's people, which they would demonstrate by obedience to God's ten commandments (see Exodus 20: 3-17). God could therefore appeal to Israel to remember and fulfil their promise to Him. Said Moses in his farewell sermon to Israel, "This day the LORD your God commands you to observe these statutes and judgments; therefore you shall be careful to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul. Today you have proclaimed the LORD to be your God, and that you will walk in his ways and keep his statutes, his commandments, and his judgments, and that you will obey his voice. Also today the LORD has proclaimed you to be his special people, just as he has promised you, that you should keep all his commandments (Deuteronomy 26:16-18). Here we read of two parties each making a proclamation to the other. In response to God's proclamation that Israel was His special people, Israel made a profession of faith, professing that the Lord who proclaimed them to be His special people was their God, and that this obligated them to do His will. Both God and Israel were to be faithful to their covenant promises. Here we see two sides in the covenant, and hence promises and obligations to be honoured from two sides.
4) God's Covenant commenced in Paradise
The word 'covenant' does not appear in Genesis 1 & 2. Nevertheless, given what the Scriptures later reveal about what God's covenant is, we understand that the covenant was already in existence in Paradise. That is: when God made man in the beginning, God treated man differently than He treated the monkeys and the mountains. For He placed a bond between Himself and man - as is pointed up in the notion of 'image of God' (see Article 14, page 61). This is God's covenant with us. It's because the covenant existed in Paradise already that the fall into sin was so very tragic, for the fall was man's act of breaking the covenant. Man's covenant breaking, which landed him on Satan's side, was deserving of God's wrath. Yet what did God do? Though man broke the covenant, God did not break His promise in the covenant! God kept the promise He made in the covenant; God remained faithful to His side of the covenant. God maintained what He had promised, namely, that 'you are My people.' Hence God sought us out, and came to us with Christ who would take upon Himself the curse we had brought upon ourselves (Genesis 3:15: protevangel). God re-established the covenant with us, promised to be our God still, promised to give a Saviour who would carry the burden of God's covenant wrath, and so reconcile us to God. On the last day the full wealth of the covenant will be apparent for us to see, for we read in Revelation 21:3 these words: "And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.'" Here Jesus Christ uses covenant language, terms found in passages as Genesis 17:7; Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 26:16,17.
5) Only ONE Covenant
After man's fall into sin God re-established His covenant with mankind. This covenant was not a new covenant, but a continuation of the very same covenant of Genesis 1 & 2, with the added dimension of Christ. Though we read in Scripture of God establishing covenants with Noah (Gen 9:9), Abraham (Gen 17:7), Israel (Ex 20:2), these were not new, different or separate covenants, but re-establishments or affirmations of God's original covenant with Adam in Paradise. Each time God renewed His covenant the bud of the covenant opened a little more - until, finally, in the New Covenant established in Jesus Christ the full flower of God's mercy and love became apparent (see Hebrew 8). Always His one covenant stood, as God moved history along till the time of Christ's arrival.
Though we can speak of
different stages or time periods in the history of the covenant, it was, and
is, always one and the same covenant. Therefore we cannot say that Christ
un-did the covenant, or negated the obligations of the covenant; rather, Christ
fulfilled and perpetuated the covenant. God's covenant can be seen as a continuum,
where God has this relation of love with people through the ages. Granted,
in the days of Adam and Noah God made His covenant with all those who
lived at the time, while His covenant with Abraham was limited to Abraham
and his seed. Nevertheless, despite differences in the various administrations
of the covenant, God's covenant is essentially one. Hence we cannot contrast
our days (in the New Testament era) on the time line of covenant history with,
for example, the days of the Old Testament which were characterised by the
ceremonial laws. Though we live in a different era, we, as well as God's people
of the Old Testament, are members of the one covenant. Always the one condition
applies in the covenant, namely, God imposes His relation of love on His people,
and we in turn are to express faith in God through obedience to Him. This
was true for the people in Abraham's days and it is true for us today.