"Notes" to the Belgic
Confession - Rev. C. Bouwman
"COME LORD JESUS!"
DeBres concluded his confession with an article concerning the last judgment. This was a conscious decision on his part, for his situation (and that of his congregation) was one of persecution; their's was a situation which made life on earth difficult to endure. It was a situation in which the content of this article can be described as a cry, a plea for an end to suffering. Hence our article's concluding words, "... we look forward to that great day with a great longing to enjoy to the full the promises of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!" This is the cry of Christ's Church, His Bride. DeBres and his congregation, and we today too, pray with an eager longing for Christ to come soon.
DELIVERANCE FROM SATAN'S HATRED AND PERSECUTION
It is not too difficult for us to understand why deBres expressed his longing for Christ's return the way he did. His life was characterised by insecurity and tension on account of persecution for his faith. Although our circumstances today differ markedly from those of deBres (that is: we enjoy much freedom and live relatively free of worry), this confession is also to be the earnest confession of every Christian. DeBres felt persecution in a very physical way. We for our part do not experience physical persecution, and yet we are no less hated and persecuted in our day; the devil and his demons never grant us a break. What we read in 1 Peter 5:8 applies no less today than it did in deBres' day, namely, "be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour." I too am hated by the devil. In Revelation 12:7 we read of the war in heaven between Michael and his angels and the devil and his angels. At the end of this war Satan was cast out of heaven. However, though defeated, Satan is no less active, and Revelation 12:12 warns us, "Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time." These words create for us a picture of the devil in desperation. He is out to destroy the Church, but he knows that his is a battle against time. His time is running out. Hence his desperation to attack the church of Jesus Christ, and every Christian in the world.
The tactics adopted by Satan to destroy the Church vary. In Ephesians 6:11 Paul writes about "the wiles of the devil". The point of the term 'wiles' is that the devil is exceedingly crafty, treacherous, deceptive. In deBres' day he persecuted the Church in a very physical way. In our land today, his attacks come at us in a different way. Though we are not persecuted physically today, we are equally hated by him. Yes, his attacks against us are more crafty, less obvious, more devious. We can detect something of his hatred in his attacks on our marriages, in the depressions which get us down spiritually, in the sins that keep haunting us, etc. Around us the allurements to sin (think of materialism, one's 'right' to self-fulfilment and self-gratification, etc) are countless, and very tempting. Although there is much that we are able to enjoy in this life today, we know from Scripture that this life is a life of sorrow, a "veil of tears," or as the Form for the Baptism of infants (Book of Praise, p.586) describes it in the prayer following Baptism, "nothing more than a constant death." This is how Scripture typifies this life. In view of this, the confession contained in this article comes close to our hearts too.
THE REALITY OF CHRIST'S COMING
DeBres commences this article with a statement that Christ is coming. "... we believe, according to the Word of God, that when the time, ordained by the Lord but unknown to all creatures, has come and the number of the elect is complete, our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven ..." This statement is based on what Scripture itself says in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18, "... For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God...." The disciples received the same message from the two angels at the time of Christ's ascension into heaven. "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). DeBres, on the basis of what he knew from Scripture, was convinced that this world has a future. This future is not some earthly utopia, but the glory of the Saviour's coming.
THE PERSPECTIVE OF A GLORIOUS FUTURE
Such is the glory of Christ's return that "those who will have died before that time will arise out of the earth, as their spirits are once again united with their own bodies in which they lived." So many of us have buried loved ones at the Fremantle cemetery. However, on the last day, those whom we have buried will -Yes, indeed!- hear the cry of the Angel and will arise from their coffins. "Those who will then still be alive will not die as the others but will be changed in the twinkling of an eye from perishable to imperishable... The faithful and elect will be crowned with glory and honour ... God will wipe away every tear from their eye ... the Lord will cause them to possess such a glory as the heart of man could never conceive." This is a confession of a future blessedness beyond compare. Here is what I, together with the church, confess concerning the life everlasting in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 22, namely, "I shall after this life possess perfect blessedness, such as no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived - a blessedness in which to praise God forever." "This is the future that awaits you and me," said deBres to his congregation. "We have our eyes set on something far superior to freedom from persecution. We look forward to a future in which we will be able to praise God forever. Therefore do not abandon your faith and hope, for you have something glorious awaiting you." Truly, it's an exciting perspective!
Living from the perspective of this glorious future implies some consequences for life today:
1) Why be anxious about the future? Isn't my Lord sovereign? With Article 36 we confessed Christ to be Lord of all. "Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool" (Isaiah 66:1). This perspective gives great peace in the face of all the troubles of this world. A glorious future awaits us. Many different philosophical movements these days make offers of 'heaven on earth;' for example, communism, New Age Movement. However, Christ has much more to offer, namely, Paradise restored. That's the future I confidently await, even as wars and famines and persecutions break out over the earth.
2) Today Christ is busy, working towards the day of His second coming. The Governments in office today are appointed by God, serving God's agenda for this world. They all have a role to play in God's plan of hastening the arrival of the last day. For that reason I am content and feel at ease, despite rising heathendom amongst the authorities of the (western) world, for I know that my Saviour is in full control of all things, working towards His coming. When He comes, He will put an end to all sorrow and the difficulties that be.
3) What keeps me busy today? Am I preoccupied with the things of this life? Is my own little empire of house, car, holidays, material wealth and personal pleasures my first priority? Given the fact that my Saviour soon returns, these things pale into insignificance. In fact, when Christ returns, all these things will be of no use to me; all the things of this life will be consumed by fire - my house, car, furniture, wardrobe included. The fact that I live in expectation of the Saviour's return determines my priorities and actions today.
THE LAST DAY / THE LAST JUDGMENT
As to all the events that will take place on the day of Christ's return, deBres does not go into much detail. Rather, he selects from Scripture those elements clearly revealed, and which are important and comforting for his congregation at the time. These elements are equally important and comforting to us today.
Concerning the notion of judgment, deBres writes, "Christ will declare Himself Judge of the living and the dead and set this old world (including all my possessions!) afire in order to purge it. Then all people, men, women, and children, who ever lived, from the beginning of the world to the end, will appear in person before this great Judge." (Here 'the dead' can be a reference to those who are physically dead or spiritually dead; 'the living' can be a reference to those who are physically or spiritually alive.) "Then the books will be opened and the dead will be judged according to what they have done in this world, whether good or evil. Indeed, all people will render account for every careless word they utter, which the world regards as mere jest and amusement."
DeBres' confession concerning the last judgment comes from the Bible. Jesus spoke about this judgment in Matthew 25:31-33: "When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides His sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand and the goats on the left." Likewise, in 2 Corinthians 5:10 we read, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad."
Each person still alive on the last day and each person that ever lived (what an incredibly large group that will be!) will appear before Christ the Judge. We have our many questions as to how it will be practicable for God to judge so many people; viewed from our perspective this would take forever. However, considering that God was able to create the world in just a moment, we need not puzzle our minds about how long such a judgment will take. We do better to believe what Scripture reveals, that all people, including myself, Nero, Hitler, my neighbour, my mother, etc, will have to appear before Christ and give account of every idle word spoken and every deed performed in this life.
EVERY IDLE WORD
The thought that on Judgment
Day we will be called to give account for all our sins can make us feel somewhat
uncomfortable; we'd rather not have to give account for our (secret) wrongs.
We need to bear in mind, though, that Judgment Day means something totally
different for believers than for unbelievers. On the basis of Christ's merits
the believers, though they cannot explain away their sins, will be able to
point to the blood of Christ. "Yes Lord, they were the sins I committed,
but You sent Christ so that they could be forgiven. Christ satisfied Your
justice; Christ took upon Himself the punishment I deserved." And Christ
will be there to plead for His own. God's response will be, "Yes, your
sins were washed away; enter into my Kingdom." For the believers, God's
judgment seat spells out God's mercy and glory.
The unbelievers, though, will have to admit to the sins they'll be accused of, and they will not be able to give to God any satisfactory explanation or excuse. For that reason God will say to them, "go into the outer darkness prepared for the devil and his angels; I do not know you." They did not want God, and refused to obey Him. Therefore God will send them away into everlasting perdition (see Matthew 25:31-46).
God's judgment of the unbelievers will be a public testimony of God's justice. Concerning this justice we confess in the Catechism, Lord's Day 4.11, that"(God's) justice requires that sin committed against the most high majesty of God also be punished with the most severe, that is, with everlasting, punishment of body and soul." All men will then see that God is indeed just, and worship Him on account of it.
As far as the unbelievers are concerned, "the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful." From our perspective, the thought of having to give account of our sins before God is embarrassing. Yet deBres writes, "the thought of this judgment ... is a great joy and comfort to the righteous and the elect." This is so, because the focus of the last day is God, and not us. Central to the day is not my possible embarrassment; central to the day is the God's glory and praise. On that day God's glory will be revealed to the full; then I shall know in the fullest sense possible what kind of a God I have. For that reason I can truly look forward to that day without any fear or apprehension. I need not be afraid of what 'the books' will reveal concerning me, for I believe that on the last day too God will be to me the same God He has been for me while I lived on this earth; that is, for Jesus' sake He will not deal with me according to my sins, but will show me His mercy.
ARE OUR SINS NOT FORGIVEN??
The confession that the books will be opened does not contradict those passages of Scripture which tell us that God has removed our sins far from us and that He no longer 'remembers' our sins. For example in Psalm 103:12 we read, "For as far as east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us." Likewise, in Micah 7:19 we read, "(You) will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea," and in Isaiah 43:25 we read, "I, (God) even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; and I will not remember your sins." These texts all speak of sins forgiven by God, sins which have been removed from us, sins that are gone. Yet on the last day "the books will be opened", and we shall have to give account of every idle word we have uttered. Do these two thought not contradict? Does the thought of the opening of the books not imply that God does not really forgive our sins??
The references to 'removing' sins and 'blotting out' transgressions do not mean that God forgets our sins in the sense that He has a memory lapse regarding our transgressions. When God says that He will not remember our sins, He means that by His mercy He will not treat us according to those sins; He will not hold against us the sins of which we have been forgiven. Meanwhile, they remain recorded in God's book. Yet this should not make us dread the opening of God's books on Judgment Day, for our sins are not recorded to our judgment, but are recorded for the greater glory of the Saviour.
However, sins of which I do not repent remain between God and myself. God demands that we go on bended knees for all our sins. If I am aware of any deeds in my life which are sin I must also confess them as such to God. Should I refuse to do so, and cling to them, then they will be held against me on Judgment Day.
THE CAUSE OF THE SON OF GOD
In Article 37 deBres directs the attention of his congregation to the wonderful future that Scripture promises. It is a future one need not be afraid of because Christ has removed from God's Judgment all threat of condemnation for the believers, and hence it will be a day in which His glory will be manifest. DeBres also includes in his confession what will happen to those who were persecuting the faithful, the followers of the Reformation. These evildoers, writes deBres, will be hounded forever. "And so for good reason the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to the wicked and evildoers but it is a great joy and comfort to the righteous and elect. 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." "Shortly the tables will be turned," deBres told his congregation. Those who today persecute the obedient will on that day recognise that the small, persecuted, scorned church of Doornik was in fact the work of Jesus Christ. "Today we have nothing, but tomorrow the situation will be reversed." This gives no reason to gloat, but is rather a call to remain faithful and to persevere in the face of hardships, for these hardships are but temporary. We today are also to heed the call to be diligent in faith, hope and love - never mind our circumstances. The countless of the world who today deride the Faith and the faithful will tomorrow admit that the Faith is true, and the faithful were right.
This perspective is then also a call for repentance to those who persecute the Church.
THE TIMING OF CHRIST'S RETURN
When will Christ return? Article 37 doesn't answer this question. DeBres writes, "We believe, according to the Word of God, that when the time, ordained by the Lord but unknown to all creatures, has come and the number of the elect is complete, our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, bodily and visibly, as He ascended, with great glory and majesty." DeBres doesn't answer the question of when it is that Christ will return. The timing of His return is unknown to us.
It is true that the Bible speaks of what is commonly known as "the signs of the times". "And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places" (Matthew 24:6,7). Concerning John's vision of the coming of the great day of God's wrath we read in Revelation 6:12-14, "and the sun became black as a sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, ... Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place." Yet passages as these would not have us believe (contrary to the teaching of Dispensationalists) that various events must yet happen before Christ can return. The Scripture says emphatically that "of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.... Therefore, you also be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (Matthew 24:30,36-44). Christ then illustrates this message with the parable of the ten virgins who went out to meet the bridegroom, and the parable of the talents. Both parables have the same message, namely, be ready. "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming" (Matthew 25:13). The wars and famines and earthquakes mentioned in Matthew 24 characterise the entire New Testament dispensation, and serve as continuing reminders to God's people that the Saviour is coming; His footsteps, as it were, can be heard in events as these. It should be clear to our minds that Jesus can certainly come back at any moment.
When Christ returns we will all be doing our regular, daily activities. In Christ's day it was common for men to work in the field and for women to grind wheat at the mill (part of the daily bread making procedure). Christ made reference to these two very common daily occupations when He spoke of the day of His return. "... as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: the one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming" (Matthew 24:42). The message here is this: when Christ returns we will be engaged in the chores of daily life, be it our daily occupation, washing the dishes or mowing the lawn. That is: life will be following its normal course, Christ's return will be unexpected. Said Paul to the Thessalonians, "For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night" (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Earthquakes, wars, and pestilences are events that characterise the whole New Testament dispensation which awaits Christ's second coming. Let us make no mistake: Christ can come back tonight.
This reality brings with it immediate consequences for my life today:
believe in Christ as my Lord and Saviour is an urgent matter. I cannot
afford to delay this. Living in the expectation of Christ is not enough. I
must believe in Him now and so be ready to meet him as Judge without
any fear of condemnation.
2. Awareness of Christ's imminent return determines how I live. It makes me reflect on what really matters to me today; it helps me set my priorities right. Conscious of the fact that Christ may well come back tonight, should I then work so very hard to build my little kingdom?! After all, when Christ returns it will all 'go up in smoke' anyway (see II Peter 3:10). Knowing that He comes back soon, I am to engage myself in the tasks He gives me to do in His kingdom, and while I do my work today I plan for tomorrow, certainly. But as I work, I keep one eye on the clouds watching for the coming of my Lord and Saviour.
When the people of God do not look forward earnestly for the return of the Saviour, the Church has become this-worldly, too comfortable in the world of today. It certainly is true that today the Lord gives us a task on this earth, in this society. But this earth, this society, this country is not our homeland. While we work diligently at the stations God has given us in daily life, we look forward to a better land - the New Jerusalem coming soon from heaven to earth. See Philippians 3:20, Hebrews 11:8-16.
Amen. Come, Lord