"Notes" to the Belgic Confession - Rev. C. Bouwman

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    Guido deBres lived and worked in a time when the church (ie, the Roman Catholic Church) taught that in order to be saved one had to do good works. DeBres resisted this notion and hence included in the Belgic Confession an article which taught the Scriptural stance concerning the origin, place and purpose of good works in the life of the Christian. Writes deBres in Article 24, "... we do good works, but not for merit. For what could we merit? We are indebted to God, rather than He to us, for the good works we do, since it is He 'who is at work in us both to will and to work for His good pleasure.' ... Furthermore, although we do good works, we do not base our salvation on them."


    To make clear why the Christian does good works and at the same time does not earn anything through the good works he does, deBres explains the doctrine of sanctification. The term 'Sanctification' literally means 'to make holy' (derived from two Latin words meaning 'holy' and 'make'). Terms as 'conversion', 'regeneration', 'recreation' and 'born again' are all essentially synonyms of the term sanctification.

    Article 23 discussed the justification of fallen man. God's elect, who together with all of mankind after the fall into sin were in bondage to Satan and hence dead in sin, received forgiveness of sins, were removed from Satan's side and brought back to God's side (see Figure 1). God had sent His Son to earth to pay for sin on the cross of Calvary. It was because of the shedding of Christ's blood that the sinner is justified. Justification (said Article 23) is a declaration on God's part concerning the elect sinners that they are innocent, righteous, just, restored and acceptable in God's presence.

    But what of the sinner who has been justified, brought back to God (person 'A' in Figure 1)? Is he still dead in sin? Is he still inclined to image his father, the Devil? Justification does not change the nature of the sinner; justification changes his legal standing before God - he is now innocent, not guilty, justified. As it is, though, God does not leave the justified sinner in his deadness; God rather changes his nature. This change is known as sanctification (see Figure 2). Those whom God in His good pleasure justifies through the blood of Christ He also sanctifies through the Spirit of Christ. You cannot be justified and at the same time not be sanctified. All who benefit from justification are also sanctified. Though justification and sanctification are two different acts of God in the life of the sinner, these two cannot be separated. God does not sanctify a person still in bondage to Satan, and hence destined for hell, nor does God let a person restored to Him remain dead in sin. All those who are justified receive sanctification and all who are sanctified have also been justified. Consider the following table:


    • Good Friday 
    • Pentecost 
    • by means of the blood of Christ 
    • by means of the Spirit of Christ 
    • the work of Christ FOR me 
    • the work of Christ IN me 


    The cross of Calvary is most certainly the high point in the history of salvation. That Christ by His suffering and death on the cross bore God's wrath against my sins on my behalf gives me much cause for thankfulness. But I cannot stop at what Christ accomplished on the cross, for God's work of redemption has moved past Calvary. At Pentecost Christ's Spirit was poured out so that I could be a new, changed person. In our thinking, then, we also need to move past Calvary (justification) and come to grips with the reality of Pentecost - sanctification. Christ's work on Pentecost is life-renewing, and this work of Christ must be reflected in the way I live.


    Although sanctification is a New Testament term, we do find a description of it in both the Old and New Testaments.

    Deuteronomy 30:6

    Here we read that should the Lord need to carry out His punishment of exile on a disobedient covenant people, He would let them return from exile if they showed evidence of repentance. But the Lord promised to do more than let them return to the land of their fathers. We read, "And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live."

    The phrase 'circumcision of the heart' describes the concept of regeneration (=sanctification).

    Jeremiah 31:31-33

    "Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.... But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their heart; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people."

    The phrase 'put My law in their minds, and write it on their heart' describes the concept of regeneration.

    Ezekiel 36:26

    "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them."

    Here is an accumulation of phrases, each in turn describing something of the notion of sanctification, regeneration, conversion.

    John 3:3

    In the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus describes regeneration as being born again.

    Said Jesus to Nicodemus, "... Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

    Ephesians 2:4,5

    "But God, ... even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ."

    To be regenerated, sanctified, converted, means to be made alive.

    From the above, it is evident that regeneration, sanctification, is a work of God: "The Lord your God will circumcise your heart." Said God, "I will put my law in their minds; I will give you a new heart; I will put my Spirit within you." In his letter to the Ephesians Paul too mentions our being made alive to God, "But God made us alive." I cannot make myself alive, nor can I give myself a new heart. It is beyond me to do such a revolutionary work. Further, sanctification (=regeneration) involves a radical change so that one becomes what one was not. The inner person is changed, radically changed, so that the dead becomes alive. The Canons of Dort describe sanctification this way: "regeneration is a supernatural, most powerful...work." It is "not inferior in power to creation or the resurrection of the dead" (Chapter III/IV, Article 12).


    1) The beginning of regeneration: the point in time at which a person was changed. For example, Paul's conversion took place at a very specific moment while he was journeying to Damascus. However, for most people conversion is a process in time. (Just as Adam beginning his life as an adult is not a norm for us, so Paul's instant conversion is not a norm for us.) One may not be able to specify the place or time of one's conversion, yet there is a beginning to every conversion and the resulting change is noticeable over time.

    2) Regeneration is ongoing: being born again is a continual, daily process in the life of the Christian.

    Although our confessions do not have separate terms for these two aspects of conversion, both are confessed. Concerning the beginning of regeneration, the Canons of Dort puts it this way, "By the efficacious (=effective) working of the same regenerating Spirit He also penetrates into the innermost recesses of man. He opens the closed and softens the hard heart, circumcises that which was uncircumcised, and instils new qualities into the will. He makes the will, which was dead, alive; which was bad, good; which was unwilling, willing; and which was stubborn, obedient. He moves and strengthens it so that, like a good tree, it may be able to produce the fruit of good works" (Chapter III/IV, Article 11). The point being made here is that at a particular point in time God the Spirit makes the above changes in a person. It is when the Spirit penetrates the heart of a person that the person is born again, changed, begins a new life as a Christian.

    Concerning the continuation of regeneration, we read in Lord's Day 33, Q & A 88 that "true repentance or conversion of man is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new." Note here that it does not say that conversion takes place when the old man 'died' and the new 'came' to life. No, 'dying' and 'coming to life' are written in present tense. In other words, conversion is not a not once-off, never-to-be-repeated occurrence in the life of the Christian, but is rather an ongoing process. Hence Q & A 89 explains the dying of the old nature as a "heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin, and more and more to hate and flee from it." The person justified by the blood of Christ is changed, born again. However, this changed heart is not immediately perfected. This is a life long process by which one is made to grow in the Lord daily, 'more and more.'

    What are the implications of all this for me? I, by the grace of God, have been declared just by God in the blood of Christ, and so (since the justified are also sanctified) I am changed, converted, born again. However, this allows me no room for complacency, as if I may assume that now 'I have arrived'. For I am not yet perfected. On my part there needs to be growth daily. Daily I sin, so daily I must have sorrow for sin. Daily I need to seek forgiveness. Sanctification is an ongoing process, and therefore it means that growth in faith and holiness must be evident in my life. It is because there needs to be evidence of such growth that the elders in their home visits also inquire about whether I have grown in the last months.


    It is critical that we understand the above two aspects of conversion and what it means for us individually. Conversion, regeneration, means to be turned away from Satan and towards God. Conversion means that our focus is 'God-ward.' Before we were justified we focussed on Satan, but conversion means we are made to do a 180 degree turn (as it were). Consequently, God becomes the centre of our attention and life. The following table helps to illustrate these two aspects of conversion.


    • A turning away from sin 
    • A turning to God 
    • Involves sorrow on account of sin 
    • Involves joy on account of redemption 
    • "To grieve with heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin" 
    • "It is a heartfelt joy in God through Christ" 
    • A resolve "more and more to hate (sin) and flee from it." 
    • A resolve " to live according to the will of God in all good works." 
    • humility 
    • obedience 


    Some passages from Scripture make clear that conversion (=regeneration, rebirth, sanctification) involves both a turning from sin and a turning to God.

    Deuteronomy 30:1-3. Israel is warned that, if they should refuse to place God in the centre of their attention, God will send them into exile. Yet God also tells Israel what it is that He will do should they come to repentance. "Now it shall come to pass, when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among the nations where the LORD your God drives you, and you return to the LORD your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul, that the LORD your God will bring you back from captivity, and have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the nations where the LORD your God has scattered you." Here God Himself makes the connection between being turned towards God and being turned away from sin (obeying Him). Israel had only two options: to be turned towards God and receive God's blessing or to be turned away from God, focussing instead on sin and disobedience, and consequently being separated from God: exiled.

    In 1 Samuel 7 we read of Israel's victory over the Philistines only as a result of their repentance and return to the Lord. God had permitted His ark to be taken from Israel because of Israel's sin. Now that the ark had been come back to the Promised Land, Samuel said to Israel in verse 3, "... If you return to the LORD with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths from among you, and prepare your hearts for the LORD, and serve Him only." Israel was called to make a 180 degree turn away from idol-centred worship to God-centred worship. Israel was called to put away sin and to turn to the Lord with all their heart. Israel had to change from the way they had been.


    That this change also involves sorrow for sin is evident from Israel's response to the call for repentance. We read in 1 Samuel 7:6, "So they gathered together at Mizpah, drew water, and poured it out before the LORD. And they fasted that day, and said there, "We have sinned against the LORD." From Leviticus we know that water played the symbolic role of the washing away of sin. Fasting designated a broken spirit, a sense of humility. In their repentance, then, Israel sorrowed on account of sin, was broken hearted, as they turned away from sin in order to seek the Lord. Such grief and sorrow is characteristic of repentance from sin. Repentance accompanied by sorrow on account of sin can be found in more passages of Scripture:

    Psalm 38

    David, in anguish over his sins, prays, "There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your anger, nor any health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me (vs 3,4). ... I am troubled, I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long (vs 6).... For I am ready to fall, and my sorrow is continually before me. For I will declare my iniquity; I will be in anguish over my sin. (vs 17,18)."

    Psalm 51

    This whole Psalm of David exudes a spirit of brokenness on account of his sin with Bethsheba. In full awareness as to Who he sinned against, David prays in all humility, "For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight (vs 3,4). ... Purge me … wash me ... make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones you have broken may rejoice. (vs 7,8)."

    Jeremiah 3:21-25

    God calls Israel to repentance, "Return, you backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings." Israel responds by indeed turning back to God with due shame and humility. Israel replied, "Indeed we do come to You, for You are the LORD our God.... Truly, in the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel.... We lie down in our shame, and our reproach covers us. For we have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our fathers ..."

    Ezekiel 36:26, 31

    Said God to Israel, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.... Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good; and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight, for your iniquities and your abominations."

    Repentance involves despising oneself on account of one's sin, turning away from sin and evil to God, wanting and striving to obey Him and to do His will.

    The Spirit's work of sanctification is a radical change in the self, whereby I turn in humility from sin to God with a heartfelt desire to do what God wants. It means that my whole focus in life becomes God directed, with the result that I adopt a new lifestyle and a new attitude.


    Paul describes the practices that used to characterise the Corinthians before the gospel of Jesus Christ came to Corinth and met with faith in the saints. Says Paul: "And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11). What were the Corinthians like before they were washed, justified, sanctified? We read this in the preceding verses:, "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God." Then follows the above quote: "and such were some of you." Before the Corinthians were converted, some of them were idolaters, homosexuals, drunkards, etc. But, now that they were washed in the blood of Christ (justification) and renewed by the Holy Spirit of Christ (sanctification) they are idolaters, homosexuals, drunkards, etc, no longer. The Spirit has changed them radically so that they were made new creatures. Although this change is a radical change of the inner self, this change cannot remain hidden. This change is evident in the way one lives.

    Justification is God's work for me. I embrace this work in faith and make it my own. Sanctification is equally God's work in me, and this work too I embrace in faith. The change God worked in me I am to believe. God says I am justified; God also says I am sanctified. If God says this, then I believe that Christ died for me and hence I also receive all the consequences of his redeeming work. Likewise, if I believe that I am sanctified, I also live accordingly. Sanctification is something I am to pursue. I am to make it my business to be sanctified. That means I fight, for example, my weakness for alcohol, my desire to throw up my legs and vegetate before a television. Although the Holy Spirit changes me, it will not do for me to relax my fight against sin.

    Paul also encouraged the believers at Rome to live in a fashion consistent with their sanctification. The Holy Spirit does indeed work in us, but -in true covenantal fashion- we are also to busy ourselves with that work. In Romans 5 Paul had described justification, and in chapter 6 he goes on saying, "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" (vs 1). The argument is this: since we are justified by grace, receive forgiveness of sins by grace (justification), should we not sin so that grace might be poured out on us more abundantly? However, Paul is adamant in his answer to this question. "Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? ... For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death (through baptism), certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection.... For he who has died has been freed from sin.... For the death that (Christ) died He died to sin once and for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:2-11). To have died to sin and to have been raised with Christ in His resurrection means regeneration, sanctification. Paul states the fact that his readers have been made alive to God.

    Since his readers have been sanctified, Paul urges them to be consistent, and to live according to this truth. If his listeners are indeed raised to a new life, born again, regenerated, converted, sanctified, they are to live that way too. Says Paul in Romans 6:12,13, "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts." The reality of sanctification prompts the command to live as sanctified persons. So the "saints" of Rome (1:7) are told: "And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God." The sanctified sinner, born again as he is through the Holy Spirit, is not inevitably bound to give in to every sin that comes upon his path. To give oneself to a sin is not inevitable. Says Paul in verse 14, "For sin shall not have dominion over you." I don't have to give myself to the sin that is dangled so enticingly before me. I can never say that 'I couldn't help it' that I fell for temptation. "No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it" (1 Corinthians 10:13). I am always one hundred percent responsible for my failure to resist temptation to sin, for I am born again, raised to a new life, enabled to resist sin. I am instructed by God to say No to sin, to hate it and flee from it. I believe that I am sanctified and so sin shall not have dominion over me.

    True, it certainly happens that I fail to resist sin; though changed I am not at all made perfect already. Paul himself, God's chosen instrument to the Gentiles, confessed that "I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do" (Romans 7:14,15). Sanctification does not mean perfection. In the words of LD 44: "in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning" of the obedience God requires. As the saints of Scripture grieved over their sins, so I too must be bothered by my sin, repent, turn away from sin and turn back to God (see further Article 15, page 68).

    Christ has done much for me and in me. There must be evidence of this in my life. If Christ's renewing work cannot be seen in me, then I have not been born again. If I am not born again, then I am not justified either. A tree is known by its fruits. Here we have a duty towards each other, encouraging each other to bear fruits of faith in our lives. Fruits of faith must be there. Holiness, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, is characteristic of the life of the Christian.

    Galatians 5:16 urges us to "Walk in the Spirit" and then adds this promise: "and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh." God promises that if we walk in the Spirit, if we live according to the reality of our regeneration, our sanctification, then we will not fulfil the evil inclinations of the flesh. Hence we must also examine ourselves. What is it we enjoy doing, watching, reading? Can I, as a sanctified child of God truly justify the programmes I watch on TV, filled as they are with 'works of the flesh?' It is not characteristic of the child of God to delight in or to appreciate the kind of entertainment the television offers. What is characteristic of the child of God is to show forth in his life the fruit of the Spirit, to resist sin, and to have an attitude driven by the Spirit. Galatians 5:22,23 lists what such fruits are, namely, "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." The child of God adopts for himself a style of living which images what God is like. "And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit" (Galatians 5:18).


    As said earlier, Article 24 was written by deBres at a time when the church of his day, the Roman Catholic Church, taught that in order to be saved one had to do good works. No! said deBres. My good works are covered by sin. "We cannot do a single work that is not defiled by our flesh and does not deserve punishment. Even if we could show one good work, the remembrance of one sin is enough to make God reject it. We would then always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be constantly tormented, if they did not rely on the merit of the death and passion of our Saviour" (Article 24).

    Yet good works characterise the life of the Christian. How come? The Christian does good works not in order to be saved, but rather because he is saved. Those washed by the blood of Christ (justification) are also renewed by the Spirit of Christ (sanctification). I cannot, then, gain anything from doing good works, for in Christ I already am heir to the world. Rather, performing good works, obeying the law of God, is the inevitable consequence of regeneration. As Lord's Day 24 expresses it: it is impossible for those who belong to Christ to fail to bring forth fruits of thankfulness.

    That I see such fruits in myself, then, becomes very much a reason to praise God. For "God is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." Such fruits of faith in my life prompts the more to praise and gratitude. Christ's work of salvation is complete, involves both justification and sanctification, Good Friday and Pentecost.