For the Cause of the Son of God — Excerpt from Chapter 5

17 August 2011 by Wes Bredenhof

My new book on the Belgic Confession is now available for purchase from the publisher for $20.99 US.   If you live somewhere other than the US, it’s available from numerous other online retailers around the world, so shop around and I’m sure you’ll find it.

The following is an excerpt from chapter 5:


5.1  Missiological Strengths

The Belgic Confession is regarded by its adherents as a faithful summary of the teachings of Holy Scripture.  This is something which cannot be taken for granted and which is to be regarded as the foremost strength of this Confession, also when we consider its missiological relevance.  From the perspective of its adherents, a confession cannot be relevant to the mission of the church if it does not take the Bible as its infallible basis.  However, it falls outside the purview of this study to detail the biblical basis of each article in the Confession.  Someone wanting to do that could refer to the commentaries or to Lepusculus Vallensis’ helpful reference manual, The Belgic Confession and Its Biblical Basis.[1]  In this section, we want to explore the missiological strengths of the confession on a broader level.

5.1.1  Confession of a Church Under the Cross

In chapter 3 (3.1.4), we considered the Confession under the rubric of the metanarrative of martyrdom and concluded that, in this regard, the Confession is missiologically relevant.  It was formulated on the foundation of martyrdom and suffering, a theology of the cross.  It communicates the missionary message of martyrdom and suffering.  We saw that a rich missionary harvest resulted from the martyrdom and suffering directly associated with this confession.  Among our conclusions (3.3) was that any church which gives up this Confession is impoverishing itself.  We will now build further on that conclusion.

The precise extent of persecution and martyrdom today is notoriously difficult to measure.  According to the most recent statistics of Barrett et al., 160,000 people were martyred for the Christian faith in 2000.[2]  However, a number of things need to be considered.  First, these numbers are rather elastic on several levels.  Barrett’s figures include 100,000 Roman Catholics, 14,000 Orthodox, 5,000 Marginal Protestants, and 1,000 Anglicans and Old Catholics.  Also, as Schirrmacher notes, there are serious questions about the reliability of this data.  Barrett is unwilling to discuss the data and “fails to give sufficient information on his statistic [sic] methods.”  There is no validity to Barrett’s claims to offer only facts without interpretation.  For instance, included in the figure are countless thousands who have died in civil wars such as those in recent times in African countries like Sudan.[3]  Finally, if these numbers are close to being correct, Schirrmacher observes that, in proportion to the world’s population, the overall number of martyrs has actually decreased since 1970.[4]

Nevertheless, both statistical and anecdotal evidence portrays a world in which many Christians continue to live under the specter of persecution.[5]  While communism has fallen in eastern Europe, it continues to be a political reality in North Korea, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, and the most populous nation on earth, China.  Even as some of these countries just mentioned adapt themselves to a free(r) market economy, active repression of Christians continues, especially in more remote regions, away from Western eyes and ears.  In other countries such as Burma/Myanmar, oppressive dictatorships or military juntas persecute believers.  In many nations in the Middle East, Islam is the official national religion, and Christianity is barely tolerated, if at all.  In those countries where Shari’a law is in place, it is a capital offence for a Muslim to convert to Christianity.  In India and other south Asian countries, militant Hinduism and Buddhism has accounted for a significant proportion of martyrdoms of Christian believers.  In some regions of Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, Roman Catholic persecution of Christians continues to be a reality, though martyrdom appears to be comparatively rare.  Of course, all of that is just scratching the surface.  No one who has given it any serious consideration will deny that suffering for the faith is an ongoing reality – and we expect it to continue this way until the return of the Lord Jesus.

When the gospel goes out into the world, there will inevitably be opposition.  When the Lord Jesus sent out the disciples in Matthew 10, he sent them out “as sheep in the midst of wolves” (10:16).  He warned them that they would be delivered up to councils and scourged in synagogues.  They would be brought before governors and kings.  They could expect opposition from family, even to the point of death.  The disciples were to expect to be hated by all for the sake of Christ’s name and being persecuted, to flee from one city to another.  In John 16, the Lord Jesus spoke in a similar vein, though he added that “the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” (16:2).  Those who do those things, according to Christ, do them because they know neither the Father nor him.

The metanarrative of martyrdom embedded in the Belgic Confession awakens the church to these realities, and this is one of its greatest strengths.  This happens in at least four distinct ways.

First, the Belgic Confession awakens sending churches to the reality that when they send out missionaries, those missionaries may not return alive or in the same condition as they left.  Missionary work can be dangerous, even life-threatening.  The Confession reminds churches to count the cost.  At the same time, it also encourages churches to know that if the highest price is paid by its missionaries, this too is in God’s hands and he often uses it to build his church.

Second, the Belgic Confession speaks to individual missionaries and other mission personnel.  Missionaries can be encouraged to know that, while their work may be dangerous and even frightening, it will never be in vain.  The Confession continues to witness that even in the darkest hours, God is present and guiding the “cause of the Son of God.”  He did so during the troubles in the Lowlands in the sixteenth century and he will still do so today.

Next, this Confession testifies to the newer believers and younger churches on the mission fields themselves.  They can read this Confession and take heart that the church has often appeared to be in dire straits, but that this was only the appearance of things.  They can know that, because of their union with Christ, they are part of a greater story or metanarrative, and they are not alone in their experiences of suffering, persecution, and even martyrdom.  Confessing the Belgic gives a depth of perspective to younger churches, and this encourages growth in grace and knowledge.

Finally, the Confession engages all its confessors on the reality of persecution, both historically and in the present.  Of course, it is possible to superficially hold the Belgic and never have any conscious awareness of persecution and martyrdom at any point in history.  It may even be possible to thoughtfully subscribe and confess the Belgic without that awareness – the lack of serious attention to this aspect in the commentaries certainly suggests that!  However, this is an essential element of the Confession’s (biblical) message and it deserves more attention.  This is especially so for Reformed believers in the West, who tend to live very comfortably and who may have little awareness of persecution elsewhere in the world, let alone any sense of a theology of the cross.  We need the Belgic Confession to remind us that our brothers and sisters elsewhere suffer for the faith, so that we may pray for them – and in so praying, we are in fact praying “for the cause of the Son of God.”

[1] Lepusculus Vallensis, The Belgic Confession and Its Biblical Basis (Neerlandia: Inheritance, 1993).

[2] Barrett et al., World Christian Encyclopedia (Vol. 1), 11.

[3] Schirrmacher, The Persecution of Christians, 12.

[4] Schirrmacher, The Persecution of Christians, 11.

[5] For some of the anecdotal evidence, see Paul Marshall, Their Blood Cries Out: The Worldwide Tragedy of Modern Christians Who Are Dying for Their Faith (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1997).