2010-05-23 (pm) Belgic Confession Art. 1-Isaiah 44:9-11; 1 Corinthians 8:4b-6 (Maranatha CRC)
So, we finished the Heidelberg Catechism and, well, we needed something, right? Most traditions become traditions in order to meet a need. The CRC has a tradition, set down in church order, that ordinarily the second worship service uses one of the three forms of unity, the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort.
Not feeling up to tackling the Canons just yet, and hearing that the average Christian is woefully unaware of some of the basic concepts of theology—the study of God—I decided there’s no time like the present to get into the Belgic Confession.
Now, I am also aware that we did do a Bible study on the Belgic Confession just a couple or three years ago, but still I decided that this should be helpful to us.
The tradition of preaching on the Belgic Confession came out of a need to teach people the broad strokes of faith. This is a confession. A confession is a statement of belief. The three creeds are also. This is a deeper description of what those creeds teach us.
They teach us what the Bible teaches, in a simpler, more concise format. In times past, new converts and children of believers were encouraged to memorise these confessions, these statements of faith. Thus, they’d begin to know what they believe.
It is vitally important to know what we believe. Though God is revealed in his creation, and in his Word, we are bombarded with false notions of God. Some come from outside of us, through the devil’s deceit, through the false understanding of the world, through the errors of well-intentioned Christians, and finally, from our own inclination to make God in our own image.
John Calvin describes the human heart as an idol factory. We’re constantly dreaming up new things to admire, worship, adore above and beyond God. We place things alongside God, if not outright ahead of God. We rarely want to come to know God on His terms, preferring instead, to conceive of God in a way we like.
We may not huck our gold into a pile in order to melt it down into a golden calf, but we might just as easily prefer to think wrong thoughts of God. When I was in one of my first seminary classes, way back in 2001, one of my professors asked us, “What is God like? How would you describe God? And please don’t answer like one of my earlier students answered, don’t say that God is nice!”
It is wrong for us to even say, “I think God is like...” We do not have that authority. We have to say, creation teaches me that God is an amazing creator. You see a beautiful sunset, an exceptionally clear night, a budding tree and you think, “God made this just for his own enjoyment!” We have to say, God’s word says that God is just, holy, righteous, love, patient, kind, gracious.
Knowing that the Bible is full of descriptions of God, Guido de Bres chose to begin with a simple statement concerning God. This is not a defence of God’s existence. This assumes that God exists. This assumes that the people who are reading and studying this document know who God is and they worship him on some level. This document is meant to help teach people what they believe.
We believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths (Rom. 10.10). That there is a single and simple spiritual being.
Let’s break those down a second. There is a single being. There is one God, whom we worship as a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not three Gods, one single God in three persons. This is how God has revealed himself. The scriptures teach that there is only one God, our passages confirm it, Deut. 6:4 Hear O Israel, the Lord, your God the Lord is one.”
This flies in the face of Islam whose sacred book, the Qur’an denounces Christians for worshipping three Gods. Truly, we worship one God, in three persons. A bit later we also confess that God is incomprehensible, the doctrine, or teaching, on the Trinity definitely falls into the incomprehensible part.
When the confession mentions that God is simple, what this means is that God is indivisible. It is not as though the Father is a part and the son is a part and the Holy Spirit is a part and the parts all together make God who he is. Rather, they are all one simple being together, inseparable.
God is a spiritual being. Jesus is the only one who took on flesh, became human. To imagine God otherwise, say to depict the father as having flesh, is to commit blasphemy. God is spirit and he must be worshipped in Spirit and in truth. We cannot try to understand God in our own terms in order to make God more easier to understand. The problem with that is we’re not making God easier to understand, we committing idolatry. We’re fashioning God in our own image. We have to accept God as he’s revealed himself to us, no matter how hard it is to accept and understand. If, out of a desire to reach more people for the Lord, we tell people something about God that isn’t true to His Word, that the Father appeared in the flesh, for instance—then we’re not actually reaching more people for the Lord, we’re leading them to worship an idol.
This is why John teaches us to test the spirits to see if they are from God. How do we know? Do they confess Christ came in the flesh? Do they confess his death and resurrection? Do they accurately reflect the scriptures as we’ve received them?
This document, the Belgic Confession does. It is written to explain scripture. Each concept is backed up by scripture. People have been pouring over this document for nearly 500 years in order to make sure it accurately teaches scripture. They’ve been testing the spirits, so to speak. And, it has stood the test of time, this is a useful tool to teach us about God.
The confession describes God, whom it has already identified as a single, simple and spiritual being, with 6 incommunicable attributes of God, followed by 4 communicable attributes of God.
Okay, what did I just say? There are 6 words that describe God and God alone. Because these attributes apply only to God, they are considered incommunicable. In other words, God does not share them with anyone else, they are: eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite and almighty.
This is probably not an exhaustive list, but it serves our purposes tonight admirably. To the first: Eternal. Believe it or not, this is one of the points atheists struggle with a lot.
They say, if God created everything from nothing, who created God? But this simply shows their ignorance! That’s like saying, what’s the beginning of infinity? You cannot ask, who created God because God, by definition is eternal. He simply always was. He was there before the mountains were born or you brought for the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps 90.2).
I’ve already mentioned that there is a sense where the Trinity is an incomprehensible concept. The reason it is so is because we are finite beings. We lack the capacity to fully understand. We are able to understand many things, but we are actually still woefully ignorant of how the brain works and we’ve been studying it for decades! What is a human brain compared God’s mind? Who can comprehend? Psalm 139 says that God’s knowledge is too wonderful, too lofty to attain. Or Rom. 11:33, which says, “Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgements, and his paths beyond tracing out!”
Another of God’s incommunicable attributes is invisibility. I’m sure there’s a few of us who wouldn’t mind having that for a bit. But did you know that when H.G. Wells wrote his famous novel “The Invisible Man” he acknowledged that an invisible man would certainly be blind, for we need our retina’s to be wholly solid in order to process the light, in order to see. But God has no such limitations. When people try to conceive of the Father by identifying him as having a body, or some other thing like that, they’re running into dangerous territory. Colossians 1:15 says, Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Though people render the father with images, trying to make him more relatable to people, the only one we need is Jesus, he is the perfect representation of the Father.
God is unchangeable. God is not fickle like humans are. He “does not change like shifting shadows” (Jas. 1:17). God remains true to his plan. God is not surprised by anything. God doesn’t have to figure things out. Rather, God, being eternal, is also omni-present, every moment is present to him. He knows the future, he knows the plans he has, and they are perfect, they cannot be improved upon. Unlike God’s creatures, unlike God’s creation, he doesn’t change!
We confess that God is infinite. There’s no beginning and no end. Nothing can contain God. The temple was the dwelling place of God’s name! The entire universe, estimated to be billions of light years across is too small to contain God! Furthermore, there is nowhere anyone can go where they are not seen by God! If we go to the heights, God is there. If we go to the depths, God is there.
God is certainly almighty. He must be, in that he is God. All the other attributes point to this, it makes sense. When God appeared to Abraham he identified himself saying, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless” (Gen. 17.1). Jesus also describes himself in this way, in Revelation 1:18 saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is, who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Jesus, before ascending into heaven says, all power and authority is mine. Encountering the almighty God, such as he is described in scripture and revealed in his creation, ought to elicit the highest praise from our lips! We do not worship an idol, or many gods represented in things, rather, we worship the one God who created everything!
There’s a break at this point in the confession. The next four attributes of God are not limited to God himself, but rather, are graciously given by God to people. In God, they are perfect, unlimited, people possess them in finite measures.
But let’s concentrate on how they apply to God: God is wise. Psalm 147 states: “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.” Paul echoes this in Romans 16:27 “to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.”
God excercises his wisdom in his perfect justice. God perfectly justly, relates to his creatures. He’s not fickle. He is not swayed by convincing arguments or sinful passions, for he possesses perfect holiness. God, as we saw this morning, is perfectly loving. But he is also Just. Those sins which have been committed against him will be justly dealt with. Some will be forgiven because of his Son. Others will be punished justly. And the saints who cry out to God regarding the injustice of this world will also receive justice. When Christ comes, he will bring Justice. The picture we have in Revelation goes like this, “Then I heard the angel in charge of the waters say: ‘You are just in these judgements... Yes, the Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgements.
Not only is God just, he is also good. Thus his justice reveals his goodness: the sacrifice of his Son reveals God’s great goodness. And from that sacrifice, we receive goodness galore. “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” Let us not become overly enamoured with the good things of this life, which is very easy to do. Focussing on toys, dirt-bikes and the like. Those things are good, yes, but how much better is God, who gives these good things, and more to the world?
Having considered many things this evening, it is my prayer that we come away with a fuller picture of God. May we be emboldened to proclaim before an unbelieving, sceptical, idolatrous culture around us, that “we all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God—eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty; completely wise, just, and good, and the overflowing source of all good. Amen.