Articles

Notes on the Belgic Confession of Faith (19)

A series of brief articles by Rev.M.McGeown (Limerick,Ireland Reformed Fellowship) on the Belgic (or Netherlands) Confession of Faith (1561), one of the "Three Forms of Unity" of Reformed churches throughout the world.

Legal Fiction! - Belgic Confession, Article 23

Belgic Confession, Article 23: Legal Fiction!

by Rev. Martyn McGeown, Missionary-pastor laboring in Limerick, Ireland.

Article 23: We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ's sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied: as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the happiness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works. And the same apostle saith, that we are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ. And therefore we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in any thing in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours, when we believe in him. This is sufficient to cover our iniquities, and to give us confidence in approaching to God; freeing the conscience of fear, terror and dread, without following the example of our first father, Adam, who, trembling, attempted to cover himself with fig-leaves. And verily if we should appear before God, relying on ourselves, or on any other creature, though ever so little, we should, alas! be consumed. And therefore every one must pray with David: O Lord, enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.

Instead of imputed righteousness, Rome teaches infused or imparted righteousness, the idea that the Spirit works grace in the heart of the sinner who uses the sacraments of the church. Then on the basis of virtue in the heart—an acquired, internal righteousness—the church member is justified. The more grace in the heart, the more justified a person becomes, but even the most justified person in this life—with very few exceptions—must be purified in purgatory after death. The result is that no member of the Roman Catholic church can ever know if he has accrued enough grace in his heart to merit justification now and on the Last Day. The result for the sinner who understands sin and the holiness of God is and must be terror.

Rome scoffs at the Reformed, biblical and confessional view of justification by imputed righteousness as “legal fiction.” Rome is especially offended by the “as if” language of Reformed theologians. We believe that God views us in justification “as if [we] had never had had, nor committed any sin, yea as if [we] had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for [us]” (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 23, Q&A 61).  To “as if” Rome cries out “legal fiction!” Modern heretics have also criticized the doctrine of imputation, characterizing it as “the shuffling about of heavenly ledgers” (or accounting books); and have said that it is impossible for righteousness to be transferred to a guilty sinner from the sinless Christ.

The Reformed believer is not afraid of the charge of “Legal fiction!

First, if our justification is “legal fiction,” how can we possibly explain the cross of Christ? If it is impossible for God to impute Christ’s righteousness to us, it is also impossible for God to impute our sins to Christ, and for Christ to bear the punishment for them. Then we must satisfy God’s justice for our own sins, and that is impossible. Was God playing “legal fiction” at the cross? God forbid! Second, the “legal fiction” argument supposes that God is playing “Let’s pretend” in His judgment hall. God would be pretending that the sinner is righteous when the sinner is, in fact, not righteous. But God is not pretending because the righteousness which is the basis of our justification is not a “make-believe” righteousness but Christ’s righteousness. Christ’s righteousness is real! Christ’s lifelong obedience is real! Christ’s atonement on the cross is real! And God’s act of imputing that righteousness to us is real! Third, it is not that the demands of the Law are not met—they most certainly are—but the demands of the Law are not met by us. It is not that God agrees not to enforce the demands of His Law—He insists on them most strongly—but that God does not demand them from us. And the reason God does not demand perfect obedience from us is that Christ has already fulfilled the demands for us. That is not “legal fiction,” but grace!

Let us turn the “legal fiction” charge back on our detractors. All who deny that justification is by faith alone based on the imputed, alien righteousness of Christ alone must face this question. On what basis are you justified before God? On what basis can God declare you—here and now, and in the Final Judgment—to be righteous?  If God—as Rome contends—justifies sinners on the basis of an imperfect obedience to His Law, God is unjust.

Imperfect righteousness as the basis of justification is the real “legal fiction”.

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The Threefold Law Given to Israel - Belgic Confession, Art.25

Belgic Confession, Article 25: The Threefold Law Given to Israel

by Rev. Martyn McGeown, Missionary-pastor, Limerick Reformed Fellowship

Psalm 147:19: “He sheweth His word unto Jacob, His statutes and His judgments unto Israel”

Belgic Confession Articles 22-24 have dealt with faith, justification, and sanctification and good works. The question naturally arises—what about the law? In Reformed theology the law of God has an important place and role to play in the life of the church and of the Christian. The law, although as we have seen in no way contributes to our justification or righteousness before God, remains binding upon all sinners, and remains the rule by which Christians are called to live. “As many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12). Paul quotes many of the Ten Commandments as binding upon New Testament believers (Rom. 13:9-10; Eph. 4:25, 28, 6:1-3).

But we need to understand what the law is. First, the law refers to the Torah, the first five books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy). Second, the law refers to all the commandments, statutes and ordinances contained in the Old Testament. Third, the law refers to the threefold division of the Law—the moral law, the civil law and the ceremonial law. All of these laws were received while Israel camped at Mount Sinai. It is especially the ceremonial law which is the focus of Belgic Confession Article 25.

Israel’s sojourn at Mount Sinai was memorable. Who could forget the smoke, the fire, the thundering, the lighting, the terrible quaking of the entire mountain and the awe inspiring voice of the Almighty which sounded like a long trumpet blast? (Ex. 19:18, 20:18). Even Moses confessed, “I exceedingly fear and quake” (Heb. 12:21). At the same time, Israel sinned grievously at Sinai by making and worshipping a golden calf. But the highlight of Sinai was the giving of the law. To no other nation did God give such a righteous law. This law was designed to regulate every aspect of Israel’s life, to teach her how God was to be worshipped and what a life of thankfulness should look like.

Two parts of the law have passed away. The first is the civil law. These are the laws which pertained to Israel as a nation. For example, God legislated through Moses how the Israelites should do farming—do not sow fields with mingled seed; do not crossbreed cattle (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:9-10). God legislated concerning property rights and laws of indemnity—if your animal causes damage to another man’s property or destroys his life you must make restoration (Ex. 21:28-36). God gave laws concerning punishment for various crimes—including the death penalty (Lev. 20:8-22). The second is the ceremonial law. These are the laws which pertained to Israel’s worship. There were instructions on constructing the tabernacle (Ex. 25-31); there were detailed instructions on the different kinds of sacrifices, apparel for the priests, laws concerning cleanness and uncleanness, and laws concerning the special feast days. Most of these laws are detailed in the book of Leviticus—a book which impresses upon us the holiness of God.

New Testament believers do not need to—indeed they may not—observe these Old Testament ceremonial laws. They were all fulfilled in the coming of Christ of whom these laws were but a shadow.

We live in full gospel light. We have no need to keep those laws.

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The Father Laying Our Iniquities Upon Him (Christ) - Belgic Confession, Art.20

Belgic Confession, Article 20: The Father Laying Our Iniquities Upon Him

by Rev. Martyn McGeown, Missionary-pastor in Limerick Reformed Fellowship, Ireland (This article first appeared in Limerick RF's August 10, 2014 bulletin.)

Isaiah 53:5:But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities …”

Belgic Confession, Art.20 - That God hath manifested his justice and mercy in Christ Jesus:

We believe that God, who is perfectly merciful and just, sent his Son to assume that nature, in which the disobedience was committed, to make satisfaction in the same, and to bear the punishment of sin by his most bitter passion and death. God therefore manifested his justice against his Son, when he laid our iniquities upon him; and poured forth his mercy and goodness on us, who were guilty and worthy of damnation, out of mere and perfect love, giving his Son unto death for us, and raising him for our justification, that through him we might obtain immortality and life eternal.

There is one subject about which we must be clear before we proceed—the justice in God’s punishing of His Son for our sins. How could the sinless, innocent Son of God be made to suffer? How is it right that the Son of God experience pain and anguish in body and soul? How is it possible that the Son of God should know the wrath of the Father? Could it be true that the Father was angry with His own Son?

The answer is given in the Belgic Confession: “God therefore manifested His justice against His Son when He laid our iniquities upon Him.” It was because God laid our iniquities upon Christ that He could be just in punishing Christ. To lay our iniquities upon Christ means to impute the guilt of our iniquities to Christ. Legally, the guilt of all our sins became Christ’s. Imputation is an extremely important word in theology. We believe in a threefold imputation.

First, we believe—as we already saw in Article 15—that God imputed the guilt of Adam’s sin to the entire human race. Adam’s sin rendered us all guilty, because Adam represented us.

Second, we believe—as we learn in Articles 20-21—that God imputed the guilt of all our sins to Jesus Christ. Our sins rendered Christ guilty—not personally guilty, but legally guilty—before God, and God treated Christ accordingly as a guilty man, guilty of all the sins of all those whom He represents. “For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (II Cor. 5:21).

Third, we believe—as we learn in Articles 22-23—that God imputes the righteousness of Jesus Christ to us by faith. Christ righteousness renders us, whom He represents and who believe in Him, righteous before God. “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19).

This explains how it was possible for Christ to suffer. He had the capacity to suffer because He has a human nature. He had the right to suffer—or God had the right to inflict suffering upon Him—because our sins were imputed to Him. Otherwise, to speak reverently, God had no legal right even to have Christ stub His toe; and it would be a moral outrage for Christ to experience the slightest pang of anguish. Anguish, pain and suffering are the experience only of sinners. Personally, Christ is the sinless Son of God, the righteous one. If He is not, He cannot be our Mediator and Saviour. But, legally—with respect to the Law, with respect to His position before God’s Law—Christ became guilty when the sins of all His people whom He represented were made His by imputation.

And since Christ was loaded down with the guilt of our sins, He became the object of God’s just wrath. He lived under the shadow of that wrath His whole life and that wrath came upon Him—justly—when He died on the cross.

But we must never forget that Christ willingly adopted that position of guilt before the Law for us. Christ made Himself of no reputation; Christ humbled Himself for our salvation.

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Christ Presenting Himself Before the Father - Belgic Confession, Art.21

Belgic Confession, Article 21: Christ Presenting Himself Before the Father


by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of Limerick Reformed Fellowship (for the Covenant PRC of Ballymena, N.Ireland)


John 10:18: “No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself …


Sometimes we think of Jesus as a victim upon whom God inflicted terrible sufferings. Some have scoffed at Christianity, calling it “slaughterhouse religion.” More recently, certain wicked men have accused God of “cosmic child abuse.” But all such objections to the Gospel of the cross are based on a deliberate refusal to see that what Christ suffered was voluntary. When we see the awful sufferings of Christ in Scripture let us never lose sight of that great truth.

Christ was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, but only because He willingly consented to His arrest and gave Himself into the hands of His captors (John 18:4-9). Christ was beaten, spat upon and mocked, but remember His words in Isaiah 50:6: “I gave my back to the smiters and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” Christ was arraigned before the Jews and then Pontius Pilate, but only because He Himself permitted it. Christ was crucified and suffered the indignities and agonies of the cross, but only because He personally embraced those sufferings as part of the will of God.

All of this He sums up in John 10:17-18: “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.” Indeed, Christ did not actually die until the moment determined by Himself. He could not have died one second earlier or later than the one appointed by the Father and to which He willingly submitted.

The Belgic Confession explains this in these words: “He hath presented Himself in our behalf before the Father to appease His wrath by His full satisfaction.” The Son of God, as it were, appeared before the Father and declared, “Here I am, send me.”

And we must be abundantly clear that the Son of God knew exactly the import of His words: “Send me, Father, and I will be born of a virgin, in humble and miserable circumstances. Send me, Father, and I will grow up in relative obscurity and poverty. Send me, Father, and I will preach thy Gospel, do good and keep thy Law, under which I will be born. Send me, Father, and I will be rejected by many, despised and abhorred by men, betrayed, denied and finally put to death. Send me, Father, and I will submit to the indignities of arrest, false imprisonment, a wicked, unjust, public flogging, rejection by the people in favour of a murderer, and finally the agony of crucifixion. Send me, Father, and I will bear in my own body the full weight of thy wrath against the sins of which my elect are guilty.”

The book of Hebrews sums it up, quoting Psalm 40, “Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God” (Heb. 10:7).

Something legal happened when Christ presented Himself before the Father. The guilt of all our sins was transferred to the account of God’s Son and He undertook to take full responsibility for what we had done and to do what we had left undone and had refused to do.


What amazing love is this! Praise Christ, our self-giving, self-sacrificing Saviour!

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Faith Seeking Nothing More Besides Christ - Belgic Confession, Art.22

Belgic Confession, Article 22: Faith Seeking Nothing More Besides Christ

by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor in Limerick, Ireland (for the Covenant PRC of Ballymena, N.Ireland)

Galatians 2:20: “The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God.

Faith is not common to all men. Often we hear that all men have faith—that faith is simply trust in something. Thus people say that when you sit on a chair you exercise “faith” in the chair that it will not collapse under you. But that is not faith. That is a weighing up of probabilities. You assume that the chair was built to sustain your weight; no one has broken the chair before you; you have no reason to think that the chair will break now.

When we say that we believe in Jesus Christ we mean much more than that. Faith confidently and with full assurance seeks all good things from Jesus Christ. That is because we know Jesus Christ. Therefore, when our faith in Jesus Christ brings us hardship—and it will—we do not cast away our confidence. Faith is childlike trust. Why does a child trust his father? Because he knows his father—he knows his father’s character, and he knows his father’s love. This knowledge gives the child confidence in the presence of his father. The same child behaves differently around strangers, because he does not know strangers. As Jesus said about His sheep who know Him as Shepherd, “And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers” (John 10:5).

The New Testament teaches that faith is confidence by means of two prepositions—small words which indicate position or movement. First, the New Testament speaks about believing into Jesus Christ; second, the New Testament teaches that we live out of Christ and that we are justified by (lit., “out of”) faith. These expressions teach us that the source of life for the believer is Jesus Christ, and that by believing he partakes of the benefits of Jesus Christ. These expressions also strengthen our conviction that faith is a bond which unites us to Jesus Christ and out of which we live.

Moreover, the believer has faith exclusively in Jesus Christ. He does not believe in other saviours, and he does not divide his allegiance between saviours. If all things necessary for salvation were not found in Christ, Christ would be but “half a Saviour.” Of course, the Belgic Confession, a Reformation creed, has Roman Catholicism in mind—Rome taught (and still teaches) that the saints, especially Mary, contributed to salvation. But we must not forget the error of self-salvation—the error that we can contribute something to our salvation in the form of good works.

The answer to all self-salvation is the sufficiency of Christ. Remember the Vine and the branches. The branches receive the sap from the Vine through the graft. The branches do not suck the sap from the Vine and from some other plant at the same time. . For the branches there is no other source of life. If the branch ever becomes separated from the Vine—which, of course, could never happen— it will die. The same is true for us. We live out of Jesus Christ, not out of ourselves, nor out of Jesus Christ and someone else. “Without me,” says Christ, “ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Let us seek all things in Jesus Christ alone, by faith alone.

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