Using the Belgic Confession in Worship: Q & A's make this classic confession accessible

How familiar are you and other members of your congregation with the Belgic Confession? Although the Belgic is one of the doctrinal standards of churches in the Reformed tradition, its language and format have tended to relegate it to a back shelf when it comes to planning worship. Many Reformed churches have had a long-honored practice of regularly preaching through the Heidelberg Catechism, but few include words from the Belgic in their liturgies.

If your initial reaction is, So what? take another look. (You can find the Belgic Confession in the worship edition of the Psalter Hymnal). The rich doctrinal content in this confession can contribute to the healthy nurture of the faith life of God’s people. Members of the congregation should hear it and learn from it. But what can we do through sermon and liturgy to help them take its words on their own lips?

A quick look at the confession will help you appreciate the challenge posed by that question. The articles of the Belgic are lengthy; in some cases they are far too long to be read publicly. And the structure of these articles doesn’t always lend itself to public group reading.

Faced with these conclusions, but unwilling to give up the idea of using the Belgic in worship, I reformulated this confession as a catechism while sticking faithfully with de Brès’s original language and intent. In nearly two years of services that featured readings based on the Belgic, worshipers in our congregation became familiar with a confession that had been a stranger to them. And we discovered many ways of making this Q&A version of the confession a more useful and familiar part of our worship:

  • As a pattern for preaching. There is great value in doctrinal preaching, especially today. These readings will make the Belgic Confession more “preacher friendly” and provide formulations that can shape a season of preaching. The congregation can participate in the confession by reading the answer to the question or questions the minister focuses on each week.
  • As a profession before the sermon. A prayer for illumination is often included before the sermon. It would be equally appropriate for the worshipers to verbally profess their faith in the authority of the Scriptures as the given Word of God, thereby placing themselves under that Word as it is preached (see box on p. 37).
  • As seasonal liturgical professions. Most congregations use the Apostles’ Creed to confess their faith each week. As a refreshing change of pace, consider inserting appropriate sections of the Belgic Confession, especially as they focus on a certain part of the church year. Advent, Lent, and Pentecost all could be reinforced with special litanies.
  • As professions at the celebration of a sacrament. Historically the church has considered the sacraments a time for instruction as well as participation. These Q&A readings help the worshipers speak their beliefs about the sacrament they are approaching (see box on p. 37).

Here are a couple of sample Q&A’s. The first could be used in the liturgy before the sermon.

Do you receive all the books of the Bible?
We include in the Holy Scriptures the two volumes of the Old and New Testaments.
They are canonical books
with which there can be no quarrel at all.

We receive all these books
and these only
as holy and canonical,
for the regulating, founding, and establishing
of our faith.

Do you believe what is contained in them?
We believe
without a doubt
all things contained in them—
not so much because the church
receives and approves them as such
but above all because the Holy Spirit
testifies in our hearts
that they are from God,
and also because they
prove themselves
to be from God.

—From Articles 4 and 5

The following Q&A could be used at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

For whom is the Lord’s Supper intended?
We believe and confess
that our Savior Jesus Christ
has ordained and instituted the sacrament of the
Holy Supper
to nourish and sustain those
who are already born again and ingrafted
into his family:
his church.

How many lives do we have within us?
Those who are born again have two lives in them.
The one is physical and temporal—
we have it from the moment of our first birth,
and is common to all.
The other is spiritual and heavenly,
and is given to us in our second birth;
it comes through the Word of the gospel
in the communion of the body of Christ;
and this life is common to God’s elect only.

What is God’s aim for us in the Lord’s Supper?
To maintain the spiritual and heavenly life
that belongs to believers,
he has sent a living bread
that came down from heaven:
namely Jesus Christ,
who nourishes and maintains
the spiritual life of believers
when eaten—
that is, when appropriated
and received spiritually
by faith.

—From Article 35

Note: You’ll find the entire Belgic Confession adapted to the Q&A format on our website: http://www.reformedworship.org/magazine/article.cfm?article_id=1741.

Excerpt

The chief author of the Belgic Confession was Guido de Brès, a preacher of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands who died a martyr to the faith in 1567. During the sixteenth century, the churches in that country were exposed to terrible persecution by the Roman Catholic government. To protest against this cruel oppression, and to prove to the persecutors that the adherents of the Reformed faith were not rebels as charged, but law-abiding citizens who professed the true Christian doctrine according to the Holy Scriptures, de Brès prepared this confession in 1561. The following year a copy was sent to Phillip II, together with an address in which the petitioners declared that they were ready to obey their government in all lawful things, but that they were ready to “offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags and their whole bodies to the fire,” rather than deny the truth expressed in this confession.

Howard D. Vanderwell was the Resource Development Specialist of Pastoral Leadership for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, the author and editor of The Church of All Ages and Caring Worship: Helping Worship Leaders Provide Pastoral Care through the Liturgy, and co-author of Designing Worship Together.