On this day, in 1567, Guy de Bres (b. 1522) was martyred for the gospel. Guy or Guido de Bres was born in Hainaut, Belgium, which is about 37 miles southwest of Brussels, the fifth child. His family was successful enough in business (his father is usually said to have been a craftsman) for Guy to attend university. Like many other young men of the era who attended university, he encountered the evangelical (Protestant) doctrines of salvation sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura and was converted from Romanism to the Reformed confession. He became sufficiently identified with the Reformation that he had to flee to London, where he was with the Flemish Reformed pastor-theologian Petrus Dathenus (1531–88), Maarten Micron (1523–59), who wrote a summary of the faith (Compendium Doctrinae, 1551) that was widely used by the Reformed in the Lowlands, and the Polish Reformer of Emden, Johannes a Lasco (Jan Łaski), the superintendent of the “Strangers” [Refugees] Church in the old Austin Friars church, London. By 1552 we find Guy back in his home country, just a few miles southwest of Hainaut, serving as pastor of one of the many “churches under the cross,” i.e., the Reformed Churches suffering a bloody persecution under Spanish-Romanist tyranny. By the mid-50s he was again forced to flee, this time to Frankfurt, where he joined refugees from England (who themselves were fleeing persecution under “Bloody Mary” Tudor). There he found himself with, among others, the great Scottish Reformer, John Knox (1513–72) and in the midst of a heated controversy between the Anglicans, who held that the church may do (and impose), in worship, whatever is not forbidden and the Reformed, who confessed that the church may do (and impose), in worship, only what God has commanded. In the late 50’s we find him Lausanne, Switzerland, where he was studying with none other than Theodore de Beze (Beza; 1519–1605), the great Reformed humanist and Calvin’s successor in Geneva. He studied there with Beza for two years and even followed him to Geneva, when he was called there to help Calvin and to serve as headmaster of the new Academy there. In 1559, de Bres left Geneva for Tournai, Belgium about 475 miles to the north. He was there two years and it was in this period that he preached the sermons (according to Adrian Saravia’s 1612 letter) that became the basis for the Belgic Confession, which was published in 1561.
From 1561 we see Guy serving as a court chaplain in Sedan, France—on the run again because of Romanist persecution—whence he made regular, underground trips North to serve congregations in Belgium. In this period the persecution of the Reformed intensified. The Reformed were reduced to meeting for worship under the guise of “dinner parties” and gathering secretly in rural areas when they could get a preacher. One of the tell-tale signs of a Reformed worship service in this period: Psalm singing. The Spanish knew that they had found an illegal Reformed congregation when they found them singing God’s Word in worship in response to the Word preached and made visible in the sacraments.
In 1566 he was in Antwerp to warn the congregations about the dangers of the Anabaptist theology, piety, and practice. Indeed, just as he wrote a book against the Romanists, he also wrote a volume against the Anabaptists, in which he carefully described their theology, their denial of the Scriptures as the sole authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life (sola Scriptura). He warned against their practice of what we today know as (neo) Pentecostalism. He warned against their denial of the distinction between law and gospel and their moralism in the doctrine of salvation, among other things. While there he attended the meeting of Synod and received a call to pastor a congregation, with Peregrine de la Grange, a missionary from Geneva, in Valenciennes, about 30 miles from where de Bres was born. He began his ministry just about the time of the Beeldenstorm, an outbreak of a wave of iconoclasm that swept across the Netherlands. If de Bres preaching was typical, it included regular and even fiery denunciations of the many representations of Christ and the Trinity as idolatry, denunciations of the adoration of the Blessed Virgin and of the adoration of the consecrated host (victim) used by Romanists in their celebration of the Supper. The Spanish reacted with force. Valenciennes was surrounded by troops. They began firing upon the city. The siege lasted for three months. When the troops entered the city they arrested Guy and Peregrine. de Bres escaped briefly but was re-captured and imprisoned again. The consistory volunteered to ask for help from France. de Bres rejected the offer.
From prison, before his death, he wrote touching letters to his wife. On 22 May 1567 he even held a disputation with a Roman bishop in defense of the gospel and the Reformed confession. So committed was de Bres to Romans 13 as the Word of God that his last message to the people, delivered from the scaffold upon which he was to die, was that the people should obey the magistrate. Moments later, Guy de Bres and Peregrine de la Grange, ministers of the gospel were martyred for the gospel as they were hanged until dead.
Doubtless the Spanish thought that they could silence the gospel by killing its preachers but they had forgotten Tertullian’s dictum, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” So it was. The Reformed confession continued to spread across the Lowlands and to the North. Several regional synods adopted the Belgic Confession until finally the Great Synod of Dort would adopt it in 1618–19. Today the Belgic Confession is embraced and confessed with heart and mouth by tens of thousands (if not more) across the globe, in languages that de Bres might not have imagined.
Take a moment to give thanks for the life, ministry, and faithful witness to the gospel of Guy de Bres, martyred for Christ on this day in 1567.
What a marvellous heritage we have in such called chosen & faithful men! may we have their grace & spirit.
Amen! How good to know the stories and take encouragement from such men of faith!