A Tension That Does Not Exist

There were a number of issues that I might have taken up in my response to Crawford Gribben and Chris Caughey’s essay, “History, Identity Politics, and the ‘Recovery’ of the Reformed Confession” in the volume On Being Reformed which space did not permit. Fortunately, on the Heidelblog, space is not a limit.

One of those remaining questions is the claim that the language of Belgic Confession art. 24 “poses a dilemma” for “truly Reformed Christians, since it allegedly “runs counter to the received orthodoxy of the Reformed churches.” They explain:

In Article 24, on “The Sanctification of Sinners,” de Bres confessed that faith causes regeneration, an ordo salutis that other Reformed confessions have reversed, placing regeneration before faith. This contradiction has compelled expositors of Reformed tradition to explain that English and Dutch Protestants had entirely different definitions for this key theological term: one difference is resolved by proposing another (p. 14).35

What does art. 24 say?

We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a “new man,” causing him to live the “new life” and freeing him from the slavery of sin. Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary,
so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned. So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,” which leads a man to do of himself the works that God has commanded in his Word. These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place. So then, we do good works, but not for merit—for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who “works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure”—thus keeping in mind what is written: “When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.’ ” Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works—but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts. Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work. So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.

The sentence in question is this one: “We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a “new man,” causing him to live the “new life” and freeing him from the slavery of sin.” Caughey and Gribben claim that this language contradicts the “received orthodoxy of the Reformed churches.” This claim would surprise the Reformed churches who adopted in the Belgic at Synods in 1566, 1568, 1571, 1574, 1581, 1583, and again at the Great Synod of Dort in 1619.

Indeed, one of the major burdens of the Great Synod of Dort was to defend the Belgic Confession against the Remonstrant revisions of the Reformed faith, one of which was the very order of the application of redemption (ordo salutis) which Caughey and Gribben impute to the Belgic: that faith precedes regeneration. So, they are asking us to accept the proposition that none of the ecclesiastical synods nor the Synod of Dort noticed this discrepancy?

Obviously, this is unlikely and it makes us wonder whether there is not a more likely explanation. As it happens, there is. This question comes up regularly in the course where we walk clause by clause through the Belgic and each time it gives me an opportunity to explain the semantic range of the terms here in the 16th and 17th centuries. I first noticed it while translating Caspar Olevianus’ De substantia (1585), where he spoke just as de Bres had done (and the Reformed churches thereafter by adoption). As it turns out, Calvin himself spoke this way.

As I have noted previously, in this space, historically, the word regeneration (and related terms such as renovation) has signified two related but distinct ideas:

a) Sanctification, i.e., the progressive Spirit-wrought, graciously given growth of the believer in holiness, i.e., conformity to Christ by the putting to death of the old man and the making alive of the new. Among the Fathers of the Church regeneration was regularly used in this first sense. The pre-Dort Reformed theologians regularly used the words regeneration and renewal in this sense. They also used those words in the second sense:

b) The granting of new life. Louis Berkhof defines regeneration, used in this sense, thus:

Regeneration is that act of God by which the principle of new life is implanted in man , And the governing disposition of the soul is made holy. But in order to include the idea of the new birth as well as that of the “begetting again,“ it will be necessary to complement the definition with the following words:… “And the first holy exercise of this new disposition is secured.“ (Systematic Theology, 469, emphasis original)

With the rise of the Remonstrants and the controversy over the doctrine of salvation, the Reformed came to use the words regeneration and renewal principally (but not solely) in this second sense. Thus, we must not assume what we might call the Dort sense of the word and read it into Belgic art. 24 nor into other texts from the same pre-Remonstrant period of Reformed theology.

We need not look outside the Belgic to confirm this. The very logic of the confession itself leads us to see that what de Bres and the Reformed churches after him, including the very anti-Remonstrant Synod of Dort, intended in art. 24 to speak about sanctification and not the conferring of new life. Belgic art. 16 has already articulated the doctrine of unconditional election. Art. 22 unequivocally attributes regeneration (in the Dort sense) to the sovereign, unconditional work of the Holy Spirit:

We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him. For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely.

The Latin text, authorized by the Synod of Dort, uses the infinitive, “accendere” to describe the work of the Spirit in granting new life. This image was common among the Reformed in the period. Again, Calvin spoke this way as did his students (e.g., Olevianus, where I first noticed this use). The picture is that behind the external ministry of the church is the divine decree. Through the preaching of the law the Spirit teaches the elect the greatness of their sin and misery (Heidelberg 2) and through the preaching of the gospel particularly (Heidelberg 65), the Holy Spirit works new life in the elect. In the Dort sense, that is when regeneration occurs. In articles 22 and 23 it is through the “sole instrument” of faith (art. 22) that sinners are justified, by grace alone (sola gratia). By faith alone we rest in and lean on Christ’s righteousness alone for the ground of our justification before God.

Art. 24 then expresses the sovereign grace of the Spirit working through the “hearing of the Word:” “We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit…”. Thus, the people in view have already received new life and the question then is the fruit or result of that new life and true faith: sanctification. Thus, several editions of the Latin text of the Belgic Confession carry the sub-head over art. 24: De Sanctificatione, concerning sanctification. Of course, de Bres, as the several synods after him understood, was turning to address the Romanist and Anabaptist slander that the Protestant doctrine of justification leads to impious living. “No!” the Reformed Churches say, “Quite emphatically no! The graces of new life, true faith, justification, mystical union with Christ, and adoption lead not to license but to piety and sanctification. The very context of the word regeneration in this article makes clear that intent:

regenerates him and makes him a “new man,” causing him to live the “new life”and freeing him from the slavery of sin. Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned.

de Bres quotes 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Romans 6:4. He was discussing progressive sanctification and not the moment of awakening from death to life. The Reformed repeatedly taught that we were justified that we might be progressively sanctified, which is clear enough in Art. 24.

Berkhof’s explanation was earnest but pure supposition. The Dutch Reformed and the English Reformed differed not at all on this point. When William Ames fled to the Netherlands, bringing with him the distilled genius of William Perkins and communicated it to Voetius, he forever fused the theology, piety, and practice of the English Reformed to the Dutch Reformed making such Berkhof’s distinction not only unlikely but impossible.

There is no tension between the Belgic, and therefore all the Reformed churches who subscribe it, and the rest of the Reformed churches on the order of the application of redemption. There is one Reformed ordo salutis but there was more than one way of using the words regeneration and renovation, to describe the moment of awakening from death to life and progressive sanctification.


35. Louis Berkhof, Systematic theology (1939; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1958), p. 466.

©R. Scott Clark


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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