What Does Confessional Christianity Look Like?

Italy statue

Dr. Brian Lee, pastor of Christ Reformed Church, Washington DC, recently visited and ministered to CERF in Milan, Italy. He wrote this article for Christian Renewal. It is used here by permission.) What does confessional Christianity look like?

I recently had the privilege of trying to answer that question at a Reformation Day conference with a confessionally Reformed church in Italy — in truth, the only confessionally Reformed church in Italy — Chiesa Evangelica Riformata Filadelfia (CERF), in Milan.

To say that CERF is the sole confessionally Reformed church in Italy is no exaggeration. The church is pastored by URCNA missionary, Rev. Andrea Ferrari. It is the only known church in Italy that takes the Three Forms of Unity as its confessional standards, and it is the only Reformed church that confesses Reformed standards in a robust fashion and uses them weekly in the life and worship of the church.

For its annual Reformation Day conference this year, Rev. Ferrari focused our attention on the Belgic Confession, which was lobbed over the wall of the castle of Doornik on November 2nd, 450 years ago.

The Heidelberg Catechism is more well-known and celebrated than the Confession, and no doubt its 450th anniversary two years hence will draw a good bit more attention. Though the Confession and Catechism were written within two years of each other, they were written under radically different political circumstances. While the Catechism was created at the direction of Frederick III and the authorities in the Palatinate, the Confession as a defensio produced by a persecuted church, a church under the cross.

Because it was borne of persecution, the Belgic Confession bears witness to a crucial aspect of confessional Christianity, namely, its awareness that the Christian life is lived under the cross. The first editions of the Confession contained a letter to King Philip of Spain, under whom they were suffering, followed by a listing of “Certain passages of the New Testament, by which the faithful are exhorted to render a confession of their faith before men”:

Matthew 10 [32, 33]. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Mark 8 [38] & Luke 9. For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” 1 Peter 3 [15]. Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; Romans 10 [10]. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 2 Timothy 2 [12]. If we deny Jesus Christ, he also will deny us. Guido de Bres, the author of the Confession, is justifying his disobedient action before the civil authorities, much as Luther had done a generation before, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

But he is also expressing something that he and his fellow confessors had learned through much hard experience and the shedding of blood. Jesus promised his church not prosperity, but suffering. He prepared his followers for that day when they would be hauled before the tribunal, and asked to recant their faith, and he promised that the Holy Spirit would give them words to say. And it is the confession of faith in the most difficult of circumstances, against the most stern opposition, that is the true test of our fidelity to the Son of Man. If we are ashamed of Him, of His Gospel, he will be ashamed of us when he comes in glory. If we deny Jesus Christ, he also will deny us.

Read in the light of these prefatory texts, the confession takes on a whole different significance. De Bres alludes to Romans 10 in the opening words of the first article, “We believe with all our heart and confess with our mouth that there is one simple and spiritual being, whom we call God.” The confession is not an intellectual exercise, nor an abstract statement of theological precision made for the sake of proving detractors wrong. It is, rather, a matter of life and death, made in the teeth of a furious earthly judgment, with an eye to coming heavenly judgment.

Obviously, I don’t dream of the day when the Reformed churches will once again be persecuted for their faith. Nor do I seek to draw an easy equivalency between the severe suffering of an earlier day and the relatively insignificant opposition we face today in North America.

But there is nevertheless a confessional sensibility, for lack of a better term, to the Belgic Confession that should characterize confessional churches whether they are a persecuted minority, or a ruling elite. It is, nevertheless, a bit easier to sense when you are a minority, as we forty saints were who gathered for worship and study in Milan a few weeks ago, as the sole confessional Christians in a nation of 60 million souls.

And it is this: Pure faith in Christ, truly confessed, will not ultimately be popular. It will draw opposition, from both within and without the church. It will be confessed at a price. While we should pray for the great success of our evangelistic efforts, we should not be surprised if this message doesn’t fill stadiums, or win laurels from cultural appraisers.

This point was brought home to me in reading the online comments on a Wall Street Journal article this week, “How Calvinists Spread Thanksgiving Cheer” (Nov. 18, 2011). One commenter dismissed the article because it discussed the charitable efforts of small church of “only” 1,500 members, and was therefore culturally irrelevant. I was reminded that the entire Eastern Classis of the URCNA has a little more than 1,100 professing members.

This confessional sensibility also results in a polemical statement of the faith. No fewer than 21 of 37 articles in the confession explicitly frame their teaching up by opposing errant views — a pattern the confession learned from the very pages of the New Testament. It is also a pattern that we see in the earliest days of creedal Christianity, as the church has ever sharpened and defined its faith in the face of error. Confessional Christians should not be afraid of clearly stating what we believe, and the errors we reject.

Reformed Christians in the west are no longer hung for their faith, as De Bres was, or consigned to the flames (though many around the world are still persecuted mightily). But we are tempted to seek influence, or to soften the difficult doctrines we confess. I know as a church planter, I have often worried how the rougher edges of our confession will sound to the new visitor. Many of us do speak — absurdly, given our size — of transforming the broader culture in which we live. As though we should expect to be welcomed as guiding lights by a world lost in darkness and opposed to the things of God.

We are also tempted to send our missions dollars off to grand programs which are accomplishing great things, we are lured by glossy brochures and internet video. The desire for bigness that permeates our culture, permeates also our church. It is a difficult choice to support a minister of Word and Sacrament, laboring against such long odds to plant confessionally Reformed churches in the challenging context of Italy.

What does confessional Christianity look like?

It is a small church in a small storefront in a small suburb north of Milan, the only such church in an entire nation. It is the preached word, the breaking of bread, and a handful of professions of faith. It is a faithful and learned pastor, praying and working that Christ’s church might be established in a land of long-dead faith.

[Please pray for CERF in Milan, and for Rev. Ferrari. Please support their work through the consistory of Christ United Reformed Church of Santee — they are outgrowing their building and wrestling with whether to remodel or build elsewhere. Please pray that the Lord would raise up church planters to assist Rev. Ferrari in his labors, Italians and/or Americans who are willing to come alongside him and continue to build a foundation for a federation of Reformed Churches in Italy.]