The Netherlands Reformed Church adheres to the “Three Forms of Unity”, which are the
- Belgic Confession
- Heidelberg Catechism
- Canons of Dort
The Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Canons of Dort (1619) are known as the “Three Forms of Unity” and are the doctrinal foundation of all Dutch Reformed churches. These confessions have been excellent summary of orthodox Reformed Christianity for more than 400 years.
Since the above three can be easily downloaded from the internet and due to their great length I did not include them here in full. However, I think it will be helpful if I briefly highlight a few specific doctrines from the Belgic Confession since they specifically relate to some of the issues within the NRC today.
Article I – That there is One Only God.
We believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth, that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God; and that he is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good.
Article XIV – Of the Creation and Fall of man, and his Incapacity to perform what is truly good.
….and by sin separated himself from God, who was his true life, having corrupted his whole nature; whereby he made himself liable to corporal and spiritual death. And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he hath lost all his excellent gifts, which he had received from God,… Therefore, we reject all that is taught repugnant to this, concerning the free will of man, since man is but a slave to sin; and has nothing of himself, unless it is given from heaven.
Article XV – Of Original Sin
We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God, that it is sufficient to condemn all of mankind.
Article XXIII – Of Justification
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.
Article XXIV – Of man’s Sanctification and Good Works
We believe that this true faith being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God, and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. …. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith, which is called in Scripture, a faith that worketh by love, which excites man to the practice of those works, which God has commanded in his Word. …. Therefore we do good works, but not to merit them, nay, we are beholden to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he that worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
Article XXIX – Of the marks of the true Church, and wherein she differs from the false Church
…. With respect to those, who are members of the Church, they may be known by the marks of Christians: namely, by faith; and when they have received Jesus Christ the only Savior, they avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbor, neither turn aside to the right or the left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof. … As for the false Church, she ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ. … she relieth more upon men than upon Christ; …
The NRC is not the only denomination that adheres to the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. Others do as well. However, within the NRC there is a particular emphasis upon two areas that, in their estimation, makes them unique among other reformed denominations. The following are not viewed as beliefs in addition to the Confessions, but rather are in full harmony with the Confessions and help further define them.
Experiential Calvinism – This phenomena can also be described as “experimental religion”, “experimental faith”, or “experimental divinity”. All refer to the same thing and have a long history in Reformation theology. In a nutshell, these terms point to the importance of feelings and emotions in a genuine expression of faith in God. One author describes it as “examining or testing (from experiri) experienced knowledge by the touchtone of Scripture…”1 Counterfeit faith, on the other hand, either leaves emotions out (intellect only), or, if emotions are present, bases them upon false knowledge. The NRC views itself as one few remaining denominations preserving this essential truth handed down from the Reformation. However, as we will see below, this is only partially true.
Presumptive Regeneration – This is closely related to experiential faith. This phenomena refers to the danger of falsely assuming that one is saved when in fact they are not. The NRC is deeply grieved over the superficial nature of contemporary evangelicalism that so often has a false peace and joy growing out of a low view of sin and salvation. Many, according to Alexander Comrie, become Christians “with a skip and a jump”2 often resulting in multitudes of unconverted people joining the church.3 Dr. Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) is widely considered to be a leading figure introducing presumptive regeneration into the Dutch Reformed church. His view of salvation was related to his view of infant baptism. “[Kuyper] taught that God can and often does regenerate his elect as infants” and that “covenant parents are to presume that their covenant children are regenerate until they give prolonged and conscious evidence in their mature years that they are unregenerate.”4 Unfortunately, this leads many into a false sense of assurance regarding their salvation.
- Form for the Administration of Baptism
- Public Confession of Faith
- Public Confession of Guilt
- Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper
- Form for Excommunication
- Form of Re-admitting Excommunicated Persons
- Form of Ordination of the Ministers of God’s Word
- Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons
- Form of Installation of Professors of Theology
- Form of Ordination of Missionaries
- Form of Confirmation of Marriage
Again, for the sake of simplicity I decided not to include the full text of the liturgy. Many of the forms and the confessions are quite large. These can be viewed in The Psalter, the denominational hymnal.
All of the above liturgy plays a significant role in the NRC. However, one form has a particularly important role that tends to stand out above the rest: the Public Confession of Faith written by Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676), the Dutch theologian. Since some of you may not have this in front of you or you may not be familiar with it I thought that it is best to include it below. The Confession of Faith vow is discussed in detail in the Analysis section.
Public Confession of Faith
(Before or after the sermon the minister requests those who intend to make public confession of their faith to arise and reply to the following questions:)
The minister says:
- Do you acknowledge the doctrine of our church, which you have learned, heard, and confessed, to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation, conforming with the Sacred Scriptures?
- Do you promise, by the grace of God, to continue steadfastly in the profession of this doctrine and to live and die in accordance therewith?
- Do you promise, at all times to conduct yourself conformably to this doctrine, faithfully, honorably, and beyond reproach, and to adorn your confession with good works?
- Do you promise that you will submit to admonition, correction, and church discipline in the event (which God forbid) that you may become delinquent either in doctrine or in life?
Standing before the congregation the individual says:
1 Joel R. Beeke, The Quest for Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 3.
2 Quoted in Arie Vergunst, “The Distinctive Theological Identity of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations within the Sphere of Reformed Denominations”, in INSIGHT INTO (Kalamazoo, MI: Netherlands Reformed Congregations, 2001), 19.
3 John Calvin believed that only 10% of his Geneva congregation was converted. He said, “For though, all without exception to whom God’s Word is preached, are taught, yet scarce one in ten so much as tastes it; yea, scarce one in a hundred profits to the extent of being enabled, thereby, to proceed in a right course to the end.” Quoted in Joel R. Beeke, The Quest for Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 59.
4 Curt Daniel, The History and Theology of Calvinism (Dallas: Scholarly Reprints, 1993), 131.