We Confess An Exposition & Application of the Belgic Confession Article 36: Of the Magistrate

The historical context in which de Brès and his colleagues of the Reformed churches in the Lowlands ministered was one where the Roman Catholic authorities continually reproached them as revolutionaries. Because of the Anabaptists and their rejection of the civil government as legitimate authorities over them, Reformed Christians were associated with these revolutionaries as a political ploy to marginalize the Reformed, leading to their eradication. In this situation, the ministers of the Reformed congregations in the Lowlands felt it necessary to respond.

The Confession describes the Church in Articles 27-35 as a spiritual kingdom. This kingdom exists in the midst of the kingdoms of this world. Here the Reformers’ doctrine of the “two kingdoms” is clearly in the background. The Latin term that is used in the title of Article 36, magistratus, shows this. This word speaks of the “civil office,” in contrast to the “spiritual polity” of the Church described in Article 30.

The Source of Government

Article 36 begins by explaining the source from which the civil government comes. Just as the spiritual kingdom, as manifested in the Church, comes from God, so too civil government exists by His appointment. In the words of the Confession, “We believe that our gracious God, because of the depravity of mankind, has appointed kings, princes, and magistrates; willing that the world should be governed by certain laws and policies.”

Here the Reformed Church strikes at the root of the Roman slander that we are Anabaptists by honoring the civil rulers as God’s ministers. This language of “appointment” comes directly from the Scriptures, in such texts as Proverbs 8:15-16: “By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me princes rule, and nobles, all who govern justly.”

Later in redemptive history, Daniel dramatically impressed this upon Nebuchadnezzar in interpreting his strange dream, saying, of Nebuchadnezzar,

You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all – you are the head of gold.” (Daniel 2:37-38; emphasis mine).

Just as God appointed Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel went on to say that after him three more kingdoms would rise and fall by the appointment of God (vv. 39-43). In contrast, Daniel concluded, there would be an eternal kingdom appointed by God:

...in the days of those kings
the God of heaven will set
up a kingdom that shall
never be destroyed, nor shall
the kingdom be left to another
people. It shall break in
pieces all these kingdoms
and bring them to an end, and
it shall stand forever (v. 44).

That God appoints the civil magistrate Paul clearly explains in his epistle to the Romans, calling his readers to submit to them because “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). In fact, “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed for he is God’s servant.”

Our English translations speak of government as coming from “our gracious God.” In fact, the Latin text approved by the Synod of Dort speaks of God as the Optimum Maximum, that is, the Highest/ Greatest Good. This is classic language used by the Roman philosophers Lucretius and Cicero and used in Christian polemics by Augustine, for example, to speak of God as the “highest good” (summum bonum). In the opening words of his work, “On the Nature of Good Against the Manicheans,” Augustine said, “The highest good, than which there is no higher, is God.” By speaking in this way, the Belgic Confession grounds the civil government in God’s goodness, not his grace, in creation, not redemption.The problem of basing one’s exegesis of the Confession upon the English translation “gracious” confuses the two kingdoms. This is seen in P. Y. De Jong’s The Church’s Witness to the World. In this work De Jong says “the Confession connects this gift [of government] with God’s grace rather than His sovereign will. Civil authority derives from our gracious God.” He then marshals two quotations from Calvin, to show that our Confession follows Calvin in this matter. He is correct that the Confession is following the doctrine and language of Calvin, but his grounding of government in the grace of God is not what the quoted words from Calvin actually teach. In fact, Calvin speaks of government coming from God’s “benevolent provision,” “wonderful goodness,” and “power and providence” (Institutes 4.20.10).

In locating civil government in creation, not redemption, the point the Confession makes is that it is out of God’s benevolence for mankind as created in His image, that He has given government, in whatever form, “because of the depravity of mankind.”

The Duties of the Magistrate

This institution given in the goodness of God for His creation has the purpose of restraining wickedness in society. The Confession expresses this in this way: “That the dissoluteness of men might be restrained.” God desires to curb our proclivity to anarchy despite our effacing His image by rebelling in sin against Him. In the Garden, God gave Adam the charge to “rule” over creation. The Fall of Adam consisted in rebelling against God and seeking to free himself from God’s rule. Yet after the Fall, despite our rebellious nature and actions, God cares enough for us to put a check on our rebelliousness by using civil rulers. In using government to restrain lawlessness “all things [will be] carried on among them with good order and decency.”

The “proof” from the Word of God comes from a quotation made up of several phrases in Romans 13, where Paul says God “has invested the magistracy with the sword for the punishment of evil-doers and for the protection of them that do well.”

It is clear from Romans 13 that the main duty of the civil kingdom is to punish with the sword (while the spiritual kingdom uses the keys). Yet in punishing is implied protection. And because the Confession is a confession of the Church, it speaks particularly of the protection the magistrate is to give to the spiritual kingdom, saying,

Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also to protect the sacred ministry, that the kingdom of Christ may thus be promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by every one, as He commands in His Word.

It is not as if this protection is to be distinguished from all other groups within society, but again, the Confession is speaking of the Church to the Church, and so it has particular concern for this aspect of the civil magistrates protecting function. The spiritual kingdom exists within the realm of the civil kingdom, as one concentric circle within another.

Because the Church exists within the world and under the protection of the sword, when the “sacred ministry” is protected, as all others, the kingdom of Christ is promoted. This does not mean the magistrate is to exclude all others, only that it is to allow the Church to worship and preach according to the Word. The civil government, then, is to “countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere.” This means that it is to look favorably upon and not legislate against and persecute. The result of this is “that God may be honored and worshipped by every one, as He commands in His Word.”

An example of this “countenancing” of the gospel found is in the account of Moses and Pharaoh (Exodus 3-4). The purpose of Moses’ approaching Pharaoh was that Israel would be able to go out and worship her LORD. Pharaoh did not “countenance” this request, but forbade it and persecuted Israel even more harshly (Exodus 5).

While the civil kingdom is not religious, it is also not morally neutral. This means that it is morally accountable to God as His minister. This does not mean, though, as one commentator says, “The government shall preserve the Sunday as day of worship” or, “The Government is called to regulate public life in accordance with God’s Law.”

Our Duties

The civil authorities have their duties and so do those under their protection. Notice how the Confession speaks of the people of God along with all other people, saying, “Moreover, it is the bounded duty of every one, of whatever state, quality, or condition he may be…” In contrast to the Anabaptists or any other idea that believes Christians are exempt from submitting to government, we confess that we are in the same situation with all others.

What exactly are we to do, along with everyone else? We are to “subject [ourselves] to the magistrates.” Paul says we are to submit because the government is from God. If you resist the governing authority then you resist God’s order for your life. Verse 4 even calls the government “God’s minister.” We are “to pay tribute.” This means that we are not to cheat on our 1040’s during tax season. “Why, though, should Uncle Sam get what I’ve worked so hard for?” Because God calls you to do this. Thank God that you live in a land wherein you are able to protest this as a citizen of this nation. We are “to show due honor and respect to them,” speaking highly of our magistrates even more so as Christians. We are also “to obey them in all things which are not repugnant to the Word of God.” In things that do not contradict the Word of God, you are forbidden to refuse and required to obey. If, though, something is required of us that clearly contradicts the Word, we have the duty to resist as our allegiance is to Christ (e.g., Acts 4).

Finally, We are “to supplicate for them in [our] prayers that God may rule and guide [us] in all [our] ways.” Paul tells Timothy to pray for the king that we may live quietly and peaceably in this life, and this is pleasing to God. This means we pray for all those over us, whether or not we agree with their policies or like their person. The blessing of this is “that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity.”

Why should we do all this? This is a part of our laying down our lives as living sacrifices in view of God’s super-abounding mercies and grace (cf. Romans 3:21-11:36). Because of this great mercy, Paul pleads with us to lay our lives on the altar and sacrifice ourselves, our pride, our covetousness, and our sins that we might be a sweet smelling aroma of sanctification to Him. And we are to be transformed, changed from death to life, from self-seeking sinner to Christ-seeking worshipper, not be conformed to this sin-torn world. And one aspect of this service that we perform as priests is submitting ourselves to our government.

Rejection of Errors

This article of the Belgic Confession ends in a similar way as others (arts. 7, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 18, 33, 34, 35), rejecting various errors, saying,

Wherefore we detest the Anabaptists and other seditious people, and in general all those who reject the higher powers and magistrates and would subvert justice, introduce community of goods, and confound that decency and good order which God has established among men.

Sedition is forbidden, on the grounds mentioned above that the civil magistrate is ordained by God. As well, those who subvert justice, introduce a community of goods, and confound decency and order. The rejection of community of goods is particularly relevant as it leads, in reality, not to a sharing of goods with all, but only the select few in a particular community.

As Christians, we are in the world, but not of the world (John 17:11, 14). This means that our ultimate citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). Nevertheless, we belong to the particular regions in which we live and are subject as its citizens. It is in this setting that Christ calls us to be salt in an unsavory age, light in a world of darkness, and prophets of the LORD in a word devoid of his voice.

Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.

Study/Application Questions for Article 35

1. Prove from Scripture that God appoints the civil government.

2. Why is it important that the civil magistrate is grounded in God as Creator and not as Redeemer? How should this cause us to think about the limits of civil government?

3. How does government restrain sin and lawlessness in society?

4. Based on Romans 13, what do we believe about the civil magistrate’s use of capital punishment?

5. How far are we to go in submitting to the laws of the land?

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