Wes Bredenhof

A Martyr’s Last Letter to His Mother

“And now, my good mother, I beg you to show yourself as a virtuous woman in your afflictions, and bear patiently and joyfully  this trial that God has sent you, knowing that it is the good will of God against which no one can resist, even if he would.  Live the rest of your days in the fear of God, remembering me, and how I served my God till death.”

Among the Reformation martyrs was the author of the Belgic Confession, Guido de Brès. He served as a pastor in present-day Belgium during the Spanish Inquisition. Eventually he was captured by the authorities and spent a long time languishing in a dirty, sewage-filled dungeon in Valenciennes. Nevertheless, as he lived out his last days somehow he was able to find the strength and resources to write several letters. One of them was a letter to his mother. I’m pleased to be able to share this letter with you, as it gives a personal glimpse of this brother and father in the faith.
Last Letter from Guido De Brès to His Mother
The grace and mercy of God the Father, and the love of his Son our Lord Jesus Christ, be for your eternal salvation.
My dear and beloved mother, when I consider what a sorrow my imprisonment is to you, and how hard to bear because of the enormous maternal love you have always had for me, I cannot keep my heart from becoming sad nor from greatly trembling within me.  And certainly I can say from experience that it is a hard parting that takes place between a mother and her child.  But the parting would be much harder if a man would leave his God and give up eternal life.  I am somewhat relieved of my sadness when I think of my calling and the cause of the Son of God which I have upheld before men.
It seems to me that I hear Jesus Christ, my Master, speaking with a loud voice and saying to me, “Whoever shall love his father and his mother more than me, he is not worthy to be one of mine” (Matthew 10).  Then he says to me, “Truly I say to you that every one who has given up home, or parents, or brothers or children for the kingdom of God shall receive much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life” (Matthew 19).  Such words cause me to put all other things aside, and my heart leaps for joy.  When I think of the certainty and truth of the one who has spoken thus, I can say with St. Paul, “I esteem all things as dung and consider them for loss, for the excellence of the knowledge of my Lord Jesus Christ.”
You too, my beloved, must rise above your sorrows with the consideration of the good will of God, who wants to bring glory to himself through this poor, fragile body.  Restrain your grief remembering how it has pleased God to call me to his service against all human expectation.  Recall how, before I was born, you were going through Mons to hear a certain Italian Jesuit, who was preaching in the streets.  You said then, praying to God, “My God, if it could be that you could give me such a child, even maybe the child that I am carrying, to preach your Word.”  You said it and God heard your prayer.  Because he is rich and merciful, and because he can do all things more abundantly than we dare to ask, he gave you more than you asked for.  You asked that the child you were carrying could be like that Jesuit.  He became a Jesuit alright – but not of the new sect that people call “Jesuit.”  In order to make me a true imitator of Jesus, the Son of God, I was called to the holy ministry, not to preach the doctrines of men, but the pure and simple Word of Jesus and his Apostles.  This I have done up to the present with a good and pure conscience, seeking nothing else than the salvation of men, not my own glory nor my own profit.
Witness the zeal of God which has been in me, accompanied by many crosses, afflictions and sufferings, and not for a small number of days, but for many years.  To all these things you ought to return for your comfort, and you should consider yourself fortunate that God has given you the honour to have carried, nurtured, and reared one of his servants – who will receive the crown and glory of martyrdom.  Then it is not for you to object, if my God wants to now receive me as a pleasant-smelling sacrifice and strengthen the elect by my death.
I myself am joyful and I pray that you will join with me, knowing that all will be for my great good and salvation.  I submit myself to what it pleases him to do to me, knowing that he will not do anything that is not just and fair.  He is my God and Father, having only good will toward me and the power to deliver me, if he finds it good to do so.  Therefore, I rest in that knowledge.  If he has found it pleasing to take me from this poor life now, I shall be taken in the prime of life, having laboured diligently and sowed in the Church of his Son.  He has already allowed me to see the fruit of my labours and trials, having blessed and made my ministry so fruitful that the Church will feel the effects for many years after my death.  I am happy to see that which my God has permitted me to see.  There is yet much good seed that I sowed, which is still in the ground, but after being watered with my blood, it will grow and manifest itself amazingly.  What more then should I now desire, since the will of my God has been done, and I am ready to reap in heaven in glory and incorruption the fruit of that which I have sowed on earth with tears in my eyes?  And I hope that the many people which I have won to my Lord Jesus through the Gospel will be my glory and my crown in the last day.
I am going along the way where all the prophets passed, and the Apostles, even the only Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, and thousands of martyrs who shed their blood for the witness of the Gospel.  It is the voice of Christ who says, “Enter by the narrow way, for I say unto you that many will try to enter and will not be able.”  It is the narrow way of which Ezra speaks, which is not wide, and under which is a great river and a fire which devours those who stumble and fall.  This road leads to a city filled with blessings, where the children of God have want of nothing.  What should it profit me if I should travel with the world along the broad and spacious way, only to fall at the end into ruin and eternal perdition.  I know well that if I should renounce my good Lord Jesus and return in my impurity and pollution to this life, the world would embrace me and respect my person.  But it would not be pleasing to God to renounce my Saviour, to put idols in his place, and put profane things in the place of his precious blood.  I have served him for more than twenty years, and never has he failed me in anything, showing to me always a love which surpasses the understanding of men.  Beyond this great benefit, he gave himself to the inglorious death on the cross in order to give me eternal life.  What then?  Should I leave the living to find refuge among the dead?  Should I give up heaven for the earth?  Eternal things for temporal?  Abandon the true life for bodily death?
He who alone is my strength and my rock will keep me from it, and himself will be my shield and defense and the strength of my life in my weakness and infirmity.  I can say with St. Peter, when Christ asked him after many of his disciples had abandoned him, “And you,” he said, “do you not also wish to go as the others?”  Peter replied, “Lord, to whom should we go?  For with you are the words of eternal life.”  The Lord my God will not permit me to leave with the world the fountains of living water, in order to dig cisterns which do not hold any water, as God so rightly said by his prophet Jeremiah of his people Israel.  I believe with conviction that I am not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.  I can say with Moses that I would rather be afflicted with the people of God, than to enjoy for a time the pleasures of sin.  I would rather esteem the favour of Christ as greater riches than all the treasures of the world, for I look to the reward, and trust that the power of faith will not fail me in my need.  For by it I have already overcome the world and all my adversaries.  The Apostle has showed me how the faithful ones of the Old Testament, having the same faith, surmounted their afflictions.  He speaks of some as being regarded as drums to be beaten, who refused to be delivered, hoping for a better resurrection, and of others who were mocked and battered.  They were arrested and put in prison.  They were stoned. They were sawn in two.  They were tempted.  They were put to death with the sword.  They wandered about dressed in the skins of sheep and goats.  They were destitute, afflicted, and tormented, of whom the world was not worthy.  They wandered about in the deserts, in mountains, and dens and caverns of the earth.  All these holy people have overcome the world through their faith at death, and stand as victors though people killed them.
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Did God Create Dogs?

But God also created two human beings on that same day.  He created them in his image, with the capacity to do such amazing things as selectively breed animals.  Sometimes this breeding was purely for utilitarian purposes, but at other times for purposes that can only be described as artistic, bringing out certain features that appear beautiful. 

Our family has had several dogs over the years, but I think Monty is the best.  He’s a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, presently about 8 months old.  He’s smart and easily trained.  Monty is loving, sociable, playful, and always eager to please.  But even more than that, the other day I was admiring him and the thought occurred to me:  this dog is a work of art.  But if that’s the case, who is the artist?
You might be tempted, as I was, to answer with God.  After all, didn’t God create all the animals?  If dogs are animals, then God must have created dogs too.  That answer might make sense for anyone who believes what the Bible says about creation.  But things are actually not that simple.  Let me explain how God didn’t create dogs, yet is still ultimately responsible for their existence.
When God created “the beasts of the earth” on the sixth day, there were no Cavalier King Charles Spaniels among them.  In fact, there were no Cocker Spaniels, English Springer Spaniels, or any spaniels at all.  There were no German Shepherds, Labradors, or any other dog breed we’re familiar with today.  When God created the land animals at the beginning, he created a pair of four-legged creatures which are the ancestors of all the dogs we know today.
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Pastoral Q & A: Does God Love Everybody?

It’s better to follow the approach of the apostles and early church in the book of Acts.  They simply preached the gospel along with the call for people to repent and believe in Jesus Christ.  The word “love” isn’t used at all in the book of Acts, and we certainly don’t hear the apostles telling unbelievers that God loves them.  In his love, God does send his church out into the world to proclaim the gospel.  But as we do that, we have to make it clear that the good news God sends in his love is only so good because the bad news is so bad:  God is holy and just and he will not overlook sin. 

A parishioner asked me whether God loves everyone. She was discussing this with a friend. The friend insisted that God doesn’t love everyone — he only loves believers. My parishioner’s gut reaction was to disagree. This was my response:
That’s a question I’ve been thinking about for many years.  I used to agree with your friend.  But through further study, I’ve come to a different view.
The problem is that there are Scripture passages which speak of God’s wrath and hatred towards the wicked — Psalm 11:5 comes to mind. But there are other passages which speak about God’s all-encompassing love for his creation — Psalm 145:9 is an example of that, also John 3:16.
Scripture tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:16).  Love is an attribute of God.  All of God’s attributes are true of him eternally.  But that raises a question:  love always requires an object, so who did God love before creation?  The answer is with the persons of the Trinity.  Eternal, holy, infinite love existed between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  When it comes to the love of God, that’s where we need to start.  This intra-Trinitarian love is ultimate and primary.
When it comes to his creation, God does have a universal love for all that he has made in general.  But we can also speak of a love that God has for all human beings in virtue of the fact that they are created in his image.  John Calvin spoke about that in his Institutes. But just like a husband can love his neighbours while also having a special love for his wife, God loves elect human beings in a special way.  They become beloved children of the Father, and part of the bride of Christ for which he died.
So what about what Scripture says about God’s wrath and hatred for the wicked in places like Psalm 11:5?
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Discerning Devotionals

The Valley of Vision – Various authors, edited by Arthur Bennett. This has long been one of my favourites.  This is a collection of prayers from Puritans and Puritan-minded folks.  Prayers are here from Thomas Watson, John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon and many others.  My only complaint about this volume is that it doesn’t tell you where the prayers are from or who wrote which prayers.  

Over the years, I’ve received many requests from people looking for devotional literature. The one person wants a book of devotions for retired couples. The other wants a book for engaged couples. Still another is looking for something for their teenager. I used to search high and low for things I could recommend for these niche needs. No longer.
Now I recommend that people just start with reading the Bible prayerfully.  Why is it that everyone feels they need someone to make the Bible relevant for them?  It’s almost as if we’ve returned to the stereotype of the medieval church:  everyone talks about the Bible but no one reads it for themselves.  The Bible seems to have become a mysterious book which someone else has to interpret and apply for us.
Not to Replace Scripture but Supplement
That said, there is a place for devotional literature.  There is a place for authors to share their meditations on sacred Scripture.  There is a place for us to learn from our forebears how to pray and think Christianly.  Yet these things ought never to replace our going directly to the source for ourselves.  They should be supplementary.
Moreover, I wish we could lose this idea of niche devotionals — the devotional for the unemployed single mother, the devotional for the engaged couple, etc., etc.  This trend is reflective of the narcissism of our day:  everyone needs something crafted exactly for their personal, individual needs.  Whatever happened to the Catholic Church?  Whatever happened to the communion of saints?  Whatever happened to being able to think and apply general truths to your individual needs?
Types of Devotionals
There are different types of devotionals.  There’s your traditional devotional which has a reading for each day of the year.  Usually each day has a Bible passage to read, often just a verse or two.  Most of the time the author expounds and applies that Bible passage, although there are now some devotionals which might rarely or not at all involve a reading from the Scriptures.
There are also devotional books developed out of sermons.  These books go into depth with one or more Scripture passages.  The purpose is not primarily intellectual, but spiritual and transformative.  The Puritans and other older writers are well-known for this type of literature.
Finally, there are devotional books composed of prayers.  You can read through these in a meditative fashion and then use them as the starting point for your own prayers.  You can also pray them for yourself as they’re written.  A deeper and richer prayer life can be gained by listening in to other saints’ communication with our God.
Cautions with Devotionals
Besides the niche concern, I see three other prevalent issues with devotional books.  The first is one I hinted at above:  devotions disconnected from the Bible.  Beware of devotional books which are just presenting an author’s ideas.  Those ideas may be based on the Bible and consistent with the Bible, but the less explicit that becomes the greater the risk of not being able to discern truth from error.
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Do You Have Job’s Fainting Heart? Should You?

When a believer has the profound, heart-felt desire to see God, like Job did, it demonstrates how valuable God is.  People and things that matter to us make an emotional impression on us.  And who is of more worth, objectively speaking, than God?  What is of more worth, objectively speaking, than the gospel?

In my corner of Reformed Christianity we’re not particularly adept at expressing our emotions.  Perhaps it can be chalked up to our Dutch immigrant roots; maybe to our ecclesiastical sub-culture.  Whatever the case may be, we’re not given to putting ourselves out there emotionally.  This certainly guards us against the sentimental excesses seen in some circles.  But does this steely stoicism line us up completely with Scripture?
Job 19:25-27 is one passage which might suggest otherwise.  Many people are familiar with this passage because it’s used in Handel’s Messiah.  Oftentimes you’ll hear it at funerals.  I always read it at graveside services and it provides a lot of comfort.  It does so because it confidently speaks of the hope of the resurrection.
As you believe this resurrection gospel, which is fulfilled in Jesus, it shouldn’t leave you unaffected.  It deeply impacted Job and that’s evident from the last line:  “My heart faints within me!”  Those words are pregnant with emotion.  Job had a deep yearning to see God with his own eyes in his glorified resurrection body.
Can you relate to that?  Does your heart “faint within you” when you hear about what the gospel promises in the resurrection of the dead?  One could reasonably expect such a response, because of the nature of these truths.  God gives us profoundly encouraging news here.  But what if you can’t relate?  What if these kinds of truths don’t touch your heart like they did Job?  I have more good news for you.
First, our salvation doesn’t depend on our emotions and what the gospel does to us emotionally.  Our salvation entirely depends on God’s free grace in Christ.
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We Distinguish: General/Special Operations

The Holy Spirit has often been called the “shy Person of the Trinity.”  His purpose is to focus our attention on Christ, not on himself.  Nevertheless, he is true God and as such deserves to be worshipped and glorified for all he is and all he does. 

Believers are temples of the Holy Spirit.  So we say because this is what Scripture teaches in 1 Corinthians 6:19.  We’re therefore accustomed to thinking that the Holy Spirit has exclusive dealings with Christians.  We might hesitate to affirm that the Holy Spirit could have anything to do with any unbeliever.  But then there’s King Saul in the Old Testament.
King Saul’s relationship with the Holy Spirit is curious.  In 1 Samuel 10, Saul was anointed to be king and afterwards the Holy Spirit “rushed upon him” and he prophesied.  The Holy Spirit came to Saul in the same way in 1 Samuel 11 when he heard of the siege of Jabesh-Gilead.  However, after David is anointed to be King Saul’s successor, we’re told in 1 Samuel 16:14 that the Spirit of the LORD departed from him.  Yet nevertheless the Holy Spirit comes upon Saul one last time in 1 Samuel 19.  Under the power of the Spirit, Saul strips off all his clothes and lays naked on the ground prophesying.
How do we explain this situation where we see the Holy Spirit coming and going with a king whose spiritual state is at best ambiguous?  Or do how we make sense of Hebrews 6 which speaks of those who “shared in the Holy Spirit” and yet cannot be restored to repentance after having fallen away?  The answer has to do with an important theological distinction between the general and special operations of the Holy Spirit.
The special operations of the Holy Spirit are by far the most well-known to us.  They’re called “special” operations because their application is redemptive.  They’re directed specifically towards the salvation of God’s elect.  Let’s survey some of those special operations.  The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit provides a witness to Jesus (John 15:26).  When the gospel is preached, he works the new birth in the person whom God has decreed to save (John 3:1-7).  The Holy Spirit convicts “the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).  He is the Helper/Comforter (John 14:16).  The Spirit also works holiness in the life of a believer (2 Thess. 2:13).  The foregoing is not an exhaustive list of his special operations, but it illustrates some of what’s meant by redemptive application.
Reformed Christians are often in the dark about the general operations of the Holy Spirit.  We call them “general” operations because they’re not limited to or directed necessarily towards the salvation of the elect.  In God’s decree, these operations or works have a more general scope.
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How to Love the Unloveable

If we focus all our attention on people and who they are and what they do or don’t deserve, we’ll never love our neighbour.  True Christian love is only possible as we think about our existence before the face of God and the grace we have received from him through Christ.

It isn’t easy to love a jerk.  Someone who’s quiet, meek, and kind – no problem.  But the person who annoys us, whether through habit or personality?  The person who pushes all our buttons, perhaps even intentionally?   The selfish and insensitive clod?
Yet the Lord commands us to love our neighbour as we do ourselves (Mt.22:39).  That Christian love is “not irritable or resentful.”  Instead, it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:5-7).  This is the love that leads us to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
But how do we do that with someone we might think to be unworthy of our love and good deeds?  How do you love a jerk?  You might say take a look in the mirror.  Humbly realizing that we’re all unworthy jerks could indeed be a good place to start.  However, in his epic Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explored this practical issue in the Christian life from a different angle.  His advice, drawn on sound biblical teaching, is worth a listen.  If you want to look it up and read the whole section for yourself, it’s in Institutes 3.7.6.  I’ll be quoting from the Lewis-Battles edition.
Calvin begins by acknowledging that most people would be unworthy of our love if they were judged according to merit.  But that isn’t how Christians are to think.  Says Calvin, “But here Scripture helps in the best way when it teaches that we are not to consider that men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love.”  He goes on to affirm that with members of the household of faith this obligation is intensified by virtue of the fact that God’s image has been renewed and restored in them by the Holy Spirit.  Nevertheless, what remains of the image of God after the fall into sin and before regeneration is itself reason enough to show love to all by doing good.  Calvin concludes, “Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him.”
Calvin then anticipates a series of objections.  Someone might say, “But he’s a stranger!”  To which Calvin would reply that this is irrelevant.
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An Exhaustive Exegetical Extravaganza

In the Beginning was a delight to read – personally it brought me back to many of the OT lectures I enjoyed from Dr. Van Dam in my seminary years.  While I found it enjoyable, there may be others who will find it tough-going at times.  It’s not highly technical, but in places Van Dam does go academic. 

Dr. C. Van Dam begins his latest book by explicitly laying out his presuppositions.  He’s upfront about his non-negotiable assumptions and biases.  As I review his book, it’s appropriate that I share mine too.  I share his presuppositions about Scripture as the trustworthy Word of God, but I also bring a personal bias to the table.  Back in the day, Van Dam was my Old Testament professor at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.  I had an affectionate nickname for him in view of his ability to put the smack-down on unbelieving or shoddy scholarship:  “Wham-Bam-Van-Dam.”  This was always said with the greatest admiration for Dr. Van Dam.  As a seminary professor he was nothing if not thorough and careful.
This new book exhibits that same kind of comprehensive and precise approach to the two opening chapters of Scripture.  Van Dam leaves no stone unturned.  In the Beginning is an exhaustive treatment not only of the meaning of these two chapters, but also the various challenges that have been raised in Old Testament scholarship regarding them.  What you’re looking at here is not just a commentary on Genesis 1-2, but far more.
Over the last decade or so John Walton has become well-known for his views on the early chapters of Genesis.  Walton argues that we often misunderstand Genesis 1-2 because we don’t take into account the ancient Near Eastern context of these chapters.  Once we do that, says Walton, then we can see that Genesis 1-2 was never meant to be taken literally as history.  The history can then be filled in with what science teaches us, including what science says about human origins.  In chapter 2 of In the Beginning, Van Dam discusses Walton’s views at length and explains how and where they fail to do justice to the character of Scripture as the Word of God.  In my view this is the most important chapter of the book.
To whet your appetite further, let me share a selection of questions that Dr. Van Dam answers elsewhere in the book:

Can new scientific data be regarded as general revelation given by God?
What is the relationship of Scripture to science?  Is Scripture a scientific textbook?

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