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The Rio Olympics and Calvin’s Mission

Did you know that the location of the 2016 Olympiad, watched over by the iconic Cristo Redentor, was also home to a little-known but early Calvinistic mission? My friend David Hall (whose church hosts the annual Reformation Worship conference) recently forwarded a fascinating article about it. I share it today so you can learn about a forgotten piece of history.

Rio’s Guanabara Bay was the site of an early Genevan mission in the 1550s. As you watch this present Olympiad, you might appreciate some of the history behind the 1558 Confession of Guanabara in Brazil. The site of the first Reformed confession in the Americas is also a reminder to be ready to confess our faith at any time. Some spiritual athletes suffered much more than fatigue and muscle strain at Rio 450 years ago.

You may have heard illustrations like this one: what if armed guards burst in, arrested you, and at threat of your life, asked if you would stick to the Christian faith or not? It’s not that hard to imagine such when you look at Muslim threats and beheadings of Syrian Christians, French priests, or others. There are some, in our day, who are challenged: will you continue to confess Christ? Are you always ready? If terrorists broke in to your home or Sunday School class, would they see Christianity? Are you trained sufficiently to voice it under pressure?

In 1557, a group of Protestants left Calvin’s Geneva to help settle part of Brazil. The leader was a wealthy merchant from Geneva, and a professing follower of Calvin, Villeaignon (alternatively spelled “Villegagnon”). Along with him were dozens of other Genevans, who landed in the bay of Rio de Janerio and settled a small island off the coast. Things went well for a while. However, the leader had—along the way—flipped back to Roman Catholicism, and he grew jealous and suspicious of the other Calvinists. He had the disciples of Calvin arrested, charged with treason, and sought to punish them under Catholic law.

Within 12 hours after this confession was written, three of its authors were promptly hanged.

The way he did this was to arrest them, lock them in a room, and in under 4 hours, they had to write out a confession of their beliefs on a list of topics. If they were Roman Catholic, they might live but could be sent home. Conversely, if they were Protestants, they would be killed. They were ordered to commit their beliefs to writing. The result was an 18-paragraph confession that was chock full of Scripture (it was closed book; they were allowed no Bibles), even citing Augustine, Cyprian, and a few other well-known religious leaders. Within 12 hours after this confession was written, three of its authors were promptly hanged. The authors knew they were writing and signing their own death sentence—and the others later were sent back to Geneva.

Guess what passage they used as the beginning of their Confession of Guanabara? They used the well-known verse in 1 Peter 3:15. They were always ready to give an answer for the hope that was within them and with gentleness. Their rapidly drafted confession began with these words:

According to the doctrine of St. Peter, the apostle, in his first letter, all Christians must be ready to give an answer of the hope that they possess, with all meekness and benevolence; we, the undersigned, Mr. Villegagnon, unanimously (according to the measure of grace upon us bestowed by the Lord), are giving an answer, point by point, as you have thus requested and ordained, beginning with the first article:

  1. We believe in one God, immortal, invisible, creator of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible, who is identified in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; who constitute nothing else but the same substance in essence, eternal and of the same will; the Father, source and beginning of all good; the Son, eternally generated by the Father, who, in the fullness of time, manifested Himself in the flesh to the world, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, was born of the Virgin Mary, made under the law to rescue those that were under it, in order that we would be received by adoption as God’s own sons; the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and the Son, teacher of all truth, speaking through the mouths of the prophets, bringing the things that were said by our Lord Jesus Christ to the apostles. He is the only comforter in affliction, imparting steadfastness and perseverance in all good.

We believe that it is necessary to worship solely, perfectly love, cry to and call upon the majesty of God in faith, and in a personal manner.

Their confession continued on to affirm the true nature of Christ, the bondage of the human will, the nature of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, a biblical view of divorce, and other basic Christian tenets. Those Rio athletes were ready and gave a clear confession.

Are you ready? Do you know your beliefs? What if at machete point you or I were asked to give an account for the hope that is within you?

These Reformed confessionalists exhibited every bit as much sacrifice and dedication as the finest Olympian. They received a crown that will not fade.

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