Perhaps you are not familiar with the name Herman Bavinck. He was a theologian who lived in the Netherlands in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Bavinck studied and wrote a tremendous amount on the topic of Reformed doctrine and theology in the church. Unless you can read Dutch, you probably haven’t picked up anything he has written; although his best books have been translated into English and published here in America. You may not have ever heard of Herman Bavinck before, or ever read any of his many writings reflecting on the Reformed perspectives of John Calvin. But his influence cannot be underestimated or dismissed in shaping who we are as a church today. He was among the first Christian scholars in Europe to kick off a revival in Calvinist thought—a movement known as Neo-Calvinism. He provided an articulation of particularly Reformed understandings of scripture that were happening in the Netherlands right at the same time as the Christian Reformed Church was in its very beginnings here in West Michigan during the mid-to-late 1800s. Bavinck’s four volume Reformed Dogmatics lays the framework for the perspective of interpretation and application of scripture in our Christian Reformed churches yet today. Herman Bavinck was the primary go-to source for later Reformed theologians, such as Louis Berkhof. Berkhof taught right here in Grand Rapids at Calvin Theological Seminary. And Berkhof’s book of systematic theology is still the backbone of our church’s particular biblical worldview.
“The American is too aware of himself, he is too much conscious of his power, his will is too strong to be a Calvinist.” - Herman Bavinck
So, whether you know of Herman Bavinck or not, his legacy and influence is still strongly tied to what we as a church embrace as our understanding of mission and purpose, because it all traces back to a particular biblical worldview articulated 100 years ago by Herman Bavinck. Interestingly though, even though we in the Christian Reformed Church owe so much to Bavinck’s Calvinist theological contributions, Bavinck himself had a rather pessimistic and harsh assessment of religion in America. During his first visit to America in 1892 he wrote in his journal, “The American is too aware of himself, he is too much conscious of his power, his will is too strong to be a Calvinist.” You see, Bavinck understood about being a Christian in the world, about living in a way which flows forth from a biblical worldview. And he understood the ways in which self-reliance on our own power works against us.
Gideon - during the time of judges; after Joshua leads conquest of Canaan, but before Samuel and time of kings
Let’s trace a little bit of that today through the story of Gideon. Gideon lived during the time of the Judges in the Old Testament. His story happens after Joshua leads the nation of Israel from the desert wilderness into the promised land of Canaan. But this is before the time of the kings. In that first generation of Israelites who occupied the land of Canaan, there was constant tension with the surrounding peoples who did not appreciate their new Hebrew neighbors. And the Israelites did not always help their own cause during that time either because they were constantly straying away from the commands of the LORD and drifting towards the Canaanite gods and pagan religion of the area.
main threat to Israel came from the east, people of Midian crossed Jordan and raided towns
This is where Gideon enters the scene. His entire story only takes up three chapters in the book of Judges. Let me summarize the story. The main threat to Israel at the time of Gideon came from the Midianites. The people of Midian made an alliance with the Amalekites and other tribes of people from the area east of Israel. They formed an army together which the Bible tells us in Judges seven that their numbers were thick as locusts, could no more be counted than sand on the seashore.
God tells Gideon to assemble men of Israel and attack the invading Midianites
And so, when the angel of the LORD first appears and tells Gideon to lead an attack against the Midianites, Gideon is immediately hesitant. He wants this message from God to be authenticated. Not just once; Gideon enables two-factor authentication to make sure this message is correct. This is where the whole wet-fleece-dry-ground and dry-fleece-wet-ground thing happens—a gracious concession by the LORD for a man whose faith is clearly struggling at the moment. And I suppose the struggle is real. There is no way Gideon can gather up a force that is anywhere near strong enough to challenge this enormous army of the Midianites. Even so, after the whole fleece thing gives Gideon some confidence, he is able to gather up an army of 32,000 men to go against a Midianite force too large to be counted. This is where we pick up the story, right at the point where Gideon is about to take his significantly outnumbered force of 32,000 soldiers up against the vastly superior army of Midian.
1 Early in the morning, Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) and all his men camped at the spring of Harod. The camp of Midian was north of them in the valley near the hill of Moreh. 2 The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ 3 Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’ ” So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained. 4 But the Lord said to Gideon, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.” 5 So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, “Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.” 6 Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink. 7 The Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.” 8 So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites home but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others. Now the camp of Midian lay below him in the valley.
Alright, this is crazy. The strategy of God here is to defund the police before defunding the police was ever a thing. The downsizing of military strength at this moment of imminent crisis is astounding. But that’s what the LORD tells Gideon to do. There is a very real threat of violence and destruction right at Israel’s doorstep, and this is the moment God chooses to slash the defense budget and furlough 99% of the police force. I would say it doesn’t make sense, but the pattern here is evident all throughout the books of Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, and Judges. Over and over again God intentionally makes the point that Israel’s strength comes ONLY from God. From the plagues in Egypt to the falling of Jericho, the events of Israel moving into Canaan are meant to show that Israel had no strength in its own military force. God gave instructions for Joshua upon entering Canaan to burn all the enemy chariots and hamstring all the horses captured from enemies. Horses and chariots were the most powerful weapons an army could have in those days; it was the Old Testament equivalent of a nuclear arsenal. The normal practice of an invading army would be to capture and take those weapons for themselves. But God’s instructions for Joshua are just the opposite. Destroy it; you don’t need a nuclear arsenal. God gives the reason for all of this to Gideon in the passage we see today.
2 The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’
‘My own strength has saved me.’
Is that us? Consider again the observation from Herman Bavinck written over 100 years ago. “The American is too aware of himself, he is too much conscious of his power, his will is too strong to be a Calvinist.” Those are biting words when placed alongside God’s charge against his people that their own power would lead them to say, “my own strength has saved me.” Is that us? Might there be a moment right now in which we see in our own nation a struggle which points out and highlights our own misplaced use of power? Is it unfair for me to pull at this story of Gideon and frame it as a sort of “defund the police” moment?
It is certainly true that scripture is not meant to be a used as a blueprint for the creation of community law enforcement. It would be a misuse of scripture to walk away from this story of Gideon and say that defunding the police is required because the Bible says so. God’s Word is not a sledgehammer to be used that way. What, then, are we supposed to take away from this story of Gideon? What is the lesson to be learned here?
If I can tug, for a moment, on another thread of Calvinist Reformed biblical worldview; might there be a place in this Gideon story for us to be reminded of the way in which God draws our hearts to the life-giving gospel message of Jesus in scripture? After all, the prophet Isaiah is pointing us forward to Jesus when he writes,
7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
the grace of Jesus does not meet us in our strength, but in our weakness.
It is in the story of David and Goliath that we see David reject the tactical body armor and set aside the AK-47 assault rifle, and instead pick up a sling shot to go against the menacing threat of a warrior champion. It is Jesus himself who, upon his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, tells Peter to put away his sword. All of these are examples in scripture of turning away from the possession power. All of these are examples of the way in which our hearts come before God, a way which relinquishes our own power and our own strength, a way in which we see again that the grace of Jesus does not meet us in our strength, but in our weakness.
The apostle Paul says it better than I can when he writes in 2 Corinthians 12,
9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
It is in that moment of recognizing our own powerlessness that the power of God meets us in Jesus. It is in that moment of recognizing our own helplessness that the grace of God meets us in Jesus. There is no way for any one of us to ever understand and appreciate the amazing gift of salvation and new life we have in Jesus until we understand that we come before God with completely empty hands and nothing of our own to stand upon.
my own arsenal of righteousness needs some downsizing; the power of the cross is the only thing that brings me righteousness
My arsenal of righteousness needs some serious downsizing. I might have an ammunition cache filled with the artillery of all those good deeds I have done; ready to fight off anyone who dares bring a charge of evil my way. I might have example after example of moral behavior and right living; ready to push back anyone who dares to attack my purity. But that whole thing adds up to nothing when I come before God. Downsize the entire arsenal of spiritual power and moral strength. The grace of God received by faith through the sacrifice of Jesus is the only power that can ever save the world. And it is a power that can only ever be received by letting go of our own power.
That’s all fine—you might say—I understand all that spiritual religion stuff about being saved by grace alone through faith. That’s all good stuff for Sunday church. That’s alright for a personal relationship with Jesus and a personal faith. But you don’t honestly expect me to take that same downsizing of power and strength I relinquish before the LORD and carry it over into the way I live my everyday life, do you? Well, actually, yes; that’s exactly what I expect. Keep pulling on that Calvinist Reformed thread and sooner or later we are confronted with a response to the gospel that engages and transforms our hearts so that we may be used by God to engage and transform the world around us.
the way the gospel engages and transforms our hearts is also the same way we are called by God to engage and transform the world around us
And this is where we see that the way the gospel engages and transforms our hearts is also the same way we are called by God to engage and transform the world around us. If the only way my heart can be transformed by the power of the cross is by downsizing my reliance upon my own righteous power, then this also becomes the pattern by which the power of God can transform our world. I know that doesn’t exactly give us a clear answer about policy issues like funding our police departments, and it might not provide an action plan of reforms that are needed to address, reduce, and eliminate systemic racism in our society. But it does give us a pretty clear glimpse into our own hearts when we are asking questions about issues like racism and law enforcement.
what do our thoughts and opinions about current events reveal about the way we see and use power?
surrender reliance upon your own power so that the saving power of Jesus may set you free...
free from the guilt of sin
free from the worry of never being good enough
free to live in gratitude unto God
free to let go of the constant struggle to grab and hold power in order to control and dominate others
free to flourish in a world being transformed by the way we share the love and grace of God with others
The story of Gideon is a reminder for us today. As we think about and form opinions about the state of race relations or use of police force in our communities, what do those thoughts and opinions reveal about the way we see and use power? May it be for us today that our hearts surrender reliance upon our own power so that we may receive the saving power of Jesus. And may that be for us a surrender unto the grace of God which sets us free—free from the guilt of sin, free from the worry of never being good enough, free to live in gratitude unto God, free to let go of the constant struggle to grab and hold power in order to control and dominate others, free to flourish in a world being transformed by the way we share the love and grace of God with others. Do you see it? Fighting to hold onto your own control of power is toxic to your own soul and toxic to the world around you. Letting go of your own strength allows the power of Jesus to embrace you, to redeem you, to transform you, to breathe new life into your own soul and breathe new life into the world around you. That’s the power of God in us who are weak.