The secret of the true Reformation

Professor Benne Holwerda

October 31 is Reformation Day when we remember God’s wonderful reformation of His church in the 16th Century. Thereby the Spirit of God brought His church back to the truth of His Word. What follows below is the main segment of an article by the late Prof. B Holwerda titled “The secret of the true Reformation”. Although it was not written to commemorate that Great Reformation but instead the 25th commemoration of a church magazine, De Reformatie, it has, as you will see, everything to do with reformations. I have skipped the first part dealing with the magazine and publish here a translation of the second segment.


The Secret of the True Reformation

The book of Judges, in particular, is full of stories about reformation. But none of the ‘reformers’ in that ‘book of reformations’ was in a position to glory in himself. Isn’t it sad that in the time of the Judges there was barely a generation in which God’s people continued to serve the LORD before again sliding back into committing even worse wickedness? Yet this book is one long song of praise to the God of all reformations, the God who never despaired of time and again calling his people back to Him.

This struck me again recently as I was preparing for a sermon. Forty years after Deborah had saved Israel from the Canaanites, Israel again needed a judge to save the people from the punishment the LORD brought upon them because of renewed deformation. God raised up Gideon to defeat the Midianites and to teach Israel the rights of the Lord.

The Spirit clothing Himself with Gideon

Yet the Bible introduces the story of Gideon’s actions with that amazingly rich phrase: “the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon” (Judges 6:34).

If we read carelessly, we make of this that Gideon suddenly stood up and took action; that he suddenly shook off his lethargy and defeatism and like a hero he grabbed his weapons and full of zest was ready to go into battle. Thereby we construct a picture of the great deeds of Gideon, albeit with the Spirit stirring him up for this.

But the Bible puts it so beautifully, and so differently: “the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon”. He put Gideon on. The Bible uses the same terminology here as it used elsewhere for someone putting on his garment. We all know how, when we go to work, we put on our work clothes: the doctor puts on his white coat, the tradesman his overalls, the kitchen aide her apron. But no-one is so foolish as to attribute the work that’s being done to the clothing. The ‘putting on’ of the clothing never means that the clothing will do the work but marks the moment when the worker in that clothing will begin his work. The patient doesn’t expect anything from the doctor’s white jacket, but the putting on of the white jacket is for him the signal that the doctor will begin.

So we read: the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon. He clothed Himself with Gideon. Gideon is here for the Spirit what the overalls are for the worker; Gideon is merely the ‘work clothes’, but the One who is going to work is the Spirit! That’s to say: not Gideon takes action, but the Spirit. The Lord stands up to go to battle. We don’t get here the story of the great deeds of that person but the account of the formidable works of the LORD.

Of course, Gideon does blow the trumpet and collects a small army of men. But as he proceeds, he becomes increasingly apprehensive. From the context it’s evident that he recoils from the task given him. He has the feeling he’s embarking on a foolish adventure. True, he’s blown the trumpet, but in retrospect he thinks: it was accidental. What have I done! He hasn’t a clue how things are going to turn out and hasn’t given a thought to weighing up the consequences of his deed. It’s not so that he initiated the action; he is, before he fully realises it, caught up in the operations of God the Holy Spirit!

That’s what is so strange about the wars of the Lord. When men engage in battle, they already have a battle plan and those involved are briefed about the strategy so that the operations are pursued in accordance with the plans. However, when you are caught up in God’s wars it’s different. Oh yes, then there are plans as well, but the Spirit has not revealed them to anyone. His soldiers cannot formulate any strategies. They find themselves there where they had never expected to be and maybe never desired to be.

Luther – instrument of the Spirit

Luther is reported to have said that, “like a blind horse” he found himself in places he didn’t expect to be. Did you think he had a prepared program-of-reformation? That he had carefully considered who his opponents were and with which strategies and tactics he could conquer them? Oh no, he nailed those 95 theses to the church door as an honest protest against the deformation in the church. He thought such a protest would be accepted. He had no inkling that he would now have everyone against him; no idea that it would unleash such a storm. Had he foreseen what would happen he may have had second thoughts a thousand times over. That is the secret of God’s wars: your rifle fires and you say, that was accidental. But the Spirit pulled the trigger. That’s also what happened at Pentecost: the disciples all moved their tongues and lips; and the words come over their lips; but they were words which the Spirit gave them to speak. And thereby He unleashed from their lips a tremendous storm.

True reformation – work of the Spirit

That’s what happens at every true reformation. Then there are people who like Gideon are caught up in the deformation of their days and who share their guilt. The reformation does not originate with people. But suddenly the Spirit moves. And He opens the eyes of one or more people about a particular concrete sin. They say something about it; they write something against it without the slightest thought that it may have consequences. But behind that mouth and that pen stands the Holy Spirit who begins to act according to the plans that He alone knows. And then suddenly there is the crisis that no-one expected, let alone desired, but which the Spirit wanted.

I believe that herein lies the vast difference between true reformation and every action that merely has the appearance of being refomational. It’s evident throughout the ages. In every situation of decline there were others who saw the decline and wanted to do something about it. But many sought the so-called ‘medical’ way. They wanted to determine the point of attack themselves and the moment the action should begin. When they experienced church assemblies acting contrary to Scripture, they thought they could work reformation by biding their time; by attempting systematically to replace dangerous figures until they themselves had the majority. But thereby they began to be part of the deformation; they went along with it because they wanted to keep the whole approach in hand, to determine the positions and tactics themselves. We saw this in relation to the Liberation of 1944. There were those who wanted reformation but who said: now is not the best moment, and we want the critical point linked to another issue.

But thereby they continue to be stuck in a rut. And it cannot be otherwise. For these people want to keep the reins of the reformation in hand and make their own plans. Yet thereby they take up a position that the Spirit reserves for Himself alone. He does not reveal His strategy but simply causes people to speak about a point that they themselves had not proposed; to give a response that they themselves had not thought to formulate beforehand. And no one knew where it would land them.

True reformation knows no human strategy and has nothing planned out. Whoever becomes involved could merely have the feeling that he has been caught up in a journey of which he doesn’t know the outcome. The Spirit pursues His plans through soldiers who don’t pretend to be chiefs-of-staff but who simply carry out their duties where they have been placed.

That’s why the commemoration of a reformed publication is in praise of the Spirit. It pleases Him to use it for His work of reformation. And He uses people, sinful as any other, but who on particular points call people to repentance without knowing what the consequences will be.

And that’s the only way we can proceed: without any strategy but simply believing in the Spirit who, like the wind, blows where He will.

Source: B Holwerda, “Het geheim der waarachtige Reformatie”, De Reformatie, Vol. 26:1, 7 October 1950, pp. 6-7. Translated by J Numan.