Herman Hoeksema: The Buried Reformer

Herman Hoeksema (HH), the minister of the gospel whom Jesus Christ used to found the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (PRC), is little recognized by the Reformed and Presbyterian community of churches or, with the rare exception, by prominent Reformed or Presbyterian theologians.

Indeed, there is a conspiracy of silence, to keep him hidden from view. He is the buried reformer.

There are reasons. Churches and theologians are unwilling to acknowledge the gross injustice of the prestigious Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC) in its condemnation and discipline of this sound minister. In addition, they are determined to consign to oblivion the gospel truths that HH confessed and defended. Also, these churches and theologians desire to ignore in their own fellowships the presence of the grievous theological and ethical errors that are the consequences of rejecting the fundamental biblical, Reformed truths that HH proclaimed.

The deliberate burying of HH by the Reformed community is indication both of its embrace of false doctrine and of its bad conscience.

Briefly told, the history of HH is the following. The son of an immigrant Dutch mother, reared in the poverty and other hardships of a broken home (his father was an ungodly deserter of wife and family), HH became an extraordinarily able minister in the CRC. He soon became pastor of the largest congregation of the denomination. No doubt, his ability and prominence occasioned the envy of many of his colleagues, ministers being as guilty of the “green-eyed monster” as others. But the cause of the controversy that resulted in the expulsion of HH from the CRC was doctrinal—HH’s confession of the gospel of grace.

In reaction to HH’s uncompromising proclamation of salvation by sovereign, particular grace, including vehement, uncompromising condemnation of the Arminian heresy of universal grace dependent upon the will of the sinner, the CRC adopted a novel, unbiblical, anti-creedal doctrine of “common grace.” In three points, this doctrine denies the gospel of grace as authoritatively confessed especially in the Canons of Dordt. It teaches that God has a saving grace, not for the elect alone, but for all humans: universal (ineffectual) saving grace. In this grace, God offers salvation to all with the sincere desire that all accept the offer and be saved (the well-meant offer, which is the CRC’s own description of the preaching of the gospel). This first point is the denial of election; of particular, or limited, atonement; and of irresistible, or efficacious, grace.

Second, fallen, unsaved sinners retain some good and ability for good after the fall of Adam, by virtue of God’s alleged common grace. This is the denial of total depravity. This remaining goodness permits, if it does not require, fellowship of Christians with the ungodly, especially in the form of cooperation to create a good, Christian society and culture. Thus, the vitally important reality of the antithesis is compromised. The antithesis is the spiritual separation and warfare between the church and the world.

Third, God’s common grace enables unbelievers to perform works that are good—good   in the estimation of God. The CRC and all other churches that hold to common grace deny that all the works of the unregenerate are sinful. This plainly is the repudiation of the Reformed doctrine of total depravity. Invariably, the denial of total depravity, especially in connection with the well-meant offer, takes form as the teaching of free will, the ability of the sinner to accept the well-meant offer of God and thus save himself. And this is the full-blown heresy of Arminianism and Pelagianism.

For his refusal to subscribe to the doctrine of common grace in these three points, HH was disciplined by the CRC in 1924. It stripped him of his office in the CRC and expelled him from the fellowship of this denomination. For rejecting the three points of common grace!  For defending the gospel of grace as confessed by the Canons of Dordt! In various ways, the other reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches honored this ecclesiastical murder of HH and treated this orthodox, godly man as a pariah. And they do still!

Thereupon, HH was used of Jesus Christ to form a new denomination of Reformed churches—the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (PRC).

For the next forty years, until his death in 1965, the man—an indefatigable worker—was pastor of a huge congregation, preaching every Sunday; editor of the Standard Bearer magazine; professor of theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary; author of many books; and frequent lecturer on many doctrinal subjects.

He was my professor for the three years of my seminary training, from 1960–1963. Stories of my experiences with this remarkable man of God, I have related in a series of articles in the Beacon Lights under the heading, “I Remember Herman Hoeksema” (October 2008–December 2009). The articles are available from the Beacon Lights.

Through HH, Jesus Christ, who is the Truth, gave the PRC especially two magnificent doctrines of the Reformed faith and a vitally important ethical truth (a doctrine concerning the Reformed, Christian life). The doctrines are particular, sovereign grace and the truth of the covenant of grace as intimate fellowship of God and his elect people, including the children of believing parents. Fundamental to this doctrine of the covenant is that the covenant and its salvation have their source and governance in election. In the covenant, as in missions, “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). God has made his covenant, not with all humans and not with individuals apart from Jesus Christ, but with the Seed of the woman, who is Jesus, and all those who believe in him by divine election (Gal. 3). Covenant (saving) grace is unconditional, as is saving grace in missions and evangelism. Grace is unconditional. For it is grace. A grace that is conditional, that is, dependent upon the will and works of the sinner, simply is not grace. A conditional grace is a new form of works.

The ethical teaching that Jesus has entrusted to the PRC is marriage as the lifelong, unbreakable bond between one man and one woman (Matt. 5:31–32; 19:3–9; Mark 10:2–12; Luke 16:18; Rom. 7:1–3; 1 Cor. 7). It is one of church history’s surprises that the son of a broken home powerfully sounded and developed the truth of the unbreakable bond of marriage. Perhaps this is no surprise at all. Who more than a child raised in a broken home realizes experientially the blessedness of marriage?

The importance of these truths is writ large on the pages of holy scripture.

How these truths expose prevalent errors of theology and life in Reformed Christianity today, and preserve the PRC in the truth and holy life of the gospel, is evident to all.

I mention only two instances. First, much of supposedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian Christianity in North America today is bedeviled by the heresy of the federal vision (FV). The FV blatantly denies all the five points of Calvinism, as well as justification by faith alone (see my Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root). The source of the heresy is the theory of a conditional covenant, conceived as a conditional contract between God and all who come under the preaching of the word, especially all the baptized children. This theory reigns in the churches in which the FV now appears. The churches cannot resist the heresy because of this erroneous doctrine of a conditional covenant, which they share with the FV.

One implication of this doctrine of the covenant is the rejection of the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of saints. According to the theology of a conditional covenant, many with whom God originally established his covenant and thus in whom he began the work of salvation fail to keep the conditions of the covenant and go lost. Some sheep do not hear and heed the Shepherd’s voice, wander off, lose their salvation, and perish eternally! (See, to the contrary, John 10.)

Second, the Presbyterian and Reformed churches in North America are plagued with a veritable flood of divorces and remarriages. Openly, these churches now excuse, permit, and justify even the remarriages of the guilty parties (those who committed adultery) in the preceding divorces. There is no stemming of the flood. There is no effort to stem the flood. The cause is the refusal to accept the teaching of the Bible that marriage is an unbreakable bond for life. The result is indescribable misery for many godly husbands and wives, to say nothing of deserted baptized, covenant children. The worst is the shame that it brings upon God. His name as “Faithful One” is etched upon the marriages of those who confess him as their God.

HH’s teachings and warnings are validated today by Jesus Christ in the evils that result from the rejection of them. And the evils are great. They are devastating, divine judgments upon the disobedient, who condemned and executed a faithful prophet of God and servant of Jesus Christ, or who connived at the condemnation. Reformed theologians and churches cannot but notice the evils in their own communions. One cannot but notice a destructive plague. But they remain silent. Having killed the prophet (ecclesiastically) and his prophecies in 1924, they bury him and his teachings today.

Some Reformed theologians are burying HH today in another way, which is also shameful. They have come to realize that the covenant is not a cold contract, but a warm bond of fellowship between God and his believing people, symbolized by marriage. They burst on the scene with this truth as though they themselves discovered it, without so much as a word acknowledging that HH taught this one hundred years ago, as they well know. It is as though a contemporary scientist announced to the scientific world that he had recently discovered that the earth rotates about the sun, without any mention of Copernicus. They too bury HH in their own scandalous way.

The PRC and the churches with whom they are in fellowship honor the prophet—and benefit from his prophesying.

Not because of him, but because of his Master!

Not because they were his doctrines, but because they are the gospel of his Lord!


Originally published November 2020, Vol 79 No 11