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I Remember Herman Hoeksema: Personal Remembrances of a Great Man (1)

It is my purpose with this short series of articles to relate some of my remembrances of Herman Hoeksema. I do not intend to write a biography. I do not claim that the events I describe were of any special importance for the church. But I do think that these recollections may be of some benefit to the members of the Protestant Reformed Churches, especially the younger members, who never knew the man. The remembrances will show something of the man to those who know Hoeksema only as a theologian and an author.

The occasion for the remembrances is the long span of time between the life of Hoeksema and the majority of members of the Protestant Reformed Churches today. Hoeksema died in 1965, more than forty years ago. No one under forty five years of age has any personal recollection of the man. Among the ministers, at the time of this writing I am the last man in the active ministry to have had all three years of his seminary training under Herman Hoeksema, indeed to have had any part of seminary training under him. Few even of the active ministers remember him. The memory of the man fades fast.

The reason for the remembrances is that Herman Hoeksema was a great man. He was a great man of God on behalf of the Protestant Reformed Churches. He was a great man of God for the Reformed faith in the world. He was a great man of God in and for the church of Jesus Christ.

Many will dispute this judgment as the biased esteem of a former pupil and ardent, if not blind, disciple. But they will be wrong. For one thing, after forty-five years in the ministry, having read widely in the history of the church and of the world, having observed closely events ecclesiastical and civil, having experienced much in the covenant and in society, and having learned to make judgments in light of Scripture, the creeds, and the history of the Christian church, I am a blind disciple of no man (if ever I was), including Herman Hoeksema. For another thing, my judgment of Hoeksema’s greatness is based on solid, objective, indeed incontrovertible evidence. Christ will display the true greatness of the man—as his own work of grace—in the final judgment, when the last in the judgment of men shall be first by the judgment of God.

Theologian of Sovereign Grace

Hoeksema was a great man of God in that he knew, confessed, and taught by word and pen the truth of the word of God as rightly and authoritatively set forth in comprehensive and systematic form in the “Three Forms of Unity.” He confessed the truth particularly with regard to its central message: salvation from sin by the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ alone.

Even his theological and ecclesiastical foes acknowledged Hoeksema’s soundness in the Reformed faith and his unswerving commitment to the gospel of sovereign grace as confessed by the Synod of Dordt in the Canons. When in 1924 the Christian Reformed Church condemned the doctrine that Hoeksema taught, preliminary to deposing him, they themselves testified that he was Reformed in the fundamental truths of the Reformed creeds. Unwittingly, indeed contrary to their intention, they increased their praise of him when they added that he had a tendency towards “onesidedness.” For they meant that he was “onesided” in his magnifying of the sovereignty of the grace of God in salvation. What a glorious epitaph!

In a long and frank discussion of Hoeksema and the Dutch Reformed theologian, Klaas Schilder, the doctrines they taught, and the churches they served that I had with Professor J. Douma of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”) in the early 1980s at the Kampen Seminary, Dr. Douma freely acknowledged that a difference between the two theologians was that “your man [Hoeksema] consistently applied predestination—election and reprobation—to the covenant, whereas my man [Schilder] did not.” Consistency, particularly regarding divine predestination as source and cause of all salvation, is not a defect in a Reformed theologian.

In his theological memoirs, the famed Dutch Reformed theologian, G. C. Berkouwer, informed the theological world that he deliberately framed his own theology in (an adversary) relation to the theology of Herman Hoeksema. Hoeksema’s theology was Berkouwer’s foil. Berkouwer went on to assert that Hoeksema developed all his theology in harmony with God’s eternal decree of predestination as no other theologian had done.

Whether this is indeed the case may be questioned. Calvin certainly developed his (biblical) theology in basic harmony with predestination, as did others in the Reformed tradition.

Nevertheless, Berkouwer’s judgment is the highest praise of Herman Hoeksema, regardless that Berkouwer did not mean it so. It recognized Hoeksema as a great man in the Reformed churches, for whatever theology harmonizes with and extols predestination is the truth, whereas whatever contradicts or obscures predestination is the lie.

Of course, Reformed theologians and churches that shy from “onesidedness” in the direction of honoring God’s sovereign grace in salvation, as though this “onesidedness” were the greatest of all doctrinal evils, will understand Berkouwer’s judgment as disparagement of Hoeksema. These are the theologians and churches that are “onesided” in the direction of the responsibility of man, not only in that responsibility is their main message, but also because in their sermons and writings “responsibility” challenges, contradicts, and denies divine sovereignty. Such is the popular doctrine of an impotent love of God for all without exception in the preaching of the gospel, a frustrated desire of God to save all by the preaching of the gospel, and a resistible grace that goes out to all men in the preaching of the gospel.

 Development of the Truth of Grace

Hoeksema was a great man of God in that the Spirit of Christ used him to develop the gospel of grace. Not all good and faithful ministers of the word also develop the truth. Herman Hoeksema did.

There is development of dogma in the history of the post-apostolic church. This is the work of the Spirit of truth leading the church to an ever richer, deeper, fuller, and purer understanding of the revelation of Holy Scripture. The Spirit uses theologians for this work. He used Hoeksema.

Hoeksema taught the particularity and sovereignty of God’s grace in the preaching of the gospel. Before him men had confessed the particularity and sovereignty of the grace of God (having its source and standard in divine predestination) in the salvation of the elect sinner with regard to the atoning death of Christ, conversion, justification, and the preservation of the saints. These aspects of the truth of sovereign grace were taught by Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and the Synod of Dordt. Hoeksema applied the truth of God’s particular, sovereign grace to the preaching of the gospel—the actual power that realizes the purpose of election, bestows the benefits of the cross, and accomplishes conversion, justification, and preservation. Not only was the cross particular, sovereign grace (“limited atonement”), not only is the grace of regeneration, justification, and preservation particular and sovereign, not only is Jesus Christ himself in his office as mediator of the covenant and in all his work as Savior particular—a Jesus Christ for the elect only, not for all men—but also the preaching of the gospel of this Jesus Christ, of this cross, and of this salvation is particular, sovereign grace.

As Berkouwer noted, Hoeksema viewed the preaching of the gospel in the light of God’s predestination. God has the gospel of Jesus Christ preached promiscuously and without discrimination to reprobate and elect. By the gospel, he shows all—in their heads and even sometimes in their emotions—reprobate and elect, their great need of salvation and the only way of salvation, namely, believing on Jesus. In the preaching, God commands, or externally calls, all to repent and believe, promising that everyone who does believe will be saved. But his gracious purpose, his loving will, his saving intention, his sincere desire, his effectual “wish” is to save the elect in the audience, and them only. The Spirit of Jesus Christ makes the preaching a mighty power of grace in the hearts of the elect, and them only.

Predestination governs the preaching of the gospel. The preaching of the gospel is grace to the elect, and to the elect only. “As many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).

In keeping with the rigorous historical fact that development of the truth always occurs by means of controversy, Hoeksema developed the truth of the preaching as sovereign, particular grace against the teaching that the preaching is a “well-meant offer of grace” to all who hear. This is the teaching that, although God’s grace is particular in predestination, in the death of Christ, and even in regeneration, in the preaching of the gospel it suddenly, strangely, and utterly contradictorily becomes universal. The preaching of the gospel is grace for everybody, reprobate as well as elect. In the preaching of the gospel God wants to save everybody, reprobate as well as elect. In the preaching of the gospel, God loves everybody, reprobate as well as elect. In the preaching of the gospel, God actually tries to save everybody, reprobate as well as elect. Inasmuch as God’s grace in the preaching is universal, it is also necessarily resistible. Grace no longer is sovereign.

This doctrine of preaching—the “well-meant offer”—prevailed in the Christian Reformed Church. The first (and main!) point of that Church’s official decisions of 1924 adopting the theory of common grace as binding church dogma confessed—and confesses—the “well-meant offer.” Today, the doctrine and practice of the “well-meant offer,” which flatly contradicts, weakens, and eventually corrupts everything these churches profess concerning salvation by grace alone, prevail in virtually all the Reformed, Presbyterian, and “Calvinistic” churches in North America and Great Britain.

(to be continued)