A Pastoral Heart
Although a profound theologian, learned scholar, and formidable controversialist, Herman Hoeksema had the heart of a pastor. His published sermons demonstrate the love of a shepherd for the people of God, especially his own congregation, First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This came home to me many years after Hoeksema’s death when I was editing his series of sermons on Romans for publication as Righteous by Faith Alone: A Devotional Commentary on Romans (RFPA, 2002). The series of sermons, as he preached it in First Church in the late 1930s, had two grand themes. They ran through the sermons from beginning to end. One was the glory of God as revealed in the gospel of justification by faith alone.
The other, hardly less prominent, was the comfort of every believer by this gospel of justification. Again and again, Hoeksema explicitly applied the gospel-truth of righteousness by faith alone to the burdened souls of the members of the congregation, struggling with the guilt of their sins and fearful of the wrath of God to which their transgressions and corruption exposed them.
Especially did Herman Hoeksema the pastoral preacher exert himself to deliver members of his congregation from the doubt that was then, and still is today, perversely promoted and even praised by disciples of the Puritans. These are the contemporary representatives and advocates of the movement in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century that called itself the “nadere reformatie” (“further reformation”). Falsely charging the Reformation of the sixteenth century with having failed to do justice to the experience of salvation, this movement arrogantly took upon itself the responsibility of completing the unfinished Reformation.
Rather than completing, or even developing, the Reformation, however, the movement of the “further reformation” radically deviated from the Reformation. Whereas, for assurance of salvation, the Reformation directed the faith of the elect believer to Jesus Christ as presented in the preaching of the doctrine of the gospel, outside the believer; the “further reformation” turned the believer in on himself, to his own mysterious, mystical experiences, or feelings. The result was doubt, doubt on a huge scale, doubt that afflicted the vast majority of the members of the congregations (even though they confessed themselves believers), doubt that lasted for years, doubt in which many eventually died (with all the terror that must accompany dying without assurance of salvation).
The Puritans and their theological disciples in the “further reformation” denied that true, justifying faith in Jesus Christ as proclaimed in the gospel is assurance of salvation, as is the teaching of Question and Answer 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Assurance of one’s own salvation comes to a believer, if it comes at all, only after the believer has struggled with doubt—prevailing, terrifying, hellish doubt—for many years. If a believer does finally obtain assurance (and only a few of God’s favorite children ever do!), he gets it, not by believing only in Jesus Christ, but through an extraordinary, mystical experience, which he himself has labored to bring about.
In Hoeksema’s day, those in North America whose theology thus robbed confessing believers of the comfort of assurance were the theologians, ministers, and teachers of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations.
It is obvious in the Romans sermons that Hoeksema knew that some in his congregation were afflicted with the Puritan disease of doubt and the related disease of grounding assurance of salvation upon the broken reed of a mystical experience. Hoeksema called the disease “sickly mysticism.” As a good undershepherd of Jesus Christ, Hoeksema could not tolerate this spiritual sickness. He certainly did not excuse it. Much less did he promote it. Rather, he probed the sore in order to heal it with the balm of the gospel of justification by faith alone.
Preaching Romans 7:24, 25a, “The Wretched Christian,” Hoeksema observed that the text teaches that the “wretched Christian seeks deliverance” (“who shall deliver me?”). Then he exposed the disease of doubt:
There is [a] type of people who do not seek. They are a sickly kind of people. They are people who have a certain sickly knowledge of sin. They are people who leave the impression that they rejoice in the fact that they are able to say that they are so miserable. You can recognize these people by the fact that they always stop there. They say, “O wretched man that I am!” And there they stop. They do not seek. This is not the apostle. If one knows his misery, he seeks spontaneously (Righteous by Faith Alone, 299, 300).
Immediately, Hoeksema added: “And he finds.” This too was directed against the miserable Puritan and “further reformation” doctrine, which teaches that many, if not most, believers seek the deliverance of assurance all their lives without ever finding it.
A man once said to me that he had been seeking all his life. I told him that was not true. Scripture says that he who seeks shall surely find. This man said, “Yes, but in God’s time.” I answered, “Yes, and God’s time is, ‘Before they call, I will answer them.’” This surely follows. You cannot ask the question without the answer being there. If you seek, you shall surely find (Righteous by Faith Alone, 300).
As a good pastor, Hoeksema warned against seeking deliverance from sin, including assurance of deliverance, in the wrong, Puritan and “further reformation” way.
How do you seek [deliverance]? There is only one way: in the Word of God. Some people would like to have an angel come down from heaven to tell them. That cannot be. Others would like to have a certain word, or a certain experience. But it is a seeking outside of the Word of God. These people do not find. You cannot find God outside of the Word. But if you seek the answer to the question “Who shall deliver me?” in the Bible, you will find the answer (Righteous by Faith Alone, 301).
When he explained the outstanding passage of Scripture on assurance of salvation, Romans 8:15, 16, Hoeksema again pointedly warned his flock against the teaching of assurance that produces doubt. The text reads: “Ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.” Hoeksema posed the question, “How does the Spirit do this?” that is, give all believers and their children “assurance…that we are children of God.” He answered his question, negatively, combating (as his answer indicates to every one who is in the least familiar with Puritan and “further reformation” doctrine) the proposed way of assurance of Puritanism:
[The Spirit] does not do it [give assurance of sonship and salvation] in a fanatical way, nor does he do it in a mystical way. Some teach that the Spirit directly, mystically, audibly, tells every child of God, outside of the Word, that he is a child of God. But there is no such thing. I never heard such whisperings of the Spirit in my heart. And if I did hear such whisperings, I would not trust them. I could not be sure that these whisperings were not the testimony of some other spirit. The Spirit never says anything outside the Word…Not directly, but through the Word, this testimony comes to us (Righteous by Faith Alone, 333).
Showing thorough knowledge of the Puritan and “further reformation” doctrine of doubt and demonstrating a good pastor’s determination that this doctrine not take root in his congregation, and be rooted up where it might have lodged, Hoeksema added something to his negative answer.
But even then we must be careful. Some people, when they say that this testimony comes to us through the Word, mean that the Spirit at a certain time comes with a certain text. This is not true. I do not mean to say that the Spirit never comes with a certain text, at a certain time, and under certain circumstances. But I mean this: your assurance cannot rest on that. The Spirit does not work through a certain text, but he works through the whole Word of God. It is through the whole of Scripture that the Spirit bears this testimony (Righteous by Faith Alone, 333).
Hoeksema was referring to the mystical notion and practice that one gets assurance of salvation by letting his Bible fall open at random and blindly stabbing his finger at a text that happens to speak of salvation, or by having a stray text come into his mind, unexpectedly, as he goes about the business of his everyday life.
His positive answer to the question, “How does the Spirit give assurance of salvation?” was this: “The Spirit takes the content of the Word of God. He applies it to our hearts.” The role of preaching in this assuring work of the Spirit, Hoeksema indicated in his sermon on Romans 1:16, 17 (Righteous by Faith Alone, 9-15), his sermon on Romans 10:14, 15 (Righteous by Faith Alone, 474-481), and his sermon on Romans 10:16-18 (Righteous by Faith Alone, 482-495). Hoeksema added, concerning the way in which the Spirit gives assurance, that “the Spirit works assurance in the fellowship of the church and in the way of sanctification” (Righteous by Faith Alone, 334).
The significance of faith in receiving assurance, Hoeksema had indicated earlier in the series of sermons on Romans. In his sermon on Romans 4:3-5, Hoeksema taught his congregation that “saving faith…reveals itself as undoubting certainty.” “Saving faith is that I am certain…that I am justified” (Righteous by Faith Alone, 143, 144; emphasis added).
Note well the verb in the second of these quotations concerning faith: True faith is certainty. Denial of this fundamental truth concerning saving, justifying faith was the false doctrine of Puritanism and the “further reformation” that caused the God-dishonoring and soul-tormenting doubt of multitudes, as is the case still today with the avowed disciples of the Puritans and the “further reformation.”
Herman Hoeksema’s sermons expressed a pastor’s heart. Is not a pastor’s heart expressed in preaching that gladly obeys the divine call to the prophet, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people”? Is not a pastor’s heart expressed by teaching that joyfully brings to the congregation the basic theme of the Heidelberg Catechism, namely, comfort in life and death for every believer and covenant child of the believer that consists of conscious belonging to Jesus Christ, because “by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life”?
Does not a pastor’s heart compel the minister to war against false teaching that is destructive of the comfort of the gospel, that God wills for all his children, that all God’s children have a right to, and that is necessary in order to live faithfully and to die hopefully?
Does the heart of a pastor of the flock of Christ bring a message that plunges many, even the majority, of the congregation, who profess to be believers, into doubt of their salvation; that makes assurance of salvation impossible for many of them as long as they live; that shuts them up to face death themselves, and bury loved ones, in the terror of damnation; and that assures a few on the basis of a false, deceitful, and weak ground, namely, an extraordinary experience?
Hoeksema’s sermons were a public expression of the man’s pastoral heart.
I saw this heart in his ministry “from house to house” (Acts 20:20).