I visited with the Rev. Herman Hoeksema for the last time late in the summer of 1964.
I called on him one more time in the summer of 1965. But by this time the earthly house of his tabernacle had so broken down that there could be no visit, only a call.
In the late summer of 1964, Hoeksema was in the hospital, having suffered a stroke that effectively put an end to his public ministry. He would die in September, 1965.
We visited in the hospital. I found him in a wheelchair in a hallway. We talked a little about his physical affliction. With obvious interest, he asked about the Loveland, Colorado congregation, whose call I had accepted the previous fall, about certain of the members whom he knew, and about my work.
It was just before I left, as I was about to read Scripture and pray with him, that he opened up his heart.
We do this occasionally to each other, sometimes without intending to. There is a truth that is dear to our heart, and pressing on it. Suddenly, the circumstances are propitious. We express this truth to another. There is no mistaking the ultimate importance of what we are saying. There need be no tears, no noisy insistence that what is said is of great importance, no raising of the voice. The tone of voice, the look in the eyes, the tremor of speech, and then the truth itself give the other a rare glimpse into the depths of our heart, the deepest wellspring of our life with God.
“I don’t think I will ever preach again,” Hoeksema said from his wheelchair, “but if I do, I know what text I will preach.”
He did not have to tell me the text.
I already knew it.
I am not clairvoyant.
But I had just come from the home of the Rev. Gerrit Vos, who was also convalescing. Gerrit Vos was one of the very first graduates of the Protestant Reformed Seminary after the forming of the Protestant Reformed Churches in 1924. He was among that small, select, noble band of ministers in the Protestant Reformed Churches who bore the burden and heat of the day.
Vos was an outstanding, moving preacher. He was also a lovely soul. To know him was to love him, as one may verify by asking the old members of Hudsonville Protestant Reformed Church, where Vos served as pastor for many years.
I came to know him during my three years in seminary. Twice a week for three years, Vos drove in to the seminary from Hudsonville to teach me Dutch. At the beginning of the first class, he matter-of-factly commended the instruction he was about to give: “I come from Sassenheim [the Netherlands], where the purest Dutch is spoken.”
At the first class, he tossed a cigar to me across the table—a “rum-soaked Crooks.” For three years, very much in the spirit of the proceedings of the Synod of Dordt, we smoked as we read and discussed the Dutch. He acknowledged that the Theological School Committee might take a dim view of this practice, but, he declared grandly, “I am president of the Theological School Committee, and I say, ‘We smoke.’” We smoked.
Appointed to teach Dutch, which he did, Vos had other intentions as well. He announced that he would give me instruction also in pastoral aspects of the ministry. One of his earnest admonitions, bound upon me with some feeling, was, “Remember, you can lead sheep, but you cannot drive sheep.” In the providence of God, some twenty-five years later I was put in the position to exhort this wise counsel upon seminarians for twenty years, never failing to credit Gerrit Vos.
Regularly a delegate to synod, Vos was absent from the synod of 1963, at which I was examined and declared a candidate for the ministry. Getting on in years by that time (he would retire in 1966), Vos was ill, unable to attend synod. But at the end of the line of delegates to synod, family, and friends congratulating me upon my successful endurance of the synodical examination I saw the white mane of Rev. Gerrit Vos. He had driven to First Church, Grand Rapids from his sick-bed in Hudsonville to congratulate me.
I have long forgotten what the delegates to synod, my family, and my friends said to me on that occasion, some forty-six years ago. But I remember Vos’ words, as if he spoke them yesterday: “Davey, may the humility of Christ be yours.” With that, and that only, he turned on his heel, and was gone.
Now in the late summer of 1964, Vos lay again on a sick-bed, in the little room of the old Hudsonville parsonage, just off the kitchen. He had gone through a serious illness, during which he had struggled spiritually. Satan had tempted him. God had tried him.
Vos was a different personality than Herman Hoeksema. Vos wore his heart on his sleeve. He described his physical affliction in graphic, earthy detail. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he exclaimed, “Oh, it was awful. I have been through hell. I felt that God would damn me. I cried out to Him, ‘Go ahead! Damn me! I deserve it! But I will love You out of hell!’”
Noticeably brightening as he recited these last words, Vos went on, “And then I knew I was a saved child of God. No one talks like this who is not saved.”
“I hope I can preach one more sermon in Hudsonville,” the old preacher of the gospel and saint continued. “I want to preach the parable of the Pharisee and the publican.”
Indeed, “God be merciful to me, the sinner.”
The heart of Gerrit Vos.
And now Herman Hoeksema likewise contemplated preaching yet one more sermon in his beloved First Church.
“…and if I do, I know what text I will preach.”
Hoeksema did not wear his heart on his sleeve. Regardless of stroke, wheelchair, hospital, and the obvious end of his ministry and life, Hoeksema was perfectly calm, self-controlled, and deliberate. There were no tears, no candid revelation of spiritual wrestlings, no outbreak of emotions.
Only eyes reflecting eternal things and the tremor of voice that unmistakably signal the opening of one’s heart.
“I will preach the parable of the Pharisee and the publican.”
As I already knew.
The last sermon—the word of God of pure mercy in the cross of Jesus Christ to a guilty, depraved, wretched, and otherwise absolutely hopeless sinner.
This was the word Hoeksema proclaimed from the beginning of his long ministry.
This was the word he had defended in all his theological and ecclesiastical battles against attack on mercy—free, sovereign, discriminating mercy. For a conditional mercy, a universal, resistible mercy, a mercy for all, which is dependent in the last instance on the sinner, is no mercy. It is rather ground for the boast of the Pharisee: “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, refusing to perform the condition of repentance, by which I, in contrast, distinguish myself from the others, make myself worthy of forgiveness (and of the cross, whence forgiveness flows) and make thy mercy effective.”
Even the repentance of the sinner, the heartfelt, heart-broken plea for mercy—the plea of the publican—indeed, especially the repentance of the sinner (without which there can be no reception of the mercy of pardon), is no condition. Repentance too is mercy. It is mercy working irresistibly in the object of eternal mercy making a way for itself into the soul of the elect sinner.
The preaching of this word—the word of mercy of Luke 18:13—had drawn the young man Gerrit Vos to Herman Hoeksema in the earliest days of the reformation of 1924, as Vos himself told me.
This word is the heart, the very wellspring, of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
How Herman Hoeksema preached, taught, developed, and defended divine mercy as preacher, theologian, seminary professor, editor, and author!
But now this word of mercy was the word of salvation for Herman Hoeksema the sinner, at the end of his ministry and life. From his wheelchair, he looked back over a Christian life and glorious ministry in which, nevertheless, he had defiled all his works with sin, including his good works, indeed, his very best works. He knew this well. When I hinted once that seventy-five years of life and forty-seven years of church history-making, often tumultuous ministry, warranted an autobiography, he responded that he “would not like to do that because then I would have to relate unpleasant sins and motives. Fact is,” he concluded, “I would not care to write my autobiography at all.”
From the same wheelchair, he saw impending death, which would usher him (as it does us all) into judgment before God, whose righteousness is awesome.
“I will preach the parable of the Pharisee and the publican.”
The last sermon.
The sermon he would leave with the people of God.
But also the sermon that would carry Herman Hoeksema through the judgment into everlasting bliss and glory.
A great man.
By Jesus’ declaration, not mine.
For this too is the parable of the Pharisee and the publican: “He that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”