I Remember Herman Hoeksema: Personal Remembrances of a Great Man (2)

Development of the Covenant

Hoeksema also developed the doctrine of the covenant. This is the doctrine that is central to the message of Scripture and dear to the Reformed churches. In one important respect, this too was consistent development of the truth of salvation by grace alone, in accordance with the decree of election. Hoeksema simply applied the Canons of Dordt to the truth of the covenant.

Hoeksema taught that God establishes his covenant with Christ as the head of the covenant of grace and with the elect church, whose members are all true believers and their elect children, as his body. “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises [of the covenant] made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ…And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:16, 29).

Regarding the covenant with the children of godly parents, the basis and meaning of infant baptism, Hoeksema taught that the covenant promise, the covenant itself, and covenant salvation are for the elect children only. In the clear language of Romans 9:8, only “the children of the promise are counted for the seed,” not the “children of the flesh.” The covenant, therefore, is unconditional. It depends for its establishment, maintenance, and perfection only upon the sovereign grace of God, whose source is unconditional election. The covenant is not grace for all the physical children alike, which grace would then both depend for its saving effect upon the faith and obedience of the children and be resistible and losable.

In another, equally important respect, Hoeksema’s development of the truth of the covenant consisted of viewing the covenant as essentially a living bond of fellowship between Christ and the church and between Christ and each elect believer personally. Hoeksema located the ultimate source of the covenant in the very life of the triune God himself. He explained the life of God as the eternal communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. The covenant of grace, by the decree of the triune God, is God’s taking of the elect church into his own family-life in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. The covenant then is not merely a means to get the elect saved, but salvation itself, the greatest good for men and women, and supreme bliss.

This development of covenant doctrine was monumental and marvelous. The truth and experience of the covenant as fellowship with the ever-blessed God are the peculiar riches of the Protestant Reformed Churches and their members.

And, we are delighted to observe, of late the riches of other Reformed churches as well.

Here is a curious thing. In the past, indeed the not-too-distant past, the prevailing, if not only, conception of the covenant in Reformed and Presbyterian churches was that the covenant is a cold and sterile contract, a business-like agreement, a threatening promise and demand, that is, a promise of God dependent on compliance with the demand by men.

In recent times, a radical change in the conception of the covenant has been taking place. On every hand, the covenant is now being described as a bond, as fellowship, as a living relationship of love. Indeed, some Reformed theologians have lately begun to trace the covenant to the triune life of God. The language of contract has virtually disappeared from the vocabulary of the covenant.

We Protestant Reformed people rejoice at this change in the prevailing covenant conception.

But we notice that there is hardly a word of acknowledgment that the Reformed theologian Herman Hoeksema was teaching this conception of the covenant eighty years ago, when he had the weight of the entire Reformed church-world against him. Much less is there any acknowledgment of Hoeksema’s influence in the forming of the new conception of the covenant. Theologians who are ready to footnote a cough they make while writing will not reference Hoeksema’s Reformed Dogmatics or Believers and Their Seed. Indeed, there are writings on the covenant and the Trinity that border on plagiarism of Hoeksema and of other Protestant Reformed writers who are developing and applying the doctrine of the covenant as fellowship with God that acknowledge no debt to those whose work they are using.

Regardless of this lack of grace on the part of the theologians, these “new insights” into the covenant indicate the greatness of Herman Hoeksema as a theologian.

Defense of the Faith

In addition, Hoeksema was a great man in that he defended the truth—not just the truth as he saw it, but the truth—against its adversaries, and suffered greatly for his defense.

He was a man of courage.

Courageously, he defended the truth of sovereign, particular grace against the intrusion of the lie of universal, resistible grace—“common grace” to all humans without exception and saving grace to all who come under the preaching of the gospel. His defense of the gospel cost him his already prominent position in the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 and his name in the Reformed community to this day.

In his commentary on Revelation, Hoeksema remarked, wistfully, that it would be a privilege to be among those who may confess Christ even unto death in the time of Antichrist. With the humility characteristic of the man, he quickly observed that only special saints may enjoy this privilege. He was regretting that he could not be a martyr.

But in a rare lapse of perception he was mistaken. There are other ways to lose one’s life for Christ’s sake than by shedding blood. Hoeksema’s enemies killed him ecclesiastically. They cast him out. They killed him by defaming his good name, world-wide—hyper-Calvinist!—which is more painful than physical death.

Yet these very enemies could not help admiring Hoeksema for his courage. Back in the late 1970s, when the “conservatives” were still numerous in the Christian Reformed Church, an older Christian Reformed minister, then at the center of the life of the Christian Reformed Church, told me that it was the settled policy of the Christian Reformed ministers from 1924 on to ignore Hoeksema publicly. “However,” he added, “we ministers are not together for fifteen minutes before we are talking about him.” “Why?” I asked. “Why do you find yourselves bringing up Hoeksema fifty years and more after you put him out?” His answer was that Hoeksema fascinated them as a man who was willing to give up everything for the sake of what he confessed.

Courageously, Hoeksema defended the gospel of salvation by discriminating, almighty grace in the fierce, internal struggle of the Protestant Reformed Churches over the covenant in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The issue was simply the relation of the covenant and its salvation to divine election. Though it cost him two thirds of his own congregation and more than half of the members of the denomination, Hoeksema contended for the covenant of sovereign grace. He could not have done otherwise, for it was his heart’s conviction that the doctrine of a covenant established by grace with all the children alike, dependent for its continuance and final salvation upon conditions performed by the children, is, as he often said, nothing but “Arminianism in the covenant.”

God has proved him right in recent history.


This is another aspect of the man’s greatness, that he was prophetic.

He warned the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN) during the common grace struggle in the 1920s and 1930s that the doctrine of common grace would bring the ungodly world into those churches on the floodtide. A work of grace in the ungodly whose purpose is to warrant and mandate the church’s cooperation with the world in building an earthly kingdom of God and the believer’s union with unbelievers in order to create a good and godly culture must corrupt the church and believer. It will break down the biblical antithesis, which is rooted in God’s eternal, double predestination effecting the fundamental division of the human race into two, separate, hostile, warring kingdoms.

It has.

The doctrine of common grace with the mentality that created it, loved it, defended it, and practiced it has destroyed the Free University of Amsterdam spiritually. That once grand institution, founded on “Reformed principles,” has abandoned the last vestige of the Reformed faith. It is now a spiritual wasteland and Babylon, where are “wild beasts of the desert…[It is] full of doleful creatures…and satyrs…dance therein” (Isaiah 13:21). For among the “Reformed principles” that formed the foundation was the world-conforming, world-welcoming common grace theory of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. The “principle” of the certain destruction of that Reformed university was laid with its foundation.

The mentality and doctrine of common grace have destroyed the churches of the fathers of the doctrine—the GKN—physically, as well as spiritually. They are no more. Openness to the ungodly world and the fatal weakening of the antithesis, along with the rejection of predestination (in which Berkouwer played the leading role especially with his book, Divine Election [1956] ), brought the GKN, inevitably, into the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN). This is a denomination without the Reformed creedal basis, welcoming of syncretism and open unbelief, and constitutionally committed to approving homosexual acts and relations.

The GKN chose for the ungodly world. God has given those churches the world they wanted, as once in his wrath he gave Israel the quails they sinfully desired—so that they choke on the object of their lust.

More urgently and often did Hoeksema warn the Christian Reformed Church of the dire consequences of their dear theory of common grace. Listen to him during the controversy of the early 1920s.

This doctrine [of common grace], if it is not opposed, will weaken nearly all real Christian action and send a tidal wave of world-conformity through our churches…This theory [of common grace] increasingly controls life in our circles. The result of it is world-conformity. The idea of being a stranger and pilgrim on the earth gives way to world-citizenship. They [the proponents of common grace in the Christian Reformed Church] envision that by common grace everyone can live a good life in this world before the face of God, and they say it is our obligation to raise that general human world-life as high as possible. In our opinion this view can only lead to the theory of world-conformity, which is already widely evident in our daily practice (Of Sin and Grace, published in Dutch in 1923; the quotation is from the English translation by C. Hanko and published as Sin and Grace by the RFPA in 2003).

Although they rejected the warning of their prophet (as departing churches invariably do), nevertheless, the warning made the Christian Reformed Church nervous. In 1928, the synod of the Christian Reformed Church sent a grave warning against worldliness to all the congregations. It was too little, too late. Only rescission of the common grace decision of 1924 and repentance for the common grace mentality that produced the decision would have saved them. They had sowed the wind; they must reap the whirlwind. Steadily over the years, the Christian Reformed Church succumbed, with great celebrations of their progressiveness and modernity marking every stage of the apostasy, to the world’s thinking and the world’s ways. The world’s thinking about origins; the world’s thinking about the inspiration and historical reliability of the opening chapters of Genesis; the world’s ways regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage; the world’s thinking about the authoritative headship of the husband in marriage; the world’s thinking about the “full equality” of women with specific application to church office; the world’s ways regarding amusement, for example, movies and dancing; the world’s ways on the Sabbath Day; the world’s thinking concerning toleration of all churches (witness the recent repudiation of the Heidelberg Catechism’s condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church in Question and Answer 80)—all these and more have ruined the once glorious Christian Reformed Church as a Reformed Church of Christ.

Accompanying the ever more enthusiastic embrace of common grace was the corresponding rejection of particular grace. The denial of sovereign, particular grace implicit in the “well-meant offer” of the first point of common grace of 1924 worked itself out in the explicit denial of limited atonement by Prof. Harold Dekker in the 1960s and in the explicit denial of the double predestination of the first head of the Canons of Dordt by Dr. Harry Boer in the 1980s. Synods of the Christian Reformed Church treated these issues. They approved the gross heresies regarding salvation by grace alone. They approved them by not condemning them and disciplining the heretics. They approved them by carefully couching their minutes so that the errors and errorists would be tolerated. Significantly, both Dekker and Boer appealed to the doctrine of common grace in support of their false doctrines.

At the present time, the Christian Reformed Church openly acknowledges that it is no longer Reformed by freeing its officebearers from (full) subscription to the Reformed confessions. Thus a once Reformed church abandons its Reformed foundation. Thus it advertises that it is not, and does not care to be, indeed, refuses to be, Reformed.

As Herman Hoeksema had foretold.

So unbearable did the symptoms of the doctrine and mentality of common grace become in the Christian Reformed Church that finally, in the 1990s, a number left that Church to form the United Reformed Churches. But they merely reacted to the symptoms, especially the feminism of women in church office; they did not repudiate the cause. They remain fully committed to the Christian Reformed doctrine of common grace with its distinctive worldview. It is understandable then that they did not join the Protestant Reformed Churches, which certainly presented themselves as true churches of Jesus Christ, faithful to the Reformed confessions and free of all the evils that offended these people in the Christian Reformed Church, but formed yet another denomination of Reformed churches in North America.

How committed the members of the United Reformed Churches are to common grace was brought home to me soon after the formation of that denomination. An old layman, prominent in those churches, informed me that he and others in Western Michigan were concerned about the high school education of their young people. “We looked into Covenant Christian High School [the high school of the Protestant Reformed people],” he said. “But we want the common grace worldview. So we will build our own high school.”

Evidently, they have learned nothing from their bitter experience in the Christian Reformed Church and schools. History will prove the truth of Hoeksema’s prophecy, and the reality of his warning, concerning common grace in their case also.

(to be continued)