One of the major projects of the Reformed Free Publishing Association (RFPA) at present is the publication of a commentary by Herman Hoeksema on the book of Romans. The commentary will be titled, Righteous by Faith Alone: A Devotional Commentary on Romans. It will be a devotional commentary on the order of the author’s commentary on the book of Revelation, Behold, He Cometh. The book is scheduled to come out early this year.
This is a work by the renowned theologian that has never before been published, with the exception of the exposition of Romans 9-11. It will be a new book, although the author has been dead for some thirty-six years. Because of who the author is, because of what the book of the Bible is that is explained, and because of the nature and content of the book itself, this publication will be one of the most important and worthwhile books that the RFPA has published.
The story of the existence of Hoeksema’s exposition of Romans is fascinating. In the late 1930s, Hoeksema preached a series of sermons on the entire book of Romans. There were ninety-seven sermons in all, beginning with Romans 1:1-4 and concluding with Romans 16:25-27. Preaching the series must have taken nearly three years. These ninety-seven sermons are the content of the book that is soon to be published.
Internal evidence establishes the date of the series of sermons as the late 1930s. In a New Year’s Eve sermon preached between the sermon on Romans 11:33-36 and the sermon on Romans 12:2, Hoeksema identified the year that was ending as 1938. In confirmation of this dating of the sermons are several references to Hitler and Mussolini in the later part of the series.
At this time, Hoeksema, who was born in 1886, was in his early fifties. He was at the height of his powers as an exegete, preacher, and theologian. This time was also the heyday of First Protestant Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Hoeksema was minister and to whom the sermons were preached.
These sermons exist today because a member of First Church took them down as they were delivered, meticulously transcribed them in spiral notebooks, and saw to the preservation of these notebooks. The sermons were not recorded. Nor do Hoeksema’s own outlines survive. When I began editing the manuscripts containing the sermons, I inquired after Hoeksema’s own notes, or outlines. A search of Hoeksema’s papers in the archives of the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) failed to locate outlines of the Romans sermons. Evidently, these outlines have perished. If it were not for the farsighted, diligent work of the scribe who took the sermons down as they were preached and then preserved his copies, Hoeksema’s valuable exposition of Romans would be lost to us.
The member of First Church to whom we are indebted for the commentary on Romans was Martin Swart. Swart and his family joined First PRC at the time of the common grace controversy in 1924, and he remained a member until his death in 1977. Although he had only an eighth grade education, he became a learned man doctrinally—learned in the Reformed faith—under the teaching of Rev. Hoeksema and had a prominent place in First Church. He was elder many times. For many years he was president of the English Men’s Society, which required him to write essays on profound theological subjects. A few years ago, the Standard Bearer published one of Martin Swart’s essays.
Using his own system of shorthand, Mr. Swart took down the sermons as Hoeksema preached them. Old members of First Church report that the congregation and Hoeksema himself saw Swart, always in his accustomed seat, writing as Hoeksema was preaching. Immediately upon arriving home, Swart would write the sermon out in full using a pencil and sitting at the kitchen table. For an hour or so, he could not be disturbed. Later, he would transcribe the sermon in a spiral notebook, using an ink pen. At the top of each sermon are noted the text and the preacher. The notebooks are all numbered. And the handwriting is lovely and almost perfectly legible.
These notebooks survive. They survive because before his death Martin Swart gave them to his son, Jim, who preserved them as carefully as had his father. A few years ago, Jim Swart was persuaded to give the RFPA access to the Romans sermons in these notebooks and the right to publish them in book form. For this permission, the RFPA is grateful.
To Martin Swart, we are deeply indebted, for the Romans sermons of Herman Hoeksema are a treasure. The existence of these sermons and, presently, their publication are as significant and exciting as the discovery of a hitherto unknown series of sermons on Romans by John Calvin would be.
(to be continued…)