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If the Protestant world were informed that a publisher was soon to publish a hitherto unknown set of Calvin’s sermons on the entire book of Romans, there would be excitement and anticipation. Similar, I trust, will be the response by the readership of the Standard Bearer to the announcement that the Reformed Free Publishing Association (RFPA) is presently working on the publication of a complete series of sermons by Herman Hoeksema on the epistle to the Romans. This big project, involving considerable editing of the original manuscripts, is now a long way towards completion.

The book will serve the church in a number of ways. It will provide a clear, faithful commentary on the book of Romans, especially for Reformed pastors and church members. The RFPA plans to issue the book as a “devotional commentary on Romans.” It will make a substantial contribution to the body of Reformed doctrine. And it will shed important light on both the theology and preaching of Herman Hoeksema. Particularly as regards Hoeksema’s preaching, it will dispel, once and for all, any lingering notion that his thoroughly doctrinal preaching was not at the same time warmly experiential and pointedly practical.

Hoeksema’s Scribe

The explanation of the existence of these sermons in written form is a story in itself. So far as I have been able to determine, Hoeksema’s own outlines of his series on Romans no longer exist. But as Calvin had his scribes in Geneva, to whom we are indebted for the sermons by Calvin that we possess, Hoeksema had his scribe. He was Martin Swart, a member of the First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan from its beginning in 1924 to his death in 1977. For many of those years, Mr. Swart took down Hoeksema’s sermons by his own system of shorthand. Older members of First Church remember seeing Mr. Swart absorbed in his writing, service after service, as Hoeksema preached. Those were the days before tape recordings. Immediately upon returning home, Swart would write out the sermon in full, with a pencil. Later, he transcribed the sermons into spiral notebooks, with a pen.

The sermons have never before been published, except for a few that have recently been published as meditations in the SB. The meditation in this issue on Romans 5:3, 4 is one of the sermons.

There is one other exception: the sermons on Romans 9-11 were published in 1940 as God’s Eternal Good Pleasure. Strangely, this book omitted a sermon that appears in the Swart manuscripts: the sermon on Romans 9:17, 18 entitled “God Raising Up Pharaoh.” On the other hand, God’s Eternal Good Pleasure included a sermon on Romans 10:16-18: that is not found in the Swart manuscripts. The RFPA reprinted God’s Eternal Good Pleasure in 1979 (including the sermon on Romans 9:17, 18). It too is now out of print.

Although the sermons on Romans 9-11 in God’s Eternal Good Pleasure are substantially the same as those in the Swart manuscripts, there are significant differences. The heavily edited version in God’s Eternal Good Pleasure is more dense, dogmatical, and difficult. In contrast, the sermons in the Swart manuscripts are more lucid and lively. Undoubtedly, the explanation is that the Swart manuscripts give the sermons as Hoeksema actually preached them.

For example, in the first sermon on this section of Romans, the sermon on Romans 9:6-8 concerning two kinds of children in the sphere of Israel, Hoeksema begins the third division of his exposition in the Swart manuscript with the words, “This is a very practicalWord also for today.” These words are missing in God’s Eternal Good Pleasure. He continues:

There arises in the church a carnal seed. You and I bring them forth. The result is great heaviness and sorrow of heart. There is in the church a great sorrow and heaviness of heart for the minister when he sees the children of the church go the way of destruction, especially if he is in a congregation for a long time. These children grow up with him, and he learns to know them. What would he like to do? I would like to take them all along to heaven. So would you. I instruct them, I preach to them, I admonish them. And what do they do? They trample it under foot. The result is great sorrow and heaviness of heart for the minister. But you can’t change it.

The thought is found in God’s Eternal Good Pleasure, but in a quite different, objective form.

Even some of the sermon topics, or chapter headings, are different. Evidently, Hoeksema originally preached on Romans 11:16-21: taking as the theme, “Humility Toward the Old Branches.” In God’s Eternal Good Pleasurethe theme became “Holy Branches.”

Shortly before Martin Swart died, he gave some 70 notebooks of sermons by Hoeksema to one of his sons. Included is the complete series on Romans. The son, to whom the sermon manuscripts belong, has authorized the RFPA to publish the sermons.

A Valuable Commentary on Romans

They are a treasure.

The series is a complete exposition of the book of Romans. There are 96 sermons in all. The first is on Romans 1:1-4. The series concludes with a sermon on Romans 16:25-27.

From scattered remarks in the sermons themselves and from evidence in Martin Swart’s notebooks, I have been able to date the delivery of the sermons as the late 1930s. An Old Year’s sermon that appears in one of the notebooks just before the sermon on Romans 12:2 speaks of the quick passing of the year 1938. The sermon on Romans 13:1-5 confirms the date. In the sermon on civil government, Hoeksema affirms that Hitler is the “power” in Germany and Mussolini, the “power” in Italy. In keeping with this time of the actual preaching of the sermons is the fact that there is repeated mention in the sermons of material “depression.” The United States was just coming out of the “great depression” and was just entering into World War II. The publication of God’s Eternal Good Pleasure in 1940 is in accord with this dating.

In the late 1930s, Hoeksema, who was born in 1886, was in his early 50s. He was at the height of his physical, intellectual, exegetical, homiletical, and doctrinal powers.

The sermons attest this. They are models of biblical interpretation, of homiletical arrangement of material for preaching, of Reformed doctrine served up as the spiritual food of the saints (many of them uneducated men and women), and of practical application. The Reformed minister who will make a careful study of them will find these sermons a very valuable supplement to his course in homiletics in the seminary.

Their main value in the forthcoming commentary will be their sound, penetrating exposition of the book of Romans. With all the theologians of the Reformation, Hoeksema was convinced of the special importance of Romans for the Christian faith and church. In the opening words of the last sermon in the series, he referred to Romans as “one of the richest and most beautiful parts of the Word of God.”

Whatever the commentary may lack in detailed analysis of grammar (and Hoeksema did discuss the grammar, although in a way that the factory worker with an eighth grade education—the Martin Swarts—could follow), it makes up in simple, profound explanation of the meaning of the text. The main theme, or thought, of the epistle, Hoeksema saw as righteousness by faith alone. To it, he returns again and again throughout his interpretation. Therefore, the RFPA will title the work, Righteous by Faith Only: A Devotional Commentary on Romans.

Precious Doctrines

The doctrines are precious. In his treatment of Romans 3:21, 22, Hoeksema takes up the question, whether God is righteous because He conforms to some law or other: “There is no standard by which God can be judged. God is absolute . . . . God is above all law. There is no law for God, for there is for Him no lawgiver and no judge . . . . God is His own standard and judge. He eternally passes judgment upon Himself and pronounces Himself righteous.”

Explaining the phrase, “the righteousness of God . . . is manifested,” in the same passage, Hoeksema makes an intriguing case for the eternal justification of the elect church:

This righteousness always was. By “always” I mean that it is eternal. This righteousness always was. Where? In God’s mind, that is to say, in God’s counsel . . . . It is essential that we maintain this. There is no change in God. It is not so, that in God, in God’s heart, in God’s mind, His people appear as sinners, so that God hates them and damns them. And then God changes His attitude toward them and justifies them. This is impossible.

The interpretation of “he that spared not his own Son” in Romans 8:32 is gripping. Here Hoeksema shows that he practiced what he preached about the “liberty of exegesis,” that is, that exegesis not be enslaved to dogmatical theory. Having noted in passing that the statement is of “dogmatic interest,” he goes on:

But this is not the purpose of the text. The purpose of the text is to reveal something that I tremble to say. The purpose of the text is—I say it with all reverence—to point to the tragedy of God’s own suffering, when He delivered up His Son to the cross. If the text does not mean this, it means nothing. Don’t you see that the text teaches that it cost God something to be for us? . . . The phrase is something like that which we read in Genesis, where God says to Abraham, “Offer unto Me your only son, Isaac.” . . . If Romans 8:32 does not mean that through the flesh of His Son, there was in God that which corresponds to what we feel when we nail our only son to the cross, the text means nothing. How this is I do not know.

I dare say that Hoeksema was uniquely qualified to interpret Romans. Few men are able to explain the book of Romans to the church. For there are very few expositors of the Bible who combine utter fidelity to Scripture as the inspired Word of God with unconditional submission to the sovereignty of God. How many, for example, can do justice to Romans 5:15 (“much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace”) by explaining that God’s decree of Adam’s fall is justified in that “God brings us to a glory [in Christ] that is as far above the original glory in Paradise as Christ is above Adam”?

Even Calvin stumbled, seriously, in his commentary on Romans 5:12 ff. His interpretation of the “all men” to whom justification of life comes through Christ is erroneous. With their miserable penchant for finding and resting in the errors of the orthodox teachers, the present day defenders of universal, resistible grace in the preaching gleefully appeal to this mistake in Calvin, in order to undermine Calvin’s own theology. Hoeksema gives the correct interpretation in his commentary onRomans 5:18:

The simple meaning is this: all men in the one man, and all men in the other man. Just as on the one hand the rule is, through one man condemnation upon all who are in him (and this is all men), so through one man justification of life upon all who are in Him.

Moving Expositions

The sermons are moving. They are now cold words on 60-year-old pieces of paper. They are no longer the utterance of the living voice. Lacking is the charisma of the dynamic, deep-throated speaker. And still they are moving. The meditation in this issue is proof.

We suffer for Christ’s sake, because Christ becomes manifest in our lives. And the world hates Him. This direct suffering for Christ’s sake is a suffering which, from a human point of view, can be avoided. You can avoid this suffering by covering up Christ in you. You can avoid it by becoming unfaithful. By covering up Christ in your life, you become too abominable for the devil even to trouble you. But the more Christ becomes manifest in your life, the more you will suffer.

Applying Romans 2:1 (“Thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest”), having exposed our proud tendency to play the judge in God’s courtroom by judging others, Hoeksema cries out:

Come down from the bench! Come down to the floor of the courtroom! On the floor of the courtroom is a lawyer. Man has no excuse. But for him who places himself on the floor of the courtroom, among the condemned, there is the righteousness of God. Jesus Christ is his eternal defense and apology.

The exposition of Romans 2:17-21a strips the elect, regenerated sinner of all his own righteousness as he stands in judgment before God.

When that day comes, and we shall be judged by our works, we cannot say, “I have been Christian.” For then the Lord will say, “That was a privilege, but it is not a work.” In that day, you cannot say, “I went to church and was a member.” The Lord will say, “That was a privilege, but it is not a work that can be the basis of your righteousness before Me.” You cannot say, “I was Reformed and knew the truth.” The Lord will say, “That was a privilege, but it cannot be the basis of your righteousness.” You cannot say, “I have rejected every heresy repugnant to the truth, and I have fought Arminianism and Pelagianism and all false teaching.” The Lord will say, “That was all right, but it cannot be the basis of your righteousness.”

Not even our repentance can be part of our righteousness with God. The exposition continues:

You cannot even say this: “I have repented; I have repented of my sin. Because I have repented of my sin, I expect to be justified.” For the Lord will say, “Did you? Did you always repent? ‘Patient continuance in well doing,’ did you always do that? All your life?” Then you will have to say, “No, I repented once in a while.” And our impenitence will be so great, that we will be worthy to go to hell with all our repentance.

Practical Applications

In the practical part of the epistle, chapters 12-16, Hoeksema becomes specific in his instruction and admonition, just as did the apostle. Explaining the weaker brother of Romans 14:1-3, Hoeksema describes him with contemporary illustrations. He is the “delicately construed” Reformed farmer who is “too weak to put lightning rods on (his) barn.” He is the sincere Christian who “cannot see how you can take out fire insurance and serve the Lord,” supposing that “fire insurance is a lack of faith.”

Although he does full justice to the apostle’s exhortation to the stronger brothers to receive the weaker brother, Hoeksema will not have a congregation dominated by the weaker brother.

The congregation consists of stronger brothers. The weak brother is an exception. When you have a church that is weak in this respect, it is in danger. The reason is that the conscience becomes narrower and narrower. One says, “We may not have picnics.” Another says, “We may not have banquets.” A third says, “We may not have programs.” A fourth says, “We may not go swimming.” A fifth says, “Girls may not bob their hair.” But if we have a congregation that consists of weak brothers, we have a congregation that presently does not know how to move about anymore.

But this is not the worst. The worst is that the weak brothers make “these things their religion.”

I will be practical also.

This is a book to anticipate. The RFPA is currently working on a number of other worthy volumes as well. For their book publishing, they need money. When collections are taken for book publishing in the Protestant Reformed congregations, let us give liberally. Those whose investments and business dealings are successful, in God’s providence, in our prosperous society might consider large gifts to the book publishing department of the RFPA to be a worthy investment in the kingdom of Christ. Designate the gifts for book publishing.

And read.

—DJE