John Knox & the Scottish Reformation

“God gave His Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance.”

The above words are John Knox’s simple, but perceptive commentary on the Reformation in Scotland, that great work of God in the sixteenth century. The country was shaken and aroused from its long slumber under false religion to rise up, and take her noble place amongst the nations of the world. The Church then planted in Scotland benefited from the solid foundation laid by Knox and his fellow reformers, and has enjoyed an illustrious history in subsequent years.

Our concern is, what can we learn and how can we profit from John Knox and the Scottish Reformation?

1.  Pre-Reformation Scotland

In the centuries prior to the Reformation, the people of Scotland were bound in darkness and superstition. The Roman Catholic Church exerted great influence in the nation, and the corrupt clergy preyed upon the people, unable and unwilling to point them to the way of salvation. The clergy were morally bankrupt, unclean in life and conduct, ignorant of Scripture truth, and for the most part almost illiterate.

The Church of Rome dominated the nations of Europe, including Scotland, in the realms of both church and state, because the pope claimed not only to be head over the church, but also the supreme governor of the nations. In the fourteenth century the Bishop of Rome was called ‘Our Lord God the Pope’, a description foretold by Paul: “that man of sin. . . the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God” (2 Thes 2:3,4). Princes and Kings were careful not to offend the pontiff, lest their temporal power would be endangered.

Religiously, the Scottish people were in ignorance; the Scriptures were hidden in a dead language, and the gospel was obscured under superstitious ceremonies. The people were taught to pray to departed saints, and indulgences were sold in order to deliver souls from purgatory.

Anyone who spoke against the Roman Catholic Church or its clergy was in peril of persecution. Thomas M’Crie informs us that, “Such were the power and the vigilance exercised by the clergy, that it was not safe to utter a word against them, even in one’s sleep. It is recorded as a fact, that one man, a precentor or chanter as he was called, was actually apprehended, and had he not recanted, would have suffered death, merely because he was overheard saying in his sleep one night, ‘The deevil tak the priests, for they are a greedy pack!’ ”

The Lollards, John Wyckliffe’s Bible Men, ventured north into Scotland from England, and began working in places such as Ayrshire and Fife. They carried Wyckliffe’s translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English, and preached the message of gospel truth to their hearers. Early martyrs included James Resby and Paul Craw, both of whom were burned in the fifteenth century. William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament reached Scotland and, although outlawed, it was secretly read by groups of believers.

News of the Reformation beginning on the Continent started to filter back to Scotland. Merchants travelling abroad, and students studying in European universities began to hear of the teaching of Luther, and returned to Scotland with gospel light. An act of parliament prohibiting the importing of Luther’s books was passed in 1525.

Patrick Hamilton

A young nobleman called Patrick Hamilton, born in 1504, studied in Paris and was influenced by the reformed teaching. He travelled to Wittenberg and became firmly persuaded of Luther’s views on justification and other important doctrines. On returning to Scotland he began to preach the truth, and saw some of his hearers converted.

Early in 1528 Hamilton was invited to St Andrews under false pretences by Archbishop James Beaton, and was allowed to speak openly for a short time. Once there was enough evidence against him, he was apprehended and put on trial before Beaton in St Andrews cathedral. Hamilton was condemned as a heretic, and burned at the stake that very day. The fire did not kindle well and Hamilton, left severely scorched, was left waiting while a new supply of powder was brought from the castle. His last words were, “How long, Oh Lord, shall darkness oppress this realm? How long wilt Thou suffer this tyranny of men? Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

This prayer of Patrick Hamilton was not long unanswered. He was the first of a succession of Reformers which God raised up to awaken the land. The common people were greatly offended by such cruel punishment of a gracious youth of only twenty four years, and it was said that “the reek [smoke] of Mr Patrick Hamilton has infected as many as it did blow upon”.

Other Martyrs

Although he was irreligious, David Stratton of Angus was affronted by the manners and covetousness of the clergy. The Bishop demanded a tithe of the fish caught in Stratton’s boats, and so he ordered his servants to throw every tenth fish they caught back into the sea. Stratton proceeded to tell the Bishop that “if he wanted his tithe, he might come and receive it where he got the stock.”

He was accused of heresy, even though he was ignorant of religious doctrine. Stratton sought out men who were able to read the New Testament to him and who instructed him in the gospel. When he was brought to trial, he courageously defended his views and refused to deny the Lord or His truth, resulting in his execution near Edinburgh.

Jerome Russell and the eighteen year old Alexander Kennedy were condemned to be burnt at the stake for their faith. Robert Lamb was hanged for disrupting a friar teaching that praying to the saints was necessary for salvation, and his wife was drowned in a sack for refusing to pray to the Virgin Mary.

George Wishart

The next of the early Reformers was George Wishart, a zealous preacher used by the Lord in the conversion of many. He was to be questioned about teaching the Greek New Testament to his students, and so he fled to England, and then Switzerland where he translated the First Helvetic Confession into English. Upon returning to Scotland, he was used of God in the proclamation of the Gospel in Montrose, Dundee, and Ayr.

When Dundee was visited with the plague in 1544, Wishart hurried back to the town to minister the Word of God saying, “They are now in trouble, and need comfort, and perchance the hand of God will make them now to magnify and reverence that Word which before, for fear of men, they had set at light price.” The Lord raised up their hearts, as Wishart preached from the text, “He sent his word, and healed them” (Psalm 107:20). God’s Word did not return to Him void, but accomplished the purpose for which He sent it, and prospered in that which He intended. Many received peace with God before they succumbed to the full effect of the plague and God took them to Himself.

Wishart’s life became greatly endangered from the Roman Church and her persecuting practices. Once, as he descended from a pulpit in Dundee, he was nearly stabbed by a priest sent by Cardinal David Beaton (the nephew of James Beaton, who had put Hamilton to death). When he was ministering at Montrose, Wishart received a letter, allegedly coming from a friend who lay seriously ill, requesting a visit from the reformer. Wishart set out with a number of friends, but had not travelled far before he stopped short and declared, “I am forbidden of God to go this journey”. He pointed to a small hill and said, “Will some of you be pleased to ride to yonder place, and see what you find, for I apprehend there is a plot laid against my life.” When they reached the hill they found a group of about sixty men on horseback, lying in wait to ambush him.

Knowing that his days were soon to end, Wishart sought to encourage his followers, telling them words which ultimately came to pass,

“God will send you comfort after me. This realm shall be illuminated with the light of Christ’s gospel, as clearly as any realm ever was since the days of the apostles; the house of God shall be built in it; yea, it shall not lack (whatsoever enemies shall devise to the contrary) the very copestone. Neither shall this be long in doing; for there shall not many suffer after me.”

Among Wishart’s followers was a young man by the name of John Knox, who escorted him with a large two-handed sword because of the threat to his life. Wishart was eventually betrayed into the hands of Cardinal Beaton by the Earl of Bothwell, disregarding a pledge of personal safety which he had given. John Knox desired to accompany him but Wishart refused, desiring him to return to his pupils saying, “God bless you; one is sufficient for a sacrifice.” The venerable and tender-hearted George Wishart was tried, condemned to death, and burned at the stake at St Andrews on the 1st of March, 1546, with Cardinal Beaton looking on from the castle tower.

Three months later, a group of desperate men broke into the castle at St Andrews, and murdered Cardinal Beaton himself. We may denounce the deed by the agency of men, but trace the hand of Providence in arresting the persecuting course of this cruel man. Protestants being harassed after Beaton’s death, the castle was secured as a Protestant enclave, and eventually John Knox sought refuge there.

2.  John Knox

Born near Haddington in East Lothian, John Knox was ordained as a priest of the Roman Catholic Church, but was eventually converted and embraced the Reformed religion. As noted, he was a loyal supporter of George Wishart, and was influenced by Wishart towards the Swiss Reformed view, rather than the Lutheran views of Hamilton, which had an important influence on the subsequent course of the Reformation in Scotland.

Some time after Cardinal Beaton’s assassination, Knox went to St Andrews and joined the group sheltering in the castle. He kept himself busy tutoring his pupils, but others began to join his classes, profiting from his teaching. Knox was encouraged to take up the work of the ministry, but he declined, fearing “lest he should run where God had not called him.”

One day during a church service, the preacher publicly called upon Knox from the pulpit; urging him, on behalf of the congregation, to take up the work of preaching. Knox fled the service in tears and retired to his room, but eventually came to the view that the call was from God. He therefore gave himself to the ministry of the Word, using great plainness of speech. His first sermon was an attack upon Popery, and it was said that while “others lopped the branches of the Papistry; he striketh at the root also, to destroy the whole.”

“Yes, I know it well, for I see the steeple of that place where God first in public opened my mouth to His glory; and I am fully persuaded, how weak soever I now appear, that I shall not depart this life till my tongue shall glorify His name in the same place.”

John Knox

In July 1547, French war ships arrived to besiege St Andrews and eventually the castle occupants were forced to surrender, having been given false assurances of safety. Knox was made a galley slave in the French fleet, and suffered greatly for a year and a half in these circumstances. At one point, John Knox became very ill, and was thought to be not far from death. Unknown to him, the galley ship drew near to St Andrews once more, and Knox was raised up by his fellows to look toward the shore. They asked him if he recognised the place, and apparently strengthened somewhat, Knox prophetically declared:

“Yes, I know it well, for I see the steeple of that place where God first in public opened my mouth to His glory; and I am fully persuaded, how weak soever I now appear, that I shall not depart this life till my tongue shall glorify His name in the same place.”

England

Knox was eventually released in 1549, and he began preaching in England. He exercised a powerful ministry here, a notable occasion being when the Second Book of Common Prayer was being printed in London in 1552. Knox spoke against the Prayer Book because it contained relics from prior days which had not been reformed, such as kneeling before the bread and wine at the Lord’s table, which he considered to be idolatry. His authority was such that the book was recalled from the printers, until the matter could be reviewed and altered. The outcome was the insertion of the Black Rubric, which stated that on no account should the act of kneeling be misconstrued to signify adoration of the sacramental elements, which remained bread and wine in their natural substances, whereas the natural body and blood of our Saviour are in heaven and not on earth.

During his time in England, Knox refused a Bishopric offered to him, because he did not believe that the office was scriptural, and also refused a living in London on the grounds that he would not be able to exercise biblical discipline, which he considered essential to an effective ministry. Knox must have been uncomfortable with the character of the Church of England, and he believed that Thomas Cramner was willing to concede too much to the Papist traditions of the past.

Once, when defending himself before a Council in England, Knox called out,

“O God Eternal! hast thou laid none other burden upon our backs than Jesus Christ laid by His Word? Then who hath burdened us with all these ceremonies, prescribed fasting, compelled chastity, unlawful vows, invocations of saints, with the idolatry of the Mass? The Devil, the Devil, brethren, invented all these burdens to depress imprudent men to perdition. . .”

Geneva

In 1553, the young and pious king Edward VI died, and Mary Tudor came to the throne and persecuted the reformed cause, burning nearly 300 faithful believers. Knox fled to Europe, spending a brief time in Frankfurt, before settling in Geneva. Here he ministered to a group of slightly more than one hundred exiles from England who had sought shelter in Calvin’s city. This congregation was organised along more reformed principles than the Church of England, and it was they who prepared the famous Geneva Bible of 1560. Many of this congregation returned to England after the death of ‘Bloody’ Mary, and the accession of Elizabeth to the throne.

Knox was more content in Geneva than in England, but he still longed to see the gospel having free course in Scotland. He wrote, “I feel a sob and a groan, willing that Christ Jesus might openly be preached in my native country, although it should be with the loss of my wretched life.” After several years in Geneva, he made a brief visit to Scotland and saw an evident hunger for the Word of God. People were willing to assemble to hear the Word, even under threat of persecution, and Knox was greatly encouraged, although he did not think that it was the right time for him to return permanently.

Before he returned to Geneva, Knox exhorted the people of God to prayer; to the reading of scripture; to mutual conference; until such time as God would give them greater liberty. In 1556, he wrote a letter of ‘wholesome counsel’ from Geneva to his brethren in Scotland. He exhorted his readers to be exercised frequently in the Word, for,

“as it is the foundation of faith, without the which, no man understandeth the good will of God - so is it also the only organ and instrument which God useth to strengthen the weak, to comfort the afflicted, to reduce to mercy by repentance such as have slidden; and finally, to preserve and keep the very life of the soul, in all assaults and temptations.”

3.  The Work of Reformation in Scotland

The Spring of 1559 saw Knox finally leave Geneva, and return to his native land. He arrived when the Roman Bishops and Priests were meeting in Edinburgh to discuss church policy at their provincial council. When they heard that Knox had entered the city, they drew their meeting to a close and quickly departed. Before Knox had arrived in Scotland, four of the Protestant preachers - Paul Methven, John Christison, William Harlow, and John Willock - had been summoned to appear in Stirling on 10 May 1559 under threat of banishment from the country. John Knox arrived in Scotland a week before the trial was due, and although he was proclaimed an outlaw and rebel, he voluntarily determined to present himself in Stirling with the other ministers. Knox travelled via Dundee to Perth, where he preached against the idolatry of the Mass and the worship of images. After the service had been dismissed, a mob from what Knox called ‘the rascal multitude’ pulled down the church altar, images, and ornaments, and burned down some monasteries. Knox and the other ministers were unable to stop this unexpected tumult, and the Queen blamed the whole event on the Protestants and gladly used this as a pretext to oppose them more aggressively.

Knox’s Preaching

“. . . my life is in the custody of Him whose glory I seek; and therefore I cannot so fear their boast nor tyranny, that I will cease from doing my duty when God of his mercy offereth the occasion. . .”

John Knox

Knox preached through Fife in Anstruther and Crail, travelling towards St Andrews, where he had arranged a meeting with the Earl of Argyle and Lord James Stewart early in the month of June. The Archbishop of St Andrews threatened Knox that he would be shot on sight if he entered the cathedral: “he should gar him be saluted with a dozen of culverings, whereof the most part should land on his nose.” This threat from the Archbishop, together with the presence of the queen and her French troops only twelve miles away, led Knox’s supporters to counsel him against preaching in St Andrews. The valiant reformer, however, remained undeterred and replied to his advisors,

“I beseech your honours not to stop me to present myself unto my brethren. And as to the fear of danger that may come to me, let no man be solicitous; for my life is in the custody of Him whose glory I seek; and therefore I cannot so fear their boast nor tyranny, that I will cease from doing my duty when God of his mercy offereth the occasion. I desire the hand nor weapon of no man to defend me; only I crave audience.”

The next day being the Sabbath, Knox entered the pulpit and preached before a numerous congregation without any interruption. His subject was Christ’s cleansing of the temple, ejecting the buyers and sellers, and overthrowing the tables of the money changers, saying “Take these things hence. . .” Knox took the opportunity to expose and denounce the various corruptions which the Papacy had introduced and to point out the way of reform. He preached on four successive days with such effect that the Provost and citizens of St Andrews agreed to set up reformed worship in the town, and a number of priests confessed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Evidently, Knox was a powerful preacher of God’s Word, who did not fear what men should do to him; and being unshackled from the fear of man, he was free to boldly declare scriptural truth in the fear of God, wisely applying it to the situation which he faced. The English ambassador named Thomas Randolph said, “I assure you, the voice of that one man is able in one hour to put more life into us, than five hundred trumpets continually blustering in our ears!” Knox blew the gospel trumpet with no uncertain sound, and his rallying calls were used by God to great effect in the Reformation of Scotland.

The Word of God began to triumph in the hearts and lives of many hearers, and the Reformed cause made swift progress in the land. Knox had written to Calvin about several matters, including the administration of baptism in certain cases. In Calvin’s reply he stated, “we are astonished at such incredible progress in so brief a space of time, so we likewise give thanks to God whose singular blessing is signally displayed herein.”

There was a setback in November of 1559, when the Queen regent sent her army from Leith to Edinburgh to attack the Protestants, killing several of them. The Protestants fled from the city to shelter in Stirling, and Knox followed after them to revive their flagging hearts. He resumed preaching from the very passage in Psalm 80 from which he had preached in Edinburgh the previous Lord’s Day, and roused his hearers with words such as,

“Yea, whatsoever shall become of us and of our mortal carcases, I doubt not but this cause, in despite of Satan, shall prevail in the realm of Scotland. For, as it is the eternal truth of the eternal God, so shall it once, and for all, prevail, howsoever for a time it may be impugned!”

John Knox

“Yea, whatsoever shall become of us and of our mortal carcases, I doubt not but this cause, in despite of Satan, shall prevail in the realm of Scotland. For, as it is the eternal truth of the eternal God, so shall it once, and for all, prevail, howsoever for a time it may be impugned!”

The Protestants again rallied to the cause, and the work continued to grow apace.

The Scots Confession

By August 1560, the French forces had been expelled from Scotland through aid sent from England, and the queen-regent had died, allowing a free Scottish Parliament to assemble and formally abolish Popery. The reformed ministers requested the Parliament to secure the profession of the Protestant religion which had been made by the people, and the Parliament in turn asked the ministers to present a summary of their doctrine, which could be proved agreeable to Scripture. Within only four days, the ministers known as the ‘Six Johns’ - John Knox, John Spottiswood, John Willock, John Row, John Douglas, and John Winram - drew up a document known to us as the Scots’ Confession of 1560, which they laid before Parliament. The Confession was examined, ratified and approved; and it is said that after it was read over before the Parliament, which included several Lords and Bishops known to disapprove of the Reformation, only three of the noblemen voted against it, saying “We will believe as our forefatheris belevit”.

The Scots Confession is remarkably comprehensive, considering how quickly it was formulated; and the desire of its framers to be thoroughly biblical in all they did is expressed in their preface, where they request,

“If any man will note in this our Confession any article or sentence repugnant to God’s Holy Word, that it would please him of his gentleness, and for Christian charity’s sake, to admonish us of the same in writing; and we, upon our honour and fidelity, do promise him satisfaction from the Holy Scriptures, or due reformation of that which he shall prove to be amiss.”

The historian John Row said of the Scottish Reformers, “They took not their pattern from any Kirk in the world; no, not from Geneva itself; but laying God’s Word before them, they made reformation according thereunto, both in doctrine first, and then in discipline.”

The Scots Confession held its place for almost a century, until it was replaced by the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1647, and this was in the understanding that the latter was in no way contrary to the former. The 1560 Confession may be shorter, and its language less technical than that of the Westminster; but being written so quickly, and in such circumstances, it is filled with vigour and force; and we suggest that it ought not to be neglected, but still read with profit.

The First Book of Discipline

The authors of the Confession then compiled the First Book of Discipline, also requested by the Parliament. The preface asserts that all rules and regulations of the Church must be according to Scripture, stating:

“Nothing must be admitted which God’s plain Word does not approve, and nothing must be rejected that God’s word specifies. There must be no man-pleasing, but all must be according to the Word.”

The First Book of Discipline dealt with Doctrine, the Sacraments, Ministers and their election, Financial Arrangements, Schools and Universities, Church Discipline, and Church Policy. The offices of Pastors and Teachers, Elders and Deacons were appointed, as well as the temporary offices of Superintendents and Readers, introduced because of the great lack of reformed ministers in the land. It dealt with the practical issues of the Reformation in Church, home, and the State.

Included in the First Book of Discipline are such statements as:

“Christ’s Gospel must be truly and openly preached. . . and all doctrine repugnant to it must be utterly repressed, as damnable to man’s salvation”;
“The practice of the Lord Jesus and His apostles must be kept”;
“In a reformed church none ought to preach or minister the sacraments until that orderly they are called to the same”;
“Ministers must be supported, also their wives and children after their decease”;
“God does not illuminate men miraculously, but youth must be given a godly education”;
“A Commonwealth needs good laws and sharp executions of the same; so too does the Church of God”.

And it declared the essential ordinances of the Church to be:

“. . . preaching and prayers, the administration of the sacraments, and the correcting and punishing of offences. Without these there is no sign of a visible church.”

The General Assembly

The first meeting of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was held in Edinburgh in December 1560, and was composed of forty members, only six of whom were ministers because there were so few at this time. In these early Assemblies, there was some dispute about whether it was appropriate for them to meet without royal authority, but Knox asserted, “Take from us the freedom of Assemblies, and take from us the evangel; for without Assemblies how shall good order and unity in doctrine be kept?” The queen was informed that if she had any suspicions she was free to appoint someone to hear their proceedings; but it will be seen that at this early stage, the Scottish Church held vigorously to the sole Headship of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the ‘Crown Rights of the Redeemer’.

This may be noted in the words of the 1560 Scots Confession, which states:

“. . . our Head and only Mediator, Christ Jesus: whom we confess and avow to be the promised Messiah, the only Head of His Kirk, our just Lawgiver, our only High Priest, Advocate, and Mediator. To which honours and offices, if man or angel presume to intrude themselves, we utterly detest and abhor them, as blasphemous to our sovereign and supreme Governor, Christ Jesus.” [Chapter 11: The Ascension]

Knox had previously been influenced by George Wishart towards the Swiss Reformed view of church order, rather than the Lutheran position, and he had vigorously contended for Scriptural reforms during his time in England. He was further confirmed in this position during his years in Calvin’s Geneva, which he described as “the most perfect school of Christ since the apostles’ days”. Knox therefore worked to reform the Scottish Church according to the rule that nothing was to be introduced into the church, except what had divine warrant from the Word of God. This was the great principle which regulated the Reformation in Scotland, and is the reason for the significant difference between the Scottish Church and the Church of England, which held to the view that the church could introduce anything, so long as it was not forbidden by Scripture.

On examining these two views, it can easily be seen that there is a great difference between them, because there are many things which, although they may not be specifically forbidden by God’s Word, neither do they have express Scriptural warrant. This difference in Principle, leads to a great difference in Practice. Many customs have been introduced into the Church of England, and other churches which hold to this view, which the Reformed Church in Scotland would not allow on the grounds that these practices are not commanded in the Word of God. This is the reason why the Puritans objected to various practices in the Church of England, such as the wearing of surplices, the requirement of wedding rings, baptising with the sign of the cross, and kneeling at Holy Communion. The English Puritans worked towards further reform in the Church, but ultimately this was not achieved, and the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 led to over 2000 godly ministers being ejected from their churches in 1662 because they refused to conform to the Act of Uniformity. This is the origin of the terms “Non-Conformist” and “Dissenter”.

Mary Queen of Scots

In 1561, Mary Queen of Scots arrived in Scotland from France, and immediately issued an order to celebrate Mass in her private chapel. On hearing that Mary’s relatives and attendants threatened to return to France, rather than live in a land where Mass could not be said, John Knox stated “Would that they, together with the Mass, had taken goodnight of this realm forever.” He denounced the Mass from the pulpit, concluding his sermon with the words that “one Mass is more fearful to me, than if ten thousand armed enemies were landed in any part of the realm.”

Knox well understood that this would only be the first step in a counter-reformation, designed to overthrow the work which had been achieved so far. His words were reported to Mary, and he was summoned to appear before her in conference. Mary accused Knox, saying,

“You have taught the people to receive another religion than that which their princes allow; but God commands subjects to obey their prince. Therefore you have taught the people to disobey both God and their prince.”

“Madam,” Knox calmly replied, “as right religion receive not its origin nor authority from princes but from the eternal God alone, so are not subjects bound to frame their religion according to the tastes of their princes, for oft it is that princes are the most ignorant of God’s true religion. . .”

“Well then,”, she said, “I clearly perceive that my subjects shall obey you, and not me; and shall do what they list and not what I command; and so must I be subject to them and not they to me.”

“God forbid,” answered Knox, “that ever I take upon me to command any to obey me or to set subjects at liberty to do whatever pleases them. . . My travail is that both princes and subjects may obey God. And think not, Madam, that wrong is done you when you are required to be subject unto God, for He it is who subjects peoples under princes, and causes obedience to be given unto them. . .”

“Yea,” replied the queen, “but ye are not the Kirk that I will nourish. I will defend the Kirk of Rome; for it is, I think, the true Kirk of God.”

“Your will, Madam, is no reason; neither doth it make that Roman harlot to be the true and immaculate spouse of Jesus Christ. . .”

“My conscience is not so,” said Mary.

“Conscience, Madam,” said Knox, “requires knowledge, and I fear that right knowledge, ye have none.”

“The Word of God is plain in itself; and if there appears any obscurity in one place, the Holy Ghost, who is never contrary to himself, explains the same more clearly in other places, so that there can remain no doubt, but unto such as are obstinately ignorant.”

John Knox

Mary asked Knox who she should believe, seeing that he interpreted Scripture in one way, and her Roman advisors in another. “Whom shall I believe? and who shall be judge?”

“You shall believe God, who plainly speaketh in His Word. And further than the Word teacheth you, ye shall believe neither the one nor the other. The Word of God is plain in itself; and if there appears any obscurity in one place, the Holy Ghost, who is never contrary to himself, explains the same more clearly in other places, so that there can remain no doubt, but unto such as are obstinately ignorant.”

It should be noted that Knox took this resolute stand against the Queen at a time when many of his friends were beginning to show signs of wavering. Mary’s designs towards celebrating the mass in a more public and pompous manner could have been a great setback in the cause of the Reformation. The principles which Knox enounced have been the founding cause of many of Britain’s civil and religious liberties; something for which he is seldom credited today. The Scottish Covenanting struggle of a century later could be said to have inevitably resulted from a people established in Knox’s principles, oppressed under a despotic ruler who was intent on curbing their religious liberties, and assailing the authority of Jesus Christ, as the sole Head of the Church.

The Work Ascribed to God

John Knox had arrived in Scotland in June 1559 and barely more than twelve months later, in August 1560, the Reformation was established in Scotland. Knox ascribed the glory for the work to God only, writing:

“Gentle reader, thou may clearly see how potently God hath performed in these last and wicked days, as well as in the ages that have passed before us, the promises that are made to the servants of God, by the prophet Isaiah, in these words: ‘They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall lift up the wings as the eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.’ This promise, we say, such as Satan hath not utterly blinded may see performed in us, the professors of Jesus Christ within this realm of Scotland. For what was our force? What was our number?”

Knox hereby acknowledged his own weakness, and the grace of God that wrought in him and the other reformers in Scotland, by which the work was brought to pass.

Knox’s Later Years

Knox continued the work of reformation for a decade, enduring many threats against his life. During a time of difficulty in 1565, Knox encouraged his fellow-ministers with these words:

“God hath honoured us so, that men have judged us the messengers of the Everlasting. By us hath He disclosed idolatry, by us are the wicked of the world rebuked, and by us hath our God comforted the consciences of many. . . And shall we for poverty leave the flock of Jesus Christ before that it utterly refuse us? . . . The price of Jesus Christ, His death and passion, is committed to our charge, the eyes of men are bent upon us, and we must answer before that Judge. . . He hath nourished us in the time of blindness and of impiety; and will He now despise us, when we call upon Him, and preach the glorious Gospel of His dear Son our Lord Jesus?”

From 1571 Knox spoke of being “weary of the world”, and “thirsting to depart”. He was forced to retire for a time to St Andrews, and the students there no doubt enjoyed his presence. James Melville wrote in his diary:

. . . he was “lifted up into the pulpit, where he behoved to lean at his first entry, but before he had done with his sermon, he was so active and vigorous, that he was like to ding that pulpit in blads and fly out of it.”

James Melville

“Of all the benefits I had that year, was the coming among us of that most notable prophet and apostle of our nation, Mr John Knox, to St Andrews. I heard him teach there the prophecies of Daniel. . . In the opening up of his text he was moderate, the space of a half-hour; but when he entered to application, he made me so to grow and tremble, that I could not hold a pen to write. . . Mr Knox would sometime come in and repose himself in our college-yard, and call us scholars to him and bless us, and exhort us to know God and His work in our country, and stand by the good cause.”

Melville described how the now feeble reformer would be helped from the Abbey to the church by his servant, and had to be,

“lifted up into the pulpit, where he behoved to lean at his first entry, but before he had done with his sermon, he was so active and vigorous, that he was like to ding that pulpit in blads and fly out of it.”

Knox returned to Edinburgh; and a short time before he died he experienced obvious distress, of which he said:

“I have indeed formerly sustained many contests in this frail life, and many assaults from Satan; but at this time that roaring lion hath most furiously attacked me and put forth all his strength, that he might devour and make an end of me at once. Often before hath he placed my sins before my eyes; often tempted me to despair; often endeavoured to entangle me with the allurements of the world; but these weapons, being broken by the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, he could accomplish nothing. But now he has attacked me in another way; for the cunning serpent has endeavoured to persuade me that I have merited heaven itself, and a blessed immortality by the faithful discharge of the ministerial office committed to me. But, blessed be God, who suggested to me those passages of Scripture by which I was able to grapple with him, and extinguish this fiery dart; among which were these: ‘What hast thou that thou hast not received?’; and, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am’; and, ‘Not I, but the grace of God in me.’ And thus vanquished, he went away; wherefore I give thanks to my God by Jesus Christ, who was pleased to grant me the victory.”

A little while after, he commended himself to God; and gave a deep sigh, saying, “Now, it is come”, and expired without a struggle. John Knox died on 24th November, 1572; and at his burial, the Regent said, “There lies he who never feared nor flattered flesh.”

4.  Lessons For Today

Our concern in this paper is not merely historical, but we need to face up to the question: what can we learn and how can we profit from John Knox and the Scottish Reformation?

John Knox was a man sent by God, who was suited to the needs and circumstances of his day, and fitted to be most useful for his Lord’s purposes in the reformation of the Church in Scotland. Our situation is different in many respects, but the work of God remains essentially the same in all ages and generations. Human sinfulness and rebellion against God have not changed; the Devil still rages as a roaring lion; and the weapons of our warfare are ever the same as those which Knox took up in the great work of Reformation. The sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, endures forever, and must be brandished against the enemies of Christ’s kingdom in the confidence that the gates of hell shall not prevail.

The Priority of the Word of God

The first lesson that we must learn from the ministry of John Knox is the priority of the Word of God in the work of reformation in the church. The nation of Scotland was prepared for the Reformation by the instrumentality of Scripture. The preaching of the Word by Lollards; Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament; and private meetings for reading the Bible with words of interpretation all had an effect upon the people; so that when Knox visited Scotland in late 1555, he noticed such hunger for the Word of God, that he knew the harvest time was fast approaching. He saw the power of the Word working, even when there were no other instruments at hand.

The Reformation was not the result of radical extremism, but was the fruit of the powerful preaching of Scripture truth, with close application to the needs of the day. Knox’s chief work was that of preaching the Word, and he excelled in bringing the false Roman doctrines to the test of Scripture.

John Knox rejected the Roman Catholic teaching that only the Church can interpret Scripture. He taught that the Word of God was clear and plain, and that Scripture was its own best interpreter.

The Regulative Principle

The principle on which the Scottish Church was reformed is known to us as the Regulative Principle, which states that nothing should be introduced into the worship of God, except what God has required of us in His Word. Knox held to this principle from the time that he first began to preach the Word of God, and he applied it to whatever situation he found himself in.

“Man may neither make nor devise a religion that is acceptable to God, but man is bound to observe and keep the religion that from God is received, without chopping or changing thereof.”

John Knox

In Knox’s early days at St Andrews, he rejected the Papistry, the mass, purgatory, prayers for or to the dead, and other Roman teachings, because “Man may neither make nor devise a religion that is acceptable to God, but man is bound to observe and keep the religion that from God is received, without chopping or changing thereof.”

When Knox was in England, and the Privy Council expressed regret that he could not accept the common order, he expressed his own regret that the common order was contrary to Christ’s institution. During his short time in Frankfurt, he saw the discord that could arise under a Liturgy imposing practices and ceremonies without Scriptural authority.

Geneva was the first place he was able to minister in a congregation which was expressly regulated by Scripture, and this was to his liking.

Knox’s work in Scotland from was marked by this principle, and it has strongly influenced the Church in Scotland since that time, although the situation is vastly different today. Historically, the Scottish Church has made use of the unaccompanied Psalms in public worship, and the defections from that which we see today are in no small amount due to the relaxing of the application of the Regulative Principle, and the amending of God’s praise to suit the tastes of men.

This principle, which is also found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, is the foundation for any true work of reformation in the church, because without it, anything which we aim to reform is only done according to our own wisdom, and therefore cannot be pleasing to God, who is jealous for His own worship, and the standards of His truth.

Faithful Discipline

Something which is often lacking today, or else used in an overbearing way, is the faithful administration of biblical discipline. The 1560 Confession regarded discipline as one of the marks of the true church, and the practice of the Scottish Reformation Church was laid out in the First Book of Discipline.

Elders and ministers were to be responsible for the exercise of church discipline. Those who sinned were to be rebuked, and their privileges taken away; the penitent was to be comforted with the promises of God; and in token of their willingness to receive him back into the flock, the elders were to,

“take the penitent by the hand; and one or two, in the name of the rest, shall kiss and embrace him with reverence and gravity, as a member of Jesus Christ. For the Kirk ought to be no more severe than God declares himself to be; who witnesses that in whatsoever hour a sinner unfeignedly repents, and turns from his wicked way, that He will not remember one of his iniquities.”

The ultimate aim of such discipline was repentance and restoration of the sinner; and the glory of Jesus Christ as Head of the Church. There is a need today for a return to such faithful discipline in the church for without it, the authority of Jesus Christ is being ignored, and we are in disobedience to His charge to teach them “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you”. But such discipline must be tempered with the mercy of God, and a concern for recovery and restoration.

A Bold Stand for Truth

John Knox was a man who, in the service of his Lord, never feared the face of man. He faithfully declared the truth of God, without regard to the consequences for himself.

On one occasion when he was debating with Mary Queen of Scots in her residence, Knox was stopped short by the Queen’s Secretary, saying “You forget yourself; you are not now in your pulpit!” The reformer replied, “I am in the place where duty requires me to speak the truth, deny it who will.”

This is often missing in our day, when people are fearful that they might offend those who differ from them. Knox shows the importance of a clear & bold declaration of Scriptural truth; not giving unnecessary offence; but being determined for the truth to prevail, come what may.

Godly Education

John Knox was not only concerned for the immediate work of the church, but saw the need for the godly education of the youth of the nation, for the civil good of future society - because to a greater or lesser degree, the Church influences society, and society influences the Church. His advice in this matter ought to be heard and pondered again in our day:

“Seeing that God hath determined that His Kirk here on earth shall be taught not by angels but by men, and seeing that men are born ignorant of God and of all godliness, and seeing also He ceases to illuminate men miraculously, suddenly changing them as He did the apostles and others in the primitive Kirk; of necessity it is that your honours be most careful for the virtuous education and godly upbringing of the youth of this realm, if either ye now thirst unfeignedly the advancement of Christ’s glory, or yet desire the continuance of His benefits to the generation following.”

How this is to be practically worked out in our secular society is a matter of no small difficulty; but we should, each in our own place, consider what we are to do and how we are to train up our youth in the way they should go.

Encouragement of the Saints

Another lesson is that of Knox’s ministry of encouragement of the saints in times of trouble. He was not only a preacher and organiser, but an encourager of the people of God. During a time of difficulty in 1565, Knox encouraged his fellow-ministers with these words,

“God hath honoured us so, that men have judged us the messengers of the Everlasting. By us hath He disclosed idolatry, by us are the wicked of the world rebuked, and by us hath our God comforted the consciences of many. . . And shall we for poverty leave the flock of Jesus Christ before that it utterly refuse us? . . . The price of Jesus Christ, His death and passion, is committed to our charge, the eyes of men are bent upon us, and we must answer before that Judge. . . He hath nourished us in the time of blindness and of impiety; and will He now despise us, when we call upon Him, and preach the glorious Gospel of His dear Son our Lord Jesus?”

In a letter to his mother-in-law when he fled England for the Continent, Knox wrote:

“. . . albeit we be dejected even to the ground, yet with Jacob, let us hold fast the angel, that is, the promises of our God; and no doubt, benediction shall follow in the spring of the morning, that is, after the cloudy storms of these dolorous nights.”

John Knox

“Let us not despair, albeit all the strength not only within us, but also appearing in others, vanish and forsake us. Remember, sister, that God never brought any excellent work to pass till first man’s judgement was despaired thereof; and this His Majesty does, to notify His power to the sons of men. Abel cried not for vengeance upon Cain the murderer till first his blood was cruelly shed; Joseph obtained not dominion and power till first he suffered great trouble and imprisonment . . . ; Moses was not received in protection of Pharaoh’s daughter, till first he was exposed to the danger of the flood. And finally, Jesus Christ, our champion and head, did not obtain victory above all His enemies, so that after they might not trouble nor molest Him any more, till first He suffered the vile death of the cross.

“And so, sister, albeit we be dejected even to the ground, yet with Jacob, let us hold fast the angel, that is, the promises of our God; and no doubt, benediction shall follow in the spring of the morning, that is, after the cloudy storms of these dolorous [sorrowful] nights.”

This is a ministry for all Christians, in which they can serve God and strengthen the hearts of His people.

Dependence on the Holy Spirit

In the final analysis, the Scottish Reformation did not come about through of the greatness of any man, although we respect great men. The moving force of that notable work of God was the agency of the Holy Spirit: His power at work in the souls of men.

We have seen that God prepared the hearts of the people, in giving them a hunger for His Word; and John Knox himself ascribed the Reformation to God’s power at work in weak vessels. He summed up the reason for such a thorough reformation within so short a space of time in these words:

“God gave His Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance.”

And it is this same dependence on the Holy Spirit which we must exercise, if we would see a halt to the decline in the Church, and a reviving of God’s cause in our own day.

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the LORD of hosts”
(Zech 4:6).

“John Knox and the Scottish Reformation” was written for Reformation Scotland by Scott Melhuish.

OTHER ARTICLES ABOUT JOHN KNOX

God’s Gift to Scotland in John Knox and the Reformation - James Begg

John Knox - in Scots Worthies by John Howie

Lessons From John Knox - Rev David P Murray

ARTICLES BY JOHN KNOX

A Comfortable Epistle sent To the Afflicted Church of Christ

A Most Wholesome Counsel to his brethren in Scotland

A Treatise on Prayer unto the small and dispersed flock of Jesus Christ