Lessons From John Knox - Rev David P Murray
12 Feb 2001
It was Carlyle, who said of John Knox, “He is the one Scotsman to whom the whole world owes a debt.”
I’m sure John Knox would probably not be very happy to be the subject of a lecture four hundred years after his death. He of all men, stood very firmly against all kinds of idolatry, and would be appalled to think that hundreds of years after his death, men and women would gather to worship him. We are not here to do that this evening. But as heroes of the faith, as we read in Hebrews 11, are brought before us to lead us, to learn lessons from their lives and their own faith in Christ; so we are warranted, I believe, to examine the lives of the saints throughout the whole of Church History, and seek to learn the lessons that their lives can teach us.
This evening I’d like to do this in two parts. Firstly and briefly, a quick historical look at Knox’s life. And then, secondly, to look at the lessons from his life.
1. John Knox’s Life
Nobody is quite sure when John Knox was born, but sometime in the early 1500’s, it is reckoned. The Scotland of that day was a land of great ignorance, not just of religious things, but of all things. We were a largely uneducated nation, ignorant of the Scriptures and of the power of God, especially. And therefore, a very superstitious nation. And of course, along with ignorance and superstition there always goes immorality; and that was especially true in the professing church of the day. It was a church dominated by ignorance amongst the clergy, immorality amongst the clergy, superstition amongst the clergy; there was very little preaching, there was patronage, and the people in general were wholly dissatisfied with the church of the day. It was a church in dire need of thorough, root and branch, top to bottom reformation.
The first figure that God raised up was a young man named Patrick Hamilton, a student of Luther, who came to Scotland and preached the Gospel of God’s grace, which had long lain covered by layer upon layer of error and superstition. And for his faithfulness he was burned at the stake in 1528.
The next man God raised up in our nation was a man called George Wishart. Again, a preacher of the Gospel of Grace, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And to this man John Knox became the bodyguard. And again for his faithfulness to Christ, George Wishart was burned as a heretic in 1546. And as the torch was put to the pyre, he cried out to the people, “This flame hath scorched my body, but it has not daunted my spirit.” And it was that testimony that had a huge influence on John Knox himself, and he seems to trace a change in his whole spiritual condition to that date, and days around it.
Shortly afterwards in a service in St Andrews, he was called publicly into the ministry by another man, compelled to enter the ministry of the Word. Now, we might have thought a man like John Knox would rush into this, with all guns blazing, but no. His reaction to this public call into the ministry was to burst into tears, and to withdraw from the assembly, and to isolate himself in prayer and meditation for days, before in all humility assuming this greatest of tasks, to be a preacher of the Gospel in a persecuting world.
His ministry in St Andrews began with a sermon on Daniel 7. A sermon which set the tone for his whole ministry. A sermon which more clearly than any sermon before, set forth the evils of Roman Catholicism. He cried out, “No pope, no purgatory, no prayers for the dead, no mass, no saints, no bishops, in Scotland.” Of course there was great opposition to this kind of preaching, and in a roundabout way, eventually he and his compatriots in St Andrews were captured by the French, and they were herded onto galley ships in 1547. And basically, he became a slave on these galleys, rowing around the North Sea and the English Channel. He was like a slave, but these were years of great formation in the character of John Knox.
Nineteen months after this slavery in these boats began, he was released, and he went to England where there was greater liberty at that time, to preach the Word. He was there for five years, as a licensed preacher of the Gospel, and he was greatly used to contribute to the Book of Common Prayer, and the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. A Scotsman right in there at the very beginnings of the Reformation in England.
However, as it happened to John Knox, wherever he went, persecution soon followed, and especially in 1553 when Queen Mary came to the throne of England, and began to imprison Protestant, after Protestant, after Protestant. John Knox went to Geneva, where he studied under Calvin for about five or six years. But in 1557 he received a communication from the leading Scottish nobles of the time, and in it they were pleading with him to come back to his own homeland to help them. They had come together and covenanted themselves to restore the true religion of Christ in Scotland; and they saw John Knox was the man to lead this work under God.
And so, in 1559 John Knox came to Scotland to begin this great work, and thousands of Protestants welcomed him and covenanted themselves, their lives and their fortunes to the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a godless land. It was shortly after he preached the famous sermon in Perth, which led to mobs of people going into many of the monasteries and churches, and ripping down the relics, and the idols, and all the trappings of Roman Catholicism. Knox didn’t command this. It was a spontaneous movement of the people in response to the preaching of the Word to drive out false religion and idolatry from the land, in order that God’s wrath and anger might be removed from the land.
Of course, Mary Queen of Scots was extremely unhappy about this, and determined to banish all the Protestants out of the land, but such was the movement of the people, such was it a popular movement that she had to back down. And the Reformed religion became the religion of the land, so much so, that in 1560 a Parliament was called, and that Parliament decided to make the Reformed religion of Christ the only true and holy religion of the land, and that only the Reformed Church of Scotland was to be the church of the land. Imagine our own Parliament doing that; making a decree that from now on, only the true reformed church of Christ was to exist in the land, and only the true reformed doctrine of Christ be preached in the land. What a day in our history! What a moment given by God! Was that not perhaps the very peak of our nation’s history?
The great work of Reformation began by this Parliament accepting the Scots Confession of Faith, which John Knox and another few godly ministers were involved in drawing up. You can still get access to that; it is published. And it became the basis of the Westminster Confession of Faith. And again, remember, on this day the Scottish Parliament enshrined this in law, established this as the religion of the land, this Confession, this Calvinistic, Christ-centred, Confession of Faith. But the Reformation was not just enshrined in statute that day, it was enshrined in the hearts of the people.
John Knox was soon after to produce what is called the First Book of Discipline, again which can be found still published today. And it was his manifesto, as it were for a Christian nation, with the most innovative and novel plans for national Christian education, for national relief of the poor, for a national system of Presbyterian church government, a national system of Sabbath Schools, and many other things. This again was proposed to the Parliament, but the years had passed, and the nobles had decided that although they had accepted the Confession, they wouldn’t accept in statute the First Book of Discipline, but the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland did in 1567. And so the great Reformation went on
John Knox died in 1572, after a long illness, and much weakness. His latter days were taking up with asking people to read him continually from John 17, Isaiah 53, the Psalms of David, and Calvin’s sermons on Ephesians. And just to give you a flavour of some of his last thoughts and words, consider these, spoken on his deathbed:
“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 by the faithful discharge of my ministry. 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 thus being vanquished, Satan went away; wherefore I give thanks to my God by Jesus Christ, who was pleased to grant me the victory, and I am firmly persuaded he shall not attack me further, but that in a short time, without any great bodily pain and without any distress of mind I shall exchange this mortal and miserable life far an immortal and blessed life through Jesus Christ.”
So he lived in faith, and so he died in faith.
2. Lessons From John Knox
But what are the lessons of his life? What would John Knox say to you and I, were he to stand here tonight? What would be his message for the church? What would be his message for the nation?
1) Get Back to the Bible
Well, I believe the first thing he would say is, “Get back to the Bible”. John Knox would be the very first person to say that the secret of the Reformation was not John Knox, but the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. The church that John Knox came to was a church where the Bible had been put aside. The people he came to were people who couldn’t or didn’t read the Bible at all. The medieval church of that day had decided that only trained theologians could read and properly understand the Bible, and so there was very little if any personal devotional reading of the Scriptures. The monks said, the difficulty is too great, the errors are so tremendous, and the consequences of error so disastrous. Don’t read the Bible.
Knox came in to say, No. The Bible is plain to the plain to the plain man, and all that is required is to read it in humble dependence on the Spirit of God. Knox restored the Bible to its central place in the church, and in the life of the individual Christian. Not just its availability to Christians, but its authority in the life of the Christian. It was enough for Knox: the Bible says it, I must do it. The Bible forbids it, I must flee from it. And as we survey our own country and as we look at our own lives tonight, surely we must heed this voice crying to us from John Knox’s day, Get back to the Scriptures. Churches, get back to the Scriptures. The Scriptures are our authority. More than creeds, more than assemblies, more than ex-cathedra statements, more than the traditions of men no matter how well ingrained they are. Its the Bible, only the Bible.
Where is it in your own life? How would you feel to be faced with a man like John Knox; a man who lived and breathed the Bible. Would you not feel alien in his company, perhaps? If he came into our churches and saw how we decided things, how we planned things, would he see the Bible in the middle of it or the thoughts of men, and the marketing techniques of the world? Get back to the Bible, he would say.
2) Love your Confession of Faith
But secondly, he would say, “Love your Confession of Faith”. What was the first think John Knox did when he came back to the land? He and a number of others dedicated themselves to getting a Confession of Faith. It wasn’t church outreach, it wasn’t evangelism, it wasn’t church building or church planting. It was a Confession of Faith. Until they had that; until they had systematised and organised and summarised the teaching of the Scriptures, they knew that to go out without that would be utterly disastrous. It would be a short term success, built on sand. He says this about the Scots Confession when he presented it to the Parliament, This is so precious unto us that we are determined to suffer the extremity of worldly danger, rather than that we will suffer ourselves to be defrauded of this doctrine. And therefore, by the assistance of the mighty Spirit of our Lord Jesus, we firmly purpose to abide to the end in the confession of this our faith.
Do you love the Confession of Faith? Do you love that, we believe, God given summary of Christian doctrine, which has hardly been bettered in the whole of history. Does it have a place in your reading? Does it have a place in your memory? Oh, that you and I would love the Confession of Faith. What a breath of fresh air it would blow through our churches and into our own lives, to come to an understanding of the system of theology found in the Scriptures. Would you be prepared, like John Knox, to die for the doctrines contained in it? People today are giving away line after line, section after section, until there’s going to be very little left of the Confession of Faith if anything. And even when its still existing entire, there’s no connection to it. Vows are made that don’t link the conscience to it. People swear by it, and yet don’t practice it or teach it. Where is the love for the Confession of Faith? which is nothing less, we believe, than the doctrine of the Bible.
3) Get Back to Preaching
What else would John Knox say to us if he were here tonight? He would say this, “Get back to Preaching”. When John Knox surveyed the church in 1560 there were in the whole of Scotland twelve ministers. By the year 1567, seven years later, there were 250 ministers, 150 exhorters, and 450 lay readers. John Knox saw the preaching of the Word as the key to sweeping Scotland with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His grace. Perhaps John Knox can be summed up by that well-known phrase, “I love to blow my Master’s trumpet.” Where are such men today? Oh, ministers of the Gospel, what are we doing? We’ve been called to trumpet for God! And to preach His Word. And what are we doing? Committees, and reports, and computers. . . planning this, and planning that. . . running here and running there. . . Get back to the preaching of the Gospel. Get back to blowing your Master’s trumpet. Dust it down; get rid of the cobwebs; and begin to trumpet for God again.
John Knox said this,
“Considering myself called of my God to instruct the ignorant, comfort the sorrowful, confirm the weak, and rebuke the proud; by tongue and lively voice in these corrupt days rather than to compose books for the age to come, seeing that so much is written, and yet so little well observed, I decree to contain myself within the bounds of that vocation whereunto I found myself especially called.”
Of course, John Knox would not decry writing of all books, but what he is calling for is the priority of preaching. How much time, ministers, are we spending in the study on preaching? How much priority are we giving to these great public occasions, when we’ve been called to blow that trumpet? Oh yes, much good can be done in committees; much good can be done with books; much good can be done with writing; but far greater good can be done by the preaching of the Word. Where are the churches today that have put this secondary, and have begun to focus on marketing, and entertainment? Where are they going? They’re going no-where, in the end. If the church in Scotland is ever to be reformed, here is where it must begin, that ministers begin again to be preachers.
4) Hate all False Religion
But fourthly, John Knox would say, “Hate all false religion”. We live in a very ‘wishy washy’ age, where tolerance is now regarded as the number one and only virtue. We’ve become very timid. What does God say in His Word? Oh yes, we have to love righteousness, but we have also to hate wickedness. And what is more wicked than false religion? It is far more wicked than murder. It is far more wicked than immorality. The thing that God hates most is idolatry. The first and greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and anything short of that He abominates and hates, and so should we. What would John Knox say to this multi-faith world? This multi-faith country? We might call it a multi-unbelief country. Would he not thunder against it? He was faced with the great false religion of Roman Catholicism, and it was said of him, “Others snipped at the branches of Popery, but he took an axe to the root, to destroy the whole.” He took an axe to it; and what happened in 1982 in our land? When Pope John Paul II visited here, and met the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, where did they choose to meet? Under the statue of John Knox!
You see, we’ve moved on, we’ve progressed, we’ve advanced, we’ve put the dark ages behind us. Have we? Have we not gone backwards? Are we not regressing? Is darkness not coming over the land again? Idolatry abounds. And where or where is our hatred of it? Where is our opposition to it? Where is our protest against it? How can we live so easily with it? How can we fail to raise our voices? How can we fail to go down on our knees and plead with God to tear down the idols, to tear down the relics, to tear down all the shrines, to eliminate every false religion?
When John Knox was on the galley ship, at one point somebody brought on a picture of the Virgin Mary, and they commanded everyone on the boat to kiss it. Knox refused, and it was thrust in his face. Outraged, he took the picture and threw it into the sea, and he said “Let our Lady learn to swim.” What courage, what outrage.
In the First Book of Discipline, Knox wrote,
“All doctrine contrary to the doctrine of Christ should be utterly suppressed as damnable to man’s salvation. The obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the Civil Magistrate. For [he said to the leaders of the day], let your honours be assuredly persuaded, that where idolatry is maintained or permitted, that there shall God’s wrath reign. Not only upon the blind and obstinate idolater, but also upon the negligent permitters of the same, especially if God has armed their hands with power to suppress such abomination.”
Now of course, it is a debateable point, how much the civil magistrate should be involved in this, but surely we should find it in our own hearts, our own Christian hearts, to hate and oppose idolatry in us and where ever we find it. Do you hate Islam? Not the Muslims, but Islam itself. Do you hate Romanism? Not the Roman Catholics, but Romanism itself. Oh, what false love, so called, to live tolerantly of these things. Do we believe really with Knox that these things, all doctrine contrary to the doctrine of Christ, is damnable to man’s salvation? Do you believe it? And will we just walk by on the other side?
If he was here tonight he would say to us, “Hate all false religion”, but he would also say, fifthly, “Fear God and not man”.
5) Fear God and not Man
Earl Morton at Knox’s funeral pointed to his grave and said, “There lies a man who never feared the face of any man”. Was that not the secret of his great success? He feared nobody. Nobody. When he was addressing Mary Queen of Scots, and debating with her, it was said to him that his language was discourteous, and that he shouldn’t argue with the Queen. His response was, “It is no more privilege of the rich and the powerful, than of the common people, to offend God’s majesty”. When she burst out into tears during one of their debates, and her courtiers remonstrated with Knox to cease pressing home the Gospel of Christ upon her, to cease calling on her to flee from her idols, and when the tears of Mary Queen of Scots were brought before him as an argument to this end, he said, “I cannot let the tears of the honourable lady suppress the voice of my conscience, or silence me to the hurt of my nation.”
Mary Queen of Scots said of John Knox’s imprecatory prayers, (prayers that called down the curses of God on false religion and the promoters of it), “I fear these prayers more than all the assembled armies of Europe.”
The diarist Johnson said of Knox, “He was one of the Reformation ruffians”. Another described him as, “The thundering Scot”. Oh, for more Reformation ruffians. Oh, for more thundering Scots. Nobody’s calling for rudeness, or discourtesy, but Oh where is our fear of God, compared to our fear of man? How are we so reticent to address the sins of the day? Because we’re afraid of the sinners of the day. Has there ever been a government in our history that has been so religion-hating as this one?, So Christ-hating as this one? And where is our voice of protest? Are we afraid? Who are we most afraid of, God or man?
6) Get Involved in Politics
Sixthly, Knox would say, “Get involved in politics”. Oh yes, he would. And it follows on directly from having a fear of God and not a fear of man. Knox very much saw himself in the role of the Old Testament prophet, not only instructing the State, not only exhorting the State, but rebuking the State. Knox believed more clearly than most, indeed, in the separation of Church and State, that they are not to be brought together, they are both independent, and they are both answerable to Christ. But he also believed that independence was not isolation, that the one should support the other; and he believed that the Church had a vital role in bringing before the leaders of the day the Bible’s teaching on moral, economic, social, defence matters. He argued strongly for people to get involved in lobbying, in arguing, in representing the case of the Scriptures in whatever forum they could, whether by letter, whether by standing for elections, whether by public meetings, by petitions, or whatever. He would say, “Get involved in politics”.
He would have no time for the modern Evangelical apathy and idleness concerning these great matters. And, Oh yes, the opposition seems huge, and the task seems impossible, but he would see that as no excuse. Was he not in a far weaker position than we are? He could have lost his head in one second, but he pressed on, and on, and on, with the cause of Christ. Teaching the Bible to rich and poor, high and low. Bringing the Bible to bear on every matter of State possible. Seeking to bring politics itself, under the dominion of Christ, for the good, and the blessing of the land.
7) Feed the Hungry, Provide for the Poor
But Knox would also say this, seventhly, “Feed the hungry, provide for the poor”. You mustn’t think of Knox as just this hard theologian, this inflexible reformer, as a man who had no compassion in his heart for the lost and the suffering of his day. Not at all! Knox was the first man in Scottish history to bring before the nation a national plan of organised provision for the poor. He published what was called the Beggar’s Summons, and that was pinned to the front of every religious building. And in it, he called upon the friars, those who lorded it over the wealth of the church; he called upon them to release their wealth for the sake of the poor, and if not, that the poor would invade and take it themselves. He set forth this scheme, and he was very clear in it. It’s interesting when you read it, he was no encourager of idle begging. His social security system, as it were, was very much geared towards getting people working for their money, labouring for their money. In no way did he encourage people just to sit and wait for the State to give them money, and do nothing else. Limits of time were set, encouragements were given guidance was given, so that the whole system would not be abused. But the whole society of Scotland, the social needs of Scotland were elevated in these days by Gospel provision for the poor, more than any other time in history. It was the Christian health service, and the Christian social security system, and it surpassed all others.
Knox said, “Fearful and horrible it is, that the poor, whom God hath so earnestly commended to our care, are universally so condemned and despised.”
Where is our compassion for the poor and the suffering of our own day? Those who are falling through the net, as it were. Those who are at the very bottom of the heap of society.
8) Support Christian Education
But he would also say this, eighthly, “Support Christian Education”. Knox would be utterly appalled to view the system of education that he set up, in it’s present state. When Knox was involved in the national life, it was only the very rich boys of the very rich nobles who got private tuition, but Knox in his First Book of Discipline set out a very organised structure; a national system of education - Christian education. Listen to what his purposes were for this education,
“Seeing that men are born ignorant of all godliness, it is necessary that your honours be most careful for the virtuous education and godly upbringing of the youth of this realm, if either ye now thirst for the advancement of Christ’s glory, or desire the continuance of Gospel benefits to the generation following. For as the youth must succeed us, so we ought to be careful that they have the knowledge and erudition to profit and comfort that which is most dear to us, namely, the Church of Christ.”
What kind of education did he have in mind? Virtuous. What would he say of sex-education? (which could more aptly be named sin-education). Godly upbringing. The whole system was to be geared towards the advancement of Christ’s glory, and the continuation of His benefits to following generations. Why were they to be given knowledge and erudition? To profit and comfort the Church of the Lord Jesus. That’s why education began, and now its been dedicated to the exact opposite end, it would seem. To the elimination of even the mention of Christ from our classrooms. Knox would hardly believe it, to see what is in front of us these days. He wanted a school, a Christian school in every parish; a secondary school in every town; and a university in every city; students to be examined quarterly by the ministers and the elders. Oh, what a glory it would be to our land, to see such things again. And what is the Church doing about it? Knox said the State was to provide this, but what happens when they don’t? Christian education of your young people.
9) Don’t Despair
But finally Knox would say, “Don’t despair”. We face dark days; his were darker - twelve ministers. We feel few in number; far fewer then. We have the means of mass communication. We have books. We have tapes. We have so many means to get the Gospel out to our people. Why despair? Surely if he was here tonight he would call on us to trust anew on the Lord Jesus Christ. To cast ourselves upon Him. To cast our churches upon Him. To dedicate ourselves to Him anew.
There was an American boy who once opened an old book, and he found in it a postcard with a picture on it of a little paving stone in Edinburgh, with John Knox’s initials on it, and its where he’s buried. I believe its in a car park in Edinburgh. And the wee boy asked his dad, “How come there’s no monument to John Knox, where he died?” And his father said, “Scotland didn’t erect a monument to John Knox. Scotland is his monument.”
Well, it was certainly true of a day past. No man in all our history has done more for Scotland than John Knox. By God’s grace he saw a land immersed in idolatry, immorality, ignorance, bondage and superstition, and by the Gospel of Christ transformed into a free, democratic, educated, poor-providing for, liberated, civilised nation. Scotland was his monument. And all through Christ!
As he said himself, “So I end, rendering my troubled and sorrowful spirit in the hands of the Eternal God, earnestly trusting at His good pleasure to be freed from the cares of this miserable life, and to rest with Christ Jesus, my only hope and life.”
Surely he would say to you tonight to do the same. Don’t despair of your own sins. Don’t despair of the Church’s sins. Don’t despair of the nation’s sins. Cast yourself upon Christ. May He be your only hope, in life and in death. And, Oh that Scotland would become a monument to his Saviour again. Not a monument to immorality. Not a monument to ignorance and superstition. Not a monument to false religion. Not a monument to poverty. But a monument to Jesus Christ, and His power to save and transform individuals, churches, and societies.
May God help us to profit from these words.
This article was transcribed from a recording of Lessons From John Knox - a lecture given by Rev David P Murray, at a public meeting of the Inverness Branch of the Scottish Reformation Society, on Monday, 12 February 2001.
SCOTTISH REFORMATION SOCIETY
The Scottish Reformation Society was founded in 1851, following a protest against the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England. The original constitution of the Society set out its objectives as being “to resist the aggressions of Popery; to watch the designs and movements of its promoters and abettors; and to diffuse sound Scriptural teaching and information on the distinctive tenets of Protestantism and Popery”.
To these aims, the Society has maintained and promoted a faithful witness to the present time. A quarterly magazine, The Bulwark, is committed to the same principles as the Society and the material is drawn from a wide source of Reformed teachers and writers past and present.
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