What Can We Learn from John Knox?
If it were to be asked what is the recurring theme in Knox’s words and writings the answer is perhaps a surprising one. Sometimes he could be severe, and sometimes extreme. Given the days and the harshness of the persecution he witnessed, it would be understandable if these elements had preponderated in his ministry. But his keynote was of another kind altogether. From the first years that we have anything from his pen, we find him engaged in a ministry of encouragement. It forms the substance of his many letters to his mother-in-law. He handles the doctrines of election and justification as causes for bright joy in believers, ‘Your imperfection shall have no power to damn you,’ he writes to Mrs Bowes, ‘for Christ’s perfection is reputed to be yours by faith, which you have in his blood.’ ‘God has received already at the hands of his only Son all that is due for our sins, and so cannot his justice require or crave any more of us, other satisfaction or recompence for our sins.’ He writes to the believers facing suffering and possible death in the reign of Mary Tudor and likens their situation to that of the disciples in the tempest on the lake of Galilee and says, ‘Be not moved from the sure foundation of your faith. For albeit Christ Jesus be absent from you (as he was from his disciples in that great storm) by his bodily presence, yet he is present by his mighty power and grace – and yet he is full of pity and compassion.’ Or again he writes:
‘Stand with Christ Jesus in this day of his battle, which shall be short and the victory everlasting! For the Lord himself shall come in our defence with his mighty power; He shall give us the victory when the battle is most strong; and He shall turn our tears into everlasting joy.’ One thing stands out above all else in the life of John Knox. At many different points in his life we have the comment of individuals who saw him, and the testimony most frequently repeated has to do with one point, namely, the power of his preaching. One of the first times we hear of Knox’s ministry is in a letter of Utenhovius, writing from London to Bullinger in Zurich, on October 12, 1552. He reported how a stranger in London has suddenly caught the public attention:
‘Some disputes have arisen within these few days among the bishops, in consequence of a sermon of a pious preacher, chaplain to the duke of Northumberland, preached by him before the King and Council, in which he inveighed with great freedom against kneeling at the Lord’s Supper, which is still retained here by the English. This good man, however, a Scotsman by nation, has so wrought upon the minds of many persons, that we may hope some good to the Church will at length arise from it.’
One other account of such preaching is too memorable to be omitted. As already noted, in July 1571 the Queen’s party had such power in Edinburgh that Knox was forced to stay in St Andrews for thirteen months. A student there at the time was fifteen-year-old James Melville, and he would see Knox walking to church from the old priory, a staff in one hand and held under his other armpit by a friend, with furs wrapped round his neck. It was the year before his death and his strength was gone. Melville wrote in his Autobiography:
‘Of all the benefits I had that year  was the coming of that most notable prophet and apostle of our nation, Mr John Knox, to St Andrews . . . I heard him teach there the prophecy of Daniel that summer and winter following. I had my pen and my little book, and took away such things as I could comprehend. In the opening up of his text he was moderate the space of an half hour; but when he entered to application, he made me so grew [shudder] and tremble, that I could not hold a pen to write.’
Melville says further that Knox had to be lifted up into the pulpit ‘where it behoved him 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!’
What made Knox this kind of preacher? He had natural gifts, of course, but not more than some others who never made such an impression. ‘I am not a good orator in my own cause,’ he once wrote to his mother-in-law. When it came to preaching it was not his own cause. ‘It hath pleased God of his superabundant grace to make me, most wretched of many thousands, a witness, minister and preacher.’ His authority came from the conviction that preaching is God’s work, the message is His word, and he was sure the Holy Spirit would honour it. This was the certainty which possessed him. I do not say there were not moments of doubt, but at the great crises the Holy Spirit so filled him that nothing could deter him and the result was the transformations that occurred even in the most unpromising and hostile circumstances. In the summer of 1559 when he first returned to St Andrews, warning was sent to him by the bishop that if he dared to preach the next Sunday there would be a dozen hand guns discharged in his face. His friends advised delay, but he went ahead and took for his text Christ driving the buyers and sellers out of the temple. The famous painting of the scene by Sir David Wilkie captured something of that day, June 11, 1559, and the effect of it at the time can be seen in the number of priests of the Roman Church who confessed the faith.
It was due to a similar crisis that we have the only sermon Knox ever prepared for publication. The text was Isaiah 26:13-21 and it was preached on August 19, 1565, in St Giles. The previous month Lord Darnley had married Queen Mary and was declared King. Darnley has been described as a man who could be either Catholic or Protestant as it suited him, sometimes he went ‘to mass with the Queen and sometimes attended the reformed sermons’. On this particular Sunday he sat listening on a throne in St Giles and, while he was not directly mentioned in the sermon, it so infuriated him that Knox was instantly summoned before the Privy Council and forbidden to preach while the King and Queen were in town. Part of Knox’s response was to write down the sermon as fully as he could remember it. It is the only Knox sermon that has survived, and in its conclusion he has these memorable sentences:
‘Let us now humble ourselves in the presence of our God, and, from the bottom of our hearts, let us desire him to assist us with the power of his Holy Spirit . . . that albeit we see his Church so diminished, that it shall appear to be brought, as it were, to utter extermination, that yet we may be assured that in our God there is power and will to increase the number of his chosen, even while they be enlarged to the uttermost coasts of the earth.’
Then, at the end of the sermon Knox added this postscript which was also printed:
‘Lord, in thy hands I commend my spirit; for the terrible roaring of guns, and the noise of armour, do so pierce my heart, that my soul thirsts to depart. The last of August 1565, at four at afternoon, written indigestly, but yet truly so far as memory would serve.’
The only true explanation of Knox’s preaching is in words he applied to others of his fellow countrymen, ‘God gave his Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance.’ To read Knox is to be convicted of the smallness of our faith in the power of the Word of God. Unbelief has had too much influence upon us. The modern church needs to relearn the words of 2 Corinthians 4:13; ‘We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak.’
The history of the church at the time of the Reformation is a singular reminder to us of how God is in history. Christ is in the church and on the throne – directing and governing all persons and all events. Standing where we do in time, we see Knox’s faith in this fact verified, but it was another thing for him to see it in the midst of poverty, when good men were being put to death, and when he endured his twelve years of exile. Yet the truth is that it was the storm of persecution which scattered Christians that was the very means God used to advance his purposes. If Knox had never been a refugee in England he would never have formed the friendships which became so significant in drawing the two long-hostile nations together.
When Knox came back to Scotland in 1559, with his English wife and the English tongue, the world for him was a much bigger place. And it was the exile of Knox and others in Calvin’s city which gave Britain the Geneva Bible, the version that was to be the most used through much of the next hundred years. So by persecution the gospel advanced and it was the means by which God forged an international vision and co-operation among his people. Samuel Rutherford surely stated history accurately when he wrote:
‘Christ hath a great design of free grace to these lands; but his wheels must move over mountains and rocks. He never yet wooed a bride on earth, but in blood, in fire, and in the wilderness.’
This is an extract from a new book by Iain Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage (ISBN 085151930X, Banner of Truth, 416 pp., clothbound) and first appeared in article form on this website on July 6, 2006.
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