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John Knox and Preaching the Gospel

Category Articles
Date September 23, 2011

In his address to the 1960 Synod, ‘John Knox: Central Figure of the Reformation’, Rev J P MacQueen said:1

It is to be feared that his reputation as one of the most powerful and eloquent preachers of his day, with the fruit of widespread revivals, the edification, comfort and establishment of believers, and the salvation of sinners, has been considerably and, maybe, permanently eclipsed by his widespread and justly-enduring reputation as one of the world’s greatest Reformers.

Fifty years later a certain measure of rather grudged and qualified acknowledgement may still be made of what the nation owes to Knox for the impetus he gave to social and educational reform but, if his preaching is referred to at all, it is as that of a rabble-rousing fanatic.

To Mr MacQueen’s observation we would add the observation that what is often ignored, even by those who admire the work of the Reformation, is the fact that it was by his preaching of the gospel that John Knox was enabled to achieve what he did as a Reformer. Circumstances meant that he was necessarily engaged with monarchs and statesmen and in enunciating social and educational principles which would reflect the teaching of the Word of God and contribute to the maintenance of the Reformed Church, but even in these areas his success lay to a significant extent in the influence of his gospel preaching on those who held the levers of power and on the people as a whole.

In thinking of John Knox and the preaching of the gospel we would like, not merely to take a historical look at John Knox as a preacher, but to consider something of the instruction and encouragement he gives regarding preaching in our own time. In doing so we shall say a little about each of the following points, dealing with some more briefly than with others: (1.) The man who preached, (2.) His call to preach, (3.) His view of preaching, (4.) The content of his preaching, (5.) The method of his preaching, (6.) The manner of his preaching, and (7.) The outcome of his preaching.

1. The man who preached.

Ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, Knox seems to have functioned in semi-secular legal employment, and when we get the first really-verifiable glimpse of him he was acting as tutor to the sons of lairds in the Lothians, ‘whom certain years he had nourished in godliness’, as he puts it himself, describing the period prior to 1546. Knox is reticent about his early spiritual experience, but it would seem from these words that he had for some time been acquainted with the truth which he sought to teach these boys. It is said that he had been led to the study of Scripture by his reading of Jerome and to the doctrines of grace by his reading of Augustine. He is said to have first received ‘a taste of the truth’ from the preaching of Thomas Guillaume, a converted Dominican friar from East Lothian.

For a short time prior to the arrest and execution of George Wishart in 1546 he had accompanied this Calvinistic preacher on his missionary journeys around the Lothians and Dundee. His references to Wishart display affection and respect for him as a man and as a preacher. There is no doubt that, during their short association, Wishart exercised a great influence over him, introduced him to Reformed theology, church discipline and worship, and gave him, by example, a high view of preaching as the authoritative declaration of the Word of God. W. G. Blaikie suggests that ‘it seems to have been through Wishart’s preaching that the spark came that kindled his knowledge into a living flame’. Knox’s earlier classical education, his intimate acquaintance with the errors and evils of Romanism, his call by grace to the personal knowledge of Christ, his systematic study of Scripture for his own benefit and in order to teach his young charges, and his experience of powerful preaching, all made their own contribution to forming the man who was to become one of the most effective preachers of all times in Scotland.

There is no doubt that the obvious holiness and integrity of his character contributed to the influence of Knox’s preaching. Speaking in 1872 James Begg asserted: ‘That personal Christianity was the true basis of his character need not be repeated. Knox was a man of earnest piety.’ One of the pre-eminent features of his character, according to Begg, was ‘an entire submission of his mind and will to the authority of God in his Word’. Even The Catholic Encyclopaedia acknowledges that ‘it is to his credit that he died, as he had lived, a poor man, and that he never enriched himself with the spoils of the Church which he had abandoned’. W. G. Blaikie affirms that ‘the high reputation which Knox had among his brethren for personal holiness is another index to the character of his ministry’. He quotes the testimony of Richard Bannatyne, Knox’s devoted and admiring servant or secretary, who lived in close contact with him and who described him in his Journal as ‘a man of God, the light of Scotland, the comfort of the Church, the mirror of godliness and pattern and example to all true ministers in purity of life, soundness of doctrine, and boldness in reproving of wickedness’.

2. His call to preach.

The manner in which Knox became a preacher is well known. When in St Andrews’ Castle for protection, with his young charges and their parents, his tutoring took the form of a systematic study of the Gospel according to John, to which others were admitted as hearers. He was also involved in public disputations with local churchmen. This convinced the Protestant congregation within the Castle and their preacher John Rough, who felt his need of assistance, that Knox had gifts which could be well employed in the work of the gospel ministry. He tells us that, when he was urged by some of the leading men to take up the work of preaching, ‘he utterly refused, alleging that “he would not run where God had not called him”‘.

However, the congregation resolved to call him to this work and, when they were met on one occasion, Rough preached a sermon in which ‘he declared the power which a congregation, however small, had over anyone in whom they perceived gifts suited to the office, and how dangerous it was for such a person to reject the call of those who desired instruction’. Rough then addressed him:

In the name of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ, and in the name of these that presently call you by my mouth, I charge you that ye refuse not this holy vocation, but, as ye tender the glory of God, the increase of Christ’s Kingdom, the edification of your brethren and the comfort of me, oppressed by the multitude of labours, that ye take upon you the public office of preaching, even as ye look to avoid God’s heavy displeasure, and desire that he shall multiply his graces upon you.2

Knox, who gives this report, records his reaction:

Whereat John Knox, abashed, burst forth in most abundant tears and withdrew himself to his chamber. His countenance and behaviour, that day till the day he was compelled to present himself to the public place of preaching, did sufficiently declare the grief and trouble of his heart; for no man saw any sign of mirth in him, neither yet had he pleasure to accompany any man for many days together.3

Thomas M’Crie comments on how the weight of the ministerial function is demonstrated

when men of piety and talents, deeply affected with the awful responsibility of the office and with their own insufficiency, were with great difficulty induced to take on them these orders which they had long desired and for which they had laboured to qualify themselves . . . [He adds:] The behaviour of Knox serves also to reprove those who become preachers of their own accord, and who from vague and enthusiastic desires of doing good, or a fond conceit of their own gifts, trample upon good order and thrust themselves into employment without any regular call.

The necessity for good order and a regular call is emphasised in The First Book of Discipline of 1560, to which Knox was at least a major contributor. The right of the people to elect their ministers is enshrined in that book. However, it would not normally take the form which Knox’s call did in the unique circumstances of that time, but the election would be of men whose calling and gifts had been examined and approved by the ministers and elders of the Church, who would then be admitted or inducted at a public service with an appropriate sermon and charges to minister and congregation. ‘The lack of able men shall not excuse us before God if by our consent unable men be placed over the flock of Christ Jesus.’

At the same time The First Book of Discipline emphasises the responsibility of ‘all men to whom God hath given any talent to persuade by wholesome doctrine, to bestow the same, if they be called by the Church, to the advancement of Christ’s glory, and the comfort of his troubled flock’. Those among the men who were appointed to the temporary position of Readers of the Scriptures and Prayers, who

of long time have professed Christ Jesus, whose honest conversation deserveth praise of all godly men and whose knowledge also might greatly help the simple, and yet they only content themselves with reading, these must be animated, and by gentle admonition encouraged by some exhortation to comfort their brethren, and so they may be admitted to administration of the sacraments,

that is, to the ministry of Word and sacrament.

It is significant that one of the functions of the weekly ‘exercises’ or ‘prophesyings’ or meetings for the exposition and discussion of Scripture, which were to be held in the main towns every week – out of which the district Presbyteries grew – was the discovery of men with a calling and gift for ministry:

And moreover men in whom is supposed to be any gift which might edify the Church, if they were well employed, must be charged by the minister and elders to join themselves with the session and company of interpreters, to the end that the Kirk may judge whether they be able to serve to God’s glory and to the profit of the Kirk in the vocation of ministers or not . . . For no man may be permitted as best pleaseth him to live within the Kirk of God, but every man must be constrained by fraternal admonition and correction to bestow his labours, when of the Kirk he is required for the edification of others.

One can see Knox’s own experience reflected here. In passing, one might ask if it would not perhaps be good for the Church were Presbyteries again to reflect something of the original Exercises out of which they developed.

3. His view of preaching.

Knox certainly regarded preaching as a divine ordinance and preachers as messengers sent from God. They were not merely orators who had biblical subjects as their theme but men whose function was to declare what God had revealed and to do so in the power of his Spirit. A week before he died, Knox gathered his elders and deacons into his room, along with James Lawson, his successor, and David Lindsay, one of the ministers of Leith. Among other solemn statements of the dying man was the following:

Whatever influenced me to utter whatever the Lord put into my mouth so boldly, and without respect of persons, was a reverential fear of my God, who called and of his grace appointed me to be a steward of divine mysteries, and a belief that he will demand an account of the manner in which I have discharged the trust committed to me, when I shall stand at last before his tribunal.

God is speaking through the preacher, communicating a message from his ancient Word which is applicable to hearers today. That is what gave Knox his authority and courage. That is what gave him his concern to convey accurately what is written in the Bible. He was not there to communicate his own wisdom but the wisdom of God. It was this view of preaching which warranted his conclusion in his Epistle to the Lords Professing the Truth in Scotland that ‘some spark of God’s true fear’ resting in the heart would lead a man ‘to reverence God’s messengers, heartily to embrace, and study to obey, the precepts and charges which they give’.4 In his Address to the Commonality of Scotland he said: ‘We require nothing of you, but that patiently ye will hear our doctrine, which is not ours, but is the doctrine of salvation, revealed to the world by the only Son of God’.5

John Knox lived to preach the gospel. From his place as a slave in the French galley, after being taken prisoner at St Andrews, he got a glimpse of the town. ‘I see the steeple of that place where God first opened my mouth in public 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 godly name in the same place’. From his exile on the continent he recorded his prayer in a letter to Mrs Bowes:

And haste the time, O Lord, at Thy good pleasure, that once again my tongue may yet praise Thy holy name before the congregation, if it were but in the very hour of death . . . For a few sermons by me to be made in England, my heart at this hour could be content to suffer more than nature were able to sustain.6

It was not that he was satisfied with himself as a preacher. Commenting in a letter on the Lord’s command to feed his sheep and lambs, he wrote:

O alas! How small is the number of pastors that obeys this commandment. But this matter will I not deplore, except that I, not speaking of others, will accuse myself that do not, I confess, the uttermost of my power in feeding the lambs and sheep of Christ. I satisfy, peradventure, many men in the small labours I take, but I satisfy not myself. I have done somewhat, but not according to my duty.

During his earlier Edinburgh days he preached in his congregation twice on Sabbath and three times during the week and was often sent on preaching tours around the country.

Preaching was to be the main work of the gospel minister and the view he had of preaching determined the content of his preaching, the method of his preaching and the manner of his preaching.

4. The content of his preaching.

The common view of his preaching is that it was occupied with condemnation of Romanism and of all and everyone who did not accept his views, and also with instruction to the authorities of the day as to how they should conduct their affairs. Knox’s position and the situation of Church and state in his time did necessitate that, as a faithful witness to the truth of God, he should show the application of biblical principles to current events and significant personages, and urge their adoption. The idea that this was the staple of his preaching may be encouraged by the fact that most of the sermons of which there is a report were preached on public occasions at critical points in the affairs of Church and nation. When there is opportunity to compare reports of even these sermons with what he actually said, as in the account he gave to Queen Mary of a sermon whose report enraged her and made her summon him to Holyroodhouse, it is clear that his statements were well reasoned and calm, however energetically presented, and far from the fanatical rants full of personal attacks which they were reputed to be.

As declared in The Scots Confession, he accepted all Scripture as inspired of God and profitable to instruct, reprove and exhort. That he regarded the Word of God as the abundant resource upon which his preaching should draw is illustrated by remarks in his Letter to the Protestants of Scotland during his absence:

For as the Word of God is the beginning of life, spiritual, without which all flesh is dead in God’s presence, and the lantern to our feet, without the brightness whereof all the posterity of Adam doth walk in darkness, and as it is the foundation of faith, without which no man understandeth the good will of God, so it is also the only organ and instrument which God uses 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, and therefore if that you desire your knowledge to be increased, your faith to be confirmed, your consciences to be quieted and comforted, and finally your soul to be preserved in life, let your exercise be frequent in the law of your God.7

With his colleagues in the writing of The Scots Confession he wished his beliefs and preaching to be in accordance with the Word of God,

protesting that if any man will note in our Confession any chapter or sentence contrary to God’s Holy Word, that it would please him of his gentleness and for Christian charity’s sake to inform us of it in writing, and we, upon our honour, do promise him that by God’s grace we shall give him satisfaction from the mouth of God, that is, from Holy Scripture, or else we shall alter whatever he can prove to be wrong.

It was Knox’s concern to preach the whole counsel of God. It is clear from his writings and from The Scots Confession, which was intended to set forth the doctrine believed and preached by Knox and his colleagues, that his understanding of the truth of the Bible was that which has become known as Calvinistic. He had come to this understanding of the truth before he went to Geneva, and no doubt was much indebted to the teaching of George Wishart, who was probably the first significant Reformed (as distinct from Lutheran) preacher in Scotland. His sojourn in Geneva would certainly have confirmed him in his beliefs.

Knox’s utterances make it clear that he had a systematic grasp of biblical theology and that he would subscribe fully to the contention of a much more recent theologian, B. B. Warfield, who described Calvinism in the following terms:

Theism comes to its rights only in a teleological conception of the universe,8 which perceives in the entire course of events the orderly outworking of the plan of God, who is the author, preserver and governor of all things, whose will is consequently the ultimate cause of all. The religious relation attains its purity only when an attitude of absolute dependence on God is not merely temporarily assumed in the act, say, of prayer, but is sustained through all the activities of life, intellectual, emotional, executive. And evangelical religion reaches stability only when the sinful soul rests in humble, self-emptying trust purely on the God of grace as the immediate and sole source of all the efficiency which enters into its salvation. And these things are the formative principles of Calvinism.9

In the Preface to his little work on Predestination, Knox wrote that

the doctrine of God’s eternal predestination is so necessary to the church of God that, without the same, can faith neither be truly taught, neither surely established; man can never be brought to true humility and knowledge of himself, neither yet can he be ravished in admiration of God’s eternal goodness, and so moved to praise him as appertaineth.

He wrote again: ‘For as our God in his own nature is immutable, so remaineth his love toward his elect always unchangeable (Eph. 1); for as in Christ he hath chosen his church before the beginning of all ages, so by him will he maintain and preserve the same unto the end.’10

The main aim of his preaching, as of Scripture itself, was to set forth Christ in all the glory of his Person, offices and work, and in relation to the various conditions of sinners, with all the implications for their lives. In his summary of the doctrine he preached before having to leave Scotland in 1556 he says that

he taught that there is no other name by which men can be saved but that of Jesus, and that all reliance on the merits of others is vain and delusive; that the Saviour having by his own sacrifice sanctified and reconciled to God those who should inherit the promised kingdom, all other sacrifices which men pretend to offer for sin are blasphemous; that all men ought to hate sin, which is so odious before God that no sacrifice but the death of his Son could satisfy for it; that they ought to magnify their heavenly Father, who did not spare him who is the substance of his glory, but gave him up to suffer the ignominious death of the cross for us; and that those who have been washed from their former sins are bound to lead a new life, fighting against the lusts of the flesh, and studying to glorify God by good works.

During the last weeks of his life he preached on the crucifixion of Christ from Matthew 27, ‘a theme’, says M’Crie, ‘with which he had often expressed a wish to close his ministry’. Ten days before his death, when he was too weak even to sit in a chair, he insisted on getting out of bed, thinking it was the Sabbath, intending to go to the church to preach on the resurrection of Christ, which would have been his next subject and on which he had been meditating throughout the night.

The doctrine of justification by faith was prominent in his preaching from the beginning and, as he said himself, it was the axe which he laid to the root of the Roman tree so as to demolish it, rather than just lopping off the branches by attacking the errors in doctrine and practice which sprang from that root. He did, of course, lop off the branches as well, as these were so dishonouring to God and destructive to souls.

He sums up his doctrine on this point in his Epistle to His Brethren in Scotland:

If therefore the doctrine or persuasion of any man tend to the exaltation and advancement of any righteousness or perfection, except of Christ Jesus alone; if any affirm that Christian righteousness which is available before God be any other perfection than remission of our sins, which we have by faith only in Christ’s blood, or if any promise such perfection in this life that unfeignedly we need not say, ‘Remit to us our offences, for we are unprofitable servants,’ and finally, if any persuade that our merits, good works or obedience be any cause either of our justification, or yet of our election, let him be accursed, suppose that he were an angel from heaven; for he preacheth to us another evangel than the Son of God hath revealed to the world, and the Holy Spirit hath sent up to us by the mouths and writings of the apostles, which plainly affirmeth that there is no other name given to men under the heaven in which they may be saved except in the name, that is, in the power and virtues of Jesus crucified, who is made to us from God righteousness, wisdom, sanctification and redemption; by which alone we have access to the throne of God’s mercy, as by one only propitiator and obtainer of grace, to us that of nature be sinful; the flesh (even after our regeneration) ever rebelling against the spirit, during the travail of this life, in such sort that, with the apostle Paul, the rest of God’s children are compelled to confess that in them, that is, in their flesh, there remaineth no good.11

Contrary to later popular opinion, the loving and sympathetic pastoral care of the flock was a prominent feature in his preaching. This is illustrated in some of his correspondence with his mother-in-law, Mrs Bowes, who was subject to frequent depressions and doubts concerning her Christian state, on account of the trouble she had with sin. It is quite obvious that some of these lengthy communications are largely transcripts of sermons which he had preached. Although Knox did not write out his sermons in advance there is evidence that he could remember them verbatim even years later.

One example of this is his exposition of Psalm 6, published as A Fort for the Afflicted.12 There is also a sermon, On Christ’s Temptation in the Wilderness, which he introduces with these words:

The causes moving me to entreat this place of Scripture is that such as, by the inscrutable providence of God, do fall into diverse temptations judge not themselves, by reason thereof, less acceptable in God’s presence; but contrariwise, having the way prepared to victory by Jesus Christ, shall not fear above measure the crafty assaults of that subtle serpent, Satan; but with joy and bold courage, having such a guide as is here painted forth, such a champion, and such weapons as here are to be found (if with obedience we will hear, and with unfeigned faith believe,) may assure ourselves of God’s present favour, and of final victory, by the means of him who, for our safeguard and deliverance, hath entered into the battle, and triumphed over his adversary, and all his raging fury.13

That he was comforting others with the comfort by which he himself was comforted by God appears from the prayer with which he concluded the 1565 sermon, on Isaiah 26:13ff, which had him banned from preaching for a time:

Give us, O Lord, hearts to visit thee in the time of our affliction, and albeit we see none end of our dolours, that yet our faith and hope may conduct us to the assured hope of that joyful resurrection, in the which we shall possess the fruit of that for which now we travail. And in the mean season, grant us, O Lord, to repose ourselves in the sanctuary of thy promise, that in thee we may find comfort, till this thy great indignation begun amongst us may pass over and thou thyself appear to the comfort of the afflicted, and to the terror of thine enemies.14

This aspect of his preaching was carried into his personal pa1storal dealings. Knox himself tells of Elizabeth Adamson, wife of Edinburgh Dean of Guild James Barroun,

who, by reason that she had a troubled conscience, delighted much in the company of the said John Knox, because he, according to the grace given unto him, opened more fully the fountain of God’s mercies than did the common sort of teachers that she had heard before; for she had heard none except friars.15

He also gave much place to the practice of the Christian life, as we see for example in his Treatise on Prayer, described as ‘A Declaration what true prayer is, how we should pray, and for what we should pray, set forth by John Knox, Preacher of God’s Holy Word, unto the small and dispersed flock of Jesus Christ’. He deals with practical subjects in a practical way:

Prayer is an earnest and familiar talking with God, to whom we declare our miseries, whose support and help we implore and desire in our adversities, and whom we laud and praise for our benefits received. So that prayer containeth the exposition of our dolours, the desire of God’s defence, and the praising of his magnificent name, as the Psalms of David clearly do teach.16

5. The method of his preaching.

William Taylor records the well-known fact that

it was his habit to speak from a few notes which were made on the margin of his Bible, and which remained the sole written memoranda of his discourse . . . Yet [his sermons] were as carefully premeditated as if they had been written . . . He prepared with care . . . and remembered with accuracy. He did not speak extemporaneously, in the sense of never having thought upon his subject until he was required to speak, but he had fixed beforehand his line of thought, and there is reason to believe also, in many cases, the very words in which he had determined to express himself. Yet, though he premeditated very carefully, he was able also to introduce what was given to him at the moment.

Depending on the Spirit as he did, Knox, in his thorough preparation for preaching, drew on his knowledge of the biblical languages and of the theological writers of ancient and modern times and used the commentaries available to him. Though he was by his circumstances a man of action, he was very much a diligent student. Taylor draws attention to one of his letters in which ‘he describes himself as “sitting at his books” and contemplating Matthew’s Gospel by the help of “some most godly expositions, and among the rest Chrysostom”‘.

It was his aim in his sermons to be an expositor and open up the mind of the Spirit in his Word. It seems that his sermons, which could sometimes last for over two hours, generally fell into two parts: the first, in which he carefully expounded the text in its original context; and the second, in which he applied the teaching to the hearers.

It was his custom, when opportunity afforded, to preach through books of the Bible, or extended sections of them, in series of sermons. We first find him as a tutor going through the Gospel of John with his pupils and interested hearers. At other times he is working his way through Daniel or Haggai. Provision was made in The First Book of Discipline for ‘the plain reading and interpretation of the Scripture’ in the parish churches, so that

by frequent reading, this gross ignorance which in this cursed Papistry hath overflowed all, may partly be removed. We think it most expedient that the Scripture be read in order: that is, that some one book of the Old or New Testament be begun and orderly read to the end. And the same we judge of preaching where the minister for the most part remains in one place. For this skipping and divagation from place to place of Scripture, be it in reading or be it in preaching, we judge not so profitable to edify the Kirk as the continual following of one text.

Such a method was considered desirable among a people who might not have access to the Scriptures otherwise.

A. F. Mitchell draws attention to the insistence of The Book of Common Order that ‘even the ordinary ministers of the church must all be well qualified to preach the gospel of salvation, as many of the common people were unable to read, and could only be saturated with its teaching by the living voice of the preacher’. Although hearers today can read and there is much instructive literature available, we should not underestimate the extent to which many are dependent upon the pulpit for their understanding of the truth.

However, he frequently preached from occasional texts to which he was directed as appropriate for particular times and places. These he approached in the same way, seeking carefully to unfold the mind of the Spirit and to bring it home to the minds and consciences of the hearers so as to affect their experience and conduct. He did not take passages out of the context in which they were set and apply them to dissimilar situations. He brought out the meaning of the text in its original setting and then took care, as Taylor puts it, ‘to establish the parallelism between the original case referred to by the sacred writer and that to which he applied it’. It was then that ‘he set himself to enforce its practical bearing on the circumstances of his hearers and his times’. He was always the expositor of the Word of God.

His style was plain and to the point, Taylor attributes to him the first recorded use of the common expressions, calling ‘a fig a fig’, and ‘a spade a spade’, and records his own saying that ‘from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other inspired writers, he had learned, plainly and boldly, to call wickedness by its own terms’.

6. The manner of his preaching.

Everyone is acquainted with the teenage James Melville’s description of John Knox preaching in St Andrews in 1571. In English it reads:

I heard him teach there the prophecies of Daniel that summer and the 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 half an hour; but when he entered to application he made me so [thrill] and tremble, that I could not hold a pen to write. He was very weak. I saw him, every day of his doctrine, go slowly and warily, with a furring of matricks about his neck, a staff in one hand, and good, godly Richard Ballantyne, his servant holding up the other oxter, from the abbey to the parish kirk and, by the same Richard and another servant, lifted up to the pulpit, where he behoved to lean at his first entry; but ere he had done with his sermon he was so active and vigorous that he was like to ding the pulpit in blads [beat the pulpit in pieces] and fly out of it.

William Taylor suggests that the pulpit

was the glass which focused all his powers into a point and quickened them into an intensity which kindled everything it touched. It brightened his intellect, enlivened his imagination, clarified his judgement, inflamed his courage, and gave fiery energy to his utterances . . . There, over and above the fervid animation which he had in such large measure, and the glow of enthusiasm which fills the soul of the orator as he addresses an audience, he had the feeling that he was called of God to be faithful, and that lifted him entirely out of himself. He spoke because he could not but speak, and his words went in to men; like these modern missiles which burst within the wounds which they have made, so his words exploded within the hearts of those who received them and set them on fire with convictions that flamed forth in conduct. It was apparently impossible for anyone to listen to him without being moved either to antagonism or to agreement, or – for he could be tender also – to tears.

Knox exemplified the counsel which he gave from his deathbed to his successor Lawson: ‘My dearest brother Lawson, fight the good fight of faith, and do the work of the Lord joyfully and resolutely’. As M‘Crie puts it,

his ministerial functions were discharged with the greatest assiduity, fidelity and fervour. No avocation or infirmity prevented him from appearing in the pulpit. Preaching was the employment in which he delighted, and for which he was qualified by an extensive acquaintance with the Scriptures and by the happy art of applying them in the most striking manner to the existing circumstances of the Church and of his hearers. His powers of alarming the conscience and arousing the passions have been frequently celebrated, but he excelled also in unfolding the consolations of the gospel and in calming the breasts of those who were agitated by a sense of guilt or suffering under the ordinary afflictions of life. When he discoursed of the griefs and joys, the conflicts and triumphs, of genuine Christians, he described what he had himself known and experienced.

The vehemence of his preaching when exposing and condemning sin did not arise from self-righteous satisfaction with himself but from the acquaintance he had with sin in himself. In a letter to Mrs Bowes he wrote:

Albeit I never lack the presence and plain image of my own wretched infirmity, yet seeing sin so manifestly abound in all estate, I am compelled to thunder out the threatenings of God against the obstinate rebels, on doing whereof (albeit as God knoweth I am no malicious nor obstinate sinner) I sometimes am wounded, knowing myself criminal and guilty in many, yea in all (malicious obstinacy laid aside) things that in others I reprehend . . . I am worse than my pen can express . . . There is no vice repugnant to God’s holy will, expressed in his law, wherewith my heart is not infected.

His vehemence in denouncing sin was that of a man who knew and repented daily of sin in his own heart and life.

It appears that Knox forgot himself in his message, or his message took such possession of him that it affected the manner of his preaching. Taylor uses the expression ‘sermon-possessed’ and suggests that when a man is possessed by what he is saying, as Knox so obviously was, ‘without any consciousness on his part of what he is doing, it speaks through him – that is, not through his words only, but through his entire personality – and bears him along as with an overflowing flood’.

Knox preached in dependence upon the Holy Spirit. He said himself of these days that ‘God gave his Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance’. John Calvin wrote to him in November 1559 expressing his pleasure and that of all the pious people to whom he gave the news, at hearing of the success which had crowned his labours in Scotland:

As 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 so signally displayed therein. This affords you ample matter for confidence for the future, and ought to animate you to overcome all opposition.17

He adds a comment which shows how well acquainted he was with Knox:

As I am not ignorant how strenuous you are in stirring up other, and what abilities and energies God has endowed you with for going through with this task, I have deemed it superfluous to stimulate the brethren.18

Yet his natural talents would not have produced the results which followed his labours had they not been used by the Lord.

7. The outcome of his preaching.

The outcome of his preaching was such as could only be accounted for by the fact that it came to the people of his generation as it did to the Thessalonians to whom Paul writes, not in word only, ‘but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance’.

While various factors contributed to the success of the Reformation in Scotland, it can be said with confidence that the establishing of a Church founded on the basis of the Bible, with preaching and practice governed by the Word of God, must be traced principally to the preaching of John Knox, and of others who declared the gospel which he proclaimed.

From the very beginning of his ministry, his preaching was blessed to the awakening and conversion of sinners and to the instruction and encouragement and motivating of the Lord’s people. The hunger for the preaching and the effect it had often amazed himself. In St Andrews in the early days, in exile on the continent and in England, during his temporary visits to Scotland and after he settled permanently here, it seems that the word of the Lord had free course and was glorified (2 Thess. 3:1).

He was very conscious that he was but the instrument raised up to help meet the need of souls awakened by God’s grace to seek the word at his mouth. On one of his temporary visits to Scotland he was amazed ‘to contemplate and behold the fervent thirst of our brethren, night and day sobbing and groaning for the bread of life . . . their fervency here doth so ravish me that I cannot but accuse and condemn my slothful coldness’. Perhaps we do not always realise sufficiently how much influence the pew has on the pulpit and how much the preacher owes to the yearnings which the Lord has created in the souls of some among the hearers.

Many were delivered from the darkness of their natural state, in which Rome had left them. The Reformation was not only the deliverance of the Scottish people and church from the shackles of Rome but the deliverance of many individual souls from their bondage to sin.

Often his preaching was used to rekindle the hope and courage of dispirited Protestants, as when the congregation had retreated before the forces of their enemies from Edinburgh to Stirling in dismay and despondency and he preached a sermon which rekindled their zeal and resolve. You remember the message which Randolph sent to Cecil in England in October 1561: ‘I assure you, the voice of one man is able in one hour to put more life in us than five hundred trumpets continually blustering in our ears’.


It may be thought that what we have been saying about John Knox, about his content and method at least, is just what could be said about the ideal entertained with regard to any gospel minister today. But it has to be said that, if these have been characteristics of the reformed ministry in Scotland, hopefully even to the present time, the instrumentality of John Knox in bringing this about must be acknowledged. He it was in Scotland, instrumentally, who restored the pulpit to its place in the church and the inspired and authoritative Word of God to its place in the pulpit, and restored the biblical idea of the gospel minister as a man whom God has separated and called by his grace and in whom God has been pleased to reveal his Son that he might go and preach him wherever he is sent.

William Taylor claims that ‘there are traces of his influence as a preacher to be discovered in the discourses of his successors almost to the present day’.19 The characteristics of Scottish preaching in which Taylor saw the lasting influence of Knox were ‘its expository character, its vehemence of manner and its unflinching courage’.

Knox speaks to us down through the ages. One of the things he says to ministers is: ‘Let us be frequent in reading (which also over many despise), earnest in prayer, diligent in watching over the flock committed to our charge, and let our sobriety and temperate life shame the wicked and be example to the godly’.20

The nearer we get to the real man and preacher, John Knox, the more we realise just how searching and humbling looking in such a mirror can be.


  1. This paper was delivered to the Theological Conference of the Free Presbyterian Church, 2010.
    • The History of The Reformation In Scotland
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      In his address to the 1960 Synod, ‘John Knox: Central Figure of the Reformation’, Rev J P MacQueen said:1 It is to be feared that his reputation as one of the most powerful and eloquent preachers of his day, with the fruit of widespread revivals, the edification, comfort and establishment of believers, and the salvation […]

  2. ibid., pp. 72-3.
    • The Select Practical Writings of John Knox
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      In his address to the 1960 Synod, ‘John Knox: Central Figure of the Reformation’, Rev J P MacQueen said:1 It is to be feared that his reputation as one of the most powerful and eloquent preachers of his day, with the fruit of widespread revivals, the edification, comfort and establishment of believers, and the salvation […]

  3. ibid., p. 169.
  4. ibid., pp. 68, 101; from ‘A Fort for the Afflicted, in an Exposition of the Sixth Psalm’.
  5. ibid., pp. 123-4.
  6. ‘A teleological conception of the universe’ – the belief that there is intelligent purpose, design and a final cause coming to expression in all that exists and occurs in creation.
  7. The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), p. 355.
  8. The Works of John Knox, Vol. 6 (Edinburgh: T. G. Stevenson, 1864), p. 267.
  9. Select Practical Writing, pp. 142-3.
  10. ibid., pp. 67-102.
  11. ibid., p. 175.
  12. ibid., pp. 247.
  13. Reformation in Scotland, p. 111.
  14. Select Practical Writings, pp. 1-2.
  15. John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Vol. 7 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth reprint, 2009), p. 73.
  16. ibid.
  17. That ‘almost’ was perhaps indicative of the sad but swift decline evident in the Scottish pulpit generally at the time of Taylor’s writing, 1887.
  18. Works of Knox, Vol. 6, p. 425.

Taken with permission from the June, July and August 2011 editions of The Free Presbyterian Magazine [Notes 2-7, 9, 11-18 added]. Rev Hugh Cartwright was, until his death in September 2011, minister of the Edinburgh congregation of the Free Presbyterian Church.

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