John Row, a younger contemporary, described John Knox as the man “whom God used as a principal mean and instrument” in the Scottish Reformation. He was, Row added, “a zealous, godly preacher of God’s truth”. (1) Due appreciation indeed from one who had a spiritual understanding of the great work that Knox was used to accomplish in his native country!
Knox has not always been rightly appreciated in his own country. Far from it! David Hay Fleming began one of his reviews with the words: “‘Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets’. Of incurring this woe the great Reformer of Scotland has never run the slightest risk. Among his contemporary opponents there were some who feared and more who hated him; and among those who, up to a certain point, were on his side, there were not a few who disliked him. He was misrepresented and slandered while alive; and ever and anon, since his death, 350 years ago, he has been unjustly assailed and vilified. In this, as in some other cases, the persistency of the attacks on a leader of men is a real, though unintentional, tribute alike to his greatness and the extent of his influence.” (2) This was written very nearly 100 years ago, and most of today’s references to Knox are certainly not an improvement on those of Fleming’s time. Those who do not receive the Scriptures as Knox received them, and who do not feel the authority of the King of kings as Knox did, are unlikely to appreciate his forceful attitude to idolatry and error.
But how better to assess Knox’s beliefs and outlook than to go to his own writings? A selection of these are currently available in an attractive hardback edition thanks to the devoted labourers of Kevin Reed, who publishes under the Presbyterian Heritage Publications imprint. (3) These writings of Knox have been taken from the definitive six-volume edition of The Works of John Knox, edited by David Laing and first published in 1895. There has been some editing “to reflect contemporary spelling, punctuation and grammar”. Also some words have been added in brackets, either to complete the meaning of the sentence or to explain antiquated words and phrases.
After a chapter from Knox’s The History of the Reformation in Scotland, (4) the first piece in the book is “A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Sacrifice of the Mass is Idolatry”. This was Knox’s defence of himself in 1550 before the Bishop of Durham, some time after the Reformer had been appointed preacher in Berwick on Tweed under Edward VI. Knox comes to the heart of the matter: “Herein is the mass blasphemous unto Christ and His passion. For insofar as it offers or permits remission of sins, it imputes imperfection upon Christ and His sacrifice; affirming that all sins were not remitted by His death, but a great part are reserved to be purged by virtue and by the value of the mass. And also it is injurious unto Christ Jesus, and not only speaking most falsely of Him, but also usurping to itself that which is proper to Him alone. For He affirms that He alone has, by His own death, purged the sins of the world; and that no part rests to be changed by any other means. But the mass sings another song, which is, that every day, by that oblation offered by the priests, sin is purged and remission obtained. Consider, Papists, what honour your mass gives unto Christ Jesus!”
In 1553 the godly young king died and his fanatically-Romanist sister Mary was swept onto the English throne. Knox was by that time stationed in Newcastle, and he and many others had to flee to the Continent to escape persecution. From there he wrote “A Godly Letter of Warning or Admonition to the Faithful in London, Newcastle and Berwick”, wishing “continuance in godliness to the end”. This was no hurriedly-written note; it runs to over 50 pages in this volume! Knox was concerned lest those to whom he had preached these past few years would now be led to compromise with idolatry. “You have followed Christ”, he told them. “You have proclaimed war against idolatry. You have laid hand upon the truth and have communicated at the Lord’s table. Will you now suddenly slide back? Will you refuse Christ and His truth, and make pact with the devil and his deceitful doctrine? Will you tread the most precious blood of Christ’s testament under your feet and set up an idol before the people? . . . God, the Father of all mercies, for Christ His Son’s sake, preserve you from that sore temptation, whose dolours and dangers very sorrow will not suffer me to express.” But he encouraged his former flock. “Flee from idolatry,” he told them, “and stand with Christ Jesus in this day of His battle, which shall be short and the victory everlasting. For the Lord Himself shall camp 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.”
Also in this volume is Knox’s exposition of the early part of Matthew 4 – on the first of the Saviour’s temptations. It is based on Knox’s preaching during a visit to Scotland in 1556. It was published at the request of some who had derived benefit from it, “who before”, as Knox explained, “being in great anguish, did confess themselves somewhat reclaimed . . . by the doctrine of the same.” Knox had told his hearers: “Thus are we taught . . . by Christ Jesus to repulse Satan and his assaults by the Word of God, and to apply the examples of His mercies, which He has shown to others before this, to our own souls in the hour of temptation, and in the time of our troubles. For what God does to one at any time, the same appertains to all that hang and depend on God and His promises. And, therefore, however we are assaulted by Satan our adversary, within the Word of God are armour and weapons sufficient. The chief craft of Satan is to trouble those that begin to decline from his obedience and to declare themselves enemies to iniquity, with diverse assaults – the end whereof is always the same: that is, to put variance betwixt them and God into their conscience, that they should not repose and rest themselves in His assured promises.” It was Knox’s consistent purpose to direct believers to these assured promises. It was in these promises he had rested his own soul when he was turned from darkness to light. And it was from these promises that he found support in the face of all the opposition he had to experience as he sought to serve his Master.
At last, the time came for this zealous, godly preacher of God’s truth, raised up by God to provide leadership for the Scottish Reformation movement, to pass into eternity. Almost his last words were: “I give thanks to my God through Jesus Christ, who was pleased to give me the victory. And I am persuaded that the tempter shall not again attack me but, within a short time, I shall, without any great bodily pain or anguish of mind, exchange this mortal and miserable life for the blessed immortality through Jesus Christ.” (5)
His work was over. Yet the effects of his work have not altogether been swept away. And when the Lord will return to Scotland, He will – although we cannot prescribe to Him in detail how He will work – use fundamentally the same instrument of the preaching of His Word to bring down the forces of idolatry and error, which are so powerful today. Meantime, it is good to have available these writings of God’s faithful servant of over 400 years ago.
1. In his The History of the Kirk of Scotland, p 9.
2. Quoted from Fleming’s Critical Reviews Relating Chiefly to Scotland, p 188.
3. Selected Writings of John Knox, Public Epistles, Treatises and Expositions to the Year 1559, 640 pp, available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom. This is a review article.
4. Knox’s History has been reprinted in paperback by the Banner of Truth Trust and is available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom.
5. Quoted from Thomas M’Crie, The Life of John Knox, Free Presbyterian Publications edition, 1991, p 200. None of Knox’s more recent biographers has approached M’Crie’s spiritual understanding of the Reformer. This volume is presently available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom.