Sir John Knox, Bold Reformation Preacher

Sir John Knox, Bold Reformation Preacher
by Austin B. Tucker

The prospect of preaching terrified John Knox before his first sermon. Afterward he became one of the most fearless of preachers ever. This article will briefly sketch the life of Knox the reformer and then focus on his preaching.

Knox the Reformer

John Knox first appeared on the stage of history bearing the two-handed great sword as bodyguard to reformer George Wisehart. Canon law forbad priests to carry a weapon, but Knox, already disgusted with Rome, was committed to reforming Scotland. For five weeks Wisehart and his bodyguards spent each night in a different house to avoid arrest. Knox was willing to die with the reformer, but when Wisehart could no longer elude his pursuers, he sent Knox away, saying, “Nay, return to your bairns [children] and God bless you. One is sufficient for a sacrifice.” Biographer Jasper Ridley believed “if Knox had stayed with Wisehart some nine hours longer, he would have been burnt as a heretic in 1546.”

A few weeks later, a band of Protestants set out to revenge Wisehart. They raided St. Andrew’s Castle and killed Cardinal Beaton. They abused the corpse shamefully. Though Knox did not share in that raid, he soon shared the blame by moving into the castle as teacher to children of the rebels. He was indeed in total sympathy with their deeds, as he would later record in his History of the Reformation. Detailing the assassination of the cardinal and the desecration of his body, Knox inserted, ‘These things we write merrily.’ Those were violent times ñ especially in Scotland. In the hundred years before the birth of Knox, every king of Scotland without exception met a violent death.

The rebel force in the castle grew to about two hundred. John Rough, their preacher and Henry Balnavis, another leader, became increasingly impressed with Knox. One day a Romanist named Arnaud debated in the chapel and spoke of the Roman Catholic Church as the spouse of Christ. Knox interrupted the speaker from the audience to say Rome was no spouse but a harlot. He challenged the Romanist to debate him on that subject. Though Arnaud refused, the congregation insisted that Knox express his views in a sermon on the next Sunday.
Knox had never preached, and the prospect of intruding into that holy office terrified him. They would not be denied, however, so after a week of great soul struggle, in April, 1547, he preached his first sermon. His text was Daniel 7:24-25. Knox summarized the sermon in his History. He called the Church of Rome the Antichrist and cited the scandalous lives of some of the popes. He preached that jus-tification is by faith alone and not by any works of human righteousness. The reception of this first sermon convinced him that he had God’s call to preach. He never doubted it again.

The French fleet came in July 1547 to retake the castle. When the defenders surrendered, Knox and one hundred twenty other captives were sentenced to be galley slaves. They were chained to a rowing bench twenty-four/seven with a daily ration of one ship’s biscuit and water. It was sometimes as little as three ounces of food daily. Every three weeks they were afforded a little vegetable soup. Knox was thirty-three years old and in robust health when he began. Lesser men did not survive.

Two of the most-often-told episodes in the life of Knox come from these nineteen months of cruel bondage. Once a priest presented the slaves with a painted image of the Virgin Mary to kiss. Knox begged to be excused saying “Trouble me not. Such an idol is accursed, and therefore I will not touch it.’ They violently forced the icon into his hands and pushed it to his face. He tossed it overboard, saying:”Let our Lady now save herself. She is light enough; let her learn to swim.”

The other incident happened while they were anchored in sight of the spire of St. Andrews parish church where he preached his first sermon. His companions thought he was near death. A fellow slave asked him if he thought he would ever see that chapel again. He answered: “By the grace of God, I will yet again preach there.” Knox gained his freedom in 1549 through the intervention of King Edward VI, the remarkable ten-year-old “British Josiah.” The reformer accepted appointment as chaplain to the young monarch and as one of six itinerating preachers. He served five years in the court of that “most godly king of England” until Edward died of poison at age fifteen.

Knox spent about ten years in voluntary exile preaching in Germany, Switzerland and France with occasional trips to England and Scotland. He spoke English, French, and German as well as his native Lowland Scots language. He was also capable of reading his Bible in the original languages. In 1559 Knox returned to his very troubled homeland and the next year personally led the reformation forces to a military victory. He also deserves credit for the triumph of Calvin-ism in Scotland and for what became the Presbyterian Church. After Mary Stuart came to the throne in 1560, Knox was arrested, tried for treason, and acquitted. He spent his last years in Edinburgh and St. Andrews and died at home in old age.

F. W. Boreham’s sermonic essay on ‘John Knox’s Text’ tells us how he died. As the end neared, Knox said to his wife, ‘Go, read where I cast my first anchor!’ She needed no more explicit directions to find and read John 17, including especially those words of verse 3 ‘And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’ Shortly after that, his servant, Richard Bannatyne, asked if his master might give them some signal as the end approached that he still had the hope of glory described in that chapter. Knox agreed. Soon afterward, the dying man heard the servant’s question. ‘He raised a clay-cold fin-ger, and pointed to the sky.’

The Preaching of John Knox

Study of Knox, the reformer, has largely eclipsed study of Knox, the preacher. One reason surely is that almost none of his sermons in manuscript have come down to us. Perhaps only one or two true sermons, a few other addresses and summary reports of sermons are available. Richard Kyle’s recent study is one with a very helpful chapter on Knox as a preacher.

Knox believed a reformed pastor’s first duty was to preach God’s Word. Two other basic duties were to administer the sacraments and to enforce church discipline. As a true reformer, Knox dethroned the Mass. His calling was to preach the Word of God. Though it is still debated whether he kept the sacraments on a par with preaching, the weight of his writings supports preaching as central. And it was not mere preaching that he elevated but reformation preaching, the kind that returned the Bible to the pulpit as well as the pew. It was preaching a literal understanding of Scripture instead of the moralizing and allegorizing of the Middle Ages. Knox was convinced that the Bible was clear and intelligible to the average person. The preacher’s task was not so much to interpret the Bible as to declare what was self-evident in it.

He liked to preach through books of the Bible verse by verse. He preached through large books in the Old Testament and New such as Isaiah and the Gospel of John. Knox tended to emphasize the Old Testament. His view of God as unchanging led him to conclude that plagues, invasions, and natural disasters must judge Scotland and England as surely as Israel and Judah of old. Deuteronomy 12:32 was something of a key verse for his hermeneutic. ‘All that I command you, be careful to do it; you shall not add to it, nor take away from it.’ By this standard he sought to purify religion.

Knox preached long sermons and preached often. In Geneva he preached several times each week, and each sermon was two or three hours long.

He also was a pastoral preacher. He preached to comfort and encourage Christian living especially after Queen Mary’s rule ended in Scotland. His sermon on the first temptation of Christ in Matthew 4 starts with his specific objective, namely that his hearers not fear the crafty assaults of Satan. He previews a three-fold outline in the first paragraph. First, what the word temptation means and how it is used in Scripture. Second, who is here tempted and at what time this temptation happened. Third, how and by what means he was tempted and what fruits ensue. It is notable for a clear Biblical basis and for systematic treatment of theology of testing and temptation. He presents a Biblical theology of themes such as the forty days as a period of testing, and he gives evidence of thorough research of earlier expositors on the text.

Knox typically organized his sermons into a two-fold structure. First he expounded the text. Then he drew doctrinal or practical application. His closing exhortations often applied the text to society. He focused on political leaders especially, making them heroes or villains. He earned their wrath more often than not. He also liked to select a practical subject like prayer and build a doctrinal sermon from an appropriate text. He did not hopscotch through the Bible for proof texts as in the typical topical sermon of many preachers today.

He spoke in plain terms to reach the common man. Others spoke of ‘the sacrament of the alta1.’ Knox called it simply ‘the mass.’ He could be harsh but said he took no joy in it. He was obeying his Master who commanded him to use plain speech and to flatter no flesh. Dargan, in his History of Preaching cited a report of great boldness in the preaching of Knox in the court of King Edward. Knox asked, “What wonder is it that a young and innocent king be deceived by crafty, covetous, wicked and ungodly councilors? I am greatly afraid that Ahithophel is councilor, that Judas bears the purse, and that Shebnah is scribe, controller and treasurer.” Knox later reproached himself for those words; he thought them not strong enough in rebuke of iniquity.

Knox preached to change individuals and nations. He proclaimed the evangel as a true reformer preaching for decision. He wanted Scotland to be a Christian republic; separation of church and state was not a part of his theology. He wanted the evangel ‘truly and openly preached in every Kirk and Assembly’ of the realm. His Book of Discipline called for all doctrine repugnant to the Scriptures to be ‘utterly suppressed as damnable to man’s salvation.’ When in the minority, believers must separate from idolatry; when in the majority they must abolish it. He believed in the priesthood of the believers but made a strong case for state support of the ministry. Probably the long tradition of state support of the ministry and presence of so many ministers in poverty influenced this view.

His delivery was what we usually call today extemporaneous. He prepared thoroughly but did not write out a manuscript. From an incidental remark in his Administration of England we learn that his method was to speak from a few notes made on the margin of his Bible. His preaching made a profound impact on those who heard him. James Melville, the nephew of Andrew Melville, heard Knox preach and took notes on delivery as well as content. His account was written in Old English, but I offer the following summary in updated English.

“He spent the first half hour in opening up of his text. In this he spoke with moderation. . . . But when he began the application of the scripture he caused me so to shudder and tremble that I could not hold a pen to write. . . . He was so vigorous in his pulpit that I thought he was likely to beat the pulpit to pieces and fly out of it.”

related link:

About The Author

Most of my life has been as a pastor of Southern Baptist churches. Preaching, teaching and writing have been the major emphases of my ministry. It has long been my prayer that my mature years might be given more to teaching and writing. Especially do I want to help young pastors in sharpening their preaching and other ministry skills.