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John Knox and the Reformation

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This article first appeared in the May 1, 1960 issue of The Standard Bearer.

John Knox and the Reformation

by Rev. Gise Van Baren

It is very common among us that we celebrate the Reformation of the church, the beginning of which we consider to be the nailing of the 95 theses to the door of the Schlosskirche by Martin Luther on October 31, 1517. Without any doubt, that event is important and significant in the history of the church. This was the beginning of freedom from the bondage of idolatry and corruption as it existed in the Roman Catholic Church of that day. The dual principle of the Reformation was established: justification by faith, and interpretation of Scripture on the basis of Scripture.

Upon the basis of the learning, study, writing, and instruction of the leaders of this Reformation, the Protestant churches have been guided through the succeeding ages (at least many of them claim to follow the instruction of these Reformers). We too, as churches, maintain that we continue to uphold the same truths of Scripture which Calvin developed on the basis of Scripture.

The fact is, however, that generally we know very little of the Reformation. We have all heard of Calvin and Luther, but how much do we actually know of their lives and the struggles they had to face? It would not harm us at all if we knew more of the history of the Reformation. Simply to study history for the sake of increasing intellectual knowledge would be foolishness. But, as is true with all history, we can see in the Reformation the unfolding of God's counsel and purpose when He preserves His Church and His Truth through the events which then took place.

Of one of the Reformers we have possibly not even heard. That was John Knox. It is true that he is not listed as one of the more important of the Reformers. In fact, it might be better not even to place him in the same class as Luther or Calvin, for he was a follower of Calvin. Nevertheless, the influence of this man is also felt in Protestant churches; especially is this true in Scotland, and in England and the United States to a lesser degree.

First, it might be well to review briefly the history of this man. John Knox lived to be 67 years old (1505-1572). When Knox was born, Luther was 26 and had already been a priest for two years. On the other hand, Knox was four years older than John Calvin.

At the age of 25 Knox was ordained a Roman Catholic priest, and it was not until he was 40 that he became a Protestant convert (25 years after the 95 theses were nailed to the door of the Wittenburg church). Especially two things led to this turn of events in his life. He was greatly affected by the man George Wishart who strongly maintained the truths of Scripture. A short time after, Knox became acquainted with Wishart, the latter was captured and burned at the stake at the command of a Romish cardinal.

Two years after he had renounced Roman Catholicism, Knox himself was captured and was made a galley-slave for a period of 19 months. It is reported that during this time his health was ruined. Under pressure of the English authorities, Knox was finally released.

Knox, who was born in Scotland, was unable to return to his native land after his release. For five years he labored in England, and served as one of the six chaplains for King Edward VI. While in England, Knox was consulted when several of the standards of the English church were composed. He was forced later to flee also from England when the Roman Catholic Mary I (Bloody Mary) ascended the English throne.

The next five years of his life Knox lived in Europe, and spent much of this time at Geneva with John Calvin. Knox admired Calvin greatly and was influenced by the learning of this great Reformer. Of Calvin and his instruction, Knox stated that this was "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was since the days of the Apostles." While at Geneva, Knox served as pastor to a church composed of English exiles.

The last twelve years of the life of John Knox were spent in his homeland ― Scotland. Much could be written of all the struggles he endured there, but suffice it to say that without fear of man Knox stood firm in the truth. He was not even fearful to condemn his Queen when she walked in sin ― and he did that several times to her face.

There are several characteristics of this man John Knox which are worthy of note. First of all, he is to be admired for his strong stand for the truth. It is said of Knox that he was more Calvinistic than Calvin himself. It is evident that nothing could force him to renounce the truth of the Word of God. He strongly opposed all of the Romish corruption which he saw all about him in his own land. He minced no words in condemning the mass, idol worship, the Romish hierarchy, and the other false doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout his life he fought to remove this completely from Scotland. Nor must one think that this was a simple task. Scotland at that time was predominantly Roman Catholic ―including also its queen.

John Knox was not merely negative. He generally maintained those doctrines which are called Calvinistic. Of course, he insisted upon the truth of justification by faith, even as did Luther. But he was also very strong in maintaining the eternal election of God's people through Jesus Christ. He maintained the same idea of the celebration of the Lord's Supper as Calvin taught. He pointed too to the three marks which distinguish the church which are familiar to us.

You can call John Knox crude and rude as many have done. And undoubtedly his personality was not such that all men were attracted to him. He was indeed very outspoken. Bluntly he declared what he believed to be the truth. He did not couch his condemnations in beautiful language. But, after all, what matters all of that when a man steadfastly maintains the truth? Often the same charge has been made against others who likewise insisted upon the truth without compromise.

By such men as Knox God has also maintained His Church. Through God's power and wisdom, through His Word and Spirit, He sustains His Church. And throughout the ages He has provided His Church with men who led and directed that Church according to His Word.

A second feature of this man Knox was his fearlessness. It is true that several times he was forced to flee from one place to another. Yet Knox never fled because he was fearful of man. It was at the urging of friends who pointed out that he could serve no useful purpose by placing his life in jeopardy that John Knox would finally agree to remove to another place. His courage is plainly seen in many things during his life. Once he had been captured and made a galley-slave. Doubtless he could have avoided that by forsaking his calling in Scotland. In the latter part of his life, no less than five times, he was summoned to appear before Mary, queen of the Scots. When he stood before the reigning monarch, it was not he, but she, who trembled. He condemned her to her face for her worldly lusts (for she was one who craved the corrupt fashions of the day), and for her false and hypocritical worship of God. At least on one occasion Knox left the queen who copiously shed tears of anger and humiliation at his rebukes. She, who could have given the order to take away his life, was afraid of this man of God. God so preserved Knox that the Queen of Scots dared not to touch him. John Knox himself was confident of God's care and guidance; there was then no reason for him to fear.

When viewing the life of this man; one cannot help but recall the word and promise of Christ, "They shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you . . . being brought before kings and rulers for my name's sake. Settle it therefore in your hearts, not to meditate before what ye shall answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist" (Luke 21).

John Knox was noted also for his eloquence of speech. Eloquence of speech in itself means nothing, but when this gift is used in the service of the Word of Christ, it is a marvelous thing to hear. So forceful was he in his preaching that it is even said that on occasions, pulpits would be splintered. The story is that at the end of his life, when he was so weak that he had to be assisted to the pulpit, after he began to preach his old strength and vigor seemed to return.

What was his impact upon the Reformation? One must certainly acknowledge that he was not a Calvin or a Luther. Surely he was not as learned a man as either, nor was his influence as great. But God so used him that the country of Scotland became strongly Protestant. Without him, humanly speaking, this seemed impossible. Even today Scotland, has the reputation of being Calvinistic.

The influence of Knox was also felt in England itself. He assisted in formulating some of their creeds, but his influence goes further than that. If Scotland had remained Roman Catholic, there would have been great danger to Protestant England. Then Scotland could have been, used as a base for forces of Spain and France (which were Roman Catholic) to advance against England itself. The Pope could have directed armies friendly to himself to march against England and force Roman Catholicism upon that country. That was the desire of the Pope. But God had determined otherwise. God used this man to lead Scotland from Roman Catholicism and thus also to preserve Protestantism as it existed in England. If one man must be pointed out as the one who was most influential in propagating the views of Calvin among English-speaking peoples, that man would doubtless be John Knox.

Also in our country the influence of Knox is in evidence. Especially with the Puritans the teachings of Knox were transported to this country. And the fact that this country is not bound under the yoke of Romanism can also be traced back to Knox. England, more than any other country, influenced the development of this country. If England had remained Roman Catholic, there is the strong possibility that today the United States would also be dominantly Roman Catholic. All of the above presents a large number of suppositions, nevertheless it may show how that God used John Knox at the time of the Reformation to stand up for the truth; and that the effect of that work in which God directed him is yet in evidence today.

Here was a man of God. May we also receive of God grace that, as Knox, we too stand firm in the truth regardless of all of the opposition of man with the confidence that God will preserve His own in all adversity.

Van Baren, Gise J.

Rev. G. Van Baren (Wife: Clara)

Ordained: October, 1956

Pastorates: Doon, IA - 1956; Randolph, WI - 1962; First, Grand Rapids, MI - 1965; Hudsonville, MI - 1977; Loveland, CO - 1994

Emeritus: 1999

Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Rev._Gise_Van_Baren

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