A Different Way – lessons from John Knox
ON Monday 27 November the last Christian Institute Autumn lecture for 2017 was given by Iain Murray.
His subject was John Knox, the one time priest whom God transformed into a powerful preacher of the gospel in Scotland, Berwick upon Tweed and Newcastle upon Tyne and other places in England and Europe.
People seem either to love or hate Knox. David Fleming, a distinguished Scottish historian (1849 -1931), called him ”the greatest person Scotland has produced.”
Charles Warr (1892-1969), a chaplain to George VI and Elizabeth II, had a different opinion. His view was that Knox was a man who had few Christian virtues.
Murray began with a brief resumé of Knox’s life. He then provided three lessons from the life and ministry of John Knox.
The first concerns preaching. We tend to see preaching as teaching. As a result in some churches an emphasis on getting people to attend a course of training exists.
We want Christians to know what the Bible teaches. A failure to grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is to go against the teaching of the apostles (see 1 Corinthians 8.7; 2 Peter 1.2 & 3.18). However it is not intellectual knowledge alone that is needed. There is a more pressing need to know in our spirit Christ and his truth. Mere assent to the truth is not true faith. Faith also entails trust. Those who rely on Jesus are those who know his love, his joy, and his peace in their own heart (Romans 5.5; 15.13; Ephesians 3.19). That is what Knox came both to know and enjoy. And that is what made Knox’s preaching different from much preaching today.
Frequently when we think and talk about the Reformation of the 16th century we focus on historical events. But if we are to under-stand it properly then we need to see, as T M Lindsay writes, that it ”was a great revival.” No other explanation accounts for what happened during those years of political and religious upheaval. God was at work. By his Spirit he effected radical change. He trans-formed John Knox from being a man who spent his time dealing with legal and ecclesiastical tasks to being a passionate and powerful preacher.
Like Paul 1500 years before him, Knox knew that he was appointed by God to be a preacher (1 Timothy 2.7; 2 Timothy 1.11). He knew that he was not sent to preach with eloquent words (1 Corinthians 1.17) but in the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 1.3). Yes, preachers are to use the talents entrusted to them by God. But the church does not grow by the might or power of men. It grows (in numbers and godliness) by the power of God (Zechariah 4.6). Knox discovered that. And God shows this to his people through the preaching of John Knox. He was a preacher anointed with the Holy Spirit. That is what is essential for true preaching.
What we are saying is well illustrated in the two letters we have from Knox to the people of Newcastle upon Tyne and Berwick upon Tweed. The letters are dated May 1554 and November 1558. In reality they are more than letters. They are sermons. Passionately and persuasively Knox seeks to encourage those who look forward to the coming again of Christ, to continue faithful in godliness to the end. He does not shy away from but boldly proclaims the mystery of the gospel and the duties of those who are trans-formed by it (Ephesians 6.19).
Some may object that Knox was unique. It is true that he was a man raised up by God for his time. That does not mean, though, that the promise given by the Lord Jesus is not to be pleaded before the throne of God today. Christ Jesus tells us that as parents know how to give good gifts to their children so the heavenly Father will give his Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Luke 11.13). The need of the hour is for preachers who, like Knox, are anointed with the Holy Spirit. We need preachers who are enabled by the Spirit to preach boldly and clearly. And we need to see those who hear the good news of God accept it, not as the word of men, but for what it is, the very Word of God. For that to happen we should earnestly and consistently pray.
The second lesson we can learn from Knox concerns the content of preaching.
Knox preached both the law and love of God. Many today, it seems, do the latter and neglect the former. This is due to two misunderstandings.
On the one hand, there is a fear that if we preach for repentance we will be seen as being unloving or legalistic. It is true that people do not like to be made aware of their faults and sins. Yet Christ called his hearers to repent for the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Faithful preachers do the same.
On the other hand, there is an assumption that only a positive message (for example, God loves you) will encourage people to put their trust in the Lord Jesus.
The gospel message demands that its hearers do two things: we are to repent and have faith in Christ. It is not do one or the other, but both. That is what Christ taught. (Mark 1.15).
There are certain themes or topics that are not heard often today, for example, judgment and wrath. Why is Knox described as a man who had few Christian virtues? It is because he did not shy away from informing his hearers that the day of judgment for us all is coming. Nor did he shy away from telling those in authority (queens and nobles) as well as others that those who remain impenitent will experience the wrath of Almighty God.
It is not difficult to find the reason why Knox preached boldly on these subjects. He loved people. Love is the greatest virtue. And Knox had a heart full of it. It was love that drove him not to tone down the message of the Bible to suit those who are offended at being called to repent and believe. We do not say that Knox was insensitive. To say he was is to misunderstand him. Nor are we saying that Knox was perfect. No man is. Knox was no exception to that rule. But he was a man who had a passionate concern to see men, women and children reconciled to God.
The third lesson we can draw from the life of Knox concerns what God would have us do. Three duties may be mentioned.
First, we are to honour the Lord’s Day (Sunday). Some criticise Knox for not celebrating Christmas. What they fail to do is see that Knox was not concerned with man-made festivals such as Christmas or Easter. His focus was on what God requires of us in the Bible. So for Knox it was not an annual event that mattered. Rather it was what we are to do each and every week.
God has given us a seven day week. He has appointed that one day in seven is to be different to the rest. That one day is the day of the week upon which Christ rose from the dead and the day upon which the promised Holy Spirit came upon the disciples. Those events happened on the first day of the week. The day that is often called Sunday. It is the day upon which we rest from our usual activities and, with God’s people, listen to God’s Word and worship him.
Secondly, we are to worship God in Spirit and truth (John 4.23). Both the content and the character of our worship are important. In respect of content, confession, thanksgiving, praise, hearing God speak, and prayer are included. In respect of character, praise is to include psalms as well as spiritual hymns and songs (Ephesians 5.19). Hearing the written Word of God both read and preached is essential. It is the means by which we hear God’s voice and let his Word dwell in us richly (Colossians 3.16).
Thirdly, we are to use our ears and minds. True worship, says the Lord Jesus, is to be in Spirit and truth (John 4.23). Our aim is to listen and think, for faith comes by hearing (Romans 10.17). It is by hearing the Word of God that the faithful grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.
We do not imply that we are to be hearers only. Those who truly believe are those who also do the good works Christ would have us do (James 2.17). We put into practice the teaching of Christ. We build upon the solid and immoveable foundation of God’s Word written (Matthew 7.24-27).
Though not without fault, Knox has much to teach us. His passion was to preach the gospel. It was to see people come to faith and the church reformed by the Word of God. That passion was given and kept alive in him by the Spirit of God. May such an anointing of the same Spirit be upon us today.
George Curry 3 December 2017