Editor: In our Family History Series we are seeking to understand how Christians of the past have pursued making disciples. We want to connect the church’s current efforts to make, mature, and multiply disciples to its historical roots as well as encourage the church to learn from her rich past. So far in our series:
- 4 Simple Ways Fred Elliot Discipled His Children
- 4 Lessons from St. Patrick for Making Disciples the Irish Way
- 3 Counter-Cultural Lessons from Elisabeth Elliot
- 2 Principles for Living Free from J. R. R. Tolkien
John Knox was born in Haddington, c. 1514, though admittedly there is some debate on the exact date. We do know that Knox was born into a poorer family with not a lot of resources. Upon completion (another point of historical contention) of University in 1536, Knox was ordained as a priest. By 1543 he was converted to Christ after a couple of years working as a tutor and notary. While not much is known regarding the context of his conversion, so began the journey of the man who would thunder the gospel in a dark Scotland.
As a pastor, I am intrigued by the life of John Knox and taken back by the trials he persevered through. For example, in 1546, the French took the castle at St. Andrews and the aftermath led to Knox’s enslavement for 19 months. Yet Knox persevered. Eventually he went back to England to preach the gospel during one of the more difficult times of English history.
While history is undoubtedly under the control of the sovereignty of God, Knox would contend with both the religious establishment (fighting against Anglican formalism in worship and Roman Catholicism) as well as the civil establishment. The latter contention would escalate when in 1553, Mary Tudor (“Blood Mary”) would rise to power after King Edward VI died. Knox lived in a time of political uncertainty—something we can learn from indeed.
As God would have it, Knox fled to Geneva in 1554 where he developed a friendship with John Calvin. Knox would visit Geneva several times, but in 1559 returned to Scotland to pastor at St. Giles, Edinburgh. From there Knox wrote, taught, preached, and fought for the gospel, eventually dying in 1572. You can find his grave underneath a parking lot at St. Giles Church today.
1. Power of Prayer
It is said that Mary, Queen of the Scots, feared the prayers of John Knox more than the assembled armies of Europe. Though weak in stature, the Reformer was a man broken before the Lord. He was a humble man who trusted not in himself but in the greatness of God. Prayer is a sure and steady sign that reads, “God is really great and powerful, I am not.” Knox was this type of man.
From his rough childhood, run-ins with various Cardinals and Bishops, to his time in captivity and on the run—Knox knew that in the midst of all these circumstances that he had to commit himself to the Lord. And what better way is there to do so than through communion with him in prayer? A humbled soul is a prayerful soul.
Perhaps one of the most telling aspects of Knox’s prayer life was his ability to pray in defense of the gospel and pray for his enemies. A prayer for Queen Mary is worth noting,
Behold our troubles and apparent destruction, and stay the sword of the thy vengeance before it devour us. Place above us, O Lord, for thy great mercies’ sake, such a head, with such rulers and magistrates, as fear thy name, and will the glory of Christ Jesus to spread. Take not from us the light of thy Evangel, and suffer no papistry to prevail in this realm. Illuminate the heart of our sovereign lady, Queen Mary, with pregnant gifts of thy Holy Ghost, and inflame the hearts of her counsel with thy true fear and love.
The prayers of John Knox were answered no different than our prayers today. In some circumstances, the Lord grants our requests according to his sovereign will. In other cases, the prayer is not answered. Either way, our God is the Lord and he knows what is best.
The power of prayer lies not within the sinner but the Savior. Getting this order right for discipleship is crucial. The disciple of Jesus is to be a man committed solely to the glory of God through a prayer life marked by a humble posture and persevering spirit. Such was the great Scottish Reformer.
2. Necessity of Conviction
John Knox was man with conviction running through his veins. Much like the Apostle Paul who “[proclaimed] the kingdom of God and [taught] about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance,” Knox believed in both the grace and severity of God. His prayers, preaching, writing, and actions all aligned in a such a way as to demonstrate the reality that conviction is necessary if reformation is desired.
Perhaps one of my favorite pictures in history is a painting of John Knox preaching before Queen Mary and her council that was drafted in such a way as to demonstrate the conviction that poured through the life of Knox. Towering in the pulpit above the crowd, Knox thundered the gospel to the magistrates present. As D. Martin Lloyd-Jones has pointed out, Knox was a man with “astounding energy,” “shrewdness,” and “courage.” His ability to discern, press on, and courageously preach the gospel was rooted in his conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that his crown rights must be acknowledged by all nations, especially his beloved Scotland.
Knox saw compromise and darkness in his homeland. It was in poor condition and immersed in moral decadence. What is someone to do in a situation like this? Have conviction. The world could use more conviction. For disciples of Jesus, conviction is a prerequisite, which is why Paul told Titus that an elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Disciples who make disciples must be men and women who are committed to standing on the truth of God’s Word convicted to the deepest parts of our souls that Christ is King and that his gospel is sufficient. Nothing short of all-out commitment to raising the banner of Christ crucified will suffice.
3. Priority of Preaching
At one point in Knox’s young life, he didn’t want to preach. In fact, when he was confronted about this issue, it is said that he left the room in tears, buckling under the weight of the task. For Knox, preaching was an incredibly large task, not because the preacher was anything special, but because the message was so precious.
During Knox’s young life, preaching wasn’t the focus in the Roman Catholic Church. After his conversion, his chaplaincy at St. Andrews proved an opportunity for him to teach. Knox feared the pulpit, but not because the message wasn’t powerful to transform, or because he could never do it—no, the fear was the weight of its importance. It was of utmost importance which meant it must be done soberly.
His zeal for the gospel led to his power in the pulpit. Like a man wielding a sword in battle, so was Knox in the pulpit with the Bible. He didn’t shy away from cutting through the stone hearts of people with the truth of the sinfulness of man and the holiness of God and offering those same sinners hope in the gospel. Christ was the focus of his preaching because Christ was the focus of his life.
“When Knox stepped into the pulpit to preach the Word of God, he opened with a half hour of calm exposition of the text before him. Thereafter, he became more vigorous.” The Bible was a priority for Knox because the gospel was the priority of the church. It was this prioritizing of the gospel that fueled the fire that came from Knox. That fire led to the Spirit of God working in the lives of many people.
As disciples, we must commit ourselves to preaching. Like Knox, we must see it as the priority because God uses the foolishness of ourselves and the cross as the means by which He saves sinners. Knox’s example here is worth our consideration. Do we truly value preaching? Are we humble in our approach to this daunting task? Do we really believe that the preaching of God’s word is enough?
4. Need for Perseverance
We are in desperate need of perseverance. Some say desperate times call for desperate measures—we might say desperate times call for faithful measures. Without perseverance, which is a repeated theme throughout Scripture, discipleship falls flat.
The life of John Knox briefly outlined above demonstrates quite clearly that 1) Most of us haven’t walked through the things he did, and 2) We have no excuse for choosing to abandon the mission of God. Knox trusted in the sovereignty of God believing that God writes the story of history and he does so with us as his characters. He had a big God and big theology to boot. No doubt there were times of deep sorrow for the great Reformer—indeed there are plenty of times of sorrow for each of us!—but let us learn this last thing from Knox: Perseverance is water we drink during the times of seemingly unending fiery trials.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” –Hebrews 12:1-2
Jesus endured for us so we in turn endure because of and for him. He gives strength. He gives wisdom. He gives conviction. He gives courage. He gives righteousness. Christ gives hope. Oh how prone we are to wander! God, grant your servants an unending supply of perseverance!
Follow Knox As He Follows Christ
Knox is a man worth emulating. While no stranger to controversy, Knox was committed to the kingdom of God first and foremost. Like today’s culture, Scotland was a religious wasteland. Everyone did whatever was right in his own eyes. Knox reformed Scotland because the gospel light was dim. Though several hundreds years from our context, we can learn a lot from Knox. Knox had a sense of urgency—to make the gospel known everywhere. That, after all, is the heart of a disciple.
We don’t look to John Knox because he was great in and of himself. We don’t look to John Knox, we look to Jesus Christ, the King who John Knox served. We learn from this humble servant of history how to follow someone who is following Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). May the Church in America never lose hope, but instead cling so dearly to the gospel of King Jesus that John Knox so fervently clung to.
 John Knox, The Select Practical Writings of John Knox (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2011), 25.
 Acts 28:31, emphasis mine.
 See: D. M. Lloyd-Jones and Iain H. Murray, John Knox and the Reformation (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2011).
 Douglas Bond, The Mighty Weakness of John Knox (Sanford: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2011), 55.
Rev. Jason M. Garwood (M.Div., Th.D.) serves as Lead Pastor of Colwood Church in Caro, MI and author of Be Holy and The Fight for Joy. Jason and his wife Mary have three children, Elijah, Avery and Nathan. He blogs at www.jasongarwood.com. Connect with him on Twitter: @jasongarwood.