The Thunderous Roar of John Knox
Preaching the Word of God is one of the most blessed tasks a man may be called to perform. However, just as James warns that not all should desire to teach—for their judgment will be all the harsher before Christ (James 3:1)—many others prove to be ineffective communicators of gospel truth because they have failed to apprehend by faith the very conviction of truth needed to be a true preacher of the Word of God. Though various styles are used in preaching, and though God can take a man who mumbles, stumbles, and studders and make much of his message, the one who is not convicted of the truth will not a good preacher make. The point is not as much oratoary ability, but zeal for God and His Word.
John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, was one of those blessed men who possessed, from all accounts, both pathos and ethos; that is, Knox possessed the rare ability to passionately communicate what he held most dear: The Word of God. While the aim of preaching is never to entertain or produce a manufactured emotional response, true Gospel preaching will often thunder forth from a pulpit whether or not the preacher is himself emotional. The Word of God carries with it a distinct power to rouse up faith, conviction, repentance, and a turning towards Christ within the hearts of sinners as the Holy Spirit performs the act of regeneration (Rom. 10:17). But man is much less likely to preach that which he does not believe or care about. Therefore, the one who is convinced of the truth of Scripture and convicted by it cannot do anything other than stand upon the Word of God, will be, of necessity, a compelling communicator of Gospel truth.
John Knox was such a man. From the time his pulpit ministry began, right up until his death, Knox thundered forth the Word from the pulpit and wrote ferociously with his pen. James Melville, having gone to see Knox in 1571 only one year prior to his death, wrote:
“Of all the benefits I had that year was the coming of that most notable prophet and apostle of our nation, John Knox, at St. Andrews. I heard him teach the prophecies of Daniel that summer and the winter following. In the opening of his text he was moderate the space of a half an hour, but when he reached the application he made me tremble so much that I could not hold the pen to write. He wielded this power when in bodily weakness, for he had to be helped into the church and lifted into the pulpit where he had to lean on his first entry. But when he came to his sermon he was so active and vigorous that he was like to beat the pulpit into pieces and fly out of it.”
The Scottish reformer, even frail in weak in age, was bold as a lion while tender as a lamb and always a bulwark of true, Christian faith. There is much, then, that the Christian who lives in a society intolerant towards Christians can learn from this powerful Saint of the past.
Knox is, perhaps, best known today as a thunderous preacher of the Word of God who embodied the righteous man of Proverbs 24:1: He was as bold as a lion throughout his ministry, whether preaching to the masses or standing against “Bloody” Mary, Queen of the Scots. Protestant Christians were typically not tolerated in Knox’s day, and the reformer often found himself facing various modes of persecution. Yet, he never once stopped boldly proclaiming the truth.
This courageous preaching was an admirable feature of his ministry. In his exceptional and succinct biography of Knox, Iain H. Murray writes:
“It was said of [Knox] when he died that he ‘never feared the face of man’; and that is true of him… He was never afraid to be alone, and to stand alone. His was the same heroic character that you see in Martin Luther standing in the Diet of Worms and elsewhere.
“But consider him as a preacher. His great characteristic as a preacher was vehemency. Great preachers are generally vehement; and we should all be vehement. This is not the result of nature only; it arises from the feeling of the power of the gospel. Vehemence is, of course, characterized by power; and John Knox was a most powerful preacher, with the result that he was a most influential preacher… [It was said of him that he was] One man ‘more influential than the blustering of five hundred trumpets in our ears.’”
Vehemency is, of course, something every preacher of the Word of God should desire, for this is the evidence of one who is passionate for the truth and King Jesus. Intensity and forcefulness, when coupled with loving compassion and tenderheartedness, are the gifts of God that make a man effective in his Gospel proclamation, and are to be desired by the preacher and his congregation. This is not to say that one should simply scream, shout, and yell. Many men scream, shout, and yell about things they care about very little. Rather, such an attitude of intensity is on display in preachers and pastors who truly love the Lord and His Word, even when they speak with a still-small voice to tenderly care for the sheep entrusted to their care. Vehemency is not merely in vocal delivery; it is, in fact, in the conviction behind the words spoken themselves, for what a pastor says from the pulpit matters and what he says must be true.
Knox knew he needed the truth, and it was to the truth of the Word of God that he clung. He needed such steady assurance and anchoring for his faith for he often found himself not only opposing the rule of Queen Mary, but often being targeted by her. One notable anecdote reports that Queen Mary once remarked, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe.” Whether or not this was ever said by Mary, it does help one understand Knox’s tenacity and powerful ministry. His words were not man-centered or fueled by his own charismatic wit; rather, his ferocious faithfulness in and out of the pulpit was due to his prayer life and the Holy Spirit’s imbuing him with grace. Oh, that the Lord would grant such prayer-warriors today!
Indeed, like Luther before him, Knox was a man of prayer. Spiritually, his prayer life is evidenced in his boldness and his boldness in his prayers. This was the man who once prayed, “Give me Scotland, or I die.” This was a man who was willing to say what many others were only willing to think. He was a man who did not seek to offend, but was willing to offend with the truth of God’s Word.
Knox’s boldness teaches us to beware of the double-edged sword of “tolerance” and “niceness.” Too many Christians today think they're doing the world a favor by remaining silent about sin and refusing to share the Gospel (which always began with, “Repent!”). This is a “sissified" faith that cares little for the countless souls on their way to Hell. The exclusivity of salvation in Christ alone compels us to not be silent cowards. Does not the Word of God command us to be bold as lions (Prov. 28:1), and to, "Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong" (1 Cor. 16:13)?
While the Christian should not seek to be offensive, he must be willing to let the truth offend. Perhaps one of the bravest things a Christian can do today is not live by lies. Rather, we must love the truth, live the truth, and proclaim the truth, which is found in the Word of God and especially in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Charles Spurgeon once remarked, men who are bold-hearted and firm in their convictions will always be called mean-spirited by the world. Knox was called mean-spirited in his own time and still hated by some today. Yet, as is so often the case, and as Knox himself proves, those who are most convicted of the truth, who appear the most mean-spirited to sinners, are in fact the most loving and grieve the most deeply over sin and the lost.
This attitude empowered Knox to preach with such thunderous confidence as to ward off the wolves and to tenderly care for the sheep; it also spurred his pen to publish such an unrestrained, passionate, and yet biblical work as his The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women in 1559. Though it provoked the ire of many at the time, and continues to raise the eyebrows of those familiar with it today, the truth is that Knox firmly believed Scripture taught that women were not only to be submissive in families and churches, but in society as well. Therefore, for Knox, “Bloody” Mary’s reign was one to be opposed. Like the prophet Isaiah sharing oracles of woe against the sins of those around him, Knox powerfully demonstrated from Scripture, nature, and Church history that his position was one to be heard and considered at the very least, and even embraced by the Protestant community at large.
Knox would have agreed wholeheartedly with the words of Dorothy Sayers:
"In the world it calls itself Tolerance; but in hell it is called Despair. It is the accomplice of the other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for."
Many may have preferred Knox to simply tolerate Mary, Queen of the Scots, but he could not tolerate what he did not believe to be biblical. There are too few men like this today. Knox was not a man who tolerated sin or opposition to God’s Word in any manner, but he was a man committed to the truth of God’s Word and ways. This commitment to God and His Word would even lead him into the life of a slave in the French galley, but even there, he would remain committed to the Lord, longing for the day when he would once more preach His Word.
Jacob Tanner is pastor of Mt. Bethel Church of McClure in Central Pennsylvania. He has spent time as a reporter, journalist, and editor, and has written for various Christian websites. He and his wife, Kayla, have one son, Josiah. Jacob is currently completing his M.Div. through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
"The Real John Knox" by Thomas Kidd
"John Knox on Predestination" by Donald Maclean
"The Quartersawn Sermon" by Jim McCarthy
Words to Winners of Souls by Horatius Bonar
Why Johnny Can't Preach by T. David Gordon
John Knox, Works, vol. 6, ed. David Laing, xlvii–xlviii.
 Martyn Lloyd Jones and Iain H. Murray, John Knox and the Reformation (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2011), 49-50.
 Calvin is quoted in a letter from the time, as writing, “Two years ago [i.e. in 1557] JOHN KNOX asked of me, in a private conversation, what I thought about the Government of Women. I candidly replied, that as it was a deviation from the original and proper order of nature, it was to be ranked, no less than slavery, among the punishments consequent upon the fall of man: but that there were occasionally women so endowed, that the singular good qualities which shone forth in them made it evident that they were raised up by Divine authority; either that GOD designed by such examples to condemn the inactivity of men, or for the better setting forth of His own glory. I brought forth Huldah and Deborah; and added, that GOD did not vainly promise by the mouth of Isaiah that “Queens should be nursing mothers of the Church”; by which prerogative it is very evident that they are distinguished from females in private life. I came at length to this conclusion, that since, both by custom, and public consent, and long practice, it hath been established, that realms and principalities may descend to females by hereditary right, it did not appear to me necessary to move the question, not only because the thing would be most invidious; but because in my opinion it would not be lawful to unsettle governments which are ordained by the peculiar providence of GOD.” (Taken from David Laing’s Preface to The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/9660/9660-h/9660-h.htm)
 Dorothy Sayers, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 152.