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.
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.”