Dear Brothers and Sisters,
It was good this morning to be at Grace City Church in Waterloo, Sydney. Like all churches here it has had to go online – but they do it really well. I was there to discuss Acts 17 after the service. If you want to see how they did it, I will put both services at the end of this letter. They thought they would provide some Scottish food –
I have been reading Gerard Bray’s latest book, The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland. It is an ambitious and comprehensive survey which I have found fascinating (a review will follow) – none more so when he discusses subjects I have an interest in and know a little about. His summary of John Knox is fascinating and got me to thinking how Knox would fare today. There are similarities!
According to Bray, Knox was a ‘young and aspiring Catholic priest’, who in the 1540’s, when he was in his thirties, came to accept the biblical teaching of justification by faith alone’. It was dangerous for Knox to speak out in public, not least because of the political situation where Cardinal Beaton was determined to get rid of Lutheran ‘heresy’. It was not until the 13th of December 1545 that after hearing a sermon by George Wishart, he committed himself to the Reformation.
Lesson for Today 1: The preaching of the Gospel under the power of the Spirit is the primary means of turning the world upside down!
Bray states that one of the most important lessons Knox learned from Wishart was that ‘the true church is not a worldwide institution of government but a persecuted minority of faithful believers who resurface in every generation and suffer the consequences of their faithfulness.”.
Lesson for Today 2: There are still too many in the Church in Scotland (note ‘in’ not ‘of’) who see themselves as being a civic institution rather than a body that turns the world upside down.
When Wishart was martyred, Knox was a lecturer in St Andrews. He could have kept his head down, carried on with his relatively comfortable life, and justified it by claiming to an influence within. But he accepted the challenge to become a preacher, which at the time was tantamount to a prison or death sentence. He was arrested in August 1547 and taken to France where he was made a galley slave. A Scots preacher not wanted in his own land. Would never happen today?!
Meanwhile the national church and political leadership in Scotland made a few half-hearted attempts at reform – with calls for better preaching, the need to preach sound doctrine and for clergy to set a better example in morality and lifestyle. Again, I note the similarities (along with the differences) with the Church in Scotland today.
Lesson for Today 3: The Church needs to do a lot more than rearrange the deckchairs (or presbyteries) on the Titanic. Without radical reformation, there will be no renewal.
Knox returned on a reconnaissance trip in 1555/6 and was amazed at the changed atmosphere. “Everywhere he went he was asked to preach, and even some of the nobility were prepared to listen to him. Here and there small groups of Protestants were meeting for worship and bible study.”
Lesson for Today 4: The Lord’s work is the Lord’s work. He doesn’t need us or our strategies, schemes and plans. We just need to let his word loose – and we will be surprised at how it always bears fruit.
The growth of these groups (who soon appointed elders to lead them) was noticed by the political leadership. Marie de Guise, the regent queen acting for her daughter, Mary, ordered the known leaders of the new movement to come and meet with her on the 10th of May 1559. She got more than she bargained for. John Knox had returned for the second time, and he decided to join those who had been summoned. As did many supporters from Dundee and the North East. So, these rebellious Dundonians (oh, that we would have those kind of Dundee rebels today!) marched towards Stirling. They worried that their large numbers might frighten the government, so they sent John Erskine ahead to ask for a postponement of the meeting. Instead, the Regent outlawed all the preachers including Knox. At this point in today’s Scotland, I suspect most church leaders would talk about how it is our duty to obey the government! But not Knox.
Lesson for Today 5: Whilst the Church must give to Caesar (the State) what is Caesar’s, we are not to give to Caesar’s what is Gods. I am astounded at how much church leaders are prepared to go along with the secularist vision that the Church should just be a private club, or just a useful arm of the all-powerful State.
Instead of obeying the Regent Knox went into the parish church in Perth and preached a stirring sermon against ‘idolatry’. This incited the mob who smashed up the ‘idols’ in the church. The city authorities thinking it would calm the situation, and because they were sympathetic, banned the Catholic mass in the city. The behaviour and the publicity were bad for the Reformers. Many nobles and others would not want to be associated with such a mob. In today’s Scotland this would cause church leaders to back down – because they don’t want to be associated with the mob, or the lunatic fringe. But we need to recognise that whenever there is a work of the Lord there will be extremes and the devil seeking to cause chaos – that does not mean that we should stop seeking to do the work of the Lord! It’s strange how quick some are to dissociate themselves from the eccentrics on the fringe of the Church, but far too happy to associate themselves with the secularists at the heart of power.
Lesson for Today 6: Whilst we are to be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves, don’t let fear of being considered a weirdo or extremist, keep you from speaking God’s truth.
Marie de Guise however did not handle the situation well – I doubt she understood anything of the Gospel (not unlike a female leader in Scotland today!) and as a result the Earl of Argyll and James Stewart (an illegitimate son of King James V), joined the Reformers and marched on St Andrews. From then on Fife and Dundee were to be the centre of the Reformation. Edinburgh remained the main problem (plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose as Marie de Guise might say!). But thanks to the English fleet coming to help and Marie de Guise dying – the Reformation took over – and was more through than in any other country at that time. Bray makes the interesting observation that” “The Scottish Reformation was both more peaceful and more consensual than reformation was in many other places.”
Lesson for today 7: If Scotland is to be won again for the Lord – we are going to need help from the English – and indeed any of our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world. Korean, Brazilian, African – all are welcome!
The war was won but the fight continued. Knox was appointed the minister in St Giles in Edinburgh. This was not the easiest post in the Church! He had to flee more than once – but that did not prevent him preaching ‘the implications of godly reformation’, not only to the people, but also to the government. On 17th August 1560 the Scots voted for a full reformation of the Church, sanctioned the First Scottish Confession, then later adopted a metrical psalter for use in worship and the Book of Discipline
Lesson for Today 8: It takes courage and nerve to preach truth to power, and to seek a full reformation of the church, in doctrine, discipline and worship.
The First Book of Discipline was a remarkable document. Not only did it set out in detail what a Reformed church should look like, it also set out a vision for society. Not least in the remarkable idea that there should be universal education and a literate population. It is one of the sad ironies of modern Scotland that, as we have rejected Knox’s vision, so our people have become more illiterate (one in five Scots is functionally illiterate) and education has become more about social engineering than education. It is also depressing that in a society supposedly led by progressives’ education has become more exclusive – increasingly to get a good education you need to have money. In progressive Scotland it is the poor who pay the price for the ideologies of the progressive middle classes.
Lesson for Today 9: Until the Church in Scotland takes education seriously, and stops acquiescing in the indoctrination of our children into anti-Christian values, then all hopes of reformation and renewal are just chasing after the wind.
Finally, Bray makes a remarkable statement which I had not thought about before – and instinctively it seems wrong – and yet I suspect his analysis is accurate. He writes “Mary’s exile was not the end of Catholic resistance in Scotland, which was tolerated to a degree almost unheard of elsewhere.” The notion of Reformation Scotland as being a tolerant society may seem somewhat counter intuitive (and there were aspects of society which did not reflect that – it was by no means perfect), but the reality is that in the context of the time Scotland became a model of democracy, tolerance, innovation and education.
Lesson for Today 10: Biblical Christianity should enable us to be more tolerant and loving of others. The stronger you are in your faith in the Lord and his word, the less you need to have ‘phobias’ about those who disagree with you. Fear comes out of our desire to control and dominate. Faith means that we believe that because the Lord is Lord, then he is the only one we need to fear. Biblical Christianity should enable us to be more tolerant and loving of others.
By the time Knox died in 1572, the Scottish Reformation was secure. Scotland was to reap the benefits for the next 300 years – indeed up to the present day. But over the past 150 years we have gradually been throwing away that heritage. For me the decline can be marked as beginning in two areas – firstly when the colleges and Universities (especially the Free Church ones) began accepting the German Higher Criticism theories of the Bible. That was a poison that slowly worked its way through the Church until by the 1960’s when the ‘progressive’ revolution first hit Scotland, the Church was so weakened it collapsed like a house of cards. The second date is 1872 – when the churches (with the exception of the Catholic church – who in this regard were wiser) handed over our schools to the State.
Like much of the rest of the Western world, Scotland is in a serious decline (which is why much of what is written here about Scotland applies to other Western churches and societies). We are regressing back to a Greco/Roman/Pagan view of the world – with all the dreadful societal consequences that will involve. The fact that our leaders think they are progressive and enlightened, even as they return us to darkness, is something to be lamented, rather than laughed at.
The primary cause of all of this is the decline of the Church. The Church of Scotland has gone even quicker than I thought it would into apostasy, and irrelevancy. The more it tries to be relevant, the more it becomes irrelevant. In Knox’s Scotland the Roman Catholic Church is now the largest Church in Scotland. The RC Church is not the threat it was at the Reformation – indeed God in his sovereignty may well bring renewal and revival through it (as Prof Finlayson once argued in the Free Church College). The Free Church is the largest of the ‘other’ Presbyterian churches – it has largely avoided the trap of reacting to liberalism with legalism, and has instead been given a golden opportunity and an open door. But it is yet to be seen whether it has the vision, courage and leadership to walk through that door. There are now many other churches in Scotland – some remnants of bygone days, and others ‘new expressions’ of the Church. Whilst, as in the days of Elijah, we can be assured and encouraged that there are ‘7,000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal’, the reality is that the situation in Scotland, in church and society, is confused, unclear and uncertain – a bit like Scotland in the 16th Century! I have no idea where the renewal will come from!
Which is where the encouragement comes in. God did it before. And he can do it again. But reformation, revival and renewal begin with us. And by us, I mean Christians who love the Lord and honour his Word, of whatever denomination. We cannot call the society to repentance and faith, unless we repent and have faith ourselves. We hear a lot about our plans, our vision statements, our strategies. Eg we aim to plant ‘x’ number of churches by ‘y’ year. We set ourselves goals which are at one and the same time unrealistic and too small in vision. The whole point of targets is that they are what we aim for. But our aim should be to see ‘God glorified on earth’. Let’s not limit his glory to our strategies. They may be useful in our administration – but they should only ever be tools – not our vision.
We need a positive proclamation of the beauties and glories of Christ and his kingdom. To some we will be the stench of death – they will want rid of us – and they may succeed. But our ‘reek’ will infect the whole land. To others we will be the perfume of life. And right now, Scotland needs that perfume. Maranatha – come Lord Jesus.
This has turned out to be a wee bit longer and more heartfelt than I anticipated…! See you next week.
Yours in Christ,
Here is the second service from Grace City – I would recommend listening to the sermon – but if you just want the discussion it starts about 30 minutes from the end.
That was the later service…the is the earlier one….the sermon is the same but the discussion was completely different – again about 30 minutes in…