Our Reformed Heritage
Defend and Protect
[Lesson 6: The example of John Knox]
by Bob Burridge ©2019
There have been times of great suffering for Christians. One such time was in England, Scotland, and Wales beginning in 1554. Queen Mary Tudor petitioned parliament to abolish Protestantism. She wanted to end the Reformation and restore Roman Catholicism.
A horrible persecution broke out against all reformed people in the nation. It’s been reported that 284 were burned at the stake including pastors, women, and children. Another 400 or so died in prison of starvation. This earned the Queen the title “Bloody Mary”.
One of those who stood for the reformed faith was John Knox of Scotland.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the faithful are often hated by the lost and treated with violence. The message of the gospel isn’t good news to those who don’t believe it. It tells us that we all inherit a lost condition from Adam. Left to ourselves we won’t accept the truth about ourselves or about God. We will not because we cannot due to our fallen condition. All are equally lost and deserving of eternal separation from God. It says that those who are saved from this eternal damnation don’t deserve it. They aren’t better people. They can’t earn it, or buy it, or trade for it.
Salvation is a gift. Believing what God has promised and done through Christ doesn’t give anyone a reason to brag or to be proud. Jesus died for his people to pay the price they all owe, and he gives them his righteousness which they don’t deserve.
This doesn’t set well with those who are still in spiritual blindness. So they call us bigots, radicals, extremists, hate mongers when it’s really the unsaved critic who elevates himself above the believer. There’s no room for superior feelings in the Christian’s heart. It’s all by grace alone.
Jesus warned many times that his followers would not be appreciated. In John 15:20 he warned his followers, “… If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. …” Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:12, “… all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. ” In 1 John 3:13 it says, “Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you.”
In Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus explained something the persecutors can’t possibly comprehend. He said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Jesus foretold about the life ahead for the church. In John 16:2 he said, “They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.” History has shown this to be true.
Though legal and intellectual persecutors have included the atheists and agnostics, the most violent persecutors have been the misguided religious, who see sound biblical truth as their greatest enemy. Their whole existence is built upon sustaining lies about God and his teachings. To these opponents of the truth, to allow the gospel to be freely promoted threatens their life of lies.
Matthew 10:28 reminds us that outward persecution shouldn’t be our greatest concern. There Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell”
Giving in to threats or compromising God’s truth is a greater danger than what enemies can do to us. They might harm our bodies, call us names, or make us uncomfortable, but they can’t touch our soul and they can’t disrupt our eternal inheritance. Our focus must remain to be honoring God and his truth regardless of threats and attacks.
While we know there will be persecutions, we’re also told that it’s acceptable to defend and protect ourselves and our loved ones. That applies to attacks by the enemies of God.
Jesus told his followers to buy a sword as they go out. Luke 22:36, “Then He said to them, “But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.”
They were going to face all sorts of dangers as they took the Gospel into the world. They would travel dangerous roads and become the targets of conspiracies and plots to silence them. In 2 Corinthians 11:26 the Apostle Paul later wrote about the dangers he faced in his travels, “in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;”
There are many interpretations of this comment Jesus made in Luke 22 about buying a sword. Some get the idea that Jesus was a total pacifist, which is not true historically. They can’t accept a literal interpretation of this warning. They say it’s inconsistent with what Jesus later told Peter in Gethsemane in John 18:11 where he told the Apostle to put his sword back in his sheath.
But when Jesus rebuked Peter it was in a very unique situation. Peter tried to defend Jesus against the Roman soldiers when they came to arrest him. Jesus had come to this moment to fulfill all he came to do. It wasn’t time to begin armed conflict against Rome.
There’s no implication here that this special reference to Peter erases all the Scriptures say about the duty to protect against murderers and assassins. It’s not a cancellation of the right to self-defense.
Though self-defense and protection of loved ones has always been part of God’s law, great care needs to be taken when deadly force is used. Our respect for human life and our dedication to God’s work both come before personal comforts and even safety. This is why brave people have always put their own lives in harms way to protect their loved ones and countries.
But part of God’s law is that if a human life is threatened, deadly force can be used to prevent the death of the innocent victim of a crime. This doesn’t give us permission to be the aggressors or to harm others for personal issues. We’re never sent out to declare open war against persecutors as a whole, or to attack law-enforcement officers of the civil government (Romans 13). And, the Gospel isn’t to be forced upon people with the sword. It comes by the work of the Holy Spirit convincing men to receive Christ willingly and gladly. But if our lives and liberty are threatened, the whole of Scripture supports a strong defense.
There is the obvious physical sense in which we might defend ourselves with a weapon. There’s also a spiritual sense in which we should defend spiritual attacks with the gospel itself. When captured and sentenced to martyrdom, the opportunity for self-defense physically is no longer available. But the defense of innocence and of the gospel itself continues on as long as we are still alive.
John Knox had seen these persecutions. He was born sometime in the early 1500’s in Scotland. We don’t know exactly what year. He was ordained as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church sometime between 1530 and 1540.
A short time later he became a redeemed believer through faith in the gospel of Grace. He rejected the unbiblical teachings of Rome and personally trusted in Christ alone for salvation. One of the Christians who helped him learn the gospel was the Scottish Reformer, George Wishart.
The story of Wishart is another great adventure story of Church history. Many times Cardinals and Bishops of Rome set up traps to assassinate him. Each time he detected something was wrong and avoided the trap. The newly converted John Knox became his body guard.
In 1546 Cardinal Beaton used a trusted nobleman to falsely promise Wishart protection. When he came, he was met with Roman Catholic guards who arrested him. John Knox drew out his sword to fight, but Wishart took the sword from his hand. He wanted John to take up where he would now leave off. Scotland needed a reformer more than it needed a swordsman. That same year, Wishart was condemned by the church, strangled to death, and his body burned at the stake.
There were some reformed Scotsmen who went too far. They were so outraged by the assassination of George Wishart, that they assassinated Cardinal Beaton in his own castle at St. Andrews. Knox didn’t approve of what they did, but they convinced him to become the pastor at St. Andrews replacing Wishart.
This was a time of great international unrest between rival kings of England, France, Spain and other countries, and it was a time of plots and killings by the Roman Catholic Church to stop the spread of Reformed teachings, and silence the Protestants. In the mix of it all, John Knox was captured and consigned to be a galley slave on a French ship. He served as a galley slave for a year and seven months.
When John was set free in 1549, he went to England. He preached there and became the official chaplain of England’s King Edward VI. When King Edward died the throne of England was taken over by Queen Mary Tudor. She was the one who pledged to brutally kill every protestant left in her Kingdom. She wanted to return the English to the Roman Catholic Church and its powerful Pope.
It was during this reign of Bloody Mary that all those deaths of both famous and little known believers took place. Later in Knox’s letter to call England back to repentance after Mary’s rule ended, he listed by months the believers who died under her reign of terror.
During the time of Mary’s persecution, Knox fled to the European continent. There he met John Calvin and worked with him at Geneva teaching, writing, and spreading the Reformation. While there he also worked on the Geneva Bible translation which was the one used by the Puritans and by the Pilgrims when they came to America.
John said that Calvin’s Geneva was, “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles. In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached, but manners and religion so truly reformed, I have not yet seen in any other place.”
In the 1550’s, after the death of Mary Tudor, Queen Elizabeth came to the throne. With her sympathy to the protestants, Knox traveled back and forth between England, Scotland, and the Continent. Meanwhile in Scotland, Mary Queen of Scots took power and again tried to force Catholicism on the people. Knox stood strong through it all. He preached against what was unbiblical, and promoted what was.
In his return to Scotland in 1559 the Scottish Reformation was established. He drew up the Scottish Confession. He was tried for treason a few times unsuccessfully by Mary Queen of Scots. But when she was executed in the midst of scandals, Scotland was free at last.
Knox spent his remaining years preaching and lecturing in Edinburgh and St. Andrews. Of him it was said, “Here is one who never feared the face of man.”
In 1572 on November 24th John Knox died. He’s known in history as the Thundering Scott. His statue is among the Four Reformers in Geneva. There he stands in stone along with Farel, Calvin, and Beza.
We are bound by God’s instructions to remain faithful to all we are commanded to do. When we are persecuted we should bear up under it as thankful servants of our Redeemer. There are limits to how much we should actually and rightly oppose the powers God has placed over us in human governments (Romans 13:1-7). However, we should not give in to those who fight as enemies of God and of his people. Our duty is to continue to hold forth biblical truth, to worship together, teach what God has said, and maintain strong families as defined in Scripture.
If we are persecuted for that obedience, we should remember that God has permitted these things to happen to us for purposes we may not fully understand at that moment. We know from Scripture how difficult times were used to bring about a greater good in the lives of Joseph, Daniel, the Apostle Paul, and many others including Jesus himself during his mission here on earth.
We are to present and defend the Kingdom of Christ, and the glory of God in whatever circumstances we find ourselves enduring. The stories of the great reformers, some who became martyrs, give us helpful examples of how God’s Kingdom spreads and grows in spite of those who set out to bring it to an end.
(Bible quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.)
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