I’m a sucker for a good underdog story. Whether it’s the fact that we like to see the little guy win from time to time, or maybe we feel overwhelmed in our own worlds and wish we could come out on top – there’s nothing like it. As we prepare to celebrate another Reformation Sunday this year (October 31) I’m drawn to consider one of my favorite underdogs from the Reformation: John Knox.
John Knox (AD 1514-1572) was a Scottish priest turned bodyguard turned galley slave turned Reformer. He grew up in a time and place where the Gospel of the Lord Jesus was just beginning to rise again across the European landscape. Scotland herself had the message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone come upon her shores by the likes of Patrick Hamilton. Hamilton had visited Europe and heard this precious message. Sadly when he returned home, he soon became the first Protestant martyr within Scotland. He would not be the last to shed His blood for the sake of the Gospel.
Knox himself would become convinced of the Protestant Reformed faith, that need for salvation from the wrath of God through the shed blood of Christ which is made ours by faith alone. Knox love for this message was not piecemeal, but he found himself wholly committed. Historians have often likened him to the Old Testament prophets in the days of the ancient kings. Roland H. Bainton wrote, “John Knox felt toward [Scotland’s] idolaters as Elijah the priests of Baal.” Mark Galli also added, “Knox was a Hebrew Jeremiah set down on Scottish soil.”
The problem with being like the Old Testament prophets is that rarely do such individuals find themselves to be popular. The same is true today for those bold enough to stand firmly upon God’s word. Knox found himself ridiculed by many for his zeal for the cross of Christ and his disdain for every form of idolatry which contended with God’s Word particularly from the Church of Rome.
Knox is beneficial for us today because he teaches us that ordinary flawed men and women, who are committed to Christ above all else can be used to change the world. Scotland was never the same after Knox. By the mercy of God, the message of the Gospel was faithfully proclaimed regularly at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Knox even after his death was immortalized under these words: “Here lies one who never feared any flesh.”
What can we learn about this Scottish Reformer? One lesson we can learn about is the transformative power of prayer. One of the many works left behind from the pen of Knox includes a treatise on prayer. Knox was a man defined by prayer and speaks of the necessity of prayer in this way, “For if the fire may be without heat, or the burning lamp without light, then true faith may be without fervent prayer.” In other words, a prayerless Christian is a Christian in name alone.
As a pastor, he continued by warning his flock that “Our adversary, Satan, at all times compassing us about (1 Pet. 5), is never more busy than when we address and bend ourselves to prayer.” The storming of heaven by the saints of God in prayer is a mighty tool in the hand of God Knox taught. But this persistence in prayer always stirs our sin, and that great Tempter, the Devil. Nevertheless, a Christian is called to fervent prayer, for Christians have an enemy.
Knox added one other reason why prayer is so crucial for the Christian, which provides us a window into his very heart. Knox wrote, “Let no man think himself unworthy to call and pray to God . . . but let him bring to God a sorrowful and repenting heart.” Knox knew himself to be a great sinner, but knew even more that Christ was a great savior. His own prayer is appended to this very work: “in us . . . rests nothing worthy of thy mercies, for all are found fruitless, even the princes with the prophets as withered trees, apt and meet to be burned in the fire of thy eternal displeasure. But, O Lord, behold thy own mercy and goodness . . . Let thy love overcome the severity of thy judgements.”
Knox was a man so aware of his limitations. When he was first elected to be a preacher, he was emotionally overwhelmed and ran from the room in tears. Yet this man would be fearless before the face of monarchs and bishops. Knox was not special in himself, but he served a mighty God. Knox wrote, “God gave his Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance.” He knew this concerning himself.
We have barely scratched the surface of this titan of the Protestant Reformation and father of Scottish Presbyterianism. But I pray that these excerpts might stir you to pray more fervently, and grow in curiosity about the life and teaching of this fiery preacher.
Let us conclude then with Douglas Bond’s observation, “Knox is a model for the ordinary Christian, especially the one who feels his own weakness but who nevertheless wants to serve Christ in a troubled world. Knox is eminently relevant to all Christians who have ever been forced to come face to face with their own littleness.” May your weakness lead you to the cross of Christ, where you can be made strong in Christ Jesus.