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John Knox: Fruitful Years in Exile


The life of John Knox is largely a narrative of persecution. I was already aware of this as I began reading Iain Murray’s A Scottish Christian Heritage, but I was surprised to learn that among his experiences was nineteen months spent as a slave in a French galley, chained to a bench with six other men pulling a fifty-foot-long oar. Following his release in 1549, he enjoyed a scant four years of peace in England before “Bloody” Mary Tudor ascended to the throne and restored Roman Catholicism as the state religion (her half-brother and predecessor, Edward VI, had been Protestant). Knox fled England, ending up finally in Geneva. His exile ended in 1559, when Mary Tudor died, and the Protestant faith was publicly restored in England.

His years of exile served as preparation for difficult years to come. “Of the lessons he had learned during that period,” Murray writes, “there are three which stand out:”

Iain Murray   1. Knox became a man of prayer. Prayer as ‘an earnest and familiar talking with God’, is not natural to us. It is be sanctified trouble and by the recognition of our own helplessness that were learn to pray. ‘Out of weakness made strong’ is the biblical principle. ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble’, became a promise of special significance to Knox. His first writing when the Marian persecution broke in England in 1554, was on What True Prayer Is, How We Should Pray, and For What We Should Pray. In another place he says that the Apostle Peter, as he sought to cross the water to Jesus, was allowed to sink because there was in him too much ‘presumption and vain trust in his own strength’. ‘Unless it had between corrected and partly removed,’ he comments, Peter ‘had never been apt or meet to feed Christ’s flock’ this was surely what Knox himself was being taught. He says that he wrote so much on prayer because,

John KnoxI know how hard is the battle between the spirit and the flesh, under the heavenly cross of affliction, where no worldly defence but present death does appear. I know the grudging and murmuring complaints of the flesh . . . calling all his promises in doubt, and being ready every hour utterly to fall from God. Against which rests only faith, provoking us to call earnestly and pray for assistance of God’s Spirit; wherein, if we continue, our most desperate calamities shall be turned to gladness, and to a prosperous end. To thee alone, O Lord, be praise, for with experience I write this and speak.

   . . .

   2. Knox’s lone exile made him and international Christian. Had he remained always in Scotland he might have remained as parochial as some of his contemporaries. It was in God’s design that he spent most of his time away from home among the English. These were the people against whom his forefathers had fought but in Christ the old enmity was gone. He was ahead of his time in foreseeing a common Protestant faith binding the two nations together, and that hope became central to his life. ‘Grant, O Lord,’ he prayed, ‘we never enter into hostility against the realm and nation of England.’ . . .

   3. It was during Knox’s exile, and especially in the final years in Geneva, that the master-principles which governed his thought on Reformation came to maturity. In outline, they may be stated as follows:
   i. We exist for God’s glory; therefore zeal for the honor of God is essence of true piety; conversely, to despise God, to offend his majesty, is the darkest form of human depravity. The indignation Knox felt against Roman Catholicism sprang from this source. He saw it as a system bound up with giving to men and to idols that which belongs to God alone. . . .
   ii. Christians are bound to a universal obedience to the Word of God, no matter what the cost, no matter what the consequences. More particularly, nothing is lawful to the church unless it is to be found in Scripture. To quote the Reformer’s later words to Queen Elizabeth: ‘Whatsoever He approves (by his eternal word) that shall be approved, and what he damneth, shall be condemned, though all men in the earth should hazard the justification of the same.
   iii. The true church is to distinguished from the false church in this manner; the true has Christ as its living head, it hears his voice it, follows him, and a stranger it will not follow. This church, further, is to be kept separate from the world by the faithful exercise of discipline in order that reproach is not brought upon God by the character of it’s members, so that the good is not affected by the evil, and so that those corrected may be recovered.

—Iain Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage (Banner of Truth, 2006), 13–15.


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