Still Waters Revival Books - John Knox - For Pastors and Elders - Puritan Hard Drive


John Knox's Call to the Ministry
and First Public Debate

Extracted from: Selected Writings of John Knox: Public Epistles, Treatises, and Expositions to the Year 1559

Editor's Note

The following extract is taken from Knox's First Book of the History of the Reformation within the Realm of Scotland: Containing the Manner and by What Persons the Light of Christ's Evangel hath been Manifested unto this Realm, After that Horrible and Universal Defection from the Truth, which has Come by the Means of that Roman Antichrist (Knox's Works, Vol. 1, pp. 185-201). It contains the reformer's own account of his call to the ministry, and his first public debate with popish authorities.

Knox displayed an initial reluctance to enter the Christian ministry. And after receiving the pastoral call of the congregation, Knox burst forth into tears, and withdrew from society for several days. "The scene," says Thomas M'Crie, "will be extremely interesting to such as are impressed with the weight of the ministerial function, and will naturally awaken a train of feelings in the breasts of those who have been entrusted with the gospel. It revives the memory of those early days of the church, when persons did not rush forward to the altar, nor beg to 'be put into one of the priest's offices, to eat a piece of bread;' when men of piety and talents, deeply affected with the awful responsibility of the office, and with their own insufficiency, were with great difficulty induced to take on them those orders which they had long desired, and for which they laboured to qualify themselves. What a contrast did this exhibit to the conduct of the herd which at that time filled the stalls of the popish church!" (Life of John Knox [Edinburgh, 1855], p. 27).

Knox was immediately drawn into controversy with the Papists. The reformer did not mince words. While others snipped at "the branches of Papistry," he struck "at the root." In this connection, it is significant that Knox gave a clarion call for purg ing worship of all human inventions. "It is not enough that man invents a ceremony and then gives it a signification according to his pleasure," noted the reformer. Rather, we must "have the word of God for assurance." "Unless you are able to prove that God has commanded your ceremonies," Knox told the Papists, "his former commandment will damn both you and them."

Thus, at the outset of his public ministry, Knox gave expression to the regulative principle of worship. Knox built upon this theme throughout his writings. It is impor tant to note this declaration of the principle appeared early in his career, prior to his extensive contacts with the continental reformers.

Knox's Call to the Ministry
and First Public Debate

At the Pasche [Passover] after [in April 1547],[1] came to the Castle of St. Andrews John Knox, who, weary of removing from place to place, by reason of the persecution that came upon him by this bishop of St. Andrews, was determined to have left Scotland, and to have visited the schools of Germany. (Of England then he had no pleasure, by reason that the pope's name being suppressed, his laws and corruptions remained in full vigour.) But because he [Knox] had the care of some gentlemen's children, whom certain years he had nourished in godliness, their fathers solicited him to go to St. Andrews, that himself might have the benefit of the Castle, and their children the benefit of his doctrine. And so (we say), he came [at] the time foresaid to the said place; and, having in his company Francis Douglas of Long-Niddry, George his brother, and Alexander Cockburn, eldest son then to the lord of Ormiston, [he] began to exercise them after his accustomed manner.

Besides their grammar, and other human authors, he read unto them a catechism, an account whereof he caused them [to] give publicly in the parish kirk of St. Andrews. Moreover, he read unto them the evangel of John, proceeding where he left at his departing from Long-Niddry, where before his residence was; and that lecture he read in the chapel, within the Castle, at a certain hour. They of the place, but especially Master Henry Balnaves and John Rough, preacher, perceiving the manner of his doctrine, began earnestly to travail with him, that he would take the preaching place upon him. But he utterly refused, alleging, "that he would not run where God had not called him:" meaning, that he would do nothing without a lawful vocation [calling].

Whereupon they privily amongst themselves advising, having with them in counsel Sir David Lindsay of the Mount; they concluded that they would give a charge to the said John, and that publicly by the mouth of their preacher. And so upon a certain day, a sermon had of the election of ministers ­ what power the congregation (how small that ever it was, passing the number of two or three) had above any man, in whom they supposed and espied the gifts of God to be ­ and how dangerous it was to refuse, and not to hear the voice of such as desire to be instructed. These, and other heads (we say), declared the said John Rough, preacher, [and he] directed his words to the said John Knox, saying,[2] "Brother, you shall not be offended, albeit that I speak unto you that which I have in charge, even from all those that are here present, which is this: In the name of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ, and in the name of these that presently call you by my mouth, I charge you, that you refuse not this holy vocation; but that as you tender [esteem] the glory of God, the increase of Christ's kingdom, the edification of your brethren, and the comfort of me (whom you understand well enough to be oppressed by the multitude of labours), that you take upon you the public office and charge of preaching, even as you look to avoid God's heavy displeasure, and desire that he shall multiply his graces with you."

And in the end, he [Rough] said to those that were present, "Was not this your charge to me? And do you not approve this vocation [call]?"They answered, "It was, and we approve it."

Whereat the said John [Knox], abashed, burst forth in most abundant tears, and withdrew himself to his chamber. His countenance and behaviour, from that day till the day that he was compelled to present himself to the public place of preaching, did sufficiently declare the grief and trouble of his heart. For no man saw any sign of mirth of him, neither yet had he pleasure to accompany any man, many days together.

The necessity that caused him to enter into the public place, besides the vocation foresaid, was [this]: [3]Dean John Annand, a rotten Papist, had long troubled John Rough in his preaching. The said John Knox had fortified the doctrine of the preacher by his pen, and had beaten the said Dean John from all his defences, [so] that he was compelled to fly to his last refuge, that is, to the authority of the church, "which authority," said he, "damned all Lutherans and heretics; and, therefore, he needs no further disputation."

John Knox answered, "Before we hold ourselves, or that you can prove us sufficiently convicted, we must define the church, by the right notes given to us, in God's scriptures, of the true church. We must discern the immaculate spouse of Jesus Christ from the mother of confusion, spiritual Babylon; lest that imprudently we embrace a harlot, instead of the chaste spouse; yea, to speak in plain words, lest that we submit ourselves to Satan, thinking that we submit ourselves to Jesus Christ. For, as for your Roman kirk, as it is now corrupted, and the authority thereof, wherein stands the hope of your victory, I no more doubt but that it is the synagogue of Satan; and the head thereof, called the pope, to be that man of sin, of whom the apostle speaks, than that I doubt that Jesus Christ suffered by the procurement [contrivance] of the visible kirk of Jerusalem. [4]Yea, I offer myself, by word or writing, to prove the Roman church this day farther degenerated from the purity which was in the days of the apostles, than was the church of the Jews from the ordinances given by Moses, when they consented to the innocent death of Jesus Christ."

These words were spoken in open audience, in the parish kirk of St. Andrews, after that the said Dean Annand had spoken what it pleased him, and had refused to dispute. The people, hearing the offer, cried with one consent, "We cannot all read your writings, but we may all hear your preaching. Therefore we require you, in the name of God, that you will let us hear the probation [proof] of that which you have affirmed; for if it is true, we have been miserably deceived."

And so the next Sunday was appointed to the said John, to express his mind in the public preaching place. Which day approaching, the said John took the text written in Daniel, the seventh chapter, beginning thus: "And another king shall arise after them, and he shall be unlike unto the first, and he shall subdue three kings, and shall speak words against the Most High, and shall consume the saints of the Most High, and think that he may change times and laws; and they shall be given into his hands, until a time, and times, and dividing of times" (Dan. 7:24-25).

[5]1. In the beginning of his sermon, he showed the great love of God towards his church, whom it pleases to forewarn of dangers to come so many years before they come to pass. 2. He briefly entreated the estate of the Israelites, who then were in bondage in Babylon, for the most part; and made a short discourse of the four empires ­ the Babylonian, the Persian, that of the Greeks, and the fourth of the Romans ­ in the destruction whereof rose up that last beast, which he affirmed to be the Roman church. For to none other power that ever has yet been, do all the notes that God has shown to the prophet appertain, except to it alone; and unto it they do so properly appertain, that such as are not more than blind, may clearly see them. 3. But before he began to open the corruptions of the Papistry, he defined the true kirk, showed the true notes of it, whereupon it was built, why it was the pillar of verity [truth], and why it could not err, to wit, "because it heard the voice of the one pastor, Jesus Christ, would not hear a stranger, neither yet would be carried about with every wind of doctrine" (John 10:4-5; Eph. 4:14).

Every one of these heads sufficiently declared, he entered to the contrary, and upon the notes given in his text, he showed that the Spirit of God in the New Testament gave to this king other names: to wit, "the Man of Sin" (2 Thess. 2:3-4), "the Antichrist" (1 John 2:18, 22; 2 John 7), "the Whore of Babylon" (Rev. 17-19). He showed that this man of sin, or Antichrist, was not to be restrained [limited] to the person of any one man only, no more than by the four beasts was to be understood the person of any one emperor. But by such means, the Spirit of God would forewarn his chosen of a body and a multitude, having a wicked head, who should not only be sinful himself, but that also should be occasion of sin to all that should be subject unto him (as Christ Jesus is the cause of justice [righteousness] to all the members of his body); and is called the Antichrist, that is to say, one contrary to Christ, because he is contrary to him in life, doctrine, laws, and subjects.

And then began he to decipher the lives of diverse popes, and the lives of all the shavelings for the most part; their doctrine and laws he plainly proved to repugn directly to the doctrine and laws of God the Father, and of Christ Jesus his Son.[6] This he proved by conferring the doctrine of justification, expressed in the scriptures, which teach that man is "justified by faith only" (Gal. 2:16; 3:11); that "the blood of Jesus Christ purges us from all our sins" (1 John 1:7); and the doctrine of the Papists, which attributes justification to the works of the law, yea, to the works of man's invention, as pilgrimages, pardons and other such baggage. That the papistical laws repugned to the laws of the evangel, he proved by the laws made of observation of days, abstaining from meats, and from marriage, which Christ Jesus made free; and the forbidding whereof, St. Paul called "the doctrine of devils" (1 Tim. 4:1-3).

In handling the notes of that beast given in the text, he willed men to consider if these notes, "There shall one arise unlike to the other, having a mouth speaking great things and blasphemous" (Dan. 7:24-25), could be applied to any other, but to the pope and his kingdom? For, "if these," said he, "be not great words and blasphemous:[7] 'the Successor of Peter,' 'the Vicar of Christ,' 'the Head of the kirk,' 'most holy,' 'most blessed,' 'that cannot err;' that 'may make right of wrong, and wrong of right;' that 'of nothing, may make somewhat;' and that 'has all verity in the shrine of his breast;' yea, 'that has power of all, and none power of him;' nay, 'not to say that he does wrong, although he draw ten thousand million of souls with himself to hell'" ­ "If these," said he, "and many others, able to be shown of his own canon law, be not great and blasphemous words, and such as never mortal man spoke before, let the world judge."

"And yet," said he, "is there one [note] most evident of all: to wit, John, in his Revelation, says, 'That the merchandise of that Babylonian harlot, among other things, shall be the bodies and souls of men' (Rev. 18:13). Now, let the very Papists themselves judge, if ever any before them took unto them power to relax the pains of them that were in Purgatory, as they affirm to the people that daily they do, by the merits of their Mass, and of their other trifles."

In the end he said, "If any here (and there were present Master John Major, the University, the subprior, and many canons, with some of the friars of both orders) that will say, that I have alleged scripture, doctor, or history, otherwise than it is written, let them come unto me with sufficient witness; and by conference I shall let them see, not only the original where my testimonies are written, but I shall prove that the writers meant as I have spoken."

Of this sermon, which was the first ever that John Knox made in public, were there diverse bruits [reports]. Some said, "Others sned [snipped] the branches of the Papistry; but he strikes at the root, to destroy the whole." Others said, "If the doctors and Magistri nostri defend not the pope and his authority, which in their own presence is so manifestly impugned, the devil have my part of him, and of his laws both." Others said, "Master George Wishart[8] spoke never so plainly, and yet was burnt, even so will he be." In the end, others said, "The tyranny of the cardinal made not his cause the better, yet the suffering of God's servant made his cause the worse. And therefore we would counsel you and them to provide better defences than fire and sword; for it may be that else you will be disappointed. Men now have other eyes than they had then." This answer gave the lord of Nydie, a man fervent and upright in religion.

The bastard bishop, who yet was not execrated (consecrated they call it), wrote to the subprior of St. Andrews, who (sede vacante) was vicar general, "that he wondered that he suffered such heretical and schismatical doctrine to be taught, and not to oppose himself to the same." Upon this rebuke, was a convention of gray friars and black fiends appointed, with the said subprior Dean John Winram, in St. Leonard's yard, whereunto was first called John Rough, and certain articles read unto him; and thereafter was John Knox called for. The cause of their convention, and why they were called, was exponed [explained]; and the articles were read, which were these:

I. No mortal man can be the head of the church.

II. The pope is an Antichrist, and so is no member of Christ's mystical body.

III. Man may neither make nor devise a religion that is acceptable to God, but man is bound to observe and keep the religion that from God is received, without chopping or changing thereof.

IV. The sacraments of the New Testament ought to be ministered as they were instituted by Christ Jesus and practiced by his apostles; nothing ought to be added unto them; nothing ought to be diminished from them.

V. The Mass is abominable idolatry, blasphemous to the death of Christ, and a profanation of the Lord's Supper.

VI. There is no Purgatory, in the which the souls of men can either be pined [punished] or purged after this life; but heaven rests to the faithful, and hell to the reprobate and unthankful.

VII. Praying for the dead is vain, and [praying] to the dead is idolatry.

VIII. There are no bishops, except they preach even by themselves, without any substitute.

IX. The tiends [tenths; tithes] by God's law do not appertain of neces sity to the kirk-men.

"The strangeness," said the subprior, "of these articles, which are gathered forth of your doctrine, have moved us to call for you, to hear your own answers."

John Knox said, "I for my part, praise God that I see so honourable, and appar ently so modest and quiet an auditure [audience ]. But because it is long since that I have heard that you are one that is not
ignorant of the truth, I must crave of you, in the name of God, yea, and I appeal [to] your conscience before that Supreme Judge, that if you think any article there expressed [is] contrary unto the truth of God, that you oppose yourself plainly unto it, and suffer not the people to be therewith deceived. But, and if in your conscience you know the doctrine to be true, then will I crave your patronage thereto; that, by your authority, the people may be moved the rather to believe the truth, whereof many doubt by reason of our youth."

The subprior answered, "I came not here as a judge, but only familiarly to talk. And therefore, I will neither allow nor condemn. But if you list [ desire], I will reason. Why may not the kirk," said he, "for good causes, devise ceremonies to decor the sacraments, and others [of] God's service?"

"Because the kirk ought to do nothing but in faith, and ought not to go before, but is bound to follow, the voice of the true Pastor."

"It is in faith that the ceremonies are commanded, and they have proper significa tions to help our faith ­ as the hards [band s] in baptism signify the roughness of the law, and the oil the softness of God's mercy. And, likewise, every one of the ceremo nies has a godly signification, and therefore they both proceed from faith, and are done in faith."

"It is not enough that man invents a ceremony and then gives it a signification, according to his pleasure. For so might the ceremonies of the Gentiles, and this day the ceremonies of Mohammed, be maintained. But if that anything proceeds from faith, it must have the word of God for the assurance. For you are not ignorant, that 'faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God' (Rom. 10:17). Now, if you will prove that your ceremonies proceed from faith, and do please God, you must prove that God in expressed words has commanded them; or else you shall never prove that they proceed from faith, nor yet that they please God; but that they are sin, and do displease him, according to the words of the apostle, 'Whatsoever is not of faith is sin' " (Rom. 14:23).

"Will you bind us so strait, that we may do nothing without the express word of God? What! and I ask [for] a drink. Think you that I sin? And yet I have not God's word for me."

This answer he gave, as might appear, to shift over the argument upon the friar, as that he did.

"I would we should not jest in so grave a matter; neither would I that you should begin to elude the truth with sophistry. And if you do, I will defend myself the best that I can. And first, to your drinking, I say that if you either eat or drink without assurance of God's word, in so doing you displease God, and you sin in your very eating and drinking. For says not the apostle, speaking even of meat and drink, 'That the creatures are sanctified unto man, even by the word and prayer' (1 Tim. 4:4-5)? The word is this: 'All things are clean to the clean' etc. (Titus 1:15). Now, let me hear thus much of your ceremonies, and I shall give you the argument. But I wonder that you compare things profane [common] and holy things so indiscreetly together.

"The question was not, nor is not, of meat or drink, whereunto the kingdom of God consists not (Rom. 14:17); but the question is of God's true worshipping, without the which we can have no society with God. And, here it is doubted, if we may take the same freedom in the using of Christ's sacraments, that we may do in eating and drinking. One meat I may eat, another I may refuse, and that without scruple of conscience. I may change one with another, as oft as I please. Whither may we do the same in matters of religion? May we cast away what we please, and retain what we please? If it be well remembered, Moses, in the name of God, says to the people of Israel, 'All that the Lord thy God commands thee to do, that do thou to the Lord thy God: Add nothing to it; diminish nothing from it' (cf. Deut. 12:32; 12:8). By this rule, think I, the kirk of God will measure God's religion, and not by that which seems good in their own eyes."

"Forgive me, I spoke but in the mowes [in jest], and I was dry. And now, father," he said to the friar, "follow the argument. You have heard what I have said, and what is answered unto me again."

"I shall prove plainly that ceremonies are ordained by God."

"Such as God has ordained we allow, and with reverence we use them. But the question is of those that God has not ordained, such as, in baptism are spittle, salt, candle, cuide [face cloth] (except it be to keep the bairn [child] from cold), hards, oil, and the rest of the papistical inventions."

"I will even prove these that you damn to be ordained of God."

"The proof thereof I would gladly hear."

"Says not St. Paul, 'That another foundation than Jesus Christ may no man lay' (1 Cor. 3:11-15)? But upon this foundation some build [with] gold, silver, and precious stones; some hay, stubble, and wood. The gold, silver, and precious stones are the ceremonies of the church, which do abide the fire, and consumes not away. This place of scripture is most plain," says the friar.

"I praise my God, through Jesus Christ, for I find his promise sure, true, and stable. Christ Jesus bids us, 'not [to] fear, when we shall be called before men, to give confession of his truth;' for he promises, 'that it shall be given unto us in that hour, what we shall speak' (Matt. 10:19; Mark 13:9, 11; Luke 21:13). If I had sought the whole scriptures, I could not have produced a place more proper for my purpose, nor more potent to confound you.

"Now to your argument: the ceremonies of the kirk (say you) are gold, silver and precious stones, because they are able to abide the fire. But, I would learn of you, what fire it is which your ceremonies do abide? And in the meantime, till that you be advised to answer, I will show my mind, and make an argument against yours, upon the same text.

"And first, I say, that I have heard this text adduced for a proof of Purgatory; but for a defence of ceremonies, I never heard, nor yet read it. But omitting whether you understand the mind of the apostle or not, I make my argument, and say, that which may abide the fire may abide the word of God. But your ceremonies may not abide the word of God. Ergo, they may not abide the fire; and if they may not abide the fire, then they are not gold, silver, nor precious stones. Now, if you find any ambigu ity in this term, fire, which I interpret to be the word, you find me another fire, by the which things built upon Christ Jesus should be tried than God and his word, which both in the scriptures are called fire, and I shall correct my argument."

"I stand not thereupon; but I deny your minor [premise], to wit, that our ceremonies may not abide the trial of God's word."

"I prove that abides not the trial of God's word, which God's word condemns. But God's word condemns your ceremonies. Therefore they do not abide the trial thereof. [9]But as the thief abides the trial of the inquest, and thereby is condemned to be hanged, even so may your ceremonies abide the trial of God's word; but not else.

"And now, in a few words, to make plain that wherein you may seem to doubt: to wit, that God's word damns your ceremonies, it is evident; for the plain and strait commandment of God is, 'Not that thing which appears good in thy eyes shalt thou do to the Lord thy God, but what the Lord thy God has commanded thee; that do thou; add nothing to it; diminish nothing from it' (cf. Deut. 4:2; 12:8, 32). Now unless you are able to prove that God has commanded your ceremonies, this his former commandment will damn both you and them."

The friar, somewhat abashed what first to answer, while he wanders about in the mist, he falls into a foul mire. For alleging that we may not be so bound to the word, he affirmed, "that the apostles had not received the Holy Ghost, when they did write the epistles; but after, they received him, and then they did ordain the ceremonies." (Few would have thought that so learned a man would have given so foolish an answer; and yet it is even as true as [that] he bore a grey cowl.)

John Knox, hearing the answer, started, and said, "If that be true, I have long been in an error, and I think I shall die therein."

The subprior said to him, "Father, what say you? God forbid that you affirm that; for then farewell [to] the ground of our faith." The friar astonished, made the best shift that he could to correct his fall, but it would not be.

John Knox brought him oft again to the ground of the argument, but he would never answer directly, but ever fled to the authority of the kirk. Whereto the said John answered [more] often than once, "That the spouse of Christ had neither power nor authority against the word of God."

Then said the friar, "If so be, you will leave us no kirk."

"Indeed," said the other, "in David I read that there is a church of the malignants, for he says, Odi ecclesiam malignantium (Ps. 26:5).[10] That church you may have, without the word, and doing many things directly fighting against the word of God. If you will be of that church, I cannot impede you. But as for me, I will be of none other church, except of that which has Christ Jesus to be pastor, which hears his voice, and will not hear a stranger" (John 10:4-5).

In this disputation many other things were merely scoffed over; for the friar, after his fall, could speak nothing to a purpose. [11]For Purgatory he had no better proof, but the authority of Virgil in his sixth Aeneid; and the pain thereof to him was an evil wife. How John Knox answered that, and many other things, [he] himself did witness in a treatise that he wrote in the galleys, containing the sum of his doctrine, and confession of his faith ­ and sent it to his familiars in Scotland ­ with his exhortation that they should continue in the truth, which they had professed, notwithstanding any worldly adversity that might ensue thereof. [12]Thus much of that disputation have we inserted here, to the intent that men may see how Satan ever travails to obscure the light; and yet how God by his power, working in his weak vessels, confounds his [Satan's] craft, and discloses his darkness.


1. Marginal note: Anno 1547

2. Marginal note: The first vocation of John Knox to preach.

3. Marginal note: Dean John Annand

4. Marginal note: The offer of John Knox first and last unto the Papists

5. Marginal note: The first public sermon of John Knox made in the parish kirk of St. Andrews.

6. Marginal note: Contra Dei Spiritum Ad

7. Marginal note: The great words which the Antichrist speaks

8. Editor's note: George Wishart (c. 1513-46), Protestant preacher, conducted an itinerate ministry in southern Scotland. Knox was earlier associated with Wishart, serving for a while as the evangelist's bodyguard, carrying a two-edged sword. The papal authorities, headed by Cardinal Beaton, were determined to silence Wishart, and he was aware of their designs. Knox remained with Wishart, and stated his willingness to suffer with him, if necessary. Only hours before being apprehended, Wishart dismissed Knox with the admonition, "One is sufficient for a sacrifice." Wishart was arrested, tried for heresy, condemned, strangled and burnt at the stake.

9. Marginal note: Optima Collatio

10. Editor's note: A reference to Psalm 26:5, the congregation of evil doers (Authorized Version); the assembly of the evil (Geneva Bible).

11. Marginal note: Friar Arbuckle's proof for Purgatory

12. Marginal note: The cause of the inserting of this disputation

Go back to "Introductory Essay" to True and False Worship

Go to "A Vindication of the Doctrine that
the Sacrifice of the Mass is Idolatry

Copyright © 1995 by Kevin Reed
Presbyterian Heritage Publications
P.O. Box 180922
Dallas, Texas 75218

This edition has been edited to reflect contemporary spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Bracketed words are supplied where needed to complete the sense of a sentence. Bracketed words in italics are inserted following some antiquated terms or phrases as a convenience to the modern reader. Therefore, the words in brackets are not a part of the original text.

This publication has been provided in electronic form for the personal convenience of our readers. No part of this publication may be transmitted or distributed in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical photocopying, or otherwise) without prior permission of the publisher.

Back to swrb home page