The Reformers often appealed to the tenth chapter of John as a foundational passage respecting the doctrine of the Church. All of the major Reformers Luther, Zwingli, Farel, Knox, and Calvin saw the relationship between Christ and his true sheep as a fundamental principle in discussing church issues.
The Reformers were united in their view that Christ's parable of the shepherd and his sheep sets forth the identity of the true Church, which cannot err. It is a distinguishing mark of the elect, that they will follow the voice of Christ. Thus, John Knox observes of God's elect: "that not only they know the voice of their pastor, but also they earnestly study to obey and follow it, with the danger of their own lives. For this is the special difference betwixt the children of God and the reprobate."
Commenting on John 10:4-5, Calvin says:
We must attend to the reason why it is said that the sheep follow; it is because they know how to distinguish shepherds from wolves by the voice. This is the spirit of discernment, by which the elect discriminate between the truth of God and the false inventions of men. So then, in the sheep of Christ a knowledge of the truth goes before, and next follows an earnest desire to obey, so that they not only understand what is true, but receive it with warm affection. And not only does he commend the obedience of the faith, because the sheep assemble submissively at the voice of the shepherd, but also because they do not listen to the voice of strangers, and do not disperse when any one cries to them.
On John 10:8, Calvin writes:
But the sheep did not hear them. He now confirms more clearly what he had already spoken more obscurely and in the figure of an allegory, that they who were led out of the way by imposters did not belong to the Church of God. This is said, first, that when we see a great multitude of persons going astray, we may not resolve to perish through their example; and, next, that we may not waver, when God permits imposters to deceive many. For it is no light consolation, and no small ground of confidence, when we know that Christ, by his faithful protection, has always guarded his sheep, amidst the various attacks and crafty devices of wolves and robbers, so that there never was one of them that deserted him.
In his Commentary on True and False Religion, Ulrich Zwingli provides some related remarks, as he writes of the true church, which cannot err:
Yet there must still be a glorious church, having neither spot nor blemish, against which the battlements and gates of hell cannot prevail [Matt. 16:18]; and which, consequently cannot lapse or err. Christ pictures it in the beautiful parable of the sheep and the shepherd [Jn. 10:11-30], teaching there that the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd, if he is a shepherd, and that they follow him; but that a stranger they follow not, because they know not his voice.
Is it, then, for the sheep to judge whether he who comes to them is a shepherd or thief, whether the voice is shepherd's or robber's? Whence have the sheep such shrewdness as not to blunder? Because of what imme diately follows: "I know my sheep, and mine own know me." And whence have the sheep such discerning knowledge of Christ that they take no one else's voice for His? From the fact that they are known by God [Gal. 4:9]; from the fact that the Father draws them (for no one comes to Christ save him whom his Father draws [Jn. 6:44]; from the fact that all are taught of God [Jn. 6:45]. Therefore it follows that only those sheep do not err who know the voice of their shepherd so well that they receive absolutely no other.
Here you have the church that cannot err, the one, namely, which knows only the voice of the shepherd, and not of any shepherd whatsoever, but only of the one who enters in by the door, who brings only that which Christ brings, who comes only in the name of the Father as Christ also came, and (to speak briefly) all because there is only one shepherd, although many are wrongly called shepherds. Finally, only that church cannot lapse and err which hears the voice only of its shepherd, God; for only this voice is from God. He who is of God hears God's word. And again, "Ye hear not, because ye are not of God" [Jn. 8:47]. Therefore those who hear are God's sheep, are the church of God, and cannot err; for they follow the word only of God, which can in no wise deceive. But if they follow another word, they are not Christ's sheep, nor flock, nor church; for they follow a stranger. For it is characteristic of the sheep not even to hear a stranger. For Christ thus continues: "All that came (understand, 'in their own name') are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them" [Jn. 10:8]. Therefore all who have heard thieves and robbers are not sheep of Christ, for Christ's sheep hear not such. Notice, in passing, that danger threatens the sheep if they hear those who declare their own word.
Martin Luther show the implications of the passage regarding the right of all Christians to judge teachers. Luther writes forcefully:
[Christ] takes both the right and the power to judge teaching from the bishops, scholars, and councils and gives them to everyone and to all Christians equally when he says, John 10, "My sheep know my voice." Again, "My sheep do not follow strangers, but flee from them, for they do not know the voice of strangers." Again, "No matter how many of them have come, they are thieves and murderers. But the sheep did not listen to them."
Here you see clearly who has the right to judge doctrine: bishops, popes, scholars, and everyone else have the power to teach, but it is the sheep who are to judge whether they teach the voice [i.e., the words] of Christ or the voice of strangers. My dear, what can these water bubbles say against it, with their feet scraping, "Councils, councils! One must listen to the scholars, the bishops, the crowd; one must look at the usage and custom"? Do you think the word of God should yield to your old usage, custom, and bishops? Never! That is why we let bishops and councils decide and institute whatever they please; when God's word is on our side we and not they shall judge what is right or wrong and they will have to yield to us and obey our word.
Christ says again, Matthew 7, "Beware of the false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing but are inwardly ravenous wolves." You see, here Christ does not give the judgment to prophets and teachers but to pupils or sheep. For how could one beware of false prophets if one did not consider and judge their teaching? Thus there cannot be a false prophet among the listeners, only among the teachers. That is why all teachers and their teaching should and must be subject to the judgment of the listeners.
Again, the third passage is from St. Paul, 1 Thessalonians 5, "Test everything but hold fast to that which is good." You see, here he does not want to have any teaching or decree obeyed unless it is examined and recognized as good by the congregation hearing it. Indeed, this examination is not the concern of the teachers; rather, the teachers must first state what is to be examined. Thus here too the judgment is taken from the teachers and given to the Christian pupils. There is a radical difference between Christians and the world: in the world the rulers command whatsoever they please and their subjects accept it. "But among you," says Christ, "it should not be so." Instead, among Christians each person is the judge of the other person; on the other hand; he is also subject to the other person. However, the spiritual tyrants have made a worldly power out of Christendom.
The fourth passage is again from Christ, Matthew 24, "Take heed that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and they will lead many astray." To sum up, do we really need to quote any more sayings? All of St. Paul's warnings, Romans 16, 1 Corinthians 10, Galatians 3, 4, and 5, Colossians 2, and elsewhere, and all the sayings of the prophets in which they teach us to avoid human teaching, do nothing but take the right and the power to judge all doctrine away from the teachers and with a stern decree impose it on the listeners instead, on pain of losing their soul. Accordingly, they not only have the power and the right to judge everything that is preached, they also have the duty to judge, on pain of [incurring] the disfavor of Divine Majesty. Thus we see what an un-Christian way the tyrants treated us when they took this right and obligation from us and made it their own. For this alone they richly deserve to be driven out of Christendom and to be chased away as wolves, thieves, and murderers who rule over us and teach us things contrary to God's word and will.
But if you say, "Did not St. Paul command Timothy and Titus to institute priests, and do we not read, Acts 14, that Paul and Barnabas instituted priests among the congregations? (Therefore the congregation cannot call anyone, nor can anyone draw attention to himself and preach among Christians; rather one must have permission and authorization from bishops, abbots, or other prelates who represent the apostles)" I answer that if our bishops, abbots, etc., did represent the apostles, as they boast, one opinion would certainly be to let them do what Titus, Timothy, Paul, and Barnabas did when they instituted priests, etc. But since they represent the devil and are wolves who neither want to teach the gospel not suffer it to be taught, they are as little concerned with instituting the office of preaching or pastoral care among Christians as the Turks or the Jews are. They should drive asses and lead dogs.
Christ's parable in John 10 not only applies to Christians in their individual character, but it also has implications for the Church in its public capacity. After Knox's call to the ministry, in his first regular pulpit appearance, he blasted the Church of Rome. "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 builded, 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."
A few days later, Knox made a similar application, when engaged in a dispute with Papal apologists. Knox said to a Friar: "I read that there is a church of the malignants. 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 that which has Christ Jesus to be pastor, which hears his voice, and will not hear a stranger."
Knox subsequently applied the principles of John 10, and other related passages, to warn against churches which have departed from the word of God, which is the only true foundation for Christ's Church. Speaking against the Roman church, he said:
I could evidently prove that which they call the Kirk, not to be the Kirk and immaculate spouse of Jesus Christ, which does not err. But presently I ask, if the Kirk of God be bound to this perpetual precept? "Not that thing which appeareth righteous in your own eyes, that shall you do, but what God hath commanded, that observe and keep." And if they will deny [this], I desire to be certified [notified] who has abrogated and made the same of none effect? In my judgment, Jesus Christ confirms the same, saying, "My sheep hear my voice, and a stranger they will not hear, but flee from him." To hear his voice (which is also the voice of God the Father) is to understand and obey the same; and to flee from a stranger is to admit no other doctrine, worshipping, nor honoring God than has proceeded from his own mouth as he himself testifies, saying, "All that are of the verity [truth], hear my voice." And Paul says, "The Kirk is founded upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles:" which foundation, no doubt, is the law and the evangel. So that it [the Church] may command nothing that is not contained in one of the two; for if it does so, it is removed from the only foundation, and so ceases to be the true Kirk of Christ.
These views were not merely the opinions of private individuals. The same doctrines found creedal expression in Protestant confessions of faith. The Ten Theses of Berne (1528) begin with this statement: "The holy Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, and abides in the same, and listens not to the voice of a stranger.
During times when the Church is in an unsettled condition, the truths of John 10 are even more vital. Says Calvin:
As the pure preaching of the gospel is not always exhibited, neither is the face of Christ always conspicuous (1 Cor. 11:19). Thence we infer that the Church is not always discernable by the eyes of men, as the examples of many ages testify. For in the time of the prophets, the multitude of the wicked so prevailed, that the true Church was oppressed; so also in the time of Christ, we see that the little flock of God was hidden from men, while the ungodly usurped to themselves the name of Church. But what will those, who have eyes so clear that they boast the Church is always visible to them, make of Elijah, who thought that he alone remained of the Church? (1 Kings 19:10.) In this, indeed, he was mistaken, but it is a proof that the Church of God may be equally concealed from us, especially since we know, from the prophecy of Paul, that defection was predicted (2 Thess. 2:3).
Let us hold, then, that the Church is seen where Christ appears, and where his voice is heard; as it is written, "My sheep hear my voice" (John 10:27); but that at the instant when the true doctrine was buried, the Church vanished from the eyes of men. This Church, we acknowledge with Paul, to be the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3), because she is the guardian of sound doctrine, and by her ministry propagates it to posterity, that it may not perish from the world. For, seeing she is the spouse of Christ, it is meet that she be subject to him. And, as Paul declares (Eph. 5:24; 2 Cor. 11:2-3), her chastity consists in not being led away from the simplicity of Christ. She errs not, because she follows the truth of God for her rule; but if she recedes from this truth, she ceases to be a spouse, and becomes an adulteress. Let those who tie down the Church to power in its ordinary sense, and to other external pomp, hear what Hilary says on that subject: "We do wrong in venerating the Church of God in roofs and edifices. Is it doubtful that in these Antichrist will sit? Safer to me are mountains, and woods, and lakes, and dungeons, and whirlpools; for in these, either hidden or immersed, did prophets prophesy."
Calvin warns against false ecclesiastical unity which compromises the truth of Christ. Listen as he brings the discussion around to the duty of the sheep to heed the word of Christ alone, giving no place to the voice of strangers:
Seeing that crafty men now unfrequently insinuate themselves under this pretext [of unity], while they seek to adulterate the pure doctrine of Christ, who can deny that it is the part of prudence to look cautiously at the kind of Peace which is offered us? For as Christ always recommends peace to us as a primary object, so he teaches that the truth of his Gospel is the only bond of peace. Wherefore, it is of no use for those who are trying to seduce us from the pure profession of the Gospel, to gloss it over with the name of Concord. What then? Peace is indeed to be longed for and sought with the utmost zeal; but rather that it should be purchased by any loss of piety, let heaven and earth, if need be, go into confusion!
I am not here debating with Turks and Jews, who would wish the name of Christ utterly extinguished, or with grosser Papists, who demand from us an open abjuration of true doctrine, but the with contrivers of a kind of specious Pacification, who leave us a half Christ, but in such a manner that there is no part of his doctrine which they do not obscure or bespatter with some stain falsehood. And this artifice for deforming piety they send forth so help them! under the name of Reformation!
...It is strange, however, that some are so fickle, not to say alienated in mind, as to put faith in the words of such men! I am not ignorant of their thought. It is, that if they now yield a little, they will make a greater progress afterwards, when the occasion offers. But whence is that occasion which they promise themselves suddenly to arise? I now see them receding from the right path. Therefore there is nothing that can less be hoped than that they are to reach the goal be wandering from it: nay, rather it is to be feared that God may shew himself the avenger of their perfidious defection, by withdrawing the part which they retain. But whatever be their fancied hope, they take too much, far too much upon them, when they bargain concerning the eternal and immutable Truth of God, how far it is to prevail! They say provided what is fundamental remains safe, the loss of other things is tolerable. They speak thus as if Christ had given himself up to be divided at their pleasure. It is something, I admit, when the entire renewal of piety cannot all at once be obtained, to secure at least the principal heads, provided we cease not to follow after what is still wanting. But when the Son of God has given us the doctrine of his gospel to be enjoyed entire, to rend it by compact, in order to preserve some part for ourselves, is most sacrilegious.
...Whatever may happen, let it be our resolute determination to listen to no terms of peace which mingle figments of men with the pure truth of God. Let it, I say, be our fixed principles, that the voice of the Shepherd alone is to be heard, that of strangers guarded against and rejected.
An infallible mark of all true Christians is that they heed the word of Christ: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:27). It is the word of God which sustains and directs them during their earthly pilgrimage. When Christ puts forth his sheep, he goes before them, "and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers" (John 10:4-5).
While the Church of the elect and the universal visible Church are not identical, they do bear a strong relationship to one another. Hence it follows that a true congregation must be marked by its adherence to the word of God. For how can those who profess to be Christ's sheep (individually) follow the voice of the shepherd jointly, unless they constitute an assembly where his word is honored? And if his sheep are known further by an unwillingness to follow strangers, then it is not preposterous to think they should join together with others who manifestly reject the doctrines and practices of Christ Jesus?
It remains the office of the sheep to distinguish between true and false shepherds and thereby to discriminate between true and false churches.
Lately, we have heard a lot of authoritarian chatter, emanating from pseudo-Presbyterians, asserting that it is not the right of private individuals to assess churches. They claim that it is church courts alone (councils) which have the prerogative to test the claims of ministers and churches. These assertions, if accepted, would rob the sheep of the very character which Christ himself attributes to them: namely, the sheep follow him for they know his voice; and strangers they will not follow, but will flee from them (John 10:4-5).
It is a principle of Presbyterian polity that "it belongeth to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience." Consequently, church judicatories are charged with an ordinary responsibility to examine candidates for the ministry, and to oversee Christian congregations under their jurisdiction. Never theless, it is faulty logic to infer from these facts that it belongs exclusively to church courts to evaluate the claims of ministers and churches. On the contrary, it is the obligation of all professing Christians to assess the doctrine and piety of those teachers and congregations which claim their allegiance.
It is significant that the tenth chapter of John figures so prominently in the writings of Calvin, Knox, Farel, Luther, and Zwingli. Each of these Reformers set forth the right yea, the duty of Christians to judge between true and false shepherds.
The Reformers understood the distinction between church officers and Christians not gifted for public office. Indeed, there is a difference between the sheep, and Christ's undershepherds who watch over souls "as they that must give account" (Heb. 13:17). Yet, the official tasks of church rulers do not cancel the concurrent obligation of the sheep to fulfill their responsibilities.
What is the office of the sheep? It is to distinguish between true and false shepherds and as a corollary truth, to discern between true and false churches. Indeed, during times of widespread apostasy, when sessions and presbyteries are not fulfilling their God-given tasks, it is imperative for the sheep to be especially discerning. We must perform our duties, then, by evaluating ministers, elders, sessions, and presbyteries. And we must refuse to submit to the rule of those which do not speak with the voice of Christ.
I close with a quote from William Farel: "He who does not know what he is to believe, nor how he his to believe, who hears no difference between the voice of Jesus and other voices, who cannot distinguish between the voice of the shepherd and the voice of the stranger, he does not belong to Jesus Christ as yet, he is not in Christ at all."
1. A Faithful Admonition to the Professors of God's Truth in England, in Works, III:304, Selected Writings, I:262.
2. Commentary on the Gospel of According to John (Translated by William Pringle; rpt. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), Vol. I, pp. 396-99.
3. Ulrich Zwingli, Commentary on True and False Religion (Edited by Samuel Macauley Jackson and Clarence Nevin Heller; 1929; rpt. Durham, N.C.: Labyrinth Press, 1971), pp. 372-73.
4. Martin Luther, That a Christian Assembly or Congregation Has the Right and Power to Judge All Teaching and to Call, Appoint, and Dismiss Teachers, Established and Proven by Scripture  (Translated by Eric W. and Ruth C. Gritsch), in Luther's Works, Vol. 39 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970), pp. 306-08, 311.
5. John Knox, History of the Reformation in Scotland, in Works, I:190; Selected Writings, I:7.
6. John Knox, History of the Reformation in Scotland, in Works, I:200; Selected Writings, p. 17. The term malignant kirk is a description Knox employed several times in his writings. It is an allusion to Psalm 26:5, µy[irEm] lhq], where David declares, "I have hated the congregation of evil doers" (AV) or, "the assembly of the wicked" (Geneva Bible). The Scots Confession of 1560 draws a stark contrast between "the immaculate spouse of Christ Jesus" and the "horrible harlot, the kirk malignant." See Chapter 18, "Of the Notes by Which the True Kirk is Discerned from the False and Who Shall be Judge of the Doctrine," in The Scottish Confession of Faith (1560) (rpt. Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1992). Knox was one of the authors of the Scots Confession.
7. John Knox, Vindication of the Doctrine that the Sacrifice of the Mass is Idolatry, in Works, III:40-41; Selected Writings, I:29-30.
8. Cited in Philip Schaff, ed., The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes (revised by David Schaff; 1884, 1931; rpt. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), Vol. I. pp. 364-66; Vol. III: pp. 208-10. Also note the Scottish Confession of Faith (1560), Articles 18 and 19; in Schaff, Vol. III, pp. 460-64.
9. Articles Agreed upon by the Faculty of Sacred Theology of Paris, in Reference to Matters of Faith at Present Controverted; with the Antidote, in Tracts, I:102-03.
10. John Calvin, On the True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church (Translated by Henry Beveridge, 1851; rpt. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), in Tracts, III:240-42. Cf. The Necessity of Reforming the Church, in Tracts, I:213-16.
11. Westminster Confession of Faith, 31:3.
12. Cited in Frances Bevan, The Life of William Farel (London: Alfred Holness, fifth edition, n.d.), p. 57.
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Go to Appendix B.