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A time for thunder

John Knox and the continual need for reformational zeal

Statue of John Knox on the tower of the Knox Institute in Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland Wikimedia Commons

A time for thunder

You may have noticed that evangelicals are divided today over “tone,” the way we address the world around us and how we address our moral, social, and political issues. Should we lead with disarming winsomeness or combative confrontation? The Trump divide is only a tributary of this “conversation” that is sometimes more like a verbal brawl over how we are to present ourselves to the public.

Until very recently, Europe and the Americas were self-consciously Christian societies. Everyone, or so it seemed, had some church affiliation and was either baptized or was expected eventually to be. President Franklin Roosevelt, in his D-Day radio broadcast prayer, described the war against the “unholy forces” of Nazi Germany as “a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization.” It’s how we understood ourselves.

But this is no longer so. Through television, film, and advertising, Americans are represented as godless and getting by. Currently, 60 percent of Americans identify as “Christian,” a figure that includes evangelical and mainline Protestants, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics. Twenty percent say they have no religious affiliation at all, and this figure is rising. So, there is much need not only for evangelizing the lost but also for calling the wayward home and the ill-taught to spiritual reformation.

In dealing with anyone, proverbial wisdom reminds us that there is a time for gentleness and a time for sternness, a time to woo and a time to rebuke, a time to appeal and a time to punish. The debate over tone is over which of these alternative approaches is most suitable for our times, in particular for reforming the church, evangelizing the lost, engaging the culture, or challenging the government.

October brings the celebration of the Protestant Reformation. John Knox, the great Reformer of the church in Scotland, helps us consider the place of winsomeness in prophetic ministry, that is, ministry to a wayward Christian people. Our elites serve Mammon and Molech, cheered on by many of our neighbors. And all too many churches, whether evangelical or not, are simply doing what is right in their own eyes.

Had Knox prioritized winsomeness as his non-negotiable, his “brand”— always smiling, always gentle—there would have been no reformation in Scotland.

Knox confronted the issues of his own dismal day with combative zeal for God’s glory and Christ’s church. There was no “middle way” for him, only a thorough Reformation because nothing less will honor a holy God. One eulogist at his grave said that he “never feared nor flattered flesh.” He faced Queen Mary’s displeasure without trembling or compromise. And in the pulpit, he thundered—he spoke boldly for God without fear and without favor. Queen Elizabeth’s ambassador in Scotland reported: “The voice of one man is able in an hour to put more life into us than 500 trumpets continually blustering in our ears.” He was called to serve as the trumpeter of God, and he always blew a clear call.

The reformation of Christ’s church includes more than gospel thunder. It requires cultivating a healthy church life of avid prayer, devoted worship, deep community, mutual service, and Christian education, all centered in Scripture. Knox thundered as he did because he prayed as he did. Mary Queen of Scots said she feared the prayers of John Knox more than all the armies of England. For the church’s worship and community, he gave her The Scots Confession. He also insisted in The First Book of Discipline that churches provide schools for Scotland’s youth. “Every church must have one schoolmaster, able to teach grammar and the Latin tongue.”

And in his zeal, he was humble. Humility is not commonly associated with John Knox. But from his first call to preach, Knox approached the pulpit ministry as Paul did: “in weakness and fear, and with much trembling … so that [the faith of his people] might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power” (1 Cor 2:3). Arrogance and zeal for Christ are inversely related. The greater the zeal, the humbler the man, though arrogance can look like zeal. Unbending devotion to the truth is not arrogance when God has clearly spoken it.

Had Knox prioritized winsomeness as his non-negotiable, his “brand”— always smiling, always gentle—there would have been no reformation in Scotland. It is worth noting that Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), as winsome a Christian as one could reasonably demand, drew a violent protest at the University of Florida when he spoke there as the state school’s soon-to-be president. Despite his calm demeanor and piety, the crowd denounced him as a hateful monster simply for his faithful adherence to Christian teaching.

The great prophets of God, in calling God’s people back to his promises and to their patrimony, have always thundered and have always earned the hatred of those who are opposed to the gospel. Christians will spend themselves in love, as we always have and continue to do, for the sad and the suffering, for those pressed down and cast aside. But to crave popularity and approval in an age of secular opposition deserves condemnation. We need more Christians with the courage of John Knox. We need more zeal. In truth, the church needs more thunder.

David C. Innes

David C. Innes is professor of politics in the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics Program at The King’s College in New York City. He is author of Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life, The Christian Citizen: Faith Engaging Political Life, and Francis Bacon. He is also an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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