Scottish Reformation History

The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation in Scotland was a glorious and dynamic period in church history. The manifold reformers who courageously responded to God’s call to reform the Scottish Church included the likes of the fearless George Wishart (1513 – 1546) who was martyred for preaching the doctrines of the “Swiss Reformers;” the erudite Patrick Hamilton (1504 – 1528) who was “roasted alive” for preaching Martin Luther’s views of justification by faith alone; the fiery John Knox (1514 – 1572) who boldly preached the gospel to both lowly kinsmen and powerful monarchs; and the spirited Robert Bruce (1554 – 1631) who faithfully preached the Word of God for fifty years.

In part, the steadfast ministry of men such as these elicited Scotland’s official adoption of the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, in 1560 the so-called “Reformation Parliament” met in Edinburgh and voted to break away from the Roman Catholic Church and commission the writing of a new confession of faith. The result was the Scots Confession, written by the “six Johns,” that is, John Knox, John Winram, John Spottiswoode, John Willock, John Douglas, and John Row. The preface to the Scots Confession reveals the conviction of the “six Johns” – and those who stood with them – where it states “Long have we thirsted, dear brethren, to have notified the world [of] the sum of that doctrine which we profess, and for the which we have sustained infamy and danger … and with all humility we embrace the purity of Christ’s gospel, which is the only food of our souls.” These men were “determined to suffer the extremest of worldly danger” to proclaim and defend the gospel of grace and to perform the worship of God in a manner that was regulated by Scripture, not man-made innovations or traditions. In the words of Luther, their consciences were held captive by the Word of God.

In addition to the Scots Confession, which remained the standard statement of faith in Scotland until superseded by the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1647, the “six Johns” composed what is entitled The First Book of Discipline, a document written to provide doctrinal and practical organization for the Scottish Church in the aftermath of the split with the Roman Catholic Church. A rough draft of this document was first sent to Switzerland for the perusal of John Calvin, Pierre Viret, and Theodore Beza in Geneva and to Peter Martyr Vermigili and Heinrich Bullinger in Zurich. The First Book of Discipline, James Kirk states, “stressed the need for preaching the Word throughout the realm, ministering the two dominical sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and removing ‘superstition’ and ‘idolatry.’” In addition, because there were many vacant pulpits in the land, the First Book of Discipline defined temporary offices of “exhorter and reader” to lead worship until trained and ordained men could be provided. In short, the First Book of Discipline helped the churches conform to a biblical ministry and service of worship. So, Christ Church, what can we learn from the Scottish Reformation?

First, it is important to notice that these Scottish Reformers were willing to surrender all, even their very lives, because of their love for Christ and His “precious gospel.” They took seriously Jesus’ exhortation in Mark 8:34: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” As committed followers of Christ, these men valued the glory of Christ above their own earthly comforts. Like Moses they chose “rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25). The lives of these men, as part of the “great cloud of witnesses,” spur us on to “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus” and not on the fleeting things of this world (Hebrews 12:1-2). They teach us that Christ and His gospel are worth living for and, if necessary, dying for.

Second, the ordinary means of grace, namely, the sound preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments, were reclaimed as the primary means whereby the elect are united to Christ and nourished in Him. One of the great hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation, both in Britain and on the continent, was the resurgence of powerful, Christ-centered preaching and right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

The Scottish Reformation beckons the present day Church to faithfully administer and appropriate the simple, unadorned means of Word and sacrament. Like the Israelites in the wilderness who complained of the sweet honey bread that was sent from heaven, evangelicals have become unsatisfied with the simple, Christ-focused means of Word and sacrament; thus replacing them with golden calves of our own making. May our hearts, once again, be captivated by the person and finished work of Christ through God’s ordained instruments of salvation.

While living and studying in Edinburgh, Scotland, almost daily I would pass under the shadow of the grand St. Giles Cathedral on High Street. John Knox preached at St Giles from 1560 until his death in 1572. His life and ministry silently spurred me on to be faithful to Christ and His Word. Isn’t this one of the goals of reading church history and biography and learning, in general, about our Reformed Protestant Heritage? Though dead, the Reformers continue to speak to us in the pages of history, and in their sermons and books. Take some time this year to get to know a Reformer like Calvin, Knox, or Luther through a good biography (a good place to start is Reformation Heritage Book’s excellent website and bookstore). Your Christian life will be all the richer! It will strengthen your faith. I will conclude with this wonderful little prayer for the Church by John Knox which I discovered in the pages of Iain Murray’s delightful book entitled A Scottish Christian Heritage:

“Now, O Lord, thou has revealed thyself and thy beloved Son Jesus Christ clearly to the world again by the true preaching of his blessed evangel [gospel], which also of thy mercy is offered unto us within this realm of Scotland … Give unto us, O Lord, that presently are assembled in thy Name, such abundance of thy Holy Spirit, that we may see those things that shall be expedient for the advancement of thy glory, in the midst of this perverse and stubborn generation. Give us grace, O Lord, that universally among ourselves, we may agree in the unity of true doctrine. Bless thou so our weak labors, that the fruits of the same may redound to the praise of thy holy Name, to the profit of this present generation, and to the posterity to come, through Jesus Christ; to whom, with Thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and praise, now and ever. So be it.”

Pastor Jon