The Fear and Trembling of John Knox

It may be surprising, after noting his valiant tenacity, to recognize that John Knox was, by his own admission, a coward by nature when it came to embracing his call to ministry. It was, actually, something he seemingly opposed at first.

Indeed, Knox did not rush into Gospel ministry. He was a man that not only trembled before God, but hesitated to preach. While some may charge like a bull into the ministry, Knox, like Moses, was more like a stubborn mule who needed to be dragged into his calling. But once he got going and was fully thrust into pastoral ministry, there was little that could hold him back.

His call into ministry has been well-documented and told by many, but it is again worth noting that his own pastor, John Rough, and the congregation of St Andrews’ Castle, recognized the way in which the Lord had gifted him, and thus they urged him toward the ministry. It is perhaps exemplary for other would-be pastors that Knox received much outward confirmation by those around him before he finally acquiesced to the inward call of the Holy Spirit to pastor.

Knox, in his History of the Reformation in Scotland, recalls the moment he was called on by his pastor, Rough (much as Calvin was by Farel to take on Geneva), as well as his church to enter the ministry:

Brother, ye shall not be offended, albeit that I speak unto you that which I have in charge, even from all those here present: — 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 ye refuse not this holy vocation, but, as ye tender the glory of God, the increase of Christ’s Kingdom, the edification of your brethren and the comfort of me, oppressed by the multitude of labours, that ye take upon you the public office of preaching, even as ye look to avoid God’s heavy displeasure, and desire that he shall multiply his graces upon you.[1]

After calling upon the congregation to bear witness that they were in agreement, and receiving their affirmation, Knox reports:

Whereat John Knox, abashed, burst forth in most abundant tears, and withdrew himself to his chamber. His countenance and behavior, from that day till the day 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 in him, neither yet had he pleasure to accompany any man for many days together.[2]

Knox took this charge seriously and though he entered the ministry in a sheepish way, the Lord magnified His glory in this most feeble of men. This fear of the Lord led Knox to obey God and defy tyrants and to be able to stand with the Apostles who had said it was better to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). It was not that he defied all authority, as evidenced by his adoption of pastoral ministry at the charge of his pastor and congregation. Rather, he defied those who would have him defy God.

This fearing of God led Knox into both wisdom and strength to stand for the truth. As recorded by Richard Bannatyne, Knox’s secretary, in John Knox and John Knox’s House and quoted in the footnotes of later editions of The History of the Reformation in Scotland, he continued to fear the Lord even on his sick bed:

The elders and deacons came that he might bid them his last good-night, unto whom he protested that… he made not merchandise of the Word of God, whose message he bore, to whom he must make account for the same. In respect whereof—albeit he was weak and a fearful man—he feared not the face of men and therefore exhorted them to stand constant in that doctrine which they had heard of his mouth, how unworthy that ever he was.[3]

This was not a false humility in the Scottish reformer. Rather, he took seriously Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” Wisdom and insight would be constant companions of Knox alongside his courage, but at the heart of it all was a reverence for the Lord who had graciously condescended to the low estate of man in order to save sinners, such as himself.

Steadfast Before Men, Trembling Before God

Perhaps one of the most famous quotes from Knox’s life is that telling statement, “I have never once feared the devil, but I tremble every time I enter the pulpit.” All preachers, who handle the Scriptures seriously and with care, have experienced this trembling that Knox describes. Though he was often resolute and steadfast facing even the most formidable foes, stepping into the pulpit to open a Bible and preach God’s Word rendered him shaking.

Both those who regularly handle the Word of God before a congregation and lay people can learn much from Knox, in this regard. Those who believe the Bible to legitimately and truly be the Word of God should feel the weight of responsibility that is ours as both its studiers and handlers. Knox trembled because he wanted to make sure he preached the full counsel of God’s Word, without adding anything of his own opinion or persuasion to it, while also being certain to not fail to say anything that should be said by taking away from it. The preacher who no longer feels the weight of the responsibility upon his shoulders, who no longer trembles when entering the pulpit, and no longer feels the constant need for the enabling grace of God, will likely prove ineffective in his pulpit ministry. This does not mean one should fear the people to whom he is speaking; rather, he should fear improperly handling the Word of God, and thus study and pray all the more that God would grant him both understanding and an ability to communicate truth well.

It has already been remarked that, at one point, Knox found himself as a galley slave. At other times, he found himself at the forefront of theological battles, political battles, and even physical battles. While many other men may have quaked in fear, Knox trembled only before his sovereign Lord. In fact, once, after a tumultuous battle against Frenchmen, Knox found himself at Cupar alongside “Lords of the Congregation,” where, in the face of defeat, he preached not a sermon of cowardliness and despair, but a “most comfortable sermon,” proclaiming "The danger in which the disciples of Christ Jesus stood, when they were in the midst of the sea and Jesus was upon the mountain." Knox offered these words of comfort:

I am as assuredly persuaded that God shall deliver us from this extreme trouble, as I am assured that this is the Evangel of Jesus Christ that I preach unto you this day. The fourth watch is not yet come. Abide a little! The boat shall be saved; and Peter, who hath left the boat, shall not drown. God grant that ye may acknowledge His hand, after your eyes have seen his deliverance.[4]

What bolstered Knox’s courage and allowed him to preach such a sermon in the face of nearly insurmountable odds? A due reverence of the Lord his God.

Wherever the Gospel Leads

What caused a man like John Knox, who trembled when he entered the pulpit to preach God's Word, who was a self-admitted coward by nature, and who had suffered so much in his life at the hands of those who wanted him to stop serving Christ, to keep preaching with a ferocious intensity unto his death? What enabled him to tenderly care for his flock yet drive away wolves with the rod? From where did he find the strength to stand against "Bloody" Mary, Queen of the Scots? What was the source of his ability to comfort those who had been defeated in battle, along with their families at a time when Protestants were literally being killed by the day?

Knox was gospel-centered and Christocentric.

All he said and did, whether from behind a pulpit or in a private meeting with Queen Mary, he did because he saw the Gospel leading him there. Had the Lord led him to the coldest of lands, he would have gone. Had the Lord led him to the hottest of deserts, he would have gone. Had the Lord led him into the bloodiest of battles, or lands of fiercest persecutions, he would have gone. Again, this was not due to any natural inclination of courage, but an overwhelming desire to see the Gospel spread.

 Preaching on the regulative principle of worship, John Knox once proclaimed:

It is not enough that man invents a ceremony, and then gives it a signification, according to his pleasure. But if 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.” 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 they are sin, and do displease him, according to the words of the apostle, “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.”[5]

Though he was speaking about the proper modes and administration of worship within a Church service, this principle carried him throughout life. (Indeed, if the Christian exists primarily to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, then the regulative principle of worship should shape the speech and actions of the Christian always.) If Knox saw an act or a word as glorifying God, then there was no question in his mind that it had to be done or said. He feared the Lord, not men.

The thundering boldness of Knox’s pulpit ministry is often missing from many pulpits today for lack of his reverence of God and His Word. Preachers today do not need to become something they are not; if a pastor is generally of a quiet demeanor, then he does not need to manufacture the vigorous and active antics of Knox’s pulpit ministry to be effective. What is most important is this: a firm forceful adherence to God’s Word and love for the Lord, His truth, and His people. The pastor teacher who learns these qualities from Knox and then does them, does well indeed.  And so do the people who embrace such a man hold up his arms.

Let us then pray for pastor-teachers to rise up in this generation who, like Knox, tremble before the Lord, but fear no man in their proclamation of the truth of the Scriptures for God’s glory and the good of God’s people.

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Mt. Bethel Church of McClure in Central Pennsylvania. He has spent time as a reporter, journalist, and editor, and has written for various Christian websites. He and his wife, Kayla, have one son, Josiah. Jacob is currently completing his M.Div. through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Related Links

"The Thunderous Roar of John Knox" by Jacob Tanner

"The Real John Knox" by Thomas Kidd

"The Quartersawn Sermon" by Jim McCarthy

Words to Winners of Souls by Horatius Bonar 

Why Johnny Can't Preach by T. David Gordon 


[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2014), 72.

[2] Ibid., 72-73.

[3] Ibid., 73. (Italics my own).

[4] Ibid., 195-96.

[5] Knox, Works, 1:195-96.

Jacob Tanner