The Reformation in Scotland was God-centred, Scripture-centred, salvation-centred, church-centred, and nation-centred. Is it possible for the church today to recover this approach? This article weighs in.

Source: Witness, 2016. 6 pages.

Recovering Our Scottish Reformed Heritage

1. A Lost Heritage🔗

We have only to look around us today to see how our Reformed heritage has been eroded. The Russian dissident and author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, said: ‘To destroy a people you must first sever their roots’. This has an application to the Christian Church today. The influence of liberalism and modern evangelism in the United Kingdom in the second half of the 19th century led to a disconnection with our Protestant and Reformed heritage.

The change that came about in the spiritual and theological climate in England in the mid decades of the nineteenth century culminated in the ‘Downgrade controversy’ with C H Spurgeon fighting a battle for the historic Christian Faith. There was no sign of a recovery for over half a century. Dr J I Packer noted the change that took place in the mid-twentieth century. In an article on ‘Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones: A Kind of Puritan’, he said: ‘It was in fact given him (Dr Lloyd-Jones) in the post war years to see the quality of evangelical teaching in England and Wales change for the better through his own weaving back into it the binding thread of Reformed theology a thread which had snapped after Spurgeon was defeated in the Downgrade controversy, and Keswick teaching swamped Anglican Calvinism, and liberalism and the social gospel captured the pulpits of Wales’.

In Scotland the downgrade became evident in the decline of the Free Church of Scotland towards the end of the nineteenth century. The widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution and Higher Critical thought resulted in the infiltration of theological liberalism into the churches. The adoption of modern evangelism, introduced through the campaigns of D L Moody, accelerated the decline. It was not so much ‘the thread which snapped’ but the binding thread became very thin. The thorough-going Reformed theology of the Geneva-inspired Scottish Reformation was relegated to a secondary place as far as the majority of Christians in Scotland were concerned.

Let us look at what happened at the time of the Reformation in Scotland.

2. Pre-Reformation Scotland🔗

Scotland at the beginning of the sixteenth century was in spiritual darkness and moral decay. The Church was in a corrupt condition. During the medieval period the human authority of the Pope and the fallible teaching of the Church replaced the unique authority of God in the Scriptures. Reliance on man’s works had taken the place of the sovereign and irresistible grace of God in salvation. The result of such apostasy was idolatry, typified by the cult of Mary and of the saints, the worship of the Eucharist, the pseudo-magical power of the priests in the use of the sacraments, the efficacy of relics and so on. It was John Calvin’s view that at the very centre of the Roman Church was a form of Christianised idolatry. There were glimmers of Gospel light in the nation. John Wycliffe’s Lollards had preached the Gospel in Scotland since the late fourteenth century. Patrick Hamilton brought Luther’s teaching to Scotland and as a consequence suffered a gruesome martyrdom before St Salvator’s College, St Andrews in 1528. That effort to suppress the truth had the opposite effect. Archbishop Beaton was advised to burn other heretics in deep cellars ‘for the reek (smoke) of Patrick Hamilton has infected all it blew upon’. Luther’s teaching was also making its way into Scotland through pamphlets and books and was penetrating the universities. In 1543 the reading of the Bible in the vernacular was sanctioned and it became a popular book.

It was into this situation that John Knox was called by God. He trained for the priesthood but then he was converted — ‘It pleased God to call me from the puddle of papistry’. His call to the ministry while taking refuge in the Castle at St Andrews was dramatic. His first sermon on Daniel 7:24-25 was a powerful attack on the errors of Rome. After 18 months as a slave on the French galleys he landed in England where he joined the emerging Protestant movement under the reign of young Edward VI. He found himself to be the leader of the Puritan party in the Reformation. The commencement of persecution under Mary Tudor caused Knox to flee to the Continent. He studied under John Calvin in Geneva and ministered to an English-speaking congregation there. He said of Geneva, ‘It is the most perfect school of Christ on earth since the days of the apostles’. Thomas Carlyle said of Knox, ‘He was the chief priest and founder of the faith that became Scotland’s, New England’s and Oliver Cromwell’s that is of Puritanism’.

We need to consider the kind of Reformation that was accomplished in Scotland.

3. The Reformation in Scotland🔗

  1. It was God-centred🔗

True religion is the reaction of the human soul in the presence of God, coram deo. It is the reception of the message of the supremacy and glory of God in Christ in the heart that makes the man of God. It was true in the experience of John Calvin and John Knox. This is what lay at the heart of Reformation movement. The Reformation could be said to have been the blossoming of this fundamental religious consciousness on a wide scale. As the work of the Holy Spirit is necessary to bring the individual to this consciousness, so it was manifestly a work of the Spirit to bring multitudes to it. T M Lindsay in his work on The Reformation states, ‘I have adopted Dr Merle d’Aubigne’s view that the Reformation was a revival of religion, and cannot be described successfully unless this its essential character is kept distinctly in view’. George Smeaton writes in similar vein, ‘Considered in its origin, the Reformation was itself a great work of the Spirit of God, and the men who bore a leading part in it were fully conscious of this fact’. Knox attributed it to the fact that ‘God gave His Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance’. The Reformation was a movement from heaven that turned attention from a man-centred religion back to God.

  1. It was Scripture-centred🔗

The Reformation was also a movement from the authority of the Church back to the authority of the Word of God. The medieval Church raised the tradition of the Church to a place of authority equal to that of Scripture. ‘Holy writ’ and ‘holy tradition’ were both accepted as authoritative sources of divine truth. Over both stood the Church’s magisterium, an infallible teaching office, to which belonged final authority in interpreting both tradition and Scripture. The Roman priests were largely ignorant of Scripture. The Bible was not available to the common people. When Luther took his defiant stand against the Roman Church with the words ‘my conscience is captive to the Word of God’, it set alight the Reformation. The Scripture says, ‘The entrance of thy word giveth light’ (Psalm 119:130). Sola Scriptura became one of the watchwords of the Reformation.

‘Everywhere the Reformation made an impact’, says Carl Trueman, ‘it did so via the production and proliferation of vernacular Scriptures and the preaching (the verbal proclamation of the Word of God). That Word entered Scotland in 1527 through the availability of the translation of the New Testament into English by William Tyndale. The Scripture became the basis for the Reformation work and John Knox saw his vocation as a preacher of that Word. His main duty he said was ‘to blow my Master’s trumpet’. There was a profound sense of the divine majesty of the Author of Scripture: ‘What Scripture says God says’. It was affirmed that ‘nothing pleases God but what He has commanded in His Word; and the true principle of piety is the obedience which we ought to render to Him’. Calvin says in the Institutes: ‘Now in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no-one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture’.

  1. It was salvation-centred🔗

It was also a movement that moved from man’s merits to God’s grace. The doctrine of man’s radical corruption was denied by the Pelagians and the Roman Catholics. John Calvin wrote in the Institutes: ‘It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating Him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy – this pride is innate in all of us’. In Calvin’s view the volitional inability of sinners to love God, obey God, or believe in Him, was the heart of the doctrine of depravity. To magnify human free will or minimize the extent of human depravity is to downplay the need for divine grace, and so undermine every aspect of Gospel truth. The Reformers rediscovered that salvation was a work of sovereign, distinguishing grace. It was centred in Christ. Everything lacking in us by nature is given to us by Christ; everything sinful in us is imputed to Christ; and all the judgment merited by us is borne by Christ. Union with Christ was at the very centre of the application of redemption. We come to receive and enjoy the benefits purchased by Christ by the secret energy of the Holy Spirit working faith in us. All the glory of salvation belongs to the triune God alone. It is by Christ alone, by grace alone and through faith alone.

The Reformers’ quarrel with the religion that went before them was that it did not bring men into the presence of God. The teaching of the Reformers, like Knox, removed the barriers which divided the common man from God. The special powers of the ordained priesthood were broken and the teaching of the priesthood of all believers was restored. There was the recovery of the true knowledge of God and the consequent effect in the life of the individual. Early in the Institutes Calvin says: ‘Indeed we shall not say that, properly speaking, God is known where there is no religion or piety’. The truth of the Gospel is only rightly believed in the extent to which it is embodied in life. In the words of Professor John Murray: ‘Theology that does not promote encounter with the living God and encounter with Him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the unity that belongs to Them in the mystery of the Trinity, and in the particularity of relationship which each Person sustains to us in the economy of salvation is not Christian theology’.

  1. It was Church-centred🔗

The Reformers saw clearly that the medieval Church was no longer the gathering of the faithful but a worldly institution whose status derived from the authority and traditions of men and external connections with clergy, sacraments and buildings. For Calvin, the Church was crucial to a full understanding of the nature of God’s redemptive purposes in this fallen world. Calvin took up the words of Cyprian: ‘You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the Church for your mother’. Reintroducing the concept with considerable zeal he said: ‘For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keeps us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like angels’. He held the view that the salvation of sinners does not happen in a vacuum, but in the crucible of the visible church. It is no accident therefore that Book IV of the Institutes occupies about a third of the length of the whole.

John Knox and his fellow Reformers had to lay a new foundation for the Church in Scotland. ‘They took not their pattern from any Kirk in the world’, said historian John Row, ‘no not from Geneva itself, but laying God’s Word before them, they made reformation according thereunto, both in doctrine first and then in discipline’. As Dr David Hay Fleming said, if the story of the Reformation in Scotland had to be characterised in one word, that word might be ‘thorough’. In the First Book of Discipline, Knox declared, ‘Whatsoever He proves (by His eternal Word) that shall be approved, and what He damneth, shall be condemned, though all men in the earth should hazard the justification of the same’. This is what has become known as the Regulative Principle and revealed the Puritan element that had been burned into the soul of John Knox and manifested itself in him in England and in Geneva before Scotland. Everything in the Church had to be according to the pattern God Himself has given. Knox insisted that Christ was the only Head of the Church and that no bishop nor King could arrogate to himself this claim without doing dishonour to Christ. The supreme court of the Church met on the authority of the sole Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ. Knox said, ‘Take away from us the freedom of assemblies and you take away the evangel’.

In connection with the Church, the Reformers saw the vital importance of the instruction of children in the family and in the Church. John Calvin, in the dedication of his Catechism, appealed to the King of France: ‘Believe my Lord that the Church of God shall never be conserved without catechism, for it is as the seed to be kept that the good grain perish not but that it may increase from age to age. Wherefore if you desire to build a work of continuance to endure long, and which should not shortly fall into decay, cause that the children in their young age be instructed in a good catechism’. In this respect Geneva had a great influence on Scotland. In the First Book of Discipline explicit directions are given for the conduct of the congregation, including preaching, catechetical instruction, examination for the admission to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, prayer and teaching in the home. It enjoins instruction of children ad youth ‘especially in the Catechism as we have it now translated in the Book of Common Order, called the Order of Geneva’. On the Lord’s Day afternoon ‘must the young children be publicly examined in their catechism in the audience of the people’.

  1. It was nation-centred🔗

The Reformation was concerned with the recovery of the crown rights of Christ in the nation. The Bible leaves us in no doubt that the Lord Jesus is not only King and Head of His Church but also King of the nations. He is described in the Book of Revelation as ‘the prince of the kings of the earth’ (1:5) and ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’ (19:16). He has been given all authority in heaven and in earth. In Psalm 2 the rebellion of the nations against God and His Christ is answered by the declaration of the Lord: ‘I have set my king upon my holy hill of Zion’. Christ is given the earth for His inheritance and possession, and the kings and the judges of the earth are advised to kiss the Son. They are to do so not only in their private capacity but also in their public office. There are two kingdoms, the Church and the nation, but one King over both. They are distinct, but it is the duty of the state to support the Church and it is the duty of the Church to show the state how to apply the laws of Christ in their jurisdiction. This is necessary because heresy and idolatry cause the murder of souls, as Calvin pointed out to the King of France and as Knox testified by mouth and pen. It also invokes the wrath of God. False worship had always led, could only lead, to one end: the destruction of the nation that practised it. That is why Knox feared one Mass more than if ten thousand armies had landed.

4. Application for today🔗

Knox and his fellow Reformers were eager to accept the opportunity to declare their faith in the Scots Confession. ‘Long have we thirsted, dear brethren, to have notified unto the world the sum of that doctrine which we profess and for which we have sustained infamy and danger’. In the Reformation there was a desire to express the faith in all its fulness in catechisms and confessions of faith. The reverse is true today. We resort to a more attenuated creedal affirmation. To do so is to discard the work of the Holy Spirit in the generations of Christian history. As Professor John Murray has said: ‘To discard the heritage of the past is the mark of both ignorance and conceit. Other men laboured and we are entered into their labours’. Said Horatius Bonar in 1883, ‘It would be well for us to remember that not merely accepted error, but undervalued truth, has often made havoc of a Church, and shipwreck of a soul’. A full-orbed witness to the faith safeguards against the danger of doctrinal indifferentism. Reformed teaching, giving all the glory to God, is the ultimate guarantee, under the blessing of God, of success and victory.

  1. The recovery of God-centredness🔗

We are living in a man-centred age. There must be, like at the time of the Reformation, a return to God. We must begin with the doctrine of the triune God. The first signs of recovery from the blight of liberalism and modern evangelism in the mid-twentieth century were witnessed in the ministry of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Oliver Barclay in his Evangelicalism in Britain 1935-1995 observed: ‘Dr Lloyd-Jones set a pattern in his preaching that was new for many ... he emphasized the doctrine about the character of God. In particular he stressed the doctrine of the Father in a way that was not common in evangelical circles: his holiness, his wisdom, his initiative in our salvation and his power and sovereignty. His preaching was intensely God-centred compared with the rather human-centred emphases that were common then, which had resulted in a stress on what we can get in the way of experience or other blessing’. All spiritual weakness is ultimately due to poverty of thought about God and such weakness will persist as long as we suppose that man is the starting point for its resolution.

  1. The recovery of Scripture-centredness🔗

The Bible is the only functioning authority for Christians and for churches. To Knox the Word of God was central and preaching was pre-eminent. The Reformation replaced the altar with the pulpit as the focal point of worship. In the Church today the pulpit is being displaced by a variety show. Albert Mohler declares: ‘Once the faith is severed from Biblical authority, Christianity becomes essentially plastic; a malleable and changeable belief system that just begs for transformation into some other shape or substance’. Carl Trueman has said ‘To marginalize preaching in our Church life is to marginalize words; to marginalize words will inevitably involve marginalizing the Word Himself’. In many places the Bible is being re-interpreted and is therefore a sealed book. We say with Machen: ‘One thing is clear — if the Word of God were again heard there would be an upheaval like the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Now, as at the end of the Middle Ages, the Bible is obscured by an interpretation which reverses its meaning, and now as well as then the rediscovery of the Bible would set the world free’.

  1. The recovery of supernatural salvation🔗

‘Calvinism’, in the words of B B Warfield, ‘means utter dependence on God for salvation ... Calvinism will not play fast and loose with the free grace of God. It is set upon giving to God and to God alone, the glory and all the glory of salvation’. In the professing Church today some have come to regard the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism as unimportant. But the truth is that in all systems of Christian belief, except the Reformed, God is limited in some respect either as to His purpose, His will or His providence. According to Iain Murray, ‘Arminianism obscures the glory which belongs solely to the free grace of God and therefore is an error sufficiently serious for there to be no room for compromising’. In similar vein, Dr John R de Witt declares: ‘Arminianism essentially represents an attack on the majesty of God, and puts in place of it, the exaltation of man. It is a danger which constantly recurs, and must be faced, and must be opposed’.

  1. The recovery of true godliness🔗

Although there is no doubt today a quest for religious experience it is something that is very subjective and self-centred. Speaking of the godliness of the Puritans (English and Scottish), Dr Packer makes this observation: ‘The experimental piety of the Puritans was natural and unselfconscious, because it was so utterly God-centred; our own (such as it is) is too often artificial and boastful, because it is so largely concerned with ourselves. Our interest focuses on religious experience as such and on man’s quest for God, whereas the Puritans were concerned with the God of whom men have experience, and in His manner of dealings with those whom He draws to Himself’. John T McNeill, editor of the Battles’ translation of The Institutes, claims that Calvin’s theology is ‘his piety described at length’. ‘The whole life of Christians’, says Calvin, ‘ought to be a sort of practice of godliness’.

  1. The recovery of the doctrine of the Church🔗

We have seen a downgrade of the doctrine of the Church. The Reformed concept of the visible Church with its offices, discipline and sacraments has very little place among professing Christians today. Independent-mindedness is a feature of Church life, and Christian groups and para-church organizations have multiplied.

We need to recover the concept of the Church as divinely instituted, with Christ as its Head and Lord. It is in truth ‘the glorious Body of Christ’. Our prayer is that the Church may come forth, as in the days of the Scottish Reformation, ‘fair as the moon, clear as the sun and terrible as an army with banners’ (Song 6:10).

  1. The recovery of a nation under God🔗

Although there has been a widespread recovery of Calvinistic teaching in the United Kingdom in the last fifty years and many claim the title ‘Reformed’, surely there is a lack of that theological perspective which most obviously distinguished the Reformed from other varieties of sixteenth century Protestantism. As far as the kingship of Christ is concerned many do not hold that it extends to the nation. They hold consciously or unconsciously to the Voluntary principle which Rabbi Duncan categorized as ultimately ‘atheistic’. The Reformed Church in Scotland refused, in spite of the utmost provocation, to surrender the Crown Rights of Christ in the nation. Many laid down their lives in defence of it. Surely it is time that we took up that banner once again and rallied round it (Ps.60:4).

  1. Conclusion: What can we do?🔗

How can we recover our heritage? What can we do about the desperate situation in the Church and in the nation? We have to begin with a realization as to what has gone wrong and how far we have fallen from our former glories. We have to recognize that God’s displeasure is being manifested against His Church. ‘How long wilt thou be angry against the prayer of thy people?’ (Ps.80:4).

We have to acknowledge that those who turned away from our heritage were unconsciously deluded by the devil. Many were guilty of denying such a person as Satan. Error begins with the powers of darkness. Dr D M Lloyd-Jones observed: ‘I am certain that one of the main causes of the ill state of the Church today is the fact that the devil is being forgotten’.

We need a supernatural intervention to reverse the tide. We need to recover militancy against the devil and all the powers of darkness. ‘The strength of the Church is in the realization of its own impotence’ (Prof John Murray). Let us humble ourselves, repent of our sins and cry earnestly to God for revival.

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