This article is an introduction to the Scots Confession. It shows how the confession is focused on the glory of God, his Word, Jesus Christ, the gospel, and the church.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 2010. 6 pages.

The Scots Confession of 1560

The new Scottish Parliament met at the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly Hall in Edinburgh on May 12, 1999. The oldest member present opened the historic meeting with the words: ‘The Scottish Par­liament, adjourned on 25th March 1707, is hereby reconvened.’1 After a lapse of almost three hundred years Scotland again has its parliament.

Four hundred and fifty years ago another parliament – one might even say the most important Scottish Parliament in history – met in Edinburgh. The Queen Regent, the French Mary of Lorraine, had recently died, and her daughter, young Mary Stuart – Mary Queen of Scots as she was called – was still in France. During the early days of August 1560, as members of the parliament made their way to the capital, John Knox used the time to preach to great congregations from the pulpit of St Giles on the book of Haggai, setting forth the need to rebuild the church of God in Scotland. Queen Elizabeth’s envoy in Scot­land wrote that the ‘voice of (this) one man’ was able ‘in one hour to put more life’ in the people ‘than 500 trumpets’.2

When the benches of the Parliament House were filled with the lead­ers of church and state, John Knox and five others – all with the first name of John – were asked to prepare a doctrinal statement of the Protestant faith. The six Johns were ready for the task. Four days later their work was done.

The Reformed faith triumphed in Scotland but then faced a series of threats and attacks as the Stuart kings and English bishops conspired to undermine and destroy what the Scots Confession called ‘Jesus Christ’s eternal truth, lately now born again among us’.3

Finally, on February 28, 1638, the old confession was reaffirmed by all those who signed the famous National Covenant, first at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh and then throughout the country. This led to the Sol­emn League and Covenant of 1643 and the participation of the Church of Scotland in the great work at Westminster Abbey in London for ‘the preservation of the reformed religion in the Church of Scotland’ and ‘the reformation of religion in the kingdoms of England and Ireland, accord­ing to the Word of God, and the example of the best reformed churches.’ ‘Four points of uniformity’ were drawn up, including the Westminster Confession of Faith, which in 1647 was adopted by the Church of Scot­land to stand alongside its old and honoured Scots Confession.

We will look at some of the major points of the older confession, forged in the fire and heat of the battle for the Reformation of Scotland. One writer has described it: ‘as craggy, irregular, powerful, and unfor­gettable as the hills of northern Scotland’.4

Several summers ago I was walking on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Unlike some of its neighbours, Lewis is a very boggy, marshy island. Walking is difficult, even dangerous, and it is easy to lose your way. But the walking trails are marked with bright-coloured posts. To walk safely and securely, you only need to find the next post and make your way toward it without straying too far to the right or to the left.

The authors of the Scots Confession knew that this world is a dan­gerous and difficult place. It was all too easy for people then, as now, to lose their way spiritually. So John Knox and his friends set up some clear markers to help others through the pilgrimage of life ‘lest they be troubled or carried away’, the preface states, by the ‘rumours’ of Satan against the truth.

There are twenty-five chapters in the Scots Confession, many of them very short, none very long. We will summarize these twenty-five arti­cles in five main points: five strong and clear markers to take us safely through life from birth to death. The first is...

1. The Glory of God🔗

The Confession begins with these words: ‘We confess and acknowl­edge one God alone to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust.’ Two words stand out in that opening sentence: ‘God’ and ‘alone’.

The Reformation is famous for its great solas: sola Scriptura, Scrip­ture alone, sola gratia, grace alone, sola fide, by faith alone. The Scots begin their confession with another great Reformation expression – soli Deo gloria, glory to God alone.

Before the Confession’s statement concerning the attributes of God, and before its Trinitarian definition of God, there is this impressive sentence of personal commitment to God alone. Notice the other words in this sentence: ‘We confess and acknowledge one God alone to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust.’ The Scots do not define God so much as confront us with God and demand our allegiance to him. They begin very much in the spirit of Calvin’s Institutes, which insists that the knowledge of God involves more than head knowledge; it involves also trust and reverence. Calvin asks: ‘How can the thought of God penetrate your mind without your realizing immediately that, since you are his handiwork, you have been made over and bound to his command by right of creation, that you owe your life to him?’ The Scots Confession begins with this same point. Not only does God exist before and above all things, but we owe our very lives to him. There is one God. And that one God must be worshipped and served. Or, to put it another way, the Lord God is King. And he is my king.

The Scots Confession begins with the glory of God. Keep that first strong post in view. Don’t ever lose sight of it, even for a day or an hour or a minute.

The second post to guide us in our lives through the wilderness of this world is...

2. The Word of God🔗

How do we know who God really is? How do we know anything about theology, which is the knowledge of God? Even though the Scots Confession doesn’t have a separate chapter on Scripture until near the end, it is clear that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the basis for what it sets forth in all those chapters.

In the preface to the Confession, the authors urge that if anyone notes in their work ‘any article or sentence repugnant to God’s Holy Word’, he should inform them of it in writing; ‘and we’, they state, ‘upon our honour, do promise him by God’s grace we shall give him satisfaction from the mouth of God, that is, from Holy Scripture, or else we shall alter whatever he can prove to be wrong.’ When the Confession was officially adopted by Parliament on August 17, 1560, it was received as ‘wholesome and sound doctrine grounded upon the infallible truth of God’s Word’.

To the Scottish Reformers access to the Word of God, the preaching of the Word of God, and obedience to the Word of God, were abso­lutely essential. Every church was to be provided with a Bible in English, and both the Old Testament and the New Testament were to be read through systematically at church services. Parents were instructed to take pains that their children remained in school until they could read the Scriptures ‘distinctly’. For years the Bible was read in Scottish homes as it was read nowhere else upon the face of the earth. Although the Scottish poet Robert Burns often made fun of serious religion, he could not escape something grand in his depiction of ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, in which the father takes down the big Bible and ‘with patriar­chal grace’ turns its pages until he comes to the place for that night’s reading as the family prepares for the Sabbath.5

These old Scottish Presbyterians took their stand on Scripture. On a critical occasion when the liberties of the Kirk were threatened, Andrew Melville, leader after John Knox, ‘clanked’ his Bible down on the table before the king and council and declared: ‘There are my instructions and (this is) my warrant’.6

To symbolize commitment to the Scriptures as its sole standard, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland always placed a large Bible on the table in front of the Moderator. In the early nineteenth century the assembly was debating the church’s need to engage in foreign missions. It was during the time of the ascendancy of the so-called ‘moderates’, and several speakers had denied that the church was required to send missionaries overseas. Finally John Erskine, minister of Old Greyfriars, Edinburgh, could stand it no longer. ‘Mr Moderator’, he said, ‘Mr Moderator, rax (hand) me that Bible!’ And he turned to passages in the Bible and read to his brethren what the Word of God had to say about preaching the gospel ‘to the heathen’.7

In chapter nineteen on the ‘Authority of the Scriptures’, the Scots Confession states that the Bible is sufficient ‘to instruct and make per­fect the man of God’. This is the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura. The Bible is enough. It is sufficient. It is all we need.

But who is competent to say what the Bible means? In chapter eight­een the Confession answers the question, ‘Who shall be judge of doc­trine?’

No individual and no Church has the right to claim to speak for God, the Confession asserts, but the interpretation of Scripture ‘pertains to the Spirit of God’. The Spirit speaks in the Word. Who is it that listens? It is the ‘true kirk’ that ‘hears and obeys the voice of her own Spouse and Pastor’. In other words, we listen to the Bible and we listen to the Bible together, as we seek to hear God’s voice speaking in his written Word.

This is an important Reformation truth. Some people have the idea that sola Scriptura teaches that every individual goes off in a corner and reads and interprets the Bible for himself. But that is not what the Re­formers taught. The Scots Confession says that together true Christians read and study the Bible to hear and understand its message. That is why the authors of this Confession invite others to review their work and to correct them, if necessary, from the Scripture. In this way the true church of God can come to an adequate understanding – not per­fect in this life, but adequate – of what God’s Word really teaches.

As we go through life, keep clearly in view this second important post: the Word of God.

The third strong post is...

3. The Gift of Christ🔗

What is the Bible about? It is about many things, but it is also about one thing – or rather one person. It is about Jesus Christ.

After chapter 1 on ‘God’, two brief chapters on ‘the Creation of Man’ and on ‘Original Sin’ set forth the awful truth of that sin of our first parents by which we became ‘by nature hostile to God, slaves to Satan, and servants to sin’. But the Confession doesn’t linger on those sobering words; it moves quickly on to describe those who are ‘reborn from above’. In fact, the brief chapter on ‘Original Sin’ concludes with one of the most remarkable summaries of the central teachings of the Christian faith in all Reformation literature: ‘This rebirth is wrought by the power of the Holy Ghost creating in the hearts of God’s chosen ones an assured faith in the promise of God revealed to us in his Word; by this faith we grasp Christ Jesus with the graces and blessings promised in him.’

This wonderful sentence leads into eight chapters about Christ. The ‘most joyful promise’ was made to Adam and Eve. It ‘was repeated and made clearer from time to time’ and ‘was embraced with joy’ by the believers who saw ‘the joyful day of Christ Jesus and did rejoice’. It is significant that these old Scottish Presbyterians, often criticized for being too sober and even severe in their view of religion, can’t resist employing the word ‘joy’ when they describe the faith of the Old Testa­ment believers.

For eight chapters, then, the Scots Confession repeats the Bible’s story of the promise and the coming of Christ. We sometimes refer to this as ‘salvation history’ or as ‘covenant theology’. But we could also call it ‘the old, old story, of Jesus and his love’. That was my father’s favourite gospel song, and he sang it over and over until he died at ninety-five years of age last spring. I can still hear him sing (he did not sing very well),

Tell me the story simply as to a little child; for I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.8

He delighted in that ‘old, old story’. He could never get enough of it. And neither could the six Johns as they retold it in their brief Confession from chapter 4 – ‘The Revelation of the Promise’ – to chapter ii – ‘The Ascension’. They ‘boldly asserted’ that ‘neither the threatenings of worldly princes, nor the fear of present danger or of temporal death’ would move them to renounce and forsake ‘our Head and only Mediator, Christ Jesus: whom we confess to be the promised Messiah, the only Head of his Kirk, our just Lawgiver, our only High Priest, Advocate, and Mediator.’

The third strong post that the confession sets up for us is the gift of Christ. Never lose sight of him. Keep Christ central in your words, in your thoughts, and in your actions.

The next post or marker placed before us by the confession is...

4. The Gospel of Grace🔗

In chapter 12 – ‘Faith in the Holy Ghost’ – we are told that we are saved through faith, which is God’s work, and so ‘without respect to any merit proceeding from us’. Already the Confession had come to ‘grace alone’ in a chapter on Election’ in the middle of its eight chapters on Christ.

Where should one bring in the doctrine of election? The Westminster Confession introduces it as part of the doctrine of God. Calvin deals with it in Book III of his Institutes when he explains the doctrine of sal­vation. But the Scots Confession connects it with the doctrine of Christ, bringing together the gift of Christ and the gift of grace. ‘The same eter­nal God and Father, who by grace alone chose us in his Son Christ Jesus before the foundation of the world was laid, appointed him to be our head, our brother, our pastor, and the great bishop of our souls.’ The same God who gave Christ to us, gave us to Christ. He not only sent a Saviour; he also saved a people. Here is redemption accomplished and applied. It is all the work of God. The Confession tells us that just as we can take no ‘honour and glory for our own creation and redemption’, neither can we claim any credit for ‘our regeneration and sanctifica­tion’.

With the other Reformers the Scots affirm that we are saved ‘by grace alone’ – not by our own work but as a result of the divine gift to us. Again and again the Confession commemorates the blessings we owe to ‘the eternal and immutable decree’. It, and it alone, is the secret fountain and far-off heavenly origin of our salvation and of all that is good in us.

At times Scottish Presbyterianism has fallen into an ugly legalism, demanding that we do our part to deserve and continue to receive God’s love. lain Crichton Smith, the modern Scottish poet who grew up among Presbyterians on the Isle of Lewis, began a poem entitled, ‘The Law and the Grace’, with these words: ‘It’s law, they ask of me and not grace. “Conform”, they say, “your works are not enough”’.9 But that is not the message of the Scots Confession. ‘The Holy Spirit does sanctify and regenerate us’, the Confession clearly states, ‘without respect to any merit proceeding from us, be it before or be it after our regeneration.’ We never pay God back for what he has done for us in Christ; we never even begin to pay him back. He always carries us on his books as a loss. The Confession tells us, as the Scripture tells us, that ‘when we have done all things we must fall down and unfeignedly confess that we are unprofitable servants.’

Scottish Presbyterianism has been at its best – as Christianity has been at its best – when the gospel of God’s grace is held high. Samuel Rutherford, a seventeenth century Scottish pastor and a commissioner to the Westminster Assembly, expressed it this way: ‘Faith apprehends (receives) pardon, and never pays a penny for it’.10

In 1560 there was an urgent need for preachers of this gospel of grace. It was not a new gospel, but it had been not been heard or learned for so many bleak generations that few could preach it. This was a burden that John Knox carried to his deathbed, for one of his last prayers was, ‘Lord, grant true pastors to thy Kirk’.11

This brings us to the last strong post set up by the Scots Confession to show us the way. It is...

5. The Marks of the Church🔗

The Scots Confession identifies three marks, or ‘notes’, as it calls them, ‘by which the true Kirk shall be determined from the false’. First, ‘the true preaching of the Word of God’; second, ‘the right administra­tion of the sacraments of Christ Jesus’; and, third, ‘ecclesiastical discip­line uprightly administered.’

God’s true church flourishes – even if it be small and of no account in the world’s reckoning – when these notes are sounded clearly and purely.

In its long history, until recent times, the Scottish Church has prac­ticed strict church discipline. On occasion it has acted without the gentleness and compassion that should characterize this mark of the true church. Once a man who was disciplined by the kirk for drunken­ness admitted his sin and the just sentence that was meted out to him but added: ‘You saw the time that I was tempted and fell; but God knows all those times that I was tempted and did not fall’.12 The church must uphold God’s righteous standards but it must do so gently and humbly, neither breaking the bruised reed nor snuffing out the smolder­ing wick.

The Presbyterians of Scotland have been concerned to rightly admin­ister the sacraments. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper in Scottish churches, however, has tended to be quite infrequent. It is true that those observances were great and memorable events, lasting three or four days or more. With emphasis upon the importance of these sacramental occasions came a very strong ‘fencing of the tables’, which set such a high standard of holiness for those who participated in the communion service that at times far more church members abstained than received the bread and the wine. John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan, as he was called, the be­loved preacher and professor of Old Testament, one day noticed a poor woman weeping and drawing back from the Lord’s Table. He took the bread and went to her and said: ‘Take it, woman. It’s for sinners’.13

The greatest strength of the Church of Scotland has been its true preaching of the Word of God. The motto of the city of Glasgow was ‘Lord, let Glasgow flourish through the preaching of thy Word and praising thy Name.’ A hundred years ago there were 275 Presbyterian churches in that city of less than one million. Over 500 sermons were preached there every Sunday.

Now the motto reads ‘Let Glasgow flourish.’ ‘The preaching of thy Word and praising thy Name’, although still heard in scattered churches, has been replaced in importance for most Glaswegians by business, architecture, and art. Many of those grand old churches, where once was regularly heard the Word of God, are closed and empty, or have become museums, pubs, or places of business.

When I was in Scotland recently I picked up a little book entitled Going to Church. It, along with other titles like Spinning and Weaving and Building Railways, was part of a series called Scotland’s Past in Action.14 ‘Going to church’ was a great part of ‘Scotland’s past’. But it is not part of present-day Scottish life for most of the population. Today only fifteen per cent of the people of Scotland go to church; in Edinburgh the figure is even lower, less than two per cent!

In Glasgow, on the hill behind the Cathedral stands a statue of John Knox. The Rough Guide comments: ‘From the summit of the hill be­hind the Cathedral there is a column “topped with an indignant John Knox.”’15 No, not an indignant John Knox, but a brokenhearted John Knox. The man who prayed, ‘Give me Scotland, or I die’, would surely grieve over the lack of the true preaching of the Word of God in his beloved homeland today.

The Church of Scotland in its finest hour was a great preaching church; it was also a great missionary church.

On the first page of the Scots Confession, below the title, is the text: ‘And this glad tidings of the kingdom shall be preached through the whole world, for a witness unto all nations, and then shall the end come’ (Matt. 24:14). The Confession ends with these words: ‘Give thy servants strength to speak thy word in boldness, and let all nations cleave to thy knowledge. Amen.’

These words at the beginning and end of the Scots Confession give it a unique missionary thrust among the historic confessional documents of the Reformation era.

The Scottish Presbyterians took the gospel throughout their land, all the way to the Highlands and to the Islands. Soon they were support­ing John Eliot, and later David Brainerd, in their efforts to evangelize the American Indians. As Scots-Irish Presbyterians pressed to the West in America, they were full of zeal for the spread of Christ’s gospel. John Macmillan came into western Pennsylvania with the vision of a presbytery bounded by the Alleghenies on the east, Canada on the north, Virginia on the south and ‘the setting sun’ in the west! Later the ‘St Andrews Seven’ – inspired by the preaching of Thomas Chalmers – joined with other sons and daughters of Scotland, such as David Livingstone and Mary Slessor, to take the gospel around the world. The work of Mary Slessor is remembered even today by her picture and a map of Calabar (SW Nigeria) on the Scottish ten-pound note.


These five posts, five great pillars of truth, were erected by John Knox and his colleagues to help pilgrims of their time – and of our time as well – to keep to the path of Christian truth. They are: the Glory of God, the Word of God, the Gift of Christ, the Grace of God, and the Marks of the Church.

One can sense the joy with which these men set forth their Reformed doctrine. In the preface they wrote: ‘Long have we thirsted, dear breth­ren, to have made known to the world ... the eternal truth of Christ now recently reborn among us.’ May God give us the same burning desire to make known, in our time and in our own countries, ‘the eter­nal truth of Christ’, long known among us, but increasingly ignored and rejected.


  1. ^ Scottish Life (Autumn, 1999), p. 46.
  2. ^ W. Stanford Reid, Trumpeter of God: A Biography of John Knox (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), p. 216.
  3. ^ Arthur C. Cochrane, ed., Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966). The Scots Confession is found on pp. 162-84.
  4. ^ Edward A. Dowey Jr., A Commentary on the Confession of 1967 and An Introduction to “The Book of Confessions” (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), p. 175.
  5. ^ Robert Burns, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, Robert Burns: Poems and Songs (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 119.
  6. ^ For a brief summary of Andrew Melville’s contribution to the Scottish church, see John Macleod, Scottish Theology in Relation to Church History since the Reformation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), pp. 41-48.
  7. ^ lain H. Murray, The Puritan Hope: A Study in Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1971, often reprinted), p. 161.
  8. ^ ‘Tell me the old, old story’, Arabella Catherine Hankey (1834-1911). This once well-known hymn is found in many of the older hymnbooks
  9. ^ Iain Crichton Smith, Selected Poems (Manchester, Carcanet Press 1985), p. 21.
  10. ^ Samuel Rutherford, Letters of Samuel Rutherford (London: Banner of Truth, 1973, often repr’d), p. 87.
  11. ^ J. D. Douglas, ‘Calvinism’s Contribution to Scotland’, in John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World, ed. W. Stanford Reid (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), p. 223.
  12. ^ As reported in a sermon by Dr G. Allen Fleece
  13. ^ G. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1924), p. 310.
  14. ^ Colin MacLean, Going to Church (Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland).
  15. ^ Scotland: The Rough Guide (1996), p. 171.

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