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The Scottish Reformation — a work of God’s grace

October 2017 | by John Keddie

The Reformation in Scotland in the sixteenth century was essentially a rediscovery of grace and a notable work of the Holy Spirit in the nation.

Invaluable in providing a clear understanding of the ideals of the Reformers in doctrine, church order and practice are documents associated with the Scottish Reformation, especially The Scots Confession of 1560 and the First Book of Discipline (1560). Also of significance are the Book of Common Order (‘John Knox’s liturgy’) (1564), and the influential Geneva Bible (1560). All these are clear indicators, in their own right, of a movement of grace in Reformation times.

What evidences are there that the Scottish Reformation was a work of God’s grace?

(1) There was a rediscovery of biblical teaching

This was evident from the beginning. John Knox wrote: ‘We began every man to look more diligently to his salvation: for the idolatry and tyranny of the churchmen [clergy] was and is so manifest, that whosoever doth deny it, declares himself ignorant of God, and enemy to Christ Jesus. We therefore, with humble confession of our former offences, with fasting and supplication unto God, began to seek some remedy in so present a danger.

‘And first, it was concluded: “That the brethren in every town at certain times should assemble together, to common prayers, to exercise and reading of the Scriptures, till it should please God to give the sermon of exhortation to some, for comfort and instruction of the rest”.

‘And this our weak beginning God did so bless, that within a few months the hearts of many were so strengthened, that we sought to have the face of a church amongst us, and open crimes to be punished without respect of person. And for that purpose, by common election, were elders appointed, to whom the whole brethren promised obedience: for at that time we had no public ministers of the Word; only did certain zealous men … exhort their brethren, according to the gifts and graces granted unto them’.

Obviously a right understanding of the Bible is crucial for a spiritually healthy church. It became necessary to confess the faith believed among those concerned for the reformation of the church. In Scotland, this faith was expressed in The Scots Confession of 1560. It comprised 25 chapters, covering a range of doctrinal, practical and ecclesiastical issues.

Arguably it was this Confession that finally established the Reformation in Scotland. It was, according to Knox, prepared in four days for presentation to Parliament, which ratified it on 17 August 1560. It was entrusted to six ‘Johns’: Knox, Wynram, Spottiswoode, Willock, Douglas and Row.

These same six, in addition, had been charged, on 29 April, with producing a book ‘touching on the reformation of religion’. This resulted in The First Book of Discipline, which was signed by the compilers on 20 May. Although presented to Parliament, this was never formally ratified.

The conviction in the Confession is striking: ‘We are completely convinced that whoever denies Christ Jesus, or is ashamed of him in the presence of men, shall be denied before the Father and before his holy angels. Therefore, by the aid of the mighty Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, we firmly intend to endure to the end in the confession of our faith’.

‘It embodies’, as someone has rightly observed, ‘the true spirit of our Scottish Reformers’ (G. D. Henderson). It was, said another, ‘the warm utterance of a people’s heart’ (Peter Lorimer).

At its heart is a high view of Scripture and its authority. The impetus to Bible reading came in 1560 with the completion of the Geneva Bible. This translation became the Bible of the Scots. John Knox himself had contributed to it, and the notes or annotations in the margins were a great aid to study and understanding. This was, in 1579, the first Bible printed in Scotland and became standard for the Scottish kirk until its printing was outlawed by King James (VI & I) and displaced by the Authorised Version, after 1611.

(2) There was a rediscovery of the faithful preaching of the Word

‘The preaching of the Reformers’, wrote Peter Lorimer, ‘was a resuscitation of the preaching of St Paul. Christ and faith in Christ were the constant themes of their awakening and world-renewing ministry.

‘They were deeply convinced that nothing but Christ is the power of God unto salvation, and that nothing but faith brings Christ close home to the souls of men. They went to the root of the matter. They saw clearly that in all moral and religious life, in all life of the heart, it is faith or trust that lies at the very bottom’.

‘Thus the Reformation flowered’, wrote Thomas Lindsay, ‘by the preaching of the Word, and the pulpits, occupied by faithful and earnest preachers, became a power in the land’.

The spiritual nature of this work was duly emphasised: ‘Every minister was earnestly exhorted to his private exercise of fervent prayer, reading, and meditation of things heard and read, that thereby he may be stirred up to grow day by day more and more zealous and devout in spirit, familiar with his God, armed with spiritual armour against all adversaries, and diligently moved to practice of doctrine in a godly life and holy conversation’.

(3) There was the establishment of sound church order

In a genuine work of God there will invariably be concern for the establishment and ordering of the church, under the authority and headship of Jesus Christ.

As far as church order in the Reformation church was concerned, a charge was specifically given by the Scottish parliament, on 29 April 1560, to provide ‘judgments touching the reformation of religion, which heretofore in this realm (as in others) has been utterly corrupted …[a] common order and uniformity to be observed in this realm concerning doctrine, administration of sacraments, [election of ministers, provision for their sustenance], ecclesiastical discipline and policy of the kirk’.

From this charge arose the First Book of Discipline, compiled by the same six Johns who were later responsible for the Confession of Faith. They completed the Book of Discipline between the date of the initial charge and 20 May. This Book of Discipline aimed at a total ‘reformation of religion in the whole realm’.

We could say that the understanding of the government of the kirk was implicitly rather than explicitly Presbyterian. The Book of Discipline was received by the church and endorsed by some of the lords (on 27 January 1561), but never got through Parliament.

The ‘book of the policy’ of the Reformed church is stated under nine ‘heads’, covering doctrine, the sacraments, idolatry, ministers and their lawful election, provision for the support of minister, rents and patrimony of the kirk, ecclesiastical discipline, the election of elders and deacons, and, finally, in general, the polity of the church. This, in 1564, was received by the Scottish kirk as a Book of Common Order.

There is clearly a desire to maintain good order in the church. To that end, certain things were deemed necessary. They are summarised this way: ‘That the Word be truly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, common prayers publicly made; that the children and rude persons be instructed in the chief points of religion, and that offences be corrected and punished … [and] psalms should be sung…’

There is also a strong statement about the observance of Sundays for rest from work and engagement in worship and catechetical teaching [of children], as well as a general requirement of family instruction.

‘Every master of household must be commanded either to instruct, or else cause to be instructed, his children, servants and family in the principles of the Christian religion’, and there was to be family worship morning and evening.

Here was evidence, not necessarily of a church in which everything was yet completely in order, but nevertheless one in which there were clear evidences of a movement of divine grace.

(4) There was the active advance of distinctly Christian education

It is significant that the First Book of Discipline focused so much upon education. This was proposed (in the fifth head): ‘Seeing that God has determined that his church here in earth shall be taught not by angels but by men; and seeing that men are born ignorant of all godliness; and seeing also God now ceases to illuminate men miraculously, suddenly changing them, as that he did his apostles and others in the primitive church: of necessity it is that your honours be most careful for the virtuous education and godly upbringing of the youth of this realm, if either ye now thirst unfeignedly [for] the advancement of Christ’s glory, or yet desire the continuance of his benefits to the generation following.

‘For as the youth must succeed to us, so we ought to be careful that they have the knowledge and erudition to profit and comfort that which ought to be most dear to us — to wit, the church and spouse of the Lord Jesus.

‘Of necessity, therefore, we judge it, that every several church have a schoolmaster appointed, such a one as is able, at least, to teach grammar and the Latin tongue, if the town is of any reputation’.

The Book of Discipline goes on to deal in some detail with both school and university education as a godly enterprise to be supported by the civil magistrate. In some ways, this ideal was accomplished by the Education Act of 1696, which ordered locally funded, church-supported schools to be established in every parish in Scotland.

Right up to the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872, most parishes had Assembly or Free Church schools, with positive Christian standards. Since that 1872 Act, and even more so by a 1918 Act, there has been progressive secularisation of education, with disastrous results for the church, as indeed the Reformers feared: generations raised in ignorance of divine truth, largely poisoned by the influences of an education system dominated by essentially Enlightenment ideology.

Faithfulness to Christ

The main lesson for us from all this is one of faithfulness to Christ. Let there be faithfulness to Christ — doggedly so in our loose day spiritually, ecclesiastically and socially!

We do well to follow the example of our Reformers as they followed Christ. This was well expressed in a lecture given by William Croft Dickinson in 1959: ‘The stress was on the Word of God, and on the rejection of all beliefs and practices, for which no warrant could be found in God’s plain Scriptures, written and revealed.

‘The call was for a church freed from corruption, and from all man-made ceremony and invention; a church based fair and square on the Word of God, and a church that would preach the Word of God to the people. And reliance upon the Word of God was the very core and essence of the Scots Confession of Faith’: all marks, surely, of a work of divine grace — something sorely needed in the church of the present day.

John W. Keddie is a minister of the Free Church (Continuing) and principal of the Free Church (Continuing) Seminary, Inverness

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