Month: September 2017

The Adventurous Life of John Knox

I think that many times, we think of church history figures as living rather boring lives. They were academics or authors of big books and they sat in their libraries and studies and they pondered ideas. That may be true for a lot of figures in church history, but it’s not at all true of John Knox.

We don’t know much about the early years of John Knox. When we first bump into him, he is serving as a bodyguard. He served as a bodyguard for one of the early leaders of the Scottish Reformation. I don’t know if Knox was the kind of guy who worked out at the gym and looked like he should be a bodyguard or whether—and this, I think, is more likely—it’s that he was trustworthy, that he could be relied upon, that he possessed the level of courage and the level of loyalty that was necessary.

Things were tumultuous at the beginning of the Scottish Reformation. The Reformers took one of the leaders of Roman Catholicism and executed him, and as a result, the authorities cracked down on the Reformers, including Knox. For his role as a Reformer, Knox was sentenced to work in a galley ship. It’s hard to think of anything that speaks more of drudgery than working in a galley ship—every day, just rowing and rowing and rowing. Imagine the circumstances on that ship—it’s dank, it’s dark, they weren’t well cared for as prisoners. This is what Knox was subjected to. I don’t even like being on the treadmill for a few minutes, let alone spending years on a galley ship.

Eventually, Knox was released and spent time in England. Soon, Mary I, or Bloody Mary, came to the throne and re-established Roman Catholicism, and Knox was ejected. He then went to Geneva.

Geneva was a fascinating place during the sixteenth century—Calvin was preaching, the consistory was up and running, the gospel was being proclaimed, and the city was thinking about how the gospel transforms culture. And all these refugees were flooding in from Scotland, Italy, Spain, and various other places where the Reformation was tenuous or was challenged. Geneva is walled city, so there is a finite amount of space. One of the things the Genevans started doing was taking the roof off of their houses and adding an extra floor so they could house refugees.

Geneva is known as a great watchmaking city, and some of the finest watches in the world are still made there. A lot of that has to do with Calvin. A group of Florentine jewelers who believed in the Reformation, believed in the gospel, were kicked out of Italy and went to Geneva. Calvin put them to work in making watches. Next to St. Pierre Cathedral there’s a building that Calvin set aside for the Scottish refugees so they could have services in English. Knox is there, taking part in the life of the city and seeing the effect of the gospel. He learned at the feet of Calvin, and when he returned home he sought to bring the same reform efforts to his beloved nation of Scotland. And so he famously said, “Give me Scotland or I die!”

This was Knox’s courage, this was his passion, and he turned that adventurous life into the proclamation of the gospel and the establishment of God’s kingdom in his beloved land of Scotland.

Useful for These Times

Useful for These Times—it’s the subtitle of a book by Thomas Watson. We’ve talked about Watson before. He was a Puritan, was educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and served for a long time at St. Stephen’s, Walbrook. He was born in 1620 and died in 1686.

During his life, King Charles II initiated the Restoration, and what was restored was not necessarily a good thing. It was the restoration of Anglicanism after a decade of Puritan ascendancy in England. With the Restoration, Watson, like many of his Puritan associates, found himself ejected from his pulpit. But that didn’t stop him from writing and it didn’t actually stop him from preaching.

One of the books that he wrote was published while the Restoration was in full swing. It was published in 1668 and it is titled The Doctrine of Repentance, and the subtitle is Useful for These Times. Of course, repentance is always useful. But there was something about the 1660s that made Watson think that it was time, and timely, to write about repentance.

On the first page of this book, Watson writes in an epistle to the reader: “The two great graces essential to a saint in this life are faith and repentance. These are the two wings by which he flies to heaven. Faith and repentance preserve the spiritual life as heat and radical moisture do the natural. The grace which I am now to discuss is repentance.” He goes on to reference a sermon from John Chrysostom, an early church father who is often considered one of the greatest preachers of the early church.

He also quotes Augustine—but, curiously enough, he calls him not Augustine but Austin. The Puritans did this from time to time, and no one is really sure why they abbreviated Augustine as Austin, but they did. Watson says, “And Austin calls the penitential psalms to be written before him as he lay upon his bed and he did often peruse them with tears.” And then he says this: “Repentance is never out of season. It is as of frequent use as the artificer’s tools or the soldier’s weapon.” Of course, the soldier wants his weapon at the ready all the time, and so the Christian needs repentance at the ready all the time.

What was happening in 1668 that made this a timely book? The brother of Charles II, the future King James II, partook of the Mass and secretly became Roman Catholic, which became public in 1673. Upon ascending to the throne in 1685, James tried to put Catholicism back on the map in England, but that didn’t last long. He was only on the throne until 1688. Also in 1668, William Penn, who later founded Pennsylvania, attacked Trinitarian doctrine and ended up in jail. I’m sure there were other things, but the reality is that repentance is likely useful for all these times.

The Reformation in Spain

As you know, this is an incredibly important year—2017. This is the year we celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. So, we’ll be spending a lot of time with the Reformation, especially as we get into October. Why not, right? So, let’s talk about a place where the Reformation did not make significant inroads. As you look across Europe, you realize that in many countries—Germany, the Swiss city-states, the Netherlands, Scotland, and England—the Reformation did very well. But there were places in Europe where the Reformation just was not able to penetrate, and one of those places was Spain. But that does not mean that Spain was without influence from the Reformers.

One of the people in Spain who was a significant figure in the Reformation was Juan de Valdés. He was born in 1490, and in the 1520s he came in contact with the writings of Erasmus and the teachings of Martin Luther. This led him in 1529 to write a book called Dialogue on Christian Doctrine. It was immediately confiscated and put on the index of prohibited books. This was a list maintained by the Inquisition, the Roman Catholic institution that sought to combat heresy. The Inquisition kept the Reformation from blossoming in Spain and also caused significant problems for Valdés. Once his book was on the index, he became an outlaw.

So, Valdés left Spain for Italy, where he came in contact with Peter Martyr Vermigli. Now, of course, in Italy the Reformation again didn’t make many inroads, so there too he had challenges. Meanwhile, back in Spain, all the copies of his book were being collected and destroyed. One copy made its way to Portugal, and it is the only surviving copy from the original printing of Dialogue on Christian Doctrine.

Another figure is Juan Pérez de Pineda. He too had to leave Spain and worked in Rome. He actually worked for Emperor Charles V in Rome, and he was there from 1527 to 1530. He eventually went back to Spain and started working on a translation of the Greek New Testament into Spanish. He also fell under the condemnation of the Inquisition and managed to flee to Geneva, where he carried on his work of translation. It was a Genevan printer that published his Spanish New Testament in 1556. It was a culmination of five years of hard work.

What’s fascinating about the title page of Pérez de Pineda’s New Testament is that it has a large Y on it. Pérez de Pineda did that because the two arms of the Y represent two destinies. As you look at the Y, one arm is wider because wide is the way and wide is the gate that leads to destruction, and the other arm is much narrower because narrow is the way and narrow is the gate that leads to salvation. So, even on the title page, he was indicating the message of the book, and the message of the New Testament is that it leads to salvation.

In the preface, Pérez de Pineda writes, “I feel very much obliged to do service to those of my nation according to the vocation that the Lord has called me to the enunciation of the Gospel.” And he says, “It seems there is no other way to complete this task than to give the New Testament in my own language.”

29 Years of Age (Part 2)

Robert Murray M’Cheyne lived only twenty-nine years, but those twenty-nine years were filled with all sorts of interesting things. So we’re returning to this young minister from Dundee, Scotland.

As we saw before, M’Cheyne wrote a letter to his church in December 1842 regarding his intention to create a Bible reading plan. I tried to determine if this was the first “read through the Bible in a year” plan. I can’t say definitively that it was, but I can say that it is a very popular one. In his plan, you read about four chapters of the Bible a day, and you read through the New Testament and the Psalms twice in a year and the entire Old Testament once in a year. What’s interesting is that he never finished going through the plan himself because he died the very next year, 1843. He made it to March 25, twenty-seven days shy of his thirtieth birthday. In addition to this Bible reading plan and his best-selling book detailing the exciting and adventurous missionary journey to Israel, there were other things that Robert Murray M’Cheyne did as well.

M’Cheyne was very quotable. He had a penchant for poetry, and a number of his phrases have come down through the generations and have stuck with us. One of those is, “For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ.” This quote goes hand in hand with another of his quotes: “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” What he is saying is that as a pastor, he must be prepared both through prayer and his own Bible reading as he steps into the pulpit and leads his flock. That can be challenging and even daunting, but that’s not what M’Cheyne intended. He intended for us to understand that personal holiness involves, to a large degree, taking ten looks at Christ for every one look at oneself.

It’s also interesting to talk a little bit about the event that led up to M’Cheyne’s death. He was from an upper-middle-class family and was very well educated, with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh. His church was in Dundee, which, at the time, was a very industrial city. It had some areas that were experiencing difficult conditions. One day, he was visiting some parishioners in one of those areas. He made it a point to visit each of his parishioners every year, and this was a church of more than eleven hundred people. In fact, a great story is that while he was in Israel, a revival broke out in his own church, and he came back to find seven hundred new converts in his church. So, he made every effort not only to preach to the people in his congregation but to visit them as well. It was in one of these neighborhoods with difficult conditions that he contracted typhus, which would end up taking his life. Not only did he pour out his life for his people from his pulpit, but he literally poured out his life for his people in his pastorate at St. Peter’s in Dundee, Scotland. And that is Robert Murray M’Cheyne.