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Rev. Kleyn is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Edgerton, Minnesota.

Prior to the Reformation in Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church was so thoroughly corrupt that any true worship of God was well nigh impossible. Men and women bowed to images. Martyrs, apostles, and virgins were worshiped. Numerous holy days and feasts (often pagan in origin) were constantly being added. The church in Scotland was therefore in dire need of reform, especially in the area of liturgy and worship.

In the time of the church’s need, God raised up John Knox to lead the Scottish Reformation. Courageously and boldly he faced the evils of the Church of Rome. He strove tirelessly to cleanse the church and nation from the corruptions of false worship. Openly he condemned Rome’s evil practices. He showed the people what exactly was wrong with Rome’s way of worship, and set forth proper, biblical liturgy and worship.

In doing this, Knox made application to worship of one of the solas of the Reformation—sola scriptura. Scripture alone must be the guide for worship. All practices and observances in the church that do not have scriptural authority must be abolished. In applying the principle of sola scriptura to worship, Knox was upholding what has since become known as the “Regulative Principle of Worship.”

Knox came to a clear understanding of this principle of worship during his exile in Geneva. Severe persecution of Protestants in Scotland forced him, and many others, to flee. Although occasionally returning to Scotland, Knox was in Geneva for approximately six years, from 1554 through 1559.

While in Geneva, Knox enjoyed much interaction with the reformer John Calvin. This gave him opportunity to discuss with Calvin not only theology but also church polity. He learned much from Calvin and became thoroughly acquainted with Calvin’s views on worship.

In Geneva, Knox also served as pastor of a small congregation of English exiles. Through this he gained, as it were, hands-on experience in the Reformed form of worship that Calvin taught and established in Geneva. And he approved of it. This is evident from a letter he wrote from Geneva to friends in England in which he stated, “… I neither fear nor am ashamed to say [that here] is the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles. In other places, I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion to be so sincerely reformed, I have not yet seen in any other place beside.”1

Knox adopted Calvin’s views on worship, thoroughly convinced that they were biblical and correct. He understood that man himself may not decide how God is worshiped. God alone may determine that. Therefore any practice or religious ceremony in the church that does not have scriptural warrant must be soundly rejected. Making reference to Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:8, Knox put it this way: “Not that thing which appears good in thy eyes shalt thou do to the Lord thy God, but what the Lord thy God has commanded thee; that do thou; add nothing to it; diminish nothing from it.”

The result of Knox’s stay in Geneva was that he returned to Scotland decidedly in favor of doing things as Calvin did them in Geneva. Through writing, debate, and especially preaching, he set about to implement the Reformed principles of liturgy and worship.

Knox was a powerful preacher. “He put more life into his hearers from the pulpit in an hour than six hundred trumpets.”2 Even when he was old and had to be assisted to the pulpit, he still became so animated that, according to some, it seemed likely that he would “ding the pulpit in blads” (beat the pulpit to pieces) and fly out of it. Knox understood the centrality and power of preaching. From the pulpit, therefore, he fearlessly condemned the errors of the church of Rome and set forth the biblical way of worship.

An example of this is a sermon he preached in St. Andrews soon after his return from Geneva. Knox’s audience consisted of many influential men, including nobles and priests. Not all were in favor of the Reformation, but this did not deter him. He preached on Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. In the course of his sermon he made direct application to the papacy. He described and condemned, without reservation, the corruptions that the papacy had introduced into the church. The clergy of Rome, he said, were simonists, pardon-mongers, sellers of relics and charms, exorcists, and traffickers in the bodies and souls of men.

The worship of Rome, according to Knox, consisted of countless “papal inventions.” It was devised by man, and thus greatly dishonoring and displeasing to God. Therefore “the wrath and fearful malediction of God is denounced to fall upon all them that dare attempt to add or diminish anything in his religion.”3

According to Knox, to allow men to determine what may and may not be included in worship opens up the way to idolatry. This was true especially of the mass. In A Vindication of the Doctrine That the Sacrifice of the Mass Is Idolatry, Knox states, “All worshiping, honoring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without his own express commandment, is idolatry. The Mass is invented by the brain of man, without any commandment of God; therefore it is idolatry,” and “blasphemous to the death and passion of Christ.”4

By means of Knox’s insistence on biblically-based worship and his diligent labors in proclaiming this truth, God brought about a reformation in worship in Scotland. The false worship of Rome was abandoned, and true worship of God was restored. The dead idols of Rome were replaced by the lively preaching of the Word. And only those elements of worship which Scripture prescribes were admitted, such as prayer, the reading and preaching of the Scriptures, the singing of Psalms, and the proper administration of the sacraments.

Knox wrote the Book of Common Order, often referred to as “Knox’s Liturgy.” This book was approved and adopted by the General Assembly in 1564 and used in Scotland until the Westminster directory for worship appeared in 1645.

Knox’s liturgy was based largely on that of the English congregation he had pastored inGeneva, following the same general order and content. In the preface of this book he states: “We, therefore, … do present unto you, which desire the increase of God’s Glory, and the pure Simplicity of his Word, a Form and Order of a Reformed Church, limited within the Compass of God’s Word, which our Savior hath left unto us as only sufficient to govern all our actions by.”

With regard to the sacraments, Knox showed that only those sacraments were valid which were instituted by Christ. “That Sacraments be rightly administered, we judge two things requisite: The one, that they be administered by lawful Ministers, whom we affirm to be only they that are appointed to the preaching of the Word. … The other, that they be administered in such elements, and in such sort, as God has appointed; else, we affirm, that they cease to be right Sacraments of Christ Jesus.”5

Concerning the reading of Scripture in worship, Knox believed “it most expedient that the Scriptures be read in order, that is, that some one book of the Old and New Testament be begun and orderly read to the end.”6 He applied this also to the preaching. “Skipping and divagation from place to place of the Scripture, be it in reading, or be it in preaching, we judge not so profitable to edify the Church, as the continual following of one text.”7 Ministers ought to preach from the Scriptures book by book, and chapter by chapter, in a continuous and orderly fashion.

Form prayers were included in Knox’s liturgy. These were intended for use during worship services. Knox made it clear, however, that there must also be room for free prayers. The form prayers were models. One was not strictly obliged to use them. Ministers therefore enjoyed a large measure of freedom in public prayer.

Worship itself became a corporate activity. The Roman Catholic Church had kept the people from being involved in worship. Now, however, Latin was replaced with English so that all could understand. The Scriptures were translated into the common language. All churches had a Bible in English and expounded it regularly so that even those who could not read could profit. The gospel was proclaimed with clarity and simplicity. And the Psalms were set to familiar tunes so the people themselves could express praise and thanks to God.

The Scotch Confession of Faith expresses clearly this opinion of Knox with regard to liturgy and worship. Drawn up in 1560 by Knox and five other ministers, Article 20 of this confession declares that “in the church, as in the house of God, it becometh all things to be done decently and in good order: not that we think that one policy, and one order of ceremonies can be appointed for all ages, times, and places; for as ceremonies, such as men have devised, are but temporal, so may and ought they to be changed, when they rather foster superstition than edify the church using the same.”

This article shows that Knox and his Reformed colleagues in Scotland were not in favor of making one particular form of worship binding. The churches were free to change their liturgy. But they may not change it to whatever they wished. They must be governed by the Scriptures. God’s Word must direct them. Specifically, liturgy and worship are to be governed by the two principles set forth in I Corinthians 14, namely, that all things must be done “decently and in good order” (v. 40), and that all things must be done “unto edifying” (v. 26).

The church of today would do well to take to heart and to put into practice the biblical views of John Knox with regard to liturgy and worship. For again today many “man-made inventions” are creeping into the worship services of many churches. Knox correctly pointed out that this amounts to idolatry. It must be condemned and abandoned. Only what God commands may be included in worship. May we by the grace of God always maintain and practice biblical worship.


1. Charles Baird, The Presbyterian Liturgies, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1957, p. 97.

2.Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990, vol. I, p. 677.

3.John Knox, True and False Worship, Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1994, p. 36.

4.Knox, True and False Worship, pp. 22, 23.

5.The Scotch Confession of Faith, Article 22.

6.John Knox, The Reformation in Scotland, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982, p. 253.

7.Knox, Reformation in Scotland.