Rev. Terpstra is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Holland, Michigan.

It should come as no surprise to Protestant Christians that, like the other reformers, so too the Scottish reformer John Knox was a predestinarian. That is, he believed, preached, taught, and wrote about the doctrine of God’s sovereign, eternal predestination. Knox held first of all to the general doctrine of predestination, i.e., that God has in His eternal decrees ordained all things that ever are and that come to pass in time and history. And secondly, Knox held to the doctrine of specific predestination, i.e., that God has eternally chosen some men to everlasting salvation in Christ and has eternally rejected others from being saved, appointing them instead to everlasting condemnation. In otherwords, Knox believed the classic Reformed truth of double predestination: election and reprobation.

In this Knox was without doubt influenced by his Reformation predecessors and contemporaries, most notably Martin Luther and John Calvin. He knew of their rediscovery of this great truth and took it in through their writings. While in exile from his native Scotland, he spent time in Geneva under Calvin’s instruction. There he learned of Calvin’s controversies with Castellio and Bolsec over predestination and was taught how to refute the errors of those who denied and attacked it. There he would have read Theodore Beza’s summary of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination published in 1555. The influence on him was great, as his own writings would later show. As one scholar of Knox put it, Knox was “captivated by the theology of Calvin,” including his views on sovereign election and reprobation.1

Yet the real source of Knox’s doctrine was the Scriptures, for it is there that the truth of God’s sovereign predestination is set forth. Being a child of God with his eyes opened to the light of the pure gospel by the Spirit of grace, he was led to see in the Bible God’s election of His children as the very source and foundation of his own salvation. And, being a Protestant reformer and thus returning to the Scriptures themselves in his work, and being chiefly a preacher of the Word of God, Knox read and rediscovered for himself in the Bible the truth of sovereign, unconditional predestination. “It is unnecessary, therefore, to apologize for the predestinarian strain in Knox’s theology. It was his business to expound the Biblical faith, and the Biblical faith is predestinarian from end to end.”2

Knox’s views on predestination are found in several places. The two main sources are The Scotch Confession of Faith (1560), the great Reformed creed that arose out of the Protestant period in Scotland under Knox’s influence, and his treatise on predestination published in the same year. Another source is his varied personal letters, including a lengthy correspondence with his own mother-in-law, Elizabeth Bowes, concerning election and the assurance of salvation.3

We want to hear Knox on predestination first of all in the Scotch Confession. Already in Article I the Confession speaks of God’s sovereign, providential government of the world according to His eternal appointment (predestination) of all things:

We confess and acknowledge one only God…. Who is eternal, infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible, omnipotent, invisible…. By Whom we confess and believe all things in heaven and earth, as well visible as invisible, to have been created, to be retained in their being, and to be ruled and guided by His inscrutable providence, to such end, as His eternal wisdom, goodness, and justice has appointed them, to the manifestation of His own glory.4

Then, after treating the creation and fall of man, the revelation of God’s promise to save His people, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Confession takes up the sovereign cause and root of this promised salvation and Savior in Arts. VII and VIII. We quote these at length:

Art. VII. Why It Behoved the Mediator to be Very God and Very Man

We acknowledge and confess, that this most wondrous conjunction betwixt the God-head and the man-head in Christ Jesus, did proceed from the eternal and immutable decree of God, from which all our salvation springs and depends.

Art. VIII. Of Election

For that same eternal God and Father, Who of mere grace elected us in Christ Jesus His Son, before the foundation of the world was laid, appointed Him to be our Head, our Brother, our Pastor, and great Bishop of our souls. But because that the enmity betwixt the justice of God and our sins was such, that no flesh by itself could or might have attained unto God: it behoved that the Son of God should descend unto us, and take himself a body of our body, flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bones, and so become the Mediator betwixt God and man, giving power to so many as believe in Him, to be the sons of God; as himself does witness, ‘I pass up to my Father, and unto your Father, to my God, and unto your God.’ By which most holy fraternity, whatsoever we have lost in Adam, is restored unto us again. And for this cause, are we not afraid to call God our Father, not so much because He has created us, which we have in common with the reprobate; as for that He has given to us His only Son, to be our brother, and given unto us grace, to acknowledge and embrace Him for our only Mediator….5

And a little further in the Confession, in connection with the doctrine of the church, the Scottish Reformed also referred to the truth of God’s gracious election of His people:

Art. XVI. Of the Church

As we believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, so do we most constantly believe that from the beginning there has been, and now is, and to the end of the world shall be, a church, that is to say, a company and multitude of men chosen of God, who rightly worship and embrace Him by true faith in Christ Jesus, Who is the only Head of the same church, which also is the body and spouse of Christ Jesus, which church is catholic, that is, universal, because it contains the elect of all ages, of all realms, nations, and tongues, be they Jews or be they Gentiles….6

In the second place we want to hear Knox on predestination from the major treatise he wrote on the doctrine in 1560. It is, in fact, his largest work, comprising the majority of Volume V of his Works. It is a polemic against an Anabaptist writer who had attacked Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. Knox gave his treatise this full title, “An Answer to a Great Number of Blasphemous Cavillations Written by an Anabaptist, and Adversary to God’s Eternal Predestination, and Confuted by John Knox, Minister of God’s Word in Scotland, Wherein the Author So Discovereth the Craft and Falsehood of that Sect, that the Godly may be Confirmed in the Truth by the Evident Word of God.”7 It is not our intention to deal with this treatise in depth or at length. The reader is encouraged to make a study of it himself, if he wishes to pursue Knox’s doctrine further. But there are a couple of things we do wish to point out by way of summary with regard to this treatise.

By reading the preface to this work, one will discover first of all that Knox was primarily concerned to defend the truth of God’s sovereign grace and therefore the glory of God in the salvation of sinners. He saw the enemy’s attack on predestination as an attack on the truth that God alone saves fallen sinners and is thereby alone glorified in that work. Those who reject the Bible’s teaching on double predestination want to give man a contribution to the work of salvation and take some glory for themselves. In this the enemies of free grace are but the instruments of Satan, who, writes Knox, has “now in these last and most corrupted days most furiously raged against that doctrine, which attributeth all praise and glory of our redemption to the eternal love and undeserved grace of God alone.”8

Secondly, from Knox’s preface we learn how necessary he believed the doctrine of predestination to be for the church and Christians. The doctrine of election has sometimes been called the cor ecclesiae, i.e., the heart of the church. Knox certainly saw it that way, as is evident from this quote:

But yet I say, that the doctrine of God’s eternal predestination is so necessary to the church of God, that, without the same, can faith neither be truly taught, neither surely established; man can never be brought to true humility and knowledge of himself; neither yet can he be ravished in admiration of God’s eternal goodness, and so moved to praise him as appertaineth. And therefore we fear not to affirm, that so necessary as it is that true faith be established in our hearts, that we be brought to unfeigned humility, and that we be moved to praise Him for His free graces received; so necessary also is the doctrine of God’s eternal predestination.9

And thirdly, Knox’s introductory comments reveal the pastoral way in which he treated this high and deep doctrine of Scripture. He was concerned that the truth of sovereign predestination be defended and preached for the sake of the peace and comfort of God’s people. With that in mind, Knox taught that God’s eternal election of His people in Christ Jesus is the doctrine on which the believer’s personal assurance of salvation is founded.

…There is no way more proper to build and establish faith, than when we hear and undoubtedly do believe that our election… consisteth not in ourselves, but in the eternal and immutable good pleasure of God. And that in such firmity that it can not be overthrown, neither by the raging storms of the world, nor by the assaults of satan; neither yet by the wavering and weakness of our own flesh. Then only is our salvation in assurance, when we find the cause of the same in the bosom and counsel of God.10

Sad to say, Knox’s orthodox view of predestination is no longer held by the majority of Reformed churches and professing Protestants. Today, if this truth is not being attacked by the enemies of sovereign grace, it is being largely ignored and forgotten in evangelical circles. Who proclaims and defends with Knox’s vigor the truth of sovereign, double predestination in our doctrinally indifferent age?! Yet this is what the church and God’s people need, for their hearty assurance of salvation and for their true adoration of God. May Knox’s voice yet be heard in churches that stand in the line of the great Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century!

1.James S. McEwen, The Faith of John Knox (London: Lutherworth, 1961), p. 64.

2.McEwen, p. 69.

3.John Knox, The Works of John Knox, David Laing, editor (Edinburgh: Johnstone & Hunter, 1856), III, pp. 331-402.

4.Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966), 439-40. Note: I have put these quotations into modern English.

5.Schaff, pp. 444, 445.

6.Schaff, p. 458.

7.Knox, Works, V, p. 19.

8.Knox, Works, V, p. 24.

9.Knox, Works, V, p. 25-26.

10.Knox, Works, V, p. 26.