A letter of Wholesome Counsel
Addressed to His Brethren in Scotland
by Dr. John Knox
July 7, 1556
In the spring of 1556, while Knox was still in Scotland, he reviewed letters from the church of English Exiles at Geneva, inviting him to return and undertake the office of ministry to which, during his absence, he had been appointed. The state of affairs in this country was such, that, he deemed it advisable to comply with this invitation. When about to leave for a season those among whom he had so assiduously labored in word and doctrine, he wrote the following Letter of Counsel containing such directions as he considered most suitable in the circumstances in which they were placed, for holding stated meetings for prayer, reading, and religious instruction, while they were currently destitute of the privileges of public worship. And, while recommending that their assemblies ought always to be closed as well as opened by prayer, he signified his own readiness to give them his advice by letter, whenever it should be required, on any difficulties which might perplex them in their conferring passages of Scripture. “There is every reason to conclude (says his Biographer) that these directions were punctually compiled with. This letter may therefore be viewed as an important document regarding the state of the Protestant Church in Scotland, previous to the establishment of the Reformation.” It is dated on the 7th of July 1556.
Although the Protestants in Scotland had already been precluded from making an open profession of truth, or from enjoying the benefit of regular ministrations of church social life publicly sanctioned, their position was very similar to that of their brethren in England during the reign of Queen Mary. “When the learned preachers and ministers,” says Strype, “were most of them burnt or fled, and the flocks left destitute of their faithful pastors, some of the laity, tradesmen, or others, endued with parts and some learning, used, in that distress, to read the Scriptures to the rest in their meetings, and the letters of the martyrs and prisoners and other good books; also to pray with them, and exhort them to stand fast, and to establish them in the confession of Christ to the death.” He elsewhere remarks, “the course they took in these sad times, was the same which the Primitive Christians did, when they were under their persecutions, namely, prayers and tears. They continued to assemble together in the hottest times, and in these assemblies sometimes they only prayed together.”
This Letter, with the running title, “watch and pray with diligence,” was printed at the time, being annexed to the original edition of his “Exposition of the Sixth Psalm,” as well as in the republication at London in 1580. It is also contained in Dr. M’Crie’s manuscript volume with this title: “To his Brethren in Scotland, after he had been quiet among them.” The title in the opposite page forms the concluding portion of the separate title-page to this “Comfortable Epistle,” given in facsimile, vol. iii. P. 237.
A most wholesome Counsel how to behave ourselves in the midst of this wicked generation, touching the daily exercise of God’s most holy and sacred Word.
The Comfort of the Holy Ghost, &c., for Salvation.
No so much to instruct you, as to leave you (dearly beloved Brethren) some testimony of my love, I have thought it a good thing to communicate with you in these few lines my weak counsel. I want you to know how I would have you behave yourselves in the midst of this wicked generation, touching the exercise of God’s most sacred and holy Word, without which, neither shall knowledge increase, godliness appear, not fervency continue among you. For as the Word of God is the beginning of spiritual life, without which all flesh is dead in God’s presence, and the lantern to our feet, without the brightness of it all the posterity of Adam do walk in darkness, and as it is the foundation of faith, without which no man understands the good will of God, so it is also the only organ and instrument which God uses to strengthen the weak, to comfort the afflicted, to reduce to mercy by repentance such as have backslidden, and finally, to preserve and keep the very life of the souls in all assaults and temptations. And of all this, if that you desire your knowledge to be increased, your faith to be confirmed, your conscience to be quieted and comforted, or finally, your soul to be preserved in life, let your exercise be frequent in the law of your Lord God. Do not despise that precept which Moses (who by his own experience had learned what comfort lies hidden within the Word of God) gave to the Israelites these words, “These words, which I command thee this day, shall be in they heart; and thou shalt exercise thy children in them. Thou shalt talk of them when thou art home in thy house, and as thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up: and though shalt bind them for a sign upon the hand, and they shall be paper of remembrance between thine eyes; and thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and upon thy gates.” And Moses in another place, commands them to “remember the law of the Lord God, to do it that it may be well with them, and with their children in the land which the Lord their God should give them.” Here, the meaning, being as a frequent memory and repetition of God’s precepts is the means whereby the fear of God, is the beginning of all wisdom and felicity, is kept recent in mind. So when negligence and oblivion of God’s benefits received are shunned, this shows the first degree of defection or spiritual declension from God.
Now, if the Law, which by reason of our weakness can work nothing but wrath and anger, was so effectual that remembered and rehearsed of purpose to do it, it brought to the people a corporal benediction, what shall we say that the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ does work, so that with reverence it be entreated and used! St. Paul calls it the sweet odor of life to those that shall receive life, borrowing his analogy of sweet smelling herbs or precious ointments, whose nature is, the more that they be touched or moved, to send forth their odor more pleasant and delectable. Even such, dear Brethren, is the blessed Evangelist of our Lord Jesus, for the more that it be entreated, the more comfortable and pleasant it is to such as hear, read, or exercise themselves in these things. I am not ignorant that as the Israelites loathed the manna, because that every day they saw and ate but one thing, so some there be even today (who will not be even of the worst sort) that after once reading some parcels of the Scriptures, do commit themselves altogether to profane authors and human lectures because that the variety of matters therein contained doth bring with it daily delegation, where otherwise within the simple Scriptures of God, the perpetual repetition of one thing is tedious and wearisome. This temptation, I confess, may enter in God’s very elect for a time, but it is impossible that therein they continue to the end, for God’s election, besides other evident signs, has this always joined with it – that God’s elect are called from ignorance (I speak of those that are come to the years of knowledge) to some taste and feeling of God’s mercy of the which they are never so satisfied in this life, but from time to time they hunger and they thirst to eat the bread descended from heaven and to drink the water that springs to everlasting life. They obtain this but by the mans of faith, and faith looketh ever to the will of God revealed by the Word, so that faith has borne her beginning and continuance by the Word of God. And so I say, that it is impossible that God’s chosen children can despise or reject the word of their salvation of any long continuance, neither can they loathe it to the end.
Often it is that God’s elect are held in much bondage and difficulties, that they can not have the bread of life broke before them, neither yet free liberty to exercise themselves in God’s holy Word. But then God’s dear children do not loath. Rather, they most gladly covet the food of their souls. Then they accuse their former negligence, lament the miserable affliction of their brethren, and cry and call in their hearts (and openly where they dare) for free passage of the Gospel. This hunger and thirst does prove the life of souls. But if such men, as having liberty to train and exercise themselves in God’s holy Scriptures, and yet begin to weary, because from time to time they read but one thing, I ask, why do they not weary every day to eat their bread? Every day to drink wine? Every day to behold the brightness of the sun? And to use the rest of God’s creatures, which every day do keep their own substance, course, and nature? They shall answer, I trust, because such creatures have strength, as oft as they are used, to expel hunger, to quench thirst, to restore strength, and to preserve the life. O miserable creatures! Who dares attribute more power and strength to the corruptible creatures in nourishing and preserving the mortal body than to the eternal Word of God in the nourishment of the soul which is immortal! To reason with their damnable unthankfulness at this present it is not my purpose. But to you dear Brethren, I write my knowledge and speak my conscience because even though it is necessary to use meat and drink for the preservation of our life, and so it is as necessary as the heat and brightness of the sun is to the quickenings of herbs, and even to expel darkness, so it is also necessary to everlasting life, and to the illumination and light of the soul, the perpetual meditation, exercise and use of God’s holy Word.
And therefore, dear Brethren, if that you look for a life to come, of necessity it is that you should exercise yourselves in the book of the Lord your God. Let no day slip or be empty of some comfort received from the mouth of God. Open your ears, and He will speak even pleasant things to your heart. Close not your eyes, but diligently let them behold what portion of substance is left to you within your Father’s testament. Let your tongues learn to praise the gracious goodness of Him whose mere mercy hath called you from darkness to light and from death to life. And it should always be that others know you are about this work, especially among the household. Not for praise, but for accountability. Brethren, you are ordained of God to rule your own houses in His true fear, and according to His Word. Within your own houses, I say, in some cases, you are like pastors or even kings; your wife, children, servants, and family are your church and charge. You shall be required as to how careful and diligent you have always instructed them in God’s true knowledge, how that you have studied in them to plant virtue and repress vice and sin. Therefore I say to you that you must make them partakers in reading, exhorting and making prayers before Christ, which I wish would happen in every house at least once a day. But above all things, dear Brethren, study to practice in life that which the Word of God commands, and then be assured that you shall never hear nor read the Word of God without seeing fruit. Keep these consideration in your mind for the exercises of religion within your own house.
We should also consider St. Paul when he calls the congregation “the body of Christ.” Here we see that every Christian is a member of that body and it teaches us that no members are sufficient to sustain and feed itself without the help and support of another. I think its necessary that brothers come together to think about the Scriptures in solemn assemblies. The order of these assemblies is expressed by Saint Paul, and therefore I do not need to use many words about all this. However, you should be willing, when you do come together, to convene once a week at least. In the beginning of the your gathering, you should confess your offenses before Christ, and invoke by petition the Spirit of the Lord Jesus to assist you in all your godly enterprises through the entire meeting. And then let some Scripture be plainly and distinctly read, so much as shall be thought sufficient for one day or time. After this, if any brother has an exhortation, question, or doubt, let him not fear to speak or move the same, so that he does it with moderation, either to edify or to be edified. And here I do not doubt that great profit shall shortly come quickly before you. For, first, by hearing, reading, and conferring the Scriptures in the assembly, the whole body of the Scriptures of God shall become familiar, the judgments and spirits of men shall be tried, their patients and modesty shall be known, and finally, their gifts and utterance shall appear. Multiplication of words, convoluted interpretations and willfulness in reasoning, is to be avoided at all times, and in all places, but chiefly in the congregation, where nothing ought to be respected except the glory of God, and comfort or edification of brethren.
If anything occurs within the text, or else arises in reasoning, while your judgments cannot resolve or capacities apprehend, let the same be noted and put in writing before you dismiss the congregation, that when God shall offer to you any pastor, your doubts being noted and known, may have a more expedite resolution. Or, that when you shall have occasion to write to such as with whom you would communicate your judgments or ideas, your letters may signify and declare your unceasing desire that you have of God and His true religion. Those who receive the letter will endeavor and bestow their faithful labors to satisfy your godly petitions according to their talents – this I am sure of godly men in this way. Speaking for myself, as I am able in communicating my judgments to you, in explaining as God pleases to open to me any place of Scripture that I think you may profit, I will certainly do.
Also, I would have you all in reading the Scriptures, that you should join some books of the Old and some of the New Testament together, as Genesis and of the Gospels, Exodus with another, and so forth, ever ending such books as you begin (as the time will suffer) for it shall greatly comfort you to hear that harmony and well-tuned song of the Holy Spirit speaking in our fathers from the beginning. It shall confirm you in these dangerous and perilous days to behold the face of Christ Jesus, His loving spouse and church, from Abel to himself, and from himself to this day, in all ages to be one. Be always looking through and reading the prophets and in the epistles of Saint Paul, for the multitude of masters, which are some of the best portions of Scripture, still require exercise and a good memory to hide them in your heart. Just as your assemblies ought to begin with confession and invocation of God’s Holy Spirit, so I would also instruct you that these meetings were finished with thanksgiving and common prayers for princes, rulers, and magistrates, for the liberty and free passage of Christ’s Gospel, for the comfort and deliverance of our afflicted brethren in all places now persecuted, (but most cruelly within the realm of France and England) and for such other things as the Spirit of the Lord Jesus shall teach to you to be profitable; either to yourselves, or to your brethren wheresoever they be.
If thus (or better) I shall hear that you exercise yourselves, dear Brethren, then I praise God for your great obedience, as for them that not only have received the Word of grace with gladness, but that also, with care and diligence, that you keep the same as a treasure and jewel which is most precious. And because I cannot suspect that you will do the contrary to this letter at this present time, I will use no threatenings, for my good hope is that you shall walk as the sons of light in the midst of the wicked generation. I pray you shall be as stars in the night season, who yet are not changed into darkness, that you shall be as wheat among the cockle; and yet, that you shall not change your nature which you have received by grace, through the fellowship and participation which we have with the Lord Jesus in His body and blood. Finally, I hope you will be like the number of the prudent virgins who daily renewed their lamps with oil. You do the same so that you will be as those that patiently abide the glorious appearing and coming of the Lord Jesus, whose omnipotent Spirit rules and instructs, illuminates and comforts your hearts and minds, in all assaults now and ever.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus rest with you.
Remember my weakness in your daily prayers.
Your brother unfeigned,
John Knox, July 7, 1556