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A Letter of Wholesome Counsel,
Addressed to His Brethren in Scotland

John Knox

Extracted from: Selected Writings of John Knox: Public Epistles, Treatises, and Expositions to the Year 1559

Editor's Note

"In the spring of 1556, while Knox was still in Scotland, he received letters from the church of the English exiles at Geneva, inviting him to return and undertake the office of the 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 laboured 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 destitute of the privileges of public worship" (David Laing, in Knox's Works, Vol. 4, p. 131).

The importance of this letter was not overlooked by the reformer's biographer, Thomas M'Crie, who stated that it may be viewed "as an important document regarding the state of the Protestant church in Scotland previous to the establishment of the Reformation" (Life of Knox [Edinburgh, 1855], p. 95). On the whole, the epistle is a primer on how to sow the seeds of Reformation, in times when the church is in a low condition. Thus, this letter has great relevance for contemporary Christians who find themselves isolated from a regular (faithful) ministry and duly constituted reformed congregations.

A Letter of Wholesome Counsel,
Addressed to His Brethren in Scotland

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, etc., for Salvation.

Not so much to instruct you, as to leave with you (dearly beloved brethren) some testimony of my love, I have thought good to communicate with you, in these few lines, my weak counsel, how I would you should behave yourselves in the midst of this wicked generation, touching the exercise of God's most holy and sacred word, without which neither shall knowledge increase, godliness appear, nor fervency continue amongst you. For as the word of God is the beginning of spiritual life, without which all flesh is dead in God's presence; and [as it is] the lantern to our feet, without the brightness whereof all the posterity of Adam does 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 slidden, and, finally, to preserve and keep the very life of the soul in all assaults and temptations. And therefore, if 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.

Despise not that precept which Moses (who, by his own experience, had learned what comfort lies hidden within the word of God) gave to the Israelites, in these words, "These words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thy heart; and thou shalt exercise thy children in them. Thou shalt talk of them when thou art at home in thy house, and as thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up; and thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be papers of remembrance between thine eyes; and thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and upon thy gates" (Deut. 6:6-9). 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 (Deut. 4:40; 12:28): meaning that, as frequent memory and repetition of God's precepts is the means whereby the fear of God (which is the beginning of all wisdom and felicity) is kept recent in mind, so is negligence and oblivion of God's benefits received, the first degree of defection from God.

Now, if the law (which by reason of our weakness can work nothing but wrath and anger) was so effectual that, [being] remembered and rehearsed of purpose to do it, it brought to the people a corporeal benediction; what shall we say that the glorious gospel of Christ Jesus does work, so that with reverence it be entreated? St. Paul calls it the sweet odor of life to those that shall receive life, borrowing his similitude of odoriferous herbs or precious ointments, whose nature is, the more that they are touched or moved, to send forth their odor more pleasant and delectable. Even such, dear brethren, is the blessed evangel of our Lord Jesus; for the more it is entreated, the more comfortable and more puissant [pleasant] is it to such as do hear, read, and exercise the same.

I am not ignorant that, as the Israelites loathed the manna, because that every day they saw and ate but one thing, so there are some now-a-days (who will not be held of the worst sort) that, after once reading some parcels of the scripture, do commit [turn] themselves altogether to profane authors and human lectures, because the variety of matters therein contained does bring with it a daily delectation, where contrariwise, within the simple scriptures of God, the perpetual repetition of a thing is fashious [tiresome] and wearisome. This temptation, I confess, may enter into God's very elect for a time; but it is impossible that they continue therein to the end; for God's election, besides other evident signs, has this ever 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 satisfied in this life, but from time to time they hunger to eat the bread that descended from heaven, and they thirst to drink the water that springs to life everlasting, which they cannot do but by the means of faith ­ and faith looks ever to the will of God revealed by his word, so that faith has both 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 yet loathe it to the end.

Often it is that God's elect are held in such bondage and thralldom, that they cannot have the bread of life broken unto them, neither yet free liberty to exercise themselves in God's holy word; but then God's dear children do not loath, but most greedily do they covet, the food of their souls. Then do they accuse their former negligence, then they lament the miserable affliction of their brethren, and then they cry and call in their hearts (and openly where they dare) for free passage to the gospel. This hunger and thirst does prove the life of their souls. But if such men, as having liberty to read 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 weary they not also every day to eat 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 a strength, as oft as they are used, to expel hunger, and quench thirst, to restore strength, and to preserve life. O miserable creatures! who dare attribute more power and strength to the corruptible creatures, in nourishing and preserving the mortal carcass, than to the eternal word of God in nourishment of the soul, which is immortal! To reason with their damnable unthankfulness at this present [time], it is not my purpose. But to you, dear brethren, I write my knowledge, and do speak my conscience, that so necessary as the use of meat and drink are to the preservation of corporeal life, and so necessary as the heat and brightness of the sun are to the quickening of the herbs, and to expel darkness; so necessary also to the life everlasting, and to the illumination and light of the soul, are the perpetual meditation, exercise, and use of God's holy word.

And therefore, dear brethren, if you look for a life to come, of necessity it is that you exercise yourselves in the book of the Lord your God. Let no day slip or want 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 has called you from darkness to light, and from death to life. Neither yet may you do this so quietly that you will admit no witness. No, brethren, you are ordained of God to rule your own houses in his true fear, and according to his word. Within your houses, I say, in some cases, you are bishops and kings; your wife, children, servants, and family are your bishopric and charge. Of you it shall be required how carefully and diligently you have always instructed them in God's true knowledge, how you have studied to plant virtue in them, and [to] repress vice. And therefore I say, you must make them partakers in reading, exhorting, and in making common prayers, which I would in every house were used once a day at least. But above all things, dear brethren, study to practice in life that which the Lord commands, and then be you assured that you shall never hear nor read the same without fruit. And this much for the exercises within your houses.

Considering that St. Paul calls the congregation "the body of Christ," whereof every one of us is a member (1 Cor. 12:27), teaching us thereby that no member is of sufficiency to sustain and feed itself without the help and support of another: I think it necessary for the conference [consultation] of scriptures, assemblies of brethren be had. The order therein to be observed is expressed by St. Paul and, therefore, I need not to use many words in that behalf; only willing, that when you convene, or come together, which I would were once a week, your beginning should be from confession of your offences, and invocation of the Spirit of the Lord Jesus to assist you in all your godly enterprises. And then let some place of scripture be plainly and distinctly read, so much as shall be thought sufficient for the day or time; which ended, if any brother have exhortation, question, or doubt, let him not fear to speak and move the same, so that he do it with moderation, either to edify or be edified. And hereof I doubt not but that great profit shall shortly ensue. 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 patience and modesty shall be known; and, finally, their gifts and utterance shall appear. Multiplication of words, prolix [wordy; tedious] interpretations, and willfulness in reasoning are 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 and edification of our brethren.

If anything occurs within the text, or else arises in reasoning, which your judgment cannot resolve, or capacities apprehend, let the same be noted and put in writing before you dismiss the congregation, that when God shall offer unto you any interpreter, your doubts (being noted and known) may have the more expeditious resolution; or else that when you shall have occasion to write to such as with whom you would communicate your judgments, your letters may signify and declare your unceasing desire that you have of God and of his true religion; and they, I doubt not, according to their talents, will endeavour and will bestow their faithful labours to satisfy your godly petitions. Of myself I will speak as I think; I will more gladly spend fifteen hours in communicating my judgment with you, in explaining as God pleases to open to me any place of scripture, than half an hour in any [other] matter beside.

Further, in reading the scripture, I would you should join some books of the Old and some of the New Testament together, as Genesis and one of the evangelists, 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, and his loving spouse and church (from Abel to himself, and from himself to this day) in all ages to be one. Be frequent in the prophets and in the epistles of St. Paul, for the multitude of matters, most comfortable therein contained, require exercise and good memory.

Like as your assemblies ought to begin with confession and invocation of God's Holy Spirit, so would I that they were finished with thanksgiving and common prayers for princes, rulers, and magistrates; for the liberty and free passage of Christ's evangel; 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 unto you to be profitable, either to yourselves, or to your brethren wheresoever they are.

If thus (or better) I shall hear that you exercise yourselves, dear brethren, then I will 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, do keep the same as a treasure and most precious jewel. And because I cannot expect you will do the contrary at the present, I will use no threatenings, for my good hope is that you shall walk as the sons of light in the midst of this wicked generation; that you shall be as stars in the night season, who yet are not changed into darkness; that you shall be [as] wheat amongst 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: and, finally, that you shall be of the number of the prudent virgins, daily renewing your lamps with oil, as they that patiently do abide the glorious appearance and coming of the Lord Jesus: whose omnipotent Spirit rule and instruct, illuminate and comfort your hearts and minds, in all assaults, now and ever. Amen.

The grace of the Lord Jesus rest with you.

Remember my weakness in your daily prayers. The 7th of July 1556.

Your brother unfeigned,
John Knox

Copyright © 1995 by Kevin Reed
Presbyterian Heritage Publications
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This edition has been edited to reflect contemporary spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Bracketed words are supplied where needed to complete the sense of a sentence. Bracketed words in italics are inserted following some antiquated terms or phrases as a convenience to the modern reader. Therefore, the words in brackets are not a part of the original text.

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