John Knox on God’s Word

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 salutation.

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 sacred and holy Word, without which[1] neither shall knowledge increase, godliness appear, nor fervency continue amongst you. For as the Word of God is the beginning of life spiritual, without which all flesh is dead in God’s presence; and the lantern to our feet, without the brightness whereof all the posterity of Adam does walk in darkness; and as it is the foundation[2] 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 slid,[3] and, finally, to preserve and keep the very life of the soul in all assaults and temptations. And therefore,[4] 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.

Despise not that precept which Moses (who by his own experience had learned what comfort lies hid within the Word of God) gave to the Israelites in these words,[5] “These words, which I command you this day, shall be in your heart; and you shall exercise your children in them. You shall talk of them when you are at home in your house, and as you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up; and you shall bind them for a sign upon the hand, and they shall be papers of remembrance between your eyes; and you shall write them upon the posts of your house, and upon your 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,” meaning that, like as frequent memory and repetition of God’s precepts is the means[6] 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[7] 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, 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 Christ Jesus does work, so that with reverence it be entreated? Saint 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 be touched or moved, to send forth their odor more pleasant and delectable. Even such, dear brethren, is the blessed evangel[8] of our Lord Jesus. For the more that it be entreated, the more comfortable and puissant[9] is it to such as do hear, read, or 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 some there be now-a-days (who will not be held of the worst sort) that, after once reading some parcels of the Scriptures, do commit[10] themselves altogether to profane authors and human lectures,[11] because that the variety of matters therein contained does bring with it daily delectation, where, contrariwise, within the simple Scriptures of God the perpetual repetition of one thing is factious[12] and wearisome.

This temptation, I confess, may enter in[to] God’s very elect for a time, but impossible it is that therein they continue 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 so satisfied in this life but from time to time they hunger and they thirst to eat the bread that descended from heaven and 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 the Word, so that faith has both her beginning and continuance by the  Word of God. And so I say that impossible it is 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[13] in such bondage and thralldom that they cannot have the bread of life broken to[14] them, neither yet free liberty to exercise themselves in God’s holy Word. But then God’s dear children do not loathe but most gladly do they covet the food of their souls. Then do they accuse their former negligence. Then lament they the miserable affliction of their brethren. And then cry and call they in their hearts (and openly, where they dare) for free passage of the gospel. This hunger and thirst does prove[15] 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, to quench thirst, to restore strength, and][16] to preserve the life.” Miserable creatures![17] Who dare attribute more power and strength to[18] the corruptible creatures in nourishing and preserving the mortal carcass than to the eternal Word of God in the nourishment of the soul, which is immortal!

To reason with their damnable[19] un-thankfulness at this present, 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 is to the preservation of life corporal, and so necessary as the heat and brightness of the sun is to the quickening of herbs, and to expel darkness, so necessary is also to the life everlasting, 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 exercise yourselves in the book of the Lord your God. Let no day slip or want[20] 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.[21] No, 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 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 that you have studied in them to plant virtue and 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 Word of God commands, and then be you assured that you shall never hear nor read the same without fruit. And thus much[22] for the exercises within your house.[23]

Considering that Saint Paul calls the congregation “the body of Christ,” whereof every one of us is a member, 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 of Scriptures, [that] assemblies of brethren be had. The order therein to be observed is expressed by Saint Paul, and therefore need not I to use many words in that behalf; only willing that when you convent[24] or come together, which I would were once a week, that 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 one day or time. Which ended, if any brother have exhortation, question, or doubt, let him not fear to speak or move the same, so that he do it with moderation, either to edify or to be edified. And hereof I doubt not but 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 judgements 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 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 occur within the text, or else arise 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 to you any interpreter, your doubts, being noted and known, may have the more expedited[25] 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 endeavor and bestow their faithful labors to satisfy your godly petitions. Of myself I will speak as I think. I will more gladly spend 15[26] 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 matter beside.

Farther, I would, in reading the Scripture, [that] you should join some books of the Old and some of the New Testament together,[27] 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 [allow]), 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,[28] 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 Saint 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[29] 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 to you to be profitable, either to your selves or to your brethren, wheresoever they be.

If thus (or better) I shall hear that you exercise yourselves, dear brethren, then will 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, do keep the same as a treasure and jewel most precious. And because that I cannot suspect that you will do the contrary at this 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,[30] 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 apparition 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 7 of July 1556.[31]

Your brother unfeigned,

John Knox

[From The Works of John Knox IV:133–40. All syntax, diction, and relevant notes from publisher David Laing retained; word endings, spelling, and punctuation modernized by Sam Caldwell.]

[1] Laing note: “without the which”

[2] Laing note: “the fundament.”

[3] Original: slidden.

[4] Laing: thereof. With “therefore” in note.

[5] Margin: DEUT. 6.

[6] Laing:

[7] Laing:

[8] Original: evangelie.

[9] Laing note: “more puissant.”

[10] Laing note: convert or turn themselves.

[11] Laing note: humane letters.

[12] Original: “fashious.”

[13] Original: holden

[14] Original: broke unto

[15] Laing: /

[16] Laing note explains: /

[17] Laing note: or “wretches.”

[18] Laing: /

[19] Laing: or “abominable.”

[20] Laing: Or “let no day slip over without some comfort.”

[21] Laing: /

[22] Laing: /

[23] Laing: /

[24] Laing: “Convene, assemble.”

[25] Original: expedite.

[26] Original: xv.

[27] This accords with Knox’s practice of personal reading, which we read about in at least two places: “The same day the increase of his disease forced him to leave off his ordinary practice of reading; for it was his practice to read himself, every day, some chapters both of the Old and New Testaments, but especially the Psalms, and the gospel history” (VI:654); and “for each day he read certain chapters, both the Old Testament and of the New, with certain psalms, which psalms he passed through every month once” (VI:634).

[28] Laing: or “kirk.”

[29] Laing: or “that they were never finished without thanksgiving.”

[30] Laing: cockle, a weed that grows among corn.

[31] Laing note: /

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