John Knox, Letter 1: On personal sadness, weakness, sin, confession, and God’s faithfulness to forgive

The first letter to his mother-in-law, Mistress Bowes.

Right dearly beloved[1] mother in our Savior Jesus Christ,

When I call to mind and revolve with myself the troubles and afflictions of God’s elect from the beginning (in which I do not forget you), there is within my heart two extreme contraries – a dolor almost unspeakable, and a joy and comfort which by man’s senses cannot be comprehended, nor understood. The chief causes of dolor be two: the one is the remembrance of sin, which I daily feel remaining in this corrupt nature which was and is so odious and detestable in the presence of our heavenly Father, that by no other sacrifice could or might the same be purged, except by the blood and death of the only innocent Son of God.

When I deeply do consider the cause of Christ’s death to have been sin, and sin yet to dwell in all flesh, with Paul I am compelled to sob and groan as a man under a heavy burden, yes, sometimes to cry, “O wretched and miserable man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of sin?”

The other cause of my dolor is that such as most gladly would remain together, for mutual comfort one of another, cannot be suffered[2] so to do. Since the first day that it pleased the providence of God to bring you and me in familiarity, I have always delighted in your company, and when labors would permit, you know I have not spared hours to talk and commune with you, the fruit whereof I did not then fully understand nor perceive. But now absent, and so absent that by corporal presence neither of us can receive comfort of [the] other, I call to mind how that ofttimes when, with dolorous hearts, we have begun our talking, God has sent great comfort to both, which now for my own part I commonly want.[3] The exposition of your troubles, and acknowledging of your infirmity, were first to me a very mirror and glass wherein I beheld myself so rightly painted forth that nothing could be more evident to my own eyes.

And then, the searching of the Scriptures for God’s sweet promises, and for His mercies freely given to miserable offenders (for His nature delights to show mercy where most misery  reigns[4]), the collection and applying of God’s mercies, I say, were to me as the breaking and handling with my own hands of the most sweet and delectable unguents, whereof I could not but receive some comfort by their natural sweet odors.

But now, albeit I never lack the presence and plain image of my own wretched infirmity, yet seeing sin so manifestly abound in all estates, I am compelled to thunder out the threatenings of God against obstinate rebel-ers.[5] In doing whereof (albeit, as God knows, I am no malicious nor obstinate sinner) I sometimes am wounded, knowing myself criminal and guilty in many, yes in all (malicious obstinacy laid aside) things that in others I reprehend.

Judge not, mother, that I write these things debasing myself other[6] ways than I am. No, I am worse than my pen can express. In body you think I am no adulterer. Let so be, but the heart is infected with foul lusts, and will lust, albeit I lament never so much. Externally I commit no idolatry; but my wicked heart loves the self, and cannot be refrained from vain imaginations, yes, not from such as were the fountain of all idolatry. I am no man-killer with my hands; but I help not my needy brother so liberally as I may and ought. I steel not horse, money, nor clothes from my neighbor; but that small portion of worldly substance I bestow not so rightly as His holy law requires. I bear no false witness against my neighbor in judgement, or otherwise before men, but I speak not the truth of God so boldly as it becomes His true messenger to do. And thus in conclusion, there is no vice repugning to God’s holy will, expressed in His law, wherewith my heart is not infected.

This much written and dytit before the receipt of your letters, which I received the 21st of June. They were to my heart some comfort for diverse causes not necessary to be rehearsed, but most (as knows God) for that I find a congruence betwixt us in spirit, being so far distant in body. For when that digestly I did avys[7] with[8] your letter, I did consider that I myself was complaining even the selfsame things at that very instant moment that I received your letter. By my pen, from a sorrowful heart, I could not but burst forth and say, “O Lord, how wonderful are Your works! How do You try and prove Your chosen children as gold by the fire! How can You in manner hide Your face from Your own spouse, that Your presence after may be more delectable! How can You bring Your saints low, that You may carry them to glory everlasting! How can You suffer Your strong faithful messengers in many things yet to wrestle with wretched infirmity and feeble weakness, yes, and sometimes permit You them horribly to fall – partly that no flesh shall have whereof it may glory before You, and partly that others of smaller estate and meaner gifts in Your kirk[9] might receive some consolation, albeit they find in themselves wicked motions which they are not able to expel!”

My purpose was, before I received your letter, to have exhorted you to patience, and to fast adhering to God’s promises, albeit that your flesh, the devil, and other your enemies, would persuade you to the contrary. For, by the arts and subtleties that the adversary uses against me, I not only do conjecture but also plainly do see your assaults and trouble. And so likewise in the bowels of Christ’s mercy, most earnestly I beseech you, by that infirmity that you know remains in me (worse I am than I can write) patiently to bear, albeit that you have not such perfection as you would, and albeit also your motions be such as be most vile and abominable, yet not to sorrow above measure.

If I, to whom God has given greater gifts (I write to His praise) be yet so wrapped into misery that what I would, I cannot do, and what I would not, that with Saint Paul I say, I daily, yes, every hour and moment, I devise to do, and in my heart, fight I never so fast, in the contrary, I perform and do. If such wretched wickedness remain in God’s chief ministers, what wonder albeit the same remain in you? If God’s strongest men of war be beaten back in their face, that what they would they cannot destroy nor kill, is it any such offense to you to be tossed as you complain, that therefore you should distrust God’s free promises? God forbid, dear mother! The power of God is known by our weakness, and these dolors and infirmities be most profitable to us, for by the same is our pride beaten down, which is not easy otherwise to be done. By them[10] are our miseries known, so that we, acknowledging ourselves misterful,[11] seek the Physician. By them come we, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, to the hatred of sin; and by them come we to the hunger and thirst of justice, and to desire to be dissolved, and so to reign[12] with our Christ Jesus, which, without this battle and sorrow, this flesh could never do.

And so from the dolors I proceed to the comfort.

As the causes of dolor be two, which are present sin, and the lack of such company as in whom we most could delight, so is the causes of my comfort not imagined of my brain, but pronounced first by God, and after grafted in the hearts of God’s children by His Holy Spirit.

They are likewise two, which is: [1] a justice inviolable offered by our flesh before the throne of our heavenly Father, and [2] an assured hope of that general assembly and gathering together of God’s dispersed flock, in that day when all tears shall be wiped from our eyes, when death shall be vanquished, and may no more dissever such as, fearing God this day, in the flesh mourn under the burden of sin. Of our present justice, notwithstanding sin remain in our mortal bodies, are we assured by the faithful witness of Jesus Christ, John the Apostle, saying, “If we confess our sins, faithful and just is God to remit and forgive our sins.” Mark the words of the Apostle, “If we confess our sins, God must forgive them, because he is faithful and just.”

To confession of sins are these things requisite:

First, we must acknowledge the sin. And it is to be noted that sometimes God’s very elect, albeit they have sinned most heinously, do not acknowledge sin, and therefore cannot at all times confess the same. For sin is not known until[13] such time as the veil be taken from the conscience of the offender, that he may see and behold the filthiness of sin, what punishment by God’s just judgments is due for the same.

And then – which is the second thing requisite to confession – begins the hatred of sin, and of ourselves for contemning of God and of His holy law, whereof last springs that which we call hope of mercy, which is nothing else but a sob from a troubled heart, confounded and ashamed for sin, thirsting remission[14] and God’s free mercy, whereupon of necessity must follow this conclusion: God has remitted and freely forgiven the sin. And why? For “He is faithful and just,” says the Apostle.

Comfortable and marvelous causes! First, God is faithful, ergo, He must forgive sin. A comfortable consequent upon a most sure ground! For God’s fidelity can no more fail nor can Himself.[15]

Then let this argument be gathered for our comfort: the office of the faithful is to keep promise, but God is faithful, ergo, He must keep promise. That God has promised remission of sins to such as be repentant, I need not now to recite the places. But let this collection of the promises be made. God promises remission of sins to all that confess the same, but I confess my sins, for I see the filthiness thereof, and how justly God may condemn me for my iniquities. I sob and I lament for that I cannot be quit and rid of sin. I desire to live a more perfect life. These are infallible signs, seals, and tokens that God has remitted the sin. For God is faithful that so has promised, and can no more deceive nor [nor: than] He can cease to be God.

But what reason is this? God is just, therefore He must forgive sin? A wonderous cause and reason indeed! For the flesh and natural man can understand nothing but the contrary, for thus must it reason: “The justice of God is offended by my sins, so God must needs have a satisfaction, and require a punishment.” If we understand of whom God requires satisfaction, whether of us, or of the hands of His only Son, and whose punishment is able to recompense our sins, then shall we have great cause to rejoice, remembering that God is a just God. For the office of the just man is to stand content when he has received his duty. But God has received already at the hands of His only Son all that is due for our sins, and so cannot His justice require nor crave any more of us, either satisfaction or re-compensation for our sins.

Advert, mother, the sure pillars and foundation of our salvation to be God’s faithfulness and justice. He that is faithful has promised free remission to all penitent sinners, and He that is just has received already a full satisfaction for the sins of all those that embrace Christ Jesus to be the only Savior of the world. What rests [remains] then to us to be done? Nothing but to acknowledge our misery and wretchedness, which no flesh can do so unfeignedly as they that daily feel the weight of sin.

And therefore, mother, cause have you none of desperation, albeit the devil rage never so cruelly, and albeit the flesh be never so frail, daily and hourly lusting against God’s holy commandments, yes, striving against the same. This is not the time of justice before our own eyes. We look for that which is promised, the kingdom everlasting, prepared to us from the beginning, whereof we are made heirs by God’s appointment, rehabilitated[16] thereto by Christ’s death, to whom we shall be gathered, where after we shall never depart, which to remember is my singular comfort, but thereof now I cannot write.

My commendations to all whom affairs.[17]

I commit you to the protection of the Omnipotent.

At London, the 23rd of June, 1553.

Your son unfeigned,

John Knox

[From Works III:337–343. All syntax, diction, and relevant notes from publisher David Laing retained; word endings, spelling, and punctuation modernized sparingly by Sam Caldwell.]

[1] Laing: In MS M this phrase is usually written as one word, “dearlybeloved.”

[2] Suffered: allowed

[3] Commonly want: frequently lack.

[4] Original: ringeth. With Laing footnote: reigns. Most misery reigns: misery reigns most.

[5] Rebel-ers: rebels. Original: rebellaris.

[6] Laing:

[7] Avys: advise?

[8] Laing note: In other words, when I deliberately examined.

[9] Kirk: church.

[10] Them:

[11] Misterful: miserly, needy, lacking. Laing: “Misterful,” necessitous.

[12] Original: ring.

[13] Original: unto.

[14] Thirsting remission: thirsting for remission.

[15] Can no more fail nor can Himself: can no more fail than He Himself can.

[16] Original: reabillit. Laing footnote: A forensic term, to rehabilitate, to restore a right or privilege which had been forfeited.

[17] To all whom affairs: to whom it may concern. Laing note: “Effeiris,” concerns.

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