John Knox, Letter 2: On idolatry, apostasy, and worldly versus heavenly comfort

Rise, Lord! Stretch out Your hand. Forget not the sobs of the oppressed. ––Ps. lxxix[1]

Right dearly beloved mother in our Savior Jesus Christ,

Now is our dolor, appointed by God and forespoken by His prophets, come upon us, as the dolor of a woman in the birth of her first child; and so is it come, as with your ears, both openly and privately, oftentimes you have heard declared. When I remember your great infirmity, and the strong battle that continually you fight, and call to mind how small comfort you have in earth, I am compelled to sob and groan to Him that only may give strength, comfort, and consolation (without help of any creature) to you, in these most dolorous days. And good hope I have that my petition shall not be repelled, but for Christ Jesus’ sake accepted and granted, albeit not in such sort as you and I gladly would, yet I doubt not but in such sort we shall obtain it as His glory and our everlasting comfort and profit requires.[2] It has not been without the most special providence and favor of God that, these many days bypassed,[3] you have been grievously tempted, and sore assaulted, to revolt and turn back again to that abominable and blasphemous idolatry, which now in God’s anger is erected, before the uttermost of His plagues be poured forth upon the stubborn and inobedient [disobedient], which never would delight in the truth of His Word. And therefore of His just judgments most justly has He given them over, according to their heart’s desire, to delight in lies, to their eternal damnation.

In the days, I say, beloved mother, that no appearance there was that ever such abomination should have taken place so suddenly within this realm of England, you were tempted and assaulted to turn back again to idolatry; which tempting spirit God our heavenly Father permitted to trouble you, partly for that He would have you exercised in the battle before the great danger approached, lest perchance you might have been overthrown, if improvidently both occasion and temptation at once had assaulted you; and partly that by continual repugnance you might learn how odious is all kind of idolatry in the sight of God. For Satan uses[4] seldom to tempt but in the things wherewith he knows God most to be offended with, as pride, lust, covetousness, adultery, idolatry, and such other; the committers whereof, and continuers[5] in the same, pronounces Paul to have no portion in the kingdom of God.

This is my hope, beloved mother, that in your continual battle so far you have profited, that in this case almost you need no admonition of me. But because it is my bound duty, not only by a common Christian charity, [but also for that most unfeigned familiarity] and tender love, according to godliness, that we have kept since our first acquaintance, to do the uttermost of my power for your comfort. By pen therefore will I write, because the bodies are now put asunder to meet again at God’s pleasure, that which by mouth and face to face you have heard. If man or angel shall labor to bring you back from the confession that once you have given, let them in that behalf be accursed, and in no part (concerning your faith and religion) obey it of you. If any trouble you above measure, whether they be magistrates or carnal friends, they shall bear their just condemnation, unless they speedily repent. But whatsoever it be that shall solicit[6] or provoke you to that abominable idol, resist you all such boldly to the end, learning of the Holy Ghost not to defile the temple of God with idols, neither yet to give your bodily presence to them, but, obeying God more than[7] man, avoid all appearance of iniquity.

The necessity that all men have so to do (that willingly will not deceive himself) I remit, partly to that which oft you have heard, and partly to a general letter written by me in great anguish of heart to the congregations,[8] of whom I hear say[9] a great part, under pretense that they may keep faith secret in the heart, and yet do as idolaters do, begins now to fall before that idol. But O, alas! blind and deceived are they, as they shall know in the Lord’s visitation, which, so assuredly as our God lives, shall shortly apprehend the back-starters[10] amongst the midst of idolaters.

With very grief of heart I write, better it had been to them never to have known the truth than so suddenly, to God’s great dishonor, to have returned to their vomit. God of His infinite mercy grant to them speedy repentance, for if the sin sleep long, I fear it shall awake to their perpetual confusion.

But now, mother, comfort you my heart (God grant you may!) in this my great affliction, and dolorous pilgrimage. Continue stout to the end, and bow you never before that idol, and so will the rest of worldly troubles be to me more tolerable. With my own heart, I oft commune, yes, and, as it were, comforting myself, I appear to triumph, that God shall never suffer you to fall in that rebuke. Sure I am that both you would fear and shame to commit that abomination in my presence, who am but a wretched man, subject to sin and misery like to yourself. But, O mother! Though no earthly creature should be offended with you, yet fear you the presence and offense of Him who, present in all places, searches the very heart and reins, whose indignation once kindled against the inobedient [disobedient] (and no sin more inflames His wraith than idolatry does), no creature in heaven nor in earth, that only is creature, is able to appease[11] the same.

And therefore, dear mother, avoid and flee from it, even as from the death everlasting. Very love and careful solicitude (which God knows my heart takes for you) compels me to double[12] so ofttimes and rehearse a thing,[13] being uncertain when God shall grant any opportunity to visit you again. But the Spirit of the Lord Jesus shall, by His omnipotent and invincible power, supply in you that which wants of worldly comfort, that the glory may be known to be our God’s alone, who for a time uses to comfort, sustain, and feed a[14] creature by another. But in the end, He draws us (His own image) to Himself, that by Him alone, without the help of all other, we may live, rejoice, reign,[15] and triumph, as He has promised by Jesus Christ His Son.

One thing will I not conceal from you, mother, that neither are we sure, not yet in our hearts glorify God as our duty requires, so long as that we have the carnal comfort and defense of creatures with us. The whole man in body and soul shall evidently prove this conclusion. For this body, that lives by meat, drink, clothing, and nourishment, we see it subject to infirmity, yes, to mutability and sin, as the final death of all man declares. And the soul even of the very elect, living by the lively Word of our heavenly Father, having a Teacher that carries flesh,[16] is always flowing and troubled with sure fear, as in Christ’s Apostles and many others, most manifestly we are instructed. But when all earthly creature ceases, then shall the sufficiency of God’s Spirit mark His own work.

And therefore, beloved mother, fear not the battle that you sustain, neither yet the infirmity that you find either in flesh or spirit. Only abstain from external iniquity, that you make not your members servants to sin, and your imperfections shall have no power to damn you. For Christ’s perfection is imputed to be yours by faith which you have in His blood. Be assured, mother, willingly I would not deceive you. If any such infirmity were damnable, long ago I would have showed you the truth. But no more nor [than] God is displeased, albeit that sometimes the body be sick, and subject to disease, and so unable to do the calling, no more is He offended, albeit the soul in that case be diseased and sick. And as the natural father will not slay the body of his child, albeit through sickness it faint and abhor comfortable meats, no more (and much less) will our heavenly Father slay our souls, albeit through spiritual infirmity and weakness of our faith sometimes we refuse the lively food of His comfortable promises. Where

the contempt of God is, by His grace, removed, and a love of justice and of the life to come engrafted in the heart, there is the infallible seal and testimony of the Holy Ghost, who shall perform His own work in due season. For the power of God is known in our infirmity. And thus commit I you to the protection of Him who by grace has called you from darkness to light, by faith has purged your conscience and heart, and of His free mercy shall glorify you, according to His promise made to them that obediently receive the message of life in Christ Jesus our Lord,  whose omnipotent Spirit rest with you forever.

At Deip, the 20th of July 1554 (after I had visited Geneva and other parts, and returned to Deip to learn the estate of England and Scotland).

[Postscript.]—My own estate I cannot well declare, but God shall guide the footsteps of him that is wilsome,[17] and will feed him in trouble, that never greatly solicited[18] for the world. If any collection might be made among the faithful, it were no shame for me to receive that which Paul refused not in the time of his trouble. But all I remit to His providence that ever cares for His own. Rest in Christ.

Your son, with troubled heart,

John Knox

[From Works III:343–348. All syntax, diction, and relevant notes from publisher David Laing retained; word endings, spelling, and punctuation modernized sparingly by Sam Caldwell.]

[1] There is no verse like this in Psalm 79. Knox may have been thinking of Psalm 10:12. In the KJV it reads: “Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up thine hand: forget not the humble.” In the Geneva translation: “Arise, O Lord God, lift up thine hand; forget not the poor.” Knox seems to have inserted the word “sobs” here. Flowing no doubt from the substance of Knox’s devotional life, “sob” was one of his favorite words. Also, characteristically, Knox here paraphrases from memory. See many of his other epigraphs for similar paraphrase translations.

[2] See Knox’s treatise on prayer for how God will answer prayers in the spiritual realm when we does not in the physical realm.

[3] Bypassed: gone by. Original: bypast.

[4] Uses: tends.

[5] Original: contineweris.

[6] Original: solist

[7] Original: nor


[9] Hear say: hear said that

[10] I.e., back-sliders. Original: “bak-starteris.” 

[11] Laing:

[12] Laing note: to repeat.

[13] Laing:

[14] Laing:

[15] Original: ring.

[16] Original: careis flesche. The idea is that our Jesus Christ took on flesh, and thus we have a sympathetic Teacher.

[17] Laing note: Wilsome: Wandering, uncertain of one’s course, in a state of dreariness.

[18] Original: solistit. Laing note: That never was greatly solicitous.

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