A letter of Wholesome Counsel
Addressed to His Brethren in Scotland
(Or “What To Do when there is no good church to attend in your local area.”)
originally published in 1556
“Give me Scotland, else I die.”
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 destitute of the privileges of public worship. And, while recommending that their assemblies should 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 that 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 hitherto been precluded from making an open profession of truth, or from enjoying the benefit of regular ministrations 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 minister,” 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, volume 3, page 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, etc., for Salvation.”
Not so much to instruct you, as to leave 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 hope that you should behave yourselves in the midst of this wicked generation, concerning the exercise of God’s most sacred and holy Word, without which, neither shall knowledge increase, godliness appear, nor 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 walks 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 from, and finally, to preserve and keep the very life of the souls in all assaults and temptations. And thereof, 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 in 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,” meaning, that like 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 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! 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 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 puissant 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 are now-a-days (who will not be held 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 does bring with it daily delecation, where contrariwise within the simple Scriptures of God the perpetual repetition of one thing is fashious and wearisome. This temptation, I confess, may enter in 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, hath this every joined with it, that God’s elect are called from ignorance (I speak of those that have 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 life everlasting. They cannot do this but by the means of faith, and faith looketh ever to the will of God revealed by the Word, so that faith hath borne 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 loath it to the end.
Often it is that God’s elect are held in much bondage and thralldom, that they can not have the bread of life broke 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 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 the life of souls. But if such men, as having liberty to rend 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 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 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 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 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 quickenings 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 ye look for a life to come, of necessity it is that ye 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 hath called you from darkness to light and from death to life. Neither yet may you do this is quietly that ye will admit not witness. 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, ye are bishops and kings, your wife, children, servants, and family are your bishopric and charge; of you it shall be required how careful and diligent ye have always instructed them in God’s true knowledge, how that ye have studied in them to plant virtue and repress vice. And therefore, I say, ye must make them partakers in reading, exhorting and in making common prayers, which I would in every house were once a day at least. But above all things, dear Brethren, study to practice in life that which the Word of God commandeth, and then be you assured that ye shall never hear nor read the same without fruit. And thus much for the exercises within your house,
Considering St. Paul calleth the congregation “the body of Christ,” whereof every one of us is a member, teaching us thereby that no members of sufficiency to sustain and feed itself without the help and support of another, I think it necessary for the conference of Scriptures, assemblies of brethren to be had. The order therein to be observed is expressed by Saint Paul, and therefore needs no I to use many words in that behalf; only willing, that when ye convent, or come together, which I were once a week, that your beginning should be from confession of your offenses, and invocation of the Spirit of the Lord Jesus to assist you in all your godly enterprises. And then let some 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 here 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 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, flowery 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, while your judgments cannot resolve or capacities apprehend, let the same be noted and put in writing before ye dismiss the congregation, that when God shall offer unto you any interpreter, your doubts being noted and known, may have the ore expedite resolution; or else that when ye shall have occasion to write to such as with whom ye would communicate your judgments, your letters ay signify and declare your unceasing desire that ye have of God and 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 hours in communicating my judgments with you, in explaining as God pleases to open to me any place of Scripture, then half and one hour in any matter beside.
Farther, I would, in reading the Scriptures, ye should join some books of the Old and some of the New Testament together, as Genesis and of the Evangelists, Exodus with another, and so forth; ever ending such books as ye 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 frequent in the prophets and in the epistles of Saint Paul, for the multitude of masters, most comfortable therein contained, requireth 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, ruler, 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 where ever they be.
If thus (or better) I shall hear that ye 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, do keep the same as a treasure and jewel most precious. And because that I cannot suspect, that ye will do the contrary at this present, I will use no threatenings, for my good hope is, that ye shall walk as the sons of light in the midst of the wicked generation; that ye shall be as stars in the night season, who yet are not changed into darkness; that ye shall be [as] wheat among the cockle, and yet, that ye shall not change your nature which ye have received by grace, through the fellowship and participation which we have with the Lord Jesus in his body and blood. And finally, that ye 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.
The grace of the Lord Jesus rest with you.
Remember my weakness in your daily prayers.
July 7, 1556
Your brother unfeigned,
The preceding letter was originally written and published in the year 1556. It has been republished here from Still Water Revival Books, Inc. (Puritan Hard Drive). All rights reserved. Website: www.PuritanDownloads.com | Phone: (780) 450-3730
Edited, Updated and Revised by C. Matthew McMahon | A Puritan’s Mind, Inc. © September 2003 | www.apuritansmind.com | For more information on the Puritans, Puritan Theology, and the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ contact C. Matthew McMahon at Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Changes made to this edition do not affect the overall language of the document, nor do they change the writer’s intention. Spelling, grammar and formatting changes have been made, and modernized wording is used in specific cases to help today’s reader more fully grasp the intention of the author.