The text of this article first appeared in the ‘Presbyterian Standard’, magazine of the James Begg Society
(www.jbeggsoc.org.uk), and appears here by kind permission.
There are few figures so closely linked to the history and character of a nation as John Knox. What Luther is to Germany and Calvin is to France Knox is to Scotland — and more so. Yet today the status of this good man is greatly diminished: Knox is despised by the godless powers that be and neglected by the apostatizing church. This is eloquently testified to by the fact that the grave of Scotland’s reformer in the heart of her capital city is now hidden from view beneath a car park.
In this new series we aim to rediscover the forgotten Knox. We believe that the rediscovery will prove challenging and beneficial to our thinking. It is sad that most of Knox’s writings remain out of general reach and it is to be hoped that this situation will be rectified The extracts we present are taken from the six-volume edition of Knox’s Works which was published between 1846 and 1864. Spellings and some archaisms have been modernized; in some places the Scripture references are not clear and these are omitted.
The first piece is taken from a work entitled “An answer to a great number of blasphemous cavillations written by an Anabaptist, and adversary to God’s eternal predestination” which was first published in 1591. It is instructive to note Knox’s treatment of those Scripture texts which have ever been employed by Arminians to oppose God’s absolute predestination and which are sometimes used today by Calvinists to prove a desire in God for the salvation of all men.
Now it resteth to declare how violently ye wrest the words of the Prophet and of the Apostle. The Prophet. speaking in the person of God, saith, “I will not the death of a sinner, but rather that he convert, and live.” And the Apostle affirmeth that God willeth all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Hereupon ye conclude, God willeth the death of no creature: this is your first violence which you do to the text. For the Prophet saith not, “I will the death of no creature,” but saith, “I will not the death of a sinner.” Ye are not ignorant, I suppose, what difference there is between a universal negative, and an indefinite, or particular. Where ye say, God willeth the death of no creature, ye speak generally and universally, excepting none. But so doth not the Prophet, for he saith not, “I will the death of no creature,” neither yet “I will the death of no sinner,” but simply saith, “I will not the death of a sinner.” I wonder that ye consider not that as there is difference between creatures and creature, so that also there is difference between sinners and sinner. Some creatures are appointed to death, for the use and sustentation of man. And dare you say that this is done against God’s will? We be taught the contrary by his own mouth. If you, correcting your generality, shall say that you mean only that God willeth the death of no man. And I fear not yet to join with you, and against you to affirm, that God hath willed, doth will, and shall will the death of some men. The Holy Ghost, speaking of the sons of Eli the High Priest, saith: “But they did not hear the voice of their father, because the Lord would kill them.” (1 Sam. 2). And Moses saith, “Sihon king of Heshbon would not suffer us to pass through his country, for the Lord thy God did harden his mind, and strengthen his heart, that he should give him into thy hands.” (Deut. 2). How often doth Moses and Joshua declare unto the people that God would kill, root out, and destroy those wicked nations from before the face of his people! And were all those kings, whom Joshua did kill, killed against God’s will? The Holy Ghost affirmeth the contrary. For it is written, “the Lord did trouble them before Israel, and he did strike them with a great slaughter. And while that they did flee before the Israelites, and were in the descents of Beth-horon, the Lord cast down upon them from heaven great stones; and many more perished by the hail stones than were slain with the sword of the children of Israel.” If the destruction, slaughter, and death, of these wicked men, and of the great host of Sennacherib, was not the will of God, I cannot tell how man shall be assured of his will. For the plain word did before promise that the Lord should destroy them; and the fact doth witness the constancy and performance of his will. And the same thing doth God this day, and shall do to the end of the world, when he shall adjudge the reprobate (as before is said) to the death perpetual; and that not against his will, but willingly, for the manifestation of his just judgments, and declaration of his own glory. And therefore, I say, that your proposition, saying, “God willeth the death of no creature, is manifestly false, as it is repugnant to God’s justice and to his evident Scriptures.
The mind of the Prophet was to stir such as had declined from God, to return unto him by true repentance. And. because their iniquities were so many, and offences so great, that justly they might have despaired of remission, mercy, and grace, therefore doth the Prophet, for the better assurance of those that should repent, affirm, “That God delighteth not, neither willeth the death of the wicked.” But of which wicked? Of him, no doubt, that truly should repent, in his death did not, nor never shall God delight. But he delighteth to be known a God that sheweth mercy, grace, and favour to such as unfeignedly call for the same, how grievous so ever their former offences have been. But such as continue obstinate in their impiety, have no portion of these promises. For them will God kill, them will he destroy, and them will he thrust, by the power of his Word, into the fire which never shall be quenched. The Apostle in these words: “God willeth all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” speaketh not of every man, and of every particular person, but of all men in general, that is to say, of men of all estates, all conditions, all realms, and all ages. For as in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither man nor woman, free man nor servant, but all are one in him, so can no estate, no condition of man, no realm, nor no age, be proved so wicked and so corrupt, but out of the like hath God called some to the participation of his light, and to salvation and life by Christ Jesus; and that this is the very natural meaning of the Holy Ghost, the text itself doth witness. For the Apostle immediately before willeth prayers and supplications to be made for all men, for kings, and for all that were placed in authority.
And because that the Church was chiefly oppressed by such, this doubt might have risen: Are we then bound to pray for those that are express and conjured enemies against God? “You are, (saith the Apostle,) for that is good and acceptable before God our Saviour, who willeth all men to be saved:” that is, God willeth you to pray for your persecutors, that their eyes may be opened, and they converted to the living God; who, no doubt, will save some of all estates, of all conditions and vocations of men. For the nations are given to Christ Jesus by inheritance; Kings shall be the feeders of the Church; Queens shall be nurses; and in his holy Temple shall all sing praise. If this interpretation (which we doubt not to be the very meaning of the Holy Ghost) cannot satisfy you, then will I ask of you, If God will men otherwise to be saved than by Christ Jesus? or, as the Apostle speaketh, by coming to the knowledge of the truth? Plain it is that by the words of the Apostle ye can conclude none otherwise. For as he saith, “God willeth all men to be saved,” so doth he add, “and willeth all men to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Which word “willeth,” albeit it be not expressly repeated in the second member, yet of necessity it must be understood as those that are but meanly versed in the Greek or Latin tongue do evidently see. Then, if I shall sufficiently prove that God willeth not all men to come to the knowledge of the truth, in such sort as the Apostle meaneth, shall it not infallibly follow that God willeth not all men to be saved, in such sense as you understand.
That God willeth not all men to come to the knowledge of that truth, by the which man is verily made free from the bondage of Satan, is evident, not only by those whom we do see walk in darkness and ignorance, but also by the manifest Scriptures of God, who called Abraham, making to him, and to his seed, the promise of salvation, saying, “I will be thy God, and the God of thy seed after thee,” which promise he kept secret many ages from the rest of the world. When he did notify his law unto Israel. and when Moses did repeat the same, he said. “Behold. I have laid before you this day life and death, benediction and execration: choose therefore life, that thou and thy seed may live.” (Deut. 30). If God would that all men and all nations indifferently should come to the same knowledge, why were not the laws, statutes, and judgments of God made manifest to others, as they were to Israel? And if you answer that so they were, the Holy Ghost shall convict you of a lie. For he affirmeth, that God had not done so to all nations, and that his judgments he had not revealed nor made known unto them. But if that plain division made by God himself between Jew and Gentile, during the time of the law, doth not fully satisfy you, hear yet the sentence of our Master Christ Jesus, who saith to his disciples, “To you it is given to understand the secrets of the kingdom, but unto others in parables, that having eyes they should not see. And that most plainly in that his solemn thanksgiving, he saith, “I praise thee, 0 Father, for thou hast hid these things from the prudent, and from the wise, but thou hast revealed them to little ones. If God would have had the true knowledge of himself, and of his Son Christ Jesus, common to all, why should Christ himself affirm, “That to some it was given, and to others it was not given; to some it was revealed, and from others it was hid?” And therefore, seeing it is plain that God will not give his true knowledge to all, (yea, to some he doth never offer it,) ye shall never be able to prove that God willeth all men to be saved. For the only means to attain to salvation and to life, is to know and embrace God to be our merciful Father in Christ Jesus. to which knowledge whosoever doth not attain. (I mean of those that come to the years and age of discretion,) can have no assurance to be saved. This were sufficient to convict you, even in your own conscience. For albeit malice will not suffer you o give place to the plain truth, yet shall the weight thereof so oppress your pride, that when you do open your mouth against it, yet shall ye be witnesses even against yourselves.
But yet, for the cause of my simple brethren, I will add two things: First, How all such places, as either make a general promise of salvation to all, or yet that do pronounce God’s wrath against all, must be understood. Secondarily, What sinners they are whose death God willeth not. For the first, I say, that whosoever doth deny, that from the beginning there hath been, this day are, and to the end shall remain, two armies, bands, or companies of men, whom God in his eternal counsel hath so divided, that between them there continueth a battle, which never shall be reconciled until the Lord Jesus putteth a final end to the miseries of his Church: who doth not understand the truth of this. (I say,) doth neither know God, neither his Son Christ Jesus: neither yet do such believe his Word, in which both the one sort and the other are most manifestly expressed. The one of these armies is called the Church of God; the elect spouse of Christ Jesus; the sheep appointed to slaughter; the kingly priesthood; the sons of God, and the people redeemed: by ancient writers it is termed the City of God. The other is called the Synagogue of Satan; the church malignant; cruel, deceitful, and bloodthirsty wolves; progeny of vipers; sons of the Devil; workers of iniquity; and such as worship the beast and his image. And according to the diverse natures, conditions, and ends of these two companies, doth the Scripture pronounce general sentences and universal propositions, which, notwithstanding, must be restrained to those of whom the Holy Ghost meaneth. For neither justly may those sentences spoken of God’s elect be referred to the reprobate; neither yet such as be spoken of the Reprobate sort be rightly applied to the Elect, except it be for terrifying of their conscience, and that only for a season. As Christ Jesus called Peter Satan, and Nathan called David the son of death, I will adduce examples of the one sort and of the other, that the matter may be more evident.
The Prophet Isaiah (which place also our Master allegeth), speaking of God’s elect children, saith, “They shall all be taught of God; and they shall know me from the least to the greatest.” (Isa. 54; John 6). “I shall pour forth of my spirit on all flesh.” (Joel 2). “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3). ‘The Lord raiseth up all that fall.” (Psalm 145). “All the inhabitants of the earth shall learn justice.” (Isa. 26). “All men shall come out of Sheba.” (Isa. 60). “All thy people shall be just.” (Gal. 3). “I shall comfort all that mourn.” “You be all the sons of God, ye be all the sons of light.” (1 Thess. 5). These, and many more places which be universally spoken, must be restrained to God’s children only who are elected in Christ Jesus. For those that are without his body, are neither taught of God, neither yet know they God in such sort as the Prophet there meaneth. Into them is never poured the Spirit of sanctification. They never give unto God true honour and glory. They neither learn justice, neither yet are they just. They are not the sons of God by adoption, neither yet the sons of light, whose works shine before men to the praise of our heavenly Father; but remain ignorant, profane idolaters, filthy persons, replenished with darkness as the sons of the Devil; and therefore cannot these former sentences, which appertain to God’s children only, be rightly spoken or pronounced of the reprobate. Of the other sort, it is said, “All that see me have mocked me, they put forth their tongues, they shake their heads.” (Psa. 22). These words spake David in the person of Christ; and yet, God forbid, that we should think that all (without exception) did so mock and jest at Christ; no, not even in his greatest extremity. For some, we read, stood beside his cross with sorrowful hearts. Some returned, giving open confession that he was the Son of God. And the thief began to be a preacher, even when others did most despitefully rail. And therefore, where it is said. “All that saw me did mock me.” that generality must be restrained to those enraged dogs. the Priests. Scribes, wicked soldiers, and most unthankful people. who of very malice did deny and crucify their Lord, and Messiah that was promised. Isaiah and Jeremiah, speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, and of the causes of the same, say, “I shall consume you all at once, and ye shall all be ashamed by a people that shall not profit you.” (Isa. 30). “They have all followed their own ways; every man gapeth for bribes.” (Isa. 50) “Why will ye contend with me? ye have all declined from me.” (Jer. 7). “From the least to the most every one is bent upon avarice; they are all traitors;” they are all (I say) traitors, every brother deceiveth another. (Jer. 8). “All men condemn me; all men hold me in execration.” (Jer. 15).
If these, and other like places, shall be understood so universally as they appear to be spoken, then must we be compelled to say that no true fearer of God remained in Jerusalem when the Prophets did preach, but that all were bloodthirsty, all avaricious, all idolaters, and all dumb dogs: the contrary whereof is evidently declared. For Isaiah had the children whom the Lord had given unto him, who albeit they were holden as monsters among men, yet did they patiently abide the Lord. Jeremiah had Baruch, his faithful scribe, notwithstanding his weakness and infirmity. Abedmelech feared the Lord, was favourable to the Prophet. and therefore saved he his soul for a prayer, and was delivered from that day of vengeance. And therefore these universal sentences must also be restrained and kept within their own bounds, like as these: “All have left me; all seek the things that appertain unto themselves, and not those things that be of God.” (2 Tim. 4). Which sentences, except they be restrained, we shall condemn the dearest children of God, who, in Paul’s days, did valiantly fight against the prince of this world. These examples of the one sort and of the other I have adduced, to let the simple understand that such general sentences of necessity must be so restrained, that difference may be kept between the elect and the reprobate; for else we shall do nothing in explaining Scriptures but confound light with darkness. For if the words of our Master Christ Jesus, saying, “All shall be taught of God,” shall be so generally understood, that no exception be admitted, then of necessity it is that all men, and every person, shall come to the true knowledge of Christ Jesus; for of that knowledge doth he speak in that place. But the contrary thereof is most evident, even by Christ Jesus’s own words, who putteth a plain difference between them that are given to him by his Father, and between them that are not given.
But now, let us briefly consider what sinners they are whose death God willeth not, but rather that they convert and live. Saint John, in his Epistle saith. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to remit to us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” etc. (1 John 1). And after, “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law, for sin is the transgression of the law. And ye know that he is revealed to take away our sins, and in him is no sin. As many as bide in him (that is, in Christ Jesus) sin not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither hath known him,” etc. “He that committeth sin is of the devil, for the devil sinneth from the beginning,” etc. “Whosoever is born of God committeth not sin, for his seed abideth in him; neither can he sin, because he is born of God.” (l John 3).
Of which words it is evident that there be two sorts of sinners, the one be they who mourn, lament, and bewail their own wretchedness and misery, unfeignedly before God, confessing not only that their whole nature is sinful and corrupt, but also that daily they so offend the Majesty of their God, that most justly they deserve the torments of hell, if Christ’s justice, and Christ’s mediation, (which by faith they embrace,) should not deliver them from the wrath to come. To these is not sin imputed, for the blood of Christ purgeth them from all sin, his advocation and intercession maketh to them an entrance to the throne of their Father’s grace. To them is given the Spirit of sanctification, which, from time to time, as it revealeth their sins. so doth it mortify and purge the same. Not that ever in this life God’s elect hath been, are, or shall be so cleanly purged from sin, that the flesh lusteth not against the spirit; as sometimes affirmed the Pelagians, and those that then were called Cathari¹, that is, cleanly purged; and now also do the Anabaptists renew the same most pestilent error, by the which Christ Jesus, his justice, his office, and perpetual mediation, is utterly destroyed. In such sort, I say, are not God’s children purged in this life, that neither they feel sin, neither yet the motions and enticements of the same. But they are so purged, that sin reigneth not in their mortal bodies. For the seed of God, which is the virtue, power, efficacy, and operation of his Holy Spirit, suffereth them not to delight in sin. But as they are first called from darkness to light, and from the bondage of Satan to the liberty of God’s children, so when they sin, (as there is none that sinneth not,) they are called again by true repentance to their former society and fellowship with Christ Jesus. The death of such sinners did God never will; neither yet can he will. For from all eternity they were his elect children, whom he gave to his dear Son to be his inheritance; whom the Son received into his protection and safeguard; to whom he hath manifested, and to the end shall manifest himself, and the loving kindness of his heavenly Father; in whose hearts he writeth the law of God, and maketh them to walk in his commandments, ever thirsting to a further and more perfect justice than they find within themselves by reason of their corruption. The death, I say, of those sinners God willeth not, but he willeth that they repent and live. The Apostle Saint Peter saith. “The Lord that bath promised is not slow: but he is long-suffering toward us. while that he will none to perish, but will receive all to repentance.” (2Pet. 3). The Apostle here meaneth not that all, without exception, shall be received to life by true repentance, but that the cause why God so long deferreth (as it were) the extreme judgment, is, that the elect number of God’s children may be complete, (as answer was given to those that cried under the altar, to be revenged upon the tyrants that dwell on the earth,) of these his elect children God willeth none to perish, as before is said.
But there is another sort of sinners, far different from these. For neither are they displeased with themselves, neither yet hate they iniquity, but against God’s express commandments furiously they run, with Cain to murder the innocent, with Pharaoh to oppress the people of God, with Judas to betray the known and professed Truth; and, finally, do delight they in all filthiness and impiety, that they cannot repent. The eyes of such are blinded, their hearts are hardened, they are given over unto a reprobate mind. And for them doth not Christ Jesus pray, and therefore they can do nothing but headlong run from evil to worse, as the devil (to whose tyranny they are committed) doth drive them, till finally they come to perdition; which end was appointed unto them, not against God’s will, but by his will immutable in his eternal counsel. For no less willeth he that the severity of his judgments are seen in the vessels of wrath, than that the riches of his grace be praised in the vessels of mercy. Storm and rage, spue forth your venom and blaspheme, till ye provoke God’s vengeance at once to be poured forth upon your own heads: this sentence will he never retract. He will have mercy upon whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he maketh hard-hearted. That God in himself hath but one will, which is holy, just, and permanent, that in him there is no contrariety; that he is faithful, and doth perform whatsoever he doth promise. What we understand by God’s secret will, and how he tempteth no man, I have before sufficiently declared. And therefore I will not trouble the reader with the repetition of the same.
Now, let us hear what is your judgment of us, and how ye extol yourselves.
¹ The Cathari (or Puritans) of the third century, were a branch of the Novatians. They rebaptised their proselytes, but refused to admit apostates, or persons guilty of heinous crimes, into the Church, which, they maintained, had no power to pardon them. Hence, some of those who apostasised during the heats of persecution returned, through despair, to Paganism. During the eleventh century, the Paulicians, who were reckoned a branch of the Manicheans, migrated to Italy, and were called Paterini and Cattari The name was also applied to the Albigenses.