The Excellency of Faith

John Owen:

“Herein consists the excellency of faith above all other powers and acts of the soul — that it receives, assents unto, and rests in, things in their own nature absolutely incomprehensible. It is … Heb. xi. 1, — “The evidence of things not seen” — that which makes evident, as by demonstration, those things which are no way objected unto sense, and which reason cannot comprehend.

The more sublime and glorious — the more inaccessible unto sense and reason — the things are which we believe; the more are we changed into the image of God, in the exercise of faith upon them. Hence we find this most glorious effect of faith, or the transformation of the mind into the likeness of God, no less real, evident, and eminent in many, whose rationally comprehensive abilities are weak and contemptible, in the eye of that wisdom which is of this world, than in those of the highest natural sagacity, enjoying the best improvements of reason.

For “God hath chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom:” James ii. 5. However they may be poor, and, as another apostle speaketh, “foolish, weak, base, and despised;” 1 Cor. i. 27, 28; yet that faith which enables them to assent unto and embrace divine mysteries, renders them rich in the sight of God, in that it makes them like unto him.

Some would have all things that we are to believe to be levelled absolutely unto our reason and comprehension — a principle which, at this day, shakes the very foundations of the Christian religion. It is not sufficient, they say, to determine that the faith or knowledge of any thing is necessary unto our obedience and salvation, that it seems to be fully and perspicuously revealed in the Scripture — unless the things so revealed be obvious and comprehensible unto our reason; an apprehension which, as it ariseth from the pride which naturally ensues on the ignorance of God and ourselves, so it is not only an invention suited to debase religion, but an engine to evert the faith of the church in all the principal mysteries of the Gospel — especially of the Trinity and the incarnation of the Son of God. But faith which is truly divine, is never more in its proper exercise — doth never more elevate the soul into conformity unto God — than when it acts in the contemplation and admiration of the most incomprehensible mysteries which are proposed unto it by divine revelation.

Hence things philosophical, and of a deep rational indication (an investigation of an intellectual nature), find great acceptance in the world — as, in their proper place, they do deserve. Men are furnished with proper measures of them, and they find them proportionate unto the principles of their own understandings. But as for spiritual and heavenly mysteries, the thoughts of men for the most part recoil, upon their first proposal, nor will be encouraged to engage in a diligent inquiry into them — yea, commonly reject them as foolish, or at least that wherein they are not concerned. The reason is that given in another case by the apostle: “All men have not faith,” 2 Thess. iii. 2, which makes them absurd and unreasonable in the consideration of the proper objects of it. But where this faith is, the greatness of the mysteries which it embraceth heightens its efficacy, in all its blessed effects, upon the soul. Such is this constitution of the person of Christ, wherein the glory of all the holy properties and perfections of the divine nature is manifested, and doth shine forth. So speaks the apostle, 2 Cor. iii. 18: “Beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, we are changed into the same image, from glory to glory.” This glory which we behold, is the glory of the face of God in Jesus Christ, chap. iv. 6, or the glorious representation which is made of him in the person of Christ, whereof we shall treat afterwards. The glass wherein this glory is represented unto us — proposed unto our view and contemplation — is divine revelation in the gospel. Herein we behold it, by faith alone. And those whose view is steadfast, who most abound in that contemplation by the exercise of faith, are thereby “changed into the same image, from glory to glory” — or are more and more renewed and transformed into the likeness of God, so represented unto them.

That which shall, at last, perfectly effect our utmost conformity to God, and, therein, our eternal blessedness — is vision, or sight. “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is:” 1 John iii. 2. Here faith begins what sight shall perfect hereafter. But yet “we walk by faith, and not by sight:” 2 Cor. v. 7. And although the life of faith and vision differ in degrees — or, as some think, in kind — yet have they both the same object, and the same operations, and there is a great cognation (kinship) between them.

The object of vision is the whole mystery of the divine existence and will; and its operation is a perfect conformity unto God — a likeness unto him — wherein our blessedness shall consist. Faith hath the same object, and the same operations in its degree and measure. The great and incomprehensible mysteries of the Divine Being — of the will and wisdom of God — are its proper objects; and its operation, with respect unto us, is conformity and likeness unto him. And this it doth, in a peculiar manner, in the contemplation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; and herein we have our nearest approaches unto the life of vision, and the effects of it. For therein, “beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, we are changed into the same image, from glory to glory;” which, perfectly to consummate, is the effect of sight in glory. The exercise of faith herein doth more raise and perfect the mind — more dispose it unto holy, heavenly frames and affections — than any other duty whatever.”

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