A Commentary upon the Eleventh Chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews
By William Perkins
ŇNow faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.Ó Hebrews 11:1.
Concerning faith, two points are necessary to be known of every Christian: the doctrine and the practice of it. The whole doctrine of faith (being grounded and gathered out of the Word of God) is comprised in the Creed, commonly called the ApostlesŐ Creed, which being already by us expounded, it followeth in order (next after the doctrine) to lay down also the practice of faith: for which purpose we have chosen this eleventh chapter to the Hebrews as being a portion of scripture wherein the said practice of faith is most excellently and at large set down.
This chapter depends on the former thus: We may read in the former chapter that many Jews, having received the faith and given their names to Christ, did afterward fall away; therefore towards the end of the chapter there is added a notable exhortation tending to persuade the Hebrews to persevere in faith unto the end, as also to suffer patiently whatever shall befall them in the profession of it. And to urge the exhortation, there are divers reasons, not needful to be alleged, for they concern not the present purpose.
Now, in this chapter, he continues the same exhortation; and the whole chapter (as I take it) is nothing else in substance but one reason to urge the former exhortation to perseverance in faith; and the reason is drawn from the excellency of faith: for this chapter doth divers ways set down what an excellent gift of God faith is. His whole scope therefore is manifest to be nothing else but to urge them to persevere and continue in that faith, proved at large to be so excellent a thing; and indeed he could not bring a better argument to move them to love and hold fast their faith, than by persuading them of the excellency of it. For common reason bids us not only choose, but hold fast that that is excellent.
Out of this coherence, we may learn, in a word, that perseverance in faith is a matter not of ordinary necessity, nor of mean excellency, to the urging whereof the author of this epistle useth so large and so forcible an exhortation insomuch as, whereas ordinary exhortations occupy the room of one or some few verses, this is continued through divers chapters.
The parts of this whole chapter are two:
1. A general description of faith, vv. 1-4.
2. An illustration or declaration of that description, by a large rehearsal of manifold examples of ancient and worthy men in the Old Testament, vv. 4 to the end.
Of these two in order:
The description of faith consists of three actions or effects of faith, set down in three several verses:
The first effect in the first verse. Faith makes things which are not (but only are hoped for) after a sort to subsist and to be present with the believer.
The second is in the second verse. Faith makes a believer approved of God.
The third in the third verse. Faith makes a man understand and believe things incredible to sense and reason.
Of these in order.
Now faith is the ground of things which are hoped for: and the evidence of things which are not seen.
This first verse contains the first effect in the description of faith, wherein first let us see the true meaning of the words; secondly, what instructions they do naturally yield unto us.
I. For the meaning, we must examine the words severally.
Faith in the Word of God is specially of three sorts: Historical, miraculous, and justifying or saving faith.
1. Historical faith is not only a knowledge of the Word, but an assent of the heart to the truth of it; and this faith is general not only to all men, good and bad, but even to the devils themselves, James 2:19, Thou believest there is one God, thou doest well: the devils also believe it, and tremble. Now he that will believe out of the scripture there is one God, he will believe historically anything in the scripture.
2. Miraculous, or the faith of miracles, which is an inward persuasion of the heart, wrought by some special instinct of the Holy Ghost in some man, whereby he is truly persuaded that God will use him as his instrument for the workingof some miracles: this also is general, both to elect and reprobate. Judas had it with the rest of the Apostles.
3. Saving (commonly called justifying) faith, which is special persuasion wrought by the Holy Ghost in the heart of those that are effectually called, concerning their reconciliation and salvation by Christ.
Of these three sorts of faith, the third is principally meant in this place. And although in the description, and over all the chapter, there are some things that agree to other faith than it, yet I say the general scope in this chapter is principally of that faith that saves a man. It becomes us therefore to learn carefully the instructions that concern the practice of this faith, for it is no less than saving faith.
Secondly, it is said that this faith is the ground, or substance, for the Word signifies both.
The meaning is that things hoped for, as yet are not, and so have no being nor substance. Now faith that believes the promises and applieth them; that faith gives to those things which yet are not (after a sort) a substance or subsistence in the heart of the believer; so that that thing which never had, nor yet hath a being in itself, by this faith hath a being in the heart of the believer; this I take to be the true meaning.
Thirdly, it followeth of what things this faith is the ground or substance, namely, of things hoped for, or, and things not seen. And these be of two sorts: either in regard of the fathers of the Old Testament alone, or of them and us both.
Of the first sort were these two: 1. The incarnation of Christ. 2. The publishing of the gospel, both to Jew and Gentile in a glorious manner: both these were hoped for of them, but we have seen them. To them they had a being only in faith, to us a being in themselves.
Now unto the fathers of the Old Testament, their faith gave these two things a being in their hearts and souls, though they came not to pass many hundred years after.
There are other things which we hope for as well as they, which are to come, and not seen in respect of us both; and they be six:
1. Justification, standing in the remission of sins.
2. Sanctification in this life.
3. The perfection and accomplishment of our sanctification after this life.
4. The Resurrection of the body, and reuniting it with the soul.
5. Glorification of body and soul.
6. Life everlasting, and glory with God in heaven.
These they saw not with the eye of the body, neither do we; yet they hoped for them, and so do we. They had no being in themselves to them, neither have they as yet to us; but this true saving faith gave to them, gives to us, and will give to every believer, whilst the world lasteth, such a certain assurance of them that they seem present unto us, and we seem presently to enjoy them. We cannot enjoy any of them fully, but saving faith hath this power to give them all a present being in our hearts, and us such a real possession of them as greatly delighteth a Christian soul, insomuch as the feeling of the sweetness of this glory, though it be to come, overwhelmeth the feeling of a worldly misery, though it be present.
Fourthly, it is added, And the evidence.
This word signifieth and teacheth us two things concerning faith:
1. Faith is an evidence, that is, faith so convinces the mind, understanding and judgment as that is cannot but must needs, yea, it compelleth it by force of reasons unanswerable, to believe the promises of God certainly.
2. It is an evidence, that is, whereas life everlasting and all other things hoped for are invisible, and were never seen of any believer since the world began, this saving faith hath this power and property: to take that thing in itself invisible and never yet seen, and so lively to represent it to the heart of the believer, and to the eye of his mind, as that after a sort he presently seeth and enjoyeth that invisible thing and rejoiceth in that sight and enjoying of it; and so the judgment is not only convinced that such a thing shall come to pass, though it be yet to come, but the mind (as far as GodŐs Word hath revealed, and is able) conceives of that thing as being really present to the view of it.
Let one example serve for all: Life everlasting is a thing hoped for. Now faith, not only by infallible arguments grounded upon the Word and promise of God, convinceth a manŐs judgment that it shall come to pass (insomuch as he dare say that he knoweth certainly there is life everlasting as that he liveth and moveth), but this faith also (as much as GodŐs Word hath revealed, and as far forth as the mind of man is able to conceive of it) so representeth this life everlasting to the eye of the soul as that the soul doth seem to apprehend and enjoy this life everlasting; yea, and often in such measure as that he condemneth the world, and all the present felicity of it, in comparison of that measure of the joys thereof, which faith representeth to his soul; and thus faith makes that present which is absent, and makes that manifest and visible which in itself is invisible – invisible to the eyes of the body, it makes visible to the eye of the soul; the sight of which eye is both given and continued, and daily sharpened by saving faith. And thus faith is a most excellent evidence of things not seen. So then, the whole sum of this first effect is briefly thus much: whereas things to be believed, as perfection of sanctification, resurrection, glorification etc. are not yet seen, neither can be, in that they are not yet come to pass; yet if a man have grace certainly to believe the promises of God, these things shall have a being to his soul, in that both his judgment knoweth assuredly they shall come to pass, and his soul in most lively and joyful representations seemeth to enjoy them.
Hitherto the meaning of the first effect.
II. Now in the second place, let us see what instructions this first effect thus unfolded doth minister to us.
First, whereas faith gives a substance and being to things that are not, we learn that the fathers in the Old Testament that lived before the incarnation of Christ, were truly partakers of the body and blood of Christ.
If any allege that this is strange, considering that Christ had then no body and blood, neither had He any until the Incarnation; and how then could they receive that which then was not?
I grant it is true that they then had no being, and yet the father received them. But how can this be? I answer, by the wonderful power of saving faith, which makes things that are not in nature, to have in some sort a being and subsistence: and so was Christ (though He was to come) present to the believers of the old time. For, Rev. 13:8, Christ is a lamb slain from the beginning of the world: that is, slain as well then as now: and that not only in the counsel and decree of God whereby He is born and slain in all times and places; not only in regard of the eternal power, efficacy an merit of His death; but also even in respect of the heart of the believer, whose faith makes that that is locally absent, after a sort truly and really present; even so also is Christ a Lamb slain from the beginning of the world.
See a plain demonstration hereof in John 8:56, Abraham saw me (saith Christ) and rejoiced. How could this be, when as Christ was not born of a thousand years after? Answer: This could not be in reason , but it was indeed to AbrahamŐs faith whereby he saw Christ more lively and more to his joy and consolation so many hundred years after he was than many that lived in ChristŐs time, and saw Him, and heard Him, and conversed with Him; for they living with Him, yet were as good as absent from Him because they believed not in Him. And Abraham, though Christ was so far from him, yet by his faith was present with him. Again, 1 Cor. 10:3, the ancient, believing Israelites ate the same spiritual bread, and drank the same spiritual rock, and that rock was Christ. How could they eat and drink Christ so long before He was? I answer, they did it by reason of that wonderful power of faith, which makes a thing absent present to the believer. By that faith they received Christ, as lively, as effectually, as much to their profit and comfort, as we do since His coming.
If any man ask, how could their faith apprehend that that then was not? I answer, by giving them interest and title to it; and so the fathers are said by faith to have received Christ because their faith gave them right and title in Christ, and in their hearts they felt the efficacy of His death and resurrection, whereby they died to sin and were renewed in holiness, as well as we are now by the same efficacy.
Secondly, whereas faith makes things absent present:
Here they are confuted that teach that the LordŐs Supper is no Sacrament unless the bread and wine be either truly turned into the body and blood of Christ, or at least be they be in or about the bread; and that so he is locally present and must locally and substantially be received; and this (say they) is the most comfortable receiving of Christ; for what comfort is it to receive one absent? But these men know not this notable prerogative of true faith: Faith gives being to things which are not, and makes things present which are absent; they therefore that will have Christ locally present, they take this noble prerogative from faith, for here is nothing absent which faith should make present; we need not go in this Sacrament to require a corporal presence: it is sufficient if we have true faith; for that makes Him present much more comfortably than it might be his bodily presence would be unto us.
If any man ask, How can this be? I answer, The faith of the receiver knoweth best; and yet reason can say something in this case: for suppose a man look earnestly upon a star; there are many thousand miles betwixt his eye and the star, yet the star and his eye are so united together as that the star is after a sort present to his eye. So if we regard local distance, we are as far from Christ as earth is from heaven; but if we regard the nature of faith which is to reach itself to Christ, wherever He be, in that regard Christ is present: and why should not this be so? For if the bodily eye, so feeble and weak, can reach so far as to a star, and join it to itself, and so make it present; why should not much more the piercing eye of the soul reach up to Christ, and make Him present to the comfortable feeling of itself?
Thirdly, here we learn how to behave ourselves in a strange temptation whereby God useth to exercise His children. The Lord, after that He hath received His children into His favour, continueth not always to manifest that favour unto them, but oftentimes puts back the feeling of it for a time, then afterward, He may shew it again in more comfortable manner unto them, and that they may afterward more sensibly feel it, and more earnestly love it, and more carefully labour to keep it, when they have it.
Now for the time of this eclipse of the favour of God, He not only darkeneth His love, but makes them also feel such a measure of His wrath as that they will often think themselves castaways from the favour of God. David and Job were often exercised with this temptation, as appeareth by their most lamentable and bitter complaints; yea, David doubts not (Psa. 77:9) to challenge the Lord that He hath forgotten to be gracious, and hath shut up His lovingkindness in displeasure. And Job (Job 15:26) complains to the Lord that He writeth bitter things against him, and makes him to possess the sins of his youth; words, as it may seem, of men forsaken of God; and indeed so for that time they thought of themselves. If it please the Lord thus to deal with us, so as we feel nothing else but His wrath wrestling with our consciences, neither can think otherwise by present feeling, but that God hath forsaken us; what should we do in this pitiful case? Should we despair, as reason would bid us? No, but take this course: Call to mind GodŐs merciful promises, and His ancient former love; and cast thyself upon that love, though thou canst not feel it. When thou hast most cause to despair, then labour against it. When thou hast no reason to believe, then believe with all thy power. For remember the power and prerogative of thy faith: it believes not things that are, and manifestly appear, so much as such things that are not, and have no being. So then, when GodŐs favour seems to be lost, and have no being to thee, then GodŐs favour is a fit object for thy faith, which believes these things that are not. Let all the devils in hell set themselves against thy poor soul, and if thou holdest fast this faith, they cannot all make thee sink under it: for when the devil saith, ŇThou hast lost GodŐs favourÓ; by faith a man answereth, ŇThough GodŐs favour be lost unto my feeling, yet to my faith it is not: my faith gives it a being, and so long (say what thou wilt) I will never fear that it is lost.Ó When God pulls back His favour, and fights against thee with His wrath, do as Jacob did (Gen. 32:27,29), wrestle with God, though thou have but one leg; that is, though thou have but one little spark of faith, fight with that little faith, lay hold by it on God, and let Him not go until He hath blessed thee, in turning again unto thee His favourable countenance; and say with Job (Job 13), even in the very heat of thy temptation, O Lord, though thou kill this body and flesh of mine, yet will I trust in thee for everlasting life: yea, and though GodŐs anger should seem to increase, yet for all that take faster hold and faint not; for faith will never fail thee: it will restore GodŐs love when it seems lost; it will set it before thine eyes when it seems to be hid. For mark well but this one reason: if faith will give life everlasting a being, and make it present to thy soul, which indeed never had being to thee; how much more can it give a being to GodŐs favour and make it present to thy soul, which once had, and indeed hath still a being, and was never lost indeed, but only to a manŐs feeling? Thus, true faith is able to answer this temptation, whether it comes in life or in the pangs of death.
Fourthly, whereas faith is called an evidence, hence we learn that the nature of faith stands not in doubting, but in certainty and assurance. The Romish doubting of the essence of faith is as contrary to true faith as darkness to light: for faith is an evidence of things hoped for, that is, it convinceth the judgment by infallible arguments; knowing as certainly the truth of the promises and for the things hoped for, as that God is God. But Rome will needs join faith and doubting, which indeed fight like fire and water, and can never agree together in every respect, but one will in the end destroy the other.
Objection. But it seemeth doubting is a part or at least a companion of faith, for we doubt as well as believe; and who is so faithful as doubteth not? Answer. We do so, but what then? We should not, for God commands us to believe and not to doubt; therefore to believe, because it is commanded of God, is a virtue; and if it be a virtue, then to doubt is a vice; faith and doubting are both in a good man, but faith is a work of grace and of the Spirit; doubting is a work of the flesh, and a piece of the corruption of the old man.
Fifthly, if faith be a substance of things hoped for, much more is it a substance to the believer: if it gives those things a being which are out of him, much more doth it give a permanent being unto the believer himself, strengthening him to stand and continue in all assaults. So Heb. 7:14 – faith is that whereby a believer is sustained and upheld, so that indeed we may fitly say, Faith is the spiritual substance and the spiritual strength of a Christian man, and according to the measure of his faith, such is the measure of his spiritual strength.
This consideration hath divers comfortable uses, but especially two: 1. When any of us are out of the reach of a temptation, so long are we confident of our own strength: but when we are assaulted by the devil, the world and our own flesh, then we shall find that to resist is an harder matter than we dreamed of; for, as possible as it is for water to burn, or fire to put out itself, so possible is it for us of ourselves to resist sin, insomuch as it is a thousand to one, but that at every assault our nature yields. Now if it be so hard to rule over one sin, how shall we do against that sea of temptations that overwhelm a Christian life? This doctrine teacheth thee how, namely, to stick to thy faith, and it will do for thee: for if it be the substance of things thou hopest for, which yet never were; much more will it yield unto thee spiritual strength and substance to make thee stand in all temptations. When thou art tempted, then call to mind GodŐs promises, believe them, that is, apply them to thyself, and be resolved that they were made, and shall be performed even to thee: then though thou have no more power of thyself than fire hath to cease to burn, yet, whilst thou doest thus, thou shalt feel thy soul spiritually strengthened against all temptations: and feeling the experience of this, deny them thine own strength, and magnify the power that God hath given unto true faith.
Again, though now we are most of us quiet, under our own vines and fig-trees, yet we know not how soon the hand of the Lord may be upon any of us, in poverty, sickness, imprisonment, banishment, losses, famine, or how it pleaseth Him; how shall a poor Christian stand and buckle himself to bear these? I answer, true saving faith, resting on the Word of God, and believing the promises, not formally, but truly, will put such substantial spiritual strength into him, as that at first, though he bow under it, yet shall he be able to recover himself again and buckle himself to go forwarding his profession, and shall follow Christ manfully with this his cross. This wonderful power hath God given to saving faith, both to resist temptations and to undergo all crosses.
And thus much of the first action, or effect, of faith.