The following is an excerpt from John Owen’s The Glory of Christ. John Owen sheds great light on the theological and practical implications of the second commandment in the midst of a chapter explaining the difference between faith and sight.
Crucifixes, Images, and Paintings: An Imaginary Christ
I cannot refrain here from a necessary short digression. This transforming efficacy, from a spiritual view of Christ as proposed in the Gospel, being lost, as to an experience of it, in the minds of men carnal and ignorant of the mystery of believing (as it is at present by many derided, though it be the life of religion), fancy and superstition provided various supplies in the room of it. For they found out crucifixes and images with paintings to represent him in his sufferings and glory. By these things, their carnal affections being excited by their outward senses, they suppose themselves to be affected with him, and to be like him. Yea, some have proceeded so far as, either by arts diabolical, or by other means, to make an appearance of wounds on their hands, and feet, and sides; yea, to be wholly transformed into his image. But that which is produced by an image is but an image. An imaginary Christ will effect nothing in the minds of men but imaginary grace.
Thus religion was lost, and died. When men could not obtain any experience in their minds of the spiritual mysteries of the gospel, nor be sensible of any spiritual change or advantage by them, they substituted some outward duties and observances in their stead; as I shall show, God willing, elsewhere more at large. These produced some kind of effects on their minds and affections, but quite of another nature than those which are the real effects of true evangelical grace. This is openly evident in this substitution of images instead of the representation of Christ and his glory in the gospel.
However, there is a general supposition granted on all hands, namely that there must be a view of Christ and his glory, to cause us to love him, and thereby to make us conformable or like him. But here lies the difference: those of the church of Rome say that this must be done by the beholding of crucifixes, with other images and pictures of him; and that with our bodily eyes: we say it is by our beholding his glory by faith, as revealed in the Gospel, and no otherwise. And, to confess the truth, we have some who, as they reject the use of images, so they despise that spiritual view of the glory of Christ which we inquire after. Such persons on the first occasion will fall on the other side; for anything is better than nothing.
But, as we have a sure word of prophecy to secure us from these abominations, by an express prohibition of such images to all ends whatever; so, to our stability in the profession of the truth, an experience of the efficacy of this spiritual view of Christ transforming our souls into his own likeness, is absolutely necessary. For if an idolater should plead, as they do all, that in the beholding of the image of Christ, or of a crucifix, especially if they are sedulous and constant in it, they find their affections to him greatly excited, increased, and inflamed (as they will be (Isa. 57:5)); and that upon this he endeavours to be like him; what shall we have to oppose that? For it is certain that such images are apt to make impressions on the minds of men; partly from the readiness of the senses and imagination to give them admittance into their thoughts; and partly from the natural inclinations to superstition, their aversion from things spiritual and invisible, with an inclination to things present and visible. Hence among them who are satisfied that they ought not to be adored with any religious veneration, yet some are apt, upon the sight of them, to entertain a thoughtful reverence, as they would do if they were to enter a Pagan temple full of idols; and others are continually making approaches towards their use and veneration, paintings, and altars, and such outward postures of worship as are used in the religious service of them. But that they do sensibly affect the minds of men carnal and superstitious, cannot be denied; and as they suppose, it is with love to Christ himself. However, certain it is in general, and confessed on all hands, that the beholding of Christ is the most blessed means of exciting all our graces, spiritualizing all our affections, and transforming our minds into his likeness. And if we have not another, and that a more excellent way of beholding him, than they have who behold him, as they suppose, in images and crucifixes, they would seem to have the advantage of us; for their minds will really be affected with somewhat, ours with nothing at all. And by the pretence thereof, they inveigle the carnal affections of men ignorant of the power of the gospel, to become their proselytes. For having lived, it may be, a long time without any the least experience of sensible impression on their minds, or a transforming power from the representation of Christ in the gospel, upon their very first religious, devout application to these images, they find their thoughts exercised, their minds affected, and some present change made upon them.
But there was a difference between the person of David and an image with a bolster of goat’s hair, though the one were laid in the room and place of the other; and there is so between Christ and an image, though the one be put into the place of the other. Neither do these things serve to any other end, but to divert the minds of men from faith and love to Christ; giving them some such satisfactions in the room of them, as that their carnal affections do cleave to their idols. And indeed it belongs to the wisdom of faith, or we stand in need of spiritual light, to discern and judge between the working of natural affections towards spiritual objects, on undue motives by undue means with indirect ends, of which all Papal devotion consists, and the spiritual exercise of grace in those affections duly fixed on spiritual objects.
But, as was said, it is a real experience of the efficacy that there is in the spiritual beholding of the glory of Christ by faith, as proposed in the Gospel, to strengthen, increase, and excite all grace to its proper exercise, so changing and transforming the soul gradually into his likeness, which must secure us against all those pretences; and so I return from this digression.