John Owen’s Commentary on the Old and New Covenants (Outline)

In talking with a number of well read people, I have been surprised how many of them are completely unaware of John Owen’s contribution to covenant theology. I had one person ridicule baptists for rejecting “Reformed orthodoxy” in the Westminster Standards because of our view of covenant theology. He then informed me he would “stick with Witsius, Owen, Petto, and Colquhoun.” This man was completely unaware that John Owen rejected the “Reformed orthodoxy” of the Westminster Standards.

Owen rejected the formulation of the Westminster Confession (one covenant, two administrations) and held that the new and the old were two distinct covenants with two different mediators and everything else that follows. I believe he provides a valuable contribution to current debate over covenant theology and everyone who is interested should read him. However, I also know not everyone has time to read through his 150 pages on Hebrews 8:6-13, so I have created a summary outline of Owen’s argumentation. I created it in a collapsible format to make it easier to follow the progress of his arguments. Hopefully this will interest people in reading Owen, which will hopefully lead to a better understanding of covenant theology for us all.

Please let me know if you see any typos, errors, or poor summaries/misrepresentations of Owen in the outline by commenting on this post below.

Owen on Hebrews 8:6-13 (Collapsible Outline)

Here are a couple of quotes to give you a taste:

The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new… The Lutherans, on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove that there is not a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that there are substantially distinct covenants and that this is intended in this discourse of the apostle…

…Having noted these things, we may consider that the Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant…Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended. We must do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, and with great pretence of reason, for it is the sole foundation of all who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, ’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation is the same under both, then indeed they are the same for the substance of them is but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue of it, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, while they were under the old covenant.

Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace.

This covenant [Sinai] thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. All that lived under the administration of it did attain eternal life, or perished for ever, but not by virtue of this covenant as formally such. It did, indeed, revive the commanding power and sanction of the first covenant of works; and therein, as the apostle speaks, was “the ministry of condemnation,” 2 Cor. iii. 9; for “by the deeds of the law can no flesh be justified.” And on the other hand, it directed also unto the promise, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe. But as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal. Believers were saved under it, but not by virtue of it. Sinners perished eternally under it, but by the curse of the original law of works.

No man was ever saved but by virtue of the new covenant, and the mediation of Christ in that respect…

The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant.

30 thoughts on “John Owen’s Commentary on the Old and New Covenants (Outline)

    1. If you have time John, I would encourage you to work through the outline. Owen’s conclusion rests upon all the points he makes along the way to the conclusion. That being said, the short answer is because:
      1) The covenant with Adam condemned all men, thus a later covenant of works could not offer eternal life to men that are already condemned
      2) As he says above, the Mosaic covenant is only about temporal things, not eternal things. Thus it “condemns” only in the sense that it does so temporally (kicking out land, war, famine, disease, etc)


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  2. Brandon,

    I don’t know if it is just my browser, but the parts of the collapsible outline on verses 7, the beginning of verse 8, and the beginning of verse 9, have a bunch of lines going through the text that makes them hard to read. Just thought you might want to know.

    By the way, I really appreciate your blog and have linked to it at my own blog.



  3. I am using Windows, and I see the problem in both Internet Explorer and Avant Browser (which is my usual browser). However, I just checked and noticed that the problem doesn’t occur when I view the outline in Mozilla Firefox. So, for now I will just use that browser to read the outline.

    If others have the same problem, they may want to do the same thing.


    1. Ok, thanks Keith. I’m on a Mac so I can’t double check on my end. I know I had that problem when I was coding it, but I thought I fixed it. Oh well, glad people have Firefox 😉


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  7. jean-marc alter

    Bril outline- will read thru the section now- great help the outline- the chapter summaries are useful in the other works but dont exist in the Hebrews set so many thanks 🙂
    The Owen summary does give a much more fulfilling and Biblical view of the two covenants- and show that the Mosaic one is to stop every mouth and show the necessity of a Saviour- many thanks the Lord is a Great Saviour


    1. Hey Ryan,

      Language in this discussion is crucial and difficult, so I have to assume what you mean. In so far as I believe the Mosaic Covenant was not the Covenant of Grace, but was a different covenant, I have no problem saying that it was superimposed (if I understand you correctly).


      1. Right. I prefer to say the Mosaic covenant was “superimposed” onto the covenant of grace because I do not want to give the impression that the former is a replacement for the latter.

        Do you see a dual-aspect to the Mosaic covenant? For instance, to individuals, this distinct covenant may, like the covenant of works, express stipulations which, if followed, would merit eternal life. But the fact is, the Mosaic covenant cannot be abstracted from the context in which it was given. That is, it was given to sinful individuals who cannot merit eternal life by following the law, so the law points to the covenant of grace upon which the Mosaic covenant was superimposed. On the other hand, from a corporate viewpoint, Israel was meant to typify [new] Adam. Just as Adam was given a covenant of works which he failed to fulfill and just as new Adam fulfilled the stipulations of the covenant of works (the fruit of which is still being reaped), Israel as a corporate entity was given a qualified covenant of works by which they were able to enter and remain in the promised land. Of course, the corporate viewpoint also has to be kept in the context of the fact each individual Israelite was a sinner, but insofar as Israel was only an analogue for [new] Adam, strict sinlessness of the individuals was not necessary for the point and pattern to be conveyed.

        What do you think? This is what makes the most sense to me.


        1. I think you worded your statement very carefully, so I would agree with it. But to be clear, in my current studies, I don’t believe the Mosaic Covenant offered eternal life. Like Owen, I believe it was limited to only temporal blessings and curses. However, as Owen says, it “revived”/recalled/reminded the command of the original covenant of works. Here is a summary of Owen on this, from the outline:

          Proof that first covenant was not an administration of CoG:
          -It was not for the life and salvation of the church
          Sinai did not and was never intended to abrogate or disannul the Cov of works (in the law of creation), in fact it reinforced that covenant because:
          –“It revived, declared, and expressed all the commands of that covenant in the Decalogue; for that is nothing but a divine summary of the law written in the heart of man at his creation… [and thus] it was called “the ministry of condemnation,” causing fear and bondage, 2 Cor 3:7″
          –“It revived the sanction of the first covenant, in the curse or sentence of death which it denounced against all transgressors.” Deut 27:26
          –It revived the promise of that covenant that of eternal life on perfect obedience. Lev 18:5
          –“Now this is no other but the covenant of works revived. Nor had this covenant of Sinai any promise of eternal life annexed to it, as such, but only the promise inseparable from the covenant of works which it revived, saying, “Do this, and live… Therefore it is, that when our apostle disputes against justification by the law, or by works of the law, he does not intend the works peculiar to the covenant of Sinai, such as were the rites and ceremonies of the worship then instituted; but he intends also the works of the first covenant, which alone had the promise of life annexed to them.”

          (Here is an essay on Owen & the Decalogue )

          And yes, I agree with you in regards to the corporate nature of the Mosaic Covenant and Israel’s role as a type. A. W. Pink has some very helpful comments in regards to the corporate/individual interplay you laid out:

          Admittedly, it can get a little hairy trying to sort out the faith/works element in the Mosaic Covenant (Patrick Ramsey has some good objections to Horton, etc). But for me, the NT interpretation of Lev 18:5 overrules any confusion, and therefore I see the Mosaic operating on a works principle. (Ramsey’s “Paul’s Use of Lev. 18:5 in Rom. 10:5” does a good job of summarizing the objection to such a view, but I don’t agree with him )

          (see also Jonathan Edwards on Israel as a type of the church )


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