The Oneness of the Church – John Owen

Below is an essay from John Owen found in his introduction to his commentary on the book of Hebrews. I’m posting it here for simple reference as I cannot find it anywhere else online as a single, separate article. The text is copied from

Note that Owen argues against the idea that the nation of Israel was the church. Instead, he argues that the church in the Old Testament was the elect remnant within the nation of Israel. He says there were two offspring of Abraham: physical and spiritual. And there were two types of promises made to Abraham to correspond to these offspring: physical/temporal and spiritual/eternal. And these two types of promises were both covenantal promises. They were both parts of the Abrahamic Covenant. Thus the Abrahamic Covenant is both carnal and spiritual. It existed in a mixed state until the coming of Christ, but it has now been separated. Owen’s essay on the Oneness of the Church should be read in light of the following comment he makes later in his commentary:

When we speak of the “new covenant,” we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely, as though it were not before in existence and effect, before the introduction of that which is promised here. For it was always the same, substantially, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and effectiveness, unalterable, “everlasting, ordered in all things, and sure.” All who contend about these things, the Socinians only excepted, grant that the covenant of grace, considered absolutely, — that is, the promise of grace in and by Jesus Christ, —was the only way and means of salvation to the church, from the first entrance of sin.

But for two reasons, it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect to any other things, nor was it called a covenant under the old testament. When God renewed the promise of it to Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but this covenant with Abraham was with respect to other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely, under the old testament, the covenant of grace consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture,

Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:6


1. Oneness of the church — Mistake of the Jews about the nature of the promises.
2. Promise of the Messiah the foundation of the church; but as including the covenant.
3. The church confined unto the person and posterity of Abraham — His call and separation for a double end.
4. Who properly the seed of Abraham.
5. Mistake of the Jews about the covenant.
6. Abraham the father of the faithful and heir of the world, on what account.
7. The church still the same.

1. THE Jews at the time of writing this Epistle (and their posterity in all succeeding generations follow their example and tradition) were not a little confirmed in their obstinacy and unbelief by a misapprehension of the true sense and nature of the promises of the Old Testament; for whereas they found many glorious promises made unto the church in the days of the Messiah, especially concerning the great access of the Gentiles unto it, they looked upon themselves, the posterity of Abraham, on the account of their being his children according to the flesh, as the first, proper, and indeed only subject of them; unto whom, in their accomplishment, others were to be proselyted and joined, the substance and foundation of the church remaining still with them. But the event answered not their expectation. Instead of inheriting all the promises merely upon their carnal interest and privilege, — which they looked for, and continue so to do unto this day, — they found that themselves must come in on a new account, to be sharers in them in common with others, or be rejected whilst those others were admitted unto the inheritance. This filled them with wrath and envy; which greatly to the strengthening of their unbelief.

They could not bear with patience an intimation of letting out the vineyard to other husbandmen. With this principle and prejudice of theirs the apostle dealt directly in his Epistle to the Romans, chap. 9-11.

On the same grounds he proceedeth with them in this Epistle; and because his answer to their objection from the promises lies at the foundation of many of his reasonings with them, the nature of it must be here previously explained. Not that I shall here enter into a consideration of the Jews argument to prove the Messiah not yet to be come, because the promises in their sense of them are not yet accomplished, which shall be fully removed in the close of these discourses; but only, as I said, open the nature in general of that answer which our apostle returns unto them, and builds his reasonings with them upon.

2. We shall have occasion afterwards at large to show how, after the entrance of sin, God founded his church in the promise of the Messiah given unto Adam. Now, though that promise was the supportment and encouragement of mankind to seek the Lord, — a promise, absolutely considered, proceeding from mere grace and mercy, — yet, as it was the foundation of the church, it included in it the nature of a covenant, virtually requiring a restipulation unto obedience in them who by faith come to have an interest therein. And this the nature of the thing itself required; for the promise was given unto this end and purpose, that men might have a new bottom and foundation of obedience, that of the first covenant being disannulled. Hence, in the following explications of the promise, this condition of obedience is expressly added. So upon its renewal unto Abraham, God required that he should “walk before him, and be upright.” This promise, then, as it hath the nature of a covenant, including the grace that God would show unto sinners in the Messiah, and the obedience that he required from them, was, from the first giving of it, the foundation of the church, and the whole worship of God therein.

Unto this church, so founded and built on this covenant, and by the means thereof on the redeeming mediatory Seed promised therein, were all the following promises and the privileges exhibited in them given and annexed.

Neither hath, or ever had, any individual person any spiritual right unto, or interest in, any of those promises or privileges, whatever his outward condition were, but only by virtue of his membership in the church built on the covenant, whereunto, as we said, they do all appertain. On this account the church before the days of Abraham, though scattered up and down in the world, and subject unto many changes in its worship by the addition of new revelations, was still but one and the same, because founded in the same covenant, and interested thereby in all the benefits or privileges that God had given or granted, or would do so at any time, unto his church.

3. In process of time, God was pleased to confine this church, as unto the ordinary visible dispensation of his grace, unto the person and posterity of Abraham. Upon this restriction of the church covenant and promise, the Jews of old managed a plea in their own justification against the doctrine of the Lord Christ and his apostles. “We are the children, the seed of Abraham,” was their continual cry; on the account whereof they presumed that all the promises belonged unto them, and upon the matter unto them alone. And this their persuasion hath cast them, as we shall see, upon a woful and fatal mistake. Two privileges did God grant unto Abraham, upon his separation to a special interest in the old promise and covenant: —

First, That according to the flesh he should be the father of the Messiah, the promised seed; who was the very life of the covenant, the fountain and cause of all the blessings contained in it. That this privilege was temporary, having a limited season, time, and end, appointed unto it, the very nature of the thing itself doth demonstrate; for upon this actual exhibition in the flesh, it was to cease. In pursuit hereof were his posterity separated from the rest of the world, and preserved a peculiar people, that through them the promised Seed might be brought forth in the fullness of time, and be of them according unto the flesh, Romans 9:5.

Secondly, Together with this, he had also another privilege granted unto him, namely, that his faith, whereby he was personally interested in the covenant, should be the pattern of the faith of the church in all generations; and that none should ever come to be a member of it, or a sharer in its blessings, but by the same faith that he had fixed on the Seed that was in the promise, to be brought forth from him into the world. On the account of this privilege, he became the father of all them that do believe: for “they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham,” Galatians 3:7, Romans 4:11: as also “heir of the world,” Romans 4:13, in that all that should believe throughout the world, being thereby implanted into the covenant made with him, should become his “spiritual children.”

4. Answerably unto this twofold end of the separation of Abraham, there was a double seed allotted unto him; — a seed according to the flesh, separated to the bringing forth of the Messiah according unto the flesh; and a seed according to the promise, that is, such as by faith should have interest in the promise, or all the elect of God. Not that these two seeds were always subjectively diverse, so that the seed separated to the bringing forth of the Messiah in the flesh should neither in whole nor in part be also the seed according to the promise; or, on the contrary, that the seed according to the promise should none of it be his seed after the flesh. Our apostle the contrary in the instances of Isaac and Jacob, with the “remnant” of Israel that shall be saved, Romans 9,10,11. But sometimes the same seed came under diverse considerations, being the seed of Abraham both according to the flesh and according to the promise; and sometimes the seed itself was diverse, those according to the flesh being not of the promise, and so on the contrary. Thus Isaac and Jacob were the seed of Abraham according unto the flesh, separated unto the brining forth of the Messiah after the flesh, because they were his carnal posterity; and they were also of the seed of the promise, because, by their own personal faith, they were interested in the covenant of Abraham their father.

Multitudes afterwards were of the carnal seed of Abraham, and of the number of the people separated to bring forth the Messiah in the flesh, and yet were not of the seed according to the promise, nor interested in the spiritual blessings of the covenant; because they did not personally believe, as our apostle declares, chap. 4 of this epistle. And many, afterwards, who were not of the carnal seed of Abraham, nor interested in the privilege of bringing forth the Messiah in the flesh, were yet designed to be made his spiritual seed by faith; that in them he might become “heir of the world,” and all nations of the earth be blessed in him. Now, it is evident that it is the second privilege, or spiritual seed, wherein the church, to whom the promises are made, is founded, and whereof it doth consist, — namely, in them who by faith are interested in the covenant of Abraham, whether they be of the carnal seed or no.

5. And herein lay the great mistake of the Jews of old, wherein they are followed by their posterity unto this day. They thought no more was needful to interest them in the covenant of Abraham but that they were his seed according to the flesh; and they constantly pleaded the latter privilege as the ground and reason of the former. It is true, they were the children of Abraham according to the flesh: but on that account they can have no other privilege than Abraham had in the flesh himself; and this was, as we have showed, that he should he set apart as a special channel, through whose loins God would derive the promised Seed into the world. In like manner were they separated to be a peculiar people, as his posterity, from amongst whom He should be so brought forth.

That this separation and privilege was to cease when the end of it was accomplished and the Messiah exhibited, the very nature of the thing declares; for to what purpose should it be continued when that was fully effected whereunto it was designed? But they would extend this privilege, and mix it with the other, contending that, because they were the children of Abraham according to the flesh, the whole blessing and covenant of Abraham belonged unto them. But as our Savior proved that in the latter sense they were the children of Abraham, because they did not the works of Abraham; so our apostle plainly demonstrates, Romans 4:9. 10. 11. Galatians 3:4., that those of them who had not the faith of Abraham had no interest in his blessing and covenant. Seeing, therefore, that their other privilege was come to an end, with all the carnal ordinances that attended it, by the actual coming of the Messiah, whereunto they were subservient, if they did not, by faith in the promised seed, attain an interest in this of the spiritual blessing, it is evident that they could on no account be considered as actual sharers in the covenant of God.

6. We have seen that Abraham, on the account of his faith, and not of his separation according to the flesh, was the father of all that believe, and heir of the world. And in the covenant made with him, as to that which concerns, not the bringing forth of the promised Seed according to the flesh, but as unto faith therein, and in the work of redemption to be performed thereby, lies the foundation of the church in all ages.

Wheresoever this covenant is, and with whomsoever it is established, with them is the church; unto whom all the promises and privileges of the church do belong. Hence it was, that at the coming of the Messiah there was not one church taken away, and another set up in the room thereof; but the church continued the same, in those that were the children of Abraham according to the faith. The Christian church is not another church, but the very same that was before the coming of Christ, having the same faith with it, and interested in the same covenant.

It is true, the former carnal privilege of Abraham and his posterity expiring, on the grounds before mentioned, the ordinances of worship which were suited thereunto did necessarily cease also. And this cast the Jews into great perplexities, and proved the last trial that God made of them; for whereas both these, — namely, the carnal and spiritual privileges of Abraham’s covenant, — had been carried on together in a mixed way for many generations, coming now to be separated, and a trial to be made (Malachi 3) who of the Jews had interest in both, who in one only, those who had only the carnal privilege, of being children of Abraham according to the flesh, contended for a share on that single account in the other also, — that is, in all the promises annexed unto the covenant. But the foundation of their plea was taken away, and the church, unto which the promises belong, remained with them that were heirs of Abraham’s faith only.

7. It remains, then, that the church founded in the covenant, and unto which all the promises did and do belong, abode at the coming of Christ, and doth abide ever since, in and among those who are the children of Abraham by faith. The old church was not taken away, and a new one set up, but the same church was continued, only in those who by faith inherited the promises. Great alterations, indeed, were then made in the outward state and condition of the church; as, —
(1.) The carnal privilege of the Jews, in their separation to bring forth the Messiah, then failed; and therewith their claim on that account to be the children of Abraham.
(2.) The ordinances of worship suited unto that privilege expired and came to an end.
(3.) New ordinances of worship were appointed, suited unto the new light and grace then granted unto the church.
(4.) The Gentiles came in to the faith of Abraham together with the Jews, to be fellow-heirs with them in his blessing. But none of these, nor all of them together, made any such alteration in the church but that it was still one and the same. The olive-tree was the same, only some branches were broken off, and others planted in; the Jews fell, and the Gentiles came in their room.

And this doth and must determine the difference between the Jews and Christians about the promises of the Old Testament. They are all made unto the church. No individual person hath any interest in them but by virtue of his membership therewith. This church is, and always was, one and the same. With whomsoever it remains, the promises are theirs; and that not by implication or analogy, but directly and properly. They belong as immediately, at this day, either to the Jews or Christians, as they did of old to any. The question is, With whom is this church, founded on the promised Seed in the covenant? This is Zion, Jerusalem, Israel, Jacob, the temple of God. The Jews plead that it is with them, because they are the children of Abraham according to the flesh. Christians tell them that their privilege on this account was of another nature, and ended with the coming of the Messiah; that the church unto whom all the promises belong are only those who are heirs of Abraham’s faith, believing as he did, and thereby interested in his covenant. Not as though the promise made to Abraham were of none effect; for as it was made good unto his carnal seed in the exhibition of the Messiah, so the spiritual privileges of it belonged only unto those of the Jews and Gentiles in whom God had graciously purposed to effect the faith of Abraham. Thus was and is the church, whereunto all the promises belong, still one and the same, namely, Abraham’s children according to the faith: and among those promises this is one, that God will be a God unto them and their seed for ever.


P.S. The following quote should also be taken into consideration

Obs. II. It is of great concernment unto us what covenant we do belong unto, as being esteemed to do therein what is done by our representative in our name. — There were never absolutely any more than two covenants; wherein all persons indefinitely are concerned.

The first was the covenant of works, made with Adam, and with all in him. And what he did as the head of that covenant, as our representative therein, is imputed unto us, as if we had done it, Romans 5:12. The other is that of grace, made originally with Christ, and through him with all the elect. And here lie the life and hope of our souls, — that what Christ did as the head of that covenant, as ourrepresentative, is all imputed unto us for righteousness and salvation. And certainly there is nothing of more importance unto us, than to know whether of these covenants we belong unto. We are also some way concerned in them by whom the one or the other of these covenant-states is conveyed unto us; for before we make our own personal, voluntary choice, we are by the law of our nature, and of the covenant itself, enclosed in the same condition with our progenitors as to their covenant-state. And thence it is, that in the severest temporal judgments, children not guilty of the actual transgression of their parents, not having sinned after the similitude of them, by imitation, do yet ofttimes partake of the punishment they have deserved; being esteemed in some manner to have done what they did, so far as they were included in the same covenant with them. And many blessings, on the other hand, are they partakers of who are included in the covenant of those parents who are interested in the covenant of grace; for such parents succeed in the room of Abraham, every one of them.

And what Abraham did, as to the administration of the covenant intrusted with him, his posterity, whose representative he was therein, are said to have done in him, as Levi is in this place; and therefore they had the seal of the covenant given unto them in their infancy. And an alteration in this dispensation of grace hath not yet been proved by any, or scarce attempted so to be.

Owen, Hebrews 7:10

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