Owen: New Covenant Conditional or Absolute?

See also Petto: Conditional New Covenant?
and Owen on Hebrews 8:6-13 Collapsible Outline

Owen on Hebrews 8:10-12

Page 162

The design of the apostle, or what is the general argument which he is in pursuit of, must still be borne in mind throughout the consideration of the testimonies he produceth in the confirmation of it. And this is, to prove that the Lord Christ is the mediator and surety of a better covenant than that wherein the service of God was managed by the high priests according unto the law. For hence it follows that his priesthood is greater and far more excellent than theirs. To this end he doth not only prove that God promised to make such a covenant, but also declares the nature and properties of it, in the words of the prophet. And so, by comparing it with the former covenant, he manifests its excellency above it. In particular, in this testimony the imperfection of that covenant is demonstrated from its issue. For it did not effectually continue peace and mutual love between God and the people; but being broken by them, they were thereon rejected of God. This rendered all the other benefits and advantages of it useless. Wherefore the apostle insists from the prophet on those properties of this other covenant which infallibly prevent the like issue, securing the people’s obedience for ever, and so the love and relation of God unto them as their God.

Wherefore these three verses give us a description of that covenant whereof the Lord Christ is the mediator and surety, not absolutely and entirely, but as unto those properties and effects of it wherein it differs from the former, so as infallibly to secure the covenant relation between God and the people. That covenant was broken, but this shall never be so, because provision is made in the covenant itself against any such event.

And we may consider in the words, —

  1. The particle of introduction, o[ti, answering the Hebrew yKi.
  2. The subject spoken of, which is diaqh>kh; with the way of making it, hn[ diaqhs> omai, — “which I will make.”
  3. The author of it, the Lord Jehovah; “I will …… saith the Lord.”
  4. Those with whom it was to be made, “the house of Israel.”
  5. The time of making it, “after those days.”
  6. The properties, privileges, and benefits of this covenant, which are of two sorts:
    1. Of sanctifying, inherent grace; described by a double consequent:
      1. Of God’s relation unto them, and theirs to him; “I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people,” verse 10.
      2. Of their advantage thereby, without the use of such other aids as formerly they stood in need of, verse 11.
    2. Of relative grace, in the pardon of their sins, verse 12. And sundry things of great. weight will fall into consideration under these several heads.

Ver. 10. —For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will give my laws into their mind, and write them upon their hearts: and I will be unto them a God, and they shall be to me a people.

  1. The introduction of the declaration of the new covenant is by the particle o[ti. The Hebrew yKi, which is rendered by it, is variously used, and is sometimes redundant. In the prophet, some translate it by an exceptive, “sed;” some by an illative, “quoniam.” And in this place o[ti, is rendered by some quamobrem, “wherefore; and by others “nam,” or enim, as we do it by “for.” And it doth intimate a reason of what was spoken before, namely, that the covenant which God would now make should not be according unto that, like unto it, which was before made and broken.
  2. The thing promised is a “covenant:” in the prophet tyriB], here diaqh>kh. And the way of making it, in the prophet trOk]a,; which is the usual word whereby the making of a covenant is expressed. For signifying to “cut,” to “strike,” to “divide,” respect is had in it unto the sacrifices wherewith covenants were confirmed. Thence also were “foedus percutere,” and “foedus ferire.” See <011509>Genesis 15:9, 10, 18. Ta,, or μ[‘, that is, “cure,” which is joined in construction with it, Genesis 15:18, Deuteronomy 5:2. The apostle renders it by diaqhs> omai, and that with a dative case without a preposition, tw~| oi]kw,| “I will make” or “confirm unto.” He had used before suntele>sw to the same purpose. We render the words tyriB] and diaqh>kh in this place by a “covenant,’’ though afterward the same word is translated by a “testament.’’
    A covenant properly is a compact or agreement on certain terms mutually stipulated by two or more parties. As promises are the foundation and rise of it, as it is between God and man, so it compriseth also precepts, or laws of obedience, which are prescribed unto man on his part to be observed. But in the description of the covenant here annexed, there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed unto him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises, as we shall see in the explication of it. Some hence conclude that it is only one part of the covenant that is here described. Others observe from hence that the whole covenant of grace as a covenant is absolute, without any conditions on our part; which sense Estius on this place contends for. But these things must be further inquired into: —

    1. The word tyriB], used by the prophet, doth not only signify a “covenant” or compact properly so called, but a free, gratuitous promise also. Yea, sometimes it is used for such a free purpose of God with respect unto other things, which in their own nature are incapable of being obliged by any moral condition. Such is God’s covenant with day and night, <243320>Jeremiah 33:20, 25. And so he says that he “made his covenant,” not to destroy the world by water any more, “with every living creature,” Genesis 9:10, 11. Nothing, therefore, can be argued for the necessity of conditions to belong unto this covenant from the name or term whereby it is expressed in the prophet. A covenant properly is sunqh>kh, but there is no word in the whole Hebrew language of that precise signification.

      The making of this covenant is declared by yTir’K;. But yet neither doth this require a mutual stipulation, upon terms and conditions prescribed, unto an entrance into covenant. For it refers unto the sacrifices wherewith covenants were confirmed; and it is applied unto a mere gratuitous promise, Genesis15:18,“In that day did the LORD make a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed will I give this land.”

      As unto the word diaqh>kh, it signifies a “covenant” improperly; properly it is a “testamentary disposition.” And this may be without any conditions on the part of them unto whom any thing is bequeathed.

    2. The whole of the covenant intended is expressed in the ensuing description of it. For if it were otherwise, it could not be proved from thence that this covenant was more excellent than the former, especially as to security that the covenant relation between God and the people should not be broken or disannulled. For this is the principal thing which the apostle designs to prove in this place; and the want of an observation thereof hath led many out of the way in their exposition of it. If, therefore, this be not an entire description of the covenant, there might yet be something reserved essentially belonging thereunto which might frustrate this end. For some such conditions might yet be required in it as we are not able to observe, or could have no security that we should abide in the observation of them: and thereon this covenant might be frustrated of its end, as well as the former; which is directly contrary unto God’s declaration of his design in it.
    3. It is evident that there can be no condition previously required, unto our entering into or participation of the benefits of this covenant, antecedent unto the making of it with us. For none think there are any such with respect unto its original constitution; nor can there be so in respect of its making with us, or our entering into it. For, —
      1. This would render the covenant inferior in a way of grace unto that which God made with the people at Horeb. For he declares that there was not any thing in them that moved him either to make that covenant, or to take them into it with himself. Everywhere he asserts this to be an act of his mere grace and favor. Yea, he frequently declares, that he took them into covenant, not only without respect unto any thing of good in them, but although they were evil and stubborn. See Deuteronomy 7:7,8, 9:4, 5.
      2. It is contrary unto the nature, ends, and express properties of this covenant. For there is nothing that can be thought or supposed to be such a condition, but it is comprehended in the promise of the covenant itself; for all that God requireth in us is proposed as that which himself will effect by virtue of this covenant.
    4. It is certain, that in the outward dispensation of the covenant, wherein the grace, mercy, and terms of it are proposed unto us, many things are required of us in order unto a participation of the benefits of it; for God hath ordained, that all the mercy and grace that is prepared in it shall be communicated unto us ordinarily in the use of outward means, wherewith a compliance is required of us in a way of duty. To this end hath he appointed all the ordinances of the gospel, the word and sacraments, with all those duties, public and private, which are needful to render them effectual unto us. For he will take us ordinarily into this covenant in and by the rational faculties of our natures, that he may be glorified in them and by them. Wherefore these things are required of us in order unto the participation of the benefits of this covenant. And if, therefore, any one will call our attendance unto such duties the condition of the covenant, it is not to be contended about, though properly it is not so. For, —
      1. God doth work the grace of the covenant, and communicate the mercy of it, antecedently unto all ability for the performance of any such duty; as it is with elect infants.
      2. Amongst those who are equally diligent in the performance of the duties intended he makes a discrimination, preferring one before another. “Many are called, but few are chosen;” and what hath any one that he hath not received?
      3. He actually takes some into the grace of the covenant whilst they are engaged in an opposition unto the outward dispensation of it. An example of this grace he gave in Paul.
    5. It is evident that the first grace of the covenant, or God’s putting his law in our hearts, can depend on no condition on our part. For whatever is antecedent thereunto, being only a work or act of corrupted nature, can be no condition whereon the dispensation of spiritual grace is superadded. And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.
    6. Unto a full and complete interest in all the promises of the covenant, faith on our part, from which evangelical repentance is inseparable, is required. But whereas these also are wrought in us by virtue of that promise and grace of the covenant which are absolute, it is a mere strife about words to contend whether they may be called conditions or no. Let it be granted on the one hand, that we cannot have an actual participation of the relative grace of this covenant in adoption and justification, without faith or believing; and on the other, that this faith is wrought in us, given unto us, bestowed upon us, by that grace of the covenant which depends on no condition in us as unto its discriminating administration, and I shall not concern myself what men will call it.
    7. Though there are no conditions properly so called of the whole grace of the covenant, yet there are conditions in the covenant, taking that term, in a large sense, for that which by the order of divine constitution precedeth some other things, and hath an influence into their existence; for God requireth many things of them whom he actually takes into covenant, and makes partakers of the promises and benefits of it. Of this nature is that whole obedience which is prescribed unto us in the gospel, in our walking before God in uprightness; and there being an order in the things that belong hereunto, some acts, duties, and parts of our gracious obedience, being appointed to be means of the further additional supplies of the grace and mercies of the covenant, they may be called conditions required of us in the covenant, as well as duties prescribed unto us.
    8. The benefits of the covenant are of two sorts:
      1. The grace and mercy which it doth collate.
      2. The future reward of glory which it doth promise.

        Those of the former sort are all of them means appointed of God, which we are to use and improve unto the obtaining of the latter, and so may be called conditions required on our part. They are only collated on us, but conditions as used and improved by us.

    9. Although diaqh>kh, the word here used, may signify and be rightly rendered a “covenant,” in the same manner as tyriB] doth, yet that which is intended is properly a “testament,” or a “testamentary disposition” of good things. It is the will of God in and by Jesus Christ, his death and bloodshedding, to give freely unto us the whole inheritance of grace and glory. And under this notion the covenant hath no condition, nor are any such either expressed or intimated in this place.

Obs. I. The covenant of grace, as reduced into the form of a testament, confirmed by the blood of Christ, doth not depend on any condition or qualification in our persons, but on a free grant and donation of God; and so do all the good things prepared in it.

Obs. II. The precepts of the old covenant are turned all of them into promises under the new. —Their preceptive, commanding power is not taken away, but grace is promised for the performance of them. So the apostle having declared that the people brake the old covenant, adds that grace shall be supplied in the new for all the duties of obedience that are required of us.

Obs. III. All things in the new covenant being proposed unto us by the way of promise, it is faith alone whereby we may attain a participation of them.For faith only is the grace we ought to exercise, the duty we ought to perform, to render the promises of God effectual to us, Hebrews 4:1,2.

Obs. IV. Sense of the loss of an interest in and participation of the benefits of the old covenant, is the best preparation for receiving the mercies of the new.

3. The author of this covenant is God himself: “I will make it, saith the\parLORD .” This is the third time that this expression, “Saith the Lord,” is repeated in this testimony. The work expressed, in both the parts of it, the disannulling of the old covenant and the establishment of the new, is such as calls for this solemn interposition of the authority, veracity, and grace of God. “I will do it, saith the Lord.” And the mention hereof is thus frequently inculcated, to beget a reverence in us of the work which he so emphatically assumes unto himself. And it teacheth us that, —

Obs. V. God himself, in and by his own sovereign wisdom, grace, goodness, all-sufficiency, and power, is to be considered as the only cause and author of the new covenant; or, the abolishing of the old covenant, with the introduction and establishment of the new, is an act of the mere sovereign wisdom, grace, and authority of God. It is his gracious disposal of us, and of his own grace; —that whereof we had no contrivance, nor indeed the least desire.

11 thoughts on “Owen: New Covenant Conditional or Absolute?

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  4. Two interesting John Owen quotations from Lee Irons.

    John Owen—“For after they have given the specious name of a condition, and a causa sine qua non, unto faith, they immediately take all other graces and works of obedience INTO THE SAME STATE WITH FAITH, and the same use in justification; and after this seeming gold hath been cast for a while into the fire of disputation, there comes out the calf of a personal inherent righteousness, whereby men are justified before God, virtute foederis evangelici, for as for the righteousness of Christ to be imputed unto us, it is gone into heaven, and they know not what is become of it” (5:106)

    John Owen —“The word condition is nowhere used in the scripture in this matter; which I argue no farther, but that we have no certain rule or standard to try and measure its signification by. Wherefore it cannot first be introduced in what sense men please, and then that sense turned into argument for other ends. For thus on a supposed concession, that it is the condition of our justification, some heighten it into a subordinate righteousness, imputed unto us, antecedently as I suppose, unto the imputation of the righteousness of Christ in any sense, whereof it is the condition. And some who PRETEND to lessen its efficiency or dignity in the use of it in our justification say, it is only causa sine qua non, which leaves us at as great an uncertainty as to the nature and efficacy of this condition as we were before. Nor is the true sense of things at all illustrated, but rather darkened by such notions” (5: 113).



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  6. markmcculley

    Nehemiah Coxe –The covenant with Abraham was in force for the benefit of both more remote and nearer generations.… The right of the remotest generation was as much derived from Abraham and the covenant made with him, as was that of his immediate seed, and did not depend on the faithfulness of their immediate parents.’

    the Second London Baptist Confession 7.2 : ‘It is alone by the grace of THIS covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and a blessed immortality’

    Is “this” covenant the new covenant or the covenant with Abraham?



      1. I spoke too soon. Just had a chance to read his first section on Covenant. He has clearly read Coxe and Owen. However, he seems a bit muddy on the Abrahamic Covenant. He seems to me to, at the very least, be too accomodating to paedobaptists and too eager to use some of their formulations and perspective, to build rhetorical common ground. The result is some unclear or mistaken statements about the Abrahamic covenant. The Covenant of Circumcision never defined the church, as he says it used to.

        But he does have other good things to say that are helpful.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, and I should qualify my statement above. “This covenant” in 2LBCF 7.2 refers to “the covenant of grace.” So the language of the confession is written broadly enough to allow differing views on what constitutes the covenant of grace. But according to Coxe and 1689 Federalism, “this covenant” of grace is the New Covenant.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. markmcculley

    “Too accomodating to paedobaptists and too eager to use some of their formulations and perspective, to build rhetorical common ground.” Amen to that, though it could be that Shearer is simply untaught about confessional continuities (and distinctions) with “anabaptist” confessions of faith, The London Baptists were not only wanting to avoid persecution, but also genuinely convinced of the legitimacy of Christians being magistrates, with “natural law” as the standard.

    Shearer is too ready to agree with Gibson that water is God’s “common grace “given”. (Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead: ‘A touch of water and these children are given the whole of life.’) But this so-called ” objective grace” turns out to be something that can mutate into curse. Gibson— ‘Without faith, with grace spurned, the sign of covenant blessings becomes the promise of covenant curses.


    from Mike Horton’s review of Kingdom Through Covenant —Horton perceives a need for threats to those in the covenant—-Hebrews 6 assumes a category of covenant members who are in some sense beneficiaries of the Spirit’s common work…. they have fallen away from the new covenant, reverting to the old. “For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned” (Hebrews 6: 7-8). Through their covenant membership they have shared in God’s COMMON GRACE, and now, if they respond in unbelief, they will bear the curses of the new covenant. We must account for this category of common covenant beneficiaries of grace who spurn the objective COMMON GRACE delivered to them and fall away. If our theological system cannot account for this third group—not elect BUT NOT WITHOUT COVENANT GRACE EITHER–then we need a different theological paradigm.

    Mike Horton—It’s covenant theology that accounts for this tertium quid between “foreigners to the covenant” and “elect members.” Some non-elect share the new covenant in common with the elect. In fact, the warning is emphatic in Hebrews 10 against “the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified.” All of this fits well with Jesus’s distinction in his parables between a seed that at first begins to grow but is choked by weeds, or weeds sown among the wheat.



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