Home > 1689 federalism, John Owen > Owen’s “Promised/Established” Covenant of Grace

Owen’s “Promised/Established” Covenant of Grace

Lee, I’m sorry you found the length of my quotes so annoying. Personally, I find them necessary to get people who are distracted by baptism to discuss the real issue. Yes, Lutherans were also paedobaptists, but since baptism is not the issue (covenant theology is – note the title of Denault’s book when you read it) and Lutherans do not baptize infants on covenantal grounds, that’s irrelevant.

To help us, once again, set our focus upon the actual discussion, here are some more lengthy quotes from Owen demonstrating his rejection of the Westminster “one substance, multiple administrations” understanding of the covenant of grace (the view held in his “Of Infant Baptism” tract) in favor of his “promised/established” understanding of the covenant of grace, which Carl Trueman notes “pushes in a Baptistic direction“.

For Owen, in this context, promise is opposed to the formal establishment of the covenant.

This is the meaning of the word nenomoqe>thtai: “established,” say we; but it is, “reduced into a fixed state of a law or ordinance.” All the obedience required in it, all the worship appointed by it, all the privileges exhibited in it, and the grace administered with them, are all given for a statute, law, and ordinance unto the church. That which before lay hid in promises, in many things obscure, the principal mysteries of it being a secret hid in God himself, was now brought to light; and that covenant which had invisibly, in the way of a promise, put forth its efficacy under types and shadows, was now solemnly sealed, ratified, and confirmed, in the death and resurrection of Christ. It had before the confirmation of a promise, which is an oath; it had now the confirmation of a covenant, which is blood. That which before had no visible, outward worship, proper and peculiar unto it, is now made the only rule and instrument of worship unto the whole church, nothing being to be admitted therein but what belongs unto it, and is appointed by it. This the apostle intends by nenomoqe>thtai, the “legal establishment” of the new covenant, with all the ordinances of its worship. Hereon the other covenant was disannulled and removed; and not only the covenant itself, but all that system of sacred worship whereby it was administered. This was not done by the making of the covenant at first; yea, all this was superinduced into the covenant as given out in a promise, and was consistent therewith. When the new covenant was given out only in the way of a promise, it did not introduce a worship and privileges expressive of it. Wherefore it was consistent with a form of worship, rites and ceremonies, and those composed into a yoke of bondage which belonged not unto it. And as these, being added after its giving, did not overthrow its nature as a promise, so they were inconsistent with it when it was completed as a covenant; for then all the worship of the church was to proceed from it, and to be conformed unto it. Then it was established. Hence it follows, in answer unto the second difficulty, that as a promise, it was opposed unto the covenant of works; as a covenant, it was opposed unto that of Sinai. This legalizing or authoritative establishment of the new covenant, and the worship thereunto belonging, did effect this alteration.

Owen identified the new covenant alone with the covenant of grace. He thus applied his understanding of the meaning of promised and established to show that the covenant of grace was not established as a covenant prior to Christ’s death, and that the post-fall covenants were not the covenant of grace.

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. And whereas the essence and the substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not to be said to be under another covenant, but only a different administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the gospel after the coming of Christ, that it hath the appearance and name of another covenant. And the difference between these two administrations may be reduced unto the ensuing heads: —

1. It consisted in the way and manner of the declaration of the mystery of the love and will of God in Christ…

2. In the plentiful communication of grace unto the community of the church;…

3. In the manner of our access unto God…

4. In the way of worship required under each administration…

5. In the extent of the dispensation of the grace of God;…

The Lutherans, on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove, that not a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that two covenants substantially distinct, are intended in this discourse of the apostle…

4. These things being observed, we may consider that the Scripture doth plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way, as what is spoken can hardly be accommodated unto a twofold administration of the same covenant. The one is mentioned and described, Exodus 24:3-8, Deuteronomy 5:2-5, — namely, the covenant that God made with the people of Israel in Sinai; and which is commonly called “the covenant,” where the people under the old testament are said to keep or break God’s covenant; which for the most part is spoken with respect unto that worship which was peculiar thereunto. The other is promised, Jeremiah 31:31 – 34, 32:40; which is the new or gospel covenant, as before explained, mentioned Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24. And these two covenants, or testaments, are compared one with the other, and opposed one unto another, 2 Corinthians 3:6-9; Galatians 4:24-26; Hebrews 7:22, 9:15-20…

5. Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended. We must, I say, do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, —and with great pretense of reason, for it is that which is the sole foundation they all build upon 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 be the same under both, then indeed are they for the substance of them 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 thereof, 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, whilst they were under the covenant.

As therefore I have showed in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition, so I shall propose sundry things which relate unto 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: — …”

To be clear, Owen was not simply lifting the Mosaic covenant out of the covenant of grace, making it a subservient covenant, while retaining the rest of the WCF one substance/multiple administrations model. He applied his promised/established understanding of the covenant of grace as synonymous with the new covenant to the question of the Abrahamic Covenant as well:

2. When we speak of the “new covenant,” we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely, as though that were not before in being and efficacy, before the introduction of that which is promised in this place. For it was always the same, as to the substance of it, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and efficacy, unalterable, “everlasting, ordered in all things, and sure.” All who contend about these things, the Socinians only excepted, do 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 unto the church, from the first entrance of sin. But for two reasons it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect unto any other things, nor was it so under the old testament. When God renewed the promise of it unto Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but it was with respect unto other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely under the old testament it consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture, Acts 2:39; Hebrews 6:14-16. The apostle indeed says, that the covenant was confirmed of God in Christ, before the giving of the law, Galatians 3:17. And so it was, not absolutely in itself, but in the promise and benefits of it. The nomoqesi>a, or full legal establishment of it, whence it became formally a covenant unto the whole church, was future only, and a promise under the old testament; for it wanted two things thereunto: —

(1.) It wanted its solemn confirmation and establishment, by the blood of the only sacrifice which belonged unto it. Before this was done in the death of Christ, it had not the formal nature of a covenant or a testament, as our apostle proves, Hebrews 9:15-23. For neither, as he shows in that place, would the law given at Sinai have been a covenant, had it not been confirmed with the blood of sacrifices. Wherefore the promise was not before a formal and solemn covenant.

(2.) This was wanting, that it was not the spring, rule, and measure of all the worship of the church. This doth belong unto every covenant, properly so called, that God makes with the church, that it be the entire rule of all the worship that God requires of it; which is that which they are to restipulate in their entrance into covenant with God. But so the covenant of grace was not under the old testament; for God did require of the church many duties of worship that did not belong thereunto. But now, under the new testament, this covenant, with its own seals and appointments, is the only rule and measure of all acceptable worship. Wherefore the new covenant promised in the Scripture, and here opposed unto the old, is not the promise of grace, mercy, life, and salvation by Christ, absolutely considered, but as it had the formal nature of a covenant given unto it, in its establishment by the death of Christ, the procuring cause of all its benefits, and the declaring of it to be the only rule of worship and obedience unto the church. So that although by “the covenant of grace,” we ofttimes understand no more but the way of life, grace, mercy, and salvation by Christ; yet by “the new covenant,” we intend its actual establishment in the death of Christ, with that blessed way of worship which by it is settled in the church.

3. Whilst the church enjoyed all the spiritual benefits of the promise, wherein the substance of the covenant of grace was contained, before it was confirmed and made the sole rule of worship unto the church, it was not inconsistent with the holiness and wisdom of God to bring it under any other covenant, or prescribe unto it what forms of worship he pleased. It was not so, I say, upon these three suppositions: — …

Here’s a PDF for easy reference, with the most immediately relevant sections starting around p. 78. I have also created an interactive outline of Owen’s argument that I hope is nuanced enough for you.

There are strong tendencies in Owen’s thinking on the Covenant of Grace to restrict it just to Christ and his elect. Owen is a paedobaptist. But there is a lot in Owen’s thinking that I think pushes in a Baptistic direction. For Owen, the visible manifestation of the Covenant of Grace is not entirely clearly worked out in terms of children being embraced (as I read him). It’s not an area I have looked at in great detail, but I see tendencies in Owen’s ecclesiology and his understanding of the covenants that push it in a Baptistic direction.

-Carl Trueman, “Session 5 – John Owen on the Holy Spirit” @31:00

See also, Newly Discovered Work by Nehemiah Coxe on Covenant Theology!

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