Theonomy may not be heard regularly from pulpits, but it is a view that is alive and well among Christians who take the Bible seriously and are struggling to understand how to apply it to the world they live in.
As appealing as theonomy may be for its apparently simple answer to a difficult subject, it is actually entirely (100%) incompatible with 1689 Federalism. Theonomy, properly defined as the belief that all nations today are obligated to obey Israel’s judicial laws because they have not been abrogated, relies upon an extreme version of the “one substance, multiple administrations” view of covenant theology. It stresses that the Old Covenant is really just the Older Covenant and the New Covenant is just the Newer Covenant – both being administrations of the covenant of grace. Since 1689 Federalism rejects this model, there is no way to hold to both theonomy and 1689 Federalism.
Theonomy, as Greg Bahnsen uses the term.5 is a view of the Bible that argues for the continuing validity of God’s revealed law in every area of life. Bahnsen argues that unless a specific Old Testament law has been abrogated by the New Testament, either by specific revelation or because of an application of a New Testament principle, its authority is still morally and/ or judicially binding. “The methodological point, then, is that we presume our obligation to obey any Old Testament commandment unless the New Testament indicates otherwise. We must assume continuity with the Old Testament rather than discontinuity. This is not to say that there are no changes from Old to New Testament. Indeed, there are — important ones. However, the word of God must be the standard which defines precisely what those changes are for us; we cannot take it upon ourselves to assume such changes or read them into the New Testament.”6
The fact is that all of the covenants of the Old Covenant (that is, all of the Old Testament covenants) are unified as parts of the one overall covenant of grace established by God. Paul spoke of Gentiles who were not part of the Old Covenant economy which included the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants as “strangers to the covenants of the promise” (Eph. 2:12)…There were many, progressively revealed aspects to the single promise of God in the Old Testament: many administrations of the overall covenant of grace… Given the unity of God’s covenant throughout history and the Bible, then, is it true that Christians living under the New Covenant are not obliged to keep the Old Covenant law (the commandments of the Old Testament, especially those given by Moses)?…[W]e saw that all of the covenants of God are unified into one overall Covenant of Grace, fully realized with the coming of Christ in the New Covenant. So if there is one covenant enjoyed by the people of God throughout the ages, then there is one moral code or set of stipulations which govern those who would be covenant-keepers. Therefore, we must answer that of course New Testament believers are bound to the Old Testament law of God. His standards, just like His covenant, are unchanging. (BTS, 41-42)…
There is no textual indication, however, that the New Covenant brings a new standard of moral conduct, and there is no textual indication that the Old Covenant standard has been categorically laid aside. The Covenantal administrations are dramatically different – in glory, power, realization, and finality – but not as codes defining right and wrong behavior or attitudes. (BTS, 168)
Wherefore the whole law of Moses, as given unto the Jews, whether as used or abused by them, was repugnant unto and inconsistent with the gospel, and the mediation of Christ, especially his priestly office, therein declared; neither did God either design, appoint, or direct that they should be co-existent…
It is not, therefore, the peculiar command for the institution of the legal priesthood that is intended, but the whole system of Mosaical institutions. For the apostle having already proved that the priesthood was to be abolished, he proceeds on that ground and from thence to prove that the whole law was also to be in like manner abolished and removed. And indeed it was of such a nature and constitution, that pull one pin out of the fabric, and the whole must fall unto the ground; for the sanction of it being, that “he was cursed who continued not in all things written in the law to do them,” the change of any one thing must needs overthrow the whole law…
And the whole of this system of laws is called a “command,” because it consisted in “arbitrary commands” and precepts, regulated by that maxim, “The man that doeth these things shall live by them,” Romans 10:5. And therefore the law, as a command, is opposed unto the gospel, as a promise of righteousness by Jesus Christ, Galatians 3:11, 12. Nor is it the whole ceremonial law only that is intended by “the command” in this place, but the moral law also, so far as it was compacted with the other into one body of precepts for the same end; for with respect unto the efficacy of the whole law of Moses, as unto our drawing nigh unto God, it is here considered…
By all these ways was the church of the Hebrews forewarned that the time would come when the whole Mosaical law, as to its legal or covenant efficacy, should be disannulled, unto the unspeakable advantage of the church…
It is therefore plainly declared, that the law is “abrogated,” “abolished… disannulled.”
Hearty agreement must be given when New Covenant theologians argue for the abolition of the Old Covenant. This is clearly the teaching of the Old and New Testaments (see Jeremiah 31:31-32; Second Corinthians 3; Galatians 3, 4; Ephesians 2:14-15; Hebrews 8-10). The whole law of Moses, as it functioned under the Old Covenant, has been abolished, including the Ten Commandments. Not one jot or tittle of the law of Moses functions as Old Covenant law anymore and to act as if it does constitutes redemptive-historical retreat and neo-Judaizing. However, to acknowledge that the law of Moses no longer functions as Old Covenant law is not to accept that it no longer functions; it simply no longer functions as Old Covenant law. This can be seen by the fact that the New Testament teaches both the abrogation of the law of the Old Covenant and its abiding moral validity under the New Covenant.
In Defense of the Decalogue, 61.
See also JOHN OWEN AND NEW COVENANT THEOLOGY: Owen on the Old and New Covenants and the Functions of the Decalogue in Redemptive History in Historical and Contemporary Perspective
To be clear, LBCF chapter 19 affirms that the moral law, the decalogue, continues to guide Christians as a rule of righteousness. The difference, however, is that moral law does not continue to guide by virtue of its unabrogated Mosaic establishment. It continues to guide as universal moral standard that transcends all covenants. (For more on this, see JOHN OWEN AND NEW COVENANT THEOLOGY: Owen on the Old and New Covenants and the Functions of the Decalogue in Redemptive History in Historical and Contemporary Perspective).
The point is that the law was given to Israel on Mt. Sinai as a covenant of works. Note Owen “it consisted in “arbitrary commands” and precepts, regulated by that maxim, “The man that doeth these things shall live by them,” Romans 10:5. And therefore the law, as a command, is opposed unto the gospel…” The Old Covenant operated upon the works principle “Do this and live” (Leviticus 18:5). As Owen notes, Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5 to demonstrate that this principle of works is directly opposed to the principle of faith. Thus “with respect unto the efficacy of the whole law of Moses, as unto our drawing nigh unto God, it is here considered…”
The law says “do this”, a covenant of works says “do this and live.” The curses found in the Mosaic covenant (and the blessings) are derived from the law as a covenant of works. Violation of the law brought curses upon individuals and the nation. That is why people were put to death in Israel for violating the moral law. Because it was a covenant of works with life in the balance (Lev 18:5, cited in Gal 3:12 & Rom 10:5). Augustine put it this way
In that testament, however, which is properly called the Old, and was given on Mount Sinai, only earthly happiness is expressly promised. Accordingly that land, into which the nation, after being led through the wilderness, was conducted, is called the land of promise, wherein peace and royal power, and the gaining of victories over enemies, and an abundance of children and of fruits of the ground, and gifts of a similar kind are the promises of the Old Testament. And these, indeed, are figures of the spiritual blessings which appertain to the New Testament; but yet the man who lives under God’s law with those earthly blessings for his sanction, is precisely the heir of the Old Testament, for just such rewards are promised and given to him, according to the terms of the Old Testament, as are the objects of his desire according to the condition of the old man…
[T]he law of works, which was written on the tables of stone, and its reward, the land of promise, which the house of the carnal Israel after their liberation from Egypt received, belonged to the old testament [covenant]…
“But the law is not of faith: but The man that doeth them shall live in them.” (Gal 3:12) Which testimony, quoted by the apostle from the law, is understood in respect of temporal life, in respect of the fear of losing which, men were in the habit of doing the works of the law, not of faith; because the transgressors of the law were commanded by the same law to be put to death by the people.
“‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” Deuteronomy 27:26 (cited in Gal 3:10)
The death penalty instituted under the Old Covenant for violation of the moral law was not itself part of the moral law. It was an addition to the moral law given by way of covenant. The shedding of blood by man for violation of the moral law was specifically a curse. Theonomists who believe Christians should enforce Mosaic curses for violation of the moral law are putting Christians under a covenant of works that we have been freed from (Gal 5:1; Acts 15:10).
“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.”
(Deuteronomy 21:22-23, cited in Gal 3:13)
It is specifically this principle of curse for violation of the law that Christ died on the cross for (Gal 3:13). Christians are not under the decalogue as a means to earn their life or lose it. Christ has earned our life and saved us from the curse. (Note, however, that although the Old Covenant was a covenant of works, it was not the covenant of works: it did not deal with eternal blessing and curse)
Rushdoony v Booth
How is Christ’s Kingdom to come? Scripture is again very definite and explicit. The glorious peace and prosperity of Christ’s reign will be brought about ONLY as people obey the covenant law. In Lev. 26, Deut. 28, and all of Scripture, this is plainly stated. There will be peace and prosperity in the land, the enemy will be destroyed, and men will be free of evils only “If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them (Lev. 26:3). The obedience of faith to the law of God produces IRRESISTIBLE BLESSINGS. “And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God” (Deut. 28:2). On the other hand, disobedience leads to IRRESISTIBLE CURSES. . . .
God’s determination of history is thus plainly described in His law. If we believe and obey, then we are blessed and we prosper in Him; if we deny Him and disobey His law, we are cursed and confounded. . . .
-Rushdoony, The Meaning of Postmillennialism, pp. 53-56
God established His covenant with Adam, and again with Noah. It was a dominion covenant. It was man’s authorization to subdue the earth, but under God’s overall authority and under His law. God also covenanted with Abram, changing his name to Abraham, and instituting the sign of His covenant, circumcision. He covenanted with Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, changing his name to Israel, promising to bless Jacob’s efforts (Genesis 32:24-30). God covenanted with Moses and the children of Israel, promising to bless them if they conformed to His laws, but curse them if they disobeyed (Deuteronomy 8:28). The covenant was a treaty, and it involved mutual obligations and promises. The ruler, God, offers the peace treaty to a man or selection of men, and they in turn accept its terms of surrender. The treaty spells out mutual obligations: protection and blessings from the King, and obedience on the part of the servants. It also spells out the term of judgement: cursings from the King in case of rebellion on the part of the servants.
This same covenant is extended to the church today. It covers the institutional church, and it also applies to nations that agree to conform their laws to God’s standards . . . .
-Gary North, Unconditional Surrender
This failure to distinguish between biblical covenants and the way the law functions in each is both the lynchpin and the fatal error of theonomy. Theonomy rests upon what is called “monocovenantalism.” You can see it in the above quote where North says we are under the same covenant as Adam before the fall. You could also say theonomy rests upon “mononomism.” This is why theonomy speaks of God’s law and God’s covenant in the singular.
Compare the above two quotes with Abraham Booth (1689 Federalism).
Now, as the immunities, grants, and honors, bestowed by the King Messiah, are ail of a spiritual nature; his faithful subjects have no reason to wonder, or to be discouraged, at any persecutions, afflictions, or poverty which may befall them. Were his empire of this world, then indeed it might be expected, from the goodness of his heart and the power of his arm, that those who are submissive to his authority, zealous for his honor, and conformed to his image, would commonly find themselves easy and prosperous in their temporal circumstances. Yes, were his dominion of a secular kind, it might be supposed that an habitually conscientious regard to his laws, would secure from the oppression of ungodly men, and from the distresses of temporal want. — Thus it was with Israel under their Theocracy. When the rulers and the people in general were punctual in observing Jehovah’s appointments, the stipulations of the Sinai Covenant secured them from being oppressed bv their enemies, and from any remarkable affliction by the immediate hand of God. Performing the conditions of their National Confederation, they were, as a people, warranted to expect every species of temporal prosperity. Health, and long life, riches, honors, and victory over their enemies, were promised by Jehovah to their external obedience.[ 64] The punishments also, that were denounced against flagrant breaches of the Covenant made at Horeb, were of a temporal kind.[ 65]
In this respect, however, as well as in other things, there is a vast difference between the Jewish, and the Christian economy. This disparity was plainly intimated, if I mistake not, by the opposite modes of divine proceeding, in establishing Jehovah’s kingdom among the Jews, and in founding the empire of Jesus Christ. To settle the Israelitish church, to exalt the chosen tribes above surrounding nations, and to render the ancient Theocracy supremely venerable, the divine Sovereign appeared in terrible majesty. Wasting plagues and awful deaths were often inflicted by eternal justice, on those who dared to oppose, or to oppress, the people of God. An angel was commissioned to destroy the Egyptian first-born; Pharaoh, with his mighty host, were drowned in the Red sea; and the Canaanitish nations were put to the sword, that the subjects of Jehovah might possess their fertile country. Manifest indications these, in connection with express promises, that the special Providence of God would exalt and bless the natural seed of Abraham with temporal felicity; provided they did not violate the Sinai Covenant.
But when the Prince Messiah founded his kingdom, all things were otherwise. No marks of external grandeur attended his personal appearance: and, instead of executing righteous vengeance on those who opposed him, his language was, The Son of man is ‘not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do! — After a life of labour and of beneficence, of poverty and of reproach, he fell a victim to persecution, and a martyr to truth. Such was the plan of divine Providence, respecting Christ our King, and such was the treatment with which he met from the world! Striking intimations, those, that his most faithful subjects would have no ground of discouragement, in any sufferings which might await them; and that, considered as his dependents, spiritual blessings were all they should have to expect.
It must indeed be acknowledged, that as vicious tempers and immoral practices have a natural tendency to impair health, distress the mind, and waste the property; to the exercise of holy affections, and the practice of true godliness, have the most friendly aspect on a Christian’s own temporal happiness, (except so far as persecution intervenes) and on the welfare of society. But then it is evident that this arises from the nature of things, and from the superintendency of common Providence; rather than from the dominion of Christ, as a spiritual monarch. For, so considered, spiritual blessings are all that they have to expect from his royal hand.
By the prophetic declarations of our Lord himself, and by the history of this kingdom, it plainly appears, that among all the subjects of his government, none have been more exposed to persecution, affliction, and poverty, than those who were most eminent for obedience to his laws, and most useful in his empire. The most uniform subjection to his authority, and the warmest zeal for his honor, that ever appeared upon earth; were no security from bitter persecution, from pinching poverty, or from complicated affliction. Our divine Lord, considered as a spiritual sovereign, is concerned for the spiritual interests of those that are under his government. His personal perfections and royal prerogatives, his power and wisdom, his love and care, are therefore to be regarded as engaged, both by office and by promise, — not to make his dependents easy and prosperous in their temporal concerns; but– to strengthen them for their spiritual warfare; to preserve them from finally falling by their invisible enemies; to make all afflictions work together for their good; to render them, in the final issue, more than conquerors over every opposer; and to crown them with, everlasting life.
Our Lord has promised, indeed, that their obedience to his royal pleasure, shall meet with his gracious regards in the present life. Not by indulging them with temporal riches, or by granting them external honor and ease; but by admitting them into more intimate communion with himself, and by rejoicing their hearts with his favor.[ 66] Yes, to deliver from spiritual enemies, and to provide for spiritual wants; to indulge with spiritual riches, and to ennoble with spiritual honors, are those royal acts which belong to Him, whose kingdom is not of this world. In the bestowment of these blessings, the glory of his regal character is much concerned. But millions of his devoted subjects may fall by the iron hand of oppression, starve in obscurity, or suffer accumulated affliction in other ways; without the least impeachment of his power, his goodness, or his care, as the sovereign of a spiritual kingdom.
-Booth, Abraham. An Essay on the Kingdom of Christ (Kindle Locations 1090-1130). Reformed Libertarian.
For more on this, see Abraham Booth’s An Essay on the Kingdom of Christ.
A separate question is whether or not nations today may or should enforce the general equity of Israel’s judicial laws in their own civil laws. Here are two resources to help unpack 19.4 of the 2nd London Baptist Confession from a 1689 Federalism perspective:
The OPC is currently debating Klinean republication. One of the central elements in that debate is WCF/LBCF 7.1
1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.a
[WCF Proofs, LBCF proofs in bold]
a. Isa. 40:13–17. Who hath directed the Spirit of the LORD, or being his counseller hath taught him? With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of judgment, and taught him knowledge, and shewed to him the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing. And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering. All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.
Job 9:32–33. For he is not a man, as I am, that I should answer him, and we should come together in judgment. Neither is there any daysman betwixt us, that might lay his hand upon us both.
Ps. 113:5–6. Who is like unto the LORD our God, who dwelleth on high, who humbleth himself to behold the things that are in heaven, and in the earth!
Job 22:2–3. Can a man be profitable unto God, as he that is wise may be profitable unto himself? Is it any pleasure to the Almighty, that thou art righteous? or is it gain to him, that thou makest thy ways perfect?
Job 35:7–8. If thou be righteous, what givest thou him? or what receiveth he of thine hand? Thy wickedness may hurt a man as thou art; and thy righteousness may profit the son of man.
Luke 17:10. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.
Acts 17:24–25. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things
One side speaks only of “ontological merit” and says this means that eternal life was a gracious gift to Adam, not something he earned or merited. In response, the other side rejects the concept of “ontological merit” (and thus rejects 7.1) and speaks only of “covenantal merit” saying that merit is whatever God says it is.
I have found Nehemiah Coxe (the likely editor of the LBCF) to be a very helpful anchor between these two extremes.
First, God made him a reasonable creature and endued him with original righteousness, which was a perfection necessary to enable him to answer the end of his creation. Eminently in this respect he is said to be created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26, 27) and to be made upright (Ecc 7:29). This uprightness or rectitude of nature consisted in the perfect harmony of his soul with that law of God which he was made under and subjected to.
1… The sum of this law was afterward given in ten words on Mount Sinai and yet more briefly by Christ…
Secondly, this law was guarded by a sanction in the threatening of death for its transgression (Gen 2:17)… This sanction belonged not only to the positive precept to which it was expressly annexed, but also to the law of nature; the demerit for transgressing this law is known to man by the same light as the law itself is known to him…
Thirdly, Adam was not only under a commination of death in case of disobedience, but also had the promise of an eternal reward on condition of his perfect obedience to these laws. If he had fulfilled this condition, the reward would have been due to him by virtue of this compact into which God was pleased to condescend for the encouraging of man’s obedience and the manifestation of his own bounty and goodness…
S4… He was capable of and made for a greater degree of happiness than he immediately enjoyed. This was set before him as the reward of his obedience by that covenant in which he was to walk with God. Of this reward set before him, these things are further to be observed.
1. Although the law of his creation was attended both with a promise of reward and a threatening of punishment, yet the reason of both is not the same nor necessary in the same way. For the reward is of mere sovereign bounty and goodness. It therefore might have been either less or more, as it pleased God, or not proposed at all without any injury being done. But the threatened punishment is a debt to justice and results immediately from the nature of sin with reference to God without the intervention of any compact. It is due to the transgression of it, even by those that are already cut off from any hope of reward by a former breach of the covenant…
S6. From these things it is evident that God dealt with Adam not only on terms of a law but by way of covenant…
2. But it is certainly concluded from that promise of reward and the assurance that was given to Adam which he could never have obtained except by God condescending to deal with him by terms of a covenant… (42-48)
Yet this restipulation [meaning counter-engagement or covenant response] (and consequently, the way and manner of obtaining covenant blessings, as well as the right by which we claim them) necessarily varies according to the different nature and terms of those covenants that God at any time makes with men. If the covenant be of works, the restipulation must be by doing the things required in it, even by fulfilling its condition in a perfect obedience to its law. Suitably, the reward is of debt according to the terms of such a covenant. (Do not understand it of debt absolutely but of debt by compact.) But if it be a covenant of free and sovereign grace, the restipulation required is a humble receiving or hearty believing of those gratuitous promises on which the covenant is established. Accordingly, the reward or covenant blessing is immediately and eminently of grace. (39)
Coxe maintains the confessional balance. There is both “debt absolutely” (“ontological merit”) and “debt by compact” (“covenantal merit”). A proper understanding of the law as well as the covenant of works requires a proper understanding of both types of debt/merit. By the law alone, Adam could merit nothing. Obedience was simply what was required of image bearers/servants (Luke 17:10). But God lovingly offered a reward (eternal life/immutable nature/fruition of God) for that obedience by way of a covenant. Once that covenant was established, the reward was not gracious, but merited (though not “absolutely”), which made Adam no longer a servant, but a wage-earner (Rom 4:4). Thus the law was given as a covenant of works (19.1).
The Kline debate is getting more convoluted every day it seems. Rick Phillips recently wrote a brief critique of Mark Jones in which he claims the confession excludes the concept of merit from the pre-fall covenant of works. In doing so, he is contradicting his church’s Report on the Federal Vision, which states:
This is precisely the point of the Standards’ use of the term and theological category of “merit.” Merit relates to the just fulfillment of the conditions of the covenant of works (LC 55, 174). This no man can do since the Fall (LC 193) but Christ only (WCF 17.3). The Standards consistently assert our inability to merit pardon of sin (WCF 16.5), and contrast our demerit with Christ’s merit (LC 55, cf. WCF 30.4). Christ’s work (active and passive, preceptive and penal, perfect and personal, obedience and satisfaction) fulfills the conditions of the covenant of works (WCF 8.5, 11.1, 3, 19.6), and thus secures a just and righteous redemption that is at the same time freely offered and all of grace.
I’m hoping to put together a post comparing 4 different views on this and how it relates to Lev 18:5 in the future.
I just came across this book today. It looks tremendous. It is Joshua N. Moon’s PhD thesis (University of St. Andrews, 2007).
The struggle to read Jeremiah 31:31-34 as Christian Scripture has a long and divided history, cutting across nearly every major locus of Christian theology. Yet little has been done either to examine closely the varieties of interpretation in the Christian tradition from the post-Nicene period to the modern era, or to make use of such interpretations as helpful interlocutors. This work begins with Augustine’s interpretation of Jer 31:31-34 as an absolute contrast between unbelief and faith, rather than the now-standard reading (found in Jerome) of a contrast between two successive religio-historical eras – one that governed Israel (the old covenant ) and a new era and its covenant inaugurated in the coming of Christ. Augustine s absolute contrast loosened the strict temporal concern, so that the faithful of any era were members of the new covenant. The study traces Augustine s reading of an absolute contrast in a few key moments of Christian interpretation: Thomas Aquinas and high medieval theology, then the 16th and 17th century Reformed tradition. The thesis aims at a constructive reading of Jer 31:31-34, and so the struggle identified in these moments in the Christian tradition is brought into dialogue with modern critical discussions from Bernhard Duhm to the present. Finally, the author turns to an exegetical argument for an Augustinian reading of the contrast of the covenants.
The study finds that Jer 31:31-34, read in its role in Jeremiah, contrasts Israel’s infidelity with a future idyllic faithfulness to YHWH: in the new covenant all will be as it always ought to have been. The contrast is thus a variant of Augustine’s proposal of two mutually exclusive standings before Yhwh. The study aims in this matter to contribute to the perennial exegetical, theological and ecclesial discussions of old and new covenants by examining a locus classicus in dialogue with oft-neglected discussions in the history of interpretation.
Note well: Moon is an advocate of the Federal Vision false gospel. He was tried in the PCA for his beliefs (though not convicted, just like all the other FV false teachers in the PCA). Note that in the end (after the historical survey), his own position diverges from Augustine (“a variant of Augustine’s proposal”). I assume his “variation” is that, unlike Augustine, he puts the New Covenant entirely into the final day of judgment (“future idyllic faithfulness”) where the “faithful” will be judged righteous by their works. This is because the Federal Vision rejects the visible/invisible church distinction in favor of the church militant/triumphant. Thus the triumphant church are those who have been faithful (works) and are therefore members of the New Covenant. Apparently his work builds upon the work of his father-in-law Robert S. Rayburn’s dissertation “The Contrast Between the Old and New Covenants in the New Testament” (Ph.D, Univ. of Aberdeen, 1978).
Both dissertations should be of interest to those studying 1689 Federalism (which is, as strongly as possible, opposed to the Federal Vision heresy).
Posting a response here that I made on the Puritanboard a while ago. See the thread here.
Here was the usual objection that we just don’t understand covenant theology nor Owen’s version of it:
From a couple of Puritan scholars who take a sober look at Owen’s Covenant theology:This chapter will look specifically at John Owen’s covenant schema, with particular attention to the role of the Sinaitic or Mosaic covenant and its relation to the covenants of works and grace. By focusing specifically on Owen and the details of his thought, the hope is that he can be placed more accurately within the larger taxonomy of Reformed thinking on this issue. The evidence suggests that Owen’s covenant theology cannot be labeled by terms such as “dichotomous” and “trichotomous.” While these terms may prove helpful in other cases, Owen’s theology of the covenants is so complex that any attempt to label him in this way inevitably misses some of the nuances of his thought.
Beeke, J. R., & Jones, M. (2012). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (p. 294). Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.Owen’s most detailed exposition of the old and new covenants flows out of his comments on Hebrews 8:6. However, in his exposition of Hebrews 7:9–10, Owen’s language may cause a great deal of confusion, especially given what has been said above. Quoting his words will make this potential problem apparent: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, Rom. 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 our representative, is all imputed unto us for righteousness and salvation.72How should this statement be interpreted? One possibility is that Owen changed his definition of covenant as he moved from Hebrews 7:9–10 to Hebrews 8:6. Do his comments on Hebrews 8:6 reflect his more mature covenant theology? It is hard to see how a writer as theologically and intellectually sophisticated as Owen would so quickly change his opinion and understanding of what constitutes a biblical covenant. More likely, however, Owen’s observations on Hebrews 7:9–10 refer to general soteric principles rather than specific exegetical details. In other words, Owen uses “covenant” in two ways: one in a more general sense; another that is more specific and takes into account the exegetical requirements for what constitutes a biblical covenant (i.e., it must also be a testament). Speaking generally, then, Owen can say, without contradicting himself in his later comments on Hebrews 8:6, that the principle of representation (Rom. 5:12) manifest itself in the two Adams so that the only hope of salvation (for the elect) rests in the second Adam, Jesus Christ. In this sense—and against Rehnman’s contention—Owen is better understood as a dichotomist rather than a trichotomist.
Beeke, J. R., & Jones, M. (2012). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (p. 302). Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.
Now, one may disagree with this conclusion but one has to do more than any of the following:
1. Simply label men as dishonest who have spent a great deal of time studying Owen but come to differing conclusions.
2. Simply rest one’s case on Owen’s commentary to the Hebrews. The note above about Owen’s exegetical fidelity is very important and there are larger Reformed methodologies at play than what appears on the surface if one simply spends all their time in Hebrews and becomes an expert on Owen’s theology of Hebrews. It is quite like “Pauline” scholars who claim that Paul has one theology in Ephesians and another in Romans or another Epistle or a totally different theology than James. One has to take into account the entire body of material as well as the methodology of the time. The point about Owen believing that a biblical covenant also had to be a testament to qualify as a biblical covenant has some nuance that needs to be unpacked and simply claiming to have Owen nailed down on Covenant theology because one knows everything he wrote in a exegetical commentary on Hebrews is not the same thing as saying they have nailed down Owen’s systematic view of the Covenant of Grace.
3. Simply point to Particular Baptists who claim they are just agreeing with the learned Owen on the matter. Look, these guys were intelligent just like studied men are on both sides of the issue today. If we are having trouble sorting out Owen on this issue then it’s not surprising if men in his own time had the same problem:Given the complexity of Owen’s position, one may sympathize with Anthony Burgess’s statement that on this point of divinity he found “learned men … confused and perplexed.”73
Beeke, J. R., & Jones, M. (2012). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (p. 302). Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.
In other words, let us all grant that there are learned men here and confusion and perplexity about Owen is not surprising so a dose of both humility and charity is in order when trying to press him into service for a particular position.
Here is my response:
In other words, let us all grant that there are learned men here and confusion and perplexity about Owen is not surprising so a dose of both humility and charity is in order when trying to press him into service for a particular position.
Absolutely. But that’s a two way street. You need to be open to the possibility that baptist scholars have interpreted Owen correctly while others have not.
simply claiming to have Owen nailed down on Covenant theology because one knows everything he wrote in a exegetical commentary on Hebrews is not the same thing as saying they have nailed down Owen’s systematic view of the Covenant of Grace.
Note the inconsistency here. Beeke and Jones quote Owen’s exegetical commentary on Hebrews 7:9-10, treat it as systematic theology, and use it to interpret Owen’s commentary on 8:6. Let’s be consistent. Owen’s exegetical commentary includes systematic theological statements.
The evidence suggests that Owen’s covenant theology cannot be labeled by terms such as “dichotomous” and “trichotomous.” While these terms may prove helpful in other cases, Owen’s theology of the covenants is so complex that any attempt to label him in this way inevitably misses some of the nuances of his thought.
I agree! Which is why I don’t label him as dichotomous or trichotomous and have never argued for that. I agree with this conclusion:
Owen’s covenant theology must be appreciated both against the backdrop of the broader Reformed theological tradition and on its own terms if his covenant theology is to be accurately understood and assessed. In Owen’s case, the customary labels may not be helpful in describing the thought of one who produced his own “minority report” among the various interpretations of the seventeenth-century orthodox Reformed.
Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 11913-11916). . Kindle Edition.
I think people on this forum need to take note of that particularly.
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, Rom. 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 our representative, is all imputed unto us for righteousness and
How should this statement be interpreted? One possibility is that Owen changed his definition of covenant as he moved from Hebrews 7:9–10 to Hebrews 8:6. Do his comments on Hebrews 8:6 reflect his more mature covenant theology? It is hard to see how a writer as theologically and intellectually sophisticated as Owen would so quickly change his opinion and understanding of what constitutes a biblical covenant. More likely, however, Owen’s observations on Hebrews 7:9–10 refer to general soteric principles rather than specific exegetical details. In other words, Owen uses “covenant” in two ways: one in a more general sense; another that is more specific and takes into account the exegetical requirements for what constitutes a biblical covenant (i.e., it must also be a testament). Speaking generally, then, Owen can say, without contradicting himself in his later comments on Hebrews 8:6, that the principle of representation (Rom. 5:12) manifest itself in the two Adams so that the only hope of salvation (for the elect) rests in the second Adam, Jesus Christ. In this sense—and against Rehnman’s contention—Owen is better understood as a dichotomist rather than a trichotomist.
Beeke, J. R., & Jones, M. (2012). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (p. 302). Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.
1. Owen does not deny that the Covenant of Works with Adam was a biblical covenant. He simply said that the specific covenant spoken of in Hebrews 8 was “a covenant and a testament” and therefore the Old Covenant was not referring to the Covenant of Works w/ Adam (which was not a testament).
Owen’s first concern is to show that the covenant made with Adam (i.e., the covenant of works), though not “expressly called a covenant,” but still containing the nature of a covenant (e.g., promises and threatening, rewards and punishments), “is not the covenant here intended [in Hebrews 8:6ff.].”25 The reason the covenant of works cannot be intended is because Hebrews 8 speaks of a “testament” (diatheke). The old in Hebrews 8 is both a covenant and a testament, and “there can be no testament, but there must be death for the confirmation of it, Heb.
Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 11741-11746). . Kindle Edition.
He also said the Old Covenant in Hebrews 8 was not the Covenant of Works because (2) that covenant has ceased and (3) Israel never absolutely under the power of the Covenant of Works. In other words, he is making theological deductions and arguments about general soteric principles, not just “specific exegetical details”.
This is the covenant of works, absolutely the old, or first covenant that God made with men. But this is not the covenant here intended; for, —
1st. The covenant called afterwards “the first,” was diaqh>kh, a “testament.” So it is here called. It was such a covenant as was a testament also. Now there can be no testament, but there must be death for the confirmation of it, <580916>Hebrews 9:16. But in the making of the covenant with Adam, there was not the death of any thing, whence it might be called a testament…
2dly. That first covenant made with Adam, had, as unto any benefit to be expected from it, with respect unto acceptation with God, life, and salvation, ceased long before, even at the entrance of sin. It was not abolished or abrogated by any act of God, as a law, but only was made weak and insufficient unto its first end, as a covenant. God had provided a way for the salvation of sinners, declared in the first promise… as a covenant, obliging unto personal, perfect, sinless obedience, as the condition of life, to be performed by themselves, so it ceased to be, long before the introduction of the new covenant which the apostle speaks of, that was promised “in the latter days.” But the other covenant here spoken of was not removed or taken away, until this new covenant was actually established.
3dly. The church of Israel was never absolutely under the power of that covenant as a covenant of life; for from the days of Abraham, the promise was given unto them and their seed. And the apostle proves that no law could afterwards be given, or covenant made, that should disannul that promise, <480317>Galatians 3:17. But had they been brought under the old covenant of works, it would have disannulled the promise; for that covenant and the promise are diametrically opposite. (74-75)
2. There is not actually any contradiction to resolve. Owen said “There were never absolutely any more than two covenants wherein all persons indefinitely are concerned.” Since for Owen the various post-fall covenants prior to the New Covenant did not concern all persons indefinitely, there is no contradiction to resolve. (For example, Owen notes regarding the Mosaic Covenant “as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal.” It was a covenant specifically with Israel regarding life in the land of Canaan, with Moses as it’s mediator/head – not Christ, thus it was a separate covenant from the Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace, but it did not concern all persons indefinitely so Owen does not have it in mind in that comment).
3. Owen spends a great deal of space in his Hebrews 8:6 exposition specifically addressing how to work out the question of how the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace relate to the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. It’s basically the whole thrust of his 150 pages
With respect hereunto it is that the Lord Christ is said to be the “mediator of a better covenant;” that is, of another distinct from it, and more excellent. It remains unto the exposition of the words, that we inquire what was this covenant, whereof our Lord Christ was the mediator, and what is here affirmed of it. This can be no other in general but that which we call “the covenant of grace.” And it is so called in opposition unto that of “works,” which was made with us in Adam; for these two, grace and works, do divide the ways of our relation unto God, being diametrically opposite, and every way inconsistent, Romans 11:6. Of this covenant the Lord Christ was the mediator from the foundation of the world, namely, from the giving of the first promise, Revelation 13:8; for it was given on his interposition, and all the benefits of it depended on his future actual mediation. But here ariseth the first difficulty of the context, and that in two things; for –
[1.] If this covenant of grace was made from the beginning, and if the LORD Christ was the mediator of it from the first, then where is the privilege of the gospel-state in opposition unto the law, by virtue of this covenant, seeing that under the law also the Lord Christ was the mediator of that covenant, which was from the beginning ?
[2.] If it be the covenant of grace which is intended, and that be opposed unto the covenant of works made with Adam, then the other covenant must be that covenant of works so made with Adam, which we have before disproved.
The answer hereunto is in the word here used by the apostle concerning this new covenant: nenomoqe>thtai, whose meaning we must inquire into. I say, therefore, that the apostle doth not here consider the new covenant absolutely, and as it was virtually administered from the foundation of the world, in the way of a promise; for as such it was consistent with that covenant made with the people in Sinai. And the apostle proves expressly, that the renovation of it made unto Abraham was no way abrogated by the giving of the law, Galatians 3:17. There was no interruption of its administration made by the introduction of the law. But he treats of such an establishment of the new covenant as wherewith the old covenant made at Sinai was absolutely inconsistent, and which was therefore to be removed out of the way. Wherefore he considers it here as it was actually completed, so as to bring along with it all the ordinances of worship which are proper unto it, the dispensation of the Spirit in them, and all the spiritual privileges wherewith they are accompanied. It is now so brought in as to become the entire rule of the church’s faith, obedience, and worship, in all things.
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.
Thus for Owen, the solution is that the Covenant of Grace was not a covenant until Christ’s death. Beeke and Jones are incorrect when they say:
The evidence suggests that Owen does not simply equate the covenant of grace with the new covenant. For example, Owen writes, “When we speak of the ‘new covenant,’ we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely.”36…
For Owen, the covenant of grace only formally becomes a covenant through the death of Christ (Heb. 9:15–23), although this sacrifice had been decreed from before the foundation of the world. As a result, the new covenant, promised in the Old Testament, is not the promise of grace, but the actual “formal nature of a covenant” through its establishment by the death ofThe new covenant, then, is the fulfillment of the covenant of grace, but also distinguishable from it by virtue of being a testament. Hebrews 8 has, therefore, special reference not to the covenant of grace, but to the new covenant specifically.
Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 11785-11789). . Kindle Edition.
They have misunderstood Owen’s comments. Owen does use “new covenant” and “covenant of grace” interchangeably. When he says “absolutely considered” he is not opposing the new covenant to the covenant of grace, he is opposing the covenant of grace promised vs the covenant of grace established. Nowhere does Owen say the new covenant is distinguished from the covenant of grace because the new covenant is a testament. Note how Owen uses “new covenant” and “covenant of grace” interchangeably.
that covenant which had invisibly, in the way of a promise… all this was superinduced into the covenant as given out in a promise… the new covenant was given out only in the way of a promise… 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.
Again, the distinction Owen makes is not between the covenant of grace and the new covenant, but instead between the covenant of grace (the new covenant) promised and the covenant of grace (the new covenant) established.
Owen rejects the one substance/multiple administrations view of the covenant of grace in favor of a promised/established view of the covenant of grace. And this is not simply in reference to the Mosaic Covenant but to all covenants in the bible:
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: — …”
Make sure to read “DOLPHINS IN THE WOODS”: A Critique of Mark Jones and Ted Van Raalte’s Presentation of Particular Baptist Covenant Theology, Samuel Renihan in the 2015 JIRBS. It deals with Owen as well. http://www.rbap.net/jirbs-2015-article-titles/
Because of the nature of spiritual pride, it is the most secret of all sins. There is no other matter in which the heart is more deceitful and unsearchable and there is no other sin in the world that men are so confident in.
Please take a look at the Index Page to browse for posts.
There is yet no reason why God should not have extended the grace of the new covenant to the fathers. This is the true solution of the question.
Calvin taught that the Old Covenant and the New Covenant were both equally the eternal Covenant of Grace.
1. From what has been said above, it must now be clear, that all whom, from the beginning of the world, God adopted as his peculiar people, were taken into covenant with him on the same conditions, and under the same bond of doctrine, as ourselves; but as it is of no small importance to establish this point, I will here add it by way of appendix, and show, since the Fathers were partakers with us in the same inheritance, and hoped for a common salvation through the grace of the same Mediator, how far their condition in this respect was different from our own… The covenant made with all the fathers is so far from differing from ours in reality and substance, that it is altogether one and the same: still the administration differs.
The administration differs with regards to outward appearance, rather than to true substance.
the comparison made by the Apostle refers to the form rather than to the substance; for though God promised to them the same salvation which he at this day promises to us, yet neither the manner nor the character of the revelation is the same or equal to what we enjoy.
(Commentary on Hebrews 8:6)
Here we may see in what respect the legal is compared with the evangelical covenant, the ministry of Christ with that of Moses. If the comparison referred to the substance of the promises, there would be a great repugnance between the two covenants; but since the nature of the case leads to a different view, we must follow it in order to discover the truth. Let us, therefore bring forward the covenant which God once ratified as eternal and unending. Its completion, whereby it is fixed and ratified, is Christ. Till such completion takes place, the Lord, by Moses, prescribes ceremonies which are, as it were formal symbols of confirmation. The point brought under discussion was, Whether or not the ceremonies ordained in the Law behaved to give way to Christ. Although these were merely accidents of the covenant, or at least additions and appendages, and, as they are commonly called, accessories, yet because they were the means of administering it, the name of covenant is applied to them, just as is done in the case of other sacraments. Hence, in general, the Old Testament is the name given to the solemn method of confirming the covenant comprehended under ceremonies and sacrifices. Since there is nothing substantial in it, until we look beyond it, the Apostle contends that it behaved to be annulled and become antiquated (Heb. 7:22), to make room for Christ, the surety and mediator of a better covenant, by whom the eternal sanctification of the elect was once purchased, and the transgressions which remained under the Law wiped away. But if you prefer it, take it thus: the covenant of the Lord was old, because veiled by the shadowy and ineffectual observance of ceremonies; and it was therefore temporary, being, as it were in suspense until it received a firm and substantial confirmation. Then only did it become new and eternal when it was consecrated and established in the blood of Christ. Hence the Saviour, in giving the cup to his disciples in the last supper, calls it the cup of the new testament in his blood; intimating, that the covenant of God was truly realised, made new, and eternal, when it was sealed with his blood.
He contends that Hebrews 8 is dealing only with the ceremonies (“the comparison made by the Apostle refers to the form rather than to the substance.”) However, he arrives at some difficulty at v10 where he begins listing what Scripture says the New Covenant consists of – it consists of things that cannot be regarded as accidents but as the substance.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make, etc. There are two main parts in this covenant; the first regards the gratuitous remission of sins; and the other, the inward renovation of the heart; there is a third which depends on the second, and that is the illumination of the mind as to the knowledge of God. There are here many things most deserving of notice.
The first is, that God calls us to himself without effect as long as he speaks to us in no other way than by the voice of man. He indeed teaches us and commands what is right but he speaks to the deaf; for when we seem to hear anything, our ears are only struck by an empty sound; and the heart, full of depravity and perverseness, rejects every wholesome doctrine. In short, the word of God never penetrates into our hearts, for they are iron and stone until they are softened by him; nay, they have engraven on them a contrary law, for perverse passions rule within, which lead us to rebellion. In vain then does God proclaim his Law by the voice of man, unless he writes it by his Spirit on our hearts, that is, unless he forms and prepares us for obedience. It hence appears of what avail is freewill and the uprightness of nature before God regenerates us. We will indeed and choose freely; but our will is carried away by a sort of insane impulse to resist God. Thus it comes that the Law is ruinous and fatal to us as long as it remains written only on tables of stone, as Paul also teaches us. (2 Corinthians 3:3.) In short, we then only obediently embrace what God commands, when by his Spirit he changes and corrects the natural pravity of our hearts; otherwise he finds nothing in us but corrupt affections and a heart wholly given up to evil. The declaration indeed is clear, that a new covenant is made according to which God engraves his laws on our hearts, for otherwise it would be in vain and of no effect.
The second particular refers to the gratuitous pardon of sins. Though they have sinned, saith the Lord, yet I will pardon them. This part is also most necessary; for God never so forms us for obedience to his righteousness, but that many corrupt affections of the flesh still remain; nay, it is only in part that the viciousness of our nature is corrected; so that evil lusts break out now and then. And hence is that contest of which Paul complains, when the godly do not obey God as they ought, but in various ways offend. (Romans 7:13.) Whatever desire then there may be in us to live righteously, we are still guilty of eternal death before God, because our life is ever very far from the perfection which the Law requires. There would then be no stability in the covenant, except God gratuitously forgave our sins. But it is the peculiar privilege of the faithful who have once embraced the covenant offered to them in Christ, that they feel assured that God is propitious to them; nor is the sin to which they are liable, a hindrance to them, for they have the promise of pardon.
And it must be observed that this pardon is promised to them, not for one day only, but to the very end of life, so that they have a daily reconciliation with God. For this favor is extended to the whole of Christ’s kingdom, as Paul abundantly proves in the fifth chapter of his second Epistle to the Corinthians. And doubtless this is the only true asylum of our faith, to which if we flee not, constant despair must be our lot. For we are all of us guilty; nor can we be otherwise released then by fleeing to God’s mercy, which alone can pardon us.
And they shall be to me, etc. It is the fruit of the covenant, that God chooses us for his people, and assures us that he will be the guardian of our salvation. This is indeed the meaning of these words, And I will be to them a God; for he is not the God of the dead, nor does he take us under his protection, but that he may make us partakers of righteousness and of life, so that David justly exclaims, “Blessed are the people to whom the Lord is God (Psalm 144:15.) There is further no doubt but that this truth belongs also to us; for though the Israelites had the first place, and are the proper and legitimate heirs of the covenant, yet their prerogative does not hinder us from having also a title to it. In short, however far and wide the kingdom of Christ extends, this covenant of salvation is of the same extent.
But it may be asked, whether there was under the Law a sure and certain promise of salvation, whether the fathers had the gift of the Spirit, whether they enjoyed God’s paternal favor through the remission of sins? Yes, it is evident that they worshipped God with a sincere heart and a pure conscience, and that they walked in his commandments, and this could not have been the case except they had been inwardly taught by the Spirit; and it is also evident, that whenever they thought of their sins, they were raised up by the assurance of a gratuitous pardon. And yet the Apostle, by referring the prophecy of Jeremiah to the coming of Christ, seems to rob them of these blessings. To this I reply, that he does not expressly deny that God formerly wrote his Law on their hearts and pardoned their sins, but he makes a comparison between the less and the greater. As then the Father has put forth more fully the power of his Spirit under the kingdom of Christ, and has poured forth more abundantly his mercy on mankind, this exuberance renders insignificant the small portion of grace which he had been pleased to bestow on the fathers. We also see that the promises were then obscure and intricate, so that they shone only like the moon and stars in comparison with the clear light of the Gospel which shines brightly on us.
If it be objected and said, that the faith and obedience of Abraham so excelled, that hardly any such an example can at this day be found in the whole world; my answer is this, that the question here is not about persons, but that reference is made to the economical condition of the Church. Besides, whatever spiritual gifts the fathers obtained, they were accidental as it were to their age; for it was necessary for them to direct their eyes to Christ in order to become possessed of them. Hence it was not without reason that the Apostle, in comparing the Gospel with the Law, took away from the latter what is peculiar to the former. There is yet no reason why God should not have extended the grace of the new covenant to the fathers. This is the true solution of the question.
(Commentary on Hebrews 8:10)
Calvin’s argument in Hebrews 8 is that the only difference is accidental – in outward appearance, manner of revelation, emphasis, etc. Yet Scripture says the newness of the New Covenant is regeneration and forgiveness of sins. Calvin reasons that it only means that under the New Covenant “the Father has put forth more fully the power of his Spirit under the kingdom of Christ, and has poured forth more abundantly his mercy on mankind.” And yet, Abraham’s faith excelled ours and is the model of our faith. Calvin concludes that the real solution is to admit there is no reason to say God did not “extend the grace of the new covenant” to Abraham.
He was comfortable saying so because he had read Augustine, and that is precisely what Augustine taught.
10. The three last contrasts to which we have adverted (sec. 4, 7, 9), are between the Law and the Gospel, and hence in these the Law is designated by the name of the Old, and the Gospel by that of the New Testament. The first is of wider extent (sec. 1), comprehending under it the promises which were given even before the Law. When Augustine maintained that these were not to be included under the name of the Old Testament (August. ad Bonifac. lib. 3 c. 14), he took a most correct view, and meant nothing different from what we have now taught; for he had in view those passages of Jeremiah and Paul in which the Old Testament is distinguished from the word of grace and mercy. In the same passage, Augustine, with great shrewdness remarks, that from the beginning of the world the sons of promise, the divinely regenerated, who, through faith working by love, obeyed the commandments, belonged to the New Testament [Covenant]; entertaining the hope not of carnal, earthly, temporal, but spiritual, heavenly, and eternal blessings, believing especially in a Mediator, by whom they doubted not both that the Spirit was administered to them, enabling them to do good, and pardon imparted as often as they sinned. The thing which he thus intended to assert was, that all the saints mentioned in Scripture, from the beginning of the world, as having been specially selected by God, were equally with us partakers of the blessing of eternal salvation. The only difference between our division and that of Augustine is, that ours (in accordance with the words of our Saviour, “All the prophets and the law prophesied until John,” Mt. 11:13) distinguishes between the gospel light and that more obscure dispensation of the word which preceded it, while the other division simply distinguishes between the weakness of the Law and the strength of the Gospel. And here also, with regard to the holy fathers, it is to be observed, that though they lived under the Old Testament, they did not stop there, but always aspired to the New, and so entered into sure fellowship with it. Those who, contented with existing shadows, did not carry their thoughts to Christ, the Apostle charges with blindness and malediction. To say nothing of other matters, what greater blindness can be imagined, than to hope for the expiation of sin from the sacrifice of a beast, or to seek mental purification in external washing with water, or to attempt to appease God with cold ceremonies, as if he were greatly delighted with them? Such are the absurdities into which those fall who cling to legal observances, without respect to Christ.
Despite appealing to Augustine to demonstrate that all the saints from the beginning of the world belonged to the New Covenant, notice that Calvin acknowledges a difference between Augustine’s view and his own. He says his view makes the distinction between the Old and New Covenants a matter of obscurity and clarity, while Augustine makes it a matter of Law and Gospel. That is no small difference!
The reality is, Augustine did not agree with Calvin’s main point: that the Old and the New are the same covenant. He rejected it in very strong terms. Calvin found recourse in Augustine when he had to reconcile Scripture’s teaching regarding regeneration as a grace of the New Covenant, but that is because Augustine was much more biblical in his understanding of the differences between the Old and the New.
At all events, in those ancient Scriptures it is most distinctly written: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will consummate a new testament with the house of Israel and with the house of Jacob; not according to the testament that I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand, to lead them out of the land of Egypt.” (Jer 31:31, 32) This was done on Mount Sinai. But then there had not yet risen the prophet Daniel to say: “The saints shall receive the kingdom of the Most High.” (Dan 7:18) For by these words he foretold the merit not of the Old, but of the New Testament. In the same manner did the same prophets foretell that Christ Himself would come, in whose blood the New Testament was consecrated. Of this Testament also the apostles became the ministers, as the most blessed Paul declares: “He hath made us able ministers of the New Testament; not in its letter, but in spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Cor 3:6) In that testament [covenant], however, which is properly called the Old, and was given on Mount Sinai, only earthly happiness is expressly promised. Accordingly that land, into which the nation, after being led through the wilderness, was conducted, is called the land of promise, wherein peace and royal power, and the gaining of victories over enemies, and an abundance of children and of fruits of the ground, and gifts of a similar kind are the promises of the Old Testament. And these, indeed, are figures of the spiritual blessings which appertain to the New Testament; but yet the man who lives under God’s law with those earthly blessings for his sanction, is precisely the heir of the Old Testament, for just such rewards are promised and given to him, according to the terms of the Old Testament, as are the objects of his desire according to the condition of the old man. But whatever blessings are there figuratively set forth as appertaining to the New Testament require the new man to give them effect. And no doubt the great apostle understood perfectly well what he was saying, when he described the two testaments as capable of the allegorical distinction of the bond-woman and the free,—attributing the children of the flesh to the Old, and to the New the children of the promise: “They,” says he, “which are the children of the flesh, are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” (Rom 9:8) The children of the flesh, then, belong to the earthly Jerusalem, which is in bondage with her children; whereas the children of the promise belong to the Jerusalem above, the free, the mother of us all, eternal in the heavens. (Gal 4:25, 26) Whence we can easily see who they are that appertain to the earthly, and who to the heavenly kingdom. But then the happy persons, who even in that early age were by the grace of God taught to understand the distinction now set forth, were thereby made the children of promise, and were accounted in the secret purpose of God as heirs of the New Testament; although they continued with perfect fitness to administer the Old Testament to the ancient people of God, because it was divinely appropriated to that people in God’s distribution of the times and seasons.
A.W. Pink quoted portions of the following comments on Exodus 19:5 by Thomas Scott (1747-1821) in Scott’s The Holy Bible with Explanatory Notes, Practical Observations, and Copious Marginal References (1788-). Scott was friends with John Newton and was one of the founding members with him of the Church Missionary Society.
The national covenant with Israel here meant the charter upon which they were incorporated as a people under the government of Jehovah. It was an engagement of God, to give Israel possession Canaan, and to protect them in it; to render the land fruitful and the nation victorious and prosperous, and to perpetuate his oracles and ordinances among them; so long they did not, as a people, reject his authority apostatize idolatry and tolerate open wickedness. These things constituted a forfeiture of the covenant, as their national rejection of Christ did afterwards. True believers them were personally dealt with according to the covenant of mercy and grace even as true Christians now are; unbelievers were under the covenant of works and liable condemnation by it, as at present: yet the national covenant was not strictly either the one or the other but something in it of the nature of each. It did not refer the final salvation of individuals; nor was it broken by disobedience, or even idolatry, of any number of them, provided this was not sanctioned or tolerated by authority. It indeed, in many respects, prefigured dealings of God with his people, under the Christian dispensation; in which the new covenant of grace and mercy, made with all true believers, is more clearly exhibited under any of the preceding dispensations; yet it “had not the very image,” but only “a shadow of good things come.” When therefore, the nation had broken covenant; the Lord declared that he would make “a new covenant with the house of Israel… putting his law,” only in their hands, but “in their inward parts;” and “writing it,” not upon tables of stone, “but in hearts; forgiving their iniquity, and remembering sins no more.” (Jer xxxi 32-34. Heb viii 7-12. x. 16, 17) In the scriptures referred to, the covenant of, “as ready to vanish away” is evidently not the covenant of works but the national covenant with Israel, which the Israelites had vacated by their sins. Unless we carefully attend to this distinction, we shall be liable to fall into perpetual mistakes in reading the Old Testament. Hardly any thing can be more absurd, than to suppose, that the whole nation of the Jews was under the covenant of works, which contains nothing about repentance, faith in a Mediator, forgiveness of sins, or grace; yet we often meet language in Christian authors, which conveys this idea. And it is perhaps more common to hear the whole of Israel spoken of, as if they all bare the character, and possessed the privileges of true believers, actually interested in the covenant of grace; and conclusions are continually drawn from such premises, as if undeniable! But in fact, the Israelites were under a dispensation of mercy, and had outward privileges and great advantages in various ways for salvation; yet like professing Christians the most of them rested in these and looked no further. “For they are not all Israel which are of Israel.” The outward covenant was made with the nation, entitling them to outward advantages, upon the condition of outward national obedience: and the covenant of grace was ratified personally with true believers, and sealed and secured spiritual blessings to them, by producing a holy disposition of heart, and spiritual obedience to the divine law. In case Israel kept the covenant, the Lord promised, that they should be to him “a peculiar treasure,” which is safely reposited because highly valued. The whole earth being the Lord’s, he might have chosen any other people instead of Israel: and this implied that as his choice of them was gratuitous, so, if they rejected his covenant he would reject them, and communicate their privileges to others: as indeed he hath done since the introduction of the Christian dispensation.
A peculiar treasure. Deut 7:6. 14:2. 26:18. 1 Chron 24:3. Mal 3:17. – The LXX render it “a peculiar people.” See Tit. 2:14 Gr.
Israel was formed into “a kingdom of priests,” an honourable, and sacred kingdom, under Jehovah himself as their King, who manifested his special presence among them, from above the Mercy-seat. They were also distinguished from other kingdoms, by laws and statutes immediately given them from God, and bearing the stamp of his holiness. He, in an especial manner, was then Protector against every foe; and they were his professed worshippers, according to the oracles and ordinances which he gave them. Thus they were a “kingdom of priests,” and “a holy nation,” separated from other people, consecrated to God, permitted to approach him, to offer sacrifices and supplications, and possessing a sacred character among the nations of the earth. Israel had these outward distinctions; but the nation was only a type of all true Christians, in their spiritual privileges and real character, in the sight of God, and before the world. (Notes, 1 Pet ii 9, 10. Rev i 4-6. v8-10).
It has repeatedly been observed, that all unbelievers continued personally under ‘the covenant of works;’ and that believers were personally interested in ‘the covenant of grace,’ by faith in the Messiah who was to come (Note, Ex. xix. 5). The Mosaick dispensation contained in it a typical gospel, and its ordinances were to believers ‘means of grace,’ as well as acts of worship. But the covenant here referred to was that made with Israel as a nation, securing the possession of Canaan, and various temporal benefits to them, on prescribed conditions: and the promises of all spiritual blessings, and of eternal life, to believers of all nations and through all succeeding ages, which were openly revealed by the gospel, and ratiried through Christ, are of infinitely greater value, than any temporal advantages to a single nation could be.
The Mosaick law indeed, and the Sinai covenant, were well suited to introduce the promised Messiah, and the gospel dispensation, and to form, as it were, a proper scaffolding for that magnificent edifice: (Note, Deut xxxii. 4:) yet they did not secure the sanctification and salvation of the people; nor did they even prevent such national apostasies, as were a forfeiture of all their privileges…
Jeremiah 31:31-34… was fulfilled in the conversion of multitudes of Judah and Israel, in the primitive times of the gospel, and it foretells the future conversion and restoration of that people: but it is also fulfilled to all the spiritual Israel, who are really “a holy nation,” as Israel according to the flesh was relatively. And as it can be said of no other company, that they “all know the LORD;” it must be meant of them especially. – The repentance, faith, divine and efficacious teaching, and the sanctification of the chosen people of God, as well as the complete and final forgiveness of all their sins, how many and great soever, so that they should never more be remembered against them, were provided for, in the “better promises of this new covenant:” and thus their holy obedience, their final perseverance, and their eternal salvation were secured. The apostle, therefore, inferred conclusively from this prediction, that the promise of the new covenant had in effect “made the first old,” or antiquated: and this was as much to say, that it was “decaying, and about to vaish away.” So that the abolition of the national covenant made with Israel and the abrogation of the Mosaick law, would have been expected by the Jews, at the coming of the Messiah, according to their own prophets, if they had not erred from ignorance of the scriptures. (Notes, vii. 1-22).
Note particularly: the new covenant is the covenant of grace, not the old covenant. And individual Israelites, who had true faith, were members of the new covenant. This is what Romans 9:6 means. “They are not all Israel” = new covenant, “who are of Israel” = old covenant. And the nation of Israel was not the church – it was a type of the church. To treat all of Israel as if they were interested in the covenant of grace and to draw conclusions from that is wrong.