Mark Jones recently responded to Lee Irons on the question of faith as a condition of justification. In light of my last two posts, I just want to make one short comment. Jones rightly notes that Owen permits faith to be a condition of justification (after spending a couple of pages carefully qualifying what that can and cannot mean, and noting it is liable to confusion), but then he goes on to imply Owen therefore thought faith was the antecedent condition to interest the believer in Christ and the covenant of grace itself. That was not Owen’s position, though it was the position of others.
In his commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13, Owen carefully distinguished between conditions for obtaining an interest in the covenant and conditions for certain blessings within the covenant. He said faith is a condition for justification, but not a condition of the covenant itself. Rather, faith is a blessing of the covenant. For Owen, the covenant of grace itself was entirely unconditional and unbreakable.
[I]n the description of the covenant here annexed, there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed unto him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises…
It is evident that there can be no condition previously required, unto our entering into or participation of the benefits of this covenant, antecedent unto the making of it with us. For none think there are any such with respect unto its original constitution; nor can there be so in respect of its making with us, or our entering into it… It is contrary unto the nature, ends, and express properties of this covenant. For there is nothing that can be thought or supposed to be such a condition, but it is comprehended in the promise of the covenant itself; for all that God requireth in us is proposed as that which himself will effect by virtue of this covenant…
It is evident that the first grace of the covenant, or God’s putting his law in our hearts, can depend on no condition on our part. For whatever is antecedent thereunto, being only a work or act of corrupted nature, can be no condition whereon the dispensation of spiritual grace is superadded. And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.
Unto a full and complete interest in all the promises of the covenant, faith on our part, from which evangelical repentance is inseparable, is required. But whereas these also are wrought in us by virtue of that promise and grace of the covenant which are absolute, it is a mere strife about words to contend whether they may be called conditions or no. Let it be granted on the one hand, that we cannot have an actual participation of the relative grace of this covenant in adoption and justification, without faith or believing; and on the other, that this faith is wrought in us, given unto us, bestowed upon us, by that grace of the covenant which depends on no condition in us as unto its discriminating administration, and I shall not concern myself what men will call it…
The covenant of grace, as reduced into the form of a testament, confirmed by the blood of Christ, doth not depend on any condition or qualification in our persons, but on a free grant and donation of God; and so do all the good things prepared in it.
Owen was also clear that we have an interest in Christ prior to faith, and, in fact, our faith presupposes an interest in Christ:
No blessing can be given us for Christ’s sake, unless, in order of nature, Christ be first reckoned unto us… God’s reckoning Christ, in our present sense, is the imputing of Christ unto ungodly, unbelieving sinners for whom he died, so far as to account him theirs, and to bestow faith and grace upon them for his sake. This, then, I say, at the accomplishment of the appointed time, the Lord reckons, and accounts, and makes out his Son Christ, to such and such sinners, and for his sake gives them faith, etc. (X, 626-27)
In this regard, Owen sided with Crisp (though Owen made important corrections to what Crisp thought were necessary implications on this point).
For more, see my last two posts: