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Romans 2:7 and 2:13

November 12, 2017 4 comments

R. Scott Clark recently wrote a lengthy post Romans 2:13: Justified Through Our Faithfulness? As is often the case, Clark’s defense of sola fide is helpful and encouraging, while his handling of historical theology is not. Clark has a tendancy to always paint the reformed tradition to be in complete agreement with him, even when it is not.

In this particular post, Clark addresses Norman Shepherd’s erroneous reading of Romans 2:13 (“the doers of the law will be justified”) as referring to the believer at the final judgment. Clark rightly explains how “The whole of chapter 2 is a prosecution of the Jews according to the standard that had been revealed to them,” but he misleads the reader into thinking that has been precisely the reformed interpretation until 1978. He neglects to mention that many have interpreted 2:7 (“to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life”) as referring to believers at the judgment.

v7 = Gospel

Clark says “Calvin found no good news for sinners in this section [ch. 1-3] of Romans.” Yet commenting on v6-7, Calvin says “[A]s he sanctifies those whom he has previously resolved to glorify, he will also crown their good works… The meaning then is, — that the Lord will give eternal life to those who, by attention to good works, strive to attain immortality.”

On v.7 John Brown wrote “tho good works have no casual efficacy or influence on our salvation, as any meritorious cause, either procuring a right to life, or the actual possession thereof, (Christ’s merits being the sole procuring cause) and so are not necessary upon that score; yet are they necessary as the way carved out by infinite wisdom[.]”

Even Gill says “[S]uch who believe in Christ, and perform good works from a principle of grace, shall receive the reward of the inheritance, which is a reward of grace, and not of debt.”

Examples could easily be multiplied. Most of these men hold to a “mediating position” wherein they view v7 as referring to the gospel, but v13 as referring to the law. This has always seemed quite inconsistent to me. Sam Waldron agrees: “I find such a position somewhat contradictory and certainly unsatisfying.”

v6-7 = Law

Recognizing this inconsistency, others have held that v6-7 refers to the law. The Geneva Study Bible (1560) notes “Glory which follows good works, which he does not lay out before us as though there were any that could attain to salvation by his own strength, but, he lays this condition of salvation before us, which no man can perform, to bring men to Christ, who alone justifies the believers, as he himself concludes; see (Romans 2:21-22).”

In 1692, in the midst of the Neonomian controversy in England, William Marshall wrote a very important book called The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification Opened. Marshall said

Those that endeavour to procure God’s salvation by their sincere obedience to all the commands of Christ, do act contrary to that way of salvation by Christ, free grace, and faith, discovered in the gospel… Christ, or his apostles, never taught a gospel that requireth such a condition of works for salvation as they plead for. The texts of scripture which they usually allege for this purpose, are either contrary to it, or widely distant from it… They grossly pervert those words of Paul, Rom. ii. 6, 7. Where they will have Paul to be declaring the terms of the gospel, when he is evidently declaring the terms of the law, to prove that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin, and that no flesh can be justified by the works of the law, as appeareth by the tenor of his following discourse, Rom. iii. 9, 10.

Owen said

The words there [Rom 2:7] are used in a law sense, and are declarative of the righteousness of God in rewarding the keepers of the law of nature, or the moral law, according to the law of the covenant of works. This is evident from the whole design of the apostle in that place, which is to convince all men, Jews and Gentiles, of sin against the law, and of the impossibility of the obtaining the glory of God thereby.

Charles Hodge said

The question at his bar will be, not whether a man is a Jew or a Gentile, whether he belongs to the chosen people or to the heathen world, but whether he has obeyed the law. This principle is amplified and applied in what follows, in vers. 7-11… [I]t is more pertinent to remark, in the second place, that the apostle is not here teaching the method of justification, but is laying down those general principles of justice, according to which, irrespective of the gospel, all men are to be judged. He is expounding the law, not the gospel. And as the law not only says that death is the stages of sin, but also that those who keep its precepts shall live by them, so the apostle says, that God will punish the wicked and reward the righteous. This is perfectly consistent with what he afterwards teaches, that there are none righteous; that there are none who so obey the law as to be entitled to the life which it promises; and that for such the gospel provides a plan of justification without works, a plan for saving those whom the law condemns… The principle laid down in ver. 6, is here [v7] amplified. God will render eternal life to the good, indignation and wrath to the wicked, without distinction of persons; to the Jews no less than to the Gentiles.

and in his Systematic Theology, Part II, Ch. VI, S6 “Perpetuity of the Covenant of Works he says

[W]hile the Pelagian doctrine is to be rejected, which teaches that each man comes into the world free from sin and free from condemnation, and stands his probation in his own person, it is nevertheless true that where there is no sin there is no condemnation. Hence our Lord said to the young man, “This do and thou shalt live.” And hence the Apostle in the second chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, says that God will reward every man according to his works. To those who are good, He will give eternal life; to those who are evil, indignation and wrath. This is only saying that the eternal principles of justice are still in force. If any man can present himself before the bar of God and prove that he is free from sin, either imputed or personal, either original or actual, he will not be condemned.

Robert Haldane said

According to his deeds. – That is to say, either according to his righteousness, if any were found in himself righteous, which will not be the case, for all men are sinners, but it will be according to the judgment to require righteousness… [I]t will regard solely the works of each individual, and that their deeds will comprehend everything that is either obedience or disobedience to the law of God… a perseverance with resistance to all that opposes, namely, to all temptations, all snares… It is not meant that any man can produce such a perseverance in good works, for there is only one, Jesus Christ, who can glory in having wrought out a perfect righteousness… But here the Apostle only declare what the Divine judgment will demand according to the law, to which the Jews were adhering for justification before God… This shows how ignorantly the Church of Rome seeks to draw from this passage a proof of the merit of works, and of justification by works, since it teaches a doctrine the very contrary; for all that the Apostle says in this chapter is intended to show the necessiry of another mode of justification than that of the law, namely, by grace, which the Gospel sets before us through faith in Jesus Christ, according to which God pardons sins, as the Apostle afterwards shows in the third chapter. To pretend, then, to establish justification by works, and the merit of works, by what is said here, is directly to oppose the meaning and reasoning of the Apostle…

Eternal life – The Apostle does not say that God will render salvation, but ‘eternal life.’ The truth declared in this verse, and in those that follow, is the same as that exhibited by our Lord when the rich young man asked Him, ‘What good thing shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?’ His reply was, ‘If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,’ Matt. xix. 16… Luke x. 25… The verse before us, then, which delcares that eternal life shall be awarded to those who seek it by patient continuance in well-doing, and who, according to the 10th verse, work good, both of which announce the full demand of the law, are of the same import with the 13th verse, which affirms that the doers of the law shall be justified. In all these verses the Apostle is referring to the law, and not, as it is generally understood, the Gospel…

Note what else Haldane says.

I know that the view here given of these verses is contrary to that of almost all the English commentaries on this Epistle. I have consulted a great number of them, besides those of Calvin, and Beza, and Maretz, and the Dutch annotations, and that of Quesnel, all of which, with one voice, explain the 7th and 10th verses of this chapter as referring to the Gospel…

I have noticed that from this passage the Church of Rome endeavors to establish the merit of works, and of justification by means of works.

Accordingly, Quesnel, a Roman Catholic, in expounding the 6th verse, exclaims, ‘Merites veritables; necessite des bonnes oeuvres. Ce sont nos actions bonnes ou mauvaises qui rendent doux ou severe le jugement de Dieu!’ ‘Real merits; necessity of good works. They are our good or bad actions which render the judgment of God mild or severe!’ And indeed, were the usual interpretation of this and the three following verses the just one, it must be confessed that this Romanist would have some ground for his triumph. But if we take the words in their plain and obvious import, and understand the Apostle in this place as announcing the terms of the law, in order to prove to the Jews the necessity of having recourse to grace, and of yielding to the goodness and forbearance of God, leading them to repentance, while he assures them that ‘not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified,’ then the whole train of his discourse is clear and consistent. On the other supposition, it appears confused and self contradictory, and calculated not merely to perplex, but positively to mislead, and to strengthen the prejudices of those who were going about to establish their own righteousness. For in whatever way these expressions may with certain explanations and qualifications be interpreted in an evangelical sense, yet unquestionably, as taken by themselves, and especially in the connection in which they stand in this place, they present the same meaning as is announced in the 13th verse, where the Apostle declares that the doers of the law shall be justified.

v13 = Gospel

It is in the context of a great many commentators holding to a contradictory “mediating position” that Norm Shepherd argued that v13 refers to the gospel, just like v6. Thus it is not entirely out of nowhere, as R. Scott Clark implies (recall also Marshall above, who was writing against Presbyterian neonomians in his day). Shepherd said

20. The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified (Compare Luke 8:21; James 1:22-25).

In his rejection of the Covenant of Works, Shepherd was very much following in the steps of John Murray (see Murray on Lev. 18:5 – Why Did John Murray Reject the Covenant of Works?). On Romans 2, Murray held to the mediating position. On v7 he said

The reward of this aspiration is in like manner the eschatology of the believer, “eternal life”… Could God judge any unto the reward of eternal life (cf. vs. 7) if works are the criteria? ‘The apostle thus speaks, not in the way of abstract hypothesis but of concrete assertion… He says not what God would do were He to proceed in accordance with the primal rule and standard of the law, but what, proceeding according to that rule, He will actually do.’… The determining factor in the rewards of retribution or of glory is not the privileged position of the Jew but evil-doing or well-doing respectively.

His rejection of the Covenant of Works left no reason for him to not follow through and carry this view on to v6, but he slammed on the brakes and argued for the hypothetical view of v13.

It is quite unnecessary to find in this verse any doctrine of justification by works in conflict with the teaching of this epistle in later chapters. Whether any will be actually justified by works either in this life or at the final judgment is beside the apostle’s interest and design at this juncture…

This holds true as a principle of equity but, existentially, it never comes into operation in the human race for the reason that there are no doers of the law, no doing of the law that will ground or elicit justification – ‘there is none righteous, no, not one’ (vs. [3:]10)

Recall Sam Waldron

Though Murray clearly argues in his comments on verses 6-11 that the judgment in view is not hypothetical and that the works in view are evangelical works which vindicate one’s saving faith in the dya of judgment, yet to my surprise Murray also takes a hypothetical or empty-set view of Romans 2:13… Let me hasten to add that, though I respect John Murray a great deal and have sometimes named him as my patron saint (!), I find such a position somewhat contradictory and certainly unsatisfying.

John Kinnaird was an OPC elder who taught Shepherd’s false gospel. He was brought to trial but was defended by Richard Gaffin. Note what Gaffin said during his testimony

[W]hile a large number of Reformed exegetes have understood the scenario there, the final judgment scenario there, on the positive side, in verse 7 and 10 and 13, have understood that in a hypothetical sense… there have also been other exegetes, within the reformed tradition, that have questioned that hypothetical understanding. And you see that at least for verses 6 to 11 very clearly in John Murray’s Romans commentary.

The prosecutor brought up Murray’s comments on v13 and said “Can you reconcile the two statements by John Murray here?” Gaffin replied

I think really it’s regrettable we don’t have Professor Murray here to ask this question because I think … my own view in the light of what he has said,  and said so clearly about the judgment according to works in two … in verse six … that… it … that would argue for understanding verse 13 here in the same way as describing an actual positive outcome.  But he does, as you are pointing out,  back away from that.  But I can’t … see I think in my own view … it is Professor Murray that is in a bit of a tension here.

John Kinnaird was found guilty of teaching a false gospel, but he appealed to the OPC General Assembly where he was exhonerated. Why? Because the OPC had just prior voted to add Romans 2:6,7,13,16 as proof texts to WLC 90. For more on this see OPC Report on Republication – Background.

Conclusion

So the issue really has a lot to do with a long history of inconsistent exegesis of Romans 2:6-7 and 2:13 that we have to wrestle with. I agree with those who see 2:6-7 and 13 as both referring to the law.

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Re: Did The Covenant Of Grace Begin In The New Covenant?

June 15, 2017 9 comments

Short Reply

Any interaction with 1689 Federalism from paedobaptists has been very limited, so I am thankful that R. Scott Clark tried to do so in a recent post titled Did The Covenant Of Grace Begin In The New Covenant? Regretfully, though, he has fundamentally misunderstood the position. (I know that response can be annoying – please hear me out briefly).

First, the title asks the wrong question. The question is not “Did the Covenant of Grace begin in the New Covenant?” Rather, the question is “Is the New Covenant alone the Covenant of Grace?

Clark mistakenly says that 1689 Federalism does not believe the Covenant of Grace was “in effect” or “existed” prior to the death of Christ. He claims that we “conclude that [OT saints like David] did not actually participate in the covenant of grace.”

We do believe that the Covenant of Grace “existed” and was “in effect” prior to Christ, such that OT saints did actually “participate in the covenant of grace.” Our point is simply that neither the Mosaic Covenant, nor the Abrahamic Covenant (nor Noahic nor Davidic) were the covenant of grace. If any OT saint participated in the covenant of grace, they participated in the New Covenant, because only the New Covenant is the Covenant of Grace (union with Christ). Coxe said

During the time of the law… [t]he children of God after the Spirit (though as underage children they were subject to the pedagogy of the law, yet) as to their spiritual and eternal state, walked before God and found acceptance with him on terms of the covenant of grace… this spiritual relationship to God [was] according to the terms of the new covenant which the truly godly then had… (133)

Our promised/established distinction refers to how the New Covenant was operative prior to the death of Christ. Before then, it existed as a promise and was effective to save all OT saints. It was effective and “existed” prior to its legal establishment as a covenant in the same way that Christ’s atonement was effective and “existed” for OT saints prior to Christ’s actual curse-bearing death on the cross. Yes, Abraham was justified in Genesis 15:6, but he was justified the same way we are: through membership in the New Covenant (from which he received a new heart, faith, and forgiveness of sins by the blood of Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant).

We appreciate the post, but we hope Clark is willing to receive correction as to what we believe so we can have a dialogue.

Below is a more lengthy discussion of Clark’s problematic comments regarding “administration” for those that are interested.

(Note, I tried commenting on his blog, but he banned me from the blog and blocked me on Twitter quite a while ago. He has also deleted two comments left by others on his blog asking him to respond to this post: 1 and 2).

Read more…

Piper vs Owen on Romans 2:6-7, 13

November 13, 2015 6 comments

A short demonstration on the importance of covenant theology:
John Piper denies a works principle anywhere in Scripture, including the Covenant of Works.

Has God ever commanded anyone to obey with a view to earning or meriting life? Would God command a person to do a thing that he uniformly condemns as arrogant?

In Romans 11:35-36, Paul describes why earning from God is arrogant and impossible. He says, ‘Who has first given to [God] that it might be paid back to him? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” The thought that anyone could give anything to God with a view to being paid back with merit or wages is presumptuous and impossible, because all things (including obedience) are from God in the first place. You can’t earn from God by giving him what is already his…

It is true that God commanded Adam to obey him, and it is also true that failure to obey would result in death (Genesis 2:16-17): “In the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (verse 17). But the question is this: What kind of obedience is required for the inheritance of life – the obedience of earning or the obedience of trusting? The Bible presents two very different kinds of effort to keep God’s commandments. One way is legalistic; it depends on our own strength and aims to earn life. The other way we might call evangelical; it depends on God’s enabling power and aims to obtain life by faith in his promises, which is shown in the freedom of obedience…

Adam had to walk in obedience to his Creator in order to inherit life, but the obedience required of him was the obedience that comes from faith. God did not command legalism, arrogance, and suicide… There was no hint that Adam was to earn or deserve. The atmosphere was one of testing faith in unmerited favor, not testing willingness to earn or merit. The command of God was for the obedience that comes from faith…

What then of the ‘second Adam,’ Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the obedience that Adam forsook (1 Cor 15:45; Rom 5:14-20)?… He fulfilled the Law perfectly in the way that the Law was meant to be fulfilled from the beginning, not by works, but by faith (Rom 9:32)…

We are called to walk the way Jesus walked and the way Adam was commanded to walk. Adam failed because he did not trust the grace of God to pursue him with goodness and mercy all his days (Psalm 23:6).

A Godward Life, p. 177

Piper is correct that man can never earn anything from God. But that is why our confession recognizes that God voluntarily condescended to Adam and offered him a reward for his labor that he did not deserve (LBCF 7.1). In so doing, he made Adam a wage earner. Piper rejects this. And because he rejects this, he does not believe there is any objective contrast between the law and faith.

When Paul says “the law is not of faith” (Gal 3:12; Rom 10:5; Lev 18:5) Piper says that refers to a subjective “legalistic” attitude towards law-keeping, and not to any objective difference between the law and faith. As a result, he says:

Let me declare myself clearly here: I believe in the necessity of a transformed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as a public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved. In other words, I believe it is actually true, not just hypothetically true, that God “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom.2:6–7).

The Future of Justification, p. 110

So Christians are called “to walk the way Adam was commanded to walk” in order that God may give us eternal life.

However, if we recognize the biblical truth taught in LBCF/WCF 7.1, we will see that God gave Adam the law *as a covenant of works* to thereby earn eternal life. This is the “works principle” articulated in Lev 18:5. This principle is quoted by Paul as a contrast to the faith principle, not because it referred to a subjective legalistic attitude in the Judaizers, but because it referred to an objectively different means of obtaining a reward: works vs faith.

Owen explains that Rom 2:6-7, 13 is a further statement of this works principle:

The words there [Rom 2:7] are used in a law sense, and are declarative of the righteousness of God in rewarding the keepers of the law of nature, or the moral law, according to the law of the covenant of works. This is evident from the whole design of the apostle in that place, which is to convince all men, Jews and Gentiles, of sin against the law, and of the impossibility of the obtaining the glory of God thereby.
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/owen/vindicevang.i.xl.html

We are not hereon justified by the law, or the works of it… The meaning of it in the Scripture is, that only “the doers of the law shall be justified,” Romans 2:13; and that “he that does the things of it shall live by them,” chapter 10:5, — namely, in his own person, by the way of personal duty, which alone the law requires. But if we, who have not fulfilled the law in the way of inherent, personal obedience, are justified by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ unto us, then are we justified by Christ, and not by the law.

-The Doctrine of Justification

There is also a twofold justification before God mentioned in the Scripture. First, “By the works of the law,” Romans 2:13; 10:5; Matthew 19:16-19. Here unto is required an absolute conformity unto the whole law of God, in our natures, all the faculties of our souls, all the principles of our moral operations, with perfect actual obedience unto all its commands, in all instances of duty, both for matter and manner: for he is cursed who continues not in all things that are written in the law, to do them; and he that break any one commandment is guilty of the breach of the whole law. Hence the apostle concludes that none can be justified by the law, because all have sinned. Second, There is a justification by grace, through faith in the blood of Christ; whereof we treat. And these ways of justification are contrary, proceeding on terms directly contradictory, and cannot be made consistent with or subservient one to the other.

-The Doctrine of Justification

Jones on Conditions

October 14, 2015 23 comments

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:

Owen: New Covenant Conditional or Absolute?

October 30, 2014 5 comments

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

Owen on Hebrews 8:10-12

Page 162

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

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

And we may consider in the words, —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baptists Couldn’t Possibly Know What They’re Talking About: Debating Owen, Round 472

October 6, 2014 5 comments

In a recent Facebook discussion about covenant theology (I haven’t been able to join the group), someone posted some quotes from Pascal Denault’s “The Distinctive Covenant Theology of 17th Century Particular Baptists.” A paedobaptist objected, as is common, to the quotations from John Owen:

to say that Owen developed in this respect is not fair to Owen unless he himself recognized a departure from his previous statements and positions, which we have no evidence of. Rather, his words should be interpreted in light of his whole theological construct, not what statements he made in one place, unless he consciously and explicitly repudiated his prior assertions.

What would constitute evidence? Does he have to say “Dear reader, I previously held a different view, but now I have changed my mind (just in case it wasn’t obvious from what I just said)”?

A case could be made that Owen presupposed that the Mosaic economy was one of grace, rightly understood, in that he makes statements to that affect, that he presupposes it as an idea in his sermons and other theological works

So this is the question: Did Owen hold to classic WCF covenant theology? Did he believe the covenant of grace was an overarching covenant administered by the historical, biblical covenants? Did he believe the the Mosaic covenant was a gracious administration of the covenant of grace?

Before looking at his evidence, it should be noted that any attempt to place Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8 within the context of presuppositions found elsewhere in Owen’s writings still has to explain what Owen meant in his commentary on Hebrews 8 (this person never offered an explanation).

He brings forward several points of evidence:

(as his works on Christ and the Holy Spirit), and also in that, as an act,

1) Owen subscribed to and helped put together a document which was explicitly in favor of what I am advocating. He was one of the two leading theologians that helped to pen the savoy declaration, and subscribed to it as accurately representing his theological views. A mere glance at that document in reference to covenant will show that it is word for word the same as the Westminster Assembly’s confession, which is notoriously “presbyterian” in covenant theology, it articulates purely and entirely my own position on covenant theology in this respect.

2) Owen wrote favorably of books about covenant which were in favor of a traditional “presbyterian” view of covenant. He wrote the preface to and in praise of Patrick Gillespie’s work on the covenant mentioned above, the most explicit work in favor of the position I am here contending for (my favorite work on covenant as well).

3) Owen made statements which are fairly and explicitly in favor of the same view

4) Owen made statements which presuppose a view which is only consistent with the Westminster/Savoy doctrine of covenant in relation to the OC and NC

5) Owen makes statements which seem, when divorced from this other information, to be saying that the Mosaic economy was one of works or some other nonsense. I leave it to the individual to determine whether Owen was inconsistent and confused, or whether many have just misunderstood him in his commentary on Hebrews 8 [notice he offers no explanation for how to properly interpret Owen’s comments on Hebrews 8]. Either way, since he may be used by either side of the line to advocate their position, your appeal to him is trite at best.

When someone pressed him, using quotes from Owen, he responded:

again, Owen means little to me, and he may err, as I have already said. Further, I have already illustrated that, even if I have misunderstood him in these quotes, that that would only prove that he was confused himself about what he was subscribing to in the Savoy Declaration and what he was writing in favor of in the preface to Gillespie’s work.

…so, again, either you have misunderstood Owen, or Owen is really, very confused (admittedly, Owen has spoken somewhat strongly, and I would like to see him clarify his meaning and reconcile it with what he says very clearly elsewhere, but this is why I put no stock in him in this, because he can’t clarify now that he is dead: his view could be construed to be at odds with either of our views).

…I am saying that your knowledge is inadequate, you haven’t read nearly enough to prove your claims, and the claims that you have made concerning Owen are in clear contradiction with what he says elsewhere. If you wish to discuss the scriptural validity of covenant theology, great, come; but don’t come at me with caricatures of history you know very little about and maintain it in spite of other clear evidence to the contrary.

So, before this person is willing to admit development in Owen’s mind, he is willing to simply say Owen (“one of the most influential men of his generation” -Trueman) was confused and didn’t really understand what he was saying.

Since Owen “can’t clarify now that he is dead”, I’m going to help him out.

Claim 1: Savoy Declaration

Is the Savoy word for word the same as the WCF? Perhaps a mere glance will suggest it is the same, but if we give it more than a glance we will see there are two major changes in regards to covenant theology:

  1. Savoy omits WCF 7.6, which reads “…There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.”
  2. Savoy changes WCF 19.2 by deleting “as such”

The implication the first difference is obvious, since we are discussing Owen’s statement that “Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant…Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended.”

The 2009 Kerux Journal review of “The Law is Not of Faith” notes:

Much of what Savoy says subtly modifies the WCF. Both attempt to affirm the essential unity of the covenant of grace, but Savoy omits the important declaration of the WCF that “there are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under vari- ous dispensations.” In other words, the Savoy declaration refuses to exclude various views of the Mosaic covenant which construe it as a substantially distinct covenant.

And, just so that people didn’t misunderstand him, or think he was confused, Owen “explicitly” said he was rejecting the reformed view in favor of the Lutheran view:

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… See Calvin. Institut. lib. 2:cap. xi.; Martyr. Loc. Com. loc. 16, sect. 2; Bucan. loc. 22, etc.

The Lutherans on the other side, insist on two argument 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.

Again, the authors of the 2009 Kerux Journal review of “The Law is Not of Faith” note how “conscious” Owen was of what he said:

Let the reader note carefully what Owen has just told you: even though I know that my position is in disagreement with the Reformed position, and in substantial agreement with Lutheranism, I still maintain that Scripture teaches that the Mosaic covenant was not an administration of the covenant of grace, but was rather a distinct covenant. This is an honest (and honorable) admission on Owen’s part that he is departing from the Reformed consensus, represented in Calvin, Bullinger, Bucanus, and a whole host of others.

The implication of the second difference is more subtle, but still significant. In short:

in 19:2, the Savoy declaration omits the important phrase “as such,” referring to the way in which the law was given to Israel (namely, as a perfect rule of righteousness).

While subtle, this omission is important. WCF clearly defines the manner in which the law was given to Israel. In contrast to Adam (who was given the law as a covenant of works), Israel received the law as a perfect rule of righteousness for those in covenant with God. The Savoy declaration, however, leaves open the possibility that the law may have been given to Israel in some other way. In other words, Savoy leaves open the possibility that the Mosaic law was given to Israel as a covenant of works, a subservient covenant, or some other covenant.

When we compare this formulation with the various proposals of its au- thors, the reason for this omission becomes clear. Nearly half of the authors of the Savoy Declaration took a minority view of the Mosaic covenant. As noted above, the majority of divines viewed the law given at Sinai as a covenant of grace, that is, as a rule of righteousness for those already in covenant with God.

2009 Kerux Journal review of “The Law is Not of Faith”

Claim 2: Book Endorsements

It is true that Owen wrote the preface to Gillespie’s “The Ark of the Covenant Opened; or a Treatise of the Covenant of Redemption Between God and Christ as the Foundation of the Covenant of Grace” in 1677.

I haven’t read the preface or the book, so I can’t comment directly on it. But the title suggests the focus is on defending the covenant of redemption as a foundation for the covenant of grace, a position Owen supported.

But if book endorsements are going to carry weight in this debate, then it must also be noted that Owen wrote a forward to Samuel Petto’s “The Ark of the Covenant Opened; or a Treatise of the Covenant of Redemption Between God and Christ as the Foundation of the Covenant of Grace” in 1674. Michael Brown notesOwen called Petto a “Worthy Author” who labored “with good success,” and there is some evidence to suggest that Petto’s work may have influenced Owen’s own thinking on the subject.

Why is that significant? Because Petto’s thesis was that the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works offering eternal life to those who obey. He said “the Lord, in infinite wisdom made a revival or repetition of the Covenant of Works as to the substance of it (with a new intent) in the Covenant at Mount Sinai.” Brown comments:

For Petto, there were two possible ways of viewing the Mosaic covenant, either as a ‘Covenant of works, as to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ’ or ‘the Covenant of Grace as to its legal condition to be performed by Jesus Christ, represented under a conditional administration of it to Israel.’ Viewed either way, Sinai was a covenant of works for Christ. What the original covenant of works was to the first Adam, the Mosaic covenant was to the second Adam; it provided the temporal setting for the Federal Head to obtain eternal life for those whom he represented.

CHRIST AND THE CONDITION: SAMUEL PETTO (C.1624–1711) ON THE MOSAIC COVENANT
by Michael G. Brown

By the way, Petto subscribed to the Savoy Declaration.

Claim 3&4 : Explicit Statements & Presuppositions

Exercitation 21

For a refutation of the idea that he thought anything contrary to traditional covenant theology, I encourage you to read Exercitation XXI, in vol. XVII of his works, for therein you will find him more fully explaining himself concerning law, covenant, and covenant continuity. The Exercitations, by Owen’s own explanation were meant to more fully and systematically handle certain issues of doctrine which he found so frequently assumed in the book of Hebrews, which, rather than to constantly go off on bunny trails, he felt should be handled in a prefatory fashion, and thus may be used to explain what Owen says in his commentary of the actual text.

I appreciate the reference, as I’m always interested in learning more about Owen’s perspective. However, Exercitation 21 (p 654) does not live up to the claims. Nowhere in the essay does Owen directly comment on the covenant continuity in question. His statements have to be read, as this person previously argued, in light of the rest of his writing. He claims that the Exercitation was written so that Owen would not have to “go off in bunny trails” to address covenant continuity. If that is the case, why did Owen bother writing 150 pages on Hebrews 8:6-13 regarding the Old and New Covenants? I think that interpretive weight should be given to the 150 pages directly on the subject rather than the two pages tangentially on the subject. Also, note that this Exercitation was written in 1668, while his comments on Hebrews 8 were written 12 years later in 1680.

To wet your appetite, after carefully defining what he meant by law, and in what way the covenant of Sinai was the covenant of grace, and in what way it could be falsely understood to be a covenant of works, he refers to the promises of the law as concerning “[life] eternal with God, as the promise or covenant of grace was exemplified or represented therein, Lev. xviii. 5; Ezek. xx. 11; Rom. x. 5; Gal. iii.12,”

I believe he has read Owen too quickly. The first and greatest error is that Owen is not discussing the covenant of Sinai in this essay. This is a complicated essay. Here is an outline. In short, when Owen mentions “covenant” in this essay he is primarily referring to the original covenant of works with Adam. When he mentions “administration of the law” he is referring to the “new end” given the original covenant of works by the promise in Gen 3:15 – that is, that Christ would fulfill it’s terms.

So when Owen says “[life] eternal with God, as the promise or covenant of grace was exemplified or represented therein…” he is referring to the “new end administration”, not to the Mosaic Covenant.

and, “there are given out of the law various promises of intervenient and mixed mercies, to be enjoyed in earthly things in this world, that had their immediate respect into the mercy of the land of Canaan, representing spiritual grace, annexed to the then present administration [!] of the covenant of grace.”

This quote is clearly referring to Israelites in Canaan during the Mosaic Covenant, but Owen makes a careful qualifying statement:

It is of the law under this third consideration [instrument of the rule and government of the people and church of Israel], — though not absolutely as the instrument of the government of the people in Canaan [Mosaic Covenant], but as it had a representation in it of that administration of grace and mercy which was contained in the promises, — whereof we treat.

Here Owen distinguishes between the law “absolutely” for Israel, which would be the Mosaic Covenant, and the law insofar as it represented the promise given out in Gen 3:15, what he calls the “new end administration” (that Christ would fulfill the original covenant of works).

This makes more sense when you read his comments on Hebrews 8:6:

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

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

So again, Owen’s quote from the Exercitation is making this distinction between the law absolutely for Israel (Mosaic Covenant) and the representation in it of the grace contained in the promise (New Covenant/Covenant of Grace). The rest of his essay discusses it under this latter consideration, not how the law functioned as the Mosaic Covenant.

And there is no problem with Owen’s language of “the then present administration of the covenant of grace”. It is not debated if the covenant of grace was administered during the Mosaic Covenant. The question is if it was administered by the Mosaic Covenant, or by the New Covenant.

This covenant [Sinai] thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. All that lived under the administration of it did attain eternal life, or perished for ever, but not by virtue of this covenant as formally such. It did, indeed, revive the commanding power and sanction of the first covenant of works; and therein, as the apostle speaks, was “the ministry of condemnation,” 2 Cor. iii. 9; for “by the deeds of the law can no flesh be justified.” And on the other hand, it directed also unto the promise, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe. But as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal. Believers were saved under it, but not by virtue of it. Sinners perished eternally under it, but by the curse of the original law of works.

…No man was ever saved but by virtue of the new covenant, and the mediation of Christ in that respect.

A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit

For further proof that Owen did not hold such views of Covenant theology which were contrary to classic covenant theology, see Volume IV (of the Goold edition) of his works, start with page 261 and read about 3 pages, where Owen, answering an objection to the promises given to Israel (which he frequently refers to as the church) being applied to NT believers, says they are ours since the covenant has only been enlarged so as to include the Gentiles. “For the saints under the Old Testament were really made partakers of all the same graces with those under the New.” (263) He makes the difference to consist in extent and degree, and speaks of Christ bringing in an “abundant administration [!]” of “all spiritual supplies of grace.” This work, Discourse of the Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer, was published in 1682, two years after his commentary on Heb. 8 was published (1680). I hope this will help to put to rest the notion that Owen had a change of mind.

This Facebook commenter does not understand the position of 1689 Federalism. Understanding what he is trying to refute would be the first step. There is nothing in this essay that disagrees with anything that has been argued. There is nothing in it that a baptist would disagree with either. This essay is not commenting on all the differences between the Old and New Covenants. It is addressing one specific issue regarding the Holy Spirit during the Old Testament and during the New Testament.

There is no disagreement so long as we understand that Owen believes it was only the New Covenant that administered the Holy Spirit during the Old Testament. It administered it by way of the promise, rather than by way of a covenant (which was yet to be formally inaugurated). Owen (Hebrews 8):

two objections must be removed, which may in general be laid against our interpretation.

First, ‘This covenant is promised as that which is future, to be brought in at a certain time, “after those days,” as hath been declared. But it is certain that the things here mentioned, the grace and mercy expressed, were really communicated unto many both before and after the giving of the law, long ere this covenant was made; for all who truly believed and feared God had these things effected in them by grace: wherefore their effectual communication cannot be esteemed a property of this covenant which was to be made afterwards.’

Ans. This objection was sufficiently prevented in what we have already discoursed concerning the efficacy of the grace of this covenant before itself was solemnly consummated. For all things of this nature that belong unto it do arise and spring from the mediation of Christ, or his interposition on the behalf of sinners. Wherefore this took place from the giving of the first promise; the administration of the grace of this covenant did therein and then take its date. Howbeit the Lord Christ had not yet done that whereby it was solemnly to be confirmed, and that whereon all the virtue of it did depend. Wherefore this covenant is promised now to be made, not in opposition unto what grace and mercy was derived from it both before and under the law, nor as unto the first administration of grace from the mediator of it; but in opposition unto the covenant of Sinai, and with respect unto its outward solemn confirmation.

Secondly, ‘If the things themselves are promised in the covenant, then all those with whom this covenant is made must be really and effectually made partakers of them. But this is not so; they are not all actually sanctified, pardoned, and saved, which are the things here promised.’

Ans. The making of this covenant may be considered two ways:
1. As unto the preparation and proposition of its terms and conditions.
2. As unto the internal stipulation between God and the souls of men.

In this sense alone God is properly said to make this covenant with any. The preparation and proposition of laws are not the making of the covenant. And therefore all with whom this covenant is made are effectually sanctified, justified, and saved.

Claim 5: Statements to the Contrary

Here an attempt is made to explain away Owen’s statements to the contrary:

the more I read of what you say, the more I am convinced that the facts have been misconstrued for you. “They saw one Covenant of Grace revealed from the Fall in a progressive way until it’s full revelation and conclusion in the New Covenant,” so far we agree, “but this covenant was not the same in substance as the Old.” This is where the confusion comes in. There is a real and true sense in which I can say that it is not the same for substance, for we have the fullest revelation of the covenant, the fulfillment of the promises, we have the substance revealed in Christ, rather than typified obliquely. In this way, I freely speak of a New Covenant. What we have now is radically different from that Old Covenant which has faded to nothing. But I mean this in the same way as we speak of, say, a new model of an old car being “new and improved,” which readily admits of speaking in terms of two different things (the old car and the new, or the old model and the new, makes no difference) and comparing different things together. However, beyond this, I don’t see anything new for substance per se. Had not the Israelites prophets, priests, kings? Had they not the promise that God would be there God and they should be his people? And did not all these things substantially point them to Christ, the substance of the covenant? Did they not have Christ? Then what did they lack? They lacked Christ come. For when he came, he did away with all the types, for he was the substance of those shadows, the thing towards which they pointed. He was the better sacrifice. He was all they were looking for. You see then, in one sense, the substance of the two covenants was different, for they lacked Christ’s actual appearing to accomplish his work; but in a totally different sense, the substance of the one covenant was the same in both administrations, for they had Christ, really and truly; and all the things ordained to point towards him, were but parts of the administration given until Christ should come.

Within the context of covenant theology, “substance” has a very specific meaning. It’s not silly puddy we can make into whatever we want. Owen said he was disagreeing with the WCF view of one substance two administrations. Patrick Ramsey’s “In Defense of Moses” does a good job of explaining what is meant in WCF by “substance”. Here is a short blog post from Ramsey summarizing the “substance” issue.

Also, here is Owen directly disagreeing:

On this declaration, God promiseth to make another covenant with them, wherein all these evils should be prevented. This is the covenant which the apostle designs to prove better and more excellent than the former. And this he cloth principally from the mediator and surety of it, compared with the Aaronical priests, whose office and service belonged wholly unto the administration of that first covenant. And he confirms it also from the nature of this covenant itself, especially with respect unto its efficacy and duration. And hereunto this testimony is express, evidencing how this covenant is everlastingly, by the grace administered in it, preventive of that evil success which the former had by the sin of the people.

Hence he says of it, Ouj kata< th>n, —”Not according unto it;” a covenant agreeing with the former neither in promises, efficacy, nor duration. For what is principally promised here, namely, the giving of a new heart, Moses expressly affirms that it was not done in the administration of the first covenant. It is neither a renovation of that covenant nor a reformation of it, but utterly of another nature, by whose introduction and establishment that other was to be abolished, abrogated, and taken away, with all the divine worship and service which was peculiar thereunto. And this was that which the apostle principally designed to prove and convince the Hebrews of.

Continuing from Facebook:

“They found the hermeneutic of Promise/Fulfillment to be more faithful to the biblical data than that of one substance/two administrations.” If you have read what I just said rightly, then you will see that there is no difference with us between promise/fulfillment and one substance/two administrations. The promise, until fulfilled, was administered by legal rites in Moses, but once fulfilled, was administered by Christ: but, and this is important, *the promise was the same all along.*

All I can say is, please read Owen on Hebrews 8:6-13 more carefully. This outline may be helpful. Owen saw a difference and spent a great deal of care explaining that difference. Owen specifically rejects this person’s view and gives many reasons why.

Covenant of Works?

Owen clearly distinguished between the covenant of grace and the Mosaic Covenant. But did Owen believe the national Mosaic Covenant was “of works”, or “of grace”? These quotes should suffice:

5. They differ in their subject-matter, both as unto precepts and promises, the advantage being still on the part of the new covenant. For, —

(1.) The old covenant, in the preceptive part of it, renewed the commands of the covenant of works, and that on their original terms. Sin it forbade, — that is, all and every sin, in matter and manner, — on the pain of death; and gave the promise of life unto perfect, sinless obedience only: whence the decalogue itself, which is a transcript of the law of works, is called “the covenant,” <023428>Exodus 34:28. And besides this, as we observed before, it had other precepts innumerable, accommodated unto the present condition of the people, and imposed on them with rigor. But in the new covenant, the very first thing that is proposed, is the accomplishment and establishment of the covenant of works, both as unto its commands and sanction, in the obedience and suffering of the mediator. Hereon the commands of it, as unto the obedience of the covenanters, are not grievous; the yoke of Christ being easy, and his burden light.

(2.) The old testament, absolutely considered, had,
[1.] No promise of grace, to communicate spiritual strength, or to assist us in obedience; nor,

[2.] Any of eternal life, no otherwise but as it was contained in the promise of the covenant of works, “The man that doeth these things shall live in them;” and,

[3.] Had promises of temporal things in the land of Canaan inseparable from it. In the new covenant all things are otherwise, as will be declared in the exposition of the ensuing verses.

God used the right and authority of a husband with whom a wife breaks covenant; he ‘neglected them,’ shut them out of his house, deprived them of their dowry or inheritance, and slew them in the wilderness.

Epilogue

When confronted, this individual confessed that he has not even read Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8. Yet he was still adamant that baptists misunderstand it.

See also: Owen on Changing His Mind

McMahon’s Misrepresentation of John Owen

September 20, 2010 23 comments

Dr. C. Matthew McMahon, owner of APuritansMind.com and PuritanBoard.com has an article on his website titled John Owen and the Covenant of Redemption.

Though he doesn’t mention us by name, the article is an attempted rebuke of Covenantal Baptists (note that the article is filed under his “baptism” category even though nothing in the article mentions anything about baptism) who have stated their affinity for John Owen’s covenant theology, specifically his view of the New Covenant. McMahon states:

It is often the case through church history that people want to “own” the foremost theologians of the church in their system of theology; our day is no different… Owen, though he is dead, still needs to be rescued from those who obscure his theological views surrounding Covenant Theology… There is a wave of theological error purporting that the New Covenant, or Covenant of Grace fully expressed in the New Testament, was a “brand new,” or as some parrot Hebrews, “better” covenant, but translate this theologically as “wholly different.”…consideration should taken to rightly exemplify Owen’s position in any theological writing on the covenants.

McMahon explains Owen taught that the Covenant of Redemption was a covenant of works between the Father and the Son. Quoting Owen:

“The will of the Father appointing and designing the Son to be the head, husband, deliverer, and redeemer of his elect, his church, his people, whom he did foreknow, with the will of the Son voluntarily, freely undertaking that work and all that was required thereunto, is that compact (for in that form it is proposed in the Scripture) that we treat of.” (12:496)

McMahon explains that this supports all of God’s work in time with the elect. “It is the foundation for everything that God will do in time in redeeming His bride for Himself.” God applies the benefits of the Covenant of Redemption to the elect by means of the Covenant of Grace. He elaborates:

It would be correct, in Owen’s mind, to say that salvation is coextensive for the elect in the Covenant of Grace by the blessings imparted by the Covenant of Redemption. But, it would also be correct, in Owen’s mind, to say that salvation is not coextensive in the Covenant of Grace for those who are not elect, that is why Owen had no problem admitting infants in the Covenant of Grace in any administration of it.

McMahon chastises baptists by explaining that Owen simply held the standard reformed formulation of the Covenant of Grace as consisting of numerous administrations, of which the New Covenant was only the most recent. According to McMahon, Owen taught that the New Covenant was merely a renewal of the previous administrations of the Covenant of Grace. McMahon states:

“By the new covenant, not the new covenant absolutely and originally, as given in the first promise, is intended; but in its complete gospel administration, when it was actually established by the death of Christ, as administered in and by the ordinances of the new testament. This, with the covenant of Sinai, were, as most say, but different administrations of the same covenant.” (6:70, Emphasis mine.) Owen then spends another page outlining why it is different administrations of the same covenant. (cf. 6:71ff)

He sums this up in saying, “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.” (6:71)

The Problem

The problem with McMahon’s essay is two-fold:

  1. McMahon jumps all over the prolific work of Owen. He quotes from numerous different writings as it fits his argument. The problem is that McMahon fails to account for growth/change in Owen’s thought over the 40 years that he wrote. Therefore what Owen may have said in one place is not necessarily consistent with what he may have said later or earlier in his life. Jeffrey D. Johnson in his recent book The Fatal Flaw in the Theology Behind Infant Baptism notes this change when specifically comparing Owen’s work “Biblical Theology” with his Hebrews commentary.
  2. McMahon very blatantly and inexcusably misreads Owen’s commentary on Hebrews, his most mature stating of his views on the subject.

Two Covenants or One?

The previous quotation from McMahon (and Owen) suggests that in his commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13, Owen said the new covenant is simply a different administration of the same covenant as Sinai. The egregious error is that the section McMahon quotes from Owen is actually the section where Owen is summarizing the view he disagrees with! (See Brenton Ferry’s criticism of Jeong Koo Jeon for making the exact same error in Ferry’s chapter of The Law is Not of Faith)

Here is what Owen states:

Preliminary Clarifications
On this consideration it is said by some, that the two covenants mentioned, the new and the old, were not indeed two distinct covenants, in their essence and substance, but only different administrations of the same covenant, called two covenants from some different outward solemnities and duties of worship attending them. To clearly discuss this with the minimum of unnecessary difficulty the following clarifications should be observed and noted, —

1. That by the old covenant, the original covenant of works, made with Adam and all mankind in him, is not intended; for this is undoubtedly a covenant different in its essence and substance from the new.

[[[2. By the new covenant, not the new covenant absolutely and originally, as given in the first promise, is intended; but in its complete gospel administration, when it was actually established by the death of Christ, as administered in and by the ordinances of the new testament. This, with the covenant of Sinai, were, as most say, but different administrations of the same covenant.]]] This latter being the point to be examined.

As on the other hand, there is such express mention made, not only in this, but in several other places in the Scriptures, of two distinct covenants, or testaments, and such different natures, properties, and effects, ascribed to them, as seem to constitute two distinct covenants. This, therefore, we must inquire into;

Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:6

So Owen states that the precise point of this part of his commentary is to decide if the old and the new are two different covenants, or just two different administrations of the same covenant. He starts by summarizing the One Covenant View. This summary is what McMahon erroneously claims is Owen stating his own view.

The Plausibility of the One Covenant View
…[[[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 has the appearance and name of another covenant.]]]

After summarizing and explaining the One Covenant View under the heading “The Plausibility of the One Covenant View” Owen goes on to describe the alternative view:

The Lutheran Insistence on Two Distinct Covenants
The Lutherans, on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove that there is not  a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that there are substantially distinct covenants  and that this is intended in this discourse of the apostle.

Their arguments are

1. Because in the Scripture they are often so called (separate covenants), and compared with one another, and sometimes opposed to one another; the first and the last, the new and the old.

2. Because the covenant of grace in Christ is eternal, immutable, always the same, subject to no alteration, no change or abrogation; neither can these things be said of it with respect to any administration of it as they are of the old covenant.

So then which view does Owen side with?

THE TWO COVENANTS ARE DISTINCT COVENANTS
…5. Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended. We must do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, —and with great pretence of reason, for it is the sole foundation of all 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 is the same under both, then indeed they are the same for the substance of them is 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 of it, 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, while they were under the old covenant.

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:

Could Owen be any clearer? I don’t think so. McMahon misunderstands every quotation he supplies from Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8. I honestly do not know how McMahon could so severely blunder his reading of Owen. It seems the only options are he intentionally misrepresents Owen, or he read Owen’s commentary so quickly as to not read what Owen actually said. I know he is a very busy person, and I don’t want to charge McMahon with the former, so it must have been the latter. Either way, it makes him an unreliable guide on this matter. This error alone renders McMahon’s entire essay faulty.

The Newness of the New Covenant

In keeping with this error, McMahon says “After stating that the new is not ‘brand new’, Owen describes how the new is different than the old” and then goes on to list 5 points of difference. The problem is that McMahon is once again quoting Owen’s summary of the reformed view! He is listing the 5 ways in which the reformed divines say there is a difference.

Owen saves his view of the differences for later when he lists 17 particular differences!

“Do This And Live” Foundation for All Covenants?

Central to his thesis is McMahon’s attempt to make Owen say that every covenant, including the Covenant of Grace is founded upon the principle “Do this and live.” McMahon states:

What is a covenant? According to Owen, the Covenant of Works subsists in the foundation or template for all covenants. He says, “The whole entire nature of the covenant of works consisted in this, — that upon our personal obedience, according unto the law and rule of it, we should be accepted with God, and rewarded with him. Herein the essence of it did consist; and whatever covenant proceeds on these terms, or has the nature of them in it, however it may be varied with additions or alterations, is the same covenant still, and not another. As in the renovation of the promise wherein the essence of the covenant of grace was contained, God did ofttimes make other additions unto it (as unto Abraham and David), yet was it still the same covenant for the substance of it, and not another; so whatever variations may be made in, or additions unto, the dispensation of the first covenant, so long as this rule is retained, “Do this, and live,” it is still the same covenant for the substance and essence of it.” (5:275, Emphasis Mine) This is striking in that Owen templates the structure of “covenant” in “do this and live.”

This is a very serious misreading of Owen. (The same misreading is found in this essay by Anglican Priest Steve Griffith http://www.johnowen.org/media/griffiths_owen_federal_theology.pdf. It appears that the misreading of both of these authors may have its roots in Sinclair Ferguson, but I don’t have a copy of his book to compare.) McMahon argues that Owen is teaching that the Covenant of Grace is the same covenant for substance and essence as the Covenant of Works! McMahon claims that the substance of the Covenant of Grace is “Do this, and live.” But is that what Owen actually said?

XIII. The nature of justification proved from the difference of the covenants
The difference between the two covenants stated–Argument from thence
That which we plead in the third place unto our purpose is, the difference between the two covenants. And herein it may be observed,- –

1. That by the two covenants I understand those which were absolutely given unto the whole church, and were all to bring it “eis teleioteta”,–unto a complete and perfect state; that is, the covenant of works, or the law of our creation as it was given unto us, with promises and threatening, or rewards and punishments, annexed unto it; and the covenant of grace, revealed and proposed in the first promise. As unto the covenant of Sinai, and the new testament as actually confirmed in the death of Christ, with all the spiritual privileges thence emerging, and the differences between them, they belong not unto our present argument.

2. The whole entire nature of the covenant of works consisted in this,–that upon our personal obedience, according unto the law and rule of it, we should be accepted with God, and rewarded with him. Herein the essence of it did consist; and whatever covenant proceeds on these terms, or has the nature of them in it, however it may be varied with additions or alterations, is the same covenant still, and not another. As in the renovation of the promise wherein the essence of the covenant of grace was contained, God did ofttimes make other additions unto it (as unto Abraham and David), yet was it still the same covenant for the substance of it, and not another; so whatever variations may be made in, or additions unto, the dispensation of the first covenant, so long as this rule is retained, “Do this, and live,” it is still the same covenant for the substance and essence of it.

3. Hence two things belonged unto this covenant:–First, That all things were transacted immediately between God and man. There was no mediator in it, no one to undertake any thing, either on the part of God or man, between them; for the whole depending on every one’s personal obedience, there was no place for a mediator. Secondly, That nothing but perfect, sinless obedience would be accepted with God, or preserve the covenant in its primitive state and condition. There was nothing in it as to pardon of sin, no provision for any defect in personal obedience.

4. Wherefore, this covenant being once established between God and man, there could be no new covenant made, unless the essential form of it were of another nature,–namely, that our own personal obedience be not the rule and cause of our acceptation and justification before God; for whilst this is so, as was before observed, the covenant is still the same, however the dispensation of it may be reformed or reduced to suit unto our present state and condition. What grace soever might be introduced into it, that could not be so which excluded all works from being the cause of our justification. But if a new covenant be made, such grace must be provided as is absolutely inconsistent with any works of ours, as unto the first ends of the covenant; as the apostle declares, Rom.11:6.

5. Wherefore, the covenant of grace, supposing it a new, real, absolute covenant, and not a reformation of the dispensation of the old, or a reduction of it unto the use of our present condition (as some imagine it to be), must differ, in the essence, substance, and nature of it, from that first covenant of works. And this it cannot do if we are to be justified before God on our personal obedience; wherein the essence of the first covenant consisted. If, then, the righteousness wherewith we are justified before God be our own, our own personal righteousness, we are yet under the first covenant, and no other.

6. But things in the new covenant are indeed quite otherwise; for,- -First, It is of grace, which wholly excludes works; that is, so of grace, as that our own works are not the means of justification before God; as in the places before alleged. Secondly, It has a mediator and surety; which is built alone on this supposition, that what we cannot do in ourselves which was originally required of us, and what the law of the first covenant cannot enable us to perform, that should be performed for us by our mediator and surety. And if this be not included in the very first notion of a mediator and surety, yet it is in that of a mediator or surety that does voluntarily interpose himself, upon an open acknowledgment that those for whom he undertakes were utterly insufficient to perform

http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/ipb-e/epl-02/ownjs-25.txt

It is quite inexplicable how McMahon could misread Owen so severely yet again. The very title of this section makes it clear that Owen is articulating a contrast, a difference between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, not their similarity!

Is the New Covenant Conditional?

The entire thrust of McMahon’s essay is to demonstrate that Owen taught that the New Covenant/Covenant of Grace had conditions that could be broken by its members. He desires to show that Owen taught both elect and non-elect individuals are members of the Covenant of Grace, but only the elect have the power/grace to fulfill the conditions of it by means of the Covenant of Redemption. McMahon states:

Owen has absolutely no problem in stating that in every covenant made, there are conditions to be met. In the external administration of the Covenant of Grace, that which pertains to the New Covenant in the New Testament as well as its expression in the Old Testament, men must meet specific requirements in order to be saved. But they cannot. God must then “take up both sides.” This is why the Covenant of Redemption is so important in Owen’s overall view of Covenant Theology. Jesus Christ, as Mediator, places all the responsibility, in time, under the law, on Himself, for all those for whom He will live and die. Men, then, by virtue of Christ’s work, are graciously saved and regenerated. That does not mean that only the regenerate live and move in the Covenant of Grace. Abraham and his seed are covenanted with God. But it certainly means, by Owen’s own definition, that only the elect participate in the fruits of the Covenant of Redemption.

…The Covenant of Grace is the sphere in which God works, handling both believers and unbelievers in that context upon condition of their obedience.

The quotations McMahon provides in this section of his essay are all from Volume XI of Owen’s Works: “The Doctrine of the Saints’ Perseverance Explained and Confirmed” which was written in 1654. I have not read the work so I cannot comment on the accuracy of his quotes.

However, here are the words of Owen 26 years later, speaking of the New Covenant in Hebrews 8:10

A covenant properly is a compact or agreement on certain terms mutually stipulated by two or more parties. As promises are the foundation and rise of it, as it is between God and man, so it compriseth also precepts, or laws of obedience, which are prescribed unto man on his part to be observed. But in the description of the covenant here annexed, there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed unto him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises, as we shall see in the explication of it…

…(3.) It is evident that there can be no condition previously required, unto our entering into or participation of the benefits of this covenant, antecedent unto the making of it with us. For none think there are any such with respect unto its original constitution; nor can there be so in respect of its making with us, or our entering into it. For, — [1.] This would render the covenant inferior in a way of grace unto that which God made with the people at Horeb. For he declares that there was not any thing in them that moved him either to make that covenant, or to take them into it with himself. Everywhere he asserts this to be an act of his mere grace and favor. Yea, he frequently declares, that he took them into covenant, not only without respect unto any thing of good in them, but although they were evil and stubborn. See Deuteronomy 7:7,8, 9:4, 5. [2.] It is contrary unto the nature, ends, and express properties of this covenant. For there is nothing that can be thought or supposed to be such a condition, but it is comprehended in the promise of the covenant itself; for all that God requireth in us is proposed as that which himself will effect by virtue of this covenant.

…(5.) It is evident that the first grace of the covenant, or God’s putting his law in our hearts, can depend on no condition on our part. For whatever is antecedent thereunto, being only a work or act of corrupted nature, can be no condition whereon the dispensation of spiritual grace is superadded. And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.

(6.) Unto a full and complete interest in all the promises of the covenant, faith on our part, from which evangelical repentance is inseparable, is required. But whereas these also are wrought in us by virtue of that promise and grace of the covenant which are absolute, it is a mere strife about words to contend whether they may be called conditions or no. Let it be granted on the one hand, that we cannot have an actual participation of the relative grace of this covenant in adoption and justification, without faith or believing; and on the other, that this faith is wrought in us, given unto us, bestowed upon us, by that grace of the covenant which depends on no condition in us as unto its discriminating administration, and I shall not concern myself what men will call it.

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

Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:10

And so we see once again that Owen argues at length against the position McMahon attributes to him. This is the foundation of McMahon’s thesis, and it is shown to be faulty as well.

Covenant of Grace Made with Non-Elect?

In line with the previous point is McMahon’s contention that Owen taught the Covenant of Grace is made with both the elect and non-elect.

The Covenant of Grace, for the elect, cannot be broken because it logically flows from the Covenant of Redemption. However, those “covenanted” with God, who are not regenerate, something Owen contends for, will always break the covenant and enact the threatenings held in the sign placed upon them. (16:258ff)

This is seen to be false according to the previous quote from Owen regarding conditions in the New Covenant.

…Part of the confusion here is due to the fact that many make the Covenant of Grace too restrictive. They do not allow for Owen’s “covenant” definition, and therefore concluded that the Covenant of Grace is something brand “new”, not a renewal of anything former, and made internally, without any external portions, only with the elect.

…This is where Owen emphatically disagrees, even if only on the basis of the Covenant of Redemption, with those who would “simply” equate the Covenant of Grace with salvation; i.e. that the Covenant of Grace only contains inward and no outward expressions, or it only provides a context for the regenerate and not unbelievers.

First, we already demonstrated that what McMahon claims is “Owen’s ‘covenant’ definition” is in fact not. Second, compare McMahon’s summary of Owen with Owen’s own words:

The covenant of grace in Christ is made only with the Israel of God, the church of the elect. For by the making of this covenant with any, the effectual communication of the grace of it to them is principally intended. Nor can that covenant be said to be made absolutely with any but those whose sins are pardoned by virtue of it, and in whose hearts the law of God is written; which are the express promises of it. And it was with respect to those of this sort among that people that the covenant was promised to be made with them. See Rom 9:27-33; 11:7. But in respect of the outward dispensation of the covenant, it is extended beyond the effectual communication of the grace of it. And in respect to that did the privilege of the carnal seed of Abraham lie.

Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:8 Obs. X

(By outward dispensation of the covenant of grace, Owen has in mind the preaching of the Word, etc – this is not the same thing as the “external administration/membership” that you hear other reformed writers, like McMahon, talk about)

Abrahamic and New Covenant the Same?

One final note needs to be made regarding the relationship of the Abrahamic Covenant to the New Covenant in Owen’s mind. McMahon states:

with Owen, the Abrahamic and New Covenant are the same

And yet, if we once again allow Owen to speak for himself, we will hear just the opposite:

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

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

Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:6

Conclusion

McMahon labored over this essay to warn Christians not to misread and therefore misrepresent Owen’s view of God’s covenants, and yet he has egregiously misread Owen himself. The irony would be quite humorous if the arrogant disdain from men like McMahon for baptists was not so aggravating. In conclusion, do not be intimidated and misled. Read the sources yourself.

It is often the case through church history that people want to “own” the foremost theologians of the church in their system of theology; our day is no different… Owen, though he is dead, still needs to be rescued from those who obscure his theological views surrounding Covenant Theology… consideration should be taken to rightly exemplify Owen’s position in any theological writing on the covenants.