Archive

Posts Tagged ‘owen’

Calvin vs 1689 Federalism on Old vs New

May 17, 2016 9 comments

[This essay is available as a PDF, ePub, or Kindle]

Augustine

 

In a helpful essay titled “The Covenant in the Church Fathers”, Andrew A. Woolsey notes that “Augustine built upon the patristic position, with his main emphasis upon two covenants, the ‘old’ as manifested supremely in the Sinaitic arrangement, and the ‘new’ in Christ.” with the important qualification that “Augustine did not confine the giving of the law covenant to Sinai… he considered the Sinaitic covenant to be ‘a more explicit’ form of a pre lassos Edenic covenant made with Adam.”[1] The difference between the Adamic and the Old Covenants was that “obedience to the [Edenic] covenant, Augustine speculated, would have caused Adam to pass into the company of the angels with no intervening death, to ‘a blissful immortality that has no limit’”[2] while the Old was limited to temporal blessings in Canaan. “[T]he law of works, which was written on the tables of stone, and its reward, the land of promise, which the house of the carnal Israel after their liberation from Egypt received, belonged to the old testament [covenant]… the promises of the Old Testament are earthly… In that testament, however, which is properly called the Old, and was given on Mount Sinai, only earthly happiness is expressly promised.”[3]

Salvation is found in Christ the mediator through the New Covenant, which was “hidden in the prophetic shadows until the time should come wherein it should be revealed in Christ.”[4] “These pertain to the new testament [covenant], are the children of promise, and are regenerated by God the Father and a free mother. Of this kind were all the righteous men of old, and Moses himself, the minister of the old testament, the heir of the new,—because of the faith whereby we live, of one and the same they lived, believing the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ as future, which we believe as already accomplished.”[5] “Now all these predestinated, called, justified, glorified ones, shall know God by the grace of the new testament [covenant], from the least to the greatest of them.”[6]

Woolsey explains that “Christ was their Mediator too. Though his incarnation had not yet happened, the fruits of it still availed for the fathers. Christ was their head… So the men of God in the Old Testament were shown to be heirs of the new. The new covenant was actually more ancient than the old, though it was subsequently revealed. It was ‘hidden in the prophetic ciphers’ until the time of revelation in Christ.”[7]

Augustine developed his covenant theology amidst debate with Pelagians, who denied total depravity and taught that man may be righteous through obedience to the law and that many in the Old Testament were. One of five formal charges brought against Pelagius was his claim that “The Law leads people to the kingdom of heaven in the same way as does the gospel.”[8] Pelagius argued that “The kingdom of heaven was promised even in the Old Testament.” Augustine’s response was that the Old Testament Scriptures do reveal the kingdom of heaven, but in the Old Covenant “given on Mount Sinai, only earthly happiness is expressly promised.” However, it served as “figures of the spiritual blessings which appertain to the New Testament.” Saints during that time who understood this distinction “were accounted in the secret purpose of God as heirs of the New Testament.”[9] Eugen J. Pentuic explains “In chapters 14 and 15 [of On the Proceedings of Pelagius], Augustine seeks to refute Pelagius’s thesis on the parity between the Law and the gospel. For Augustine, the distinction between the two testaments lies with the nature of their promises. If the Old Testament’s promises are centered on earthly realities, the New Testament’s promises concern the heavenly realities such as the kingdom of heaven.”[10]

Augustine argued that “by the words of Pelagius the distinction which has been drawn by Apostolic and catholic authority is abolished, and Agar is supposed to be by some means on a par with Sarah[.] He therefore does injury to the scripture of the Old Testament with heretical impiety, who with an impious and sacrilegious face denies that it was inspired by the good, supreme, and very God,—as Marcion does, as Manichæus does, and other pests of similar opinions. On this account (that I may put into as brief a space as I can what my own views are on the subject), as much injury is done to the New Testament, when it is put on the same level with the Old Testament, as is inflicted on the Old itself when men deny it to be the work of the supreme God of goodness.”

That Pelagius was correct in seeing the Old Covenant as a law of works was assumed throughout Augustine’s writings. Pelagius’ error was that he did not recognize the typology involved in the fact that the Old Covenant was limited to earthly promises and he believed the New Covenant was a continuation of the same law of works. For Augustine, then, the difference between the Old and the New Covenants was the difference between law and gospel, as well as the difference between earthly and heavenly.

 

Lutherans

 

Moving forward a millennium, Augustinian monk Martin Luther articulated the same concept. “For the old testament given through Moses was not a promise of forgiveness of sins or of eternal things, but of temporal things, namely, of the land of Canaan, by which no man was renewed in spirit to lay hold on the heavenly inheritance. Wherefore also it was necessary that, as a figure of Christ, a dumb beast should be slain, in whose blood the same testament might be confirmed, as the blood corresponded to the testament and the sacrifice corresponded to the promise. But here Christ says ‘the new testament in my blood’ [Luke 22:20; I Cor. 11:25], not somebody else’s, but his own, by which grace is promised through the Spirit for the forgiveness of sins, that we may obtain the inheritance.”[11] Philip Melanchthon agreed. “I consider the Old Testament a promise of material things linked up with the demands of the law. For God demands righteousness through the law and also promises its reward, the Land of Canaan, wealth, etc… By contrast, the New Testament is nothing else than the promise of all good things without regard to the law and with no respect to our own righteousness… Jer, ch.31, indicates this difference between the Old and New Testaments.”[12]

 

Reformed

 

Once the reformation began to address Anabaptist criticisms of infant baptism we start to see a shift away from Augustine’s view. Joshua Moon notes “looming over all of the Swiss Reformed discussions of Jer 31:31-34 is the dispute with the Anabaptists.”[13]

Bullinger’s central solution to the Anabaptist arguments, as for Zwingli, rests in a particular view of the continuity and sufficiency of the Old Testament. In the treatise Bullinger aims to establish that there is one single covenant of God that has always been in operation: the same essence, with the same basic requirements (faith and love), even if with different accompaniments. The payoff is the continuity of the way in which God deals with the children of believers – at least as far as baptism.[14]

The contrast between the Old and the New, according to Bullinger, referred only to the “accidents.”

[T]he nomenclature of the old and new covenant, spirit, and people did not arise from the very essence (substantia) of the covenant but from certain foreign and unessential things (accidentibus) because the diversity of the times recommended that now this, now that be added according to the [difference] of the Jewish people. These additions (accessere) did not exist as perpetual and particularly necessary things for salvation, but they arose as changeable things according to the time, the persons, and the circumstances. The covenant itself could easily continue without them.[15]

Moon notes “Bullinger’s reading, and the positing of a unity of substance and contrast of accidents, shows what will emerge as the boundary markers of Reformed thought on the subject. Such language becomes common for the Reformed and will influence the whole of the tradition through the period of orthodoxy and into the contemporary Reformed world.”[16] That said, “The difficulty of limiting the contrast in the oracle [Jer. 31] to ‘accidents’, however, will be felt by a number of the Reformed.”[17]

 

Calvin

 

Following in this same line, Calvin’s treatment of the topic in his Institutes is framed as a response to Anabaptist arguments.

This discussion, which would have been most useful at any rate, has been rendered necessary by that monstrous miscreant, Servetus, and some madmen of the sect of the Anabaptists, who think of the people of Israel just as they would do of some herd of swine, absurdly imagining that the Lord gorged them with temporal blessings here, and gave them no hope of a blessed immortality.[18]

It is a bit difficult to confirm Calvin’s summary of the Anabaptists with their own statements for two reasons. First, the label Anabaptist was applied broadly to all radical reformers with a wide variety of beliefs.[19] “For polemical purposes, Calvin often loosely placed all the sectarians in one group.”[20] Second, Anabaptist writings are much more scarce than reformed literature (perhaps because many of the Anabaptists did not defend their ideas in writing, but preferred the “Apostolic” method of oral discourse, making it more difficult to determine what precisely they believed).[21] Willem Balke notes “It is difficult to trace all of the sources from which Calvin drew his information about the Anabaptists.”[22] Calvin had a great deal of first-hand experience with Anabaptists throughout his life, including strategically joining a tailor’s guild in Strasbourg where “nearly all members were Anabaptists.”[23] He even married the widow of one ex-Anabaptist that he had converted after he debated him publicly.[24]

Far from a tangential debate, Anabaptism was an integral part of the development of Calvin’s theology. “He defined his theological position with two distinct foils in mind ‐ Rome and the Radicals.”[25] “In 1539, Calvin provided a much broader theological exposition for his polemic against the Anabaptists. His controversy with them occasioned much of the overall expansion of the Institutes.”[26] Neither was his debate with Anabaptists merely an academic exercise. In the eyes of Calvin and other reformers, the very success of the Reformation hinged upon whether they could refute the Anabaptists,[27] and Calvin was seen as the very best hope of doing so.[28]

Neither was this task an impersonal one. The Anabaptists were a consistent political and personal thorn in Calvin’s flesh throughout his ministry. Calvin’s exile from France was a result of being lumped with Anabaptists himself.

From the perspective of [King] Francis, all Protestants—including everyone from Antoine Marcourt, the architect of the placards incident, to Lutherans to Calvin—were, like the German Anabaptists, a threat to political harmony. One might say fairly that Calvin spent the rest of his life trying to distance himself from this distasteful comparison, and he himself admitted as much in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms. Through the final edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1559 and until his death five years later, Calvin never ceased instituting “true religion” in opposition to what he, no less than Francis, thought to be Anabaptist extremism.[29]

His exile from Geneva was also directly related to Anabaptists.[30] Calvin wrote a confession that denounced Anabaptism and required all the citizens of Geneva to personally swear an oath affirming it, or be banished. The Anabaptists refused but the Geneva Council was reluctant to enforce the banishment. Calvin warned the Council that he would excommunicate the Anabaptists from the church if they refused the confession. The Council forbid him to do so. “In the midst of the conflict and confusion, Calvin and Farel refused to administer the Lord’s Supper on Easter. Demonstrations developed in the streets and emergency meetings of the Council were held. Three days later the decision came: Calvin and Farel were expelled from the city.”[31]

And thus “It was the Anabaptists who prompted Calvin, like Zwingli, to reconsider the question of the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament. This matter lay close to Calvin’s heart.”[32] “According to Schrenk, Calvin depended on Zwingli and Bullinger with respect to this concept. They were compelled to develop their theology of covenant in their conflicts with the Anabaptists.”[33] “It did not start in Wittenberg or Geneva but in Zurich. For Reformed Theology, Zwingli is the real renewer of the biblical idea of the covenant, but its impulse may have come from the Anabaptist side. Bullinger gave this Zwinglian doctrine its first design. The struggle against the Anabaptists and the desire to establish a national church are the driving forces behind this thought.”[34]

“[T]he doctrine of the covenant was critically important as a basis for infant baptism. [Calvin] fully developed his ideas in this regard in the Institutes. His line of reasoning focuses entirely on this fundamental concept.”[35] “With the obvious intention of refuting Anabaptism, he added an entire chapter on the relationship between the Old and New Testament, which became the most significant basis for his defense of infant baptism.”[36]

With regards to the Old and New covenants, Calvin finds himself in an interesting situation. The Anabaptists appear to be in agreement with Augustine and the Lutherans that the Old Covenant was limited to earthly promises, but they would appear to disagree that those blessings revealed the gospel in types and shadows during the Old Testament era and thereby saved Old Testament saints through the New Covenant.[37] Calvin could refute their error on this point by arguing, like Augustine, that the New Covenant was also operative during the Old Testament era, and therefore Israelites did have a hope of blessed immortality. Though adopting Augustine’s view would be entirely sufficient to establish the point, it would not leave Calvin with any defense of infant baptism because it does not entail that the Old and New Covenants are one. Peter Lillback explains

Calvin both presents his case for paedobaptism as well as defends it against various attacks by employment of the covenant idea. His positive arguments build initially upon his already established point of the continuity of the Old and New Covenants. It is due to the continuity of the covenant with the Jews and with Christians that enables Christians to baptize their infants.[38]

However, various “passages seem to argue that there is not one divine covenant throughout Scripture, but rather that there are two of quite a different character. Should that interpretation be correct, then Calvin would be forced to concede the argument to the Anabaptists after all. How can he explain this difference and still maintain the continuity of the Covenants?”[39] Therefore, instead of refuting the Anabaptists with Augustine’s argument, Calvin addresses this point by appeal to the anti-Anabaptist argument from covenant unity established by Bullinger. “The covenant made with all the fathers is so far from differing from ours in reality and substance, that it is altogether one and the same: still the administration differs.”[40]

In Book 2, Chapter 10 of the Institutes, he outlines the reasons why “both covenants are truly one… although differently administered”

  1. The Old Covenant promised eternal life, just like the New.
  2. The Old Covenant was established in the mercy of God, just like the New.
  3. The Old Covenant was confirmed by the mediation of Christ, just like the New.

In Chapter 11, Calvin gives “five points of difference between the Old and the New Testaments” which “belong to the mode of administration rather than the substance.”

  1. “In the Old Testament the heavenly inheritance is exhibited under temporal blessings; in the New, aids of this description are not employed.”
  2. “The Old Testament typified Christ under ceremonies. The New exhibits the immediate truth and the whole body.”
  3. “The Old Testament is literal, the New spiritual.”
  4. “The Old Testament belongs to bondage, the New to liberty.”
  5. “The Old Testament belonged to one people only, the New to all.”

Calvin’s Similarities

Regarding the similarities, Calvin says the first point is “the foundation of the other two” and therefore “a lengthy proof is given of it” taking up most of the chapter. It is “the most pertinent to the present subject, and the most controverted.”[41] To prove that the Old Covenant promised eternal life, Calvin argues

The Apostle, indeed, removes all doubt when he says that the Gospel which God gave concerning his Son, Jesus Christ, ‘he had promised aforetime by his prophets in the holy Scriptures,’ (Rom. 1:2)… Most clearly, therefore, does the Apostle demonstrate that the Old Testament had special reference to the future life, when he says that the promises of the Gospel were comprehended under it.[42]

Based upon this fact, he then argues “we infer that the Old Testament was both established by the free mercy of God and confirmed by the intercession of Christ.”[43]

Calvin further argues “that the spiritual covenant was common also to the Fathers” because their souls were quickened by the “inherent efficacy” of the word of God in the Old Testament. “Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, and the other patriarchs, having been united to God by this illumination of the word, I say, there cannot be the least doubt that entrance was given them into the immortal kingdom of God.”[44] He then provides numerous examples showing that these believers aspired to “a better life” elsewhere, making them “pilgrims and strangers in the land of Canaan.”[45]

On this point, there is much overlap with Augustine, but Calvin makes an inference that Augustine does not. Augustine agrees with Calvin that regenerate Israelites were pilgrims, but he says they were pilgrims because they looked beyond the Old Covenant and were thereby counted heirs of the New Covenant. Augustine did not believe this meant the Old and the New were one.

[W]hatever blessings are there figuratively set forth as appertaining to the New Testament require the new man to give them effect… the happy persons, who even in that early age were by the grace of God taught to understand the distinction now set forth, were thereby made the children of promise, and were accounted in the secret purpose of God as heirs of the New Testament; although they continued with perfect fitness to administer the Old Testament to the ancient people of God, because it was divinely appropriated to that people in God’s distribution of the times and seasons.[46]

Contrary to Augustine, based upon the above arguments, Calvin asserts

Let us then lay it down confidently as a truth which no engines of the devil can destroy – that the Old Testament or covenant which the Lord made with the people of Israel was not confined to earthly objects, but contained a promise of spiritual and eternal life, the expectation of which behaved to be impressed on the minds of all who truly consented to the covenant.[47]

But this does not follow. It is an invalid inference to claim that because regenerate Israelites were part of the immortal kingdom of God, therefore the Old and New covenants are one. It does not follow that the Old covenant promised eternal life. Augustine and the Lutherans affirmed that regenerate Israelites were part of the immortal kingdom of God, but they also affirmed that the Old and New were two distinct covenants and that the Old was limited to earthly blessings. Calvin’s inference, which he asserts throughout as foundational, is simply invalid. The correct inference, made by Augustine, is that regenerate Israelites partook of the New covenant. As we will see below, Calvin ends up having to make use of this correct inference when he encounters problems with his argument.

 

Calvin’s Differences

 

The first difference between the Old and the New Covenants is that “God was pleased to indicate and typify both the gift of future and eternal felicity by terrestrial blessings, as well as the dreadful nature of spiritual death by bodily punishments, at that time when he delivered his covenant to the Israelites as under a kind of veil.”[48]

The second difference “is in the types, the former exhibiting only the image of truth, while the reality was absent, the shadow instead of the substance, the latter exhibiting both the full truth and the entire body.”[49] Here we begin to see an interesting tension in Calvin’s substance/accidents distinction. Previously he argued that the Old and New are the same in substance, only differing in accidents. But here we are told one difference between them is that the New actually has the substance, while the Old does not.

In regards to Hebrews 7-10, he says that because the typical ceremonies “were the means of administering the covenant, the name of covenant is applied to them, just as is done in the case of other sacraments. Hence, in general, the Old Testament is the name given to the solemn method of confirming the covenant comprehended under ceremonies and sacrifices.” This definition of the term “Old Testament” is important to keep in mind. “Old Testament” refers only to the accidents of the covenant prior to Christ. Calvin then notes that the Old covenant was to be annulled because “there is nothing substantial in it, until we look beyond it” to “Christ, the surety and mediator of a better covenant.”[50] Again we see that the Old Testament lacks the substance it is supposed to share with the New. Here Calvin’s problem is clear. The “Old Testament” refers only to the accidents, but the “New” refers to the substance. Thus the difference between them apparently is not accidents vs accidents, but accidents vs substance.

Calvin is forced into these comparisons, against his earlier framework, because of “the many passages of Scripture in which they are are contrasted as things differing most widely from each other.”[51] In the above, Calvin dealt with Hebrews 7-10, arguing that it was addressing only ceremonies. He next deals with 2 Corinthians 3:5-6 and Jeremiah 31:31-34. While Calvin must attempt to keep these differences on the level of outward administration, we have just seen that he is unable to. As Augustine remarked on these same passages:

I beg of you, however, carefully to observe, as far as you can, what I am endeavouring to prove with so much effort. When the prophet promised a new covenant, not according to the covenant which had been formerly made with the people of Israel when liberated from Egypt, he said nothing about a change in the sacrifices or any sacred ordinances, although such change, too, was without doubt to follow, as we see in fact that it did follow, even as the same prophetic scripture testifies in many other passages; but he simply called attention to this difference, that God would impress His laws on the mind of those who belonged to this covenant, and would write them in their hearts, (Jer 31:32-33) whence the apostle drew his conclusion,—“not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart;” (2 Cor 3:3)… It is therefore apparent what difference there is between the old covenant and the new,—that in the former the law is written on tables, while in the latter on hearts; so that what in the one alarms from without, in the other delights from within; and in the former man becomes a transgressor through the letter that kills, in the other a lover through the life-giving spirit.[52]

Commenting on Jeremiah 31:31-34 as quoted in Hebrews 8:8, Calvin himself acknowledges the same.

[H]ere the question is respecting ceremonies, but the Prophet speaks of the whole Law: what has it to do with ceremonies, when God inscribes on the heart the rule of a godly and holy life, delivered by the voice and teaching of men? To this I reply that the argument is applied from the whole to a part. There is no doubt but that the Prophet includes the whole dispensation of Moses when he says, “I have made with you a covenant which you have not kept.” Besides, the Law was in a manner clothed with ceremonies; now when the body is dead, what is the use of garments? It is a common saying that the accessory is of the same character with his principal. No wonder, then, that the ceremonies, which are nothing more than appendages to the old covenant, should come to an end, together with the whole dispensation of Moses. Nor is it unusual with the Apostles, when they speak of ceremonies, to discuss the general question respecting the whole Law. Though, then, the prophet Jeremiah extends wider than to ceremonies, yet as it includes them under the name of the old covenant, it may be fitly applied to the present subject.[53]

In other words, because the substance (body) is different, then of course the accidents (garments) will change as well. Note, that this contradicts his argument in the Institutes that in Hebrews 7-10 (which is built upon Jeremiah 31:31-34), “the Old Testament is the name given to the solemn method of confirming the covenant comprehended under ceremonies and sacrifices.” In his commentary on Jeremiah 31, Calvin says “the Prophet speaks of the whole Law… the whole dispensation of Moses… extends wider than to ceremonies”.

Returning to the Institutes, Calvin says that both Jeremiah (31:31-34) and Paul (2 Cor. 3:5-6) “consider nothing in the Law but what is peculiar to it.”[54] Thus he asserts that “Old covenant” in these two passages is referring simply to “the Law” while “New covenant” refers to “the Gospel.” “The Law is designated by the name of the Old, and the Gospel by that of the New Testament.”[55] Properly defining the terms is crucial to Calvin’s position. Calvin insisted that in Heb 7-10, “Old Testament” referred only to the typical ceremonies. Here he insists it refers to “the Law.” But what precisely does Calvin mean by “the Law” in this instance? Does he mean the moral law? Does he mean the books of Moses? Does he mean Mosaic law as a whole (moral, judicial, ceremonial), delivered on Mt. Sinai? It’s not immediately clear.

the Law here and there contains promises of mercy; but as these are adventitious to it, they do not enter into the account of the Law as considered only in its own nature. All which is attributed to it is, that it commands what is right, prohibits crimes, holds forth rewards to the cultivators of righteousness, and threatens transgressors with punishment, while at the same time it neither changes nor amends that depravity of heart which is naturally inherent in all.[56]

Broadly speaking, “the Law” contains promises of mercy, but those promises are extrinsic to it. Again, it is not immediately clear what Calvin means by “the Law” in this instance – whether it refers to the writings of Moses or to the Mosaic Covenant as a whole. He first says “the Law” contains promises of mercy, then he says that it does not. If by “the Law” Calvin means the moral law, then he is incorrect because it does not contain any promises of mercy, not even “adventitiously.” If by “the Law” Calvin does not mean simply the moral law, then is he equivocating when he proceeds immediately (“All that is attributed to it is…”) to describe “the Law” in terms of the moral law, arguing that “Jeremiah indeed calls the Moral Law also a weak and fragile covenant”?[57]

Perhaps he means that “the Law” refers to the five books of Moses.[58] Thus promises of mercy are found in the writings of Moses. But that does not make sense of his comment that the promises are adventitious to it. How can part of Moses’ writings be adventitious to Moses’ writings? He later explains that is not what is meant by “the Law” when he says that the Old Testament “is of wider extent [than just the Law] (sec. 1), comprehending under it the promises which were given before the Law” thus identifying the Law with a particular point in history.[59]

The best explanation appears to be that by “the Law” Calvin means the law delivered by God to Israel on Mt. Sinai, including the moral, judicial, and ceremonial law. This would seem to be confirmed by the above statements regarding the moral law, crimes, and the timing, taken together with other statements such as “For the Apostle speaks of the Law more disparagingly than the Prophet. This he does not simply in respect of the Law itself, but because there were some false zealots of the Law who, by a perverse zeal for ceremonies, obscured the clearness of the Gospel”[60] as well as when he works through Paul’s antitheses in 2 Cor 3 and concludes “The last antithesis must be referred to the Ceremonial Law.”[61] This reading is confirmed by Calvin’s earlier statement in chapter 7. “By the Law, I understand not only the Ten Commandments, which contain a complete rule of life, but the whole system of religion delivered by the hand of Moses.”[62] We find this confirmed in his commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34 as well. “[T]he Prophet speaks of the whole Law… There is no doubt but that the Prophet includes the whole dispensation of Moses.”

Thus the whole Mosaic law delivered on Mt. Sinai to the people of Israel is what Jeremiah and Paul refer to as the Old Covenant. This Old Covenant is contrasted to the Gospel. Promises of mercy may be found here and there in this Old Covenant, but they are adventitious to it because the Old Covenant “neither changes nor amends that depravity of heart which is naturally inherent in all.”[63] Therefore “the Old Testament is literal, because promulgated without the efficacy of the Spirit: the New spiritual, because the Lord has engraven it on the heart.”[64] An example of this is found in Calvin’s commentary on Deuteronomy 30:6. “And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart. This promise far surpasses all the others, and properly refers to the new Covenant, for thus it is interpreted by Jeremiah.”[65]

We once again find Calvin depicting the differences between the Old and the New, not as a difference in accidents, but in substance. Calvin previously argued they were the same in substance because they both equally promised eternal life and because the patriarchs were members of the “immortal kingdom of God” through “illumination [regeneration] of the word.”[66] Now, because he is explaining the meaning of Jeremiah, Paul, and the author of Hebrews, Calvin says the exact opposite: the promise of mercy is adventitious to the Old covenant and the Old covenant regenerates no one. How can Calvin speak so contradictorily?[67] As we will see below, it is because he is defining “Old covenant” differently in each instance. Joshua Moon notes “The only way in which he is able to do this without blatant contradiction is through the broadening of the term ‘Old Testament’ in the first of the comparisons, as he admits to doing (‘The first extends more widely…’).”[68]

Calvin’s fourth difference is that “The Old Testament belongs to bondage, the New to liberty.” Referencing Heb 12:18-22 and Gal 4:25-26, Calvin says “The Old Testament filled the conscience with fear and trembling – The New inspires it with gladness.” Echoing the previous point, Calvin affirms that the holy fathers shared in the liberty from bondage, but explains that this freedom was not derived from “the Law.”[69] Commenting on this, Peter Lillback notes “Calvin’s explanation once again indicates his understanding of the New Covenant as the place of salvation in all of redemptive history.”[70]

He concludes “The three last contrasts to which we have adverted (sec. 4, 7, 9) are between the Law and the Gospel, and hence in these the Law is designated by the name of the Old, and the Gospel by that of the New Testament.” Note carefully that by this Calvin considers the typical ceremonies of the Old Covenant (difference #2, sec. 4) to fall under “the Law” in contrast to “the Gospel” even though they reveal the Gospel typologically. He says that the holy fathers

were under the same bonds and burdens of observances as the rest of their nation. Therefore, seeing they were obliged to the anxious observance of ceremonies (which were the symbols of a tutelage bordering on slavery, and handwritings by which they acknowledged their guilt, but did not escape from it), they are justly said to have been, comparatively, under a covenant of fear and bondage, in respect of that common dispensation under which the Jewish people were then placed.[71]

Calvin re-visited this issue in his commentary on the book of Hebrews, where he again wrestles with Jeremiah’s stark contrast.

But what he adds is not without some difficulty, — that the covenant of the Gospel was proclaimed on better promises; for it is certain that the fathers who lived under the Law had the same hope of eternal life set before them as we have, as they had the grace of adoption in common with us, then faith must have rested on the same promises. But the comparison made by the Apostle refers to the form rather than to the substance; for though God promised to them the same salvation which he at this day promises to us, yet neither the manner nor the character of the revelation is the same or equal to what we enjoy.[72]

Again Calvin attempts to explain the difference as a matter of form or outward administration. The difference is the manner and character of the revelation (i.e. obscure vs. clear). But in expositing the text, Calvin runs into his recurring dilemma. “There are two main parts in this covenant; the first regards the gratuitous remission of sins; and the other, the inward renovation of the heart.”[73] This presents Calvin with the problem of how these two things can be attributed to the New covenant in contrast to the Old. He argues it was simply a matter of degree (lesser vs greater), as well as clarity.

But it may be asked, whether there was under the Law a sure and certain promise of salvation, whether the fathers had the gift of the Spirit, whether they enjoyed God’s paternal favor through the remission of sins? Yes, it is evident that they worshipped God with a sincere heart and a pure conscience, and that they walked in his commandments, and this could not have been the case except they had been inwardly taught by the Spirit; and it is also evident, that whenever they thought of their sins, they were raised up by the assurance of a gratuitous pardon. And yet the Apostle, by referring the prophecy of Jeremiah to the coming of Christ, seems to rob them of these blessings. To this I reply, that he does not expressly deny that God formerly wrote his Law on their hearts and pardoned their sins, but he makes a comparison between the less and the greater. As then the Father has put forth more fully the power of his Spirit under the kingdom of Christ, and has poured forth more abundantly his mercy on mankind, this exuberance renders insignificant the small portion of grace which he had been pleased to bestow on the fathers. We also see that the promises were then obscure and intricate, so that they shone only like the moon and stars in comparison with the clear light of the Gospel which shines brightly on us.

But this answer is confounded by the fact that Abraham’s faith, far from being less than ours, is the prime example of ours. So it cannot be a difference in degree.

If it be objected and said, that the faith and obedience of Abraham so excelled, that hardly any such an example can at this day be found in the whole world; my answer is this, that the question here is not about persons, but that reference is made to the economical condition of the Church. Besides, whatever spiritual gifts the fathers obtained, they were accidental as it were to their age; for it was necessary for them to direct their eyes to Christ in order to become possessed of them. Hence it was not without reason that the Apostle, in comparing the Gospel with the Law, took away from the latter what is peculiar to the former. There is yet no reason why God should not have extended the grace of the new covenant to the fathers. This is the true solution of the question.[74]

To escape this dilemma, Calvin must abandon his unity of Old and New and flee to Augustine’s view. The true solution is to admit that the saving faith experienced by the fathers was not derived from the Old covenant, but was rather “accidental” to it. Their salvation was a blessing of the New covenant extended back to them.

Was the grace of regeneration wanting to the Fathers under the Law? But this is quite preposterous. What, then, is meant when God denies here that the Law was written on the heart before the coming of Christ? To this I answer, that the Fathers, who were formerly regenerated, obtained this favor through Christ, so that we may say, that it was as it were transferred to them from another source. The power then to penetrate into the heart was not inherent in the Law, but it was a benefit transferred to the Law from the Gospel.[75]

Joshua Moon notes

The borrowing from Augustine is no less strong in these passages than is admitted in the Institutes, and is invoked to resolve the question of the attributes of the member of the new covenant which are clearly evidenced in the ancients. If the new covenant member is identified by the law on the heart, which is regeneration, then those who were regenerate before Christ were members of the new covenant. But Calvin has simply side-stepped the difficulty raised in identifying the law on the heart (regeneration) with the ‘form’ of the covenant.[76]

 

Calvin’s “Old Testament”

 

So then what exactly is the Old covenant that Calvin believes is one and the same with the New covenant? He says that “The three last contrasts to which we have adverted (sec. 4, 7, 9), are between the Law and the Gospel, and hence in these the Law is designated by the name of the Old, and the Gospel by that of the New Testament. The first [the Old Testament] is of wider extent (sec. 1) [than the Law], comprehending under it the promises which were given even before the Law.”[77] Calvin is not here arguing that the Old Testament means the Old Scriptures, having been revealed before the Law. Rather, he means that the Old covenant God made with the Israelites on Mt. Sinai includes more than just the Mosaic Law (“the whole system of religion delivered by the hand of Moses”). It also includes promises of eternal life – the same promises which were given prior to the Old covenant. Thus he says “the Old Testament or covenant which the Lord made with the people of Israel was not confined to earthly objects, but contained a promise of spiritual and eternal life, the expectation of which behaved to be impressed on the minds of all who truly consented to the covenant” making it clear he is not simply referring to the Old Scriptures.[78]

Recall from above that Augustine encountered a related argument in Pelagius. He recounts the trial.

After the judges had accorded their approbation to this answer of Pelagius, another passage which he had written in his book was read aloud: “The kingdom of heaven was promised even in the Old Testament.” Upon this, Pelagius remarked in vindication: “This can be proved by the Scriptures: but heretics, in order to disparage the Old Testament, deny this. I, however, simply followed the authority of the Scriptures when I said this; for in the prophet Daniel it is written: ‘The saints shall receive the kingdom of the Most. High.’” (Dan 7:18) After they had heard this answer, the synod said: “Neither is this opposed to the Church’s faith.”[79]

Augustine then replied:

Was it therefore without reason that our brethren were moved by his words to include this charge among the others against him? Certainly not. The fact is, that the phrase Old Testament is constantly employed in two different ways,—in one, following the authority of the Holy Scriptures; in the other, following the most common custom of speech.

For the Apostle Paul says, in his Epistle to the Galatians: “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bond-maid, the other by a free woman… Which things are an allegory: for these are the two testaments; the one which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and is conjoined with the Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children; whereas the Jerusalem which is above is free, and is the mother of us all.” (Gal 4:21-26)

Now, inasmuch as the Old Testament belongs to bondage, whence it is written, “Cast out the bond-woman and her son, for the son of the bond-woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac,” (Gal 4:30) but the kingdom of heaven to liberty; what has the kingdom of heaven to do with the Old Testament? Since, however, as I have already remarked, we are accustomed, in our ordinary use of words, to designate all those Scriptures of the law and the prophets which were given previous to the Lord’s incarnation, and are embraced together by canonical authority, under the name and title of the Old Testament, what man who is ever so moderately informed in ecclesiastical lore can be ignorant that the kingdom of heaven could be quite as well promised in those early Scriptures as even the New Testament itself, to which the kingdom of heaven belongs?

At all events, in those ancient Scriptures it is most distinctly written: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will consummate a new testament with the house of Israel and with the house of Jacob; not according to the testament that I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand, to lead them out of the land of Egypt.” (Jer 31:31, 32) This was done on Mount Sinai. But then there had not yet risen the prophet Daniel to say: “The saints shall receive the kingdom of the Most High.” (Dan 7:18) For by these words he foretold the merit not of the Old, but of the New Testament. In the same manner did the same prophets foretell that Christ Himself would come, in whose blood the New Testament was consecrated. Of this Testament also the apostles became the ministers, as the most blessed Paul declares: “He hath made us able ministers of the New Testament; not in its letter, but in spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Cor 3:6)

In that testament, however, which is properly called the Old, and was given on Mount Sinai, only earthly happiness is expressly promised. Accordingly that land, into which the nation, after being led through the wilderness, was conducted, is called the land of promise, wherein peace and royal power, and the gaining of victories over enemies, and an abundance of children and of fruits of the ground, and gifts of a similar kind are the promises of the Old Testament. And these, indeed, are figures of the spiritual blessings which appertain to the New Testament; but yet the man who lives under God’s law with those earthly blessings for his sanction, is precisely the heir of the Old Testament, for just such rewards are promised and given to him, according to the terms of the Old Testament, as are the objects of his desire according to the condition of the old man.

But whatever blessings are there figuratively set forth as appertaining to the New Testament require the new man to give them effect. And no doubt the great apostle understood perfectly well what he was saying, when he described the two testaments as capable of the allegorical distinction of the bond-woman and the free,—attributing the children of the flesh to the Old, and to the New the children of the promise: “They,” says he, “which are the children of the flesh, are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” (Rom 9:8) The children of the flesh, then, belong to the earthly Jerusalem, which is in bondage with her children; whereas the children of the promise belong to the Jerusalem above, the free, the mother of us all, eternal in the heavens. (Gal 4:25, 26) Whence we can easily see who they are that appertain to the earthly, and who to the heavenly kingdom. But then the happy persons, who even in that early age were by the grace of God taught to understand the distinction now set forth, were thereby made the children of promise, and were accounted in the secret purpose of God as heirs of the New Testament; although they continued with perfect fitness to administer the Old Testament to the ancient people of God, because it was divinely appropriated to that people in God’s distribution of the times and seasons.

How then should there not be a feeling of just disquietude entertained by the children of promise, children of the free Jerusalem, which is eternal in the heavens, when they see that by the words of Pelagius the distinction which has been drawn by Apostolic and catholic authority is abolished, and Agar is supposed to be by some means on a par with Sarah? He therefore does injury to the scripture of the Old Testament with heretical impiety, who with an impious and sacrilegious face denies that it was inspired by the good, supreme, and very God,—as Marcion does, as Manichæus does, and other pests of similar opinions. On this account (that I may put into as brief a space as I can what my own views are on the subject), as much injury is done to the New Testament, when it is put on the same level with the Old Testament, as is inflicted on the Old itself when men deny it to be the work of the supreme God of goodness.[80]

Augustine says that “following the most common custom of speech” we can say that the Old Testament promised eternal life because by “Old Testament” we simply mean “all those Scriptures of the law and the prophets which were given previous to the Lord’s incarnation.” However, if we properly define the Old Testament “following the authority of the Holy Scriptures” as the covenant that was “given on Mount Sinai” to “the ancient people of God” then “only earthly happiness is expressly promised.” He goes so far as to say that claiming the Old and the New covenants offer the same promise “does injury to the scripture of the Old Testament with heretical impiety.”

Calvin was aware of Augustine’s objection to his position.

When Augustine maintained that [the promises of eternal life] were not to be included under the name of the Old Testament (August. ad Bonifac. lib. 3 c. 14), he took a most correct view, and meant nothing different from what we have now taught; for he had in view those passages of Jeremiah and Paul in which the Old Testament is distinguished from the word of grace and mercy. In the same passage, Augustine, with great shrewdness remarks, that from the beginning of the world the sons of promise, the divinely regenerated, who, through faith working by love, obeyed the commandments, belonged to the New Testament; entertaining the hope not of carnal, earthly, temporal, but spiritual, heavenly, and eternal blessings, believing especially in a Mediator, by whom they doubted not both that the Spirit was administered to them, enabling them to do good, and pardon imparted as often as they sinned. The thing which he thus intended to assert was, that all the saints mentioned in Scripture, from the beginning of the world, as having been specially selected by God, were equally with us partakers of the blessing of eternal salvation. The only difference between our division and that of Augustine is, that ours (in accordance with the words of our Saviour, “All the prophets and the law prophesied until John,” Mt. 11:13) distinguishes between the gospel light and that more obscure dispensation of the word which preceded it, while the other division simply distinguishes between the weakness of the Law and the strength of the Gospel. And here also, with regard to the holy fathers, it is to be observed, that though they lived under the Old Testament, they did not stop there, but always aspired to the New, and so entered into sure fellowship with it.[81]

Calvin defends himself by claiming by “Old Testament” he means “all the prophets and the law” – that is, the Scriptures prior to Christ. In which case, the only difference between the two is the degree of clarity, and thus a difference in administration. But as we have just seen, that is not in fact how Calvin has been using the term. He again side-steps the issue and does not answer Augustine. Moon notes “The necessary equivocations … show the incompatibility of [Calvin’s] approach.”[82]

In sum, Calvin’s position hinges upon how one defines the Old covenant. If we define it according to Jeremiah, Paul, and the author of Hebrews as “the whole system of religion delivered by the hand of Moses,”[83] then the difference between the Old and New is the difference between Law and Gospel, and thus Augustine is correct (according to Calvin) that eternal salvation is found in the New covenant alone. However, if Jeremiah, Paul, and the author of Hebrews were improperly abstracting only one part of the Old Covenant, which is defined as something other than “the whole system of religion delivered by the hand of Moses” or “the whole dispensation of Moses”[84] and the Old covenant itself promises eternal life, then the Old and New are really one and the same covenant.

 

Owen

 

After more than a century of development, the reformed view articulated by Bullinger, Calvin, and others became solidified in the Westminster Confession.[85] However, not all reformed theologians were happy with the position. Ironically, chief among these dissenters was the “Calvin of England” John Owen.[86] There appears to be development in his thought over the years, but it finds its fullest expression on this question in his several thousand page magnum opus, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is there, in over 150 pages of meticulous analysis of the logic of Jeremiah and the author of Hebrews on 8:6-13 that Owen finds reason to reject Calvin’s view and return instead to Augustine’s.

Here then ariseth a difference of no small importance, namely, whether these are indeed two distinct covenants, as to the essence and substance of them, or only different ways of the dispensation and administration of the same covenant. And the reason of the difficulty lieth herein: We must grant one of these three things:

  1. That either the covenant of grace was in force under the old testament; or,
  2. That the church was saved without it, or any benefit by Jesus Christ, who is the mediator of it alone; or,
  3. That they all perished everlastingly.And neither of the two latter can be admitted…

I shall take it here for granted, that no man was ever saved but by virtue of the new covenant, and the mediation of Christ therein.

Suppose, then, that this new covenant of grace was extant and effectual under the old testament, so as the church was saved by virtue thereof, and the mediation of Christ therein, how could it be that there should at the same time be another covenant between God and them, of a different nature from this, accompanied with other promises, and other effects?

On this consideration it is said, that the two covenants mentioned, the new and the old, were not indeed two distinct covenants, as unto 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 of them…

But on the other hand, there is such express mention made, not only in this, but in sundry other places of the Scripture also, of two distinct covenants, or testaments, and such different natures, properties, and effects, ascribed unto them, as seem to constitute two distinct covenants…

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…

The Lutherans, on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove, that not a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that two covenants substantially distinct, are intended in this discourse of the apostle…[87]

After setting up the dilemma and accurately representing the two possible orthodox positions, Owen gives his opinion.

[T]he Scripture doth plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way, as what is spoken can hardly be accommodated unto a twofold administration of the same covenant. The one is mentioned and described, Exodus 24:3-8, Deuteronomy 5:2-5, — namely, the covenant that God made with the people of Israel in Sinai; and which is commonly called “the covenant,” where the people under the old testament are said to keep or break God’s covenant; which for the most part is spoken with respect unto that worship which was peculiar thereunto. The other is promised, Jeremiah 31:31-34, 32:40; which is the new or gospel covenant, as before explained, mentioned Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24. And these two covenants, or testaments, are compared one with the other, and opposed one unto another, 2 Corinthians 3:6-9; Galatians 4:24-26; Hebrews 7:22, 9:15-20.

These two we call “the old and the new testament.” Only it must be observed, that in this argument, by the “old testament,” we do not understand the books of the Old Testament, or the writings of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets, or the oracles of God committed then unto the church… for this old covenant, or testament, whatever it be, is abrogated and taken away, as the apostle expressly proves, but the word of God in the books of the Old Testament abideth for ever.[88]

Owen understood very well what the central issue was: how to define the Old Covenant. Owen concludes, with the Lutherans and against Calvin, that Jer 31:31-34, 2 Cor 3:6-9, Gal 4:24-26, and Hebrews 7:22, 9:5-20 use the term “Old covenant” properly, not improperly. They define what the Old Covenant is. It is “the covenant that God made with the people of Israel in Sinai” in contrast to the “gospel covenant,” according to the authority of Scripture.

He continues:

Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended. We must, I say, do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, —and with great pretense of reason, for it is that which is the sole foundation they all build upon who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, —’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation be the same under both, then indeed are they for the substance of them but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue thereof, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, whilst they were under the covenant…. the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,”[89]

Owen again pinpoints the central issue: Calvin’s first argument for the unity of the Old and the New from the salvation of the patriarchs. He recognizes the error in Calvin’s logic. It is false to argue that because an Israelite was saved, therefore the Old and the New are one. The correct inference, following Augustine, is that the Israelite was saved by the New covenant.

The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant.[90]

Owen also agreed with Augustine and the Lutherans that the Old Covenant was limited to temporal blessings.

This covenant 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 Corinthians: 3:9; 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.[91]

In conclusion, Owen denied that the Old and New covenants are of the same substance.

This is the nature and substance of that covenant which God made with that people; a particular, temporary covenant it was, and not a mere dispensation of the covenant of grace.[92]

Owen was at liberty to disagree with the reformed view and instead affirm that Jeremiah, Paul, and the author of Hebrews correctly identified the Old Covenant because refuting the Anabaptists was not his chief concern. One could say exegeting Hebrews was. Owen did not face any significant Anabaptist presence in England in his day. He did, however, encounter many Particular (“reformed”) Baptists, who were altogether different than Calvin’s Anabaptists.[93] Rather than “frantic,” “hairbrained,” “crazy zealot,” “lunatic,”  “drunkard,” “heretical” “vermin” who were “enemies of God and of the human race”[94] Owen found co-laborers for Christ, common allies in Congregationalism’s view of the church as a gathering of visible saints, and fellow-sufferers in Non-Conformity. He even found among these baptists a preacher so powerful that Owen told the King of England he would “willingly relinquish all [his] learning” if only he could “possess the tinker’s ability for preaching.”[95] He has been described as “a friend of baptists.”[96] Working alongside baptists in government-appointed committees, “Owen likely discovered that his new colleagues were actually more orthodox than he had suspected, and indeed that their position, especially in ecclesiological terms, was far closer to his than was that of the Presbyterian party with whom he had formerly been linked.”[97]

His Vindication of a Treatise on Schism in 1657 refused to admit that those who renounced and repeated the baptism they received as infants should be described as schismatic. In the face of widespread criticism, Owen defended baptists from the charge of repeating the Donatist heresy… Owen refused to criticize them. Time and time again, Owen defended baptists from their critics.[98]

Refuting credobaptism simply was not the concern for Owen that it was for Calvin and the 16th century reformed.

 

1689 Federalism

 

Neither was refuting credobaptism a concern for the 17th century Particular Baptists. They thus came to the same conclusions as Owen regarding the Old and New covenants. Nehemiah Coxe, the probable editor of the Second London Baptist Confession (1677), wrote one of the few systematic particular baptist treatments of covenant theology (as opposed to a merely polemical work). He wrote on covenants in general, the Covenant of Works, the Noahic Covenant, and the Abrahamic Covenant. But when he came to the Old and New Covenants, he felt no need to write his own treatment.

That notion (which is often supposed in this discourse) that the Old Covenant and the New do differ in substance, and not in the manner of their administration only, doth indeed require a more large and particular handling to free it from those prejudices and difficulties that have been cast upon it by many worthy persons, who are otherwise minded. I designed to have given a further account of it in a discourse of the covenant made with Israel in the Wilderness, and the state of the church under the Law. But when I had finished this, and provided some materials also for what was to follow, I found my labour for the clearing and asserting of that point, happily prevented, by the coming for of Dr. Owen’s 3d vol. upon the Hebrews. There it is discussed at length and the objections that seem to lie against it are fully answered, especially in the exposition of the eighth chapter.[99]

This position goes by the name of “1689 Federalism” today, in reference to the Second London Baptist Confession, popularly referred to as the 1689 London Baptist Confession.[100]

 

Conclusion

 

We have seen that Augustine offered an orthodox interpretation of the Old and New covenants as two distinct, contrasting covenants. This view was held in various forms through the middle ages[101] and was continued by the Lutherans. Andrew A. Woolsey notes that “Of all the fathers, the favourite of the Reformers was Augustine. John T. McNeill says that ‘Calvin’s self-confessed debt to Augustine is constantly apparent’ throughout the Institutes, and he proves his point in the “Author and Source Index” by listing 730 references to the Bishop of Hippo’s works.”[102] However, Calvin and the reformed tradition departed from Augustine on the question of the Old and New covenants in an attempt to defend infant baptism. This led them into various tensions and inconsistencies and required Calvin to argue that the Old Covenant was something other than “the whole system of religion delivered by the hand of Moses.” These problems were eventually resolved when Owen rejected their innovations and returned to Augustine’s historic interpretation.

Calvin never offered an argument against 1689 Federalism’s view of the Old and New Covenants. Rather, he called its observations very shrewd and “most correct,” affirming 1689 Federalism’s belief that Old Testament saints were members of the New covenant,[103] going so far as to say it is “the real solution to the problem.”[104]

Are the promises of eternal life “to be included under the name of Old Testament”? Augustine and Owen said no. Calvin said they are correct if we define “Old Testament” according to “those passages of Jeremiah and Paul.” But Calvin chose not to do so. Instead, he argued that the Old Testament should be defined as the Law, in contrast to the Gospel, together with the Gospel. In other words, Calvin rejected Scripture’s definition of the Old Testament in favor of a self-contradictory definition of his own, all in an effort to defend infant baptism. And whenever this led him into further contradictions, he abandoned his definition and returned to Augustine’s – which was Jeremiah’s and Paul’s. It would thus appear that a biblical understanding of the Old and New covenants requires one to retain the aspects of Calvin’s interpretation that coincide with Augustine’s, and discard the rest.


[1] Andrew A. Woolsey ”The Covenant in the Church Fathers,” Haddington House Journal, 2003; 38.

[2] ibid, 40

[3]  Augustine, A Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter, ch. 36, 41.  Augustine, A Work on the Proceedings of Pelagius, ch. 14.

[4] Augustine, A Treatise Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, bk. III ch. 7

[5] ibid, III.11

[6] A Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter, ch. 40

[7] Woolsey, 42-43

[8] Pentiuc, Eugen J. The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition. Oxford UP, 2014, 38

[9] A Work on the Proceedings of Pelagius, ch. 13

[10] Pentiuc, 38.

[11] Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.

[12] Melanchthon, Loci (1521), 120-121. Quoted in Moon, 79.

[13] Joshua Moon, Restitutiuo ad Integrum: An ‘AugustinianReading of Jeremiah 31:31-34 in Dialogue with the Christian Tradition (PhD dissertation, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, 2007), 86.

[14] ibid, 88-89.

[15] Bullinger, “Brief Exposition,” 120. Quoted in Moon, 89.

[16] Moon, 93-94.

[17] ibid, 94.

[18] Calvin, John (2011-01-28). Calvin: The Institutes of the Christian Religion (best navigation with Direct Verse Jump) (p. 677). OSNOVA. Kindle Edition. 2.10.1. Editor’s note: “The French is, “Veu qu’ils pensent qu notre Seigneur l’ait voulu seulement engraisser enterre comme en une auge, sans seperance aucune de l’immortalité celeste;” — seeing they think that our Lord only wished to fatten them on the earth as in a sty, without any hope of heavenly immortality.”

[19] Galen Johnson The Development of John Calvins Doctrine of Infant Baptism in Reaction to the Anabaptists (Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. 73, No. 4, Oct. 1999), 808. “Calvin lived in an era of theological confusion, and despite his tireless efforts to promulgate orderliness, he did not always sharply distinguish among non-magisterial reformers or “radical” groups who saw distinctions among themselves”. Hans Rudolf Lavater Calvin, Farel, and the Anabaptists: On the Origins of the Brieve Instruction of 1544 (Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. 88, July 2014, trans. John D. Roth), 323-324 “According to Karl H. Wyneken, Calvin used these labels to characterize ‘radicals‛ in general, even though, as George H. Williams has made clear, the terms did not provide a clear profile of his opponents. In the words of Williams, ‘the Radical Reformation was a loosely interrelated congeries of reformations and restitutions which, besides the Anabaptists of various types, included Spiritualists and spiritualizers of varying tendencies, and the Evangelical Rationalists, largely Italian in origin.‛” Willem Balke Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 2. “It should be observed that it is not easy to characterize the Anabaptists or to distinguish them accurately from other Radicals such as the Spiritualists, the Fanatics, and the Antitrinitarians. The radicalism of the sixteenth century was a very complex phenomenon. Scholarly discussions concerning it offer so many different interpretations that we cannot expect a common opinion to emerge in Anabaptist scholarship in the near future.”

[20] Balke, 31.

[21] Alejandro Zorzin Reformation Publishing and Anabaptist Propaganda: Two Contrasting Communication Strategies for the Spread of the Anabaptist Message in the Early Days of the Swiss Brethren (Mennonite Quarterly Review, Issue 82, Oct. 2008), 503-516.

[22] Balke, 12.

[23] Lavater, 331.

[24] Lavater, 332.

[25] Balke, 213.

[26] ibid, 121.

[27] “[T]he young republic [Geneva] was being compromised and threatened. The conflicting parties were of approximately equal strength. The Reformation was barely a reality; many within the city did not respect it, while many outside the city slandered it. There was a legitimate fear in Europe that the rebellious Geneva would become the home for Anabaptism and anarchism. Many felt that the emperor should take strong measures against Geneva, as he had done in Munster…” Balke, 75. According to Calvin, “They destroy the unity of the church and discredit the evangelical doctrine in the eyes of government. They are thus a danger for the pursuit of the Reformation.” Balke, 331.

[28] “When Calvin, traveling through, stopped briefly in Geneva, Farel called on him for help. He put the call squarely to Calvin and impressed on him that God would curse him if he

did not stay. Farel swore that Calvin was the man to complete the work of reformation in Geneva. Calvin himself acknowledged that he agreed to stay because he was ‘overcome with fear.’” Balke, 76. “[O]ur colleagues think that a refutation is needed… They ask you, for God’s sake, that you take on this task… I suppose that we could ask someone else to accept this service, but tell us please: who could we find who could take up such a task… with your argumentative gifts or who could accomplish it as artfully as you?” Farel’s letter to Calvin, quoted in Lavatory, 333-334.

[29] Johnson, 804 “In this preface (1557), Calvin recalled that the French government of Francis I persecuted only those considered to be “Anabaptists and seditious persons,” but among them were many whom Calvin considered “faithful and holy.” Thus, Calvin wrote, “This was the consideration which induced me to publish my Institute of the Christian Religion. My objects were, first, to prove that these reports were false and calumnious, and thus to vindicate my brethren, whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord.” John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1993), 1:xli-xlii (cf. McGrath, Lifeof John Calvin, 76). Indeed, Calvin‟s prefatory letter to Francis in the Institutes (dated August 1, 1535) pressed this very point.” Lavater, 327 “In his Commentary on the Psalms of 1557, Calvin clarified that the actual motivation for the Institutes was the ‘Anabaptists [anabaptistes] and rebels, who with their delusions and erroneous teachings destroy not only religion but also political order.‛” Balke, 70-71 “The fact that the Roman Catholic Church and the French government had lumped the reformers in one category with the Anabaptists moved Calvin to bring out very sharply his differences with the Anabaptists… Finally, of special importance was Calvin’s role in the Institutes as the defender on behalf of his French fellow believers, pleading their innocence against the charges that they were Catabaptists who were dangerous to the state.” Balke, 290 “Since Munster, the charge that the reformers were a danger to the state, just like those Anabaptists, touched a very sore spot with Calvin.”

[30] See Lavater, 328-330 and Balke, 73-95.

[31] Balke, 94.

[32] Balke, 99.

[33] Balke, 312.

[34] G. Schrenk, Gottesreich und Bund im älteren Protestantismus vornehmlich bei Johannes Coccejus (Gutersloh, 1923), pp. 36f. Cited in Balke, 311-312.

[35] Balke, 221.

[36] Balke, 97.

[37] Calvin says “The ground of controversy is this: our opponents hold that the land of Canaan was considered by the Israelites as supreme and final happiness, and now, since Christ was manifested, typifies to us the heavenly inheritance; whereas we maintain that, in the earthly possession which the Israelites enjoyed, they beheld, as in a mirror, the future inheritance which they believed to be reserved for them in heaven.” Institutes, 2.11.1

[38] Peter A. Lillback “Calvin’s Covenantal Response to the Anabaptist View of Baptism” The Failure of the American Baptist Culture, James B. Jordan, ed. (Geneva Divinity School, 1982), 221.

[39] ibid, 198.

[40] Institutes, 2.10.2. Johnson, 812 “While Calvin‟s exposition of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments in the Institutes is found largely in Book II (The Knowledge of God the Redeemer) rather than Book IV on the sacraments, one nonetheless observes that his treatment on Testamental unity first appeared at length in 1539, the same edition in which Calvin greatly expanded his defense of infant baptism. The two topics were integrally related”

[41] Institutes, 2.10.3

[42] Institutes, 2.10.3

[43] Institutes, 2.10.4

[44] Institutes, 2.10.7

[45] Institutes, 2.10.13

[46] A Work on the Proceedings of Pelagius, ch. 14.

[47] Institutes, 2.10.23

[48] Institutes, 2.11.3

[49] Institutes, 2.11.4

[50] Institutes, 2.11.4

[51] Institutes, 2.11.1

[52]  A Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter, ch. 42

[53] Notice that Calvin here describes the ceremonies as accessories and appendages to the old covenant, the principal and body (substance?) of which is dead.

[54] Institutes, 2.11.7

[55] Institutes, 2.11.10

[56] Institutes, 2.11.7

[57] Institutes, 2.11.8

[58] Cf. Calvin’s commentary on Rom. 10:5 “The law has a twofold meaning; it sometimes includes the whole of what has been taught by Moses, and sometimes that part only which was peculiar to his ministration, which consisted of precepts, rewards, and punishments.”

[59] Institutes, 2.11.10

[60] Institutes, 2.11.7

[61] Institutes, 2.11.8

[62] Institutes, 2.7.1

[63] Compare with Witsius “Nor Formally the Covenant of Grace: Because that requires not only obedience, but also promises, and bestows strength to obey. For, thus the covenant of grace is made known, Jer. xxxii. 39. ‘and I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever.’ But such a promise appears not in the covenant made at mount Sinai. Nay; God, on this very account, distinguishes the new covenant of grace from the Sinaitic, Jer. xxxi. 31-33. And Moses loudly proclaims, Deut xxix. 4. ‘yet the Lord hath not given you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.’ Certainly, the chosen from among Israel had obtained this. Yet not in virtue of this covenant, which stipulated obedience, but gave no power for it: but in virtue of the covenant of grace, which also belonged to them.” The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed), Vol. II, 187.

[64] Institutes, 2.11.8

[65] Compare with Bryan D. Estelle Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:1-14 in Biblical Theological Development: Entitlement to Heaven Foreclosed and Proffered (P & R Publishing, 2009), 128-130. “If one does not recognize this as a prophecy of the new covenant, then a host of unconvincing exegetical conclusions follow… Just as Leviticus 18:5 is taken up in later biblical allusions and echoes, so also is this Deuteronomy [30:6] passage. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, the language of the new covenant that was cloaked in the circumcision of heart metaphor is unveiled in this classic passage. I argued above that Deuteronomy 30:1-14 is a predictive prophecy of the new covenant, and, therefore, all that was implicit there becomes explicit in Jeremiah 31. In verse 31, Jeremiah says this will happen ‘in the coming days’ and in verse 33 he says ‘after these days’; both refer to the new covenant, messianic days.”

[66] Institutes, 2.10.7

[67]

[68] Moon, 114.

[69] In his commentary on Jeremiah 31, Calvin says “[T]he Fathers, who were formerly regenerated, obtained this favour through Christ, so that we may say, that it was as it were transferred to them from another source. The power then to penetrate into the heart was not inherent in the Law, but it was a benefit transferred to the Law from the Gospel…”

[70] Lillback, 218.

[71] Institutes, 2.11.9

[72] Calvin’s commentary on Hebrews 8:6.

[73] Commentary Heb. 8:10

[74] Commentary Heb. 8:10

[75] Commentary on Jer 31:33

[76] Moon, 119.

[77] Institutes, 2.11.10

[78] Institutes, 2.10.23

[79] A Work on the Proceedings of Pelagius ch. 13

[80] ibid, ch. 14-15.

[81] Institutes, 2.11.10

[82] Moon, 120.

[83] Calvin’s definition of “the Law’ in Institutes, 2.7.1

[84] “There is no doubt but that the Prophet includes the whole dispensation of Moses when he says, ‘I have made with you a covenant which you have not kept.’” Calvin’s commentary on Hebrews 8:8

[85] Chapter 7, Paragraphs 5 and 6.

[86] Allen C. Guelzo, “John Owen, Puritan Pacesetter”, Christianity Today, 20, No. 17 (May 21, 1976), 14.

[87] John Owen An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews: Hebrews 8:1-10:39” The Works of John Owen, vol. 22 (Johnstone & Hunter, 1855, ed. William H. Goold, “Books for the Ages” AGES Software, 2000), 84-89 (Heb. 8:6).

[88] Owen, 91-92 (Heb. 8:6).

[89] Owen, 92-93 (Heb. 8:6).

[90] Owen, 147 (Heb. 8:9).

[91] Owen, 103-104 (Heb. 8:6).

[92] Owen, 105 (Heb. 8:6).

[93] See Renihan, James M. Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705 (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008). Hulse, Erroll. Who Are the Puritans?: And What Do They Teach? (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2000), 188. Haykin, Michael A. G. Kiffin, Knollys and Keach: Rediscovering English Baptist Heritage (Leeds: Reformation Today, 1996). McGoldrick, James Edward. Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question in Baptist History (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 2000). Belyea, G. “Origins of the Particular Baptists.” Themelios. 32, no. 3 (2007): 40-67.

[94] Lavater, 353.

[95] Andrew Thomson, John Owen, Prince of Puritans, (Fern, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1996), 54. Owen was referring to John Bunyan, whom he often went to hear preach.

[96] Crawford Gribben “John Owen, Baptism, and the Baptists” By Common Confession: Essays in Honor of James M. Renihan (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2015).

[97] ibid.

[98] ibid.

[99] Nehemiah Coxe “A Discource of the Covenants that God made with men before the Law” Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005), 30.

[100] For more information and a list of resources, see http://www.1689federalism.com

[101] see Moon.

[102] Woolsey, 37.

[103] “with regard to the holy fathers, it is to be observed, that though they lived under the Old Testament, they did not stop there, but always aspired to the New, and so entered into sure fellowship with it.” Institutes, 2.11.10

[104] Commentary Hebrews 8:10

Neonomian Presbyterians vs Antinomian Congregationalists?

October 14, 2015 14 comments

In current debate over the role of good works in salvation, appeal is made to “the Puritans.” The problem is, “the Puritans” included a vast range of beliefs. Some were orthodox, some were not. Thus there is usually a qualifier “the best of the Puritans” which is code for “the Puritans that agree with me.” (And when quotes are marshaled forth, it’s often a mix from various men with one key quote establishing a point, with the effect that it seems like they all agreed). For those of us who haven’t had time to studying the 17th century, it’s easy to get the impression that it was a glory day of orthodox theology where all the theologians in England sat around drafting the greatest confessions of faith and faithfully proclaiming the gospel in a nation full of Christians. The reality is the WCF never became the official confession in England, orthodox pastors frequently bemoaned the dark spiritual state of the nation, and dispute arose amongst Puritans over the heart of Christianity: justification by faith alone.

baxter

The controversy over justification centered around Richard Baxter. Yes, the Reformed Pastor, whom J.I. Packer describes as “the most outstanding pastor, evangelist and writer on practical and devotional themes that Puritanism produced.” Baxter was appalled by licentiousness he saw while serving in Cromwell’s army and he made it his life’s mission to refute the error of Antinomianism. In the process, he wound up modifying his doctrine of justification. The problem, according to Baxter, was the idea that Christ has fulfilled all the conditions necessary for our salvation by fulfilling the law of works and then freely granting us salvation in the covenant of grace. Baxter wound up rejecting the orthodox view of the atonement, imputation, and justification. (See Michael Brown’s helpful overview)

CORxkoMU8AAr0vL

The debate centered on theologians who argued that the New Covenant, unlike the Old, was unconditional. Tobias Crispe was the prime example. Crispe did err on a number of points in what he thought were the implications of an unconditional New Covenant, such as holding that we are justified prior to faith (see Owen’s correction here – note that first generation particular baptists William Kiffin and Samuel Richardson agreed with Crispe).

Baxter’s solution was to argue that the New Covenant was conditional. Christ’s obedience did not earn salvation for us. Christ’s obedience earned the New Covenant for us, and the New Covenant is a new law (“Law of Grace”) with a lower standard that we are able to meet. The requirement of the New Covenant is not perfect obedience, but sincere obedience flowing from faith. Thus Baxter argued that we need both Christ’s righteousness and our own inherent (“evangelical”) righteousness in order to be saved. Baxter said “faith is imputed for Righteousness…because it is an Act of Obedience to God…it is the performance of the Condition of the Justifying Covenant.” He argued that faith and works “Both justifie in the same kinde of causality, viz. as Causae sine quibus non…Faith as the principal part; Obedience as the less principall. The like may be said of Love, which at least is a secondary part of the Condition.” He summarized his view in an analogy:

A Tenant forfeiteth his Lease to his Landlord, by not paying his rent; he runs deep in debt to him, and is disabled to pay him any more rent for the future, whereupon he is put out of his house, and cast him into prison till he pay his debt. His Landlord’s son payeth it for him, taketh him out of prison, and putteth him in his house again, as his Tenant, having purchased house and all to himself; he maketh him a new Lease in this Tenor, that paying but a pepper corn yearly to him, he shall be acquit both from his debt, and from all other rent from the future, which by his old lease was to be paid; yet doth he not cancel the old Lease, but keepeth it in his hands to put in suite against the Tenant, if he should be so foolish as to deny the payment of the pepper corn. In this case the payment of the grain of pepper is imputed to the Tenant, as if he had paid the rent of the old Lease: Yet this imputation doth not extoll the pepper corn, nor vilifie the benefit of his Benefactor, who redeemed him: nor can it be said that the purchase did only serve to advance the value and efficacy of that grain of pepper. But thus; a personall rent must be paid for the testification of his homage.

Aphorisms on Justification (republished by John Wesley)

If one denied that Christians must pay their pepper corn (sincere obedience), they were denounced as Antinomian. Thus Antinomian became (as we will see below) equated with justification by faith alone and a rejection of justification by faith and works. The Antinomian controversy was not about the third use of the law as a guide for Christian living. It was debate over the role of works in justification.

Sounding like a modern day Federal Visionist (perhaps modern day Federal Visionists are really neo-Baxterians?), Baxter uses the exact same argument as Doug Wilson: our marriage union with Christ depends upon our faithfulness as his spouse.

Barely to take a Prince for her husband may entitle a woman to his honours and lands; But conjugal fidelity is also necessary for the continuance of them; for Adultery would cause a divorce…Covenant-making may admit you, but its the Covenant-keeping that must continue you in your priviledges.

-Baxter, Of Justification: Four Disputations Clearing and amicably Defending the Truth, against the unnecessary Oppositions of divers Learned and Reverend Brethren (London, 1658), 123-4. See also his End of Doctrinal Controversies, 252ff.

Faith, Repentance, Love, Thankfulness, sincere Obedience, together with finall Perseverance, do make up the Condition of our final Absolution in Iudgement, and our eternal Glorification.

-Baxter, Confession, 56.

And that the Law of Grace being that which we are to be judged by, we shall at the last Judgment also be judged (and so justified) thus far by or according to our sincere Love, Obedience, or Evangelical Works, as the Conditions of the Law or Covenant of free Grace, which justifieth and glorifieth freely in all that are thus Evangelically qualified, by and for the Merits, perfect Righteousness and Sacrifice of Christ, which procured the Covenant or free Gift of Universal Conditional Justification and Adoption, before and without any Works or Conditions done by Man Whatsoever. Reader forgive me this troublesome oft repeating of the state of the controversy; I meddle with no other. If this be Justification by Works, I am for it.

-Baxter, Treatise, 163.

Covenant Conditions

Perhaps Baxter’s strongest opposition came from congregationalists. In 1674, Samuel Petto wrote “THE GREAT MYSTERY OF THE COVENANT OF GRACE: OR THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE Old and New Covenant STATED AND EXPLAINED.” The thrust of Petto’s book was a rejection of Westminster Federalism’s claim that the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are two administrations of the same Covenant of Grace. Instead, he argued that the Old Covenant was the Covenant of Works that Christ fulfilled and that the New Covenant was therefore unconditional. This is a variation of the subservient covenant view. (See also Michael Brown’s Christ and the Condition, and a shorter article).

1. The new covenant presupposes obedience unto life to be performed already by Jesus Christ, and so is better than the Old (Sinai), which requires an after performance of it… Hence in opposition to that Sinai law, which ran upon those terms, do and live, under the dispensation of the new, we hear so often of Believe and be saved, and he which believeth hath everlasting life, Mark xvi. 16. John iii. 16, 36…

2. The new covenant represents the Lord as dealing with his people universally in a way of promise; and so is better than the old, which represents him as treating them in a way of threatening…

3. The new covenant consists of absolute promises, and therefore is better than the old Sinai covenant, which ran upon conditional promises, indeed, had works as its condition… The apostle, in the text (Heb viii. 10-13), is purposely putting a difference between these; and, seeing the old covenant was unquestionably conditional, and the new here in opposition to it, or distinction from it, is as undoubtedly absolute; must it not needs be concluded, that herein stand much of the excellence of the new above the old?…

And note, if some privileges of the covenant were dispensed out properly in a conditional way (as suppose justification were afforded upon faith as a condition, or temporal mercies upon obedience), yet this would be far from proving any thing to be the condition of the promise, or of the covenant itself. Indeed even faith is a particular blessing of it, and therefore cannot be the condition of the whole covenant; for what shall be the condition of faith?… Nothing performed by us, then, is conditio faederis, the condition of the covenant itself; Jesus Christ has performed all required that way

That this might not be a strife of words, I could wish men would state the question thus, Whether some evangelical duties be required of, and graces wrought by Jesus Christ in, all the persons that are actually interested in the new covenant? I should answer yes; for, in the very covenant itself, it is promised that he will write his laws on their hearts, Heb viii. 10., and that implies faith, repentance, and every gracious frame…

There is no such condition of the new covenant to us, as there was in the old to Israel. For, the apostle comparing them together; and, in opposition to the old, he gives the new altogether in absolute promises, and that to Israel, Heb. viii.; and, showing that the new is not according to the old, he discovers wherein the difference lay, verse 9. Because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not; saith the Lord; and, Jer. xxxi. 32. which covenant they broke, &c… If their performing the condition had been as absolutely promised, as the blessings of the new covenant are, then Israel would have continued in it (which they did not), and could not have forfeited what was promised thereupon, as diverse times they did, and were excluded out of Canaan upon that account. – Jurists say, a condition is a rate, manner, or law, annexed to men’s acts, staying or suspending the same, and making them uncertain, whether they shall take effect or not. And thus condition is opposed to absolute.

-See Petto: Conditional New Covenant?

Petto specifically argues against Baxter’s pepper corn analogy:

We claim Salvation not in the right of any act of ours, not upon the Rent of Faith (as men hold Tenements by the payment of a Penny, a Rose, or such like) no such thing here; all is paid to the utmost Farthing by our Surety, and we hold and claim upon the obedience of Jesus Christ alone.

John Owen, a fellow Congregationalist, wrote the foreword to Petto’s book wherein he says it is the best thing that had yet been written on the difference between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. That’s quite a bold statement, given the vast amount that had been written by orthodox theologians that century. It informs us of the fact that covenant theology was still a matter of development and progress, rather than a settled doctrine. Owen states his agreement with Petto’s rejection of Westminster’s formulation that all post-fall covenants are the covenant of grace and says the Old Covenant was one that mixed the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace so-as to reveal how the “first Covenant was through the Law conferred upon Christ, and in him fulfilled and ended.”

Owen’s The Doctrine of Justification was published 3 years later (1677). His excellent treatment of the subject rests upon his argument that the Covenant of Works was fulfilled in Christ as our surety. This is precisely what Baxter argued against. Owen addresses Baxter’s arguments throughout the work. In particular, Owen quotes from his yet unpublished exposition of Hebrews 7:22 to explain his view of Christ as surety and how it relates to the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace. That exposition was published 3 years later (1680) wherein Owen strongly argued that the New Covenant is unconditional.

[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.

Owen finally states his opinion in words very similar to Crisp.

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.

Again:

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.

Do this and live

A central aspect of the debate was the meaning of “Do this and live,” which is a paraphrase of Leviticus 18:5. Paul, quoting Lev 18:5, contrasts this principle with faith in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12, both of which are proof texts in WCF 7.2 for the covenant of works. Interestingly, Leviticus 18:5 is not a proof text (Patrick Ramsey explains). The dilemma for the WCF is how the Mosaic Covenant can be the Covenant of Grace (WCF 7.5-6) while Leviticus 18:5 remains a condition of it. This tension was not resolved at the time the WCF was written, hence Owen’s statement that Petto’s book was the best treatment of the Covenant of Works that had yet been written, because he resolved the tension (by rejecting Westminster’s view of the Old and New Covenants).

Writing on Hebrews 4:9, Baxter says

Sect 6 But it is a great doubt with many whether the obtainment of this glory [eternal rest] may be our end; nay, concluded that it is mercenary; yea that to make salvation the end of duty is to be a legalist and act under a covenant of works whose tenour is ‘Do this and live.’…

2. It is not a note of a legalist neither: it hath been the ground of a multitude of late mistakes in divinity, to think that ‘Do this and live,’ is only the language of the covenant of works. It is true, in some sense it is; but in other, not. The law of works only saith, “Do this,” that is, perfectly fulfil the whole law, “and live,” that is, for so doing: but the law of grace saith, “Do this and live” too; that is, believe in Christ, seek him, obey him sincerely, as they Lord and King; forsake all, suffer all things, and overcome; and by so doing, or in so doing, as the conditions which the Gospel propounds for salvation, you shall live…

how unsavoury soever the phrase may seem, you may, so far as this comes to, trust to your duty and works

In contrast, in The Doctrine of Justification, Owen says

We can never state our thoughts aright in this matter, unless we have a clear apprehension of, and satisfaction in, the introduction of grace by Jesus Christ into the whole of our relation unto God, with its respect unto all parts of our obedience. There was no such thing, nothing of that nature or kind, in the first constitution of that relation and obedience by the law of our creation. We were made in a state of immediate relation unto God in our own persons, as our creator, preserver, and rewarder. There was no mystery of grace in the covenant of works. No more was required unto the consummation of that state but what was given us in our creation, enabling us unto rewardable obedience. “Do this, and live,” was the sole rule of our relation unto God. (70)

though the law is principally established in and by the obedience and sufferings of Christ, Romans 8:3,4; 10:3,4, yet is it not, by the doctrine of faith and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ unto the justification of life, made void as unto believers. Neither of these does exempt them from that obligation unto universal obedience which is prescribed in the law. They are still obliged by virtue thereof to “love the LORD their God with all their hearts, and their neighbors as themselves”. They are, indeed, freed from the law, and all its commands unto duty as it abides in its first considerations “Do this, and live”; the opposite whereunto is, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the law to do them.” For he that is under the obligation of the law, in order unto justification and life, falls inevitably under the curse of it upon the supposition of any one transgression. But we are made free to give obedience unto it on gospel motives, and for gospel ends; as the apostle declares at large, chap. 6. (483)

In his exposition of Hebrews 8, Owen again notes

God had before given the covenant of works, or perfect obedience, unto all mankind, in the law of creation. But this covenant at Sinai did not abrogate or disannul that covenant, nor any way fulfill it… It revived the promise of that covenant, —that of eternal life upon perfect obedience. So the apostle tells us that Moses thus describeth the righteousness of the law, “That the man which doeth those things shall live by them,” Romans 10:5; as he doth, Leviticus 18:5. Now this is no other but the covenant of works revived. Nor had this covenant of Sinai any promise of eternal life annexed unto it, as such, but only the promise inseparable from the covenant of works which it revived, saying, “Do this, and live.”

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,” 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.

Round 2: Presbyterians vs Congregationalists

By 1664 Baxter considered his fight against Antinomianism complete, stating that this “Sect” was extinct. Thus he was shocked near the end of his life when Tobias Crispe’s works were re-published in 1690 (by his son Samuel), noting “But I see the corrupting Design is of late, grown so high, that what seemed these Thirty Four Years suppressed, now threatneth as a torrent to overthrow the Gospel.” However, things were quite different this time around.

In round 2, the debate had come to be represented by Presbyterians on one side and the Congregationalists (Independents) on the other side. Following the Act of Toleration, the two had formed a Happy Union to work together in various ways, but the resurgence of the Antinomian problem split the groups.

Presbyterian pastor Robert Traill, who was in the minority in siding with the Congregationalists, explains what had happened in the intervening years:

You know, that not many months ago there was fair-like appearance of unity betwixt the two most considerable parties on that side; and their differences having been rather in practice than principle, about church-order and communion, seemed easily reconcilable, where a spirit of love, and of a sound mind, was at work. But how short was the calm! For quickly arose a greater storm from another quarter; and a quarrel began upon higher points, even on no less than the doctrine of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and the justification of a sinner by faith alone. Some think, that the re-printing of Dr. Crisp’s book gave the first rise to it. But we must look farther back for its true spring. It is well known, but little considered, what a great progress Arminianism had made in this nation before the beginning of the civil war. And surely it hath lost little since it ended. What can be the reason why the very parliaments in the reign of James I. and Charles I. were so alarmed with Arminianism, as may be read in history, and is remembered by old men; and that now for a long time there hath been no talk, no fear of it; as if Arminianism were dead and buried, and no man knows where its grave is? Is not the true reason to be found in its universal prevailing in the nation?

But that which concerneth our case, is, that the middle way betwixt the Arminians and the Orthodox, had been espoused, and strenuously defended and promoted by some Nonconformists, of great note for piety and parts

A VINDICATION OF THE PROTESTANT DOCTRINE CONCERNING JUSTIFICATION

In short, Baxter’s view, explicitly drawing from Arminian views of the atonement, had gained dominance. James Renihan, referencing the work of C.F. Allison, notes

Baxter must be viewed as the logical culmination of a process, gaining momentum in the 1640s and led by several highly significant Church of England authors, who moved away from a doctrine of justification based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as its formal cause, to one incorporating human works. The broader context of theological ferment indicates that Baxter was hardly an anomaly – he was in fact part of a growing movement.

Elaborating on this theological shift, referring to it as the “new divinity,” Traill notes:

If we say that faith in Jesus Christ is neither work, nor condition, nor qualification, in justification, but is a mere instrument, receiving (as an empty hand receiveth the freely given alms) the righteousness of Christ; and that, in its very act, it is a renouncing of all things but the gift of grace: the fire is kindled. So that it is come to that, as Mr. Christopher Fowler said, “that he that will not be Antichristian must be called an Antinomian.” Is there a minister in London who did not preach, some twenty, some thirty years ago, according to their standing, that same doctrine now by some called Antinomian? Let not Dr. Crisp’s book be looked upon as the standard of our doctrine. There are many good things in it, and also many expressions in it that we generally dislike. It is true that Mr. Burgess and Mr. Rutherford wrote against Antinomianism, and against some that were both Antinomians and Arminians. And it is no less true that they wrote against the Arminians, and did hate the new scheme of divinity, so much now contended for, and to which we owe all our present contentions. I am persuaded, that if these godly and sound divines were on the present stage, they would be as ready to draw their pens against two books lately printed against Dr. Crisp, as ever they were ready to write against the doctor’s book. Truth is to be defended by truth; but error is often and unhappily opposed by error under truth’s name.

Traill notes that the issue is not about Crisp’s writings per se. They disagreed with him on many points. The issue was the doctrine of justification by faith alone and its relation to the covenant of grace. In this regard, Benjamin Keach said “‘Tis a hard case that any of those who maintain the old doctrine of justification should be branded with the black name of Antinomians. As for my part, if Dr. Crisp be not misrepresented by his opposers, I’m not of him in several respects, but I had rather erre on their side, who strive to exalt wholly the Free Grace of God, than on theirs, who seek to darken it and magnifie the Power of the Creature.” Arnold notes that “Other theologians who were branded as Crispians included the Particular Baptists Hanserd Knollys (1599?-1691) and Thomas Edwards (d. 1699).” Note that John Gill was a successor to Keach’s pastorate when he re-published Crisp’s sermons in 1791.

Traill continues the emphasis on the unconditional covenant of grace:

But, on the other hand, we glory in any name of reproach (as the honourable reproach of Christ) that is cast upon us for asserting the absolute boundless freedom of the grace of God, which excludes all merit, and everything like it; the absoluteness of the covenant of grace, (for the covenant of redemption was plainly and strictly a conditional one, and the noblest of all conditions was in it. The Son of God’s taking on him man’s nature, and offering it in sacrifice, was the strict condition of all the glory and reward promised to Christ and his seed, Isaiah 53:10, 11), wherein all things are freely promised, and that faith that is required for sealing a man’s interest in the covenant is promised in it, and wrought by the grace of it (Eph. 2:8).

A VINDICATION OF THE PROTESTANT DOCTRINE CONCERNING JUSTIFICATION

Isaac Chauncy, a successor to Owen’s pastorate, was the primary proponent of the Congregationalists:

[faith and repentance] belong to the promise … and therefore are no Conditions; they are benefits … And therefore Pardon is not promised to Faith and Repentance, as things distinct from the Promise; but Pardon is promised together with Faith and Repentance to the Sinner.

Neonomianism Unmask’d: Or, The Ancient Gospel Pleaded Against the Other, called, The New Law

What is worth noting is that by this time, Antinomianism had become readily equated with justification by faith alone while the Neonomians readily owned justification by faith and works. David Williams, the leading Presbyterian proponent arguing against the Congregationalists, notes that “the Debate is about the Instrument of Donation” and says:

Obj. But sure there is a vast difference be∣tween those who think we are justified by Faith only, and those who think we are justified by Works as well as by Faith.

Answ. 1. Not so very great; when both mean that we are justified neither by Faith nor Works, as the word justified is commonly taken: for both agree that we are absolved, accepted as righteous, and entitled to eternal Life only for Christ’s Death and Obedience, as the only meriting, satisfactory and atoning Righteousness.

An End to Discord

Witsius the Mediator

D. Patrick Ramsey explains how the two groups called upon Witsius to mediate between them in an effort to resolve the issue. Witsius criticizes various points from each side and then attempts to emphasize their common ground. Worth noting, however, are his comments on the principle of “Do this and live.”

At first, Witsius seems to agree with the Congregationalists, to a degree.

The law of works is that which demands works to be done by man himself, as the condition of life, or the cause of claiming the reward: the tenor of which is this, The man who doeth these things shall live in them, Rom. 10:5. Such a law was given to Adam of old, who, if he had persevered in his integrity, would have obtained a right to eternal life by his works of righteousness.

The same doctrine Moses repeated in his ministry. For he also inculcated the same precepts upon which the covenant of works had been built: he both repeated the same solemn saying, He who doeth these things shall live in them, Lev 18:5 and also added another, Cursed be he who shall not perform the words of this law in doing them, Deut 27:26. That this is the curse of the law, as it stands opposed to the covenant of grace, Paul teacheth, Gal 3:10, which, however, is not so to be understood, as if God had intended, by the ministry of Moses, to make a new covenant of works with Israel, with a view to obtain righteousness and salvation by such a covenant. But that repetition of the covenant of works was designed to convince the Israelites of their sin and misery, to drive them out of themselves, to teach them the necessity of satisfaction, and to compel them to cleave to Christ: and thus it was subservient to the covenant of grace, Rom 10:4.

Conciliatory or irenical animadversions on the controversies agitated in Britain : under the unhappy names of antinomians and neonomians, 86-87

However, his words have to be carefully understood. He did not agree with the Congregationalists that the Mosaic Covenant itself operated upon a works principle. Instead, he said Leviticus 18:5 was a proclamation of the law of works separate from the Mosaic Covenant, intended to convict Israelites of their sin and drive them to Christ. The Mosaic Covenant itself, according to Witsius, operated upon the principle of faith, or rather, sincere obedience flowing from faith. Witsius did not believe it was formally the Covenant of Works (because it required sincere, not perfect obedience) or the Covenant of Grace (because it did not provide the work of the Spirit to produce the sincere obedience it required).

What was it then? It was a national covenant between God and Israel, whereby Israel promised to God a sincere obedience to all his precepts, especially to the ten words; God, on the other hand, promised to Israel, that such an observance would be acceptable to him, nor want its reward, both in this life, and in that which is to come, both as to soul and body. This reciprocal promise supposed a covenant of grace. For, without the assistance of the covenant Of grace, man cannot sincerely promise that observance; and yet that an imperfect observance should be acceptable to God is wholly owing to the covenant of grace, It also supposed the doctrine of the covenant of works, the terror or which being increased by those tremendous signs that attended it, they ought to have been excited to embrace that covenant of God. This agreement therefore is a consequent both of the covenant of grace and of works; but was formally neither the one nor the other. A like agreement and renewal of the covenant between God and the pious is frequent; both national and individual. Of the former see Josh. xxiv. 22. 2 Chron. xv. 12. 2 Kings xxiii. 3. Neh. x. 29. Of the latter, Psal. cxix. 106. It is certain, that in the passages we have named, mention is made of some covenant between God and his people. If any should ask me, of what kind, whether of works or of grace? I shall answer, it is formally neither: but a covenant of sincere piety, which supposes both.

The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man

Commenting on this two centuries later, A. W. Pink notes

Herman Witsius took the view that the Sinaitic compact was neither, formally, the covenant of grace nor the covenant of works, but a national covenant which presupposed them both, and that it promised “not only temporal blessings . . . but also spiritual and eternal.” So far so good. But when he states (bk. 4, sec. 4, par. 43-45) that the condition of this covenant was “a sincere, though not, in every respect, a perfect obedience of His commands,” we certainly cannot agree. Witsius held that the Sinaitic covenant differed from the covenant of works—which made no provision or allowance for the acceptance of a sincere though imperfect obedience; and that it differed from the covenant of grace, since it contained no promises of strength to enable Israel to render that obedience. Though plausible, his position is not only erroneous but highly dangerous. God never promised eternal life to men on the condition of an imperfect but sincere obedience—that would overthrow the whole argument of Romans and Galatians.

-The Divine Covenants

While Witsius does not agree with Baxter on numerous points, including his view of justification by faith and works, his view of the Mosaic Covenant certainly sounds very similar to Baxter’s view of the New Covenant. With this in mind, Witsius seeks to address “the utility of holiness.”

We must accurately distinguish between a right to life, and the possession of life. The former must so be assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded. But certainly our works, or rather these, which the Spirit of Christ worketh in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter…

Neither because Christ is the way to life, is the practice of Christian piety therefore not the way to life. Christ is the way to life, because he purchased us a right to life. The practice of Christian piety is the way to life, because thereby we go to the possession of the right obtained by Christ…

In fine, it is not inconsistent to do something from this principle, because we live, and to the end, that we may live. No man eats indeed but he lives, but he also eats that he may live. We both can and ought to act in a holy manner, because we are quickened by the Spirit of God. But we must also act in the same manner, that that life may be preserved in us, may increase, and at last terminate in an uninterrupted and eternal life. Moses said excellently of old, Deut 30: 19,20 “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that i have set life and death before you: therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, in loving the Lord they God, obeying his voice, and cleaving unto him, for he is they life.” Deut 8:1 “Observe to do, that ye may live.” And 30:6 “The Lord they God will circumcise thine heart to love the Lord thy God, that thou mayest live.” Truly these speeches are not legal, but evangelical.

Conciliatory or irenical animadversions on the controversies agitated in Britain : under the unhappy names of antinomians and neonomians, 161-163

First, despite Witsius’ claim, it is inconsistent to say that Christ has purchased our life and that we have to work for it. Second, notice that Witsius seeks to prove this point by quoting from the Mosaic Covenant. Now, ask yourself, what is the difference between “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live” (Deut 8:1), and “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them” (Lev 18:5)? There is no difference. It’s stating the same thing. But Witsius says one is referring to the covenant of works and is thus a “legal” statement of the principle while the other refers to the gospel and is therefore an “evangelical” statement of the same principle.

The problem is that it’s the exact same principle. Witsius confused the role of our works in possessing eternal life because he confused the Mosaic Covenant principle of works. Because of this, Witsius is in agreement with what Baxter says about “Do this and live.”

Why Congregationalists?

Certainly many different reasons could be given for the abandonment of the gospel during this time, but a glaring question is why the debate became divided along denominational lines. What on earth does hierarchy in church government have to do with justification by faith alone?

5 members of the Westminster Assembly were Congregationalists (the Five Dissenting Brethren). They wrote An Apologetical Narration in which they said “we do professedly judge the Calvinian Reformed Churches of the first reformation from out of Popery, to stand in need of a further reformation themselves. And it may without prejudice to them, or the imputation of Schism in us from them, be thought, that they coming new out of Popery (as well as England) and the founders of that reformation not having Apostolic infallibility, might not be fully perfect the first day.” In other words, Presbyterians still had to shake off Rome’s influence.

During the Assembly debate, they argued that we cannot look to Israel and the Old Covenant as a foundation for church government because in the Old Covenant there was a mixture of church and state. If we follow the New Testament pattern, we see churches organized by voluntary congregations of visible saints called out of the world. The Presbyterians pointed out that if the Jewish model of the church is given up, paedobaptism goes with it. But the Congregationalists did not budge.

In light of this, the Westminster Confession holds that the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are the same covenant (the covenant of grace). Therefore Westminster interpreted the Mosaic law as graciously given as a rule of righteousness, and not as a covenant of works (19.1-2). Thus Lev 18:5 was interpreted as consistent with a gospel command.

Congregationalists, on the other hand, not holding to the same commitment on the Old Covenant, removed “as such” in 19.2, thus opening the door to allow the Mosaic law to have been given as a covenant of works – which is precisely the view articulated in Petto, Owen, and others. Therefore Lev 18:5 could be properly understood as enunciating the works principle of the Covenant of Works, not as a gospel command.

Furthermore, because the Congregationalists were not committed to Westminster’s view of the Old and New Covenant as the same covenant, they were free to contrast the question of conditionality between the two covenants, which is precisely what Petto and Owen did. In whatever way Westminster theologians might say the covenant of grace was unconditional, that had to be qualified with the fact that it was also conditional and had covenant breakers, according to the Old Covenant. Congregationalists had no such restraint, and thus they strongly proclaimed the unbreakable nature of the absolute, unconditional promises made to every member of the New Covenant.

Owen recognized this was a point of departure from Westminster and the reformed, which is why he says in his exposition of Hebrews 8 that he sides with the Lutherans on the question of the Old Covenant and rejects the opinion of the reformed divines. Yes, those same Lutherans that some reformed men mock for their emphasis on the law/gospel antithesis. Robert Traill noted:

Let us carefully keep the bounds clear betwixt the law and gospel, which, “whosoever doth, is a right perfect divine,” saith blessed Luther, in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians,—a book that hath more plain sound gospel than many volumes of some other divines. Let us keep the law as far from the business of justification as we would keep condemnation, its contrary; for the law and condemnation are inseparable, but by the intervention of Jesus Christ our surety (Gal. 3:10-14).

In this regard, it is disappointing to see historians unwilling to acknowledge the real differences between Presbyterian and Congregational covenant theology. In a foreword to Petto’s book, Mark Jones does his best to obliterate the very point of Petto’s book:

The history of Reformed covenant theology has not always been well understood. Richard Greaves refers to Petto, as well as Owen, Goodwin, and Ussher, as “strict Calvinists” who belong to one of three different groups in the covenant tradition. Greaves mistakenly posits a tension between the Calvin-Perkins-Ames tradition, which supposedly distinguished itself by promulgating an unconditional character to the covenant of grace, and the Zwingli-Bullinger-Tyndale tradition, which is characterized by the conditional nature of the covenant of grace. Graves is wrong to place these two groups in tension with one another. The truth is that both ‘groups’ understood the covenant of grace as having conditions; namely, faith and obedience. However, because the faith and obedience that is required in the covenant of grace is the “gift of God” it may also be said that the covenant of grace is some sense unconditional. These nuances have often been missing in the twentieth-century historiography.

It’s worth reading material from Jones very carefully (don’t take his word for it).

(Note: Read Baxter’s comments about the Savoy Declaration’s additions to 11.1, which further strengthened justification by faith alone)

Conclusion

Long story short, do not try to understand debate over justification and the place of our good works apart from understanding the underlying covenant theology. First, find out what a person believes about the Covenant of Works (many “reformed” today deny its substance). Second, find out how they interpret Leviticus 18:5 and Paul’s use of it in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 (as well as all the echoes of it throughout the OT). Those two things will clear away just about all of the debate & confusion. Find out where you stand on those and you will find out where you stand on the role of good works.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that debate amongst Presbyterians today regarding the abandonment of justification by faith alone is focusing in on debate over the interpretation of Leviticus 18:5. The OPC is currently debating in the General Assembly whether Meredith Kline’s interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant as a Covenant of Works is consistent with the Confession’s view that it is the Covenant of Grace (hint: it’s not).

Furthermore, recognize that “the Puritans” are a mixed bag. They do not represent a uniform view, even on the gospel itself. Neither is there a uniform testimony from theologians of the reformed tradition on every point. Some (like the Congregationalists discussed here) worked out the implications of justification by faith alone more consistently and systematically than others who were stunted by their view of the Mosaic Covenant. So don’t rest content with a quote from a reformed theologian. Instead, seek to understand the place of that quote in the covenant structure of the person quoted, and then ask yourself if that position is consistent with what you believe the bible teaches.

And as baptists read books like Jones’ Antinomianism, they need to consider where their particular baptist (congregational) forefathers stood on the issue. As we saw above, Keach said he would side with Crispe and the “Antinomians.” In the intro to his The Covenant of Peace Opened, he notes “By the Baxterian Party I expect to be called an Antinomian, for that hath been their Artifice of late, to expose the True Ancient Protestant Doctrine about Justification.” Two first generation particular baptists, William Kiffin and Samuel Richardson, were in even stronger agreement with Crispe. Do your due diligence before coming to a conclusion.

Further Reading

New Covenant Union as Mystical Union in Owen

October 9, 2015 32 comments

Throughout church history, whenever justification by belief alone is proclaimed the charge of “legal fiction” is heard. God cannot declare someone righteous who has nothing righteous within himself. This false theology will take a variety of forms, but the recurring theme is that we are made righteous by what Christ does in us, not declared righteous because of what Christ did for us. Modern proponents of this view take the form of N.T. Wright and NPP or Federal Vision, for example.

The response is to emphasize the priority of what Christ does outside of us as the foundation of the gospel. This often takes the form of giving priority to justification over sanctification, or even saying that justification is the source or cause of sanctification. For example, John Robbins argues:

Our own consciences demand justice and cannot be pacified unless God’s fellowship with us is grounded on justice… Sanctification is living a life of fellowship with God. Justification is its legal basis, and without justification no fellowship with a holy God can exist… There is a direct relationship between the guilt of sin and the power of sin. If the guilt of sin is removed, the power of sin is broken. This is Paul’s point in Romans 6:14…

The way of justification by faith alone is the only way of receiving the Spirit of God. To be justified means to be declared righteous. It means that God not only regards us as righteous, but also can proceed to treat us as righteous. How does he treat the forgiven sinner as righteous? By giving him the gift of the Holy Spirit. Nothing more and nothing less than perfect righteousness is necessary for the outpouring of God’s Spirit. As every believer has this perfect righteousness imputed to him, he may on this one infallible basis have the Holy Spirit imparted to him.

The Relationship between Justification and Sanctification

The obvious problem, however, is that we are not justified until we believe, and we do not believe until we have been born again by the Spirit. Therefore our justification cannot be the cause of what God does in us, and in fact, our justification must be, in some way, dependent upon what God does in us.

Active & Passive Justification

This is nothing new. It has been an ongoing dilemma. In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus explains:

IV. WHAT IS OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS BEFORE GOD?

The righteousness with which we are here justified before God, is not our conformity with the law, nor our good works, nor our faith; but it is the satisfaction which Christ rendered to the law in our stead…

V. HOW DOES THE SATISFACTION OF CHRIST BECOME OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS, SEEING THAT IT IS WITHOUT US?

At first view it seems absurd that we should be justified by any thing without us, or by something that belongs to another. It is necessary, therefore, that we should explain more fully how the satisfaction, or obedience of Christ becomes ours; for unless it be made ours, or be applied unto us, we cannot be justified by it, just as little as a wall can be white, if whiteness be not applied, or fixed upon it. We remark, then, that there are two ways in which the satisfaction of Christ is made over unto us: 1. God himself applies it unto us, that is, he makes the righteousness of Christ over unto us, and accepts of us as righteous on account of it, as if it were ours. 2. We apply it also unto ourselves when we receive the righteousness of Christ through faith, that is, we rest assured that God will grant it unto us, that he will regard us as righteous on account of it, and that he will free us from all guilt. There is, therefore, a double application; one in respect to God, and another in respect to us. The former is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, when God accepts of that righteousness which Christ wrought out, that it might avail in our behalf, and accounts us as righteous in view of it, as much so as if we had never sinned, or had at least fully satisfied for our sins. The other side of this application which has respect to us, is the act itself of believing, in which we are fully persuaded that it is imputed and given unto us. Both sides of this application must necessarily concur in our justification; for God applies the righteousness of Christ unto us upon the condition, that we also apply the same unto ourselves by faith. For although any one were to offer another a benefit, yet if he to whom it is offered does not accept of it, it is not applied unto him, and so does not become his. Hence without this last application the former is of no account. And yet our application of the righteousness of Christ is from God; for he first imputes it unto us, and then works faith in us, by which we apply unto ourselves that which is imputed; from which it appears that the application of God precedes that which we make, (which is of faith) and is the cause of it, although it is not without ours, as Christ says, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” (John 15:16)

This became known as the difference between active and passive justification and can be seen in various reformed theologians through history, with Berkhof providing a clear recent example:

This [objective/active justification] is justification in the most fundamental sense of the word. It is basic to what is called subjective justification, and consists in a declaration which God makes respecting the sinner, and this declaration is made in the tribunal of God. This declaration is not a declaration in which God simply acquits the sinner, without taking any account of the claims of justice, but is rather a divine declaration that, in the case of the sinner under consideration, the demands of the law are met. The sinner is declared righteous in view of the fact that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him. In this transaction God appears, not as an absolute Sovereign who simply sets the law aside, but as a righteous Judge, who acknowledges the infinite merits of Christ as a sufficient basis for justification, and as a gracious Father, who freely forgives and accepts the sinner. This active justification logically precedes faith and passive justification. We believe the forgiveness of sins…

Passive or subjective justification takes place in the heart or conscience of the sinner… When the Bible speaks of justification, it usually refers to what is known as passive justification. It should be borne in mind, however, that the two cannot be separated. The one is based on the other. The distinction is simply made to facilitate the proper understanding of the act of justification. Logically, passive justification follows faith; we are justified by faith.

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 517

Eternal Justification

This position lends itself very readily to the idea of eternal justification. Since God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4), and active justification occurs in God’s tribunal and precedes our faith, then we must have been justified from all eternity. Our subjective justification is merely our believing/realizing this to be true. Tobias Crisp (17th century) argued:

A man is justified, and that by Christ alone, but it is not known to him, it is an unseen thing. Well, how shall he see this, and know that it is so? The Text saith, Faith is an evidence, Faith gives evidence to this thing, Faith makes it known, by Faith we come to apprehend it… he is first justified before he believes, then he believes that he is justified.*

Christ Alone Exalted: The New Covenant of Free Grace

First generation particular baptist William Kiffin agreed. In a foreword to fellow particular baptist Samuel Richardson’s Justification by Christ Alone (1647; these two men were signatories of the First London Baptist Confession, and likely had a hand in editing it), Kiffin said:

[T]here is an aptness in men to miscarry in the knowledge of this rich grace of God. Some being apt to conceive that there is no Justification of a creature in no sense before and without faith, and so make Faith a joint-partner with Christ in the business of Justification… That the Scripture holds forth justification by faith in a sense is very clear, but yet under no other consideration, but by way of evidence, Heb. 11:1, 2.

In the essay, Richardson argues

[T]he elect were ever in the love of God, and did ever so appear to Him as just and righteous in and by Christ… Justification in the conscience is not justification itself, but only the knowledge of it. It is necessary to our comfort. Justification depends not upon our knowledge of it, nor assurance of it.

18th century particular baptist John Gill republished Tobias’ sermons in 1791 with explanatory notes throughout. Gill adds the following note to the previous quote:

*Justification before faith, though caviled at by many, is certain; since God justifies the ungodly, and since faith is the fruit and effect of justification, and the act which is conversant about it, and the object must be before the act; and besides justification took place at the resurrection of Christ; yea, from all eternity, as soon as he became the surety of his people; and which has been embraced, affirmed, and defended by Divines of the greatest note for orthodoxy and piety, as Twisse, Pembla, Parker, Goodwin, Ames, Witsius, Maccovius, and others. (See my Doctrine of Justification, p. 36-38, 42-47, 50, 54).

Because this was a point of dispute, the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith addresses it very clearly (with the Savoy and LBCF following it):

God did, from all eternity, decree to justify the elect; and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins and rise again for their justification; nevertheless they are not justified until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them. (XI.4)

(On a personal note, this paragraph in the Confession helped pull me back from embracing eternal justification several years ago.)

Justified at the Cross?

Note Gill’s mention of justification at the cross. The Confession identifies three key points in time: 1) God’s decree 2) Christ’s satisfaction 3) our regeneration and faith. This is typically referred to as decretal union (Eph 1:4), federal/legal union (Romans 6:6), and vital/mystical union (1 Cor 6:17).

Gill’s argument is not easy to refute. Anyone recognizing the biblical truth that Christ’s death was a penal substitutionary atonement limited to the elect has to wrestle with the implication that we were justified at the cross (also here and here), or more specifically, as Gill says, at Christ’s resurrection (which was God’s declaration of Christ’s successful obedience/fulfillment of his covenant). In fact, neonomian Richard Baxter accused Owen, and thus orthodox reformed theology, of necessarily teaching eternal justification because of his doctrine of limited atonement.

Samuel Richardson’s essay was actually arguing that we are justified at the cross.

The time when He washed their sins away, which was then when He shed His blood…

The sum of all is, that Jesus Christ, by once offering the Sacrifice of Himself when He was upon the cross, took away, put to an end, blotted out and utterly destroyed all the sins of His people for ever, and presented them just, righteous and holy, without spot, before God…

All The Elect Were Made This Way Upon the Cross. All the elect were made these by Christ upon the Cross. Therefore, they were then justified. They were justified before they believed…

The material and instrumental cause is Jesus Christ by His death, in dying for us…

We say the same; only the difference betwixt us is, when the time of Justification is. It seems by your discourse that you judge that time to be after we believe. We judge that we were justified by Christ upon the Cross…

Objection: Evermore say the godly learned Schoolmen (we call not the Papists in) put a difference between God’s decree, and the execution of it. Answer: So do we, but not because they say so: if the Scriptures be clear, why call you in any at all, we will not believe men: therefore spare that labor when you write again. We do not say, we were actually justified from all eternity; we say we were in the knowledge and love of God from all eternity: we say we were actually justified in time when Christ upon the Cross presented us holy to God without spot, etc., Eph. 5:27.

Owen’s Solution

How did Owen resolve this extremely knotty issue that has perplexed reformed theologians from the beginning, and continues to today? One of the best things I have read on this issue is a paper written by Matthew W. Mason titled The Significance of the Systematic and Polemical Function of Union with Christ in John Owen’s Contribution to Seventeenth Century Debates Concerning Eternal Justification. I highly recommend reading it to unpack the details of what I will touch on.

Owen affirms these three basic stages of our relationship to Christ, but he nuances them very carefully, arguing that the union is truly the third, mystical union:

The principal foundation [of the imputation of sin to Christ] hereof is, — that Christ and the church, in this design, were one mystical person; which state they do actually coalesce into, through the uniting efficacy of the Holy Spirit. He is the head, and believers are the members of that one person, as the apostle declares, 1 Corinthians 12:12,13. Hence, as what he did is imputed unto them, as if done by them; so what they deserved on the account of sin was charged upon him.

-The Doctrine of Justification (PDF 232)

Note that Gill says “from all eternity, as soon as he became the surety of his people.” In Chapter 8 of The Doctrine of Justification, Owen discuses at length the nature of Christ’s suretyship and how it relates to union, and thus imputation. “This, then, I say, is the foundation of the imputation of the sins of the church unto Christ, — namely, that he and it are one person; the grounds whereof we must inquire into.” (235) He then lists the various ways Scripture refers to this union: husband and wife (Eph 5:25-32), head and members of a natural body (1 Cor 12:12), political head (Eph 4:15; Col 2:19), vine and branches (John 15:1-2), Adam’s federal headship (Romans 5:12). He concludes “And the Holy Ghost, by representing the union that is between Christ and believers by such a variety of resemblances, in things agreeing only in the common or general notion of union, on various grounds, does sufficiently manifest that it is not of, nor can be reduced unto, any one kind of them.” (236)

Owen notes that “The first spring or cause of this union, and of all the other causes of it, lies in that eternal compact that was between the Father and the Son concerning the recovery and salvation of fallen mankind.” Notice he does not call this itself our union with Christ, but rather the first spring or cause of that union. He continues:

[6.] On these foundations he undertook to be the surety of the new covenant, Hebrews 7:22, “Jesus was made a surety of a better testament.” This alone, of all the fundamental considerations of the imputation of our sins unto Christ, I shall insist upon, on purpose to obviate or remove some mistakes about the nature of his suretiship, and the respect of it unto the covenant whereof he was the surety. And I shall borrow what I shall offer hereon from our exposition of this passage of the apostle in the seventh chapter of this epistle, not yet published, with very little variation from what I have discoursed on that occasion, without the least respect unto, or prospect of, any treating on our present subject. (238-39)

Owen analyzes the lexical meaning of surety in both Greek and Hebrew and concludes:

bræ[; originally signifies to mingle, or a mixture of any things or persons; and thence, from the conjunction and mixture is between a surety and him for whom he is a surety, whereby they coalesce into one person, as unto the ends of that suretiship, it is used for a surety, or to give surety. And he that was or did bræ[;, a surety, or become a surety, was to answer for him for whom he was so, whatsoever befell him.

And after analyzing various passages (Proverbs 6:1; 17:18; 20:16; 27:13; Neh 5:3; Gen 43:9; 44:32,33; Job 17:3; Philemon 1:18; Is 36:8; Eph 1:4) he concludes “A surety is an undertaker for another, or others, who thereon is justly and legally to answer what is due to them, or from them; nor is the word otherwise used.” (240)

Note: Owen is here explaining that our mystical union with Christ, whereby we coalesce into one person, is a legal union. In doing so, Owen corrects the distinction we saw above between our decretal, legal, and mystical unions. He says the first is the source of our union, but is not itself our union. Mason explains:

In contrast to Crisp and Saltmarsh, he insists that although prior to the cross the elect are beloved, elected, and ordained to eternal life, their actual condition, which they share with all people, remains unchanged by the decree of election alone… God’s eternal purpose is not the same as the mighty act of his power. God’s decrees guarantee the certain futurition of the events decreed, but they do not accomplish their actual existence. In so distinguishing God’s decrees from his actions, Owen stands in the western catholic mainstream…

Owen offers an exegetical argument. Scripture places all humans, prior to faith, in the same condition: guilty and under God’s wrath (citing Rom. 3:9, 19; Eph. 2:3; Jn. 3:36). Commenting on this, he explicitly addresses the claims of advocates of eternal justification: ‘The condition of all in unregeneracy is really one and the same. Those who think it is a mistaken apprehension in the elect to think so, are certainly too much mistaken in that apprehension.’ (45-46)

Owen then combines the second two unions, arguing that the mystical union is our legal union with Christ. But if this second union (legal/covenant) has been used by others to separate our mystical union from Christ’s satisfaction, and thereby separate our justification in time from his satisfaction, how does Owen avoid this problem?

Mason explains:

At the time of Christ’s death, he and the elect are one mystical person, not in the sense that they have already been knit together by the Spirit, but only in the plan and intention of God. As Christ died, God knew for whom he was dying, and so counted their sin to Christ as though they were already one person. Yet, only at the point of faith are the elect actually inserted into Christ’s mystical body; thus, only then is his suffering and obedience imputed to them. In all of this, the integrating factor is the will of God…

Owen, however, acknowledges that full, mystical union occurs at the point of faith. Prior to that, the relationship between Christ and the elect exists in the intention and will of God, but does not exist as an actual union. (48-49)

Owen:

The imputation of sin unto Christ was antecedent unto any real union between him and sinners, whereon he took their sin on him as he would, and for what ends he would; but the imputation of his righteousness unto believers is consequential in order of nature unto their union with him, whereby it becomes theirs in a peculiar manner; (V, 449)

Owen explains this by distinguishing between the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace.

But yet some will not distinguish between the covenant of the mediator and the covenant of grace, because the promises of the covenant absolutely are said to be made to Christ, Galatians 3:16; and he is the prw~ton dektiko>n, or first subject of all the grace of it. But in the covenant of the mediator, Christ stands alone for himself, and undertakes for himself alone, and not as the representative of the church; but this he is in the covenant of grace. (V, 251)

In dying on the cross, Christ was fulfilling the Covenant of Redemption agreement with the Father (and thereby purchasing his people), but he is not the federal head of the church in the Covenant of Redemption. He is the federal head of the church in the Covenant of Grace. Mason explains:

According to Owen, although God’s will toward the elect was not changed upon the death of Christ, for he is immutable, Christ’s death nevertheless changed the status of the elect. On the basis of Christ’s merit, founded on God’s free engagement in the covenant of redemption with his Son, God is obliged to deliver them from the curse ipso facto. Therefore, because of Christ’s satisfaction, God is able to make out the benefits Christ purchased, without any other conditions needing to be fulfilled. In particular, Christ also purchased the condition of the covenant, faith; hence, from the time of the atonement, the elect have an absolute right to justification. Nevertheless, although they have a right to justification, they do not yet have a present enjoyment of it. To establish this, Owen makes a number of distinctions…

[T]here are two different kinds of right to something: ius in re and ius ad rem. Ius in re is the right a father has to his estate: it is a present possession, of which he cannot justly be deprived. Ius ad rem is the right a son has to his father’s estate; he does not yet possess it, but he will do on his father’s death. Upon the death of Christ, the elect do not yet have a right to justification in re. However, they do have a right to justification ad rem and sub termino. Thus, they have an absolute right, with no further conditions required, Christ having done all that is necessary for their justification. Nevertheless, they are not yet in possession; (49-51)

So on the cross, Christ is acting on our behalf, or with us in mind, but he is not yet legally ours as our covenant head, and therefore we do not yet have the benefits of his death. Owen:

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)

Mason elaborates:

Thus, Christ is, in some sense, given to sinners before they believe, ‘Else why is faith given [to one sinner] at this instant for Christ’s sake, and not to another, for whom he also died?’ Faith, purchased by Christ, is given to the sinner for Christ’s sake, and so Owen ‘cannot conceive how any thing should be made out to me for Christ, and Christ himself not be given to me, he being “made unto us of God, righteousness”, 1 Corinthians 1:30’. Again, ‘That we should be blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ, and yet Christ not be ours in a peculiar manner before the bestowing of those blessings on us, is somewhat strange. Yea, he must be our Christ before it is given to us for him to believe’. Thus, it seems that for Owen some kind of union with Christ takes place [logically] prior to faith. (52)

Unconditional Covenant of Grace

This view places Owen in a very interesting position. One of Crisp’s arguments for eternal justification was that faith is not a condition of union, but a fruit of it.

faith is not the instrument radically to unite Christ and the Soul together, but rather is the fruit that follows and flows from Christ the root, being united before hand to the person that do believe… Is faith the gift of Christ or no?… Doth Christ beget faith in us by vertue of our being united unto him? and shall this faith beget that union of which it was but a fruit? From whence shall persons that do believe before they are united unto Christ, receive this faith of theirs?

THE ACT OF BELIEVING IS NOT OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS

Mason explains

Crisp argues that John 15:4-5 demonstrates that faith is a fruit of union with Christ, the Vine, and thus must follow union with him. If faith came before union, the branch would bear fruit before being in the Vine, which directly contradicts Christ’s words…

Crisp’s point is simple. Owing to the bondage of the will, no-one can exercise faith in and of themselves. At Calvary, Christ effectually merited salvation for the elect, and this necessarily includes the gift of faith. The elect receive every spiritual blessing in Christ, including the blessing of faith, otherwise whence is faith? Thus, it would seem that, on Crisp’s Reformed assumptions about human inability and the receipt of all blessings in Christ, faith must be a gift of God that follows and rests upon union with Christ. (29)

Much of Crisp’s position was based on the nature of the New Covenant.

For Crisp, the New Covenant is different from other biblical covenants because the others all have stipulations, conditions on both sides. However, on humanity’s side, the New Covenant is entirely unconditional. All conditions having been met in Christ, the justified sinner has no part to play in his salvation, and faith is not the condition of the covenant.

Samuel Richardson agreed with Crisp.

That faith or any thing in us is not a cause, means, or condition, required to partake of the Covenant of Grace, justification or salvation, but only fruits and effects of the Covenant…

If faith be a condition required to partake of the Covenant of Grace, then there is a condition required. The Covenant of Grace is not absolute, nor free. If it be said, “God gives what he requires.” I answer, that makes the condition easy to be performed. But still, if faith be as a condition required, there is a condition. But the Covenant of Grace is absolute and free,and unconditional on our part. And that this appears:

Why The Covenant of Grace Is Absolute And Free Is Seen From Psalms 89:20-28.

1. Because the Covenant of Grace is not made with man, but is only between God and Christ: “Thou spakest in a vision to thy holy One, thou saidst, I have laid help upon one that is mighty, I have exalted one chosen out of the people. My faithfulness and my mercy shall be with him: I will make him my first born, higher than the Kings of the earth. My mercy will I keep for him, my Covenant shall stand fast with him,”i Psal. 89:24, 27, 28. So that all the conditions of the covenant did only belong to Christ to perform; seeing Christ had undertaken it, and he only was engaged to it, and he did it to the utmost, which was, that Christ “should be made a sacrifice for sin, and he should see his seed, and prolong his days: and the pleasure of the Lord should prosper in his hands,” Isa. 53:10,11. See also Psal. 89:35-37…

Faith is a fruit of the Covenant, and a branch of the Covenant, but not a condition on our part to perform.

In response to this, many reformed theologians argued that faith was the condition of the covenant of grace (the condition of entering it).

Faith is the necessary antecedent [prior] condition—the causa sine qua non—of the covenant. Many Antinomians denied that faith was an antecedent condition of the covenant, and thus they held to a personal justification either from eternity or from the time of the death of Christ.

Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 12208-12210). . Kindle Edition.

One example is found in Obadiah Sedgwick (1599/1600-1658) “one of the most respected and influential of the English Presbyterians of the seventeenth century. He was a leading member of the Westminster Assembly and took a prominent part in its debates.”

That faith which brings us into the covenant is that faith which doth unite us unto Christ, which makes us one with him: And we being thus united to Christ, we are thereupon, and therefore in the Covenant: Faith considered as justifying, doth not bring us into the Covenant; for our justifying follows our being in the Covenant, we must first be in the Covenant before we can have Righteousnesse and forgiveness of sins. Neither doth faith as drawing any grace from Christ bring us into the Covenant; Forasmuch as all the fruits of communion are consequences unto us being first in the Covenant. But it is faith considered only as uniting us unto Christ which brings us into the Covenant

3. Our interest in the Covenant necessarily follows from this union with Christ. Being brought by faith into Christ, you are now in the Covenant: And that I shall clear unto you thus…

Though Faith be the only condition as to entrance in the Covenant, yet this faith will bring you to holiness as a fruit of the Covenant…

If faith be the condition of the Covenant, If faith be necessary to bring us into the Covenant; Then no unbeliever is yet in the Covenant, for no unbeliever hath faith…

The Bowels of Tender Mercy Sealed in the Everlasting Convenant (185-189)

We saw above that Owen sided with Crisp on the question of faith and union: union logically precedes faith. Where did Owen fall on the question of the conditionality of the covenant? Surprisingly, Owen sided with Crisp.

John Owen (1616–1683) argued that berith could refer to a single promise without a condition, as in the Noahic covenant (Gen. 6:18; 9:9). According to Owen, this idea is no doubt present in the New Testament when the writer to the Hebrews calls the covenant a “testament,” and in a “testamentary dispensation there is not in the nature of it any mutual stipulation required, but only a mere single favor and grant or concession.”

Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 12158-12161). . Kindle Edition.

In his exposition of Hebrews 8:10, Owen elaborates. First, we see his agreement with Crisp that the New Covenant is different from other biblical covenants. Owen specifically contrasts the Old Covenant with the New Covenant on the question of conditionality. In doing so, he was consciously rejecting “the opinion of most reformed divines” as articulated in the WCF which sees the Old and New as two administrations of the same Covenant of Grace (for which he gives rigorous argument in his comments on Hebrews 8:6-13).

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… the covenant which God would now make should not be according unto that, like unto it, which was before made and broken.

He then explains that there are no antecedent conditions of the New Covenant on our part.

[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.

Owen finally states his opinion in words very similar to Crisp.

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.

Again:

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.

In short, faith is not the condition of entering the covenant, but is rather a fruit of it.

Crisp argued, from this point, for eternal justification because

this union with Christ is not effected in time; rather the elect are united to him from before creation, for although redemption was accomplished in time, the elect were chosen in Christ before time. Therefore, the elect, being united to Christ from eternity past, are justified from eternity past; actual justification is collapsed into the decree of election, and this on the basis of union with Christ. (Mason, 30)

As we saw above, Owen rejects this view of union with Christ. Owen’s solution is that we are mystically united to Christ when the New Covenant (Covenant of Grace) is made with us. And it is not made with us until the effectual call.

Entering the New Covenant

The covenant may be considered as unto the actual application of the grace, benefits, and privileges of it unto any personal whereby they are made real partakers of them, or are taken into covenant with God; and this alone, in the Scripture, is intended by God’s making a covenant with any… He thereby underwent and performed all that which, in the righteousness and wisdom of God, was required; that the effects, fruits, benefits, and grace, intended, designed, and prepared in the new covenant, might be effectually accomplished and communicated unto sinners. (V, 253)

According to Owen, the New Covenant is not made with anyone who is not a full partaker of its blessings.

The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant. (Hebrews 8:6)

Where there is not some degree of saving knowledge, there no interest in the new covenant can be pretended… Persons destitute of this saving knowledge are utter strangers unto the covenant of grace; for this is a principal promise and effect of it, wherever it doth take place. (Hebrews 8:11)

[A]ll with whom this covenant is made are effectually sanctified, justified, and saved… The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in the new covenant, in its being and existence, in its healing, repairing efficacy, is as large and extensive as sin is in its residence and power to deprave our natures. — This is the difference about the extent of the new covenant, and the grace of it: Some would have it to extend unto all persons, in its tender and conditional proposition; but not unto all things, as unto its efficacy in the reparation of our natures. Others assert it to extend unto all the effects of sin, in the removal of them, and the cure of our natures thereby; but as unto persons, it is really extended unto none but those in whom these effects are produced, whatever be its outward administration, which was also always limited: unto whom I do subscribe. (Hebrews 8:10)

Returning to union with Christ:

The foundation of the imputation asserted is union. Hereof there are many grounds and causes, as has been declared; but that which we have immediate respect unto, as the foundation of this imputation, is that whereby the Lord Christ and believers do actually coalesce into one mystical person. This is by the Holy Spirit inhabiting in him as the head of the church in all fullness, and in all believers according to their measure, whereby they become members of his mystical body. That there is such a union between Christ and believers is the faith of the catholic church, and has been so in all ages. (V, 272)

Union with Christ is the principle and measure of all spiritual enjoyments and expectations… Because it is itself, in the order of nature, the first truly saving spiritual mercy, the first vital grace that we are made partakers of…  It is the first and principal grace, in respect of causality and efficacy. It is the cause of all other graces that we are made partakers of; they are all communicated unto us by virtue of our union with Christ…

Our union with him is the ground of the actual imputation of his righteousness unto us; for he covers only the members of his own body with his own garments, nor will cast a skirt over any who is not “bone of his bones, and flesh of his flesh.” And so he is “of God made unto us righteousness,” 1 Corinthians 1:30. Hence also is our sanctification, and that both as to its principle in a new spiritual nature, and as unto its progress in fruitfulness and holiness. The principle of it is the Spirit itself of life, holiness, and power. This God sheds on us through Jesus Christ, Titus 3:6, or on the account of our interest in him, according to his promise, John 7:38,39. And for this cause is he said to be “our life,” Colossians 3:4, because in him lie the springs of our spiritual life, which in and by our regeneration, renovation, and sanctification is communicated unto us. And its progress in fruitfulness is from thence alone (Hebrews 3:14)

Recall Owen’s list of ways in which our union with Christ is described. He listed Romans 5:12ff. Our union with Adam is legal, and so is our mystical union with Christ. We are born under Adam, as our federal head. We do not come under Christ’s federal headship until we are born again, at which point we become part of the mystical body, of which Christ is the head, and we therefore pass from wrath to grace.

Notwithstanding this full, plenary satisfaction once made for the sins of the world that shall be saved, yet all men continue equal to be born by nature “children of wrath;” and whilst they believe not, “the wrath of God abides on them,” John 3:36; — that is, they are obnoxious unto and under the curse of the law. Wherefore, on the only making of that satisfaction, no one for whom it was made in the design of God can be said to have suffered in Christ, nor to have an interest in his satisfaction, nor by any way or means be made partaker of it antecedently unto another act of God in its imputation unto him. (V, 281)

Finally, this mystical union is accomplished by the Spirit, but this work of the Spirit is a blessing of the New Covenant, and therefore it logically depends upon our legal union with Christ as head of the New Covenant.

God communicates nothing in a way of grace unto any but in and by the person of Christ, as the mediator and head of the church…. Whatever is wrought in believers by the Spirit of Christ, it is in their union to the person of Christ, and by virtue thereof. (III, 626)

In the words of the Holy Spirit:

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.

(Hebrews 8:10 ESV)

This finds confirmation in John Murray’s understanding of the effectual call as establishing our union with Christ, from which all the blessings flow.

It is calling that is represented in Scripture as that act of God by which we are actually united to Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:9). And surely union with Christ is that which unites us to the inwardly operative grace of God…

[T]here is good warrant for the conclusion that the application of redemption begins with the sovereign and efficacious summons by which the people of God are ushered into the fellowship of Christ and union with him to the end that they may become partakers of all the grace and virtue which reside in him as Redeemer, Saviour, and Lord…

[I]n the teaching of Scripture it is calling that is given distinct emphasis and prominence as that act of God whereby sinners are translated from darkness to light and ushered into the fellowship of Christ. This feature of New Testament teaching creates the distinct impression that salvation in actual possession takes its start from an efficacious summons on the part of God and that this summons, since it is God’s summons, carries in its bosom all of the operative efficacy by which it is made effective. It is calling and not regeneration that possesses that character. Hence there is more to be said for the priority of calling…

Sanctification is a process that begins, we might say, in regeneration, finds its basis in justification, and derives its energizing grace from the union with Christ which is effected in effectual calling…

It is by calling that we are united to Christ, and it is this union with Christ which binds the people of God to the efficacy and virtue by which they are sanctified.

  • John Murray. Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Kindle Locations 963-967). Kindle Edition.

And in WLC 66

Q. 66. What is that union which the elect have with Christ?

A. The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband; which is done in their effectual calling.

Therefore Richardson and others err when they argue “All the elect were ever in this Covenant, for they were ever in Christ” and thus their argument for eternal justification fails while their argument for an absolute unconditional covenant stands.

Imputation vs Declaration

In what we have seen above, Owen makes a very careful distinction between the imputation of Christ as ours and our subsequent declaration as righteous (justification). George Hunsinger has a very helpful chapter in The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology titled Justification and Mystical Union with Christ: Where Does Owen Stand? He notes

A good case that Calvin based his idea of imputation on union with Christ has been made recently by Richard B. Gaffin Jr*. Gaffin distinguished between the “imputation of righteousness” and the “reckoning of righteousness.” lmputation arose from the “underlying and controlling” idea of union. Imputation was therefore antecedent to being reckoned righteous by God [justified]. The believer was reckoned [declared] as righteous, because of already being righteous through mystical union. Imputation involved what Gaffin called a ”juridical transfer” of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, and declaration took place on that basis.

*Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Justification and Union with Christ,” in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis 248-69

[…]

[According to Owen] To be “reputed” righteous, he said, was not the same as having Christ’s righteousness be “imputed” to us. “To be reputed righteous and to have righteousness imputed, differ,” explained Owen, “as cause and effect.” Imputation was set forth as something prior to being declared or reckoned righteous. The view that Gaffin found in Calvin, as previously mentioned, would seem to have been Owen’s view as well. Being imputed righteous and being reckoned righteous were not the same. Imputation was the cause, of which being reckoned righteous was the effect. Owen continued:

For that any may be reputed righteous ‐ that is, be judged or esteemed to be so ‐ there must be a real foundation of that reputation, or it is a mistake, and not a right judgment; as any man may be reputed to be wise who is a fool, or be reputed to be rich who is a beggar. Wherefore, he that is reputed righteous must either have a righteousness of his own, or another antecedently imputed unto him, as the foundation of that reputation. Wherefore, to impute righteousness unto one that hath none of his own, is not to repute him to be righteous who is indeed unrighteous; but it is to communicate a righteousness unto him, that he may rightly and justly be esteemed, judged, or reputed righteous.

A clearer statement of how imputation and declaration were related would be hard to imagine. Declaration was clearly a consequence of imputation, and imputation was clearly the foundation of declaration. One could not be reputed as righteous unless one really were righteous. Imputed righteousness was logically antecedent to being reckoned as righteous before the divine tribunal. Only as one was indeed righteous, because righteousness had already been communicated, could one then, on that basis, “rightly and justly be esteemed, judged, or reputed righteous” before the judgment seat of God.

A few pages later this interpretation is confirmed. lmputation was “not a naked pronunciation or declaration of any one to be righteous,” insisted Owen, “without a just and sufficient foundation, for the judgment of God declared therein. God declares no man to be righteous but him who is so; the whole question is how he comes to be!” Declaration without a prior imputation would be meaningless. Only imputation as a prior transaction could provide declaration with a “sufficient foundation.”…

Imputation through mystical union was the prior basis of justification. Along with Calvin and the mainstream of the Reformed tradition, Owen espoused the moderate view of forensic justification.

I highly recommend reading the whole chapter wherein Hunsinger distinguishes between the “moderate view of forensic justification” wherein “declaration of acquittal was not the cause but the consequence of imputation” and the “thoroughgoing forensic doctrine.” He notes “Let this typically Lutheran view of imputation by declaration be called the unqualified or thoroughgoing forensic doctrine. It was thoroughgoing, because every phase of it could be set forth in terms of a courtroom setting.”

Hunsinger’s one great error is that he does not adequately understand Owen’s doctrine of mysitcal union as legal covenant union. Thus he draws some incorrect conclusions. He says

Just as participatio Christi counteracted the notion that imputation was merely a legal fiction, so imputation counteracted the notion that saving righteousness depended on regeneration. Mystical union was the precondition for the grace of imputation, and imputation was the precondition of acquittal. Calvin’s doctrine of justification was not forensic in the thoroughgoing sense, because Calvin understood imputation to depend on participation, not merely on pronouncement.

This is correct so far as it goes, but it must be kept in mind that Owen defined participation as being in the New Covenant. That is, participation is legal, not something in distinction from legal (as Hunsinger suggests).

Legal Fiction

Returning to our original comments regarding “legal fiction,” we can see that when people identify our legal union with Christ as effective at the time of his satisfaction (“historia salutis”) then they often wind up viewing that legal union as insufficient grounds for our justification. What is necessary, they will say, is the participatory. Without our participation in Christ, his work outside of us is legal fiction. However, if we recognize the truth of Owen’s account of Scripture, we are in no position to claim the legal union is insufficient. We are legally united to Christ in the effectual call and that union is sufficient to provide us with everything we have in Christ.

Mason does not draw out the full implications of Owen’s view of the New Covenant, as we have above, but he notes “Owen seems to conceive of some kind of forensic union with Christ prior to faith, perhaps better described as an imputation of Christ.” (53) This use of “forensic” as equivalent to “legal” is common in discussions about union with Christ and the ordo salutis. Because of this, “justification” is often used synonymously with “legal.” But this is inaccurate. Forensic is a sub-category of legal that has to do with court-room verdicts. Something may be legal while not being forensic. The forensic (court room) is grounded in the legal. Covenants are, by definition, legal. They are not forensic. In an effort to emphasize the legal foundation of our salvation in Christ’s work outside of us, many argue for the logical priority of our justification. But this introduces a labyrinth of logical contradiction into the ordo. However, this difficulty is resolved when we recognize that our mystical union is our covenant union and thus our legal union. The charge of legal fiction is not answered by appeal to our inherent participation via the Spirit, but by appeal to the legal union that is established between us and Christ in the effectual call. It is therefore not a legal fiction because Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us on the basis of a legal union, and we are declared righteous (justified) on the basis of that imputed righteousness, apart from all our works.

Debating Owen: Jones & Beeke

April 17, 2015 Leave a comment

Posting a response here that I made on the Puritanboard a while ago. See the thread here.

Here was the usual objection that we just don’t understand covenant theology nor Owen’s version of it:

From a couple of Puritan scholars who take a sober look at Owen’s Covenant theology:

This chapter will look specifically at John Owen’s covenant schema, with particular attention to the role of the Sinaitic or Mosaic covenant and its relation to the covenants of works and grace. By focusing specifically on Owen and the details of his thought, the hope is that he can be placed more accurately within the larger taxonomy of Reformed thinking on this issue. The evidence suggests that Owen’s covenant theology cannot be labeled by terms such as “dichotomous” and “trichotomous.” While these terms may prove helpful in other cases, Owen’s theology of the covenants is so complex that any attempt to label him in this way inevitably misses some of the nuances of his thought.

Beeke, J. R., & Jones, M. (2012). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (p. 294). Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.

Owen’s most detailed exposition of the old and new covenants flows out of his comments on Hebrews 8:6. However, in his exposition of Hebrews 7:9–10, Owen’s language may cause a great deal of confusion, especially given what has been said above. Quoting his words will make this potential problem apparent:
There were never absolutely any more than two covenants wherein all persons indefinitely are concerned. The first was the covenant of works, made with Adam, and with all in him. And what he did as the head of that covenant, as our representative therein, is imputed unto us, as if we had done it, Rom. 5:12. The other is that of grace, made originally with Christ, and through him with all the elect. And here lie the life and hope of our souls,—that what Christ did as the head of that covenant, as our representative, is all imputed unto us for righteousness and salvation.72
How should this statement be interpreted? One possibility is that Owen changed his definition of covenant as he moved from Hebrews 7:9–10 to Hebrews 8:6. Do his comments on Hebrews 8:6 reflect his more mature covenant theology? It is hard to see how a writer as theologically and intellectually sophisticated as Owen would so quickly change his opinion and understanding of what constitutes a biblical covenant. More likely, however, Owen’s observations on Hebrews 7:9–10 refer to general soteric principles rather than specific exegetical details. In other words, Owen uses “covenant” in two ways: one in a more general sense; another that is more specific and takes into account the exegetical requirements for what constitutes a biblical covenant (i.e., it must also be a testament). Speaking generally, then, Owen can say, without contradicting himself in his later comments on Hebrews 8:6, that the principle of representation (Rom. 5:12) manifest itself in the two Adams so that the only hope of salvation (for the elect) rests in the second Adam, Jesus Christ. In this sense—and against Rehnman’s contention—Owen is better understood as a dichotomist rather than a trichotomist.

Beeke, J. R., & Jones, M. (2012). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (p. 302). Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.

Now, one may disagree with this conclusion but one has to do more than any of the following:

1. Simply label men as dishonest who have spent a great deal of time studying Owen but come to differing conclusions.

2. Simply rest one’s case on Owen’s commentary to the Hebrews. The note above about Owen’s exegetical fidelity is very important and there are larger Reformed methodologies at play than what appears on the surface if one simply spends all their time in Hebrews and becomes an expert on Owen’s theology of Hebrews. It is quite like “Pauline” scholars who claim that Paul has one theology in Ephesians and another in Romans or another Epistle or a totally different theology than James. One has to take into account the entire body of material as well as the methodology of the time. The point about Owen believing that a biblical covenant also had to be a testament to qualify as a biblical covenant has some nuance that needs to be unpacked and simply claiming to have Owen nailed down on Covenant theology because one knows everything he wrote in a exegetical commentary on Hebrews is not the same thing as saying they have nailed down Owen’s systematic view of the Covenant of Grace.

3. Simply point to Particular Baptists who claim they are just agreeing with the learned Owen on the matter. Look, these guys were intelligent just like studied men are on both sides of the issue today. If we are having trouble sorting out Owen on this issue then it’s not surprising if men in his own time had the same problem:

Given the complexity of Owen’s position, one may sympathize with Anthony Burgess’s statement that on this point of divinity he found “learned men … confused and perplexed.”73

Beeke, J. R., & Jones, M. (2012). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (p. 302). Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.

In other words, let us all grant that there are learned men here and confusion and perplexity about Owen is not surprising so a dose of both humility and charity is in order when trying to press him into service for a particular position.


Here is my response:

In other words, let us all grant that there are learned men here and confusion and perplexity about Owen is not surprising so a dose of both humility and charity is in order when trying to press him into service for a particular position.

Absolutely. But that’s a two way street. You need to be open to the possibility that baptist scholars have interpreted Owen correctly while others have not.

simply claiming to have Owen nailed down on Covenant theology because one knows everything he wrote in a exegetical commentary on Hebrews is not the same thing as saying they have nailed down Owen’s systematic view of the Covenant of Grace.

Note the inconsistency here. Beeke and Jones quote Owen’s exegetical commentary on Hebrews 7:9-10, treat it as systematic theology, and use it to interpret Owen’s commentary on 8:6. Let’s be consistent. Owen’s exegetical commentary includes systematic theological statements.

The evidence suggests that Owen’s covenant theology cannot be labeled by terms such as “dichotomous” and “trichotomous.” While these terms may prove helpful in other cases, Owen’s theology of the covenants is so complex that any attempt to label him in this way inevitably misses some of the nuances of his thought.

I agree! Which is why I don’t label him as dichotomous or trichotomous and have never argued for that. I agree with this conclusion:

Owen’s covenant theology must be appreciated both against the backdrop of the broader Reformed theological tradition and on its own terms if his covenant theology is to be accurately understood and assessed. In Owen’s case, the customary labels may not be helpful in describing the thought of one who produced his own “minority report” among the various interpretations of the seventeenth-century orthodox Reformed.

Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 11913-11916). . Kindle Edition.

I think people on this forum need to take note of that particularly.

There were never absolutely any more than two covenants wherein all persons indefinitely are concerned. The first was the covenant of works, made with Adam, and with all in him. And what he did as the head of that covenant, as our representative therein, is imputed unto us, as if we had done it, Rom. 5:12. The other is that of grace, made originally with Christ, and through him with all the elect. And here lie the life and hope of our souls,—that what Christ did as the head of that covenant, as our representative, is all imputed unto us for righteousness and salvation.72

How should this statement be interpreted? One possibility is that Owen changed his definition of covenant as he moved from Hebrews 7:9–10 to Hebrews 8:6. Do his comments on Hebrews 8:6 reflect his more mature covenant theology? It is hard to see how a writer as theologically and intellectually sophisticated as Owen would so quickly change his opinion and understanding of what constitutes a biblical covenant. More likely, however, Owen’s observations on Hebrews 7:9–10 refer to general soteric principles rather than specific exegetical details. In other words, Owen uses “covenant” in two ways: one in a more general sense; another that is more specific and takes into account the exegetical requirements for what constitutes a biblical covenant (i.e., it must also be a testament). Speaking generally, then, Owen can say, without contradicting himself in his later comments on Hebrews 8:6, that the principle of representation (Rom. 5:12) manifest itself in the two Adams so that the only hope of salvation (for the elect) rests in the second Adam, Jesus Christ. In this sense—and against Rehnman’s contention—Owen is better understood as a dichotomist rather than a trichotomist.

Beeke, J. R., & Jones, M. (2012). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (p. 302). Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.

1. Owen does not deny that the Covenant of Works with Adam was a biblical covenant. He simply said that the specific covenant spoken of in Hebrews 8 was “a covenant and a testament” and therefore the Old Covenant was not referring to the Covenant of Works w/ Adam (which was not a testament).

Owen’s first concern is to show that the covenant made with Adam (i.e., the covenant of works), though not “expressly called a covenant,” but still containing the nature of a covenant (e.g., promises and threatening, rewards and punishments), “is not the covenant here intended [in Hebrews 8:6ff.].”25 The reason the covenant of works cannot be intended is because Hebrews 8 speaks of a “testament” (diatheke). The old in Hebrews 8 is both a covenant and a testament, and “there can be no testament, but there must be death for the confirmation of it, Heb. ix.16.”26

Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 11741-11746). . Kindle Edition.

He also said the Old Covenant in Hebrews 8 was not the Covenant of Works because (2) that covenant has ceased and (3) Israel never absolutely under the power of the Covenant of Works. In other words, he is making theological deductions and arguments about general soteric principles, not just “specific exegetical details”.

This is the covenant of works, absolutely the old, or first covenant that God made with men. But this is not the covenant here intended; for, —
1st. The covenant called afterwards “the first,” was diaqh>kh, a “testament.” So it is here called. It was such a covenant as was a testament also. Now there can be no testament, but there must be death for the confirmation of it, <580916>Hebrews 9:16. But in the making of the covenant with Adam, there was not the death of any thing, whence it might be called a testament…

2dly. That first covenant made with Adam, had, as unto any benefit to be expected from it, with respect unto acceptation with God, life, and salvation, ceased long before, even at the entrance of sin. It was not abolished or abrogated by any act of God, as a law, but only was made weak and insufficient unto its first end, as a covenant. God had provided a way for the salvation of sinners, declared in the first promise… as a covenant, obliging unto personal, perfect, sinless obedience, as the condition of life, to be performed by themselves, so it ceased to be, long before the introduction of the new covenant which the apostle speaks of, that was promised “in the latter days.” But the other covenant here spoken of was not removed or taken away, until this new covenant was actually established.

3dly. The church of Israel was never absolutely under the power of that covenant as a covenant of life; for from the days of Abraham, the promise was given unto them and their seed. And the apostle proves that no law could afterwards be given, or covenant made, that should disannul that promise, <480317>Galatians 3:17. But had they been brought under the old covenant of works, it would have disannulled the promise; for that covenant and the promise are diametrically opposite. (74-75)

2. There is not actually any contradiction to resolve. Owen said “There were never absolutely any more than two covenants wherein all persons indefinitely are concerned.” Since for Owen the various post-fall covenants prior to the New Covenant did not concern all persons indefinitely, there is no contradiction to resolve. (For example, Owen notes regarding the Mosaic Covenant “as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal.” It was a covenant specifically with Israel regarding life in the land of Canaan, with Moses as it’s mediator/head – not Christ, thus it was a separate covenant from the Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace, but it did not concern all persons indefinitely so Owen does not have it in mind in that comment).

3. Owen spends a great deal of space in his Hebrews 8:6 exposition specifically addressing how to work out the question of how the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace relate to the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. It’s basically the whole thrust of his 150 pages

With respect hereunto it is that the Lord Christ is said to be the “mediator of a better covenant;” that is, of another distinct from it, and more excellent. It remains unto the exposition of the words, that we inquire what was this covenant, whereof our Lord Christ was the mediator, and what is here affirmed of it. This can be no other in general but that which we call “the covenant of grace.” And it is so called in opposition unto that of “works,” which was made with us in Adam; for these two, grace and works, do divide the ways of our relation unto God, being diametrically opposite, and every way inconsistent, Romans 11:6. Of this covenant the Lord Christ was the mediator from the foundation of the world, namely, from the giving of the first promise, Revelation 13:8; for it was given on his interposition, and all the benefits of it depended on his future actual mediation. But here ariseth the first difficulty of the context, and that in two things; for –

[1.] If this covenant of grace was made from the beginning, and if the LORD Christ was the mediator of it from the first, then where is the privilege of the gospel-state in opposition unto the law, by virtue of this covenant, seeing that under the law also the Lord Christ was the mediator of that covenant, which was from the beginning ?

[2.] If it be the covenant of grace which is intended, and that be opposed unto the covenant of works made with Adam, then the other covenant must be that covenant of works so made with Adam, which we have before disproved.

The answer hereunto is in the word here used by the apostle concerning this new covenant: nenomoqe>thtai, whose meaning we must inquire into. I say, therefore, that the apostle doth not here consider the new covenant absolutely, and as it was virtually administered from the foundation of the world, in the way of a promise; for as such it was consistent with that covenant made with the people in Sinai. And the apostle proves expressly, that the renovation of it made unto Abraham was no way abrogated by the giving of the law, Galatians 3:17. There was no interruption of its administration made by the introduction of the law. But he treats of such an establishment of the new covenant as wherewith the old covenant made at Sinai was absolutely inconsistent, and which was therefore to be removed out of the way. Wherefore he considers it here as it was actually completed, so as to bring along with it all the ordinances of worship which are proper unto it, the dispensation of the Spirit in them, and all the spiritual privileges wherewith they are accompanied. It is now so brought in as to become the entire rule of the church’s faith, obedience, and worship, in all things.

This is the meaning of the word nenomoqe>thtai: “established,” say we; but it is, “reduced into a fixed state of a law or ordinance.” All the obedience required in it, all the worship appointed by it, all the privileges exhibited in it, and the grace administered with them, are all given for a statute, law, and ordinance unto the church. That which before lay hid in promises, in many things obscure, the principal mysteries of it being a secret hid in God himself, was now brought to light; and that covenant which had invisibly, in the way of a promise, put forth its efficacy under types and shadows, was now solemnly sealed, ratified, and confirmed, in the death and resurrection of Christ. It had before the confirmation of a promise, which is an oath; it had now the confirmation of a covenant, which is blood. That which before had no visible, outward worship, proper and peculiar unto it, is now made the only rule and instrument of worship unto the whole church, nothing being to be admitted therein but what belongs unto it, and is appointed by it. This the apostle intends by nenomoqe>thtai, the “legal establishment” of the new covenant, with all the ordinances of its worship. Hereon the other covenant was disannulled and removed; and not only the covenant itself, but all that system of sacred worship whereby it was administered. This was not done by the making of the covenant at first; yea, all this was superinduced into the covenant as given out in a promise, and was consistent therewith. When the new covenant was given out only in the way of a promise, it did not introduce a worship and privileges expressive of it. Wherefore it was consistent with a form of worship, rites and ceremonies, and those composed into a yoke of bondage which belonged not unto it. And as these, being added after its giving, did not overthrow its nature as a promise, so they were inconsistent with it when it was completed as a covenant; for then all the worship of the church was to proceed from it, and to be conformed unto it. Then it was established. Hence it follows, in answer unto the second difficulty, that as a promise, it was opposed unto the covenant of works; as a covenant, it was opposed unto that of Sinai. This legalizing or authoritative establishment of the new covenant, and the worship thereunto belonging, did effect this alteration.
(77-78)

Thus for Owen, the solution is that the Covenant of Grace was not a covenant until Christ’s death. Beeke and Jones are incorrect when they say:

The evidence suggests that Owen does not simply equate the covenant of grace with the new covenant. For example, Owen writes, “When we speak of the ‘new covenant,’ we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely.”36…

For Owen, the covenant of grace only formally becomes a covenant through the death of Christ (Heb. 9:15–23), although this sacrifice had been decreed from before the foundation of the world. As a result, the new covenant, promised in the Old Testament, is not the promise of grace, but the actual “formal nature of a covenant” through its establishment by the death of Christ.40 The new covenant, then, is the fulfillment of the covenant of grace, but also distinguishable from it by virtue of being a testament. Hebrews 8 has, therefore, special reference not to the covenant of grace, but to the new covenant specifically.

Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 11785-11789). . Kindle Edition.

They have misunderstood Owen’s comments. Owen does use “new covenant” and “covenant of grace” interchangeably. When he says “absolutely considered” he is not opposing the new covenant to the covenant of grace, he is opposing the covenant of grace promised vs the covenant of grace established. Nowhere does Owen say the new covenant is distinguished from the covenant of grace because the new covenant is a testament. Note how Owen uses “new covenant” and “covenant of grace” interchangeably.

that covenant which had invisibly, in the way of a promise… all this was superinduced into the covenant as given out in a promise… the new covenant was given out only in the way of a promise… Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace.

Again, the distinction Owen makes is not between the covenant of grace and the new covenant, but instead between the covenant of grace (the new covenant) promised and the covenant of grace (the new covenant) established.

Owen rejects the one substance/multiple administrations view of the covenant of grace in favor of a promised/established view of the covenant of grace. And this is not simply in reference to the Mosaic Covenant but to all covenants in the bible:

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

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

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

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

http://www.prayermeetings.org/files/…_8.1-10.39.pdf

Make sure to read “DOLPHINS IN THE WOODS”: A Critique of Mark Jones and Ted Van Raalte’s Presentation of Particular Baptist Covenant Theology, Samuel Renihan in the 2015 JIRBS. It deals with Owen as well. http://www.rbap.net/jirbs-2015-article-titles/

Categories: John Owen Tags:

Kline on “Administration of the Covenant of Grace”

March 30, 2015 25 comments

Lee Irons has been posting a series summarizing Kline’s views on the Mosaic Covenant and clarifying what he sees as misrepresentations. It’s a very helpful series and I appreciate his efforts. However, I think one of them fails to defend Kline against from his critics. The Fourth Misrepresentation Of Kline deals with the claim that Kline denied the Mosaic Covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace. Irons references Kline’s two-layer cake and then concludes:

Kline clearly affirms that the covenant of grace unfolded in several administrations (including the Mosaic covenant!) and that this overarching covenant of grace reached its culmination in the new covenant.

I do not think Kline is contradicting himself. He is not saying that the Mosaic covenant itself (the covenant between God and Israel that was inaugurated at Sinai) was a covenant of grace. It was not. It was a covenant of the works variety. But he is saying that God’s establishment of this Mosaic covenant of works was designed to advance the covenant of grace and that therefore it was a sub-administration of the covenant of grace. To use the language of some 17th century Reformed theologians, it was a “subservient covenant” intended not to be an end in itself but to look ahead to the coming Seed who would be born under it and fulfill it and thereby bring about the consummation of the covenant of grace.

Essentially the argument is that if you believe the Mosaic Covenant served the purposes of the covenant of grace, then you believe it was an administration of the covenant of grace.

The problem is that is not what the term means. It means that the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant were not two different covenants but were in fact the same covenant. If you deny that, you deny the Mosaic was an administration of the covenant of grace, regardless of what purpose it served.

Calvin’s comments on Hebrews 8 exemplify the view.

But what he adds is not without some difficulty, — that the covenant of the Gospel was proclaimed on better promises; for it is certain that the fathers who lived under the Law had the same hope of eternal life set before them as we have, as they had the grace of adoption in common with us, then faith must have rested on the same promises. But the comparison made by the Apostle refers to the form rather than to the substance; for though God promised to them the same salvation which he at this day promises to us, yet neither the manner nor the character of the revelation is the same or equal to what we enjoy. If anyone wishes to know more on this subject, let him read the 4th and 5th chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians and my Institutes.
In his Institutes we find the following (referencing Hebrews 7-9):

Here we are to observe how the covenant of the law compares with the covenant of the gospel, the ministry of Christ with that of Moses. For if the comparison had reference to the substance of the promises, then there would be great disagreement between the Testaments. But since the trend of the argument leads us in another direction, we must follow it to find the truth. Let us then set forth the covenant that he once established as eternal and never-perishing. Its fulfillment, by which is is finally confirmed and ratified, is Christ. While such confirmation was awaited, the Lord appointed, through Moses, ceremonies that were, so to speak, solemn symbols of that confirmation. A controversy arose over whether or not the ceremonies that had been ordained in the law ought to give way to Christ. Now these were only the accidental properties of the covenant, or additions and appendages, and in common parlance, accessories of it. Yet because they were means of administering it, they bear the name “covenant,” just as is customary in the case of other sacraments. To sum up then, in this passage “Old Testament” means the solemn manner of confirming the covenant, comprised in ceremonies and sacrifices.Because nothing substantial underlies this unless we go beyond it, the apostle contends that it ought to be terminated and abrogated, to give place to Christ, the Sponsor and Mediator of a better covenant [cf. Heb 7:22]; whereby he imparts eternal sanctifications once and for all to the elect, blotting out their transgressions, which remained under the law. Or, if you prefer, understand it thus: the Old Testament of the Lord was that covenant [the eternal covenant -BA] wrapped up in the shadowy and ineffectual observance of ceremonies and delivered to the Jews; it was temporary because it remained, as it were, in suspense until it might rest upon a firm and substantial confirmation. It became new and eternal only after it was consecrated and established by the blood of Christ. Hence Christ in the Supper calls the cup that he gives to his disciples “the cup of the New Testament in my blood” [Luke 22:20]. By this he means that the Testament of God attained its truth when sealed by his blood, and thereby becomes new and eternal.

Institutes, 2.11.4

Calvin is clear: The Old and New Covenant were the same covenant. They were the same in substance. They differed only in their outward appearance, the manner of revelation, the ceremonies, the accidents – in sum, the administration. This is what it means for the Mosaic Covenant to be an administration of the covenant of grace: they are the same covenants with the same promises and the same means of obtaining the promise. This is the meaning of WCF 7.6
6. Under the gospel, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed, are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them it is held forth in more fulness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.
Now John Owen is helpful in addressing this question because he agrees with Kline’s exegesis:

’I exercised the right, power, and authority of a husband towards them; I dealt with them as a husband with a wife that breaketh covenant:’ that is, saith the apostle, ‘“ I regarded them not” with the love, tenderness, and affection of a husband.’ So he dealt indeed with that generation which so suddenly brake covenant with him. He provided no more for them as unto the enjoyment of the inheritance, he took them not home unto him in his habitation, his resting-place in the land of promise; but he suffered them all to wander, and bear their whoredoms in the wilderness, until they were consumed. So did God exercise the right, and power, and authority of a husband towards a wife that had broken covenant. And herein, as in many other things in that dispensation, did God give a representation of the nature of the covenant of works, and the issue of it…

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. And from the whole we may observe sundry things.

-Exposition of Hebrews 8:9

But precisely because he agrees with Kline, Owen says the Mosaic Covenant is not an administration of the covenant of grace.

Suppose, then, that this new covenant of grace was extant and effectual under the old testament, so as the church was saved by virtue thereof, and the mediation of Christ therein, how could it be that there should at the same time be another covenant between God and them, of a different nature from this, accompanied with other promises, and other effects?

On this consideration it is said, that the two covenants mentioned, the new and the old, were not indeed two distinct covenants, as unto 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 of them. To clear this it must be observed, —

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 the essence and substance of it 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.

But on the other hand, there is such express mention made, not only in this, but in sundry other places of the Scripture also, of two distinct covenants, or testaments, and such different natures, properties, and effects, ascribed unto them, as seem to constitute two distinct covenants. This, therefore, we must inquire into; and shall first declare what is agreed unto by those who are sober in this matter, though they differ in their judgments about this question, whether two distinct covenants, or only a twofold administration of the same covenant, be intended. And indeed there is so much agreed on, as that what remains seems rather to be a difference about the expression of the same truth, than any real contradiction about the things themselves. For, —

1. It is agreed that the way of reconciliation with God, of justification and salvation, was always one and the same…

2. That the writings of the Old Testament, namely, the Law, Psalms, and Prophets, do contain and declare the doctrine of justification and salvation by Christ…

3. That by the covenant of Sinai, as properly so called, separated from its figurative relation unto the covenant of grace, none was ever eternally saved.

4. That the use of all the institutions whereby the old covenant was administered, was to represent and direct unto Jesus Christ, and his mediation.

These things being granted, the only way of life and salvation by Jesus Christ, under the old testament and the new, is secured; which is the substance of the truth wherein we are now concerned. On these grounds we may proceed with our inquiry.

The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new. And whereas the essence and the substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not to be said to be under another covenant, but only a different administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the gospel after the coming of Christ, that it hath the appearance and name of another covenant. And the difference between these two administrations may be reduced unto the ensuing heads: —

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

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

3. In the manner of our access unto God…

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

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

Sundry other things are usually added by our divines unto the same purpose. 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 arguments to prove, that not a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that two covenants substantially distinct, are intended in this discourse of the apostle.

1. Because in the Scripture they are often so called, and compared with one another, and sometimes opposed unto 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, obnoxious unto no alteration, no change or abrogation; neither can these things be spoken of it with respect unto any administration of it. as they are spoken of the old covenant…

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

5. Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended. We must, I say, do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, —and with great pretense of reason, for it is that which is the sole foundation they all build upon who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, —’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation be the same under both, then indeed are they for the substance of them but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue thereof, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, whilst they were under the covenant.

As therefore I have showed in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition, so I shall propose sundry things which relate unto the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace: —…

This is the nature and substance of that covenant which God made with that people; a particular, temporary covenant it was, and not a mere dispensation of the covenant of grace…

For some, when they hear that the covenant of grace was always one and the same, of the same nature and efficacy under both testaments, —that the way of salvation by Christ was always one and the same, —are ready to think that there was no such great difference between their state and ours as is pretended. But we see that on this supposition, that covenant which God brought the people into at Sinai, and under the yoke whereof they were to abide until the new covenant was established, had all the disadvantages attending it which we have insisted on. And those who understand not how excellent and glorious those privileges are which are added unto the covenant of grace, as to the administration of it, by the introduction and establishment of the new covenant, are utterly unacquainted with the nature of spiritual and heavenly things…

’I exercised the right, power, and authority of a husband towards them; I dealt with them as a husband with a wife that breaketh covenant:’ that is, saith the apostle, ‘“ I regarded them not” with the love, tenderness, and affection of a husband.’ So he dealt indeed with that generation which so suddenly brake covenant with him. He provided no more for them as unto the enjoyment of the inheritance, he took them not home unto him in his habitation, his resting-place in the land of promise; but he suffered them all to wander, and bear their whoredoms in the wilderness, until they were consumed. So did God exercise the right, and power, and authority of a husband towards a wife that had broken covenant. And herein, as in many other things in that dispensation, did God give a representation of the nature of the covenant of works, and the issue of it…

‘This was the issue of things with them with whom the first covenant was made. They received it, entered solemnly into the bonds of it, took upon themselves expressly the performance of its terms and conditions, were sprinkled with the blood of it; but they “continued not in it,” and were dealt withal accordingly. God used the right and authority of a husband with whom a wife breaketh covenant; he “neglected them,” shut them out of his house, deprived them of their dowry or inheritance, and slew them in the wilderness…

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. And from the whole we may observe sundry things.

http://www.prayermeetings.org/files/John_Owen/Hebrews_8.1-10.39.pdf (starting on page 84)

Owen is clear: the meaning of the Westminster phrase “administration of the covenant of grace” can be found most clearly in Calvin (specifically the portion we quoted already) and it means they are the same covenant with different outward appearances, rather than two distinct covenants. If you disagree with that and see them as two different covenants, then you are disagreeing with the reformed divines when they say they were both administrations of the covenant of grace. Note, Owen sides with the Lutherans who say that is incorrect because “neither can these things be spoken of it with respect unto any administration of it as they are spoken of the old covenant.” That is to say, the differences are not just in outward appearance.So the question is: Does Kline or Owen better understand the meaning of “an administration of the covenant of grace”?

Samuel Bolton, a proponent of the subservient covenant view that Irons aligns Kline with, provides the following summary of the “administration of the covenant of grace” view (which he does not agree with):

There is, however, a second opinion in which I find that the majority of our holy and most learned divines concur, namely, that though the law is called a covenant, yet it was not a covenant of works for salvation; nor was it a third covenant of works and grace; but it was the same covenant in respect of its nature and design under which we stand under the Gospel, even the covenant of grace, though more legally dispensed to the Jews. It differed not in substance from the covenant of grace, but in degree, say some divines, in the economy and external administration of it, say others. The Jews, they agree, were under infancy, and therefore under “a schoolmaster”. In this respect the covenant of grace under the law is called by such divines “foedus vetus” (the old covenant), and under the Gospel “foedus novum” (the new covenant): see Heb. 8:8. The one was called old, and the other new, not because the one was before the other by the space of four hundred and thirty years, but because the legal administrations mentioned were waxing old and decaying, and were ready to disappear and to give place to a more new and excellent administration. “That which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away”. The one covenant was more obscurely administered, shadowed, darkened with shadows; the other was administered more perspicuously and clearly. The one was more onerous and burdensome, the other more easy and delightful. The one through the legal means of its administration gendered to bondage, the other to son-like freedom. All this may be seen clearly in Col. 2:17; Heb. 10:1; Gal. 3:1-4:3. Hence, as Alsted tells us, the new and old covenants, the covenants of the law and Gospel, are both of them really covenants of grace, only differing in their administrations. That they were virtually the same covenant is alleged in Luke 1:72-75: “To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant”. What was “his holy covenant”? It is made clear in verse 74 that in substance it was the same as the covenant of grace: “That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.”

Admitting that “He is not saying that the Mosaic covenant itself (the covenant between God and Israel that was inaugurated at Sinai) was a covenant of grace. It was not. It was a covenant of the works variety.” is admitting that it was not an administration of the covenant of grace. To say that the Mosaic Covenant was of works means it was NOT of the same substance as the covenant of grace. I agree with Irons and Kline and Owen on the Mosaic Covenant. It was not of the same substance. It was of works for life in the land. But that is why I believe the criticism sticks. That is why Owen said he disagreed with the reformed (and that’s why his Savoy declaration removed 7.6).

This was Patrick Ramsey’s point in an essay titled “In Defense of Moses.” I disagree with Ramsey’s interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant, but his interpretation of Westminster Federalism is correct. He demonstrates that Westminster rejected the subservient covenant view.

The primary reason for holding to the Subservient Covenant is the contrast and opposition found in Scripture between the old and new covenants (2 Cor 3:6-9; Gal 4:24- 26; Heb 7:22; 9:15-20).46 Since the Mosaic Covenant is a covenant, it must either be a covenant of works, a covenant of grace, or some other covenant. Clearly it cannot be a covenant of works, since, among other reasons, that would annul the promise.

The Mosaic Covenant cannot be the Covenant of Grace. For the glory of the New Covenant is that we are freed from the law as a covenant and not just its legal or administrative aspect. Accordingly, it cannot be part of the Covenant of Grace for we are never set free from it. Hence, the Mosaic Covenant must be a third covenant, one that is not contrary to the promises of grace, though one that could be set aside, namely the Subservient Covenant…

It is important to remember that the primary biblical reason that some divines held to the Subservient Covenant was because they understood the Scriptures to teach that the Old Covenant was abrogated as a covenant. The contrast was not found to be in mere administrations but in covenants. As we have already seen, they themselves understood their view of the Mosaic Covenant to differ in substance with the Covenant of Grace.

The entire point of the subservient covenant view was that it was subservient to the covenant of grace because it was not itself the covenant of grace – therefore it was not an administration of the covenant of grace.

I believe Ramsey is correct in demonstrating WCF rejected the subservient covenant view and I think Owen is clear in his rejection of the WCF view. Kline should have been too. If Owen’s view was compatible with the Mosaic covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace, why did he feel the need to reject that view? Why did he feel the need to side with the Lutherans? I think the answer is because he understood the issue better than Kline and Irons.


Addendum: Tobias Crisp

In the comments below, Jack referenced J.V. Fesko’s new book on the Westminster Confession. Fesko claims the only view excluded by the confession (7.6) was that of Tobias Crisp. Crisp argued that Hebrews 8 taught that the Old and the New Covenants were two distinct covenants:

He intimates to us that there is a distinct covenant, whereof Christ is the mediator, differ ing from that, whereof the priest was the mediator : he doth not fay, he is the mediator of better things in the fame covenant, but of a better covenant : a better and a worse covenant must be two several covenants ; better and worse qualities may be in one and the fame ; but for the covenant itself to be called better than another, is a mani fest argument of a double covenant…

Again, the apostle speaks of a second coming in the place of the first ; we cannot fay of one and the self-fame covenant, that it comes in place of it self; when one thing comes in the place of another, these two must needs be distinct : can you fay of the one and the fame thing, that it is disannulled, and that it is not ? that it vanishes, and yet that it is come in the place of itself when it vanishes?

The Two Covenants of Grace

Crisp agreed with the bi-covenantal view of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. However, he said that the Old Covenant could not be the covenant of works because it provided for the forgiveness of sins, which the covenant of works does not. He therefore concludes that the Old Covenant was a covenant of grace.

So that it is plain, the administration of their covenant was an administration of grace, absolutely distinct from that of the covenant of works. That Christ’s covenant was a covenant of grace, I will not stand to prove ; I know no man questions it that professes himself a Christian ; but now though these two, as it appears plainly, are covenants of grace ; so it mall appear as fully to you that they are two distinct covenants of grace ; they are not one and the same covenant diversely administered, but they are two distinct covenants’…

Notice that last point: they are not one and the same diversely administered, but they are two distinct covenants. Crisp indicates that this, specifically, was a very controversial position to take. The prevailing view was that they were the same covenant, not two distinct covenants. He says that if he were to make this claim apart from Apostolic warrant, he would be censured:

there are certain gene ral covenants that God made with men ; usually they are reduced to two heads ; the first is com monly called the covenant of works, first made in innocency ; the terms thereof are of a double nature, Do this and live ; and cursed is every one that continueth not in all things thai are written in the. hook of the law to do them ; life upon doing, a curie upon not doing ; in sum, the covenant of works stands upon these terms, that in perfect obedience there should be life; at the first failing therein, no remedy, no admittance of remission ot” sins upon any terms in the world ; Christ can not come in, ,nor be heard upon the terms of the covenant of works. There is a second general covenant, and that is usually called, a new cove nant, or sa covenant of grace ; and this, in op position to the other, stands only in matter of grace without works through Christ : This, as far as I can find, is generally received to be the right distribution of the covenants of God ; the covenant of grace being most commonly taken for one ‘ entire covenant from first to last ;…

He intimates to us that there is a distinct covenant, whereof Christ is the mediator, differ ing from that, whereof the priest was the media tor : he doth not fay, he is the mediator of bet ter things in the fame covenant, but of a better covenant : a better and a worse covenant must be two several covenants ; better and worse qualities may be in one and the fame ; but for the covenant itself to be called better than another, is a manifest argument of a double covenant…

If all this be not a sufficient evidence to clear this, that they are distinct covenants ; and so distinct, that though both be covenants of grace, yet the one must be difannulled before the other can be established ; I know nothing that can be proved by scripture. But to come to the main thing ; there being two distinct covenants, let us fee wherein that which Christ administered, is better than that the priests did ; and this will be of very great concern to the settling of spirits : the differences are marvellous ; the apostle expresses them in such language, that, I dare be bold to fay, if any man mould utter it, and not have his warrant from him, he would go nigh to be censured.

Demonstrating that these are two distinct covenants, rather than the prevailing view that they are the same covenant, is the entire focus of his sermon. Thus the confession is clearly rejecting Crisp’s view when it says

6. Under the gospel, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed, are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them it is held forth in more fulness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.

The precise point of the confession in this paragraph in chapter 7 on God’s covenant is to reject the view that the Old and the New Covenants were two different covenants. Instead, they are “one and the same under various dispensations.” Recall Crisp’s statement “so it mall appear as fully to you that they are two distinct covenants of grace ; they are not one and the same covenant diversely administered, but they are two distinct covenants.” This is what 7.6 is dealing with.

Does Fesko agree? No, he says that was not the point of 7.6. Instead, the point of the statement was a rejection of Crisp’s view of the moral law.

The question naturally arises, why did the divines specifically zero in on this view and exclude it? From one vantage point there appears to be little indication that Crisp’s view differs from the cornucopia of variations that existed at that time on the relationship between the Mosaic covenant and the covenants of works and grace. What difference is there, for example, between saying that there is one covenant of grace with legal accidents that fall away at the advent of Christ, who is the substance, and saying there are two covenants of grace? Crisp, after all, indicates that Christ is typified and foreshadowed in the weaker covenant of grace. The most likely answer is that Crisp’s view on the relationship between the covenant of works and grace and the moral law struck and severed a nerve that the divines believed was vital to an orthodox soteriology.

Most Reformed theologians, whether holding a threefold or a twofold covenantal scheme in their several variants, maintained the perpetual necessity and binding nature of the moral law. Crisp, however, rejected the idea that the moral law was still binding upon believers.

The Theology of the Westminster Standards, p. 156

Crisp believed the moral law itself was the covenant of works.

to me it seems most plain, that the opposition the apostle here makes, is not between the covenant of works and that of grace ; and that he, in all this dis course, hath not the least glance upon the cove nant of works at all, nor doth he meddle with it: You know, beloved, that the articles of that covenant, are drawn up in the decalogue of the moral law ; and in all this discourse, from chap. vii. 1. to the end of chap. x. the apostle doth not so much as take notice of the moral law, nor hath he to do one jot with any clause of it ;…

You see the apostle from Jeremiah, brings a direct distinction of two covenants ; I will make a new covenant, not according to the covenant I made -with their fathers. Here are two covenants, a new one, and one made with their sathers. Some may think it was the covenant of works at the promulgation of the moral law ; but mark well that expression of Jeremiah, and you (hall see it was the covenant of grace;

Several remarks are called for:

  1. Crisp’s view that the moral law (decalogue) itself was the covenant of works is shared by Lee Irons, David VanDrunen, and other Klineans.
  2. If that was the only point of concern, it is adequately dealt with in Chapter 19 “Of The Law of God” where that view is rejected.
  3. Crisp was not alone in this view (“Some may think it was the covenant of works at the promulgation of the moral law”)
  4. Crisp identified the controversial part of his view as separating the Old and the New Covenants, and he did so in language nearly identical to the statement in 7.6.

There is absolutely no doubt that what the confession is rejecting in 7.6 is not Crisp’s view of the moral law (which is rejected elsewhere), but his view of the covenant of grace. His separation of the Old and New Covenants into two different covenants is what is rejected by the confession.

Now, let’s look more closely at 7.6 to see if it applies to the subservient covenant view as well. I will paraphrase to make it clearer.

[The Old and the New Covenants are not], therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.

Clear enough. But Fesko would have you believe that 7.6 does not apply to the subservient view. What is the difference between Crisp’s view and the subservient view? Crisp saw the Old Covenant as gracious while the subservients said it was of works. They agreed, however, that they were not “one and the same” covenant.

Let’s paraphrase again.

[The Old and the New Covenants are not], therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.

There is no reason to believe that the divines would have affirmed a view that the Old Covenant was of works, while rejecting a view that it was of grace. Their point was that the two covenants are not separate, “but one and the same.” The subservient view rejects that they are “but one and the same” and therefore the Westminster confession rejects the subservient view.

Savoy Declaration

Below, Jack draws attention to Fesko’s comment that some Westminster divines held to the subservient view. That fact itself proves nothing. As Ramsey notes

Objection 3: The position of the Westminster Confession of Faith is somewhat ambiguous in that tensions or differences between the Puritans were not resolved. Hence the Confession allows for more than one opinion on the issue.

It is certainly true that there was a great debate among the Puritans as to the nature of the Mosaic Covenant. Moreover, Reformed Presbyterians have continued the debate. However, this does not imply that the Puritans themselves did not come to a majority consensus. As we have already noted, the exhaustive research of E. F. Kevan concludes that they did: “The outcome of the Puritan debate was that, on the whole, it was agreed that the Mosaic Covenant was a form of the Covenant of Grace; and this view was embodied in the Confession of Faith.”

The Puritans debated church government. There were Presbyterians, Erastians, and Independents at the Assembly. Nonetheless, the Presbyterian view prevailed as is indicated by the text of the Confession itself. The section on church government is simply intolerant of any view other than Presbyterianism. The same is true concerning the nature of the Mosaic Covenant.

Fesko notes

Other theologians who have been identified with the threefold (subservient) view include Westminster divines Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) and Obadiah Sedgwick (ca. 1600-1658), as well as John Owen (1616-1683), Samuel Petto (1624-1711), and Edward Fisher.

Thomas Goodwin was an Independent. His view of church government did not prevail at the assembly. Therefore pointing to his views, or any other views, as proof that it was accepted, is false. But furthermore, Goodwin went on to draft the Savoy Declaration a decade later. He and Owen were the leaders assigned to the writing/editing of the Independent confession (with 4 other men). Samuel Petto was a signatory as well.

What did they do with 7.6? They deleted it.

Chris Villi’s Analysis of 1689 Federalism

March 20, 2015 2 comments

In September 2014, Chris Villi earned the distinct honor of being the first Presbyterian to formally interact with 1689 Federalism. Congrats Chris 🙂 I have been emailing with Chris and I appreciate his desire to better understand our position. That being said, he has misunderstood our position on a basic level. I’d like to clarify those points and also provide a response to some genuine points of disagreement he raises. Read more…

Owen’s “Promised/Established” Covenant of Grace

January 30, 2015 6 comments

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

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

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

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

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

The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new. And whereas the essence and the substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not to be said to be under another covenant, but only a different administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the gospel after the coming of Christ, that it hath the appearance and name of another covenant. And the difference between these two administrations may be reduced unto the ensuing heads: —

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

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

3. In the manner of our access unto God…

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

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

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

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

5. Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended. We must, I say, do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, —and with great pretense of reason, for it is that which is the sole foundation they all build upon who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, —’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation be the same under both, then indeed are they for the substance of them but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue thereof, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, whilst they were under the covenant.

As therefore I have showed in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition, so I shall propose sundry things which relate unto the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace: — …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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