John Owen on the Covenants


In the latest issue of The Confessional Presbyterian, Michael Brown takes a closer look at the work of John Owen. In part, he helpfully sketches out the seventeen ways Owens differentiated the Mosaic Covenant with the New Covenant. The whole article is stimulating, of course, but I found these distinctions quite instructive and helpful.

1. “These two covenants differ in the circumstance of time as to their promulgation, declaration, and establishment” (XXII, 87).

2. “They differ in their circumstance of place as to their promulgation” (XXII, 87).

3. “They differ in the manner of their promulgation and establishment.” The Mosaic covenant was given by angels and came in a spirit of fear and bondage. The new covenant, on the other hand, came by Christ is a “spirit of meekness and condescension, with the highest evidence of love, grace, and compassion, encouraging and inviting the weary, the burdened, the heavy and laden to come unto him” (XXII, 88-89).

4. “They differ in their mediators.”   The first covenant had Moses as its mediator, but the second covenant has Christ (XXII, 89).

5. “They differ in their subject-matter, both as unto precepts and promises.” Whereas the new covenant was of grace, the old covenant was of works, for it “renewed the commands of the covenant of works, and that on their original terms.” The discontinuities between the two covenants are so antithetical that it is impossible to reduce the old covenant to a mere administration of the covenant of grace. “The old testament, absolutely considered, had no promise of grace to communicate spiritual strength, or to assist us in obedience.” What it promised had to do with “temporal things in the land of Canaan inseparable from it” (XXII, 89-90).

6. “They differ, and that principally, in the manner of their dedication and sanction.” Whereas the old covenant was confirmed by the bloodshed of animals, whose blood was sprinkled on the people, the new covenant was confirmed “by the sacrifice and blood of Christ himself” (XXII, 90).
7. “They differ in the priests that were to officiate before God in the behalf of the people” (XXII, 90).

8. “They differ in the sacrifices whereon the peace and reconciliation with God which is tendered in them doth depend” (XXII, 90).

9. “They differ in the way and manner of their own solemn writing or enrollment.” The old covenant was written on tables of stone in accordance with ancient treaties, but the new covenant is written in the heart.

10. “They differ in their ends.” The goal of the old covenant was to discover, condemn, and set bounds to sin. The goal of the new covenant, however, is “to declare the love, grace, and mercy of God; and therewith to give repentance, remission of sin, and life eternal” (xxii, 94).

11. “They differed in their effects.” Owen quoted Romans 8:15; 2 Corinthians 3:7, 9, 17; Galatians 4:1-7, 24, 26, 30, 31; and Hebrews 2:14, 15 in support of the discontinuity between the old and new covenants with regard to the bondage and servitude of the former and the Spirit-wrought liberty of the latter. Because the old covenant was a ministry of death and condemnation, “the people saw not how the commands of that covenant could be observed, not how its curse could be avoided….All the prospect they had of deliverance was from the promise.” The new covenant, on the other hand, gives freedom from the condemning power of the  law as well as the whole ceremonial system of worship.”

12. “They differ greatly with respect unto the dispensation and grant of the Holy Ghost.” While the Holy Spirit was granted to believers under the old covenant, “there was always a promise of his more signal effusion upon the confirmation and establishment of the new covenant.

13. “They differ in the declaration made in them of the kingdom of God.” The old covenant was geo-political and earthly, “consisting in empire, power, victory, wealth,” whereas the kingdom of God revealed in the new covenant is “internal, spiritual, and heavenly” (XXII, 96).

14. “They differ in their substance…the old covenant was typical, shadowy, and removable, Heb x.1. The new covenant is substantial and permanent, as containing the body, which is Christ” (XXII, 96).

15. “They differ in the extent of their administration, according unto the will of God.” The old covenant was essentially for the Jew, whereas the new covenant extends to all nations (XXII, 96-97).

16. “They differ in their efficacy; for the old covenant ‘made nothing perfect’” (XXII, 97).

17. “They differ in their duration.” The old covenant was only for a temporary period until the inauguration of the new covenant, which is eternal (XXII, 97).

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5 Responses to John Owen on the Covenants

  1. Mike Brown says:

    I’m glad you found it helpful, Zrim, but I think you just put your readers to sleep. I’ll start working on a beer commercial to break it up a little (a commercial for Guinness, of course).

  2. RubeRad says:

    No way man, it woke me right up! I just didn’t have anything useful to add!

  3. Zrim says:


    But it’s a good sleep. Americans need mas siesta’s y cerveza’s a la Owen. Si?

  4. Mike Brown says:

    Si, y muchas cervezas negro, muy, muy negro.

    Viva Juan Owen!

  5. RT says:

    Do you know why this is so boooooooring?
    Because Owen didn’t know the background.
    Jews have been carrying the background material with them for 3000 years! Amazing that no one in the church bothered to ask the Rabbis for the fascinating whole picture….
    Read the midrashim and get excited again about the Bible!

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