John Owen Was Not A Baptist

Recently I had a question from a reader of the HB asking about John Owen’s view of baptism. It is sometimes implied either that he was a Baptist or became all but Baptist in his covenant theology. This is a puzzling thing to say. Let’s be clear. John Owen was not Baptist nor was he inconsistent when he taught (and practiced) infant baptism. I do not think that I have seen anyone spell out explicitly how the argument that Owen was virtually Baptist or should have come to Baptist conclusions works but here’s how it seems to work. Baptists tend to conflate the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, as if both had the same function and standing in redemptive history, and they impute that view to Owen. Thus, they cannot see how Owen did not arrive at the same conclusion as they: that in the New Covenant only those who are regenerate and who make a credible profession of faith are eligible for baptism. The problem lies in the premise. Owen did not conflate the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. Like all Reformed theologians, he recognized that there are continuities and discontinuities between Abraham and Moses but when the Mosaic covenant was fulfilled at Calvary the Abrahamic covenant (with its promise) did not expire with it. For Owen, as it had been for the Reformed since Zwingli rejected the Anabaptist position in the early 1520s, Christians are heirs of the Abrahamic covenant and promises. God has never revoked his promise to be a God to believers and to their children. For Owen, as for the other Reformed theologians in the 16th and 17th centuries, there is a distinction to be made between the outward administration of the promise and its inward reception. The former is a matter of divine command. The latter is a matter of God’s secret election. In short, for Owen, Abraham is not Moses. Unlike Moses, the Abrahamic covenant has not expired. The new covenant is a renewal of the Abrahamic. It is new relative to Moses. For Owen, as for Calvin, the contrast in Jeremiah 31 is not between the new covenant and Abraham but between the new covenant and Moses.

Here is what Owen said:

Q. 3. To whom doth this sacrament belong?

A. Unto all to whom the promise of the covenant is made; that is, to believers, and to their seed.—Acts 2:39; Gen. 17:11, 12; Acts 16:15; Rom. 4:10, 11; 1 Cor. 7:14.

John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 491.

The following comes from his tract Of Infant Baptism And Dipping:

IV. The question is only concerning the children or infant seed of professing believers who are themselves baptized. And,—

First, They by whom this is denied can produce no testimony of Scripture wherein their negation is formally or in terms included, nor any one asserting what is inconsistent with the affirmative; for it is weak beneath consideration to suppose that the requiring of the baptism of believers is inconsistent with that of their seed. But this is to be required of them who oppose infant baptism, that they produce such a testimony.
Secondly, No instance can be given from the Old or New Testament since the days of Abraham, none from the approved practice of the primitive church, of any person or persons born of professing, believing parents, who were themselves made partakers of the initial seal of the covenant, being then in infancy and designed to be brought up in the knowledge of God, who were not made partakers with them of the same sign and seal of the covenant.

Thirdly, A spiritual privilege once granted by God unto any cannot be changed, disannulled, or abrogated, without an especial divine revocation of it, or the substitution of a greater privilege and mercy in the room of it; for,—

1. Who shall disannul what God hath granted? What he hath put together who shall put asunder? To abolish or take away any grant of privilege made by him to the church, without his own express revocation of it, is to deny his sovereign authority.

2. To say a privilege so granted may be revoked, even by God himself, without the substitution of a greater privilege and mercy in the room of it, is contrary to the goodness of God, his love and care unto his church, [and] contrary to his constant course of proceeding with it from the foundation of the world, wherein he went on in the enlargement and increase of its privileges until the coming of Christ. And to suppose it under the gospel is contrary to all his promises, the honour of Christ, and a multitude of express testimonies of Scripture.
Thus was it with the privileges of the temple and the worship of it granted to the Jews; they were not, they could not be, taken away without an express revocation, and the substitution of a more glorious spiritual temple and worship in their room.

But now the spiritual privilege of a right unto and a participation of the initial seal of the covenant was granted by God unto the infant seed of Abraham, Gen. 17:10, 12.
This grant, therefore, must stand firm for ever, unless men can prove or produce,—

1. An express revocation of it by God himself; which none can do either directly or indirectly, in terms or any pretence of consequence.

2. An instance of a greater privilege or mercy granted unto them in the room of it; which they do not once pretend unto, but leave the seed of believers, whilst in their infant state, in the same condition with those of pagans and infidels; expressly contrary to God’s covenant.
All this contest, therefore, is to deprive the children of believers of a privilege once granted to them by God, never revoked, as to the substance of it, assigning nothing in its room; which is contrary to the goodness, love, and covenant of God, especially derogatory to the honour of Jesus Christ and the gospel.
Fourthly, They that have the thing signified have right unto the sign of it, or those who are partakers of the grace of baptism have a right to the administration of it: so Acts 10:47.
But the children of believers are all of them capable of the grace signified in baptism, and some of them are certainly partakers of it, namely, such as die in their infancy (which is all that can be said of professors): therefore they may and ought to be baptized. For,—

1. Infants are made for and are capable of eternal glory or misery, and must fall, dying infants, into one of these estates for ever.

2. All infants are born in a state of sin, wherein they are spiritually dead and under the curse.

3. Unless they are regenerated or born again, they must all perish inevitably, John 3:3. Their regeneration is the grace whereof baptism is a sign or token. Wherever this is, there baptism ought to be administered.
Fifthly, God having appointed baptism as the sign and seal of regeneration, unto whom he denies it, he denies the grace signified by it. Why is it the will of God that unbelievers and impenitent sinners should not be baptized? It is because, not granting them the grace, he will not grant them the sign. If, therefore, God denies the sign unto the infant seed of believers, it must be because he denies them the grace of it; and then all the children of believing parents dying in their infancy must, without hope, be eternally damned. I do not say that all must be so who are not baptized, but all must be so whom God would have not baptized.
But this is contrary to the goodness and law [love?] of God, the nature and promises of the covenant, the testimony of Christ reckoning them to the kingdom of God, the faith of godly parents, and the belief of the church in all ages.

It follows hence unavoidably that infants who die in their infancy have the grace of regeneration, and consequently as good a right unto baptism as believers themselves.
Sixthly, All children in their infancy are reckoned unto the covenant of their parents, by virtue of the law of their creation.

For they are all made capable of eternal rewards and punishments, as hath been declared.
But in their own persons they are not capable of doing good or evil.

It is therefore contrary to the justice of God, and the law of the creation of human kind, wherein many die before they can discern between their right hand and their left, to deal with infants any otherwise but in and according to the covenant of their parents; and that he doth so, see Rom. 5:14.

Hence I argue,—

Those who, by God’s appointment, and by virtue of the law of their creation, are, and must of necessity be, included in the covenant of their parents, have the same right with them unto the privileges of that covenant, no express exception being put in against them. This right it is in the power of none to deprive them of, unless they can change the law of their creation.

Thus it is with the children of believers with respect unto the covenant of their parents, whence alone they are said to be holy, 1 Cor. 7:14.

Seventhly, Christ is “the messenger of the covenant,” Mal. 3:1,—that is, of the covenant of God made with Abraham; and he was the “minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers,” Rom. 15:8. This covenant was, that he would be “a God unto Abraham and to his seed.”
Now if this be not so under the new testament, then was not Christ a faithful messenger, nor did confirm the truth of God in his promises.

This argument alone will bear the weight of the whole cause against all objections; for,—

1. Children are still in the same covenant with their parents, or the truth of the promises of God to the fathers was not confirmed by Christ.

2. The right unto the covenant, and interest in its promises, wherever it be, gives right unto the administration of its initial seal, that is, to baptism, as Peter expressly declares, Acts 2:38, 39. Wherefore,—
The right of the infant seed of believers unto baptism, as the initial seal of the covenant, stands on the foundation of the faithfulness of Christ as the messenger of the covenant, and minister of God for the confirmation of the truth of his promises.

In brief, a participation of the seal of the covenant is a spiritual blessing. This the seed of believers was once solemnly invested in by God himself. This privilege he hath nowhere revoked, though he hath changed the outward sign; nor hath he granted unto our children any privilege or mercy in lieu of it now under the gospel, when all grace and privileges are enlarged to the utmost. His covenant promises concerning them, which are multiplied, were confirmed by Christ as a true messenger and minister; he gives the grace of baptism unto many of them, especially those that die in their infancy, owns children to belong unto his kingdom, esteems them disciples, appoints households to be baptized without exception. And who shall now rise up, and withhold water from them?

…The covenant, therefore, was not granted in its administrations unto the carnal seed of Abraham as such, but unto his covenanted seed, those who entered into it and professedly stood to its terms.

And the promises made unto the fathers were, that their infant seed, their buds and offspring, should have an equal share in the covenant with them, Isa. 22:24, 44:3, 61:9. “They are the seed of the blessed of the LORD, and their offspring with them,” chap. 65:23. Not only themselves, who are the believing, professing seed of those who were blessed of the Lord, by a participation of the covenant, Gal. 3:9, but their offspring also, their buds, their tender little ones, are in the same covenant with them.

It may be it will be said, that although children have a right to the covenant, or do belong unto it, yet they have no right to the initial seal of it. This will not suffice; for,—

1. If they have any interest in it, it is either in its grace or in its administration. If they have the former, they have the latter also, as shall be proved at any time. If they have neither, they have no interest in it;—then the truth of the promises of God made unto the fathers was not confirmed by Christ.

2. That unto whom the covenant or promise doth belong, to them belongs the administration of the initial seal of it, is expressly declared by the apostle, Acts 2:38, 39, be they who they will.

3. The truth of God’s promises is not confirmed if the sign and seal of them be denied; for that whereon they believed that God was a God unto their seed as well as unto themselves was this, that he granted the token of the covenant unto their seed as well as unto themselves. If this be taken away by Christ, their faith is overthrown, and the promise itself is not confirmed but weakened, as to the virtue it hath to beget faith and obedience.

Eighthly, Particular testimonies may be pleaded and vindicated, if need be, and the practice of the primitive church

John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 16 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 258–61, 262–63.

Some doubts about the authenticity of this tract. Owen died in 1683 but it was not published until 1721 in a collection of other sermons and tracts. Who knows why it was not published during Owen’s lifetime? Why were the other tracts and sermons not published? It has been implied that he did not publish it because it no longer represented his thinking. That is sheer speculation. His catechisms and their exposition were published and they said, albeit very briefly, the same thing. Further, there is in the same volume an argument with the Baptist John Tombes over the patristic view and practice of baptism, in which Owen defended infant baptism and that does not seem to be in dispute.

We should not forget that Owen was a leading voice in the formation of and a subscriber of the congregationalist Savoy Declaration (1658) on infant baptism. Art. 29 says.

4. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptised, and those only.

5. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it; or that all that are baptised are undoubtedly regenerated.

6. The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will in his appointed time.

7. Baptism is but once to be administered to any person

There is no evidence that Owen ever recorded or even suggested that he repudiated his subscription to the Savoy.

Finally, there are his comments in his massive, multi-volume, commentary on Hebrews, which was published in the 1660s and 70s. Here we see his approach to continuity between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant, which echoes the tract on Baptism and his other writing on covenant theology. This is just a portion from his 6th exercitation in vol. 1 on Hebrews:

7. It remains, then, that the church founded in the covenant, and unto which all the promises did and do belong, abode at the coming of Christ, and doth abide ever since, in and among those who are the children of Abraham by faith. The old church was not taken away, and a new one set up, but the same church was continued, only in those who by faith inherited the promises. Great alterations, indeed, were then made in the outward state and condition of the church; as,—

(1.) The carnal privilege of the Jews, in their separation to bring forth the Messiah, then failed; and therewith their claim on that account to be the children of Abraham.

(2.) The ordinances of worship suited unto that privilege expired and came to an end.

(3.) New ordinances of worship were appointed, suited unto the new light and grace then granted unto the church.

(4.) The Gentiles came in to the faith of Abraham together with the Jews, to be fellow-heirs with them in his blessing. But none of these, nor all of them together, made any such alteration in the church but that it was still one and the same. The olive-tree was the same, only some branches were broken off, and others planted in; the Jews fell, and the Gentiles came in their room.

And this doth and must determine the difference between the Jews and Christians about the promises of the Old Testament. They are all made unto the church. No individual person hath any interest in them but by virtue of his membership therewith. This church is, and always was, one and the same. With whomsoever it remains, the promises are theirs; and that not by implication or analogy, but directly and properly. They belong as immediately, at this day, either to the Jews or Christians, as they did of old to any. The question is, With whom is this church, founded on the promised Seed in the covenant? This is Zion, Jerusalem, Israel, Jacob, the temple of God. The Jews plead that it is with them, because they are the children of Abraham according to the flesh. Christians tell them that their privilege on this account was of another nature, and ended with the coming of the Messiah; that the church unto whom all the promises belong are only those who are heirs of Abraham’s faith, believing as he did, and thereby interested in his covenant. Not as though the promise made to Abraham were of none effect; for as it was made good unto his carnal seed in the exhibition of the Messiah, so the spiritual privileges of it belonged only unto those of the Jews and Gentiles in whom God had graciously purposed to effect the faith of Abraham. Thus was and is the church, whereunto all the promises belong, still one and the same, namely, Abraham’s children according to the faith: and among those promises this is one, that God will be a God unto them and their seed for ever.

John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. W. H. Goold, vol. 18, Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1854), 123–24.

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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Thank you for posting this. I’ve been hearing this claim about Owen more frequently since the publication of Pascal Denault’s “The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology”

  2. There is an essay worth reading on this topic – “John Owen, baptism and the baptists,” in By Common Confession: Essays in honour of James M. Renihan, eds Baines, Barcellos and Butler, and reprinted with slight emendations as a pamphlet by the Strict Baptist Historical Society last year.

    It argues that Owen’s views change a lot over his career, although he continued to practice infant baptism. It also argues that the text you quote at length has to be treated with care, in that it is developed from an auditor’s sermon notebook, and was not something published by Owen or his immediate executors. The long text, if it is by Owen, is also likely from an earlier part of Owen’s career, as it contains ideas at variance with his statements on baptism in the latter years of his life. I find the arguments persuasive …

  3. But while we’re on the subject: what does Owen mean when he says that baptism takes away “that which hinders our salvation; which is not the first sin of Adam imputed, but our own inherent lust and pollution” (10:80)? Was he showing sympathy with Cornelius Burgess, whose “Baptismall regeneration of elect infants professed by the Church of England, according to the Scriptures, the primitive Church, the present reformed churches, and many particular divines apart” (1629) had very recently been published? Did he really believe that baptism is “an holy Ordinance, whereby being sprinkled with water according to Christ’s institution, we are by his grace made children of God, and have the promises of the Covenant sealed unto us” (1:469)? Does baptism really effect adoption? This is quite a different claim from that of the Westminster Assembly that children of believers were already “Christians, and federally holy before Baptisme,” and therefore to be baptised (A directory for the publique worship of God in the three kingdomes (1645), p. 20). Why, in 1652, did Owen describe believers’ baptism as heterodox (CSPD 26: 1-74) and in the same year begin cooperating with baptist ministers in a national reform movement? Why did Owen’s “A vindication of the treatise on schism” (1657) refuse to admit that those individuals who renounced and repeated the baptism they had received as infants should be described as schismatic? It’s interesting that he stated that “I believe that all whom Christ loves and pardons are to be made partakers of the pledge thereof” (6:466). In his later life, his theology of baptism continues to assume that the baptism of believers is normative.

    I’m not persuaded by some of what Owen does: he seems to argue that the covenant reflected in baptism was a covenant of works, even as the covenant to which the sacrament pointed was a covenant of grace.

    But as to the 1721 text on baptism, we just don’t know whether it was in Owen’s hand or in that of an auditor, or whether Owen was named as its author, for the notebooks by Sir John Hartropp (several of which are held in Dr Williams’s Library and can be consulted) also contain material by other preachers.

    I don’t think Owen’s changing theology of baptism belongs to anyone but himself. There’s lots to learn from and appreciate but we need to keep our critical distance. And that’s before we even begin to talk about covenants!

    • Crawford,

      I appreciate the text-critical difficulties of the treatise but even it’s an auditor’s notes (itself a supposition), it seems reasonable to think that it reflects what Owen was saying.

      Further his adherence to Savoy and his clear affirmation of the traditional Reformed reading of the Abrahamic covenant (e.g., his use of Acts 2:39) clarifies the picture, doesn’t it?

  4. Thank you Dr. Clark, this is very helpful. It was Pascal’s book that lead me to this question and that seems to be the case with many others. They typically argue from his Hebrews Commentary and that Owens views changed overtime, so to see a section from the commentaries is enlightening.

  5. Dr Clark, yes, you’re right, there are issues with the text. Its ms doesn’t seem to exist any longer, but other volumes in the same series of auditor notes in Dr Williams’s Library have Owen’s work alongside that of other preachers. So we have to take Asty at his word and assume that his work in collecting this now untraceable set of notes was accurate – more accurate than some of the content of the biography that accompanied his edition of these ms sermons and notes. But the fact that this text remained unpublished when Owen and his executors published a raft of other material should also give us pause, especially when the arguments of the text don’t entirely correspond to his later views. There may have been good reasons why Owen didn’t publish this – if indeed he is the author – which is now impossible to check.

    Maybe it doesn’t matter: I think we can establish from lots of other and more credible sources that Owen never changed his views on who should be baptised – though he could at times have explained his position more clearly if he always wanted to combat baptist ideas – and despite the fact that he changed his mind quite a bit on what baptism does, and how it relates to church membership, for example.

    Samuel (above) notes that Owen’s views changed over time – they really did, as becomes obvious when you read through his works in chronological order – and sometimes in surprising ways, not least in terms of his doctrine of baptism. I tried to work through some of the issues here:

    But I’ll let the expert theologians battle it out over Owen’s view of the new covenant in relation to the Abrahamic!

    Thanks again for your work in helping us understand and think through the issues. Owen is magnificent.

    • Dr Gribben 🙂

      You know how much I appreciate your work so I’m grateful for your time and attention here. I will continue to study.

      1. Re: development. I don’t doubt for a moment that Owen’s theology developed in a variety of ways but the question is whether it changed substantially on the question of the continuity between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant. That must be demonstrated.

      2. I am concerned about the de facto or implicit re-contextualizing or characterizing of Owen as occurs, e.g., in Miller et al eds., Covenant Theology From Adam to Christ (Palmdale, CA, 2005) which contains a treatise by Nehemiah Coxe and John Owen. They seem like strange bedfellows. The implication left in the mind of the reader might be that Coxe and Owen agreed fundamentally on the nature of redemptive history, the nature of the Abrahamic covenant etc. Owen’s exposition of Hebrews 8:6 must be read in the context of his exposition of the earlier chapters of Hebrews, in the broader context of his life and work. His exposition of Heb 8:6, reads in the context his 6th exercitation in Hebrews than it might in might bound together with Coxe. When Owen contrasts “the two covenants” he’s contrasting the new covenant with the old, Mosaic covenant and not with the Abrahamic per se.

      3. Re: the power of baptism. I will go back and read that carefully. If Owen did lean toward baptismal regeneration (which I doubt) that would not seem to help the case that he was a crypto- or quasi-Baptist, would it?

      4. Re: Owen on the Mosaic covenant, (e.g., the Hicks essay in Recovering a Covenantal Heritage) yes Owen held that Moses was a third type of covenant. He was not alone but I have not yet been able to see how that affects the interpretation of his theology regarding baptism or the continuity of the covenant of grace.

    • Crawford,

      I enjoyed your essay in By Common Confession, s copy of which Jim very graciously gave me.

      I am intrigued by your note on page 67 that some of the Baptists regarded Owen as a “fellow-traveler.” The quotations that follow are interesting. Why do you think they support the “cause of the Baptists”?

      These do not strike me as distinctively Baptist, though I can see why a Baptist would be attracted to them.

      I guess I am more interested in the hermeneutic at work and than anything else.

    • Scott, sorry for the delay in replying to your questions below – I was away from home for a few days and wanted to re-read the chapter before replying. I promise this is my last post on the thread !

      As to your questions above:

      1. Sure, I take your point about development in theological detail (which is evident) and development in the big structures of covenant theology. I’ll let the experts keep talking about that issue.

      2. I share your concern about re-contextualising Owen, but I think that is very hard to avoid, since he had so many positions not commonly shared by his most enthusiastic readers today. Some degree of re-contextualising is almost inevitable. I know and appreciate the fact that the WSC training very much focuses on primary sources on their own terms, and wish that we had many more readers of c17th theology with that kinds of ability.

      3. Exactly! I’m not arguing that he was either quasi or crypto … though he was often cryptic.

      4. I would need to read more on the covenants issue to comment on that issue.

      And then finally as to p, 67 in Jim’s book: I wasn’t arguing that these quotes supported the baptist position, but that Owen wasn’t concerned that they might be supporting the baptist position – i.e. that he could have done more to qualify his statements if he were concerned that their ambiguity could be seized upon by baptists. The sentence is ambiguous as it stands, so I apologise for that.

      Summing up, it’s clear that Owen was a peado-baptist throughout his life. He used various arguments to develop the position, some of which he abandoned, and some of which he reversed. And while he retained his own peado-baptist commitment and practice, he increasingly sought to cooperate with baptists where he could, short of full ecclesial communion, and many of them thought very highly of him for it. I can’t find instances in which he attacks them in print. It’s a good lesson for all Christians to do their best that the attacks come only from the outside. Thanks for everything you do to encourage us to read and appreciate Owen!

  6. I have a (genuine) question. Do newly converted adults from a non-Christian upbringing get baptised in Reformed churches?

  7. Sorry, a follow-up question: Can a person who was baptised as an infant receive adult baptism when born agin as an adult?

    • Allan,

      The question is whether he was baptized in the first place. One can only be initiated into the visible covenant community once. One can only be identified with Christ’s death once. In the case of one who is entered into the visible covenant community (note, I did not say regenerated or saved; I said “entered into the visible covenant community”) but only later comes to faith we rejoice in God’s faithfulness and sovereign grace in bringing to reality in a person’s life what was signified in baptism.

      Think about the analogy of circumcision. Were there none in all of Israel’s history who came to faith after they were circumcised? Was such a person re-circumcised? To ask the question is to answer it.

  8. Thanks for that. On that basis I guess it all then depends on whether or not baptism is to the New Covenant, what circumcision was to the old.

  9. Sorry again, It’s just that as circumcision succeeded the physical birth, thus should not baptism succeed regeneration?

    • Why would we allegorize the physical birth in the new covenant?

      Baptism was not a sign of birth under Abraham. It was a sign of initiation into the visible covenant community. The promise was given to Abraham and to his children. Abraham believed before he was circumcised and believed after, so it is in the new covenant, which is the new administration of the Abrahamic covenant.

    • Israel was commanded to circumcise their hearts; was that supposed to have happened before or after they were circumsized outwardly?

  10. Dr. Clark,

    In order to facilitate discussion of this topic, I have organized a helpful summary of why baptists appeal to Owen, complete with the relevant quotes from Owen and how they relate to the overall issue. Please address each point raised (which this post does not):

    the question is whether it changed substantially on the question of the continuity between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant. That must be demonstrated.

    It has been demonstrated. Please see above.

    When Owen contrasts “the two covenants” he’s contrasting the new covenant with the old, Mosaic covenant and not with the Abrahamic per se.

    But how Owen does so is important. In wrestling with the text and how the Old relates to the New he asks

    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?

    In his analysis of the Old vs New he repeatedly identifies the New Covenant with the Covenant of Grace. Note: the new covenant “was extant and effectual under the old testament.” His solution to how this is possible at the same time the Old Covenant was operative is that “absolutely under the old testament it consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture.” Once the promise became a covenant (the New Covenant), the Old was abolished. Again, Owen arrives at this conclusion by wrestling with the problems Hebrews 8 presents. In reaching this conclusion, he recognizes the necessary implications this raises for the Abrahamic Covenant: it is not the Covenant of Grace because the Covenant of Grace was only a promise during the Old Testament.

    2. When we speak of the “new covenant,” we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely [i.e. the new covenant “extant and effectual under the old testment” as a promise], 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.

    In his rigorous analysis of Hebrews 8 he is led to the conclusion that the New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace. It consisted only as a promise in the Old Testament and never as a covenant. According to Owen in this exegesis, the Abrahamic Covenant was not the Covenant of Grace. The Abrahamic Covenant revealed the New Covenant as a promise, which was effectual to save Abraham and all other OT saints prior to its formal establishment as a covenant, which was yet future. The Abrahamic Covenant revealed the promise, but was formally about other things – like Christ being born from his flesh.

    • Brandon,

      I’m well aware of all this but, as I wrote above, that language must be understood in light of his argument for continuity with Abraham. He remained, as Dr Gribben and I agree (I think) a paedobaptist. I understand that Baptists then and now think that he was inconsistent but the fact remains that he remained a paedobapist.

  11. Baptists tend to conflate the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, as if both had the same function and standing in redemptive history, and they impute that view to Owen.

    1. Recognizing the essential unity between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants is not a baptist error. It’s standard reformed theology held by Calvin and Westminster following him. Here’s what Lane Tipton said about it on a recent episode of the Vos Group on the Reformed Forum.

    The voluntary character of this covenant has a national dimension that is going to be tethered to land retention. It’s not that it’s a separate covenant from the Abrahamic Covenant of Grace, it’s that it’s going to have a unique typological layer at the national level and it’s going to be something where Israel’s obedience, or lack thereof, will be the feature that determines whether or not the typical land inheritance is maintained – if they obey, it will be (Lev 26; Deut 28); if they don’t obey, it will be lost. So that covenant has, at the level of its administration, it can be broken and the entire typical inheritance lost. That’s where, I think, the uniqueness of the administration lies…

    It’s not right to say that the Abrahamic Covenant is absolutely and without qualifications unilaterally established and unconditional, period. Why? Because there is clearly – When Genesis 15 and Genesis 17 are read together, there is a unilateral establishment, a sovereign establishment of that covenant by the Lord and Abraham is incapacitated, especially in 7-21, but there is also a commandment for him to walk before the Lord of Abraham and be blameless before the Lord and to fulfill the terms of the covenant of circumcision. And failure to do so is something that, in Genesis 17, results in a judgment that’s impending upon Abraham for failing to do so. So you clearly get a covenant that is unilaterally and sovereignly established by the Lord, the covenant of grace. It’s bilateral in its outworking. It has a conditional feature built into it. And so the very fact that there is a bilateral and conditional character to the Mosaic Covenant does not mean it is substantially a different kind of covenant from the Abrahamic Covenant.

    Your own subservient covenant view that tries to completely isolate the Mosaic Covenant from the Abrahamic is not the Westminster view. I have addressed your comments on this point with relation to baptists quite extensively here:

    • Brandon,

      1. You changed the term of my argument. I used the verb “conflate.” You said “essential unity.” I agree that, as an administration of the covenant of grace there is “essential unity” between Moses and Abraham. You haven’t accounted for what I actually said. Baptists do tend to conflate Moses and Abraham but they do not have the same function and standing in redemptive history, as I’ve demonstrated repeatedly on the HB. Paul does not say that Moses is the father of all who believe. Abraham is. He does not say (in Gal 3-4) that Moses is just as permanent as Abraham. No, he says that Moses, as an administration is temporary but Abraham is permanent.

      2. I agree with my former student and current colleague Lane. I’ve said the very same things.

      3. I don’t know that I hold a “subservient” view of the Mosaic covenant. As far as I know, I agree with Witsius and others in the main but I’m not troubled by the “subservient” view.

    • Brandon – Chapter 19 of Westminster clearly identifies an aspect of the Mosaic Covenant that is distinct from the Abrahamic Covenant. Taken with chapter 7, the “substance” of the gospel is the Covenant of Grace. How can one read the WCF and not see that the substance of the Gospel that operates in the Covenant of Grace is not present in the Covenant of Works? This expression of the Covenant of Works where the substance of the Gospel is not covenantaly present, must “serve” the Covenant of Grace in some way. WCF clearly has a place for viewing the Covenant made a Sini as subserving the Coveanet of Grace in some sense. Are you saying that Dr. Clark had a novel approach, when you say “your subservient covenant view?”

      CHAPTER 19
      Of the Law of God
      1. God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.

      2. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man.

  12. Scott,

    This is moderately off topic, but was Owen at the Westminster Assembly? I ask because I have heard some say yes and others say no.

    • Scott,

      Thanks for your response. It’s interesting, the painting of the Assembly by Herbert tries to slip him into the back.

      I’m not that strong with art, maybe he intended it as a metaphor or something.

    • The painting also includes Milton and Cromwell, from what I can remember – it’s more symbolic of the heroes of late c19th dissent than the membership of the Assembly.

    • Some of Owen’s student peers were invited to attend the Assembly – there were some surprisingly young men present. He got to go to the “poor, provoking” parish of Fordham instead, to launch a reformation that was immediately overturned by his successor …

  13. “Owen died in 1683 but it was not published until 1721 in a collection of other sermons and tracts. Who knows why it was not published during Owen’s lifetime? Why were the other tracts and sermons not published?”.

    I know what is meant: published in print media, but the inclusion of ‘sermons’ means that publication must have taken place within the author’s lifetime. Many of us have become so wedded to ‘media’ that we think that publishing relates to dissemination of information via media, rather forgetting the original method of publishing. The gospel was published long before it was committed to writing. Likewise inspired prophesy etc which were later committed to writing. There was publishing of scholarly and artistic works thousands of years before the advent of printing, when a work was published by reading it aloud to auditors, often an invited audience. Strictly speaking, if Owen delivered words orally to auditors (the suggestion being made that one of his auditors wrote down the address) they were published when he spoke them, not when sermon notes etc were delivered to a printer years after his death. All our sermons are actually published when first preached in the church, not when subsequently printed. Many of the sermons by William Perkins, printed after his death, state on the title page that they were ‘taken from his mouth’ from his public preaching in Cambridge.

    • “if Owen delivered words orally to auditors (the suggestion being made that one of his auditors wrote down the address) they were published when he spoke them” – but the question is whether he did in fact do so.

      The 1721 pamphlet is a wild goose chase, I fear.

  14. “There is no evidence that Owen ever recorded or even suggested that he repudiated his subscription to the Savoy.”

    That’s true as a specific claim, but in his books on Fiat Lux (1662, 1664), Owen does dismiss confessions of faith in toto and promotes a “Bible only” position. I take that dismissal with a pinch of salt, given the dangerous conditions of the period and the horrific fate of many of his friends, it made sense to distance himself from the events and documents of the revolutionary period. But Owen hardly ever mentioned the Savoy declaration in any of his writings: it just wasn’t that important to him. He mentions and praises the 39 Articles much more often. And he did also advance claims that were contrary to Savoy – see his comments in the Hebrews commentary on the status of the Mosaic covenant, for example. Chris Caughey’s excellent PhD thesis has the context for this and a really good reading of the sources.

    • Crawford,

      I appreciate this. I have been meaning to read Chris’s dissertation. That he continued to endorse the 39 Articles would seem to reinforce the claim that he remained a convinced paedobaptist. As you say, the post-revolutionary politics (and his marginalized status) were such that it is understandable that he might distance himself rhetorically from the Savoy.

  15. Seems to be a lot of unnecessary confusion.
    1. Historical-theologically speaking, did J.O. ever espouse a credobaptist position? No. Did his covenant theology come very very close to c17 Particular Baptists? Yes.

    2. Systematic-theologically speaking, did/do J.O.’s comments on covenant theology in his Hebrews commentary undermine and contradict the more common paedobaptist covenant theology? It was debated then, and remains debatable now.

    I find that it’s unhelpful to take the modern (or ancient) Baptists’ systematic claims that Owen’s views support Baptist covenant theology and respond to them with the historical statement that Owen was not a Baptist. Has anyone seriously made the claim that historically Owen was a Baptist? If yes, why bother interacting with such foolishness? If the claim is systematic, where is the appeal to Baptist arguments (old or modern) for comparison?

    Chris Caughey’s analysis is very good.
    My dissertation will, D.V., give the Particular Baptist context that will offer real data to the Baptists’ side of the question, data that seems entirely unreferenced when this question arises.

    • Sam,


      It’s a question I get frequently. People get the idea that Owen was a Baptist somewhere. Judging by the comments here and on Twitter, it seems that others have been told the same or have received the impression.

      You yourself say, that his covenant theology came “close” to a 17th-century Baptist position. That’s not a claim that he was a Baptist but it suggests that he could have been. It certainly has been implied that had he been more self-aware, he would have been. This may be but I think that we have to take into view more than his language about the new covenant.

      I intend to read Chris’s work.


      • Here is Gatiss’ account of the tract on baptism:

        The text in The Works of John Owen is reprinted from an edition of his ‘Sermons and Tracts’ only published posthumously in 1721 and perhaps never intended for publication at all. The next treatise in the Works, “A vindication of two passages in Irenæus against the exceptions of Mr. Tombs” (pages 263-265 of Volume 16), is a direct reply to Tombes’s Antipaedobaptism Part 3, section 89, pages 760-762 which was published in 1657. If this ‘vindication’ was originally appended to Of Infant Baptism, as seems possible judging from the final point made there about “particular testimonies may be pleaded and vindicated if need be” (emphasis mine), then it is not unlikely that he completed both around 1657-1658.

  16. There is also the claimed that Owen became a Presbyterian before his death. See Francis Nigel Lee.

    • Owen started off as a Presbyterian (in the period when episcopacy in the Anglican church was suppressed and it was organized on Presbyterian lines) but became more persuaded to the Independent, Congregational way. He wrote (in 1657) a vindication of his treatise ‘of Schism’. Therein Owen defends himself against the charge that he schismatically separated from the Presbyterians simply because he operated a different polity, but there is no question that he admits that his views on church government, and his own practice, changed over the years. It could hardly be clearer: Owen freely admits that he did ‘profess myself to be of the presbyterian judgment’ in his early treatise ‘The Duties of Pastors and Peoples distinguished’ (written 1643). He says again ‘I professed myself of the presbyterian judgment, in opposition to democratical confusion’, but appeals to the fact that he had no acquaintance with Independents at that time and ‘My acquaintance lay wholly with ministers, and people of the presbyterian way’. He says ‘There I acknowledge myself to be of the presbyterian judgment, and not of the independent and congregational.’ He was ordained and operated as a Presbyterian, he held to Presbyterian church government, and had to answer the charges against him from the Presbyterians that he had renounced his vows by becoming an Independent. He admits all this himself. He moved from Presbyterianism to Independency. This is his own testimony.

      I’m also sceptical that he reverted to Presbyterianism at the end of his life, but willing to hear evidence. I know he gathered around him after the Restoration those of Presbyterian persuasion, but that is too circumstantial. I’d prefer to hear it from his own mouth or pen, in the way that he clearly admitted his move from Presbyterianism to Independency.

    • Owen’s last word on church government was his treatise ‘An Enquiry into the original Nature, Power, Order and Communion of Evangelical Churches’ (first part 1681, remainder published posthumously in 1696). If one takes some sentences out of context, it may appear to make concessions to Presbyterianism, but taken as a whole it defends Independency, or at least it sets itself decidedly against the ‘British’ Presbyterial model of ‘higher courts’ up to General Assembly, though perhaps less so against the Continental ‘wider court’ structure out to synods.

      Owen believed in synods, and stated that ‘No Church, therefore, is so Independent, as that it can always, and in all cases, observe the duties it owes to the Lord Christ, and the Church Catholic, by all those powers which it is able to act in itself distinctly, without conjunction with others. And the Church which confines its duty to the acts of its own assemblies, cuts itself off from the external communion of the Catholic Church; nor will it be safe for any man to commit the conduct of his soul to such a church.’ That is not a concession to Presbyterianism, but a remark against some sort of ultra-independency. For Owen connexionalism is voluntary, though not optional, and synods have no powers.

  17. In Owen’s “True Nature of a Gospel Church” (Vol. 16 of Works) he states:

    “Whether a church may not, ought not, to take under its conduct, inspection, and rule, such as are not yet meet to be received into full communion, such as are the children and servants of those who are complete members of the church? Ans. No doubt the church, in its officers, may and ought so to do, and it is a great evil when it is neglected. For, —

    “(1.) They are to take care of parents and masters as such, and as unto the discharge of their duty in their families; which without an inspection into the condition of their children and servants, they cannot do.

    “(2.) Households were constantly reckoned unto the church when the heads of the families were entered into covenant, (Luke 19:9; Acts 16:15; Romans 16:10, 11; 1 Corinthians 1:16; 2 Timothy 4:19).

    “(3.) Children do belong unto and have an interest in their parents’ covenant; not only in the promise of it, which gives them right unto baptism, but in the profession of it in the church covenant, which gives them a right unto all the privileges of the church whereof they are capable, until they voluntarily relinquish their claim unto them.

    “(4.) Baptizing the children of church members, giving them thereby an admission into the visible catholic church, puts an obligation on the officers of the church to take care, what in them lieth, that they may be kept and preserved meet members of it, by a due watch over them and instruction of them.

    “(5.) Though neither the church nor its privileges be continued and preserved, as of old, by carnal generation, yet, because of the nature of the dispensation of God’s covenant, wherein he hath promised to be a God unto believers and their seed, the advantage of the means of a gracious education in such families, and of conversion and edification in the ministry of the church, ordinarily the continuation of the church is to depend on the addition of members out of the families already incorporated in it. The church is not to be like the kingdom of the Mamalukes, wherein there was no regard unto natural successors, but it was continually made up of strangers and foreigners incorporated into it; nor like the beginning of the Roman commonwealth, which, consisting of men only, was like to have been the matter of one age alone.”

  18. The Savoy, WCF and TFU all are united on the covenantal inclusion of the children of believers. Polity changes or differences aside, Owen was not a baptist, nor would he become one had he lived longer as baptists love to imagine. They are adding and omitting as much into Owen as they are into the NT when deny the continued inclusion of children in the covenant of grace.

    • Michial, “they are adding and omitting … into Owen” – who, where? It would be helpful to have a more precise comment. I don’t think anyone on this thread is arguing that Owen was a baptist. “Nor would he have become one” – are you omniscient?

      Remember that there are big structural differences between the confessions you mention, despite similarity of practice – Savoy does not assume that the children of believers are church members, or Christians, though the Westminster Assembly assumes both, and the Directory for Public Worship bases their right to baptism on the fact that they are already Christians. That wasn’t Owen’s position.

  19. Owen and the Divines did agree. The Directory calls them Christians not in the sense of being regenerate but in the sense that they are part of the covenant by their relation to their parents, just like Abrahams children were. Not all Israel are Israel. Not all Jews were Jews circumcised in heart. The Divines were carrying the same usage. They didn’t believe the children of believers were born again at their first birth, merely they were external members of the church, holy in the external sense. Owen held to the same covenant solidarity, without using the same “Christian” language.

  20. Michial, I think we’re making the same point. Modern, evangelical, Presbyterians would want to note that Rutherford was prepared to baptise some ineligible candidates, but they would still want to appreciate his work. That’s how baptists see Owen.

    Remember that there were a variety of positions among the divines on the issue of baptismal regeneration, and its relation to baptism. There was a good paper in one of the old Westminster Conference volumes on the various positions at the Assembly on the status of believer’s children. Cornelius Burgess wrote a book in 1629 defending the position that the regeneration of elect children was effected at (via?) baptism, for example. While the Assembly was meeting, Owen published catechisms that suggest that baptism effected adoption (1645). His views differed from those of the Assembly on a number of key points. It’s worth remembering that he published an alternative confession, after all!

    Does Owen really argue that children of believers are church members? I don’t remember that. He’s clear that baptism precedes church membership. Maybe I am misunderstanding you.

    • All the different views by the Assembly. You have to admit before the 16th century East and West were united on the meaning and efficacy of baptism. Luther retained much of the same but since then it’s been a big mess of 1001 views on such a core doctrine.

  21. Many thanks for this, Dr. Clark. My wife and I were working through this recently and these resources will be a great help. One note – we are mainline Episcopalian, though of a very conservative and Reformed bent. What are we to make of baptisms that occur in churches that are, for all intents and purposes, apostate in their teaching – not just on sexuality but also on the accuracy and truth of the Scriptures, the virgin birth, divinity of Christ, etc.? Is the efficacy therein the same as in a church that is true to Scripture?

  22. I have read Francis Nigel Lee’s book called John Owen Re-Presbyterianized and it does not prove it’s own title at all. He relies heavily on equivocation to try and twist the evidence to fit his wishes. John Owen died a Congregationalist

  23. You’d be surprised…but the only reason I brought that up was because of a rabbit trail discussion over it in the comments…

  24. John Owen was a Congregationalist. For more information on the Reformed heritage of Congregationalism, go to This bears repeating. As a Congregationalist, I am trying to hold on to one of our own from Baptists and Presbyterians who regularly try to claim Owen.

    • The Presbyterians like to claim him as he was in actual fact once a
      Presbyterian, there is even an apocryphal tale that he confessed that
      the Church of Scotland’s form of government was nearest the
      Scriptural model on his death bed.

      I think that he may have met a baptist once.

    • is that Edwards you are thinking of, rather than Owen?

      cg Owen was a Presbyterian early on before he became an Independent, the
      apocryphal tale I believe is mentioned in Francis Nigel Lee’s book John Owen Re-Presbyterianized which someone mentioned earlier, unsure whether there
      is a footnote source reference to the claim.
      What do you Know of Edwards, as far as I know he was a New England Congregationalist, his whole life & remained so til his died.

  25. Dawtx,

    I’m Congregationalist (Savoy Declaration) now as well (formerly Presbyterian in the Covenanter way). I still hold to Exclusive Psalmody etc, as Goodwin and Owen did.

    You should add me on Facebook- Charlie’and Zel Barribeau

    Didn’t mean to interrupt the thread…carry on 🙂

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