Owen: Leviticus 18:5 Is Nothing But A Revival Of The Covenant Of Works

1. This covenant, called “the old covenant,” was never intended to be of itself the absolute rule and law of life and salvation unto the church, but was made with a particular design, and with respect unto particular ends. This the apostle proves undeniably in this epistle, especially in the chapter foregoing, and those two that follow. Hence it follows that it could abrogate or disannul nothing which God at any time before had given as a general rule unto the church. For that which is particular cannot abrogate any thing that was general, and before it; as that which is general doth abrogate all antecedent particulars, as the new covenant doth abrogate the old. And this we must consider in both the instances belonging hereunto. For,—

(1.) 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 fulfil it. And the reason is, because it was never intended to come in the place or room thereof, as a covenant, containing an entire rule of all the faith and obedience of the whole church. God did not intend in it to abrogate the covenant of works, and to substitute this in the place thereof; yea, in sundry things it re-enforced, established, and confirmed that covenant. For,—

[1.] It revived, declared, and expressed all the commands of that covenant in the decalogue; for that is nothing but a divine summary of the law written in the heart of man at his creation. And herein the dreadful manner of its delivery or promulgation, with its writing in tables of stone, is also to be considered; for in them the nature of that first covenant, with its inexorableness as unto perfect obedience, was represented. And because none could answer its demands, or comply with it therein, it was called “the ministration of death,” causing fear and bondage, 2 Cor. 3:7.

[2.] It revived the sanction of the first covenant, in the curse or sentence of death which it denounced against all transgressors. Death was the penalty of the transgression of the first covenant: “In the day that thou eatest, thou shalt die the death.” And this sentence was revived and represented anew in the curse wherewith this covenant was ratified, “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them,” Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10. For the design of God in it was to bind a sense of that curse on the consciences of men, until He came by whom it was taken away, as the apostle declares, Gal. 3:19.

[3.] 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,” Rom. 10:5; as he doth, Lev. 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.

—John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. W. H. Goold, Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1854), 23.77–78.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    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.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Chuckled at dr. Barcellos’ comment.

    I already know from “recovering a Covenantal heritage” that the 1689 fed guys don’t think a lot of the presuppositional dogs in the republication debate will hunt anyway.

    But, judging from the slew of Leviticus posts, I take it that you, dr. Clark, take issue with the OPCGA here?

    • James,

      I haven’t seen the OPC GA report but I have been studying the history of Reformed covenant theology, in the original sources and languages for a long time and I am quite aware of the contours of the contemporary discussion. Based on some of the comments I was seeing on social media and contacts (emails, DMs etc) I am getting it seemed like a good time to remind ourselves of what our forefathers actually said about this passage.

    • It’s all good. Just adopt the Administrative Republication reading of Kline and you are in like Flynn.
      Really though, I learned a lot from reading the report, and being somewhat aware of the spectrum of opinion on republication held by the committee, I am humbly impressed by the result.

Comments are closed.