Owen On The Covenant Of Works And The Imputation Of Christ’s Active Obedience

There is yet something more required; it is not enough that we are not guilty, we must also be actually righteous,—not only all sin is to be answered for, but all righteousness is to be fulfilled. By taking away the guilt of sin, we are as persons innocent; but something more is required to make us to be considered as persons obedient. I know nothing to teach me that an innocent person shall go to heaven, be rewarded, if he be no more but so. Adam was innocent at his first creation, but he was to ‘do this,’ to ‘to keep the commandments,’ before he entered into ‘life:’ he had no title to life by innocency. This, then, moreover, is required, that the whole law be fulfilled, and all the obedience performed that God requires at our hands. This is the soul;s second inquiry; and it finds a resolution only in the Lord Christ: “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life,’ Rom v. 10. His death reconciled us; then we are saved by his life. The actual obedience which he yielded to the whole law of God, is that righteousness whereby we are saved; if so be we found in him, not having on our own righteousness which is of the law, but the righteousness which is of God by faith. Phil. iii. 9. This I shall have occasion to hand more at large hereafter.

John Owen, Works, 2.105. (HT: Inwoo Lee)

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  1. After we have come to know the desperate situation we are in, through our sin and misery, God reveals His Son to us through the administration of the Word and sacraments, who answers our need of the perfect righteousness God requires, so that we might respond to Him by striving to obey His law, not under threat of condemnation or death, but out of love and gratitude for such a great salvation. This is what the moralist doesn’t understand, because he has not come to understand the total extent of his sin and misery in the face of God’s requirement of perfect righteousness. He thinks he can and must do his part for final acceptance with God. Tragically, in doing so, he rejects Christ’s righteousness, the only righteousness that makes him acceptable before God.

    • Angela, it seems that God’s Hesed was working in my unregenerate life to regenerate me long before I was able to come under the authority of the administration of the Word and the Sacraments. Now as a regenerate sinner, who willingly comes under the authority of the administration of the Word and the Sacraments, I see His Eternal Love and Forgiveness continuously poured out on me so that I am able to love others more than myself. But it is clear to me, it’s His Love and His Will for His Kingdom that is at work in me. His Love instructs and guides me to trust and obey His Authority over my life through faith in His Love, Christ’s Righteousness. Rather than trust and run after my hopeless idols, He has placed my H0pe in nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and Righteousness.

    • Catherine,
      As we read in Ephesians, God chose us before the foundation of the world! That’s Hesed for you! That’s unconditional love that was operational since the eternal covenant of the persons of the Godhead, based not on what we are or what we do, but on God’s mercy in choosing a people that would be conformed to His image, by God’s doing alone. God has ordained to accomplish His purpose through the ordained means of the administration of Word and sacrament in the visible church. God accomplishes His purpose by only a small progression toward being conformed to Christ’s image in this life. The total transformation only comes when we are resurrected in Glory. In this life we experience a series of failures, so we live a life of repentance where the pedagogical use of the law continues to show us our sin and misery, and so to drive us back to Christ. With each failure, we become more dependant and thankful to God for His mercy, and our love for Him grows so that we strive to obey Him more and more. That is how God graciously works sanctification in us. We must never expect that WE can achieve some sort of acceptance or approval even through the indwelling Spirit, in this life. That is not how God works in us, rather He works to humble us so we depend on Him more and more. An expectation of too much progress in sanctification would only make us self-righteous, judgmental of others, and possibly lead to severe discouragement. As you say, our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. It is a righteousness outside of ourselves, an alien righteousness, credited or imputed to us, in Christ alone! Such faith may be as small as a mustard seed, but our faith and assurance can never fail, because the Object it trusts in can never fail.

  2. Dr. Clark,
    I’ve been studying Genesis 1-3, pouring over these verses to discern the beauty of God’s Sovereign Providence of Law and Grace at work. What I see is His Grace, Mercy and Justice in Genesis 3:15 but I do not see a full statement of His Law. Which Covenant came first, Grace or Law? I understand the answer from confessional Reformed Theology but I am trying to connect my experience of His Covenant of Grace with those whom He chose and elected for Grace.

    • Catherine,

      I get this question frequently. It is true that “the day you eat thereof, you shall surely die” might not seem like the Ten Commandments but how does our Lord summarize the moral law in Matthew 22:37-40? Love God with all your faculties and your neighbor as yourself. That is what God was requiring of Adam. He was to love God and Eve (and his posterity) by obeying the law. He had two sacraments before him, one of life and the other of death. He chose death. He chose to be “as God” rather than “like God,” i.e., his obedient servant in the garden.

      Thus, the 1st covenant, in history anyway, was the covenant of works. The covenant that God made with Adam was a legal covenant. It promised eternal life on condition of obedience. He refused to meet that test even though he was able.

      The covenant of grace entered history after the fall, when God promised a Redeemer, the Seed of the Woman, who would be struck by the serpent and who would crush the Serpent’s head.

      Behind them both was the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son, in which the Father gave a people to the Son and the Son promised to redeem them by his obedience, his suffering, and death. So, the covenant of redemption (pictured in Ps 110 and elsewhere) anticipated both the covenant of works for Christ on our behalf, and the covenant of grace made with the elect in Christ.

  3. Catherine,
    God made Adam good and capable of obeying the law as God expressed it to him in abbreviated form, as do this and you will have glorified, eternal life, or you shall surely die. That was a covenant of works. Inexplicably Adam freely chose to follow Satan, rather than God, so because of our representative’s sin, in Adam’s sin, sinned we all. The promise of Gen. 3:15 was God’s gracious provision, since man was now dead in sin and incapable of meriting eternal glorified existence. God would send a new representative in place of Adam, who would suffer the death curse and provide perfect righteousness for an elect people, chosen by God’s mercy. That is the promised new covenant \covenant of grace and the terms are glorified, eternal life by trusting in the promised One, the second Adam who would keep the covenant of works perfectly, and suffer the death curse for our failures. We are still under the covenant of works, either through our own obedience, or by trusting in Christ to fulfill it for us. It is grace for those who believe, only because Christ fulfilled the covenant of perfectly for them, and suffered it’s death curse in their place. His righteousness and substitutionary suffering the death curse is credited to the elect, and their sin is credited to Christ. (That is why Christ died by crucifixion, He bore our curse. Deut. 21:22-23 Cursed is he who dies on a tree.)

    The Abrahamic covenant was the ratification of the promise in Gen. 3:15, when God alone walked through the pieces, and gave the bloody sign of circumcision to confirm the promise to be a God to Abraham and all his children, who believe the promise as father Abraham. (It changed to unbloody baptism when Christ fulfilled it by being cut off. Col 2:11-12)

    The republication of the law in the Mosaic covenant, in exhaustive detail, was to show the people their sin and misery and drive them back to the promised one who alone could fulfill all righteousness for them, the one God promised when He alone walked through the pieces, God Himself! The ceremonies were shadows and pictures of what God would do to fulfill that promise, as the ultimate Sacrifice. The civil laws provided a structure for government to maintain tenure in the land. The Mosaic covenant was a republication of the law as subservient to the covenant of grace formally ratified with Abraham, to drive them to trust in the promised One who alone could fulfill its demands and suffer its curses, just as God alone walked through the pieces, alone promising that He alone would obey the covenant of works \law perfectly and suffer the death curse for our disobedience.

    The fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant in the coming of Christ made the ceremonies and civil laws of the Mosaic covenant obsolete because the reality of what the ceremonies pointed to as types and shadow pictures had come, and tenure in the the land was replaced by the inauguration of the promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. The moral law did not expire because it already existed in abbreviated form, given to Adam and written on our hearts.

    Hope this might help.

    • As to which covenant existed first. As far as earthly existence goes, the covenant of works was given to man first. But the eternal covenant, in which God in three persons covenanted, the Father to give an elect people to the Son, that the Son would become flesh as their representative to redeem them, and the Holy Spirit to bring them to new life, is the basis for the covenant of grace. What do you think?

    • Angela,
      Yes, it clears away the confusion of my experience. Thank you for answering me.

  4. Dr. Clark and Angela,
    Thank you for your dedication to complete the picture of God’s Covenants in Creation. Now I ‘understand my experience’ of His Covenant of Redemption with His chosen people in Christ before the foundation of the world. Though being redeemed does not depend on ‘understanding’ the order of the covenants, eventually this knowledge works to strengthen and assure me of the God’s Will for His Kingdom. Seeing the detail that the Covenant of Redemption, between the Father and the Son, is behind the Law and Grace strengthens my faith and obedience to love God and my neighbor in Matthew 22:37-40 and 1 John 4:21. I am grateful.

    • Catherine,
      Thank you. After after nearly half a century in the faith, there is one very important lesson I have learned. That is, as Paul says, he boasts only in Christ and Him crucified. As important as fruit and evidence is as a witness to our faith, we must never look to it for assurance of our status as elect. For that we must look only at Jesus.

      Charles Spurgeon has a very strong testimony of how he found assurance of salvation. As a young man who was in dark despair over his relationship to God, he happened to attend a service where the preaching was on Isaiah 45:22 “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” Spurgeon writes, what a change had taken place in me! Simply by looking to Jesus I had been delivered from despair.”

      I think that is what Jesus means when He urges us to come to Him where we will find rest. Because He has obeyed perfectly in our place, we are accepted by God. Now we can rest from the slavish need to find acceptance in perfect obedience, which is impossible for us in this life. We now obey out of freedom from the law as a covenant of works, but rather as a norm or way of life because we want to show our love to God and neighbor. That is the third use of the law that Dr. Clark has pointed to so often. Sanctification is a life long process and only comes to completion when we are raised in glory. Yes, the motivation to please God is fruit and evidence of our status as elect, but the proof is that we are looking only to Jesus. When I feel discouraged, I remember it is in Christ, and Him alone, that I am loved by God, so I look away from myself and focus on Christ. His love never disappoints, He came to save, not the righteous, but sinners like me.

      • Angela,
        Thank you for these words of encouragement. Pray that Jesus will keep my eyes looking to Him alone. In the fallen world failure to look at Him seems impossible because seeing myself is so familiar.

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