Owen: Christians Are In The Same Church As Abraham (3)

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, 1.124.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Which is the best edition of John Owen’s Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews?

    Thank you for this quote; it was the right amount of John Owen this morning!

  2. Since Adam failed to obey God as our first representative, Salvation has been made possible through believing in God’s promise to send the Savior who is, Himself, the God who will redeem His people by providing the obedience they became incapable of and by dying in their place as the penalty of their sin. First it was announced in the garden and then made a formal covenant with Abraham. Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant promise and he is the same yesterday, today and forever. Hebrews 13:8 All who truly trust in Him alone are God’s people.

    • This saving faith is the work of God through the Holy Spirit’s miracle of regeneration, in those promised to Christ by covenant the aFather before the world began. Ephesians 1:4

    • I am studying the distinctions between Law & Gospel and the categories of God’s indicatives and imperatives regarding Abraham and ‘the Lord’s Church’. When I read: Genesis 15:6 (ESV): ‘And he believed the Lord, and He counted IT to him as righteousness.’ [caps for emphasis] Is Abram’s belief the Gospel and an example of the Lord’s indicative regarding Salvation?

      • Hi Catherine,

        Gospel words are promises of salvation and sometimes they are announcements of God’s saving acts. E.g., “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery…”. That’s an announcement of what God has done. “The seed of the woman will crush…” is an announcement of what God will do. “For God so loved the the world [sinners]” is an announcement of what God has done. “Lo, I will be with you always…” is an announcement of what Christ will do.

        The indicative/declaration that God imputed Christ’s righteousness to Abraham, who received it through faith alone is a gospel word. Paul, of course, treats it that way in Romans 4.

    • The effectiveness of faith is not based our act of believing but what we believe in. It must be in Christ alone. Abraham’s faith was in the Saviour, God himself, who would do what He promised. That’s what made it effective.

    • God’s imperatives, in the law, tell us what is required of us. They tell us what we must do, but we cannot obey God’s imperatives as God requires. They are commanded to show us our sin and misery, our complete dependence on God. What is impossible for us, God provides through the alien, imputed righteousness of Christ. That’s indicative, gospel, statement of fact. Believing this is what makes us righteous because His righteousness becomes our righteousness through trusting that God provides it. It is not what we can do to obey the imperatives but believing the indicatives of what God does.

  3. Technically Ishmael and Esau were of the same church as well but were deemed apostates. 1689ers acknowledge not only a physical but spiritual lineage to Christ, entered by faith in him. I’m seeing that the difference between confessional Baptists and the Reformed is that Baptists view exclusivize the spiritual dimension once the new covenant “kicks in; physical lineage remained only while the people of God awaited the Messiah.

    While still leaning Baptistic on these issues, I’m beginning to concede on the continuity of family incorporation in the language of the New Testament. My tentative conclusion embraces inclusivity in the covenant of grace while failing to be convinced that the new covenant sign is meant to mimic the familial pattern of circumcision (i.e. applied to households). It makes more sense to me that the new covenant connection with Abraham is his own faith and subsequent circumcision which he himself underwent.

    • The Reformed perspective is that there’s continuity between the old and new covenants. The way of salvation is always through Christ, the promised one. The old covenant looked foreword to the Savior promised in the garden and that was confirmed in the covenant with Abraham. The new covenant is a better covenant because the promise has been realized in Christ and Abraham has now become the father of many nations. Acts 2:39 the promise is still to you and to your children but now also to those that are far off. The bloody sign has changed to water that washes the conscience of the guilt of sin because the once and for all Sacrifice has been made. A sacrament is a sign. It requires faith to make it a seal that applies its benefits to the recipient. That is true of circumcision and baptism.
      Spiritual circumcision is commanded in both the old and new covenant. It is not that baptism is spiritual circumcision. Both are just a physical sign until the recipient believes the promise of salvation that points to the Savior that would come and that has come, respectively.

  4. Many interpreters of Owen are rightly recognizing that his developed covenant theology tends to link new covenant membership directly with regeneration. For the Reformed, the “promise” of Acts 2:39 does not necessarily refer to effectual calling but to the external administration of the covenant—a provisional sphere of inclusion that may encapsulate both unbeliever and regenerate. As often needs to be pointed out, Acts 2:39 must be read entirely: to you and your children, to those far off, as many as the Lord shall call to himself. The Greek does not state, “BUT NOW ALSO” to those who are far off. You have inserted that to suit your position. It is most efficient to understand the “promise” then as the ultimate fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise that he will be the father of many nations through the promised Seed according to the order: to the Jew first, then to the Gentile. But this is simply the gospel, which can be promised to any unbeliever with no familial association to Christianity. To my mind, the real question is not what “promise” means, but what “call” means. It may very well be a call or invitation into initial, external membership, for which baptism would be the sign. I’m still on the fence.

    • Dennis:
      I wasn’t quoting the passage Acts 2:39 verbatim, I was paraphrasing. You are right I used the words BUT NOW ALSO in place of AND for emphasis, to show how the promise in the new covenant has expanded to fulfill the promise that Abraham is now the father of many nations. I don’t think that changes the meaning. It begins with Abraham and his children, and expands to the whole world. The sign only points to the promise, it does not secure what it points to. Only regeneration of the Holy Spirit makes it the seal that secures salvation through faith alone in Christ. This is true of circumcision and water baptism. Circumcision was the covenant sign given to children of believers in the old covenant and there is no command to stop giving them the new covenant SIGN which points to the same thing: forgiveness by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Bloody circumcision points to the bloody sacrifice, water points to the fact that the once and for all sacrifice has been offered for the washing away of sin.

    • Dennis,

      I’ve been lecturing on Owen for a number of years. I’m aware of what some are claiming but I’m much more interested in primary sources and here I’m quoting Owen from his Hebrews commentary, which is a major, relatively mature work, laying out his foundational conviction that there is one church, grounded in the one covenant of grace, with multiple administrations. You seem to suggest that he abandoned this conviction. I should very much like to see the primary source evidence for that claim.

  5. In the same Hebrews commentary, by the time he gets around to 8:6, he writes,

    “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” (Works vol. 23, 64, Goold ed.).

    As I read him, at this point in his mature covenant theology proceeding from Hebrews 8, the death of Christ is everything: it makes secret come to light; it makes the covenant into a covenant when before it was only a promise; it provides the basis for New Testament worship, when before there were no visible ordinances correlated with the promises as types and shadows. On this point, he later reiterates:

    “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 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 be conformed unto it” (64-65).

    Is Owen saying there are no rites of worship proper to the covenant when it is still in the form of a promise (i.e. Old Testament)? Seem so. That would have huge implications for the baptism debate, which I don’t think he’s concerned with at this point.

    Ultimately, the antitheses he puts forward makes it hard to read him as buying into a flat one covenant multiple administrations model as though all the administrations are “equal” in efficacy with the new covenant – although he might have believed it when he wrote his initial exercitations, from whence the original quote was derived, which would have been many years previous.

    • Dennis,

      This is just why I posted those passages from volume 1. What he wrote in vol 8 must be read in light of what he wrote in vol 1. As we interpret him we may not change his frame of reference. In ch. 8 is he contrasting the New Covenant with Moses or Abraham? The Baptist reading of Owen assumes that he equated them just as they do. He did not.

      Owen was not a Baptist. That is, it’s not just that he always baptized babies but also that he read the Bible the way Reformed people did and not the way the Baptists did. He was hermeneutically Reformed in his reading of the history of redemption.

  6. Dennis:
    The old covenant practices of the Mosaic covenant were types and shadows of the once and for all bloody sacrifice that would fulfill the promise made to Abraham, that God himself would fulfill the covenant stipulations and suffer the penalty of death for the disobedience of Abraham and all his children in the faith. They pointed to the fulfillment of the promises by way of a bloody sacrifice. Of course new covenant worship did away with all of the types and shadows when the promise was fulfilled in Christ. That is why it is different. The old covenant was a bondage in that it required the constant slaughterhouse rituals that pointed to the once and for all sacrifice that would fulfill the promise to Abraham, that God made through the oath to Abraham as God walked through the pieces pledging that He would suffer the death penalty for Abraham and all his children in the faith. The animal sacrifices could never atone for sin, they only pointed to the ultimate sacrifice that was promised. Their constant, daily ritual pointed to their inefficiency for removing sin, except as a promise the looked foreword, in faith, to the One that would. That is why salvation was through believing that God would provide the ultimate sacrifice pictured in the bloody slaughterhouse rituals. In this way they were saved by the Saviour that would come as promised to Abraham. The old covenant sign was bloody circumcision, itself a type of the sacrifice to come, and it changes to water baptism when the the promise has been fulfilled, for Abraham and his children. But it always points to Christ. That is the continuity of the covenant of grace under different administrations. That is what Owen is saying (64-65).

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