John Owen Did Not Read Hebrews Like A Baptist (Part 3)

It is a small thing—so small that it might go unnoticed—but as in Exercitation VI, in Exercitation XIX where Owen considered the “State and Ordinances of the Church Before the Giving of the Law,” he consistently spoke of the “Jewish church.”1 To be sure, this very expression occurs in the Second London Confession (1689) 21.1, so it is not alien to the Particular Baptist confessional tradition. It is, however, in tension with the more radical aspects of the Particular Baptist tradition in which the covenant of grace is said to enter into history only in the new covenant.2 As we have already seen, for Owen it is impossible to speak of the church in the absence of the covenant of grace.3

Exercitation XIX is both extensive and comprehensive. Composed of forty-six sections, it begins with Abraham (who was paradigmatic for Owen’s conception of the covenant of grace) and continues through the institution of the Mosaic covenant. Indeed, Owen’s stated purpose of Exercitation XIX is to explain “the whole Mosaical economy” so the reader will be able to understand Hebrews.4

The call of Abraham was the “foundation whereon all the following administrations of God towards his posterity and his whole worship amongst them were built.”5 According to Hebrews 11:8–19 etc. (Owen quoted a chain of passages), to “set forth and commend the faith of Abraham, which is paradigmatic and foundational for Owen’s understanding of the unity of the covenant of grace. It was to the Abrahamic “root on which the Judaical church did grow, the stock whereinto all Mosaical institutions of worship are inserted and grafted.”6 For Owen, Abraham and Moses represented two distinct administrations of the covenant of grace. In order to understand Owen correctly, it will be essential to bear in mind this distinction when we get to his exposition of Hebrews chapters 7 et seq.

Abraham’s renaming (Gen 17:4–5) is significant to Owen because it prefigures the new covenant, and particularly the divine intention of including “believers of all nations into the faith and covenant of Abraham; for this name he received upon the solemn establishment of the covenant with him.”7 Time and again one sees Owen turning not to Moses as the paradigm of the covenant of grace—indeed for Owen, the Mosaic economy was, insofar as it was distinct from the Abrahamic, subordinate to the Abrahamic.8

Abraham is a fitting paradigm for the covenant of grace because he was called out of paganism.9 This call of Abraham was “the great foundation” on which the whole superstructure of the Mosaic economy would be built.10 Remember here Owen’s doctrine of the “double seed”: that is, the temporary national people and the spiritual seed.

When Abraham was 99 years old,

the Lord confirmed his covenant with him and his seed by the sign and token of circumcision (Gen 17:7–13): which Paul calls “righteousness of faith” (Rom 4:11); because God thereby confirmed and assured unto him an interest [investment] in the promised Seed, who is “the lord our righteousness” (Isa 45:24, 25; Jer 23:6); and because he had accepted of the righteousness and salvation which in and by him God had prepared for sinners, in believing the promise (Gen 15:6). And herein did God manifest that he took his seed together with him into the covenant, as those who, no less than himself, were to be made partakers of the righteousness exhibited therein, as also to be used for the chapel where the holy seed was to be carried on, until the Word was to take and to be made flesh (John 1:14; Matt 1:1; Rom 9:5). And by this ordinance of circumcision were his posterity separated from the rest of the world and united among themselves; for however Ishmael and Esau carried the outward sign of circumcision out of the pale and limits of the church, communicating it unto the nations that sprang of them unto this day . . . [b]ut as it was continued in the posterity of Abraham, according to the promise, it was the fundamental uniting principle of the church amongst them, though dispersed into innumerable particular families. For as there were as many churches before as there were families, ecclesiastical and economical or paternal rule being the same, now, the covenant being one, and the token of the covenant being one and the same, unto all the families that sprang of Abraham, which in their several generations were as the sand of the seashore, or as the stars for multitude, they were incorporated into one body among themselves, and separated from all the rest of the world.11

The reader will bear with the unusually long quotation in order to follow Owen’s argument (and his terms) in his own words. The Abrahamic paradigm is that God would be a God to believers and to their children. This comes to concrete expression in the institution of circumcision. For Owen, the promise of the covenant and the sign of the covenant are not a covenant of works, nor fundamentally a national or ethnic covenant, nor a covenant essentially about earthly (“carnal”) blessings. That was the mistaken interpretation of the Jews. For Owen, the Abrahamic covenant and its sign are quintessentially gracious and spiritual. They are administrations of the very same covenant of grace in which Christians participate now. Abraham and his seed were members of the Jewish church and we, in the new covenant, are members of the multi-ethnic church that has been grafted into the Jewish church.

As a Reformed theologian, Owen understood that a covenant had to be administered externally, in the visible church. He did not share the Baptist assumption that one could receive the sign of the covenant (i.e., participate in the external administration of the covenant) only when he had already taken possession of it by faith. Like the Reformed before him, he understood that God had promised to operate through the external administration of the covenant of grace, in the visible church, in order to bring his elect to new life and true faith.

Since God had covenanted with Abraham and his children, there had to be “some such general initiation into union” to be orderly.12 Tragically, it became, as Owen notes, a “carnal boast of their degenerate posterity.”13 When the Israelites neglected circumcision, they became “no more as the Egyptians.”14 Nevertheless, it was “their glory, both because God had made it the token of his receiving them to be his peculiar people out of all the nation of the earth, and also because it was the pledge of their obedience unto God; which is the glory of any person or people.”15 What mattered most, Owen hastened to add, as Moses had said, was “the circumcision of their hearts to hear and obey the voice of God,—did yet, and do yet to this day, boast of it as a sign of their separation unto God from other people; not considering that these things were mutual, answering one another, and that this latter is nothing when the former is not attended to.”16

In contrast to the Abrahamic promise, the Mosaic was given 430 years later. The Mosaic-Israelite covenant, as distinct from the Abrahamic, was “commensurate unto the duration of the especial covenant made with them.”17 It is attached to the land promise and the national people of Israel in a way that the Abrahamic covenant was not.

Under Moses, “the second ordinance of common use to the church” (i.e., the Passover) was instituted.18 The Passover was instituted as the Lord “thought meet to conjoin together his greatest mercy toward [Israel] and his greatest plague upon their enemies.”19

When Owen turned his attention to the Mosaic economy per se, he considered it primarily in legal terms, as distinct from the way he thought of the Abrahamic covenant in gospel or gracious terms. He cited and quoted Hebrews 2:2; 10:28; and 12:18–21 to focus on the giving of the law under Moses and the consequences of that law for sinners.20 This period of redemptive history he characterized as the “Judaical church-state.”21 The preparation for and the establishment of the law was

done to bring [the Jews] to attend and inquire diligently into the kernel, the pear of this mercy, whose outward shell was undeservedly free and so deservedly precious: for in this rock of Horeb lay hid a “spiritual Rock,” as our apostle tell us (1 Cor 10:4), even Christ, the Son of God; who, being smitten with the rod of Moses, or the stroke and curse of the law administered by him, gave out waters of life freely until all that thirst and come unto to him.22

Clearly, for Owen, the covenant of grace was still at work during the Mosaic covenant. God was, he explained, preparing his people for the receiving of the law by a “triple intimation” of Christ, so that the law would be profitable to them by driving them to Christ.23

The sins of the Israelites could not prevent the progress of revelation and redemption, which was pointing and leading inexorably to the fulfillment of the types and shadows in the incarnation, obedience, death, and resurrection of Christ. “Hereby, also, did God revive unto them the grace of the promise; which being given as our apostle observes, four hundred and thirty years before the giving of the law, couldn’t be disannulled or impeached thereby.”24 His repeated allusion to Galatians 3:15–29 tells us something significant about his understanding of the Mosaic covenant. Its function was to serve the covenant of grace, to be a pedagogue, and to point the Jewish church to Christ. In its nature, it was temporary in a way that for Owen, the Abrahamic covenant clearly was not.

We see this distinction between Abraham and Moses in section thirty-four where he acknowledged the unity of the covenant of grace, even under Moses.

Now, this covenant of God with them had a double expression,—first, In the giving of it unto Abraham, and its confirmation by the sign of circumcision. But this is not that which is here especially intended; for it was the administration of the covenant, wherein the whole people became the peculiar treasure and inheritance of God upon a new account, which is respected. Now, this covenant was not yet made, nor was it ratified until the dedication of the altar by the sprinkling of it with the blood of the covenant; as Aben Ezra well observes, and as our apostle manifests at large (Heb 9:19–21). Wherefore the people, taking upon themselves the performance of it, and all the statutes and laws thereof, of which yet they knew not what they were, did give up themselves unto the sovereignty and wisdom of God; which is the indispensable duty of all that will enter into covenant with him.25

“This covenant” signals one covenant, but it has two aspects: (1) the Abrahamic and its sign of confirmation (circumcision). That aspect, however, is not in view here. (2) The national covenant, which is not marked so much by God’s promises to us but by the sprinkling of blood (Ex 24) whereby the people take upon themselves its performance.

For Owen, the Mosaic covenant was mixed in character.26 The Mosaic covenant had a decidedly legal quality to it; yet having to do with “land of Canaan and their living to God therein,” it is simultaneously also a “representation of his grace and condescension, pardoning sin in the covenant of mercy.”27  The laws given under Moses “represented the severity of God against willful transgressors of his covenant . . . seeing ever such transgression was attended, in their administration of rule, with death without mercy.”28 Under Moses, the law spoke first of “life temporal” but also of life “eternal with God”

as the promise or covenant of grace was exemplified or represented therein (Lev 18:5; Ezek 20:11; Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12). Secondly, of a spiritual Redeemer, Savior, Deliverer, really to effect what the ordinances of institution did represent, so to save them eternally, to be exhibited in the fulness of time, as we have at large already proved. Thirdly, there are given out with the law various promises of intervenient and mixed mercies, to be enjoyed in earthly things in this world, that had their immediate respect unto the mercy of the land of Canaan, representing spiritual grace, annexed to the then present administration of the covenant of grace. Some of these concerned the collation of good things, others the preventing of or delivery from evil; both expressed in great variety.29

For Owen, the Abrahamic covenant was considered as the paradigm of the covenant of grace and still in force under the new covenant without the typological elements (e.g., bloodshed). The Mosaic covenant, however, he regarded chiefly (though not entirely) as legal, temporary, and typological. He treated the Mosaic covenant principally as an expression of the law in its pedagogical use to drive sinners to Christ.

In our next installment, we will turn to his exposition of the text of Hebrews.


  1. 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), 446.
  2. On the taxonomy I am assuming for the purposes of this series see R. Scott Clark, “Engaging With 1689.”
  3. See parts 1 and 2 of this series.
  4. Emphasis original. Owen reads Hebrews as written by the Apostle Paul, which became the consensus view in the Western church in the middle Patristic period. Calvin challenged this consensus. “I, indeed, can adduce no reason to shew that Paul was its author; for they who say that he designedly suppressed his name because it was hateful to the Jews, bring nothing to the purpose; for why, then, did he mention the name of Timothy? as by this he betrayed himself. But the manner of teaching, and the style, sufficiently shew that Paul was not the author; and the writer himself confesses in the second chapter that he was one of the disciples of the Apostles, which is wholly different from the way in which Paul spoke of himself. Besides, what is said of the practice of catechizing in the sixth chapter, does not well suit the time or age of Paul. There are other things which we shall notice in their proper places.” John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews, trans. John Owen (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1853), xxvi. NB: the translator of Calvin’s commentary was vicar of Thrussington (1788–1867) and thus was not the John Owen under consideration here.
  5. Owen, Works, 18.448.
  6. Owen, 18.449. Italics original.
  7. Owen, 18.450.
  8. E.g., Owen, 18.454.
  9. Owen, 18.452.
  10. Owen, 18.454.
  11. Owen, 18.455. Italics original.
  12. Owen, 18.455.
  13. Owen, 18.455.
  14. Owen, 18.455.
  15. Owen, 18.455.
  16. Owen, 18.455. Italics original.
  17. Owen, 18.456.
  18. Owen, 18.457.
  19. Owen, 18.459.
  20. Owen, 18.467.
  21. Owen, 18.467.
  22. Owen, 18.471.
  23. Owen, 18.471. See also idem, 18.499 et seq.
  24. Owen, 18.471.
  25. Owen, 18.474.
  26. Owen, 18.500.
  27. Owen, 18.500. Italics original.
  28. Owen, 18.500. Italics original.
  29. Owen, 18.501.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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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 Dr. Clark. This series (especially part 3) has been very helpful. From my reading of conservative Reformed thinkers over the past 50 years many (most?) view Owen as something of an outlier in his views on the Mosaic Covenant and incompatible with the Westminster Confession of Faith. Has he always been seen that way? From my limited knowledge it appears to me that Owen and Charles Hodge (and others) were very close to Owen’s understanding of the Mosaic Covenant.

    • Tim,

      Great question.

      I think you are correct. I don’t think that his view was considered unorthodox but, in the modern period, particularly in the 20th century, it has been suggested that his was an outlier. I don’t think that, understood against the broader context of the development of Reformed covenant theology, his view was much different from the mainstream.

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