Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.1

The role of the covenant of redemption2 has already been referred to both in relation to the purchase of faith and Owen’s understanding of redemption and satisfaction, and was highlighted in the outline of Owen’s argument as being central to the development of a structure that would allow Owen to convincingly demonstrate that Christ only intended to benefit the elect by his death, that it was only “for” the elect. What is the covenant of redemption as Owen understands it? Considered now in itself what contribution does it make to “The Death of Death” and the position Owen is arguing for? Is it a convincing structure which one should or must adopt in seeking to understand Christ’s work? In attempting to answer these questions we will first look at Owen’s exposition of this covenant in The Death of Death, supplementing that with his treatment of this covenant elsewhere, principally in Exercitation XXVIII of his commentary on Hebrews. We will then consider the role this covenant plays by relating it both to Owen’s central thesis and the other arguments he advances to support that thesis. Following that examination of the covenant in The Death of Death we will consider the origin of this covenant, its modern exponents and critics, and make an assessment of the place of such a covenant today. In the light of that assessment we will then reconsider Owen’s reliance on that covenant in relation to his thesis.

The covenant of redemption in the Death of Death.

The “covenant or compact” made in eternity between the Father and the Son is introduced by Owen in Book 1:III as the third aspect of the first of the Father’s “two peculiar acts… in this work of our redemption by the blood of Jesus,” his “sending of his Son into the world for this employment.”3 It is thus an element of Owen’s grounding the work of the atonement in the Trinitarian life of God who is the agent of this work of redemption.4

While elsewhere Owen goes to some length to both justify and fully explicate this application of covenant language to the relations between the Father and the Son,5 Owen is content to here assume the validity of this structure and focus on two aspects of this covenant that have particular relevance to his argument. These two elements are firstly the Father’s promise,

to protect and assist him in the accomplishment and perfect fulfilling of the whole business and dispensation about which he was employed, or which he was to undertake.6

It is on the basis of these promises that the Son undertakes “this heavy burden” of being a Savior for his people, and these promises are the foundation of the Savior’s confidence,

so that the ground of our Savior’s confidence and assurance in this great undertaking, and a strong motive to exercise his graces received in the utmost endurings, was this engagement of his Father upon this compact of assistance and protection.7

The second element is the Father’s promise of success, or a good issue out of all his sufferings, and a happy accomplishment and attainment of the end of his great undertaking.

This is that aspect of the covenant that is most directly relevant to the dispute about the intention of God in the atonement, for it directly introduces the notion of ‘end’ or purpose in relation to the Son’s work, his ‘great undertaking’ and assures it of success. That ‘end’ is what is promised the Son and it is that alone which the Son intended to achieve.8 For the content of the promise we are directed to Isaiah 49, and Owen makes it clear that what is promised is the salvation of his people, “his seed by covenant,” and it is only this the Son intends in the work. This sole determination to attain the promise is apparent in Christ’s intercession in John 17,

the request that our Savior makes upon the accomplishment of the work about which he was sent; which certainly was neither for more nor less than God had engaged himself to him for.

That intercession, which is

no doubt grounded upon the fore-cited promises, which by his Father were made unto him,9

is for a full confluence of the love of God and fruits of that love upon all his elect, in faith, sanctification, and glory.10

That is , what is promised Christ is the actual salvation of the elect, and this is the ‘end’ he seeks to achieve. The Son’s role is his agreement to undertake the work under the terms and conditions proposed, the principle being that he should make his life a ransom price for sinners.11

Owen is in no doubt as to the significance of the acceptance of this schema for his position. If this is,

well considered, it will utterly overthrow the general ransom or universal redemption.12

But why is it appropriate to describe the relation of the Father and the Son in redemption in terms of a covenant, why postulate a third covenant in addition to the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, and how can biblical support be given for such an agreement in eternity? Owen was sensitive to all these issues and responded to them in his fuller treatments of the covenant of redemption.

Why a covenant?

Owen was conscious that talk of mutual agreement or “peculiar, internal, personal transactions between the Father, Son, and Spirit “13 may seem to undermine the unity of the will of God in salvation. He offered both a general defense of this way of speaking, and also a specific defense for conceiving these transactions in Federal terms. In general he acknowledged the necessity of some such language for humans if they are to talk about God’s dealings at all.

The scheme of speech here used is in grenere deliberative – by way of consultation. But whereas this cannot directly and properly be ascribed unto God, an anthropopathy must be allowed in the words. The mutual distinct actings and concurrence of the several persons in the Trinity are expressed by way of deliberation, and that because we can no otherwise determine or act.14

In relation to conceiving of these dealings in Federal terms he said,

although it should seem that because they are single acts of the same divine understanding and will, they cannot be properly federal, yet because those properties of the divine nature are acted distinctly in the distinct persons, they have in them the nature of a covenant.15

Thus this conception has its foundation in the distinct personhood of the Father, Son and Spirit. He enlarges on this in section 13 of Exercitation XXVIII, where he responds to the objection that because the will is a natural property Father, Son and Spirit should not be conceived of as having distinct wills . As the Father, Son and Spirit,

subsist distinctly, so they also act distinctly in those works which are of external operation.16

Thus in all acts [internal and external] there is an assumption of a peculiar will to each person. There are not sundry wills but,

the distinct application of the same will unto its distinct acts in the persons of the Father and the Son.17

This has the consequence that,

from these distinct actings of the will of God in the Father and the Son there doth arise a new habitude or relation, which is not natural or necessary unto them, but freely taken on them.18

It is this new relation which distinguishes this agreement from an eternal decree, and is also the basis of the Son’s subordination in the work of redemption.19 The boldness of this last assertion can be seen when we remember that Owen is speaking about dealings within the Godhead in eternity. Thus we have something ‘new’ in eternity in the relation of the Father and the Son [not the Spirit] which arises from a consideration of humanity considered as needing to be saved. Even though it is “freely taken on” this appears to be a change wrought in the Creator by the creature, and one wonders how this sits with Owen’s understanding of immutability. Further, it implies that we can get behind God as He has revealed Himself in revelation so that we can know both what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘new’. But this means we must have some independent access to God, other than in the revelation of the Son, which we do not have.

Owen’s second justification for a federal conception is that in this matter, because there is,

a supposition of the susception of our human nature into personal union with the Son,20

the Son has “an absolute distinct interest” in the discharge of his unique role. In the light of these two considerations,

those counsels of the will of God [are]…, expressly declared as a covenant in the Scripture.21

In both Vindiciae Evangelicae and the commentary on Hebrews Owen goes about demonstrating that biblical support by outlining the nature of a covenant and then demonstrating that the way scripture speaks of the relation of the Father to the Son conforms to the features of a covenant.22 Thus the covenant structure itself is introduced prior to the examination of the scriptures. In that structure Owen is at pains to stress the voluntary nature of Christ’s commitment, an important feature in the light of Socinian criticisms, just as he is keen to emphasize that a special form of the covenant is involved in this case, the form present where a service is rendered to one party by another. The distinctive elements of this form are,

[1] A proposal of service; [2] A promise of reward; [3] An acceptance of the proposal,23

and the service is undertaken with a view to attaining the promised reward. This form introduces “inequality and subordination” between the covenanting parties in relation to the “common ends of the covenant” even though they are in other respects equal. As he moves through the biblical material the covenant structure allows Owen to expound the originating will and authority of the Father, in redemption, the voluntary submission to and agreement with the will of the Father by the Son, the content of what was agreed to [“the recovery and salvation of the elect in a way of grace”],24 the goal of redemption [“the exercise, exaltation, and manifestation, of the glorious properties of the divine nature”],25 and the manner of the accomplishment of redemption, where he outlines both what was promised to the Son and required of the Son.

Thus, according to Owen, covenant terminology is appropriate because such a covenant is taught in scripture and it helpfully clarifies many aspects of the relationship of the Father and Son in the work of redemption.

Why a third covenant?

Owen was very conscious of the two already widely accepted covenants, of works and of grace, and also of criticisms of the development of a third covenant.26 In Hebrews he is clear that,

the covenant that God made with men concerning Christ, and the covenant that he made with his Son concerning men

must be distinguished. Christ is the “subject matter” of the former. He is the one who will fulfill and guarantee it.27 and he is the content of its promises and the one to whom obedience is required by it. By contrast the covenant of redemption,

is the personal compact that was between the Father and the Son before the world was it is revealed in the Scripture.28

That is, here promises are made to the Son and He voluntarily commits himself to undertake the work in relation to the will of the Father, not as the representative man, but as the divine Son in eternity.

How can the scriptures be understood to teach this covenant?

If the covenant concerns requirements and promises given in eternity how are we to learn of these from scripture, the temporal record? Owen is aware of some difficulty here but in Vindiciae Evangelicae draws the readers attention to the distinction between the time when something is revealed and the time when it comes to be. Referring to Isaiah 53 he also notes the prophetic way of speaking of these things:

The covenant between Father and Son, which was past, is spoken of as to come; and the sufferings of Christ, which were to come, are spoken of as past.

He concludes “it is the greatest folly about such things as these, to suppose them then done when revealed, though revealed in expressions of doing them.”29

Thus it is legitimate to take promises made to the Messiah [Ps. 2] or servant [Is. 42, 53], historical figures yet to come, and which occur in the historical record also as promises to God’s people about the One to come, and see them as the substance of promises made to the Son in eternity.

The role of the covenant in The Death of Death

Others have remarked on the significance of the covenant of redemption for Owen’s theology as a whole,30 and by his own admission Owen sees those aspects of the covenant he has highlighted in Book One of the Death of Death as decisive to the position he is maintaining.31

The truth of his assessment can be seen when we consider the features of the covenant and its relation to other aspects of Owen’s case as set out below.

i] The covenant of redemption as expounded by Owen is an inherently limiting structure when it is married to a doctrine of particular election, as it is in Owen.32 As what was promised in eternity was a people, the ‘bringing of many sons to glory’, ‘a glorious church of believers’, who are a distinct group known from eternity, then it is only those people, the elect, that can ever be envisaged as the beneficiaries of Christ discharging the required condition for the fulfillment of the promise. The covenant structure makes it very clear that Christ only undertakes the work to achieve what was promised, no more and no less,33 and therefore he undertakes the work with the intention of benefiting that group alone. This structure by itself, if accepted, establishes limited atonement.34

ii] By presenting Christ as voluntarily willing in eternity to undertake the work with the intention of attaining what was promised by the Father the structure emphasizes both Christ’s volition and the limited scope of his intent in relation to the beneficiaries of any of his acts. Thus for Owen Christ’s incarnation is a limited’ incarnation, only undertaken with reference to the elect.

It was the children that he considered, the “children whom the Lord gave him,” verse 13. Their participation in flesh and blood moved him to partake of the same,–not because all the world, all the posterity of Adam, but because the children were in that condition; for their sakes he sanctified himself.35

Further it is this clarified eternal intention which allows Owen to interpret any potentially inclusive temporal statements of intention with a definite sense, for the sense of all temporal statements must be read in the light of the already determined eternal intention. Thus ‘world’ is really the elect, and the sinners Christ came to seek and save are elect sinners only.36

iii] It is this structure that clearly limits the intention and scope of Christ’s intercession, which limited intercession is then used to reinforce the limitation of Christ’s oblation. Christ only intercedes for what was promised him by the Father.37 According to Owen both oblation and intercession have the same aim and end, and Christ cannot be said to have died for any for whom he does not intercede. Thus his oblation is also limited in its scope, being only for those promised him by the Father.38

iv] It is this structure that reinforces the limitation in the intent of Christ’s work brought about by Owen’s insistence on the unity of intention and outcome, for it guarantees that whatever was aimed at by the Son will be achieved.39 This is because He only aims at that which was promised him by the Father on the completion of His work, and the Father never fails of His promises. Any suggestion of failure to achieve what Christ intended by obedience to the Father would impugn the Father’s character or might, which is plainly unacceptable. Therefore Christ can only be said to have intended what actually flows from his death, and as this is not the salvation of all he could not have intended to die for all. This certainty of attaining what He intercedes for [because it is grounded in the compact between the Father and the Son which is the basis of his undertaking the work] lies behind many of the arguments presented in Book 3. For example, the argument from sanctification. Owen concludes this argument with a syllogism:

Sanctification and holiness is the certain fruit and effect of the death of Christ in all them for whom he died; but all and every one are not partakers of this sanctification,…: therefore, Christ died not for all and every one, “quod erat demonstrandum“.40 What undergirds the certainty of the application of the fruit of Christ’s death to those for whom he died, and thus the force of the argument, is the covenant between the Father and the Son.41

v] This covenant is the foundation of the merit of Christ’s death.

In respect of us, the end of the oblation and blood shedding of Jesus Christ was, not that God might if he would, but that he should, by virtue of that compact and covenant: which was the foundation of the merit of Christ, bestow upon us all the good things which Christ aimed at and intended to purchase and procure by his offering of himself for us unto God.42 [My underlining]

It is because of the prior specification of the nature of the obedience God requires in the covenant that Christ’s death can be reckoned meritorious. Owen’s understanding of Christ’s death as a ransom and satisfaction is also dependent on that covenant, for that is the prior agreement which is necessary both for Christ’s death to be accepted as a ‘proper’ ransom and also as a payment in lieu of what would have been required of the elect.43

vi] By virtue of the covenant actual salvation must be the outcome for all for whom Christ died, as this is what is promised on the completion of Christ’s work. Thus it is the covenant of redemption that lies behind Owen’s assertion that the elect have a right to salvation, both the means and end. This is again used to insist that the intent of doing good in the cross is limited to those who are actually saved, and to deny that his death can in any sense be ‘for’ those who are not actually saved.44

vii] The role oft he covenant of redemption is especially crucial to Owen’s argument that faith is purchased for the elect at the cross. What God has promised Christ upon completion of his work is the actual salvation of the elect. This is not possible without faith. Therefore the means of salvation must also be included in that promise. As what is required for the fulfilment of that promise is Christ’s death, then that faith without which salvation is impossible must also be obtained on the cross by Christ discharging his agreement with the Father, and thus must be reckoned to have been purchased there by him. All of Owen’s arguments for the purchase of faith are dependent on the covenant, for all are variants of the proposition that nothing is bestowed upon those who are Christ’s which has not been purchased for them on the cross,45 and this finds its justification in Owen’s claim that this purchase by His blood was the stipulation of the Covenant between the Father and the Son for the “making out of all spiritual blessings to them that were given to him.”46

viii ] The covenant also has important functions in safeguarding other aspects of Owen’s position, as seen in the previous chapter. It is the covenant that allows Owen to say that satisfaction, as he has expounded it, still maintains God’s graciousness in salvation, despite his insistence on the right of the elect to pardon. The very foundation of the merit of Christ, which is the basis of the right of the elect, is the covenant, which is a gracious and free act of God.47 Thus salvation by satisfaction, being based on a gracious decision, is also gracious.

In addition the covenant provides the vantage point from which Owen can develop his view of sufficiency. It is the covenant that supplies the external note of intention in relation to the death of Christ necessary that it should become a ransom price for some, and it does it in such a way that Christ fully participates in that intentionality. The effectiveness of the death for any is then dependent on the covenant, and “died for” becomes a phrase only applicable to those actually saved, to those envisaged by the covenant as Christ’s people. It is the structure of the covenant that allows Owen to talk glowingly of the value of Christ’s death considered in itself while allowing that it has nothing for the non-elect, “not because it was not sufficient, but because it was not a ransom.”48

The covenant also seeks to provide a structure in which to safeguard the unity of God in the work of redemption while treating the contribution of the Father and the Son distinctly. Aspects of Owen’s treatment of redemption would seem to pit the Father and the Son against each other [e.g. ransom and satisfaction], the one paying, the other demanding payment. Through the covenant these distinct acts can be seen as the work of the One Triune God working out that which has been determined within the Godhead from eternity. Whether the covenant structure is successful in this, or whether it actually accentuates distinctness almost to the point of separation, remains to be assessed.

From this brief survey of the features and function of the covenant between the Father and the Son i n the Death of Death it is plain that Owen’s own assessment of the significance of this covenant as he has expounded it is true. Acceptance of it, with the content he has given to both its terms and conditions which make it the vehicle for the fulfilment of the decree of election, commits one to accepting the limited scope of God’s intention in the atonement, for it is a structure that imports a limited intention from eternity to every aspect of Christ’s temporal work. It also provides powerful support for Owen’s contention that the intention of God in the atonement and the outcome of the atonement are co-extensive, by making oblation and intercession co-extensive in their aim and achievement–for both find their origin in this covenant, limiting intercession to what was promised in the covenantee salvation of the elect], and claiming that any failure of intercession would be a violation of the compact. Thus to suggest that there is an intention to save any in the cross who are not saved is to impugn not only the Father’s might but His character. In addition, it is the compact that provides the basis for Owen’s insistence that what is achieved or purchased by the cross must be applied, the basis of his discussion of the elect’s right to salvation, further support for his contention that achievement and intention are coextensive. Thus to accept Owen’s covenantal structure is to accept that there was no intention to save in the cross any who are not saved, and that without an intention to save there is also no provision in the cross for the salvation of any who are not saved. That is, it is to accept Owen’s view of the atonement.

But should such a covenantal structure be accepted? Is it an acceptable schematisation of the biblical evidence for the relation of the Father and the Son in the work of redemption? To answer these questions we will briefly sketch the history of this covenant before looking at modern advocates and critics of a third covenant and assessing the biblical evidence.

Historical Development

Murray remarks that the extension of the covenant idea to “the Trinitarian economy and counsel of salvation ” was a “distinct development” of 17th century Federal Theology, becoming prominent in the mid-17th Century.49 Witsius in his own day showed sensitivity to the charge of novelty, saying “it is unjustly traduced as a new and a late invention,” yet only being able to point to earlier seventeenth century divines by name as mentioning the concept. “Though I find few among the more ancient who have professedly handled this subject, yet some of the greatest divines have sometimes made mention of this covenant”– the first mentioned being Arminius.50

While Berkhof seems to date this development from 11 the days of Cocceius,”51 the first mention known

to Bell is Dickson’s exposition of the covenant scheme in an address on doctrine given to the Glasgow assembly in 1638. This threefold covenant scheme is also found in his Therapeutica Sacra, which, while published in 1648 and 1664 [Eng. Trans.] was written in 1637, eleven years before the publication of Cocceius’ “Summa Doctrinae de Poedere et Testamento Dei“.52 While its specific origin is obscure, there is no doubt that it was an idea which appealed to many Federal Theologians, and rapidly found a place in their systems, becoming an accepted part of seventeenth century federal theology.53

Daniel includes Samuel Rutherford, Richard Baxter, Daniel Williams and Robert Traill as being among those employing a distinction between the covenant of grace and the covenant of redemption, and makes the interesting observation, following Toon, that, among the Post-Westminster divines, “the difference was generally employed only by those following Baxter,”54 who, of course, opposed Owen on the matter ofthe extent ofthe atonement. Murray, who also lists the Continental theologians who make use of this distinction [e.g. Cocceius, Turretin, Witsius, Peter van Mastricht], notes that employing a covenant of Redemption within the Federal scheme had a significant advantage in the controversy over the conditionality of the covenant of grace. He says that Williams, in responding to the position adopted by Crisp and Chancy,

distinguishes between the Covenant of Redemption, which allows for no conditions to be fulfil led by men, and the Covenant of Grace, which requires our believing consent as a condition of pardon and glory.55

That is, the use of the covenant of redemption allowed him to have both an absolute promise of grace and a genuine conditionality in relation to the promises of grace. Faith is a genuine condition, but one purchased absolutely by Christ for the elect. It appears that for many the Covenant of Redemption had the power of a self-evident idea, representing the conjunction of the increasingly widespread analysis of God’s dealings with men in terms of covenants and the movement in Reformed theology observed by Richard Muller to give an eternal Trinitarian grounding to the ordo salutis which would undergird the certainty of its fulfillment,56 and which also served a useful function in giving coherence to the defense of disputed points of doctrine [e.g. the limitation of the Atonement, and of the conditionality of the covenant of grace]. However, not all embraced the three covenant schema in the 17th Century,57 and by the next century a reaction had set i n to the three covenant scheme, seen especially in the writings of Thomas Boston and also John Brown, Dick, and Ebenezer Erskine58 amongst others.59

Boston’s argument was that” the Covenant of grace and the Covenant of redemption are not two distinct covenants, but one and the same covenant.60 Within this assertion of unity he preserved a distinction between the relation Christ and his people bore to the covenant61 but his fundamental point was that the “party-contractor” on man’s side in the covenant of grace is our Lord Jesus Christ, as the Last Adam, head and representative of his seed.62 Thus the covenant was made with Christ as the federal head of his people. By this insistence Boston sought to preserve the true nature of a covenant, maintain grace, and ensure the covenant of grace was parallel in scope to the covenant with Adam.63 At the heart of his position is the view that Christ is to be conceived as entering into covenant already joined to his people, and only thus can it truly be conceived as a covenant of grace. At this point in his argument he offered two biblical arguments for the unity of the covenant of grace, [i] In scripture there are only two covenants spoken of as offering life to man [Gal. 4: 24] . The first is that of works, and therefore there can only be one other, the new covenant [Heb. 8:13]. i.e. the covenant of Grace, [ii] Salvation is spoken of as being by the blood of the covenant, never by the blood of the covenants [Heb. 10: 29, 1 Cor. 11: 25]. This one covenant is shown by scripture to be both Christ’s and His people’s,64 and the key to participation in it was faith-union with Christ.65 Boston was keen to maintain the unity of the covenants in his own day against the exploitation of the distinction between the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace by the Neonomians and Arminians who had corrupted the Covenant of Grace into a “promise of life and salvation upon condition of faith, repentance and severe obedience to the law,” as opposed to “a free and absolute promise,” held out “to sinners indefinitely.”66 This concern and response of Boston’s is a reminder that it is the content of Owen’s covenant of redemption, not the covenant of redemption as an idea per se, that supports limited atonement. It also indicates a certain plasticity in the content of that covenant, a sign, perhaps, of a distance from the text that allows tendentious redefinition.

How to assess Boston’s contribution? For Bell, this is Boston’s “unique contribution to Federal theology,” allowing him to combat “the legalism and the element of conditionality which has attached” itself to the covenant of grace in Boston’s contemporaries, because of their separation of the covenant of redemption from the covenant of grace, in which separation the former merely becomes “that which makes possible the offer of the covenant of grace for sinners,” who will be saved if they then fulfill the conditions of the covenant of grace. By contrast, in having only one covenant of grace, the covenant of grace becomes unconditional for us, “made for us in Christ,” and this in turn allows the focus to be on the centrality of union with Christ. “This understanding of the covenant of grace, coupled with his rejection of the covenant of redemption, means that Boston has exchanged the notion of contract for union” which, he claims, is in “very striking contrast” with his Federalist forebears.67

But is it that much of a difference? Neither Murray nor Mcleod see any substantial difference between Boston’s two covenant and the earlier three-covenant scheme. For Murray this is just a further development, by which “the Covenant of grace it self is conceived in terms of the intertrinitarian counsel and economy”.68 This, for Murray, is an improvement, for it relieves the covenant of Grace of a ready objection, for “once the Covenant of Grace is interpreted in terms of the “eternal compact between the Father and the Son,” it is obvious that the requirements devolving upon men cannot be construed as conditions of its execution.”69 McLeod, however, while saying the divergence of the two groups is “probably not substantive,” claims that Boston’s omission of the covenant of redemption promotes confusion of thought and that Boston’s view of the covenant of grace “resolves everything into the covenant of redemption and virtually obliterates the covenant between God and the believer,” in contrast to seeing the covenant of grace in terms of the Abrahamic covenant.70 Nevertheless, Boston’s view seems to have become the popular view by the 19th Century.71

Three Contemporary Views

In our own century, the case for maintaining a separate covenant of redemption has not lacked advocates, e.g. L. Berkhof, D. Macleod, and J. I. Packer. Each of these will be looked at briefly.

L. Berkhof.

Berkhof is perhaps the most modest of these three in his claims for the Covenant of Redemption. He acknowledges that “there is no essential difference” between the position of those who see the Covenant of Grace as between the Father and Christ as representing the elect and that of those who distinguish two covenants involved in salvation72. Nevertheless the latter position [a covenant of Redemption and a covenant of grace] “is more perspicuous, is easier to understand and is therefore more serviceable in a practical discussion of the covenant”. Secondly, the scriptures are clearly consistent with the covenant of redemption, indicating an eternal plan of salvation that has the nature of a covenant [ e. g. Jn. 5.30, 43; 6.38-40; 17.4-12–Christ being commissioned by the Father], and that Christ is a covenant head [ Rom. 5.12-21, 1 Cor. 15.22] . The scriptures also indicate that the relationship between Christ and the Father both in promise [Ps. 2.7-9, 40.7-9] and in deed [Jn. 10.18, Lk. 22.29], has all “the essential elements of a covenant, namely contracting parties, a promise, and a condition.” Further, there are two old testament references that “connect up the idea of covenant immediately with the Messiah” [Ps. 22.1, 2; Ps. 40.8].73 Thus Berkhof maintains the place of the covenant of redemption because of its clarity in teaching the role of the Son in redemption [and our relation to Him viz. a viz. salvation], and because it is consistent with scripture.

D. Macleod.

Macleod’s is a much more robust assertion of the necessity of retaining a Covenant of Redemption, for this is a very important covenant, providing “the whole framework of the work of the mediator,” without which “we cannot understand the mission of Christ,” for only this way can we understand Christ as the servant of the Lord, for He is constituted by the covenant as such, and only the covenant “constitutes a redemptive relationship between Christ and His people.”74 Macleod has basically three arguments for the covenant of redemption [i] There is such a covenant indicated in scripture. He cites Ps. 89.3 and Ps.2,7-9 as referring to a pre-temporal arrangement between the Father and the Son. But its real biblical basis lies “in broader biblico-theological considerations,”75 which include [a] the presentation of the work of the Saviour as a covenant work [Mt. 26.28# Heb. 13.20, Heb. 12.24, Heb. 7.22, Is. 42.6], and [b] the way scripture speaks of the Son’s mission in a way “which can only be understood in terms of a pre-temporal covenant between the Father and the Son76. These include those passages that speak of the Son being sent, receiving both commands and promises from the Father, on the basis of which He makes requests to the Father [Jn. 17]. His whole mission is thus defined, in Heb. 10.7-9, as coming to do the Father’s will. It is in the light of these that Macleod articulates his second reason for maintaining a covenant of redemption, and that is [ii] it is inefficient and inelegant “to subsume all the provisions of redemption under one covenant,”77 as the Son as Mediator has obligations and promises distinct from the recipients of the covenant of grace, the children of Abraham, [iii] His third reason for advocating a separate covenant of redemption is that only this provides a basis for the union of Christ with His people in the work of redemption. In this he is trying to articulate a basis for the unity of Christ and His people in His obedient life and death which is prior to our spiritual faith-union, which is the consequence of the atonement and therefore not its condition, and which is other than Christ’s incarnational union with our humanity, as this doesn’t guarantee the particularity of that work. Furthermore this oneness must have its basis in a voluntary act of the Son if it is to be true to the biblical presentation, and cannot therefore be guaranteed by a decree alone, by a “unilateral divine fiat”.78 For Macleod, building upon the work of Hugh Martin, only a covenantal oneness satisfactorily undergirds a relationship between Christ and those on whose behalf He dies which is adequate for the presentation and defense of that death as a vicarious sacrifice.79 Because that understanding of Christ’s death is central to the gospel, the Covenant of redemption becomes central to the gospel.

J. I. Packer.

In his introduction to Witsius, Packer says “the full reality of God and God’s work are not adequately grasped till the covenant of Redemption–the specific covenantal agreement between Father and Son on which the covenant of Grace rests–occupies its proper place in our minds”80 Packer’s reasons for this are twofold, [i] Scripture explicitly declares the covenant of redemption “most notably in the words of Jesus recorded in the gospel of John,” In that gospel he claims that:

All Jesus’s references to his purpose in the world as the doing of his Father’s will, and to his actual words and works as obedience to his Father’s command [Jn. 4.32-34,5.30, 6.38-40, 7.16-18, 8.28 f, 12.49 f, 14.31, 15.10, 17.4, 19.30] ; all his further references to his being sent by the Father into the world to perform a specific task [ 3.17, 34, 5.23, 30, 36, 38, 6.29, 57, 7.28, 29, 33, 8.16, 18, 26, 9.4, 10.36, 11.42, 12.44, 13.20, 14.24, 15.21, 16.5, 17.3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25, 20.21, cf. 18.37]; and all his references to the Father “giving” him particular persons to save, and to his acceptance of the task of rescuing them from perishing both by dying for them and by calling and shepherding them to glory [6.37- 44, 10.14-16, 27-30, 17.2, 6, 9, 19, 22, 24]; are so many testimonies to the rea1ity of the covenant of redemption.81

[ii] His second reason is that the covenant of redemption is theologically useful, clarifying for us the following truths [a] that “the love of the Father and the Son, with the Holy Spirit, to lost sinners is shared, unanimous love.” [b] that just “as our salvation derives from God’s free and gracious initiative and is carried through, first to last, according to God’s eternal plan by God’s own sovereign power, so its ultimate purpose is to exalt and glorify the Father and the Son together.” [c] that “Jesus Christ is the focal figure, the proper center of our faith-full attention, throughout the redemptive economy.”82

This second reason is plainly dependent on the establishment of the first, the claim for explicit scriptural support, for its force, for the imposition of an extra-biblical organizing principle will not ultimately clarify the organization and presentation of biblical truth, and those truths it is claimed to clarify are not dear to a Tri-Covenantal view alone. Those who support a two-covenant position would also claim it presents the love of the Godhead in the work of the atonement, is theocentric in its understanding of salvation, and Christocentric in the presentation of “redemption accomplished and applied.”

Modern Criticism

The Covenant idea, and the Covenant of Redemption particularly, have not been without their critics in this century, and two will be considered before moving to an assessment of the arguments for a covenant of redemption. M. Charles Bell in his conclusion echoes the criticism of Boston that the covenant of redemption strengthens “the notion of conditionally ” which allowed some to so stress the responsibility of the elect to repent and believe that they held a virtually Neonomian position.83 While this is not present in careful expositors such as Owen who emphasize the inseparability of the covenant of redemption from the covenant of grace, the historical experience of Boston shows this to be a real danger. Bell also raises an objection to the presentation of the relationships between the Trinity seen in expositions of the covenant of redemption, “the nearly tritheistic depictions of the first and second persons of the Trinity,” where the tendency to make distinctions of the Persons into a separation of the persons is heightened by the commercial language which can suggest a commonality of interest is not present amongst the parties prior to negotiation and agreement.84 That this commercial language exists in the treatments of Rutherford, who speaks of “a bargain of buying people to God,” Dickson and Durham [and Owen], there can be no doubt.85

In K. Barth the criticism of the Trinitarian implications of the Covenant of Redemption reach a new intensity. His criticisms of the notion of “a special intertrinitarian arrangement and contract,” part of a larger criticism of Covenant theology focusing on the work of Cocceius, are threefold.86 Firstly he suggests that the postulation of the necessity of such an intertrinitarian arrangement has negative implications for the being of God. There was no necessity of such an arrangement for the covenant of works, but there is for the covenant of grace. This asymmetry suggests that while God can be “righteous in abstracto,” just as He is–for He can enter the covenant of works, demand perfect righteousness, and reward or punish the outcome of human conformity or lack of it without any inter-Trinitarian arrangement–He cannot be merciful as He is. “If there was need of such a decree, then the question arises at once of the form of the wi1l of God in which this arrangement has not yet been made and is not yet valid,” he having already pointed to the incongruity arising from placing an eternal covenant of grace side by side with a temporal covenant of works in the previous paragraph.87 We should at this point again note Owen’s suggestion that with the conclusion of this covenant a new ‘relation or habitude’ arises, which can only emphasize the legitimacy of Barth’s concerns.88 This way of thinking fosters an underlying anxiety that God’s “righteousness and His mercy are secretly and at bottom two separate things.” One suspects that if one at this stage objected to an importing of temporal succession into eternity in his contrast with God’s dealings in the covenant of works and the covenant of grace this would play into his hands in relation to two earlier criticisms of Federal theology, the one just made concerning the fundamental position of the covenant of works in this schema, and the more fundamental one of the legitimacy of the standpoint the Federal Theologians have adopted in outlining the history of redemption–that of eternity.89

The second criticism Barth makes is the impact of this ‘inter trinitarian pact’ on our view of the Trinity. Understandably, in view of his own carefully articulated trinitarian position in which he speaks of the persons as “modes of being” and emphasizes the unity of God as his starting point, he is hostile to the very “social” presentation inevitably involved in any view of a purely inter trinitarian covenant. “Can we really think of the first and second persons of the triune Godhead as two divine subjects and therefore as two legal subjects who can have dealings and enter into obligations one with another?” he asks.90 God is the one subject, and when we speak of Him in covenant it is “the one God–Father, Son and Holy Spirit–as the one partner, and the reality of man as distinct from God as the other.” “If in God there [are] different subjects, who are indeed united in this matter, but had first to come to an agreement, how can the will of God seen in the history of the covenant of grace be known to be binding and unequivocal, the first and final Word of God?”

For Barth such an intertrinitarian compact threatens to undermine the certainty that we know God as He is in His Son incarnate, for it always threatens a God behind God revealed in salvation by positing divergent wills needing to be united in an agreement which is postulated to be of a legal [if not commercial] type. Barth’s third criticism of a “purely inter-trinitarian decision as the eternal basis of the covenant of grace,” is that in losing sight of the fact that in the covenant what we have to do with is a relationship of God with man, i.e., that man is the real covenant partner, we also lose sight of the centrality of the incarnation [“that in His unity with Himself from all eternity God wills to be the God of man and to make and have man as His man” by, in the free act of the election of Grace, taking “into unity with His own existence as God the existence of the man whom He intends and loves from the very first”] , and in doing this lose sight of the true content of the decree [the election and reprobation of Christ] and also, by not seeing the overriding nature of this eternal election of Christ, allow an independent covenant of works and thus import a dualism into God’s dealings with man. For him, this is the “decisive point.”91 While this is clearly dependent on his independently arrived at view of election and his hostility to the covenant of works,92 there is still some point to his insistence that biblical covenants are made between God and man, a concern we saw in Boston.


While the covenant of redemption is claimed to have theological value, in terms of both its clarifying the relation of elements of the biblical teaching on redemption to each other, and also its giving the necessary underpinning to central theological truths, e.g. the voluntary involvement of the Son in redemption, substitutionary atonement, and, in Owen’s case, a limited, not universal, atonement, it has also had substantial criticisms made of it. Is it a biblical teaching? Is it a necessary component of an understanding of the Lord’s work in redemption? Or is it a theological construct which creates more difficulties than it solves?

[I] Biblical Teaching

What is required from the biblical evidence if it is to prove the existence of a covenant of redemption is the demonstration that there is a specific agreement between the Father and the Son for the salvation of the elect and that this agreement is made in eternity, that it is called a covenant, and that in this agreement the Son is not representing the elect [i.e. made with the elect in Christ, the position of Boston and the W. C. F.] but agreeing to be constituted representative of the elect and their surety. While there is some shift in the biblical evidence cited, e. g. later writers reject the appeal to Zech. 6:13 and have less confidence in individual texts seeking to ground their position in more general categories, the references cluster around Psalms, “second” Isaiah, Hebrews, and John.

[a] Psalms. Appeal is made to those passages which speak of a covenant relationship between God and the Messiah [e. g. Ps. 89.3, Ps. 2.7-9] . Ps. 2.7-9 speaks of promises made by God to a Davidic ruler [cf. v.6] of universal dominion. The N.T. clearly identifies Jesus as the one to whom these promises are made [Mt. 3.17, 17.5, Jn. 1.49] and in whom they are fulfilled [Rev. 12.5, 19.15]. Ps. 89.3 also concerns a covenant made with David. These promises are not applied to Jesus as the eternal Son, but as the One who is united to His people, as the One who becomes in the incarnation the fulfillment of all God has promised to His people.

[b] Isaiah.

Both Turretin [pp. 177-8] and Martin [pg. 34] make more of these references [Is. 42.1 -7, 49.6-8, 53.10-12] than the other authors, and Owen explicitly turns to them to outline the content of what God promises His Son.93 These references are part of a revelation of the work of the servant given to the people of God for their encouragement and hope, and describe promises made to the servant of the Lord, with descriptions given of His work and its outcome, both of which are conceived of as occurring in history. Here the question is the relation of that servant to the people of Israel. While this is a debated question Is. 49.3 would suggest he is conceived here as one who is the true Israelite, as one who, while distinguished from those who will benefit from His work [49.6, 53.10]–for He is an individual–is also one already joined to His people. Thus once more we see that it is to one who is already viewed as in some way being joined to His people that these promises are made, not to one who is promised to be joined to His people.

[c]Lk. 22.29.

Berkhof, Witsius and Turretin make much of the presence of diatithemi here, which Witsius translates as “engage by covenant” saying the Lord Jesus obtains a kingdom “by virtue of some covenant or disposition”.94While diaithemi is associated with covenant in the LXX [diatithesthai diatheken translating berith karath the sense here is of “appointing,” with “the force of freely ordaining or authoritatively disposing and not making testamentary disposition.”95 Further, has the Father appointed the kingdom for Him as the Eternal Son on condition of obedience, or as the incarnate Son who, in becoming incarnate fulfills in Himself the role of Messiah and receives what was promised to the Messiah as Israel’s Messiah? Of course Eternal Son versus Incarnate Son is in many ways a false antithesis, but one needed to make the point that there is nothing to indicate in this text that Christ is operating here other than as the fulfiller of what was promised to Israel and David i.e. as the elect in whom are the elect.

[d] Hebrews–particularly 7.22; 10.5,7; 12.24; 13.20.

These verses are used to show that there are “clear indications in Scripture of a covenant between the Father and the Mediator”.96 He is said to be the surety of a better covenant [7.22], one who conforms Himself to God’s will [10.5,7], the mediator of a new covenant [ 12.24], whose blood is the blood of the eternal covenant [13.20]. All these covenantal references, however, are to the new covenant prophesied in Jer. 31.31-34, eternal because sin is done away with forever, as Heb. 8.8-12 and 10.16-17 make plain97 7 This new covenant is made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah [Jer. 31.31, Heb. 8.8], not in eternity with the Son. References to the Son’s work as inaugurating the new covenant do not prove the existence or necessity of a covenant of redemption.

[e] John’s Gospel.

Covenant as a term is conspicuously absent from John’s Gospel and Letters [and the reference in Rev. 11:19 is to the ark of the covenant]. Nevertheless the argument is that the language of the Son being sent, of receiving commands from the Father, of receiving promises from the Father, and of His doing the Father’s will all force upon us a pre-temporal covenant, “can only be understood in terms of a pre-temporal Covenant between the Father and the Son.”98 This is clearly an overstatement. Beasley-Murray suggests that they can all be understood in terms of the “messenger convention,” a convention John exploits to undergird the unity of the work of the Father and Son, a unity undergirded by a unity of being.99 As such it is part of John’s careful presentation of Jesus as Son of God, truly God, yet distinct from the Father. It is only if one starts with the assumption that all relationships that involve promise and obedience are “covenant” relationships that one sees an eternal covenant here.100 Such a starting point is clearly an a priori expansion of the biblical covenant idea.101 The question that must be asked is whether it is appropriate to intrude the covenant idea into the Father–Son relationship as it is presented in John. John presents us with a picture of loving intimacy where the Father loves the Son, always, and gives Him all that He has, and the Son loves the Father and always does what He commands. This is not on the basis of any notional agreement. This is the reflection of their being–to be the Father is to love and give, to be the Son is to love and obey, in the context of the equality of their being.102 To intrude the idea of a covenant relationship here, which, as the Confession says involves the idea of “some voluntary condescension on God’s part,103 is to either distort the relationship between the Father and the Son as it is presented in John, or to admit that what we are talking about is so unlike any biblical covenant as to be unrecognizable as such. In fact Berkhof himself indicates that when, speaking of the “voluntary agreement of the persons of the Trinity,” he says that “it is exactly in the trinitarian life that we find the archetype of the historical covenants, a covenant in the proper and fullest sense of the word, the parties meeting on a footing of equality, a true suntheke.”104 This is an admission of dissimilarity, for a suntheke is exactly what the biblical covenants are not.105 Thus we see that none of the Biblical evidence compels us to postulate a covenant between the Father and the Son where the Son is not seen as being joined to His people in being given by the Father to fulfill God’s promises to His people in becoming the true Israel, the Son of David. Further, passages such as Rom. 5, 12-21 and 1 Cor. 15.21, 22,47-49, speak explicitly of Christ as the representative of all those joined to Him, where God deals with the elect in and through their federal head. Unless, as Shaw observes, we are to postulate two covenants with Adam lone between God and Adam, and the other between God and Adam’s posterity], the parallelism of this passage favors only one covenant of grace, between God and the second Adam, and his people in Him.106

Theological Issues.

[i] Does the use of the term covenant for the relationship between the Father and the Son in eternity clarify our understanding of “covenant,” a central biblical idea? The biblical covenants made between God and man, and which form the structure of a federal theology, always involve that element of condescension. To introduce a third covenant into the schema, where the term “covenant” is being used with a quite different sense [see above] is surely to import confusion into the scheme, and further divorce our conceptualizing from the text. This divorce opens the door for the importation of alien ideas and yet further confusion which is difficult to discipline by reference to scripture, and yet can be read back into scripture and the scriptural covenants through association with a scriptural term.

[ii] The impact on our understanding of the Trinity, [a] On our knowledge of God. Covenants in scripture are made between parties who are not just distinguished but separate. Covenant carries that connotation with it. Especially where it is accompanied by commercial language there is an implication of previously separate wills and a negotiated agreement where there was not one before. The notion of this taking place in eternity salvages nothing, for an agreement always implies logically, not just temporally, a prior state of non-agreement. Barth’s criticism of what this means to our understanding of the nature and being of God, especially where we postulate a covenant of works not subsumed under the mantle of grace, is fairly persuasive on this point. Is there a God behind the God revealed in the Son whose will toward us was once other than it is now? Even though the covenant was designed to secure the eternal purpose of God the cost of its elaboration is a threat to the eternity of the gracious love that lies behind God’s determination to save.

[b] On the relationship between the Father and the Son. The language of covenant and agreement, with its suggestion of relationship on the basis of ‘rights’ and legal obligation, is alien to the language of the relationship between the Father and the Son revealed in John, which is so influential in developing our understanding of the relationship of the Father and the Son in eternity, that is, our understanding of the essential Trinity. The covenant of redemption creates a dissonance in our description of eternal relationships, which is severe when related to other ways the scripture speaks of God in eternity–can the Father be thought of as entering into a compact with His Word? Such an image stresses the essential unity of the Godhead, yet covenantal language so stresses the distinction of wills as to create the impression of separate wills prior to the compact.107 The covenant of Redemption should be seen as clouding, not clarifying, the relationship of the Father and the Son in eternity, [c] If this is really an eternal inter-Trinitarian covenanting which effects a “new habitude or relation” in eternity, then the omission of the Holy Spirit from this covenant is most damaging, implying His diminished involvement in the purposing of salvation. As Muller has noted, Gill was conscious of this and incorporated the Spirit as a contracting party in a bi-covenantal system. The result, however, the reduction of “all of Christian theology to a thorough going determinism,” hardly commends itself and in turn casts doubt upon the underlying method, the attempt to incorporate the whole order of salvation as an immanent act of God, an extension of the method employed in the development of the covenant of redemption where the crosswork of Jesus is secured in its centrality and efficacy by incorporating it into an eternal transaction.108

iii] Do we need a covenant of redemption to safeguard the voluntary nature of Christ’s sacrifice? The brief answer is no. The voluntary nature of Christ’s sacrifice is inherent in a proper understanding of the relationship between the Father and the Son, whose will is always to do the will of the Father [Jn. 4.34]. Further it is enshrined in the nature of God as love, revealed in the work of the cross, where the Son’s love is seen in humbling himself and putting others’ interests ahead of his own [Phil. 2.1-10]. The covenant of redemption adds nothing to this. The Son comes, not out of an agreement, but out of love for the Father and His people, the gift of the Father. While an agreement is not necessarily antithetical to that love, its postulation adds nothing to it, and may [with a talk of “rights” and “bargain”] obscure it.

iv] Macleod is concerned to safeguard the particularity of salvation by the covenant of redemption. In many ways this is to use the conclusion desired to formulate its cause, but nonetheless particularity remains an issue. In relation to the particularity of salvation, there is an aspect of the biblical testimony that seems to have been overlooked. The incarnation is not just the taking on of generic humanity, [born of woman], it is also the taking on of particular humanity. Further, Christ is not just any particular individual, but an historically particular man [born under law]. He is not just any man–He is seed of Abraham, Son of David. This is not just by decree, it is his fleshly, historic reality. That is , His relation to His people is mediated through the historically particular promises He fulfills. It is through being related to those promises, made of Him and to God’s chosen people, that He is related to His people. This perspective on Christ’s humanity offers more scope for relating Christ’s work on behalf of his people to the biblical dynamic, and points towards a recovery of the corporate purpose of Christ’s work, and understanding our relation to it by our relation to His people.

So, to use Macleod’s and Martin’s terms, voluntariness and particularity can be safeguarded by the decree, understood, as it always must be, of the one will of the Father, Son and Spirit ; the incarnation, which is particular as well as general, already embracing a particular relation with a particular people; and spiritual union with Christ. That is, in the one covenant of grace made with the second Adam and His people in Him.

v] While Owen shows no signs of importing a burdensome conditionality into his understanding of the Covenant of Grace, Boston has shown both the dangers of separating the covenants, and a better way. Repentance and faith, the genuinely human response to the gospel, are not conditions of, but the evidence of, grace.

[vi] The Covenant of Redemption, because it does happen in eternity, inevitably subordinates all temporal covenants to itself. Daniel speaks of the tendency to place “the secret will over the revealed will, and eternity over time.”109 The temporal will always become subordinate to the eternal–for in the latter you are in touch with the reality that controls the former, and Muller has noted a preference amongst Reformed theologians to adopt a synthetic model “proceeding from causes to effects” which only heightens this dominance of the eternal.”110 This, one suspects, has a dual effect. Firstly, while the covenant is designed to secure in eternity the temporal work of Christ and the temporal ordo salutis, to give a Christocentric focus and undergird the covenant of grace,111 it can draw one away from the temporal work to find security in a contemplation of a theoretical eternal compact. Secondly, for systematic thinkers there will always be a tendency to work from eternity into time. When this happens the content one gives to eternity, the inferences one makes from temporal promises [all addressed initially to the people of God] and events and projects into eternity, will become the controlling factor in one’s theology. What is in many ways most peripheral to the evidence, and most dependent on interpretation [and which thus has the potential to magnify presuppositional biases], then becomes the key element which integrates and undergirds the other elements of theology, e.g. in Macleod’s system, to reject the covenant of redemption is to destabilize the substitutionary atonement of our Lord. Yet this distance from the text raises in an acute form the question of conviction. One can only expect the Christian heart to be convicted by the word of God, and can only expect conformity of belief where it can be clearly shown to be the teaching of the Word. The more tenuous the relationship to the Word, the less one can expect conformity and consensus. This is true of the covenant of redemption [as its history demonstrates] which is a meta-historical structure, and yet for its advocates the belief of others is severely deficient if they will not accept it, because it has become so central to so many other doctrines.


Does a schematisation of God’s saving dealings with humanity that involves a covenant of redemption as its causal, meta-historical guarantee carry conviction? The biblical support offered does not require such a covenant for its understanding, and the postulation of the covenant of redemption carries a significant theological cost, especially in relation to the doctrine of God. It therefore is safe to conclude that not only are we not required to believe it but that our understanding of God, and especially the relation of the Father and the Son i n eternity, is advanced by eschewing it.

What does this mean for Owen’s argument and the position he is maintaining? While the example of Boston [and Gill] makes it plain that a belief in particular effective redemption is not dependent on the maintenance of a covenant of redemption, Owen’s presentation of a defense for his understanding of limited atonement is highly dependent on this covenant. Its non-acceptance disarms the forcefulness of Owen’s argument for a limited provision in the cross. The impact of non-acceptance is greatest in relation to Owen’s insistence on conceiving the work of Christ as a purchase and his language of rights in relation to the elect, for his understanding of Christ’s merit finds its origin and support in this covenant. It is on this conception, especially its expression in the purchase of faith, that Owen builds the restriction of the atonement, not just in its intention, but also in its provision, to outcome.

Positively the rejection of the covenant of redemption creates space, space in which to return to the exegesis of texts, space in which to reconsider the nature of the sufficiency of the cross, and also space to attempt to reconceptualize how sovereign love relates to human sinfulness in atonement and gospel preaching.

Chambers, N.A. “A Critical Examination of John Owen’s Argument for Limited Atonement in the Death of Death in the Death of Christ,” (Th.M. thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 1998, 294-348. [Some reformatting; some relocation of sub-headers to conform to modern rules; some spelling Americanized; underlining for all headers and sub- and side-headers original; bracketed inserts original; Hebrew and Greek transliteration mine; footnote values and content original; and inline text underling mine.]




1Article VI, Aticles agreed upon by the Archbishops and Bishops of both Provinces, and the whole Clergy, in the Convocation holden at London in the year 1562. [The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England.] Reprinted by command of His Majesty King Charles I, and appended to the Book of Common Prayer. See also Schaff, Creeds. 3:489.

2The covenant or compact between the Father and the Son in Owen is called the covenant of redemption in line with Owen’s use in Hebrews: “a covenant there was between the Father and the Son… called therefore the covenant of the Mediator or Redeemer.” Works 18:78, This is also the terminology of L. Berkhoff, Reformed Dogmatics, [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1932], Vol. 1, p.255; and D. Macleod, s. v. “Covenant Theology,” Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology Ed. N. M. deS. Cameron, [Downers Grove: I..V.P., 1993], p. 215

3Owen, 10:163.

4“The agent in, and chief author of, this great work of our redemption is the whole blessed Trinity.” ibid, 10:163.

5e.g. Vindiciae Evanaelicae ch. XXVII, Works 12:496 ff; An Exposition of the epistle to the Hebrews. With Preliminary Exercitations. Exercitation XXVIII, Works 18:77 ff.

610:168. These two promises are also presented in 18:93-4 and 12:504.


8“Now, of all the rest this chiefly is to be considered, as directly conducing to the business proposed…; for whatsoever it was that God promised his Son should “be fulfilled and attained by him, that certainly was it at which the Son aimed in the whole undertaking, and designed it as the end of the work that was committed to him, and which alone he could and did claim upon the accomplishment of his Father’s will.”10:170.

910:171. He reminds us that these promises are the basis of Christ’s intercession in 10:177. “Here, also, we must call to mind what the Father has promised his Son upon his undertaking of this employment; for there is no doubt but that for that, and that alone, doth Christ, upon the accomplishment of the whole, intercede with him about.”


11Spoken of in the Death of Death as the second act of the Father, the “laying upon him the punishment of sins” 10:171 ff., explicitly stated as the condition of the covenant at 10:253. This aspect of the covenant is more systematically expounded in Hebrews 18:94-95, Section 19, “The conditions required of, or conditions made unto, the undertaker in this covenant.” Owen concludes the section: “And as all the other terms of the covenant, so this in particular he undertook to make good, namely, that he would interpose himself between the law and sinners, by undergoing the penalty thereof, and between divine justice itself and sinners, to make atonement for them.” 18:95.


13Works, 18:158




17Ibid. cf. 12:497.

1818:88. Again, Works 12:497: “Hence, from the moment of it [I speak not of time], there is a new habitude of will in the Father and Son towards each other that is not in them essentially; I call it new, as being in God freely, not naturally.”



21Ibid. The claim to direct scriptural warrant is also made in 12:497: “The rule is safe, That which is written may be spoken, for that end was it written, God in his word teaching us how we should speak of him. So it is in this matter.”

22There are slight differences in the two treatments. Thus in Vind. Evang. he describes five features which must be present for an agreement to be called a compact or covenant [12:498-9], whereas in Hebrews he first introduces the three conditions of “an absolutely complete covenant” and then a further three conditions where the covenant is of a special kind which involves “personal undertakings and services of one party” only to bring about the agreed ends of the covenant to all parties’ satisfaction. 18:82-84. The biblical proof is found at 12:500-507, 18:84-95.




26Vose, Profile, 287 and 260 f.n. 49.

27The note of certainty is very important. “He was the surety of it, in that he undertook unto God whatever by the terms of the covenant was to be done for man, to accomplish it in his own person, and whatever was to be done in and by man, to effect it by his own Spirit and grace; so that the covenant on every side might be firm and stable, and the ends of it fulfilled.” 18: 78



30E.g. Toon: “Covenant theology provided both for Owen and many of his colleagues the intellectual framework for their views of God’s relationship with man, and man’s place and role in the world. In the covenant of redemption they found the key to the meaning of Creation and salvation.” The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity 1689-1765. [London: The Olive Tree, 1967], p. 170; Vose describes the covenant of redemption as a “marked feature of Owen’s soteriology,” Profile, p. 269, cf. 302,304; Sinclair Ferguson, Christian Life, observes that for Owen “such a covenant alone…gives significance to the death of Christ as atonement. Only by virtue of it can the sufferings of Christ under the sentence and curse of the law be regarded as good and glorifying to God.” Further, “the covenant of grace depends upon the covenant of redemption as its foundation, and for its saving power.” p. 27. He explains that the covenant of redemption solves the problem of conditions in the covenant of grace, and this feature of it actually makes it “a logical and theological necessity.” f.n. 1, p. 25, cf. pp. 30-31.

31See f.n. 12 above, cf. Hodge, Systematic Theology. 2:546:”The nature of the covenant, therefore, determines the object of his death.”

32Owen’s committment to Calvinistic doctrine is plain throughout his work from A Display of Arminianism onward. In The Death of Death consider for example Argument IV [Book 3, chapter 2, 10:243 ff.], or his rendering of John 3.16, “The sense is, ‘God so loved his elect throughout the world . . .’” 10:326. In Hebrews, after stressing the sublapsarian nature of “this covenant” he writes “the Father and Son do enter into a holy mutual agreement concerning the recovery and salvation of the elect in a way of grace.” 18:90.

3310:170 “For whatsoever it was that God promised his Son should be fulfilled and attained by him, that certainly was it at which the Son aimed in the whole undertaking, and designed it as the end of the work that was committed to him, and which alone he could and did claim upon the accomplishment of his Father’s will.”

34This is different from Thomas Boston’s assessment in the 18th century, who considered that the covenant of redemption [the maintenance of the three covenant position] opened the door for universal redemption by allowing the conditionality of the covenant of grace to be stressed. Perhaps this is possible where a Grotian view of the atonement is accepted and Christ is seen as purchasing a liberty for God, which would give a quite different content to the covenantal agreement, but it is not possible where Owen’s understanding of redemption and satisfaction are accepted. Thomas Boston, The Complete Works, in Twelve Volumes. Ed. S. -McMillan, [Wheaton: Richard Owen Roberts, 1980], 8.404.


36Consider Book 1, chapter 1. “Now if you will ask who these sinners are towards whom he hath this gracious intent and purpose” Owen says they are the “many,” “us believers distinguished from the world,” “the church,” whom later he groups as “many, his church, the elect of God.” 10:157, 159. See the argument of chapter 3 above in relation to Jn. 3 .16-47.

37“Here, also, we must call to mind what the Father promised his Son upon his undertaking of this employment; for there is no doubt but that for that, and that alone, doth Christ, upon the accomplishment of the whole, intercede with him about: which was in sum that he might be the captain of salvation to all that believe on him, and effectually bring many sons to glory.” 10:177.

38Book 1, chapters 6, 7 and 8; 10:181-200. As part of the proof of this Owen explicitly draws attention to “the compact and agreement that was between the Father and the Son,” and-he insists that the “ground and foundation” of Christ’s intercession must rest on promises made to Him by the Father. 10:185

3910:161-2; 10:201, “Whatsoever the blessed Trinity intended by them, that was effected; and whatsoever we find in the issue ascribed to unto them, that by them the blessed Trinity intended Where we find any thing ascribed to the death of Christ, as the fruit thereof, we may conclude that that God intended to effect by it; and so also on the contrary.”


41cf. 10:209, “Thirdly…”.


43E.g. 10:233; 10:253 “Whatever is freely bestowed upon us, in and through Christ, that is all wholly the procurement and merit of the death of Christ. Nothing is bestowed through him on those that are his which he hath not purchased; the price whereby he made his purchase being his own blood, 1 Pet. i. 18,19; for the covenant between his .Father and him, of making out all spiritual blessings to them that were given unto him, was expressly founded on this condition, ‘That he should make his soul an offering for sin, 1 Isa. liii. 10.” Also in Hebrews Owen states that the first condition required of the Son in this covenant was “that he should assume or take on him the nature of those whom, according unto the terms of this covenant, he was to bring unto God…. And this condescension, which was the foundation of all his obedience, gave the nature of merit and purchase unto what he did.” 18:94-5.

44See the discussion of the previous chapter and Owen’s arguments XI and XIII in book III [10:258-261, 265-273].

45The subsidiary arguments for the purchase of faith are: l.’The death of Jesus Christ purchased holiness and sanctification for us,” 2. ” All the fruits of election are purchased by Jesus Christ,” 3.” A11 the blessings of the new covenant are procured and purchased by him,” 4. “That without which it is utterly impossible that we should be saved must of necessity be procured by him by whom we are fully and effectually saved. … He is the author of our salvation by the way of purchase.” 10:256-57.

4610:253, see above f.n. 43.

47Owen says that the second part of God’s dispensation of grace to us is “The gracious imputation of the righteousness of Christ to us, or making us the righteousness of God in him; which is no less of grace and mercy, and that because the very merit of Christ himself hath its foundation in a free compact and covenant.” 10:269.


49J . Murray, “Covenant Theology,” The Collected Writings, 4.234. Richard Muller agrees that it is a distinctive doctrine of the Reformed churches, widespread amongst “the seventeenth-century formulators of Reformed orthodoxy,” but suggests that its ” first major formulation” is to be found in the writings of Caspar Olevianus [1536 -1587]. R. Muller, “The Spirit and the Covenant. John Gill’s Critique of the Pactum Salutis.” Foundations: A Baptist Journal of History and Theology 24/1 [January 1981] # p. s.

50K Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man [1677] 2 vols. Trans. William Crookshank, 1822. Reprint, with an Introduction by J. I. Packer, [Escondido: The den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1990], 1:176, All references are to volume one.

51Berkhof, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 247.

52Bell , Scottish Theology, p. 93.

53Thus we find it in Thomas Vincent’s exposition of the Catechism [The Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly Explained and Proved from Scripture. [1674; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1980], Q. XX, subquestions’8 and 9, pg. 68.],and in the popular ‘Sum of Saving Knowledge’ by David Dickson and James Durham, appended to many editions of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, including the 1650 Edinburgh edition. In this, in Head II, we read of “the covenant of redemption, made and agreed upon between God the Father and God the Son, in the covenant of the trinity , before the world began ” [“The Sum of Saving Knowledge,” The Westminster Confession of Faith, [n.p.-.Free Presbyterian Publications, 1981], pg. 324.], which is further expounded in section II and III, all of Christ’s activity being viewed in its light. It also finds a small place in Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity. “Whereupon there was a special covenant, or mutual agreement made between God and Christ, as is expressed, Is. 53:10, that if Christ would make Himself a sacrifice for sin, then He should “see His seed.” {Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity. With notes by Thomas Boston. [Reprint, Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1991], pg. 42. There is no indication as to which edition of the Marrow the reprint has been made from. An edition with notes by Thomas Boston is found in The Complete Works of the late Reverend Thomas Boston, ed. Samuel M’Millan, vol VII. [London: Samuel Tegg and Co., 1854.] See David C. Lachman, The Marrow Controversy 1718-1723. [Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 1988] p. 493]

54Daniel, Hypercalvinism, p. 232; P. Toon, Hyper-Calvinism, p. 22.

55Murray, 4:231. Crisp was an antinomian preacher. Gill, who was to modify Reformed theology by abolishing “the separation between the pactum salutis and the foedus gratiae” [Muller, “The Spirit and the Covenant,” p.7], was an admirer of Crisp, publishing an edition of his works. See Toon, Hyper-Calvinism, pp. 52-3; Alan Sell, The Great Debate.Calvinism. Arminianism and Salvation, studies in Christian Thought and History [Worthing: H.E.Walter, 1982], pp. 47-52.

56Muller, Christ and the Decree, twice alludes to this movement coming close to the pactum salutis in its “seeking, in the depth of the triune God, the ground and foundation of soteriology.” p.99, cf. 138 He also writes of “the desire of the system to assert the consistency of the divine purpose with its temporal enactment and in the consequent pressure exerted on the system to reach from a description of the enactment of salvation in Christ and in the ordo salutis to a description of the trinitarian activity in which the persons of the Godhead freely determine the course of the economy of salvation.” p.181.

57For example, the Westminster Confession Ch. VII speaks only of two covenants, that of works and that of grace “whereby He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe”. Cf. L. C. Q. 30 and L. C. Q. 31. “The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in Him with a11 the elect as His seed “. s.v. The Westminster Confession of Faith.

58Bell, Scottish Theology, pg. 163f.

59Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith. [Fearn: Christian Focus Publications, 1992], footnote pg. 88.

60Boston, Works. 1.333.

61“Only, in respect of Christ, it is called the covenant of redemption, forasmuch as in it he engaged to pay the price of our redemption; but in respect of us, the covenant of grace, forasmuch as the whole of it is free grace to us, God Himself having provided the ransom, and thereupon made over life and salvation to poor sinners, his chosen by free promise, without respect to any work of theirs to entitle them thereto” Ibid. 1.334.

62Boston, Works.8.389-393.

63The covenant of grace was made with Christ as Federal Head of His people: [i] “That infinite love might have an early vent, even from eternity,” [ii] “Otherwise it could not have been made a conditional covenant answering to the design of it, as dead souls can’t perform any condition or please God.” [iii ] “It was so ordered, to the end that it might be unto us poor sinners a covenant of grace indeed,” which it can only be if Christ undertakes to fulfill the condition for us, and we are in Him. [iv] “that the communication of righteousness and life to sinners might be in as compendious away as the communication of death and s in was [Rom. 5: 19]” [v] “That it might be a sure covenant, as entered into with a sure hand, Rom, 4: 16.” Ibid. 8.394 ff.

64Ibid. 8.397.

65Ibid. 8.398-9.

66Ibid. 8.404, 1.335-6.

67Bell, Scottish Theology, pp. 155, 156, 157.

68Murray, Collected Writings. 4.237.

69Ibid. 4.238.

70McLeod, Dictionary, p. 216.

71As witnessed by Shaw’s exposition, An Exposition, p.88 and John Dick. Lectures on Theology. 2 Volumes, [New York: M. W.Dodd, 1850], 1.496.

72Berkhof, Reformed Dogmatics, p, 247.

73Ibid. pp. 248 – 9.

74Donald Macleod, “Covenant: 2”, Banner of Truth 141 . pp.26-27.

75Ibid. Dictionary. 215.

76Ibid., “Covenant,”p.26.


78Ibid., p. 27.

79Hugh Martin, The Atonement. [Edinburgh, Knox Press, 1976].

80Packer, Introduction to Witsius The Economy of the Covenants, vol. 1, p. 11. The pages of the introduction are unnumbered.

81Ibid. p.16.

82Ibid. p .9.

83Bell, Scottish Theology, p. 198.

84Ibid., p. 199. “Cf. Robert Letham writing of the pretemporal covenant of redemption as “a further, more extreme development” continues: “The Holy Spirit tended to be left out of such a model and strong elements of subordinationism were introduced in the case of the Son. Tritheistic tendencies have also been noted.” The Work of Christ, pp.52-3.

85Bell, Scottish Theology, pp. 73, 93 – 94, 99. Douglas Milne, writing in their defense says, “although 17th and 18th century federal theologians borrowed from the current language and practice of contracting and bargaining it is clear from the primary sources-that they never intended these analogies to be taken in any strict or meritorious sense.” “A Barthian Stricture on Reformed Theology–The Unconditionality of the Covenant of Grace.” RTR 55/3 [Sept.-Dec. 196], p. 132. Owen, at least in the polemical context of the Death of Death, clearly seeks to exploit their “strict or meritorious sense.”

86K. Barth, Church Dogmatics. Vol. IV, Pt. I., trans. G. W. Bromiley, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance.[Edinburgh: T. &. T. Clark, 1956], pp. 64-66.

87Ibid. p.64.

88f.n. 16 above, Owen, Works. 18:88.

89Barth, CD.. IV: 1, p.55.

90Ibid. p.65.

91Ibid. p.66.

92c f. Milne, “Barthian Stricture,” pp. 129-131.

93Turretin. Elenctic Theology, 2:177-78: Hugh Martin, Atonement, p.34; Owen, 10:170.

94Witsius, Economy of the Covenants, 1:166

95J. Behm, s.v. Diatithemi, TDNT. 2.105.

96MacLeod, “Covenant: 2,” p.26.

97Commenting on “Hebrews’ use of the covenant idea” J. Ligon Duncan III writes: “First, and most obviously, the author views Christ’s ministry explicitly in terms of Jeremiah’s new covenant.” Covenant in the New Testament. A New Introduction and Survey. Private Paper, Jackson, 1993. p. 47 (printed off disc and so the pagination might be different from copy to copy].

98D,MacLeod, “Covenant: 2,” p.26.

99G. R., Beasley-Murray, Gospel of life, pp. 17-30.

100As Owen clearly does: “every natural relation, such as that of father and children, of man and wife, contains in it a covenant with respect unto personal services and rewards.” 18:92.

101John H. Stek “There were many personal relationships that included mutual obligations i n ancient Near Eastern society that were not considered “naturally” to be “covenants”: parent-child, master-slave, neighbour-neighbour, elder-townsfolk, chief-clan, king-subjects, people-people. In fact, as far as we know, there was no relationship between persons that normal life would have given rise to what was considered “naturally” to be of the nature of a “covenant.” “‘Covenant’ Overload in Reformed Theology,” Calvin Theological Journal. 29 [1994], p. 25. While Craig G. Bartholomew has accused Stek of reductionism in his treatment of “covenant” and cites evidence for a marriage covenant even he says “that the predominant sense of covenant in the Old Testament is of-an elected, as opposed to natural, relationship of obligation established under divine sanction.” This suggests the inappropriateness of describing the Father–Son relationship [in eternity or temporally] as a covenant relationship. “Covenant and Creation: Covenant Overload or Covenantal Deconstruction.” Calvin Theological Journal 30 [1995], pp. 21-2.

102e.g. Jn3:34-5, 4:34, 5:19-23, 14:9-10, 33, 6:15, 17:4-5, 20-26.

103Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch, VII: 1.

104Berkhof, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 248.

105While not wishing to ‘overstretch’ the distinction between suntheke and diatheke the fact remains that the Scripture refrains from the use of the former with its nuance of mutuality, cf. Ligon Duncan, “Covenant,” p. 9.

106Shaw, p. 88. I. H. Marshall is even more negative in his conclusion to the examination of covenant in the New Testament: “We have not found any support for the elaborate theological schemes of either developed covenant theology or of dispensationalist, both of which go well beyond the New Testament guidelines, and it seems clear that these schemes cannot take the central place as frameworks for biblical interpretation which have been assigned to them by their proponents.” Jesus the Savior, Studies in New Testament Theology. [Downers Grove: TVP, 1990], p. 287.

107cf. Michael Jinkins. “This pre-incarnational pactus salutis betrays the perception among these theologians that the essence of the Trinitarian God is legal and contractual, and the idea that the Trinity is not simply a tri-unity of divine modality, a communion of divine personhood, but is in fact a confederacy of three divine centers of consciousness who must enter into contract in order to work together to one end.” “Elements of Federal Theology in the Religious Thought of John Locke.” Evangelical Quarterly 66:2 [1994], p. 128. In relation to the unity of the Trinity, we note Letham’s contention [Work of Christ, p.237] that particular redemption is necessary to maintain the unity of the Trinity in redemption. Provisional atonement “threatens to tear apart the Holy Trinity. It introduces disorder into the doctrine of God. The Father and the Son have different goals from the Son. The tendency is towards tritheism, and the unity of the Godhead is undermined.”

108Muller, “The Spirit,” pp. 11, 12.

109Daniels, Hypercalvinism, pg. 771.

110Richard Muller, “Calvin and the ‘Calvinists:” Part Two.” C7731 {19961, p. 152. As Moltmann has observed in another context the causal order is the opposite of the noetic order, Jurgen Moltmann The Coming of God. Christian Eschatology Trans. Margaret Kohl, (London; SCM, 1996], p. xvi. Thus it will always be more interpretive also.

111John van Rohr, The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought. AAR Studies in Religion No. 45, [Atlanta, Scholars Press,1986], p. 43-45.

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Thanks David for all your work on this. I know it wasn’t easy. Chris

July 24th, 2011 at 6:32 pm

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