John Owen on the Differences between the Old and the New Covenant


Below is a slightly edited (by me) version from the 6th volume of Owen’s Commentary on the Book of Hebrews. It gives so very very much to think about in celebrating and diving more deeply into the privileges of the New Covenant Believer in Christ. Enjoy!

OWEN: Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended. We must, I say, do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said,—and with great pretence of reason, for it is that which is the sole foundation they all build upon who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant,—‘That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation be the same under both, then indeed are they for the substance of them but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue thereof, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, whilst’ they were under the covenant.[1]

The things wherein this difference doth consist, as expressed in the Scripture, are partly circumstantial, and partly substantial, and may be reduced unto the heads ensuing:—


  1. These two covenants differ in the circumstance of time as to their promulgation, declaration, and establishment This difference the apostle expresseth from the prophet Jeremiah…In brief, the first covenant was made at the time that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, and took its date from the third month after their coming up from thence, Exod. 19, 24…The new covenant was declared and made known “in the latter days,” Heb. 1:1, 2; “in the dispensation of the fulness of times,” Eph. 1:10. And it took date, as a covenant formally obliging the whole church, from the death, resurrection, ascension of Christ, and sending of the Holy Ghost.
  2. They differ in the circumstance of place as to their promulgation;…The first was declared on mount Sinai;…The other was declared on mount Zion, and the law of it went forth from Jerusalem, Isa. 2:3. This difference, with many remarkable instances from it, our apostle insists on, Gal 4:24–26: “These are the two covenants; the one from mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.” That is, Agar, the bondwoman whom Abraham took before the heir of promise was born, was a type of the old covenant given on Sinai, before the introduction of the new, or the covenant of promise; for so he adds: “For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth unto Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.” This mount Sinai, where the old covenant was given, and which was represented by Agar, is in Arabia,—cast quite out of the verge and confines of the church. And it “answereth,” or “is placed in the same series, rank, and order with Jerusalem,” namely, in the opposition of the two covenants. For as the new covenant, the covenant of promise, giving freedom and liberty, was given at Jerusalem, in the death and resurrection of Christ, with the preaching of the gospel which ensued thereon; so the old covenant, that brought the people into bondage, was given at mount Sinai in Arabia.
  3. They differ in the manner of their promulgation and establishment. There were two things remarkable that accompanied the solemn declaration of the first covenant:—

(1.) The dread and terror of the outward appearance on mount Sinai, which filled all the people, yea, Moses himself, with fear and trembling…

(2.) That it was given by the ministry and “disposition of angels,” Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19. Hence the people were in a sense “put in subjection unto angels,” and they had an authoritative ministry in that covenant… Things are quite otherwise in the promulgation of the new covenant. The Son of God in his own person did declare it…And the whole ministry of angels, in the giving of this covenant, was merely in a way of service and obedience unto Christ; and they owned themselves the “fellow-servants” only of them that have “the testimony of Jesus,” Rev. 19:10. So that this “world to come,” as it was called of old, was no way put in subjection unto them.

  1. They differ in their mediators. The mediator of the first covenant was Moses… But the mediator of the new covenant is the Son of God himself…He who is the Son, and the Lord over his own house, graciously undertook in his own person to be the mediator of this covenant; and herein it is unspeakably preferred before the old covenant.
  2. They differ in their subject-matter, both as unto precepts and promises, the advantage being still on the part of the new covenant. For,—

(1.) The old covenant, in the preceptive part of it, renewed the commands of the covenant of works, and that on their original terms. Sin it forbade,—that is, all and every sin, in matter and manner,—on the pain of death; and gave the promise of life unto perfect, sinless obedience only… (2.) The old testament, absolutely considered, had, [1.] No promise of grace, to communicate spiritual strength, or to assist us in obedience; nor, [2.] Any of eternal life, no otherwise but as it was contained in the promise of the covenant of works, “The man that doeth these things shall live in them;” and, [3.] Had promises of temporal things in the land of Canaan inseparable from it. In the new covenant all things are otherwise, as will be declared in the exposition of the ensuing verses.

  1. They differ, and that principally, in the manner of their dedication and sanction. This is that which gives any thing the formal nature of a covenant or testament. There may be a promise, there may be an agreement in general, which hath not the formal nature of a covenant, or testament…but it is the solemnity and manner of the confirmation, dedication, and sanction of any promise or agreement, that give it the formal nature of a covenant or testament. And this is by a sacrifice, wherein there is both bloodshedding and death ensuing thereon. Now this, in the confirmation of the old covenant, was only the sacrifice of beasts, whose blood was sprinkled on all the people, Exod. 24:5–8. But the new testament was solemnly confirmed by the sacrifice and blood of Christ himself, Zech 9:11; Heb. 10:29, 13:20. And the Lord Christ dying as the mediator and surety of the covenant, he purchased all good things for the church; and as a testator bequeathed them unto it. Hence he says of the sacramental cup, that it is “the new testament in his blood,” or the pledge of his bequeathing unto the church all the promises and mercies of the covenant; which is the new testament, or the disposition of his goods unto his children. But because the apostle expressly handleth this difference between these two covenants, chap. 9:18–23, we must thither refer the full consideration of it.
  2. They differ in the priests that were to officiate before God in the behalf of the people. In the old covenant, Aaron and his posterity alone were to discharge that office; in the new, the Son of God himself is the only priest of the church.
  3. They differ in the sacrifices whereon the peace and reconciliation with God which is tendered in them doth depend.
  4. They differ in the way and manner of their solemn writing or enrolment. All covenants were of old solemnly written in tables of brass or stone, where they might be faithfully preserved for the use of the parties concerned. So the old covenant, as to the principal, fundamental part of it, was “engraven in tables of stone,” which were kept in the ark, Exod. 31:18; Deut. 9:10; 2 Cor. 3:7. And God did so order it in his providence, that the first draught of them should be broken, to intimate that the covenant contained in them was not everlasting nor unalterable. But the new covenant is written in the “fleshy tables of the hearts” of them that do believe 2 Cor. 3:3; Jer. 31:33.
  5. They differ in their ends. The principal end of the first covenant was to discover sin, to condemn it, and to set bounds unto it…The end of the new covenant is, to declare the love, grace, and mercy of God; and therewith to give repentance, remission of sin, and life eternal.
  6. They differed in their effects. For the first covenant being the “ministration of death” and “condemnation,” it brought the minds and spirits of them that were under it into servitude and bondage; whereas spiritual liberty is the immediate effect of the new testament. And there is no one thing wherein the Spirit of God doth more frequently give us an account of the difference between these two covenants, than in this of the liberty of the one and the bondage of the other…On the other hand, the new covenant gives liberty and boldness, the liberty and boldness of children, unto all believers. It is the Spirit of the Son in it that makes us free, or gives us universally all that liberty which is any way needful for us or useful unto us. For “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty;” namely, to serve God, “not in the oldness of the letter, but in the newness of the spirit.”…And we may briefly consider wherein this deliverance and liberty by the new covenant doth consist, which it doth in the things ensuing:—

(1.) In our freedom from the commanding power of the law, as to sinless, perfect obedience, in order unto righteousness and justification before God…

(2.) In our freedom from the condemning power of the law, and the sanction of it in the curse. This being undergone and answered by him who was “made a curse for us,” we are freed from it, Rom. 7:6; Gal. 3:13, 14.

(3.) In our freedom from conscience of sin, Heb. 10:2,—that is, conscience disquieting, perplexing, and condemning our persons; the hearts of all that believe being “sprinkled from an evil conscience” by the blood of Christ.

(4.) In our freedom from the whole system of Mosaical worship, in all the rites, and ceremonies, and ordinances of it; which what a burden it was the apostles do declare…

(5.) From all the laws of men in things appertaining unto the worship of God, 1 Cor. 7:23.

And by all these, and the like instances of spiritual liberty, doth the gospel free believers from that “spirit of bondage unto fear,” which was administered under the old covenant.


It remains only that we point out the heads of those ways whereby this liberty is communicated unto us under the new covenant. And it is done,—

(1.) Principally by the grant and communication of the Spirit of the Son as a Spirit of adoption, giving the freedom, boldness, and liberty of children, John 1:12; Rom. 8:15–17; Gal. 4:6, 7. From hence the apostle lays it down as a certain rule, that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” 2 Cor. 3:17. Let men pretend what they will, let them boast of the freedom of their outward condition in this world, and of the inward liberty or freedom of their wills, there is indeed no true liberty where the Spirit of God is not.

(2.) It is obtained by the evidence of our justification before God, and the causes of it.

(3.) By the spiritual light which is given to believers into the mystery of God in Christ.

(4.) We obtain this liberty by the opening of the way into the holiest, and the entrance we have thereby with boldness unto the throne of grace.

(5.) By all the ordinances of gospel-worship. How the ordinances of worship under the old testament did lead the people into bondage hath been declared; but those of the new testament, through their plainness in signification, their, immediate respect unto the Lord Christ, with their use and efficacy to guide believers in their communion with God, do all conduce unto our evangelical liberty.


  1. They differ greatly with respect unto the dispensation and grant of the Holy Ghost. It is certain that God did grant the gift of the Holy Spirit under the old testament, and his operations during that season, as I have at large elsewhere declared; but it is no less certain, that there was always a promise of his more signal effusion upon the confirmation and establishment of the new covenant. See in particular that great promise to this purpose, Joel 2:28, 29, as applied and expounded by the apostle Peter, Acts 2:16–18. Yea, so sparing was the communication of the Holy Ghost under the old testament, compared with his effusion under the new, as that the evangelist affirms that “the Holy Ghost was not yet, because that Jesus was not yet glorified,” John 7:39; that is, he was not yet given in that manner as he was to be given upon the confirmation of the new covenant.
  2. They differ in the declaration made in them of the kingdom of God. It is the observation of Augustine, that the very name of “the kingdom of heaven” is peculiar unto the new testament. It is true, God reigned in and over the church under the old testament; but his rule was such, and had such a relation unto secular things, especially with respect unto the land of Canaan, and the flourishing condition of the people therein, as that it had an appearance of a kingdom of this world… But now in the gospel, the nature of the kingdom of God, where it is, and wherein it consists, is plainly and evidently declared, unto the unspeakable consolation of believers. For whereas it is now known and experienced to be internal, spiritual, and heavenly, they have no less assured interest in it and advantage by it, in all the troubles which they may undergo in this world, than they could have in the fullest possession of all earthly enjoyments.
  3. They differ in their substance and end. The old covenant was typical, shadowy, and removable, Heb. 10:1. The new covenant is substantial and permanent, as containing the body, which is Christ.
  4. They differ in the extent of their administration, according unto the will of God. The first was confined unto the posterity of Abraham according to the flesh, and unto them especially in the land of Canaan, Deut. 5:3, with some few proselytes that were joined unto them, excluding all others from the participation of the benefits of it…But the administration of the new covenant is extended unto all nations under heaven; none being excluded, on the account of tongue, language, family, nation, or place of habitation. All have an equal interest in the rising Sun. The partition wall is broken down, and the gates of the new Jerusalem are set open unto all comers upon the gospel invitation.
  5. They differ in their efficacy; for the old covenant “made nothing perfect,” it could effect none of the things it did represent, nor introduce that perfect or complete state which God had designed for the church. But this we have at large insisted on in our exposition of the foregoing chapter.

Lastly, They differ in their duration: for the one was to be removed, and the other to abide for ever; which must be declared on the ensuing verses.


It may be other things of an alike nature may be added unto these that we have mentioned, wherein the difference between the two covenants doth consist; but these instances are sufficient unto our purpose. For some, when they hear that the covenant of grace was always one and the same, of the same nature and efficacy under both testaments,—that the way of salvation by Christ was always one and the same,—are ready to think that there was no such great difference between their state and ours as is pretended. But we see that on this supposition, that covenant which God brought the people into at Sinai, and under the yoke whereof they were to abide until the new covenant was established, had all the disadvantages attending it which we have insisted on. And those who understand not how excellent and glorious those privileges are which are added unto the covenant of grace, as to the administration of it, by the introduction and establishment of the new covenant, are utterly unacquainted with the nature of spiritual and heavenly things.[2]


[1] Owen, John. 1854. An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. (Ed.) W. H. Goold. . Vol. 23. (Works of John Owen). Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter.

[2] Owen, John. 1854. An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. (Ed.) W. H. Goold. . Vol. 23. (Works of John Owen). Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter.

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