Christianity Reviews

Forgotten Covenant: A Review

"Indeed, there is a caricature view among Christian that law is bad, and the gospel is good. But this is neither biblical nor helpful."
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I just recently finished reading Forgotten Covenant, by author and teacher, Ryan Watson. The premise of the book is very simple: there are many Christians who unnaturally separate the Old Covenant from the New Covenant, which has led them to forget that the Abrahamic Covenant ties together all of the covenants of scripture. This is both a sound premise and an important one to address.

If you ask most Christians have they read the whole Bible, they will respond no. If you ask most Christians have they read much of the Bible, again many will say no. If you ask most Christians if they can outline to you how the whole Bible fits together from beginning to end, and how to tie the account of Genesis through to their culmination in the life and work of Jesus Christ, you will have even less who can do this. Many Christians know that we who believe are children of Abraham, but they don’t know what this means. Many Christians know that God has a plan, but they think of this in purely subjective ways, rather than in terms of God’s expressed objective salvation plan as revealed in Scripture. It is all of these issues and more that Watson seeks to address in Forgotten Covenant.

These are not just theoretical issues either, they are directly related to some of the most important themes in Scripture, and the lack of a good understanding of these themes amongst many churches allows bad theologies to rise to the surface, like dispensational theology, for example. Indeed, this is a key theology that Watson seeks to address and refute in his book. However, Forgotten Covenant is not just a refutation of dispensational theology. It is a refutation of overly simplistic approaches to a Christian’s understanding of the Old Testament. This is both a larger task and an important one, as Christians, we must understand the whole counsel of God, and Watson is seeking to help with that. 

One of the things which I have observed in Baptist circles is that there is a complete misunderstanding of how important the Old Testament is to Christians. Some believers know that Genesis speaks of creation and that the Psalms are beautiful. But they do not understand that God was doing a work in Abraham that would finish in Jesus. They do not understand why the nation of Israel was so important in the history of God’s plan. They also do not understand just how good the Old Testament law is.

Indeed, there is a caricature view among Christian that law is bad, and the gospel is good. But this is neither biblical nor helpful. If this were the case then how could so many Old Testament passages refer to the goodness of God’s law, and why would Jesus have come to fulfil it? This is probably the most important issue that Watson addresses in his book, both that the law is good, and that we should not neglect understanding how it relates to the Christian understanding of God, his Scriptures and how we should live our lives.

Watson addresses this by showing the unity of the Scriptures and how each successive step in God’s plan fulfils an aspect that the previous steps were looking forward to. In this way, there is much similarity between Forgotten Covenant and Graham Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom. Watson shows how Abraham fits into God’s wider plan, how God brings a nation through Abraham, what this nation was meant to be, what were the characteristics of this nation, and along the way, he explains the place of circumcision, sacrifices and the covenant laws in the faith of the Old Testament believer. He also shows how there is a strong continuation between Abraham’s faith and the modern Christian’s faith. This is important, especially when you consider how foundational this is to Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans. 

Once you have finished Watson’s book, you will have a clear understanding of the continuity between Israel and the Church, the two are one and the same, with different expressions in different periods of God’s plan, and that God always intended to bring Gentiles into his people. In fact, he always has, right through the Old Testament period till now. You will also have a clearer understanding of the narrative structure of the Scriptures. It is one story, the story of how God is calling for himself a people, and that story has many parts, just as does the story of Frodo and Ring, or Luke and his quest to save his Father and defeat the Dark side of the Force.

Strengths

The strengths of Watson’s work are his easy to understand and approachable writing style. His use of contemporary illustrations from popular culture that most people will be familiar with. And his clarity of argument. Forgotten Covenant clearly highlights the unity of God’s plan throughout Scripture. The Old and New Testaments are not just semi-related books that have been attached together. They are both a consistent explanation of God’s focused and clear plan to redeem for himself a people, and they are intricately connected.

The structure of his argument is very well done, well researched and well presented. It is easy to follow and clear. This is important, not everyone can write in a systematically clear way, and Watson is able to do this effortlessly.

Perhaps because I prefer history books to theology books, I appreciated especially Watson’s emphasis in the flow of this book. This is a theology book placing God’s plan in it’s historical context. It reads like a historian approaching theology, he wants to tell a story, a true story, but a story all the same. This makes the book easier to digest, because it is not just a series of connected facts, but a persuasive argument presented around a narrative structure. This is how theology books should be written.

Weaknesses

I do think Watson does maybe oversell the continuity between the two covenants. His argument that referring to the Old Covenant as the Old Testament creates more of a divide than necessary is perhaps a bit hard to take in. However, it does not harm the worthiness of this book. He does acknowledge that the New Covenant refers to the Old, as the Old. But this overemphasis is perhaps born out of correcting some of the deplorable theologies out there that not only distinguish between covenants but do so to the point of divorcing them. There are teachers who are disparaging of the Old Covenant, and Watson is not one of them, and that is good.

I think this overemphasis also influences Watson’s approach to nationality/ethnicity. There is not enough of an understanding that God was creating a distinct ethnic people in Israel, not just a corporate people that all could be a part of called Israel. Yes, Gentiles could become part of Israel, but they had to give up their national identity to be fully grafted in (for example some ethnicities could never be full members and others took generations to be included Deut 28:3-8), this is what Ruth rejecting her gods signified. This is the key way the New Covenant is different to the Old, in Christ ethnicity is no barrier whatsoever and does not need to be renounced or changed or put under special conditions. This is a significant theme in Scripture and is handled differently by both covenants. Watson’s reading of New Testament inclusion back into the Old Testament version is a weakness. 

Audience

Who can read this book? Anyone really. I think this book is an appropriate introduction to the grand narrative of the Scriptures and would have a proper place in a biblical theology class. However, it is also useful for the lay Christian who just wants to understand the Bible better. It is by no means hard to read, and when it does discuss complicated concepts, Watson simplifies them so that the reader can easily digest them. When I was a young Christian I read Goldsworthy, and this helped me always have a clear understanding of the unity of Scripture and how it all fits together. Watson’s book would equally aid a young Christian in this endeavor, or the mature Christian who wants to explore an introduction to how God’s word fits together.

But enough from me, go onto Amazon and pick up a copy of this book and read it for yourself. You will be enriched in your understanding of Scripture from it.  


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