The biblical narrative of Noah doesn’t fit neatly into the contemporary paradigm of the Protestant Reformation. But understanding Noah will assist us in returning to a truly biblical and balanced reformation in church and culture.
Noah obeyed God comprehensively
Noah obeyed God to the letter. That’s the meaning of “he did all that God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22). The emphasis is on the comprehensiveness of his obedience. Faith is obedience, and faith issues in obedience. If we believe God, if we take God at his word, we obey, and we obey comprehensively. We aren’t cafeteria Christians. We don’t choose what to obey and what not to obey. Noah didn’t say, “I believe God, and I’ll build and ark for me and my family, but this business of constructing a boat to haul hundreds of animals is excessive. God doesn’t expect me to go to such lengths.” Or, “Why does it have to be 300 by 50 by 30 cubits? God is so arbitrary. I’ll do my own engineering calculations and then decide.” No. Noah had faith that God knew better than he did, so Noah obeyed to the letter. Noah didn’t see himself as wiser or more advanced or more “progressive” than God. Noah believed God, and he acted on his belief — as all true faith results in godly action.
As a result, God favored Noah. We might say that, in an evil culture, Noah was God’s favorite (Gen. 6:8). God destroyed the entire world except for Noah and his family. That’s how much God favored Noah. Noah rubbed shoulders with God; that’s the literal meaning of “Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). Noah took God at his word. And Noah obeyed God to the letter. This is why God favored Noah.
What Roman Catholicism taught
Christians haven’t always been entirely comfortable with this truth, particularly those in the Protestant Reformation tradition. That tradition was launched as a result of the questions: Whom does God favor, and how, and why? In the medieval era, the Roman Catholic Church taught salvation is by both faith and works. God sent his Son to die on the Cross to save us. If we exercise faith in him and perform good works, he will justify us, or declare us righteous, on the final day. These good works were all wrapped up in the sacramental system of the church: baptismal regeneration, the mass, indulgences, and purgatory. The church itself, in effect, stands in for Jesus Christ. To get into Jesus Christ, you must first get into the church.
What the Protestant Reformation taught
The great rediscovery of Martin Luther is that salvation is not by what we can do, but by what Jesus Christ has done on the Cross. By simple faith we trust in him, and his righteousness becomes ours. The Reformation was a recovery of Pauline theology. We are saved by grace through faith and not of ourselves or our good works (Eph. 2:8–10). The Reformation re-situated the gospel at the center of the church. This means that it re-situated salvation by Christ alone at the heart of the church. You get into the church by first getting into Jesus Christ.
The Reformation (over)reaction
In practice, this meant that every recovery of the great cause of the Reformation also included a deep suspicion of good works and obedience. This is just what the early Roman Catholics had predicted would happen. It’s not what should happen. Reformation teaching, properly understood, does not entail suspicion of good works and obedience. John Calvin made his point abundantly clear. For him, the central truth of soteriology is union with Jesus Christ. When we become one with Jesus Christ by faith, we do not get only justification; we get sanctification. In other words, God saves us apart from works, to good works. And if we do not perform good works, we only prove that we have not been justified.
Did God favor Noah because of his good works?
But this was a relatively technical point for many people, and for them the Reformation truth reduced largely to this: “I’m saved by grace apart from works, and I dare not stress good works. If I do, I’ll undermine the work of the Cross.”
So when they come to the Bible’s teachings like those about Noah (and there are many others in the Bible, and not just in the book of James), they get uncomfortable. They’re often at pains to make sure we don’t understand Moses to be teaching that Noah gained God’s favor by good works. But the fact is, this is precisely what Moses is teaching. He’s teaching that Noah was God’s favorite because he loved and obeyed God. The book of Hebrews teaches the same thing (11:7). His faith was an act of obedience, and his faith led to further obedience. The implication of the alternative is just as true: if Noah hadn’t believed God; if he hadn’t walked with God; if he hadn’t obeyed God, he would’ve perished with the rest of the world.
The teaching of Genesis 6 isn’t that Noah and his family were just as depraved as the rest of the world, but that God sovereignly selected Noah and protected him from the flood. There is nothing whatsoever in either Genesis or Hebrews to give us that idea. That Noah found favor with God does not mean that Noah was an abject sinner, but that in the abundance of God’s love, he saved him anyway by grace alone. If that’s what happened, Moses missed a golden opportunity to tell us.
What Moses is and isn’t teaching
Make no mistake: no one is sinless. Were it not for God’s grace (gift), Noah could not have walked with God, trusted God, obeyed God. Noah was saved the way everyone else in the history of the world has been saved: by the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, the pre-Christian saints looking forward in prospect, and the Christian saints looking back in retrospect. We’re saved by the blood and resurrection of Jesus. We gain Jesus’ righteousness by our faith and not by our works (Tit. 3:5).
But this isn’t the point that Moses is making. It’s also not the point that the writer of Hebrews 11 is making. Nor is it the point that James is making. Nor is it the point that many other biblical writers make, including Paul (see Rom. 2:6–7; 6:3–4), although all of them believed in salvation by grace through faith. Their point, however, is that God favors those who love and obey him, and he disfavors those who do not love and obey him. And this point is taught so clearly and frequently in the Bible, that we almost have to work hard to miss it.
Moses isn’t trying to teach us about justification or even about sanctification. He’s telling us why Noah was God’s favorite, and, by implication, how we can be God’s favorites too. He’s telling us why God judged almost the entire world, and what we ourselves can do to avoid God’s judgment. He’s teaching that obedient faith, and obedience that results from Faith, are the only way to please God and the only way to avert God’s judgment.
According to Moses, if you want God’s favor, trust in him and obey him. If you want God’s judgment, do not trust him and disobey him.
God has not complicated how we please him. Noah was living proof.
It’s about time many Protestants today allow Moses’ truth about Noah to shape their own view and practice of salvation, faith, and obedience.