Noah and the work of faith
By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith(Hebrews 11:7).
Having considered ‘Abel and the nature of faith’ (ET November 2007), we now turn to Noah and the work of faith. In doing so we shall have to consider grace, faith and works and how they relate – a subject that generates much confusion among professing Christians.
How can a person be justified in the sight of God? Some teach that salvation is by works – that we are justified by our moral or religious actions. They appeal to such passages as the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46 to support their contention.
On the other hand, some who rightly maintain that we are justified by faith and not by works, find no place for sovereign grace in their scheme of salvation. They believe that everyone is capable of exercising faith in Christ – of making a human decision to accept or reject the gospel. God has done everything he can and must await man’s final decision.
Others, rightly, insist that we are saved by God’s grace alone, ‘not of works lest any man should boast’ (Ephesians 2:9). But they so emphasise grace that they give no place to faith in the justification of the sinner, fearing to make faith a ‘work’ by which we earn salvation.
Still others of a Reformed persuasion are so fearful of ‘works’ of any kind that they refrain from those good works that Scripture itself exhorts us to perform.
The ‘full story’, of course, is found in Ephesians 2:8-10: ‘By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them’.
Let us see these principles worked out in the life of Noah.
Faith begins with the grace of God
In Genesis 6:8 we read: ‘But Noah found grace [or favour] in the eyes of the Lord’. Faced with impending judgement on an ungodly world, Noah alone ‘found grace’; that is, he became the object of God’s free and unmerited mercy – a beneficiary of ‘the grace of God that brings salvation’ (Titus 2:11).
Genesis continues: ‘Noah was a just man, perfect [upright] in his generations. Noah walked with God’ (6:9). We are also told that Noah was a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5).
So was it Noah’s righteousness that caused God to show grace towards him? Not at all. If it were, then the ‘grace’ he received was not grace at all but a reward for an upright life. As Paul points out, ‘If [election to life] is by grace, then it is no longer of works. Otherwise grace is no longer grace’ (Romans 11:6; 4:1-4); that is, grace by its very nature is ‘prevenient’ – it comes before everything else. The first thing mentioned about Noah in the narrative of Genesis 6 is that he found grace. Only then are we told that he walked with God and lived an upright life.
Noah’s righteous conduct was the consequence of God’s grace not its cause. Noah walked with God because he was the recipient of divine favour. Noah preached righteousness because by grace he had already become an ‘heir of the righteousness which is according to faith’ (Hebrews 11:7).
Taking Genesis and Hebrews together, therefore, we arrive at a synthesis. In prevenient grace, God imparted to Noah the gift of faith – which, in turn, enabled Noah to believe in God and in the ‘things not yet seen’ that God revealed to him. Consequently he took the action (performed the works) prescribed by God and was saved from destruction along with his family.
Noah’s faith clearly preceded his work of building of the ark, for without faith he would neither have heard God’s warning nor obeyed God’s word.
Faith believes the word of God
My second point is that faith feeds on the word of God – it believes what God says! We are not told exactly how God spoke to Noah, but the message was clear: ‘And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before me … I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood …”’ (Genesis 6:13-14).
Today God speaks through his written Word, the Bible. Is this ‘second best’ compared to the direct revelation that Noah received? Not according to the apostle Peter. Comparing Scripture with his own vision of Christ’s transfiguration, he describes written Scripture as a ‘more sure word of prophecy’, produced as ‘holy men of God spoke, moved by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Peter 1:16-21). ‘The [written] word of God … lives and abides for ever’ (1 Peter 1:23). Many other scriptures could be cited to the same effect.
Noah appears in Hebrews 11 simply because, being a man of faith, he heard God speak, believed what he heard, and acted upon it! You cannot separate these three things. In order to believe we must hear what God says, for ‘faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God’ (Romans 10:17). But the reality of our faith is only established when we act on what we hear. Noah sets us an example we should follow.
Faith does the work of God
My final point, therefore, is that having heard God’s word, faith acts upon it. When God revealed to Noah ‘things that were not yet seen’, he was ‘moved with godly fear’ and got to work building the ark – an immense task that took him anything up to 100 years. At the same time he preached righteousness, no doubt passing on the warning he had himself received to an unbelieving generation.
Such ‘godly fear’ is a valid motivation for evangelism today, for Paul writes: ‘Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord we persuade men’ (2 Corinthians 5:11). A recognition of coming judgement should move Christians urgently to make Christ known.
But above all, Noah’s great work of building the ark and saving his family was the fruit of his faith – which itself was the product of grace. Faith necessarily sets the believer to work! Paul commends the Thessalonians first and foremost for their ‘work of faith’ (1 Thessalonians 1:3).
This creates problems for some. Is not faith opposed to works? Doesn’t salvation come ‘by grace … through faith … not of works lest anyone should boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9)? Yes, indeed, but we are not talking here about the cause of salvation but about its consequence, which is a very different thing.
The underlying problem is one of theological confusion. We are so concerned to reject legalism and works-justification that we forget that in Scripture ‘works’ (as performed by man) can mean three totally different things.
There are firstly the ‘works of the flesh’, meaning the sinful acts of unregenerate men (Galatians 5:19-21). There are secondly ‘the works of the law’ – actions which, though good in themselves, cannot justify a man in God’s sight because they are never perfectly performed (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16). And there are finally the ‘good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them’ (Ephesians 2:10).
Good works in the purpose of God
This last quotation comes from a passage that is definitive on the subject of grace, faith and good works. Ephesians 2:1-10 provides a mighty affirmation of salvation by grace. Not only does Paul state that salvation is by grace alone but he gives reasons why it must be so.
Man by nature is ‘dead in trespasses’ and abides under God’s wrath. He can do nothing to acquire spiritual life – so that salvation must stem from the undeserved mercy and love of God, who makes the sinner alive together with Christ.
The purpose of salvation is to ‘show the exceeding riches of his grace … in Christ Jesus’. Along with the faith that appropriates it, therefore, salvation is ‘the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast’. As saved sinners ‘we are his workmanship [not our own] created in Christ Jesus’.
But then comes the bombshell – believers are ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them’ (v.10). Everyone who is ‘appointed to eternal life’ (Acts 13:48) is also appointed to live a life that abounds in good works.
Such works are the evidence, the fruit, and the necessary outworking of grace and the faith which it imparts. Grace, faith and good works are nowhere in conflict but are inseparably joined in the eternal purposes of God. We need to be reminded constantly that this is so.
The whole counsel of God
‘Good works’ are exhorted consistently throughout the New Testament and we must teach them if, with Paul, we desire to ‘declare … the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27). I would go so far as to say that the absence of good works by evangelical and reformed Christians grieves the Spirit of God and is a leading cause of fruitlessness in our witness and evangelism.
Finally, consider the teaching of James 2:14-26 where the apostle makes a vital distinction between genuine faith and ‘faith’ that is merely intellectual or emotional. He points out that ‘the demons believe and tremble!’ (v.19). Satan and his hosts have perfect theology because they understand more clearly than anyone who God is and what Christ has accomplished. But such knowledge does not save them because it does not constitute the Spirit-given gift of faith in Christ.
In the same way, James argues, ‘faith without works is dead’ (vv. 17, 20, 26). Such ‘faith’ is belief without obedience, knowledge without love. ‘Faith’ that sees the needs of others and does nothing is ‘faith without works’ and is dead (vv. 14-16). Abraham was ‘justified by works’ when he offered up Isaac (v.21) – because the action (work) demonstrated the reality of his faith in both the power and purpose of God.
James sums it up with a challenge: ‘Show me your faith without your works [if you can!] and I will show you my faith by my works!’ (v.18). Only faith that bears the fruit of good works is living faith. We need more of it in our churches and in our hearts.
An address given at the FIEL Portugal Conference, 22-25 October 2007