How long has it been since you’ve heard a sermon from your pastor on Noah, the ark, and the flood? It seems the only place I hear about Noah’s journey is when my children bring home from Sunday School crafts depicting the ark full of animals, two by two.
My cynical side says some pastors shy away from preaching on Noah and the ark. Standing up and giving credence to the historicity of the flood is tricky: Do I qualify how the text and the archaeological record can work together? Do I avoid what contemporary minds may question about the passage, and preach on the amazing events of Genesis chapters 6-9 for their theological purpose solely? It puts pastors in a tough spot.
Yet, as Abraham Kuyper suggests, Noah and the ark gives preachers a blessed opportunity to equip us to live missionally in our vocations. Kuyper, a Dutch theologian and former prime minister of the Netherlands, takes a new look at Noah’s journey by seeing the work of God’s common grace in the world.
What is Common Grace?
Common grace is the good work of God in the world. Common grace is different than special grace, which is the specific work of God in Jesus Christ that brings about redemption and restoration. Common grace describes for us the ways in which God loves, cares, and nurtures the people, institutions, and cultures both touched and untouched by the gospel. All people enjoy the benefits of common grace.
Jesus says in Matthew 5:45, “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” So if God’s rain falls on the non-believing farmer’s crops just as it may fall on my crops or yours, praise the Lord! Thank you, God, for this common grace.
This means that we find God at work for and with us, as believers, and in non-Christians and non-Christian cultures all around us. For many disciples of Christ, common grace is a new idea, and for some a radical one. Does God bring blessing to Muslims? Or as theologian Richard Mouw asked recently, “Does God care for the Muslim woman’s child, and provide a blessing of grace to that child? Might that blessing of grace be the human advancements in medical care in a refugee camp?
Common grace also helps us think in the big picture of things when it comes to cultural development. Does God help bring about the clean water system of Chongqing, a place where the gospel has not deeply penetrated the culture, by enlightening Chinese engineers, city planners, local politicians, and municipal bond markets?
In his seminal work, Common Grace, Kuyper finds in the events of Noah, specifically the Noahic covenant, God’s common grace at work.
Prior to the flood, Kuyper notes that scripture states,
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. (Gen. 6:5 NIV)
Noah, alone, finds favor with God and, therefore, is worth saving. (I find it infinitely interesting that Noah’s wife and three sons, we could deduce, are considered evil while Noah gets a pass.) Scripture again states,
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. (6:11-12)
Creation’s goodness, except for Noah, is gone. The effects of the fall in Genesis 3 have overcome all things at this point in the Biblical narrative. Kuyper says that without God’s common grace the effects of the fall are all-consuming and insidious.
It is as if God removed his common grace from Genesis 4-6, and look at what happened! Everything fell apart. Evil abounds, violence grows, and humans could only hold it together for so long.
The flood, then, is really a creation reset. In Genesis 8:21-22 God establishes with Noah a new covenant, and actually uses the same word for word covenant he had with Adam. We read:
The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.
“As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night will never cease.”
These words (the Noahic Covenant) about God’s faithfulness in this moment, and throughout Scripture, are beautifully are expressed in that well known hymn, Great is Thy Faithfulness. Pause here a moment, and take in this hymn, lifting your heart to the Lord. Choose one of three styles: Congregational singing, One Sonic Society adaptation, or Gospel Coalition corporate worship version and consider God’s faithfulness to Noah, Noah’s descendants, and in your life.
So, now, long after the flood, we see what it is that keeps humans from going backward to full anarchy, and to avoid God’s wrath from visiting its fury upon the ever sinister creep of sin and the infection that spreads through the broken bones of creation. The answer is common grace.
That common grace is seen in your vocational work, and that of your non-believing co-worker.
I have found as a pastor the idea of common grace brings relief to fellow Christ-followers in my congregation. It creates for them categories in which God is at work in other non-Gospel penetrated places. It affirms the goodness of creation. Common grace appropriates the place of creation’s brokenness and our opportunity to co-labor with God in the work of redemption and restoration.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 about the rain falling on the just and unjust in the Sermon on the Mount belies much of what we hear from our pulpits. Much of late twentieth century evangelical preaching suggested or explicitly called out the world as an evil place where the devil roams and temptations abound. While there is much truth here, when we rarely pause to consider that, yes, indeed, God intentionally works to bring sunlight, rain, etc. we undermine who God is and who He has called us to be.
God is also at work to see that societies and civilizations mature, advance, and flourish. Oh, we still have war, set back, nuclear proliferation, hungry children, and environmental collapse, but on the whole, the world is progressing in ways for which we simply cannot give humans the credit.
The Noahic Covenant leads God to provide a grace, albeit common and non salvific, that places other’s work and cultural contribution within his sovereignty. Knowledgeable of common grace, you have a category to understand your co-workers’ contribution, even another non-Gospel penetrated culture’s contribution.
For the draftsman, hygienist, investor, real estate agent, or ___________________ (fill in the blank for your vocation) a healthy understanding of common grace helps us to see that our work on Monday is comparable to the work of non-believers; each has equal veracity. Christian realty, Christian research, Christian banking, and Christian retail are not better than that which a non-believer produces, and yet our internal dichotomy between the sacred and secular suggests there is. Sadly, there is much sacred/secular dualism inherent in preaching that further affirms our misguided notions that the fruit from Christian work is sweeter (better) than that of the non-believer. This fallacy is compounded by our own self-inflated views that is bent on spreading the sacred even wider via jobs, businesses, and initiatives marked with the adjective christian.
May it not be!
So, ask your pastor to preach Noah. Engage, once again, the story of Noah, the ark, and the re-covenanting he shows us with God and his grace. Go and break the sacred/secular dualism in your congregation. Go re-covenant with your people, and help them do the same with one another and their neighbor. Go and love your neighbor. Go and help to recover the beauty of common grace.
Dr. Case Thorp leads The Collaborative for Cultural and Economic Renewal, is the Senior Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, and is currently serving as the Moderator of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church General Assembly.