By Faith or By Works? Consider the Example of Noah!

Lorne Greene
Lorne Greene: best Noah voice ever

I doubt whether there is any point of theology that is not illustrated in or learned from a Bible story, or any Bible story the correct interpretation of which does not include at least one theological point.

According to popular lore, Protestants and Catholics disagree because Protestants think salvation is by faith and Catholics think it is by works. I don’t believe that lore. There are real theological differences lurking in the area (and I side with the Protestants), but it’s not exactly faith vs. works. C. S. Lewis’ point in Mere Christianity is pretty solid: The Catholics also believe in faith, and the Protestants also believe in works. And, more importantly, faith is works. There is no salvation by faith without repentance, and no repentance without obedience. Like James says in the New Testament, “I will show my faith by my works.”

Now consider the example of Noah (though Ruth and probably a number of other Bible stories would probably do just as well).

In this story (Genesis 6-8), the wickedness of mankind is so great and has wrought such damage on God’s good creation that God decides to wipe the earth clean of this wickedness and start again.

There is one righteous family on earth, that of Noah. God informs Noah of the coming disaster and instructs him to build an ark that he and his family may be saved, and that he may preserve creation along with him, keeping God’s marvelous animal creatures alive.

Noah obeys. He builds the big boat. He coats it with pitch and stocks up on food. He enters the ark with his family and the animals. The rains come, the floods come, water covers the earth for 150 days! God remembers Noah, the waters recede, the ark comes to rest on Mount Ararat. They leave the ark. Noah sacrifices a number of the clean animals to God. God is pleased with the sacrifice. God makes a covenant with Noah and, in fact, with all creation–promising that such a punishment for sin will never happen again. God places his bow in the sky as a sign of this promise.

There are some lessons from this passage. Three are very important (three often is the most important number), but two more are also helpful.

1. A holy and just God must punish sin.

2. A merciful God gives us a way of escape from the punishment for sin.

It’s not like Noah escapes from this punishment all by himself. He needs God to warn him, to give him the instructions for building the boat, to close the door after him, and to remember the boat’s occupants so that the boat comes to rest on dry land. The way of escape comes from God and it works because God makes it work.

Moreover, the text seems at least consistent with the possibility of others having the option of being saved–if only they would listen to Noah. The New Testament suggests as much: Peter calls Noah a kehrux, a herald or preacher or announcer. He was announcing the coming judgment to others, who did not heed his warning–but presumably could have.

3. The way of escape requires obedience.

Imagine that Noah, like the demons to whom James refers, believes what God says–and doesn’t do anything. He is then swept away by the flood waters.

And here is where the nature of faith and works becomes a bit clearer: Noah has faith, and shows it by his works. I think it is appropriate to say that his faith is his works; his belief is his obedience, and his obedience is his deeds.

4. Noah makes a sacrifice, and God is pleased with it.

This is the second animal sacrifice I know of in the biblical narrative which is made by man in honor to God. (The first one was from Abel, a few chapters earlier.) It’s also not the first sacrifice made on man’s behalf; it’s at least the second. The first one was made by God to cover the shame of sin around about the time Adam and Eve were leaving the Garden of Eden. Later in the Bible, of course, there are about a zillion other sacrifices given and required.

So the sacrifice is important. At this point in the narrative not much beyond the importance of offering thanksgiving and honor to God is apparent. (Although that is quite a bit!) Still, all sacrifices, according to the New Testament, point in one direction.

5. God places a bow in the sky pointing to heaven.

HortonThe English language is fortunate to use “rainbow” for the “bow” that appears in the sky after a rain. Apparently it’s an actual bow; think Legolas! It’s a bow pointing to the heavens, symbolically pointing to God. A weird gesture–as if God is putting himself on the line to ensure that his covenant is kept.

Anyway, that’s what I read in this book pictured to the right.  On the subject of faith and works, I highly recommend Dr. William E. Bell’s lectures on the Terms of Salvation, available here.