Previously, I introduced the role the Noahic covenant plays in the unfolding narrative of Scripture. I argued there that the Noahic covenant (1) reaffirms the creation covenant, (2) reminds God and man of Yahweh’s promise to never destroy the earth in judgment again, and (3) remains in force until Christ’s return. I highlighted then how someone like David VanDrunen, whom I engaged more thoroughly in a longform essay in the previous theme, would agree with each of these points.
In this article I move into Progressive Covenantalist distinctives, at least in comparison to VanDrunen’s understanding of the Noahic covenant. What I aim to show today is how the Noahic covenant is not merely an expression of common grace, but it also brims with the promise of Genesis 3:15, and therefore God’s covenant patience as instituted with Noah for the rest of time on earth includes a special or saving grace component. There has been a longstanding intramural debate amongst Reformed theologians as to whether God’s covenant with Noah is redemptive or common. I am of the belief that both sides are correct, in that I believe the Noahic covenant is both common/universal, preserving creation order, and particular/redemptive, as God’s deliverance of his elect is built into it. Which leads to points four and five on the heels of yesterday’s essay. Today I will argue how the Noahic covenant (4) renders two kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man, and (5) reveals Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness while anticipating the greater glory of the new covenant.
1. Richard Muller defines special grace as “the grace of God that is given savingly only to the elect.” Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms.
2. For an extended conversation on the history of debate within Reformed theology on this point, see Ronald L. Cammenga’s helpful treatment: “The Covenant with Noah: Common Grace or Cosmic Grace?,” Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, Vol. 40 no. 2 (April 2007).
Stephen Wellum rightly contends, “The Noahic covenant explains why fallen humanity simultaneously exists alongside God’s people until the consummation. Instead of continually wiping away fallen humanity and starting over again, two kingdoms emerge until the end: God’s kingdom or saving reign…and the kingdom of man or of this world.”
3. Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 686.
The antithesis that is first highlighted in Genesis 3:15 between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent becomes a key motif of the biblical storyline. As amplified in the Wellum quote above, the kingdom of God (seed of woman) and the kingdom of man (seed of serpent) are a theme that continues on all the way through Revelation. The Noahic covenant explains why God continues to put up with human folly and sin, and it also reveals to us why living in this fallen world is not as bad as it could be.
4. See Revelation chapters 12 and 17 in particular for the graphic illustrations of the war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent that still rages until Christ’s return in Revelation 19. Also, see David Schrock’s excellent primer on the central theme the long anticipated dragon-slayer plays across the biblical storyline.
In fact, the Tower of Babel narrative in Genesis 11 is an outworking of the Noahic covenant in history, such that the threat of globalism is curbed and the antithesis between the seed of the woman (Israel) and the seed of the serpent (Gentile nations) is upheld until the promised seed (Jesus) sends his church into all nations to make disciples and reverse Babel’s curse (Acts 2:1–12; Eph. 2:11–22; 4:1–5).
Notice how the apostle Paul teaches why God ordained and developed nations:
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us . . . The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:26–27; 30–31).
The Tower of Babel narrative is the means by which God separates the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, and through the national/geopolitical structures that result from this in human history, God elects Abraham/Israel. In short, one could say that God brings about his kingdom through covenant, and the outworking of Noahic covenant in the history of the biblical narrative plays a pivotal role in the movement of all of human history towards this goal.
5. Nationalism, within proper limits, has the divine sanction; an imperialism that would, in the interest of one people, obliterate all lines of distinction is everywhere condemned as contrary to the divine will. Later prophecy raises its voice against the attempt at world-power, and that not only, as is sometimes assumed, because it threatens Israel, but for the far more principal reason, that the whole idea is pagan and immoral. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), 59–60.
6. See the important work Kingdom Through Covenant, or the condensed version, God’s Kingdom Through God’s Covenants.
Let me pull some strands together here before moving on, because it is vital to understand, and especially in view of the ongoing debates surrounding topics like Christian Nationalism. In Genesis 3:15 a promise is made, not a covenant. This promise of the the seed of the woman crushing the serpent animates the OT’s hopes and dreams. In Genesis 8:20–9:7 God makes a covenant with Noah and all his posterity (which means every human being after the flood for the rest of human history) that establishes the structure by which he protects and promotes the seed of the woman promised prior. How will the seed of the woman come into the world? Eventually, through the reaffirmed call to be fruitful and multiply in Genesis 9:7. In Genesis 11, at the Tower of Babel, God intervenes in history by forcibly scattering the nations since they refused to fill the earth in submission to his calling (Gen. 11:3–4). Through this division he calls Abraham out of the nations he just formed. Then he promises Abraham a son/seed, and this son will be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1–3). This son is Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). When Jesus enters the scene and fulfills the hopes and dreams of the Old Testament by bruising the serpent’s head upon the cross, the resurrected Christ fulfills God’s promise to Abraham by then sending his church into all nations to make disciples (Matt. 28:18–20).
7. For more on why Progressive Covenantalism does not see Genesis 3:15 as a covenant, see Wellum’s introductory essay for this theme.
In Acts 1:8 Jesus tells his disciples: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Shortly thereafter, when the Spirit descends upon the apostles at Pentecost, they speak in tongues, and to the amazement of the crowds, “We hear . . . each of us in his own native language . . . we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:8–11). Therefore, in Christ and his church, the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, which is reinforced in ethnic separation, is destroyed (Eph. 2:11–22).
While the ethnic/national separation which God initiates in Genesis 11 is not inherently wrong (as we by no means want to charge God with wrongdoing), it is not the ideal. As Geerhardus Vos teaches, “It is true that in the abstract the unity of the [human] race, unbroken by national distinctions, is the ideal. Had sin not entered, this would undoubtedly have been the actual state of things, as it will become so in the final eschatological dispensation [cf. Gal. 3:28].” In agreement with Vos, I contend we must distinguish between God’s ideal call to “be fruitful, multiply, and increase greatly on the earth” (Gen. 9:7) and God scattering the nations and confusing languages due to human sin (Gen. 11:7–9). Should Adam have never sinned, there would have been complete unity without national distinctions between his posterity, and by the grace of God in the new heavens and earth this will be the case under the universal reign of Christ. At his return, Americans will no longer identify as Americans, Russians no longer as Russians, and Spaniards no longer as Spaniards. But all will identify as citizens of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:10).
8. Vos, Biblical Theology, 59–60.
9. At this point the careful reader may wonder how a mention of the “nations” in Revelation 21:24, 26; 22:2 fits into this schema. The point of these texts is not to highlight the continuing national distinctions between the nations but rather the expansive grace of God in unifying a once separated people into one nation. Note that gates, or boundary lines that separate nations from the threat of other nations, are eradicated (Rev. 21:25).
Therefore, nations as geo-political structures ought to be promoted by Christians until the return of Christ insofar as they are an outworking of the Noahic covenant which remains in force until Jesus returns. Nations still protect from the ongoing threat of globalism in a sin-cursed world, but it is crucial to understand these nations as post-fall, and not God’s original design. As Herman Bavinck explains, since grace is not fundamentally opposed to nature, but to sin, the blessedness of the saints communion with God and one another which “in principle already exists on earth, will nevertheless be incomparably richer and more glorious when all dividing walls of descent and language, of time and space, have been leveled, all sin and error have been banished, and all the elect have been assembled in the new Jerusalem.” The reversal of Babel as evidenced in the church now is a foretaste of the glory to come. Through the church God’s saving reign is taking place now (Eph. 3:10). Again, as Wellum captures well, “The Noahic covenant explains why fallen humanity simultaneously exists alongside God’s people until the consummation.”
10. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4:723.
The Old Testament often points back to the Noahic covenant in order to point forward to the greater glory of the new covenant. In fact, in Jeremiah 31 (where the new covenant may very well be most clearly articulated in the context of the old covenant), the prophet cites the Noahic covenant as proof positive that Yahweh will hold true to his word. Yahweh’s promise in Genesis 8:22 that “while the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” validates his faithfulness. Immediately after promising the new covenant, Yahweh declares:
Thus says Yahweh, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—Yahweh of hosts is his name: “If this fixed order departs from before me, declares Yahweh, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever” (Jer. 31:35–36).
In essence, Yahweh is declaring that the future and yet unseen glory of his new covenant that he just promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34 can be taken to the bank. And if his people want receipts, he beckons them to just look at the created order and its continuation as promised in the Noahic covenant. Yahweh’s common grace and patience towards sinners is not an end in itself, but is for the purpose of amplifying his long-suffering love on account of his chosen people prior to ushering in the fullness of the new creation.
It is vital to remember that just as the Noahic covenant is made with a typological figure (Noah) and includes his family, so too the new covenant is made with a figure (Jesus Christ) and includes his family (the church, see Heb. 3:6). As Wellum explains, “the nature of typology is not to say everything but to highlight certain aspects of a greater reality.” Types escalate as they anticipate their fulfillment. Noah constructed an ark and saves his family from God’s judgment, and he points to this greater reality in the new covenant: that Christ is the ark of deliverance from the floodwaters of God’s judgment, and “we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb. 6:18–19).
11. Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 100.
The judgment in the form of the worldwide flood in Noah’s day anticipates the greater flood of God’s wrath to be poured out upon God the Son incarnate. Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, believers find refuge from God’s just judgment, because while Noah “found favor in Yahweh’s eyes” (Gen. 6:8), Jesus Christ is the “beloved Son” in whom the Father is well pleased (Matt. 17:5; 2 Pet. 1:17; Ps. 2:7; Isa. 42:1; Eph. 1:6; Col. 1:13). All who are united to Christ by faith enter into his favor. This is the ultimate fulfillment of what the flood narrative foreshadows, as Noah stands as a Second Adam who
“in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household.” (Heb. 11:7)
Note how the language that describes Noah above also describes Christ below In an infinitely greater sense, Jesus Christ as the Last Adam
“offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” (Heb. 5:7-9)
The ark Noah constructed offered temporary deliverance from judgment, and Noah and each of his family members would eventually die. But as an “heir of the righteousness that comes by faith” Noah, “though commended through [his] faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us [he] should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39–40). Therefore, Noah was a signpost of future deliverance that would be permanent, perfect, and include all of God’s chosen people. What this means is that until the full number of God’s elect are brought to saving faith in Christ, the fullness of the new creation will not be ushered in. Or to put it positively, though Noah and the others in the “cloud of witnesses” mentioned in Hebrews 11 do not yet experience the fullness of the new creation, it is only because together with them we will be “caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). This future deliverance will include far more than eight people in all. We can rest assured that God will include and protect all of his chosen people inside the ark of the new covenant from his impending wrath (1 Thess. 5:9).
So why bother making the case that the Noahic covenant is both preservative and redemptive? What is lost if we reduce our understanding of God’s arrangement with Noah to one or the other? If it is indeed the case that many sound and faithful theologians have and are doing so, could it be that this is just an example of theological nitpicking? I think not. The implications of the Noahic covenant within a whole-Bible theology are massive, and it is the job of the theologian to go where the Bible takes us.
It is in the Noahic covenant where Christians find explicit scriptural warrant for the continuation of creation order and its institutions (family and state), and that these institutions will continue until Christ’s return. Why is it that Christians rightly expect our non-believing friends and family to live in accord with a biblical sexual ethic, meaning homosexuality, transgenderism, paedephilia, incest, bestiality, etc., are immoral and unnatural for all people and not just Christians? It is not primarily because the Mosaic covenant says so–though God’s law as revealed in the Mosaic covenant certainly does not contradict nature/created order. Rather, it is the structures of creation as reaffirmed in the Noahic covenant that bind each conscience and hold all humanity accountable to God on these matters.
12. For more on understanding how the “two ages” in Scripture relate with created order and redemption, see Jonathan Leeman’s “Not Two Kingdoms, But Two Ages,” The Gospel Coalition, August 22, 2016, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/not-two-kingdoms-but-two-ages/.
What happens when people break the Noahic covenant? Isaiah 24:5–6 shares a bleak picture: “The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the covenants, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore, a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore, the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left.” The harrowing stories increasingly making the news regarding detransitioners is a palpable and painful modern day manifestation of the earth’s “inhabitants suffering for their guilt.” Going against God’s good design in creation regarding gender and sexuality leads to devastating consequences.
13. For an explanation as to why I believe Isaiah is thinking specifically of the Noahic covenant in this passage, see my longform essay on the Noahic covenant.
Moreover, if we pluck the Noahic covenant from God’s special or redemptive grace, we lose the arc (not to mention the ark) of salvation. Meaning we lose the ways in which the Bible speaks of Noah as a type of Christ. As Wellum argued in an essay earlier this month: “The promise-fulfillment motif is central to how Scripture glues the diverse epochs of redemptive-history together…typology involves repetition of a person, event, or institution so that types are repeated in later persons, events, or institutions. This is how we discover the pattern.” In 1 Peter 3:20–21, the apostle teaches that we are to understand Noah’s ark and God’s deliverance of him as a type pointing forward to baptism, in which God’s elect are saved from the floodwaters of his wrath. To make the Noahic covenant out to be exclusively a common grace arrangement is to cut ourselves off from the rich ways in which the story of redemption across the biblical canon is revealed.
In the previous and current essay I have sought to briefly unpack how the Noahic covenant functions within the biblical storyline. This multifaceted arrangement God made with Noah: (1) reaffirms the creation covenant, (2) reminds God and man of Yahweh’s promise to never destroy the earth in judgment again, (3) remains in force until Christ’s return, (4) renders two kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man, and (5) reveals Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness and anticipates the greater glory of the new covenant. Progressive covenantalism, by reading the covenant(s) on their own terms in keeping with their placement and function within the whole of Scripture, enables us to receive and rejoice in all God does through it for us and our salvation as his one plan of salvation progresses through his covenants enroute to Christ.