1. The SUBSTANCE of the Covenant of Grace: We learn of what we have been given in Christ
We can also see in the covenant with Noah some of the things that God has freely bestowed on us in the gospel. 1 Corinthians 2:12 says, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God.” God has freely given us so many things in the gospel—in the Covenant of Grace—and we get a glimpse of what some of these things are in God's covenant with Noah. There are two things in particular we could mention:
A) PEACE with God: We saw how God saved Noah and his household from the wrath of the flood in Genesis 6. After the flood, God confirms His covenant with Noah and his sons in Genesis 9. And God gives His word that He would never again destroy the earth with a flood. Now, again, in a very real sense, this was a temporal promise given not just to Noah and his sons—but all humanity—as the earth would be repopulated through Noah's sons. And it wasn't even just to all humanity, but even to all the animals with Noah on the ark (9:10,12). But the question is—is this the only thing that Scripture means to teach us through this passage? I believe that there is more that the Lord wants to teach us here than just the fact that He made a temporal promise to all creation to never again flood the earth. I believe that there are truths here that God wants us to see about the gospel and the Covenant of Grace—not just temporal promises to all humanity—but eternal promises to His people:
Let's turn to Isaiah and read again together what Scripture tells us in Isaiah 54:9-10: “ 'For this is like the days of Noah to Me, when I swore that the waters of Noah would not flood the earth again; so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you nor will I rebuke you. For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, but My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, and My covenant of peace will not be shaken,' says the Lord who has compassion on you.” 1
Now remember where Isaiah 54 is. It comes right after Isaiah 53, which is the clearest prophecy in the Old Testament about who the Savior is and how He would accomplish redemption for His people. And it's in that context that we read in Isaiah 54 of the promises that God is making to those for whom the Savior would shed His blood. Isaiah 53 is about how the Messiah would accomplish redemption; Isaiah 54 is about what that means for all those who belong to the Messiah.
And in order to illustrate what the Messiah's atoning death would mean for God's people, the Lord points back to His covenant with Noah in Genesis 9. And, in effect, He is saying: “Look—if you want to understand how incredibly wonderful and secure your standing is in the Covenant of Grace—then go back and study the covenant I made with Noah.2 Just as I made a solemn promise to Noah and his sons to never again flood the earth—so it is with My promise to you in the Covenant of Grace: The wrath I poured out on others, I shall never pour out on you. You have entered into My peace.”
Notice also that the promise that God made to Noah was completely unconditional. God didn't say: “Noah, I've saved you from the flood. Now, if you obey Me fully and live like a good Christian and always keep My commandments and never stray away from Me, then I won't send another flood.” No, that's not what God said. The promise was totally unconditional; it was in no way conditional on Noah and what he did or didn't do. Don't you think that Noah might have gotten a little nervous, when after the flood, the clouds began to darken once again and it was obvious a big storm was on its way? “Uh oh.” He might have gotten nervous at times—but the wonderful thing is, he didn't have to.
Why? Because God keeps His promises. And as it was with Noah, so it is with us. Here in Isaiah 54, God refers to the covenant He's made with His people as “My covenant of peace” (v10). In Christ, we have come out from under God's wrath, and have entered into His peace: “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). We may at times still give in to doubts and fears, just like Noah may have. But, just like Noah, we don't have to.
B) The BLESSING of God: And if this was all that God gave us—it would still be unbelievable. But God has given us so much more. Salvation is so much more than just—we don't have to go to hell anymore. In the Covenant of Grace, God hasn't just taken away His wrath—He's lavished upon us His blessing. Let's turn back to Genesis 9 and read together Genesis 9:1: “And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.' ” This might sound familiar, and the reason it does is that this is exactly what God had said to Adam back in Genesis 1:28. God is repeating here to Noah the same thing He had said to Adam back in the garden. But the reason this is so amazing is that when God blessed Adam in Genesis 1:28, that was before Adam had sinned. God's blessing was upon Adam—but that was before Adam fell into sin. And we don't read anything about God's blessing for over 1600 years because Adam's fall lost that blessing—and all mankind with him. But now, here once again, in light of the sweet aroma of the burnt offerings at the end of chapter 8, God smells the sweet fragrance, “And God blessed Noah.” What we see here is that the blessing that we had in the garden at creation—that Adam lost—is brought back to us in the Covenant of Grace. Isn't that amazing? All that humanity possessed in Eden—but had lost through the fall—is fully restored once again in and through Jesus Christ—in the Covenant of Grace.3
2. The BASIS of the Covenant of Grace: We learn how God lavishes His grace on sinners
Sin brings a curse—so why is it that we find God blessing Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:1? Well, we alluded to it above. The answer is found at the end of Genesis 8. Chapter divisions are good, but we have to remember that they are not part of the original text. Sometimes chapters are put in the right place, and sometimes they're not. And here, in my opinion, Genesis chapter 9 is in the wrong place, because Genesis 8:20 begins a thought that doesn't end until 9:19. Genesis 8:20-9:19 is one unified section of Scripture. And the reason this is important is that there is an intimate connection between Noah's offering (in 8:20-22) and God's covenant with Noah and his sons (in 9:1-17). Noah's burnt offering is inseparably bound together with God's covenant with Noah and his sons.
How are they bound together? God's covenant blessings and promises (in chapter 9) are established upon Noah's sacrifice of atonement (in chapter 8). The sweet-smelling sacrifice on the altar was the basis of God's covenant blessings and promises to Noah and his sons.4 Why does this matter? Because it points us to the reality that Jesus' finished work is the only basis of the covenant blessings that God continues to pour out upon sinners like us. Jesus' blood purchased every blessing and promise in the Covenant of Grace for all God's people. As one put it: “[the] blessing of Noah and his sons after the offering upon the altar. . .[was founded] upon a new basis. Adam and Eve received blessing on the ground of their creature purity; Noah and his sons (as the representatives of the entire election of grace) received blessing on the ground of their acceptance and perfection in Christ.” 5
This becomes even more clear when we read again what the Lord said after Noah offered up the burnt offerings on the altar: Genesis 8:21 says, “The Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the Lord said to Himself, 'I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man's heart is evil from his youth. . .” Now, look carefully at the reason the Lord is giving here for promising to never again destroy the earth with a flood: “for the intent of man's heart is evil from his youth.”6 In other words, human nature hadn't changed. God would bless Noah and his sons—not because they weren't sinners anymore—but completely despite the ongoing presence of sin in their hearts and lives.
Now, how could God do this? Before the flood, man's wickedness was the reason He had destroyed the earth in the first place. Why is it different now? Why is it that God destroyed the earth because of man's sin then, but He won't destroy it anymore now? Is God just changing His mind? Is God changing His character? Is God saying that from now on He's going to be a loving God instead of a righteous and holy and just God? No. Just as man's condition hasn't changed, God's character hasn't changed either—God's character doesn't change. What has changed is God's disposition. Not His disposition towards sin—but His disposition towards sinners. And the reason God's disposition towards sinners has changed is because of the sweet smelling offering on the altar: “The Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the Lord said to Himself. . .” Man hadn't gotten any better. And God hadn't decided to stop being righteous. But the sweet fragrance of Noah's burnt offerings had propitiated His wrath. Not even the flood had pacified God's anger against sin (He doesn't say this after 8:19)!! But God's wrath was fully and completely satisfied through the blood of atonement.7
A) Christ's blood is the basis of our PEACE with God: We talked about the things freely given to us by God—and how one of those things is peace with God. Now, we have to realize first of all that this is something different than the peace of God. The peace of God is subjective; it comes and goes based on our feelings or experiences. But peace with God is rock-solid. And why do those who belong to Jesus have peace with God? Is it because we don't deserve God's wrath as much anymore because our sin isn't as bad as it used to be? No. It's because, as Scripture says, through Christ God has reconciled all things to Himself, “having made peace through the blood of His cross.” 8 Think back again to those verses in Isaiah. Why will God not pour out His anger on His people in Isaiah 54? Because He already poured all of it out on His Son in Isaiah 53.9 And the cross continues to be the only basis of our peace with God through all the ups and downs of our Christian life. It was the cross alone that first brought us peace; and it's the cross alone that ever maintains that peace.
B) Christ's blood is the basis of the BLESSING of God: We talked about God's blessing as being one of the things freely given to us by God. And just as it is with God's peace—so it is with God's blessing: the cross is the only basis and source of God's blessing. Jesus' blood purchased God's blessing for all those who belong to Him: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us. . .in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles. . .” (Galatians 3:13-14). Now, what this means is that if you belong to Jesus, God's blessing doesn't come and go depending on how spiritual of a day you're having or how good of a Christian you're being. Do you realize that? Why? Because God's blessing isn't based on you at all. Adam's blessing in the Covenant of Works was contingent on his obedience. But in the Covenant of Grace, the full presence of God's blessing in your life isn't based on what you do—it's based solely on what Jesus did. Through His blood, Jesus purchased for all who belong to Him the full blessing of God.10
God's peace and blessing and everything else He's promised to you are based solely on the finished work of Christ. As with Noah's offering, God has smelled the soothing aroma of the blood of Jesus, and He is well pleased, and now speaks to you nothing but words of blessing and peace. As Noah's offering was the basis of God's covenant blessings and promises to Noah and his sons, Jesus' blood is the basis—and the only basis—of God's covenant blessings and promises to us in Christ.
3. The STABILITY of the Covenant of Grace: We learn about the security we have in Christ
The covenant that God makes with Noah and his sons in Genesis 9 is called an “everlasting covenant.” We see this in two places. In verse 12, the Lord says that the covenant He is making would be, literally, “for everlasting generations.” Then in verse 16, the Lord refers to this covenant as the “everlasting covenant.” Now, we've already seen (in Isaiah 54:9-10) that this covenant God is making with Noah and his sons is about more than just not destroying the earth again with a flood—that it's meant to point us to truths about the Covenant of Grace—about the gospel, and the redemption Christ accomplished, and what that means for God's people. So, the fact that God calls this covenant an everlasting covenant is meant to teach us something about the Covenant of Grace. It's here to point us to the security that we have in Christ. And, if there was any doubt about that from this passage, it's made crystal clear in other parts of Scripture. When Jeremiah looked forward to the New Covenant, he referred to it as “an everlasting covenant” (32:40). In the same way, the Lord spoke through the prophet Ezekiel about the New Covenant in this way: “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them” (37:26). So the New Covenant is spoken of as an everlasting covenant, just as the covenant here with Noah and his sons. And what that means is that the everlasting-ness of God's covenant with Noah is meant to point us to the everlasting-ness of the Covenant of Grace that is promised in the New Covenant.
We can see this in one other way in the context of God's covenant with Noah. At the end of Genesis 8, between Noah's offering in 8:20 and God's blessing of Noah and his sons in 9:1, we read in Genesis 8:21-22: “The Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the Lord said to Himself, 'I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man's heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” Alright, now hold your place there and turn with me to Jeremiah 33. Now, Jeremiah 31-33 is a prophecy of the coming of the New Covenant—the reality that all the manifestations of the Covenant of Grace in the Old Testament pointed to. And here in Jeremiah 33, this is what the Lord declares in order to illustrate the security and permanence of God's purposes of grace towards us in the New Covenant:
Jeremiah 33:20-26: "Thus says the Lord, 'If you can break My covenant for the day and My covenant for the night, so that day and night will not be at their appointed time, then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant. . .Thus says the Lord, 'If My covenant for day and night stand not, and the fixed patterns of heaven and earth I have not established, then I would reject the descendants of Jacob and David My servant. . ."11
What is the Lord doing? He is referring back to the covenant with Noah—and to Genesis 8:22 in particular. And He's saying—look--if you can do something to break the promise I made to Noah about preserving the fixed patterns of the earth, then—and only then—can you break My Covenant of Grace. If you can stop the sun and moon from coming up, then—and only then—can you nullify or mess up or revoke your standing in the Covenant of Grace. But until then, forget about it—there's nothing you can do to alter the covenant promises I've made to you. And that's not all. Notice that God is not only saying: If you can stop the sun and moon from coming up, you can break My Covenant of Grace (vv20-21)—but He's saying if you can defy time and space so as to make it so that the sun and moon never came up to begin with (vv25-26)—only then can you break My Covenant of Grace with you—but not until then. Your standing in the Covenant of Grace is that secure. It's impossible to change God's purposes of grace towards you. You couldn't do it if you tried. You just don't have that kind of power. God is telling us that there is absolutely nothing we can do to nullify or change or revoke the promises that He's made to us in the Covenant of Grace: “For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, but My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, and My covenant of peace will not be shaken” (Isaiah 54:10). God's promises are forever.
1 Goodwin says: “That these words speak, in the first place, [to] the pure covenant of grace, and the everlastingness and perpetuity of that grace and covenant, as it flows in God's heart in and from election, may be apparent in the very reading the words. . .” (Works, V9, p42). And Pink also: “How plainly this shows that the covenant with Noah not only afforded a practical demonstration of the unfailing faithfulness of God in fulfilling its temporal promise to the world, but also that the church was the chief object and subject concerned in it. Why did the Lord promise to preserve the earth until the end time, so that it should not again be destroyed by a flood? The answer is, because of the church” (A.W. Pink, Divine Covenants).
2 This is how Goodwin also understood it: “[It is] As if he should say, 'This is that very thing which I intended to prefigure and fore-signify, then when I sat at the flood (as Psalm 29:11) in and by those passages with Noah, which were at and about his flood, which God calls the waters of Noah. This, even this, which I even now have spoken of, my grace and mercy to my church, who are his sons and posterity, in the words immediately before; even this was the mind and mystery of those my promises, which I made then to him upon occasion of and about those waters. . .” (Goodwin, Works, V9, p57).
3 And more. . .is this hinted at in Genesis 9:3? This may be a bit of a stretch, but I think a good example here might be Rapunzel's song in Disney's Tangled: “Flower, gleam and glow; let your power shine. Make the clock reverse; bring back what once was mine. Heal what has been hurt; change the fate's design. Save what has been lost; bring back what once was mine.” Adam had God's blessing—but lost it. Jesus came to make the clock reverse; to bring back what once had been ours.
4 Thomas Goodwin: “'The Lord smelled a sweet savor,' a savor of rest, as in the Hebrew, that is, of peace; 'and said in his heart,' etc, 'he would curse the earth no more,' and thereupon established that covenant that follows. And that Noah, the father of that new world to come, was herein a type of Christ, and that this sacrifice of his was the type of Christ's sacrifice, we all acknowledge from the warrant of that allusion, and sameness of language the apostle uses of Christ's sacrifice. . .For look, as in the latter part of that 8th chapter he relates the story of Noah's sacrifice, that then in the 9th chapter he records that covenant thereupon;” (Works, V9, p74). Jonathan Edwards: “The sacrifice of Christ was represented by Noah’s building an altar to the Lord, and offering a sacrifice of every clean beast, and every clean fowl. And we have an account of God accepting this sacrifice: and thereupon he blessed Noah, and established his covenant with him, and with his seed, promising to destroy the earth in like manner no more; signifying that it is by the sacrifice of Christ, God’s favor is obtained, and his people are in safety from destroying judgments, and obtain the blessing of the Lord.” Francis Roberts: “God took occasion to make this Covenant, upon Noah's sacrificing of burnt-offerings upon an altar to Him, whereupon God smelled a sweet savor of rest, and said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more, etc. God made this Covenant, being pacified with Noah's burnt-offerings. How could Noah's burnt-offerings pacify God, or afford any sweet savor to God? Not in, and of themselves; for the bodies of beasts burnt, of themselves send forth an offensive savor. Not from any merit of Noah; for though he was righteous, yet his righteousness was of faith, not of works; and he was subject to sinful frailties. How then? Only as types of Christ's death for our sins, that sacrifice of sacrifices which was the substance, end and scope of all the sacrifices under the Old Testament. This was the sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savor. This was the true cause of appeasing God's wrath, of removing the curse, and of God's gracious covenanting with Noah no more to drown the world with a flood.” (Roberts, p273).
5 And it's the same for us. Quote from A.W. Pink, Divine Covenants (emphasis mine).
6 “Genesis 6:5 described human nature and conduct as it was prior to the flood; this verse shows what man still was after it.” (A.W. Pink, Total Depravity).
7 As one said: “God's Covenant with Noah and his family, not to curse the ground any more for mans sake, by destroying the earth with a general flood of waters, notwithstanding the imagination of mans heart remained evil from his youth, doth notably point out God's Covenant of faith in Christ, by whom alone the curse due for sin is removed, though sin in his people be not wholly extinguished and obliterated. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, 'cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree.' . . .God's covenanting to curse the ground no more with a general flood forever, though mans heart remained corrupt, the more clearly signifies to us God's Covenant of Faith in Christ, touching sinners' recovery and salvation, because God took occasion to make this covenant, upon Noah's sacrificing of burnt-offerings upon an altar to him, whereupon God smelled a sweet savor of rest, and said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more, etc. God made this covenant, being pacified with Noah's burnt-offerings. How could Noah's burnt offerings pacify God, or afford any sweet savor to God? Not in, and of themselves; for the bodies of beasts burnt, of themselves send forth an offensive savor. Not from any merit of Noah; for though he was righteous, yet his righteousness was of faith, not of works; and he was subject to sinful frailties. How then? Only as types of Christ's death for our sins, that Sacrifice of sacrifices which was the substance, end and scope of all the sacrifices under the Old Testament. This was the sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savor. This was the true cause of appeasing God's wrath, of removing the curse, and of God's gracious covenanting with Noah no more to drown the world with a flood.” (Francis Roberts, God's Covenants with Man, p273).
8 Colossians 1:20. “And this covenant God styles here in Isaiah the covenant of his peace, [chapter 54] verse 10; for as that covenant in Genesis chapters 8-9 was upon Noah's offering that sacrifice and peace offering in it, 8:20, with which God professed himself so well pleased as it is said, he smelled a sweet savor, verse 21, so signifying himself at peace, and atoned with Noah and his sons, and propitious unto the new world they were to be the restorers of (for that was the season God took to express this covenant in).” (Thomas Goodwin, Works V9, p52).
9 As Goodwin says: “And when God's covenant is in this 10th verse [of Isaiah 54] styled 'the covenant of his peace,' it imports as much as, not of grace simply, but of peace; as of God being pacified by an atonement of a mediator. And the aspect this word peace may seem to have here unto what in the chapter before had foregone, where the sacrifice of Christ being prophesied of, it is said, 'He was bruised for our iniquities, and the chastisement of our peace was upon him;' through which, God being pacified towards us, makes a covenant of peace with us. . .For look, as in the latter part of that 8th chapter he relates the story of Noah's sacrifice, that then in the 9th chapter he records that covenant thereupon, just answerably in Isaiah, after he had in the foregoing 53rd chapter foretold Christ's great sacrifice of himself: 'Bearing our sins and sorrows, making his soul an offering for sin,' with promise that 'many should be justified thereof; and he should see his seed,' etc.” (Works, V9, p74).
10 Another Scripture here is Romans 4:6-8, “just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 'Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.' ” According to verse 6, then, God's full blessing rests upon the man who has been justified. That is, God's blessing is based on our justification—not on our sanctification. The man on whom God's blessing rests in its entirety still sins (vv7-8)—but his blessing is none the less diminished on account of his sin! What this means, dear friends, is that God's blessing is not based on our performance in the Christian life—it doesn't go up and down with our personal spiritual accomplishments. God's blessing isn't based on whether or not we sin—but on whether or not our sins have been forgiven. The blessing of God resting upon us isn't contingent on the absence of sin, but on the presence of a Savior. And for this reason the blessing of God rests fully and forever upon sinners who belong to Jesus.
11 Goodwin: “[Jeremiah here] does insert, and (as it were) call in for witnesses to attest and confirm the said stability [of the new covenant]. . .which we find in the covenant made with Noah, which purpose they serve most aptly and suitably unto; for in making that covenant with Noah, God had uttered himself in these words of everlastingness, 'I will establish my covenant with thee,' so to certify and assure the like stability of this covenant of grace. . .As God produced the materials promised and specified in Noah's covenant, so he expressly utters them under the word covenant; yea, and calls that with day and night his covenant; my covenant, twice mentioned, verses 20 and 25, thereby manifestly calling us to look back to Noah's covenant, made for day and night; as in the making of which he had an eye to his like ratification and firm establishment of his covenant of grace, and as hiddenly intended by him then, when he uttered this of Noah's. . .And although the settlement of both these ordinances began at the creation (as in Genesis 1), yet God having cursed the ground for man's sake upon Adam's fall. . .He now began with Noah upon a new covenant. . .even the intuition of Christ's sacrifice, typed forth in that of Noah's, [and] did anew say in His heart, and declared also to Noah, 'I will not again curse the earth for man's sake. But whilst the earth remains, seed-time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease.'” (Works, V9, pp54-55).