1. The BACKDROP of the Covenant of Grace (Genesis 6:5,11-12): We see why we need salvation
These verses describe for us the condition of man in the days of Noah. We read in verse 5, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” The last time we read “the Lord saw” was in Genesis 1, when the Lord saw that it was good. But here, the Lord saw something very different. You can't express with words any more than Moses does here the depths of man's depravity. It's hard to imagine a more forceful statement of the wickedness of the human heart.1 And what is important for us to understand is that this isn't just describing the people of Noah's day—it's talking about you and me. This is the Bible's synopsis of the human condition.2 And we learn the following in particular:
A) Man's corruption is INWARD (v5; the intent of his thoughts). Notice that Scripture doesn't say: “Everything that man did was only evil continually.” The focus in verse 5 isn't on man's actions—but on his thoughts and motives. True religion gets past just external appearances. Some people do a lot of good things outwardly—but God alone tests the heart and motives—and this is His testimony of man. As Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick.”3
B) Man's corruption is PERVASIVE (v5; every intent. . .was only evil). Not: “some of the thoughts of his heart were evil,” but “every intent;” not: “the intentions of his heart were sometimes tainted with evil,” but the intent of his heart was“only evil continually.” Man's thoughts and motives, purposes and desires, weren't just tainted with evil—but characterized by evil.4 Scripture is telling us that mankind after the fall is not basically good, but fundamentally evil.
C) Man's corruption is CONTINUAL (v5; only evil continually). It didn't stop.5 This wasn't describing mankind's worst day—it was describing mankind every day. And this shows us something really important: If the wickedness was continual—never ending—then it must have been because man was either unable to give up his wickedness, or because he was unwilling to give up his wickedness. Either he couldn't give up his sin or he didn't want to give up his sin. Well, Scripture tells us that the reason is actually both: Fallen man is both enslaved to his sin and in love with his sin. Wickedness continues because fallen man has no power to change, and because he has no desire to change.6
D) Man's corruption is UNIVERSAL (vv11-12; all flesh had corrupted their way). “All flesh” means everyone. In Scripture, it can refer both to peoples and individuals: it can mean every kind of people or every single individual.7 The meaning here is both.8 No culture or class of people was exempt—not a single person was exempt. Everyone was corrupt. There were no exceptions.
And it's the same with us. You see, we can't understand how amazing God's grace is until we come face to face with just how wretched we are. We're not a basically good people who just need a little help. We're corrupt sin-addicts with blood on our hands. We have no power to change and no desire to change. We're enslaved to our sin, and in love with our sin. We can't give it up, and we don't want to. You see, every single one of us stands as guilty criminals before the God of heaven.
And this description of man's corruption isn't just meant to teach us about the fallen human condition; it also represents the potential of sin in each of our hearts: it represents what you and I are capable of doing—even as believers. John Owen said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you” — and that's not just a catchy little saying—it's a life and death reality—because, as one pastor said, “There's enough evil in every single one of our hearts to destroy the world three times over.”9 We need Jesus to keep changing us every day just as much as we needed Him to save us at the very beginning.
2. The AUTHOR of the Covenant of Grace: We learn about the Character of God
A) He is TENDER-HEARTED: We read of God's response to man's great wickedness in Genesis 6:6, “The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” The Hebrew word for “sorry” can also be translated as “repent” (IE, “it repented the Lord that He had made man”). Now, what this doesn't mean is that God made a mistake or didn't know this was coming or changed His mind. The Scriptures are clear on this: Malachi 3:6: “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you. . .are not consumed.”10 This is rather an example of how sometimes in the Scriptures, human attributes or feelings are attributed to God for the sake of emphasis.
So now we know what this verse isn't saying: it's not saying God changed or made a mistake. Well, what IS this verse saying? What do we learn from this verse? We learn that God is not impersonal or unmoved. What is the Lord's response to man's wickedness? He's “grieved in His heart.” What an incredibly affectionate phrase!! The Lord's response isn't apathy—He's not stoic or unmoved. It's not even anger—or even disgust. It's grief. He's grieved in His heart. God is deeply affected. This isn't the reaction of an impersonal God who doesn't care about His creatures, who is eager to punish sin. This is the reaction of the most loving, tender father, whose beloved child has broken his heart.
B) He is JUST: “Verse 5 is the divine assessment: God saw the wickedness of man; verse 6 is the divine reaction: He repented that he had made man; verse 7 is the divine resolve: ' I will destroy man'.”11 God's justice and righteousness demand that judgment be brought to the world. God is loving, yes. But He is also just; He loves justice (Isaiah 61:8); and the Scriptures declare that He cannot and will not leave the guilty unpunished (Nahum 1:3).12 God's justice is a good thing. We don't have to shrink back from this as Christians. A good judge punishes the guilty—that's what he ought to do. So then, how much more should the Judge of all the earth do what is right?
When Scripture describes the wickedness that has filled the earth in the days of Noah, it says that “the earth was corrupt in the sight of God.” This is important, because it reminds us that God is the author of justice; He is the one who defines and declares what is righteous and what is wicked. When Jesus chose the story of Noah as His sermon text, He described what people were doing in those days as “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (Luke 17:26-27). This sounds pretty normal. If human nature is the same then as it was now, I would think most of them thought of themselves as normal people; good people—not perfect, but not so bad. In their own eyes, they weren't so bad; but they were corrupt in the sight of God, and that's the only judgment that mattered.
We also learn here about the extent of God's justice. God didn't judge the world on a sliding scale because everyone was so wicked. God didn't look down on the earth and say, “Well, everyone is corrupt; but to destroy the whole world would be a bit extreme.” God didn't separate those who had committed the most atrocious sins from those who had just committed “regular” sins. God didn't put to one side all the people that had never committed murder, for instance, and let them live, because at least they had never killed anyone. There was no sliding scale; there was no grading on a curve. There was only one standard; sin was sin. And everyone was guilty. So His wrath fell upon them all.
And God is still just; His character doesn't change. He wasn't just holy and righteous in the Old Testament. In fact, it's the knowledge of God's justice that leads us to salvation. How so? Well, Scripture tells us that the reason Noah and his family entered the ark was, “because of the water of the flood” (7:7). In other words, they entered the ark because the flood was going to come. The whole point of the ark was deliverance from God's impending wrath. Wrath was coming upon the world, but deliverance would be found in the ark; with that knowledge, they entered the ark. The idea of getting in the ark would have made no sense at all apart from the reality of an imminent catastrophic flood. And it's the same way for us. The message of God's free grace and forgiveness through Jesus makes no sense without an understanding of the context of God's wrath that is reserved in heaven to be poured out in full measure for all eternity upon all those who are outside the ark of salvation, Jesus Christ. Wrath is coming upon the world—but there is safety in Jesus.
C) He is FAITHFUL: It's a sober thing to ponder how God was faithful to send the flood, just as He said He would. God told Noah He was going to destroy the earth, and Noah, who was “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), must have been declaring that message to his neighbors; and then one day, it happened. We learn something really important here: God is faithful to uphold His promises of judgment. Don't ever think that God has given us all the warnings in His Word for no reason; that maybe there won't be a final judgment after-all; maybe the lake of fire is just an empty threat; maybe God will just forgive everybody in the end. God is faithful to keep His Word, not just in salvation, but in judgment; this is the whole point of 2 Peter 3:5-7: “Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, 'Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation. For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.”
After the flood, the Lord shows His faithfulness in another way. He made a covenant with Noah that He would never again send a flood to destroy the earth, and that as long as the earth remains, “Seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (8:22). Here we see the Lord's faithfulness to uphold the promises He has made to a faithless and sinful (and vastly unconverted) human race. The Scripture quoted above from 2 Peter has some irony in it—here are people mocking God's promise of a coming judgment because “all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4); and the whole reason it does is because of God's promise to sustain a sinful people who mock Him for sending the rain again so harvest can come. So we see that the reason God keeps up the fixed seasons of the earth, and the reason He has never sent another flood to destroy all mankind, is because of His faithfulness to keep His promise.
Perhaps the clearest way we see God's faithfulness is His saving of Noah through the flood. Think about what would have happened if God had not spared Noah either and wiped out the entire world? And later—if He wanted—made a fresh start with humanity by forming another man from the ground to repopulate the earth? Well, for one thing, we wouldn't be here. But far more importantly, the Messiah—whom God had promised back in Genesis 3:15 to send—and not only promised to send but promised would come through Eve—that promised Messiah would never have come—at least not as a descendant of Eve. And that means that God would have broken the promise He had made back in Genesis 3:15. God preserved Noah through the flood in order to uphold the solemn covenant promise He had bound himself to fulfill. God saved Noah because His own name was at stake in upholding the truth of His Word to His people. God preserved Noah to show the world that He never, ever, breaks the covenant promises He makes to His people. And, by the way, this is exactly how He continues to deal with us in Christ (Exodus 32:11-14; Ezekiel 20:5-22; Romans 15:8).13
1 From Ligon Duncan, Covenant Theology.
2 It may indeed be true that Noah's generation was especially wicked, but this doesn't take away from its broader application to all humanity. As Calvin puts it: “though Moses here speaks of the wickedness which at that time prevailed in the world, the general doctrine [IE, of man's depravity] is properly and consistently hence elicited. Nor do they rashly distort the passage who extend it to the whole human race. So when David says, 'That all have revolted, that they are become unprofitable, that is, none who does good, no not one. . .' (Psalm 14:3), he deplores, truly the impiety of his own age; yet Paul (Romans 3:12) does not scruple to extend it to all men of every age; and with justice; for it is not a mere complaint concerning a few men, but a description of the human mind when left to itself, destitute of the Spirit of God.” (cf. Calvin's notation on Genesis 6:5). As Waltke also writes: “This is a vivid portrayal of the depth and comprehensiveness of human depravity” (Genesis, p118).
3 As one preacher put it: “Your manners may have acquired a courtly polish; your dress may rival the winter's snow. . .your hands may bear no stain on them, yet they are not clean. . .It is not what lies without, but within, that defiles a man.” (Thomas Guthrie from The Gospel in Ezekiel).
4 And we see here not just the presence of evil but complete absence of any good (cf. Romans 3:10-18).
5 Nor is it any different today: “having eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin. . .” (2Pet.2:14).
6 No power to change: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer.13:23; cf. Ezek.19:11; Jer.23:29; Jn.8:34-36). No desire to change: “the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light,” (John 3:19; cf. Jn.8:44).
7 Every kind of people: See Genesis 6:19; 7:16; 8:17; 9:16. Every single individual: See Genesis 6:17; Leviticus 17:14; Numbers 18:15; Deuteronomy 5:26; Job 34:15; Isaiah 40:6.
8 We know this because when “all flesh” perished in the flood (Gen.7:21), it included both all peoples and every individual.
9 Ligon Duncan, Covenant Theology.
10 See also Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; James 1:17.
11 From Alec Motyer, Covenant and Promise.
12 Which, by the way, has massive implications for what happened on the cross—because God didn't just sweep our sins under the rug and try to pretend they weren't there—He actually punished them in full—but upon His Son instead of on you and me.
13 We can bank on God's promises. One illustration here: Even when it doesn't seem to be the case, the moon is round.