“By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.” Hebrews 11:7
The controversy regarding the proper understanding of “by faith” in Hebrews 11:7 should not be dismissed as a minor aspect of the broader controversy that has engulfed, and now consumed, the Protestant Reformed Churches. Whether or not any of us knew it at the time, that aspect of the controversy is the one that continues to be referenced by those in the PRC against the RPC.
In fact, it can be fairly said that this matter was, and is, the controversy itself.
Hear Professor Engelsma in a recent family letter:
What clearly illustrates the mistake of the RPC regarding repentance is the declaration by their theologians that “Noah did not build the ark, but God built the ark.” As I have pointed out previously, this statement directly contradicts the statement of the Bible that Noah built the ark (Hebrews 11:7). This, evidently, is of no concern to the theologians of the RPC, who fancy themselves as developing theology beyond, and contrary to, the explicit teaching of the Bible.
They are not only more orthodox than the PRC; they are more orthodox than the Bible. But the aspect of the truth regarding the building of the ark that bears on their misunderstanding of repentance is that God did indeed build the ark, and He built it by having Noah build it. Repentance is a gracious work of God, and He works it by having us repent. Noah’s building of the ark was not a prerequisite of God’s act of saving the church by the flood. Similarly, our repenting is not a prerequisite of God’s forgiveness. (Prof. David Engelsma, Letter to My Family concerning the Denial by the Reformed Protestant Churches (RPC) that Repentance Precedes Forgiveness, 9/2/22)
This matter of Noah and the ark is so serious that not only is this said to be false doctrine, but the theologians of the RPC are now charged with thinking themselves more orthodox than the Bible!
The truth of the matter is that there has not been one theologian or layperson in the Reformed Protestant Churches who has denied the physical reality that Noah took up his tools and exhausted himself in the building of the ark. The question is not, “Did Noah exhaust himself by spending decades of his life building the ark?” Of course he did, and not one person has denied that. This is Rev. Lanning explaining Noah’s building of the ark:
We read about this project in Genesis 6:22, “Thus did Noah.” Noah did it. Noah worked at it. Noah took a saw in his hand and a mallet in his hand, and Noah did what God said in building an ark according to the specifications that God had given Noah: three stories high, with a door in the side and a window in the top. Genesis 6:22 drives that home: “Thus did Noah: according to all that God commanded him, so did he.” Noah prepared the food, growing that food or gathering what grew in the wild; drying that food, perhaps, for the many days and months in the ark; making sure that there was enough for two by two or by sevens of all of the animals upon the earth. All that God commanded, Noah did. Noah sweated in this work, undoubtedly. He labored in it. This took up his nights and his weekends, as well as his days; for in addition to growing the food and taking care of the family that was his regular calling, he also built the ark. Noah was diligent in this calling, not leaving off the calling, but day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, building the ark, swinging his hammer, and sawing the logs. Noah diligently, faithfully, actively built the ark.
Noah did all of this, knowing what he was doing. Noah knew when he swung his hammer what would happen when that hammer hit the nail or the peg or the dowel. It would drive it into the wood and join the timbers of the ark. Noah willed to take a jar or a bucket of pitch, of tar, to dip into that tar some kind of device to apply that tar to the sides of the ark and pitch the whole ark within and without. Genesis 6 is full of the activity of Noah, who did according to all of the commandment of God. (9/20/22 sermon, By Faith Noah Prepared an Ark, Rev. A. Lanning)
The question is, how are we to understand the truth that Noah built the ark “by faith”?
The explanation is not difficult.
Rev. Langerak put it simply and succinctly when he wrote, “The explanation of the phrase ‘by faith’ to mean God doing whatever the believer does by faith means that when Noah picked up a hammer and saw to build the ark, God did that through him” (Beacon Lights, April 2020). Rev. Langerak goes on to explain that this “explanation does not threaten the truth that the believer really does it, but roots all his doing in its deepest source, God, as both scripture and the creeds that I cited teach.”
In the same sermon referenced above, Rev. Lanning said there are four things that are meant when it is said, “Noah did not build the ark, but God built the ark.” First, the source of all our activity is Jehovah God and not ourselves. Second, all of the strength that is required for ark-building, or for any good work that is performed by faith, comes from God. Third, God was sovereign in the building of the ark, and the work depended entirely upon God. Fourth, all of the glory and all of the credit for the work goes to God alone and not to Noah.
It is not complicated, it is not confusing, and it is not heretical.
It does not prove or even cast suspicion upon a man as being antinomian.
If it did, then the Apostle Paul, the psalmist of Psalm 44, Homer Hoeksema, and Abraham Kuyper are all antinomian.
When Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:10 said that he “laboured more abundantly than they all,” what he was saying was that he built far more arks than anyone else had built. When Paul’s arks were lined up against everyone else’s arks, Paul’s lineup of arks put the other members’ lineup to shame. That was the physical reality of what Paul had done in his life. He had worked. He had worked hard. He had worked harder than anyone else. But Paul does not leave it there, because the Holy Spirit would not allow him to leave it there. Paul goes on to say these words: “Yet not I.” Not I. What that means is if you had an opportunity to speak to Paul about his extensive and exhausting labors and ask for the spiritual reality undergirding his life’s work, this is what he would have said, and in fact did say: “Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”
The psalmist in Psalm 44:3 speaks of the Israelites’ conquering the land of Canaan. He speaks of swords and the strength of their right arms. Yet what he says about the Israelites’ arms and swords is striking. He says that the Israelites “got not the land” by their arms and by their swords. They did not get the land by those means! Does that mean that the psalmist is saying that when Israel conquered the land, the Israelites did not actually, historically use their right arms to swing their swords which cleaved heads from shoulders, destroyed their enemies, and caused the land to run red with blood? Of course not. The psalmist was fully aware of the Israelites’ destruction of their enemies. But if you had an opportunity to speak to the psalmist about the extensive and exhausting labors of the Israelites and then you asked for the spiritual reality undergirding that history, this is what he would have said, and in fact did say: “For they got not the land in possession by their own sword, neither did their own arm save them.”
Homer Hoeksema spoke to this as well in his explanation of the destruction of the walls of Jericho (as Rev. Langerak pointed out in his response). “Explaining that the walls of Jericho fell down by faith, Homer Hoeksema writes, ‘By faith,—yes, by faith,—the walls of Jericho fell down. That means: the work was God’s, all God’s, most emphatically and exclusively God’s!’” (Rev. N. Langerak, Beacon Lights, April 2020). What that means is if you had an opportunity to speak with Homer Hoeksema about the marching of the Israelites around the walls and their bearing before the ark seven trumpets and their blowing of those trumpets, and if you had asked Hoeksema what was the spiritual reality that undergirded this history, he would have said, and in fact did say, “The work was God’s, all God’s, most emphatically and exclusively God’s!” (The definition of the word “exclusively” is: “to the exclusion of others; only; solely”).
Abraham Kuyper wrote a lovely devotional titled “Do Not Neglect the Work of Your Hands” (Honey from the Rock, 574). In this devotional he asks why Christians continue in their work, whether in the church, in the Christian school, or at home, when they are so often confronted by the disappointing outcomes of that work. He asks, “So how do you explain such an unusual experience in the context of human effort?” (576). Said differently, “How do you explain always swimming against the stream like this and still prevailing? Facing so much discouragement but always maintaining courage? Confronting what’s against all odds but never giving up and continuing to plant acorns when you will never see the greening of the treetops?”
Where does Kuyper point us for the answer?
“My good reader, you only explain it in terms of faith!”
He points the reader to faith!
“It’s faith that everything is exactly the opposite from what it seems to be! It’s faith that it’s not really the person doing the work but that the real Worker involved is the Lord God.”
What does a person say who labors with this understanding? In other words, what does the man or woman say who is pouring out their life for the church, school, and home and is doing so by faith? This is what they say, according to Kuyper: “The real worker is actually the Lord God. It’s not I who is raising my children, but God is doing it. It’s not I who is doing the teaching at school, but the Lord is the educator. It’s not I preaching, but the Lord himself causes his Word to go forth. It’s not I who harbor tender desires for my people, but the Lord is the one keeping watch over them” (576).
You can hear the great outcry of the PRC against that position. “No, Brother Kuyper, you must not say that! That makes man a stock and a block! Stop trying to be more orthodox than the Bible!”
Is it really any wonder that the Protestant Reformed Churches have no idea what to do with the truth that the believers’ works proceed from God, are worked by God, and serve only to glorify God? Is it any wonder that they reject out of hand the truth that the believer works, yet it is not the believer who works?
They can’t fathom or understand this truth because it has to do with faith, which is entirely other-worldly and spiritual; faith which points away from man and points to its object, Jesus Christ alone.
The question is, “What is the theological and spiritual reality of those works of the believer that are done by faith?”
The response of the PRC is this: “Reformed theology glorifies God in the matter of ark-building, not by denying that Noah built the ark, not even by whispering, as softly as possible, “Yes, Noah built the ark,” but by shouting this as loudly as possibly” (Prof. Engelsma, “Who Built the Ark”).
I detest that response.
I was never taught that response from my youth up, and finding it being taught to me now, I spit it out.
Kuyper also condemns that response and gives the response of faith itself.
A sinner living without this kind of glorious faith struts around on the peak of their roof and in their pride exclaims: “Is this not the proud Babylon that I have built?” But for the sinner who is permitted to stand in blessed faith and does not ask about the outcome but keeps on working quietly in the service of their God, it is otherwise. They labor on behalf of their home, their country, and industriously for their school and the church of Christ. They always find strength and comfort in praying the prayer that was on the lips of David: “Lord, not my work, but your work be done. Complete the work of your hands.” (Honey from the Rock, 577)
Noah built the ark.
Yet not Noah.
This is not false doctrine. This is not trying to go beyond the scripture. This is not antinomianism. This does not even reveal an antinomian bent.
It reveals a theocentric heart that is determined to give God, and God alone, all of the glory.
It is God-glorifying gospel truth, and may we in the Reformed Protestant Churches never, ever, ever shy away from shouting that as loudly as possible.