We Don’t Find Grace, Grace Finds Us

by Tullian Tchividjian

Noah

I love the introduction to Sally Lloyd-Jones’ Jesus Storybook Bible.  A piece of it goes like this:

“Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy. The Bible does have some heroes in it, but…most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose). They get afraid and run away. At times they are downright mean. No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne – everything – to rescue the one he loves.”

She’s right. I think that most people, when they read the Bible (and especially when they read the Old Testament), read it as a catalog of heroes (on the one hand) and cautionary tales (on the other). For instance, don’t be like Cain — he killed his brother in a fit of jealousy – but do be like Noah: God asked him to do something crazy, and he had the faith to follow through.

Running counter to this idea of Bible-as-hero-catalog, I find that some of the best news in the Bible is that God incessantly comes to the down-trodden, broken, and non-heroic characters. It’s good news because it means he comes to people like me — and like you. It’s very interesting to note that even the characters we think have spotless records (like Noah) need the direct intervention of the true “lamb without blemish.”

Noah is often presented to us as the first character in the Bible really worthy of emulation. Adam? Sinner. Eve? Sinner. Cain? Big sinner! But Noah? Finally, someone we can set our sights on, someone we can shape our lives after, right? This is why so many Sunday School lessons handle the story of Noah like this: “Remember, you can believe what God says! Just like Noah! You too can stand up to unrighteousness and wickedness in our world like Noah did. Don’t be like the bad people who mocked Noah. Be like Noah.”

I understand why many would read this account in this way. After all, doesn’t the Bible say that Noah “was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God” (Genesis 6:9)? Pretty incontrovertible, right?

Not so fast.

Let’s take a closer look. You can’t understand verse 9 properly unless you understand its context.  Here’s the whole section, verses 5-7:

“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.’”

Now that’s a little different, isn’t it? Look at all the superlatives: every inclination, only evil, all the time! That kind of language doesn’t leave a lot of room for exceptions…and “exception” is just the way Noah has always been described to me. “Well,” I hear, “Everyone was sinful except Noah. He was able to be a righteous man in a sinful world…it’s what we’re all called to be.” But that’s not at all what God says! He says, simply and bluntly, that he “will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created.” No exceptions. No exclusions.

So what happens? How do we get from verse 7 (“I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created…for I regret that I have made them.”) to verse 9 (“Noah was a righteous man.”)?  We get from here to there – from sin to righteousness — by the glory of verse 8, which highlights the glory of God’s initiating grace.

“But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8).

Some read this and make it sound like God is scouring the earth to find someone—anyone—who is righteous. And then one day, while searching high and low, God sees Noah and breathes a Divine sigh of relief. “Phew…there’s at least one.” But that’s not what it says.

“Favor” here is the same word that is translated elsewhere as “grace.” In other words, as is the case with all of us who know God, it was God who found us—we didn’t find God. We are where we are today, not because we found grace, but because grace found us. In his book Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis recounts his own conversion with these memorable words:

“You must picture me alone in my room, night after night, feeling the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had come upon me. In the fall term of 1929 I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most reluctant convert in all England. Modern people cheerfully talk about the search for God. To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.”

It took the grace of God to move Noah from the ranks of the all-encompassing unrighteous onto the rolls of the redeemed. Pay special attention to the order of things: 1) Noah is a sinner, 2) God’s grace comes to Noah, and 3) Noah is righteous. Noah’s righteousness is not a precondition for his receiving favor (though we are wired to read it this way)…his righteousness is a result of his having already received favor!

The Gospel is not a story of God meeting sinners half-way, of God desperately hoping to find that one righteous man on whom he can bestow his favor. The news is so much better than that. The Gospel is that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  Sinners like Noah, like you, and like me are recipients of a descending, one-way love that changes everything, breathes new life into dead people, and has the power to carry us from unrighteousness to righteousness without an ounce of help.

So, even in the story of Noah, we see that the Bible is a not a record of the blessed good, but rather the blessed bad. The Bible is not a witness to the best people making it up to God; it’s a witness to God making it down to the worst people. Far from being a book full of moral heroes whom we are commanded to emulate, what we discover is that the so-called heroes in the Bible are not really heroes at all. They fall and fail; they make huge mistakes; they get afraid; they’re selfish, deceptive, egotistical, and unreliable. The Bible is one long story of God meeting our rebellion with His rescue, our sin with His salvation, our guilt with His grace, our badness with His goodness.

Yes, God is the hero of every story—even the story of Noah.

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19 Responses to “We Don’t Find Grace, Grace Finds Us”

  1. a. says:

    of course we know the Lord is the only hero by faith, for in Him we live and move and have our being, and without whom we can do nothing; …..since you don’t like exhortations of ‘therefores’, ‘buts’ , etc.(even though the Lord does), how bout not taking away AND…

    by faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. Heb 11: 7

    (the Lord) did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness 2 Pet 2: 5a

    • StephenT says:

      Reply to a. :

      “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8).

      Tullian is simply asking us to consider how Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. How do you think he found favor? Everything flows from how we answer that question.

      • a. says:

        Steven T –
        to answer your question..
        Eph 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. John 1:12as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

        AND re: the error of the phrase ‘one way’ love:
        1 John 3: 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. 1 John 47b love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 19 We love, because He first loved us.

        AND re:our victory even now:
        1 John 4 4 You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.1 John 5:4 For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.5 Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

        AND..1 John 3 7 Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous;

  2. the Old Adam says:

    There are no “but’s” in grace. “You are forgiven, for Jesus’ sake.” Period. Notice the lack of imperatives and therefore’s and but’s in that sentence. Isn’t it great!?

  3. Wendy says:

    Excellent!! …. I can’t believe anyone would argue against this. God had mercy on Noah because God wanted so. Noah was not saved because he obeyed or was a preacher of righteousness, he was saved because God was gracious to him and then Noah did what was asked of him, not the other way around. Noah was just another blessed bad person, another trophy of grace to the Glory of God alone!!

  4. brady says:

    I am floored by God’s willingness to “descend” to our level. I am amazed by his eagerness to extend grace to me- one who has often wanted to reject it and earn it!

    There’s just this nagging thought, though, that troubles me when I think of God this way. And that is when I think about people that…don’t believe any of this. Is God seeking them, too? Is he “finding” them with his grace? I don’t understand!

  5. [...] We Don’t Find Grace, Grace Finds Us [...]

  6. ben sadler says:

    If we have any second thoughts as to whether Noah was “righteous” by his own strength and power, then just read what he is doing after the flood: getting blasted drunk! God’s favor to Noah is certainly an act of God’s grace. The rest of the world had been carried off by marrying “the sons of men”, which led them to continually reject God’s grace. Noah was no less a sinner. By a miracle, God’s grace overcame his sinful heart.

    I think a good definition for the gospel is: God’s love for his enemies.

  7. [...] Tullian Tchividjian reminds us again that we don’t read the Bible to be inspired by heroes to emulate in order to know the blessings of God, but instead we seek to learn how those in our hall of fame responded to the grace they were shown. [...]

  8. Paul says:

    point is the graceful God who gives the favor to Whom we respond in worship.

    Thank you, so much, Tullian, for your faithful declaration of God’s amazing grace, and pointing us always to Jesus!

  9. Tim says:

    Tullian,

    At the time Noah was born, all the patriarchs from Seth to Lamech were still alive (though Enoch had been taken by the Lord). From the days of Enos, men had been calling on the name of the Lord (Gen 4:26), and Enoch, before he was taken, had been preaching of the Lord (Jude 14). Lamech surely understood the truth, for he understood that the Lord had cursed the ground (Gen 5:29), and surely learned this from his father Methuselah, if not from Adam himself, for Adam was still alive in the days of Lamech and Methuselah. Lamech and Methuselah were still alive when the Lord came to Noah in Gen 6:13. If, as you say, Noah was among those whose inclination was only evil all the time, then Lamech and Methuselah were also unbelievers and unholy in their generations as well, and the church had truly perished from the earth, having left with Enoch when God took him 569 years before. Are you sure you want to take this position? I don’t deny that God’s “favor” in Genesis 6:8 was unmerited favor. But just as Noah & his family and the animals were the exception in 6:17 when God said He will “destroy all flesh … and every thing that is in the earth shall die,” surely Noah could be the exception in 6:5. This is not to say that Noah earned God’s grace—just that Noah was a believer before God visited him to tell of the flood, and that’s why he “found favor” in the eyes of God, and that’s why he was “perfect in his generations, and … walked with God.” (6:9)

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

  10. I couldn’t love this more. thank you for continuing to share your enraptured heart on grace.

  11. Ken says:

    @Stephen T. The text actually presents a strong argument that Noah found grace on the basis of his obedience, “walking with the Lord,” being “righteous,” etc. Other texts suggest he might have found favor through being a “preacher of righteousness.” And there is a “but” in the text. I don’t for one second believe that Noah found salvation through his works, at all, but what if he did find favor through them–would that shake the doctrine of salvation as we know it? Is it possible to be saved by God, while at the same time displeasing Him? Scriptures seem to argue so. My point is that while salvation from sin is certainly through grace alone, that doctrine does not seem as air-tight in this text as the writer suggests, so his conclusion seems a bit forced.

    • StephenT says:

      Hmm… “is it possible to be saved … while … displeasing him”?

      I think we can agree on this… That God is well pleased with His Son.

      And perhaps we can agree on this:

      “When we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly”; “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” according to “his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses and sins.” The reason of Christ’s dying for us did not lie in our excellence; but where sin abounded grace did much more abound, for the persons for whom Jesus died were viewed by him as the reverse of good, and he came into the world to save those who are guilty before God.

  12. Jay says:

    Certainly God had to know when he qualified Noah in 6:8 that Noah would proceed to get drunk and naked in his tent in 9:21. It’s almost like Noah’s response to the covenant in 9:17 was to celebrate a little too much with his vineyard harvest from and… well…lose his clothes. Modern day Christianity would say this man Noah should be disqualified from leadership. Yet God knows the end from the beginning. He still found favor in God’s eyes in 6:8. God’s grace and one-way love overcomes even Noah’s most embarrassing sin. For all of us who have had our days (and nights) celebrating a little too much in the vineyard, God’s grace goes farther than our sin.

  13. [...] an article entitled, “We Don’t Find Grace, Grace Finds Us” Tullian Tchividjian [...]

  14. Tullian, VERY grateful for your ministry. Clearly your passion is like a reformation fire; passionate to restore and preserve the first things of the faith. I bumped into your Jesus+Nothing=Everything and bought strictly on the title. Excellent. I am VERY MUCH enjoying One Way Love and your blogs! Do be encouraged. Your work refreshes the hearts of the saints. Dale

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