Genesis 8:21 said to be a promise of common grace

Wrong views on God’s kingdom are related to wrong views on God’s covenant. Whether you are talking about the cry to “redeem culture” that is heard coming from some colleges (such as Dordt College), the two-kingdom theology taught at Westminster Theological Seminary West (California), or the dispensational views held by Baptists, these teachings are connected to erroneous explanations of God’s covenant promises.

There are many, for example, who base their earthlykingdom position on what God said after the flood. The covenant that God made with Noah is often said to be a covenant of common grace, and this common grace is then said to be the power by which sinful man has been building his kingdoms.

With this article I begin a series on God’s covenant with Noah. Since many base their view of common grace on what God said in Genesis 8:21, I have decided to begin by considering this verse: “And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done” (Gen. 8:21).

In our efforts to counter various false teachings, it is good to remember that God in His providence makes use of the errors of our day to prod us to go to the Scriptures, not only to refute those errors but also to grow in our own understanding. Sometimes, for example, when we consider a false teaching and then ask ourselves, “What would be the opposite of this false teaching?”, we come up with a correct view of a passage that up to that point we had not seen. This is one of the many ways in which all things work together for the good of God’s people.1

Common explanations of Genesis 8:21

After the flood Noah offered burnt offerings, and God smelled the sweet smell and said this in His heart: “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done” (Gen. 8:21b).

This statement, many say, is a promise to give common grace. The phrase “common grace” has been used to refer to a grace that is given to all human beings in common. That, these people say, is what God was promising here.

Michael Horton, currently a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary West (California), views this text to be a promise to give non-redemptive, common grace:

The covenant most clearly related to common grace is that which God made with Noah. …It is a peace treaty with the whole creation. We will not find here, however, a promise to redeem sinners or to reconcile them to him through the gift of his Messiah.2

Michael D. Williams, a former professor at Dordt College, explains Genesis 8:21 this way:

Though the creature, who was called to rule on God’s behalf, employs his giftedness for that commission against God and God’s cause, God steps in and declares that he will preserve the created order in spite of man. Man’s godless way in the world will not thwart the divine intent.

This is an expression of what is often called common grace. The term does not refer to redemptive action toward man on God’s part but rather God’s continuing providential care over human life in the world even though “man is totally depraved, inclined toward self-destruction, and worthy of judgment.” In other words, God does not allow man to become as fully evil as his fallen heart would otherwise lead him to become.

…God’s merciful preservation of fallen man involves God’s restraining the effects of sin upon man, his society, and the creational order. God preserves man and the created order in the Noahic covenant….3

O. Palmer Robertson, who was an associate professor of Old Testament theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, is the individual whom Michael Williams was quoting in the passage above. First Robertson says that God’s promise not to send another flood is a promise to give grace to all human beings. Then he goes on to say that this common-grace promise is the platform from which we are to begin when preaching the gospel:

By the provisions of the Noahic covenant God committed himself to a course of universal testimony. Creation’s witness of grace toward sinful man still provides the platform from which the universal proclamation of the gospel should be launched.

Robertson then proceeds to explain in a footnote what he means when he says that this so-called witness of grace to sinful man “provides the platform from which the universal proclamation of the gospel should be launched.” In that footnote he makes a reference to II Peter 3:3-10, and makes a connection between the following two verses:

But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. (II Peter 3:7)

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. (II Peter 3:9)

Putting these two verses together, Robertson maintains that when God said in Genesis 8:21 that He would no longer curse the ground, that meant that He was graciously going to delay the final judgment out of a desire that all human beings might be saved.

…the “desire” of God that “all” should come to repentance should be interpreted universally. The fact that God may “desire” what he has not explicitly “decreed” simply must be taken as one of those areas of God’s purposes that cannot be comprehended by the finite mind. The context would not favor the limitation of this desire to the “elect,” despite the possibility that “longsuffering to you” could be interpreted as meaning longsuffering to the believing recipients of Peter’s letter. The point of the text is not that God is longsuffering toward the elect, not willing that any of the elect should perish. The present delay of judgment on the world indicates his longsuffering to the whole of humanity, despite the fact that ultimately not all shall be saved.

Summary of these statements

To summarize, there are those who teach that common grace, including the well-meant offer of the gospel, are taught by what God says in Genesis 8:21. Some maintain that in this verse God is promising the following:

1. Not to curse but rather to bless creation and all of human society, even though man by nature remains sinful;

2. To preserve human society by preventing man from becoming fully evil;

3. To delay the final judgment out of a desire that all human beings might be saved. (As a consequence, it has been added that when we go forth to preach the gospel we should begin by proclaiming that God desires that every human being be saved).

That God promises these things is said to be proven by what God said after He smelled Noah’s sacrifice.

This summary serves to bring out how important it is that we understand Genesis 8:21 properly. Beginning with the next article, we will look at how Scripture explains what God said in this verse.

1 In Scripture we see an example of this in the story of the man born blind whom Jesus healed. After this man’s bodily eyesight was restored, the Pharisees told him that Jesus was a sinner. At first the man responded that whether that was the case or not, he did not know. But then, as he gave some more thought to this, he recognized and confessed that the very opposite of what the Pharisees were saying was actually the truth (John 9:24-33).

2 Michael Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 113.

3 Michael D. Williams, Far as the Curse is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption (Philippsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 91. Michael Williams was a professor at Dordt College for six years before joining the faculty of Covenant Theological Seminary in 1996. This book has often been required reading for students at Dordt College. In this section he quotes from O. Palmer Robertson’s book, The Christ of the Covenants, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 115.