For too long (at least my entire childhood and beyond), well-meaning Christians have taught that because Noah was so good on his own merit, God had to spare him. Noah’s behavior after the flood seems to contradict this though (Gen 9:21), though that’s arguable if that makes the point strongly enough. Certainly the Scriptures testify that no person could be good enough before God.
“All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Ps 14:3; Ps 53:3)”
“Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins. (Eccl 7:20)”
Bringing an understand that God is the electing type, who calls us even when we’re dead in our sins, seems to further contradict the idea that Noah was “so good” that God wanted to save him. “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world. (Eph 2:1-2a)” There’s no way Noah was good enough to earn his spot on the ark.
In reaction, we start to claim that there was nothing good about Noah. The only reason he was on the ark was because God put his favor on him. Apart from that favor, there was nothing commendable about Noah. He was just as wicked as everyone else, but God elected to save him despite his wickedness. But we read that “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. (Gen 6:9)” How could he be blameless among the people of his time unless he was actually, to some degree, “good” (or at least better than the rest)?
This is one of those times where the real answer lies with the both/and. Did God save Noah because of his favor on him or because Noah was a good man? The answer is “yes.” Both are true because they could only be true together.
There is no goodness apart from God himself. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph 2:10)” If Noah was good, it was because of God’s favor on him and at work in him. But on the flipside, there is no favor from God without goodness springing from it. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. (Rom 8:29a)”
The question to really ask is, “Which came first, Noah’s goodness or God’s favor?” And that’s an easy one: apart from God’s favor, there would be no goodness. God’s favor came first, which worked powerfully in Noah to make him blameless among his peers so that he could walk faithfully with God. There’s no scenario where Noah could have been righteous apart from God’s favor. Nor is there a scenario where God’s favor would have failed to yield righteousness.
The same was true with Noah and the same is true now: any goodness is a gift of God’s favor and dependent on that grace. And that grace is always effective to bring about the nature of God himself at work in and through us.