The Naaman Dilemma: Is baptism a “work,” or, a faith-expression?

The curious yet transformational stories of the Old Testament provide a backdrop upon which the redemptive narrative takes flight in the New Testament regarding baptism. As discussed previously (Heartbeat, 3/21/21), the grand narratives of Noah, Moses, Joshua, and even Jonah, help us understand how God has used the symbol of baptism to describe immersion in a variety of forms which released God’s provision to save His people. These word-pictures, of course, direct us to the teaching of Jesus and His Apostles in the New regarding a literal immersion in water for the forgiveness of sins (1 Peter 3:21).    

The story of a man in the Old Testament named Naaman provides yet another picture in the Old Testament of the value of immersion. Though His baptism recorded in 2 Kings 5 was an outward expression of his inward frame of mind, it was also a requirement of being healed by the prophet Elisha. Therefore, his baptism was a part of God’s plan to teach us something about baptism, but also, and more importantly, about humility. His baptism didn’t save him from sin as it is practiced in the New Testament (Galatians 3:26-27), but it does address the necessary prerequisite of baptism which is humility. Naaman was a gentile suffering from leprosy and was instructed to be baptized (immersed) in the Jordan river seven times in order to be healed. This example identifies a remedy required by God for him to be healed, but not to be saved. Baptism by immersion for the forgiveness of sin was ushered in by the mighty work of the Holy Spirit and first preached at Pentecost (Acts 2). Pentecost, then, was the ushering in of the New Covenant purchased by the blood of Christ. Jesus, would therefore “reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:20, NKJV).

Does the story of Naaman teach us that water baptism by immersion is a work? One might argue that it does if it were true that forgiveness of sin was the outcome of his obedience. However, we know that baptism taught and practiced in the New was merely  the fulfillment of the symbolic “baptisms” we witness in the Old Testament. Now we know that a more personal and necessary baptism of the water and the Spirit exists on this side of the cross, not before. Naaman was being taught to be humble, obedient, and willing to operate outside his comfort zone. He was healed by a “work” that he did which arose from a place of humility.

Today, now that we are under the New Covenant bought by the blood of Jesus, are we saved by a “work” (action) that we do, or, are we saved by faith in Christ? James clarifies things when he says, “What use is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? In the same way, faith also, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself”  (James 2:14-17, NASB).  It appears from James’ perspective that faith and works fit “hand in glove.” One without the other is useless.

James goes on to clarify even further, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” (James 2:24, NIV). Consider again this important question: Was Naaman saved by faith or works? He went to the Jordan in faith, but had he refused to dip seven times, would he have been healed? No. All the faith in the world would not have cured Naaman until he obeyed the instructions. Naaman had to dip seven times. So, was he healed by works? Yes and no. No, he was not saved by works in the sense of earning his healing. The healing was a matter of God’s amazing grace. It was a gift. Naaman was not so good that God was a debtor to him. God made the offer, but Naaman had to show his faith. Yes, he was saved by works in that he was obedient to the instruction from God’s prophet. James wrote of this kind of faith. James emphatically expresses this warning about works and faith when he concludes, “How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?” (James 2:20, NLT).

Scripture is clear regarding the need for baptism (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Gal. 3:27; 1 Peter 3:21). Those today who would argue that baptism is not necessary, because it is perceived as a work, would have told Naaman all he needed was faith. But as James indicates, Naaman’s faith alone would not have saved him.    Let me be clear, we are not saved by works, in the sense that we earn anything from God. Like Naaman’s healing, our salvation “is a gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Baptism, then, is our faith-response to His grace.

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