The Old Testament tells the story of Naaman, an honorable man in the nation of Syria and captain of the army. But it also says that he was a leper. In one of his battles against Israel, Naaman had conquered a Jewish girl whom he had made a servant to his wife in their household. One day the Jewish maiden suggested to her mistress that if Naaman could be with the prophet in Israel, he would be healed of his leprosy. At the servant girl’s suggestion Naaman came to see the prophet and was met by one of his messengers who told him to dip in the Jordan River seven times and he would be healed. Enraged by such a strange idea, the honorable captain rejected the command. Later he was persuaded by one of his own servants to obey the command. After dipping the seventh time in the Jordan River, Naaman was healed (2 Kings 5:1-14).
Does anyone read this account and believe that Naaman merited or earned this gift of healing from God? Does anyone deny that the captain was healed by the gracious will and blessing of God? The goal of this event was to display God’s power and convince Naaman “that there is a prophet in Israel” (1 Kings 5:8). It was not to pay a debt or fulfill an obligation to Naaman for traveling from Syria to Israel and on to the Jordan to dip seven times. The prominent soldier was made whole by God’s grace—contingent, of course, on obedient faith.
How could anyone read this story and believe that men who obey God to be baptized have earned the forgiveness of sins? Why would they not agree that a baptized believer, in the same way as Naaman, is saved by grace? Does God owe a man salvation because he walks to the front of an auditorium or even ten miles to a river to confess Christ and be baptized? It takes a rather unusual kind of reasoning to draw this conclusion. The sense in which the Bible speaks of salvation by works is that God owes it to man as a matter of debt if man keeps God’s law perfectly. Otherwise, “Cursed is everyone who continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them” (see Rom 4:1-8; Gal 3:10-11).
But no man, other than Jesus, has lived perfectly under God’s law. “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” and His perfection (Rom 3:23). This means that all men by works are under God’s curse and, as Naaman, must come to God’s prophet to receive cleansing. The prophet of God today is Jesus (Heb 1:1-2; Acts 3:22-23) and all who come to Him must believe and be baptized. Jesus Himself said: “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).
The man who walks into the waters of baptism does exactly what Naaman did. First, he believes both the promise and command of God. Secondly, he submits to God’s will and obeys him. This is what Paul in the epistle to the Romans called the “obedience of faith.” He tells the recipients of this letter both at the beginning and end of the letter that the scriptures were revealed to bring the “obedience of faith” to all nations and that he was commissioned as an apostle to teach all nations the “obedience of faith” (see Rom. 1:5; 16:26). When he proclaims in this letter the gospel as God’s power “unto salvation to everyone that believes” (Rom. 1:16), he has no intentions of eliminating obedience to baptism or of teaching the reformation theology of “faith alone.”
But someone might ask: what does being dipped in water have to do with forgiveness? And what, they could also ask, did dipping in the Jordan River seven times have to do with being healed of leprosy? The connection is that men manifest before God the “obedience of faith” when they keep His commandments. And men who by faith are baptized obey God’s command and receive His promise of forgiveness (see Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16).
But beyond this, note that baptism puts believers into Christ: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put on Christ”—who Himself is the “gift” of God’s grace (Gal 3:26-27; Rom 5:15). And, secondly, those “who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death”—where His blood was shed (Rom 6:3-4). When sinners by faith are baptized into Christ and into His death, they come to the cross—the ultimate expression of God’s grace (Eph 2:13-18). It is in Christ Jesus that sinners are redeemed and forgiven by the riches of God’s grace through the blood of Jesus (Eph 1:7).