John Piper, in Finally Alive, says:
Whether circumcision in the Old Covenant or baptism in the New Covenant—it is not good things we do, not even sacraments, that cause us to be born again. The kindness of God. The love of God. The absolutely free mercy of God. These explain our new birth. Not circumcision. Not baptism. Not any works done by us in righteousness. (Finally Alive, p. 96)
Piper is writing about how Titus 3:5’s phrase “the washing of regeneration” cannot possibly refer to water baptism. Piper’s position is contrary to the entire history of Christian interpretation, and rests on special pleading. But I don’t want to get into all that. Rather, I want to show that Piper’s position rests on anti-Biblical assumptions. And I want to show that they are anti-Biblical by appealing to the Old Testament.
I’d like to see how this quotation measures up against the story of Naaman the Syrian. For Naaman’s cleansing is explicitly compared to a “new birth”: “So he went down and dipped seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” (2 Kings 5:15) And the story has much to say about how this happened. It features several different characters with assumptions about how God works to bring about salvation. Let’s examine them.
First, there is the Hebrew slave girl belonging to Naaman’s wife. This slave girl has the right understanding: “If only my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! For he would heal him of his leprosy.” (5:3) That is, salvation is a matter of covenant: if you are “with” those who belong to God, then you can expect that God will act for you.
Naaman himself has a wrong understanding. First, it is wrong in the same way that Simon Magus is wrong in Acts 8: “So he departed and took with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing.” (5:5) Elisha will reject these gifts.
The king of Israel has the wrong understanding: ” “Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this man sends a man to me to heal him of his leprosy?” (5:7) He assumes that God is absent from His people. Sacraments cannot possibly do anything, because they are the actions of men. God cannot do anything by the hand of a man.
Elisha has the right understanding, essentially the same as the slave girl: “Why have you torn your clothes? Please let him come to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel.” (5:8) Again, the essence of covenant: God is with His people. And that is how the washing does its miraculous work.
Naaman’s second error is more serious than the first: “Indeed, I said to myself, ‘He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy.’ Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage.” (5:11-12) Naaman wants something spectacular. Mere water cannot possibly effect what Elisha says it will. If God is going to work through men, it will have to be through something astounding, not through humdrum actions like washing in water.
The story of Naaman thus refutes the assumptions that underly John Piper’s position that “not good things we do, not even sacraments” can cause us to be born again. His position is what Peter Leithart calls “ecclesiastical Nestorianism” — the church is merely an association of the like-minded, and the things it does are nothing but the works of men. Being in the church does not put you in any real contact with Jesus, who is separate from his ecclesial body. Paul writes in Titus that we are reborn by the washing of regeneration. John Piper goes off in a rage because that’s too ordinary. He’s seen people washed with water before, and he knows that they aren’t thereby born again. And his low view of the church blinds him to the fact that “there is a prophet in Israel.”
God is with us. That’s how our water can do such amazing things. There’s nothing special about our baptismal water except that it is ours. Naaman is right in one sense: the Abanah and the Pharpar have water just as good or even better, except that they are not Israel’s water. Baptismal water is just ordinary water. But it is ours. It is, as Leithart says, “not water only, not only water poured. Baptism is water poured on a person in obedience to Christ and by His authorization.” This is the fact that Naaman misses. And Piper misses it as well.
It is a denial of the Biblical view of God to insist that He does not work through water; that if he is to make men born again, He must do it without human and material means. It is a denial of the covenant, of the fact that God is with us; that there is a prophet in Israel. John Piper is a modern Naaman the Syrian.