Recall that we’ve always taught that Bible history should be divided between the Patriarchal, the Mosaic, and the Christian dispensations, each dispensation having a distinctive covenant with God, that being a distinctive means of salvation.
In each dispensation, God has had a covenant under which sin was forgiven. And in each dispensation God has forgiven sin and has accepted people outside the terms of the stated covenant—even when the terms of the covenant were stated in terms indicating that the terms of the covenant were mandatory.
The Fall of Man
God told Adam that if he ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, he would “surely die.” Once Adam and Eve had eaten, God pronounced a curse on all creation in Genesis 3. The final curse was “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen 3:19). God promised death to Adam and all his descendents. And even Jesus died. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26).
And yet at two people never died. “By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death … .” (Heb. 11:5a) And Elijah ascended to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). In each case, God had promised death but God was more generous than his promises. But this is not unusual for our gracious God.
The Patriarchal dispensation
In the Patriarchal age, God made a covenant with Abraham under which Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. God promised his favor to all Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15:6,22). And yet, at the same time we find Melchizedek, who was a “priest of God Most High” (Gen. 14:18).
After Abraham defeated four rival kings, Abraham gave a tithe of the spoils to Melchizedek. Jesus himself is compared to Melchizedek in Heb. 7. Clearly, Melchizedek had been granted God’s favor outside the covenant.
Why? All we know is that Melchizedek served God. Plainly, Melchizedek was not a descendant of Abraham and was not part of the Patriarchal Dispensation. Melchizedek did not receive the promises made to the Jews. And yet he was a priest of God. He was accepted outside the covenant then in effect.
The Mosaic dispensation
In the Mosaic dispensation, sins were forgiven by various sacrifices and by the ritual of the Day of Atonement (or Yom Kippur) (Lev. 4-6, 16). Indeed, the Law of Moses says that these sacrifices are the only means of forgiveness. Lev. 6:4-6 says that a sinner “must” make restitution with a 20% penalty and “must” bring a ram for sacrifice. Similar mandatory language is found throughout Lev. 4-6. Or as the Hebrews writer states, “In fact, the law requires that … without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22).
And yet God has never limited himself to the legally specified means of forgiving sins. For example, when David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband, Uriah, killed, the prophet Nathan charged David with sin, and David repented. God forgave David’s sin on the spot (2 Sam. 12:13). There was no sacrifice, tabernacle ritual, or the like. David confessed sin and God forgave him—quite outside the Mosaic covenant.
David wrote in response to God’s forgiveness —
(Psa. 51:16-17) You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
In the time of John the Baptist, baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. Sins were forgiven by repentance and immersion by the prophet (Mark 1:4). And nowhere is this practice found in the Law of Moses. God was again acting outside the covenant to forgive sins.
While Jesus walked this earth, he freely forgave sins, based on faith — but without the baptism of John and without compliance with the sacrifices demanded by the Law of Moses. Even on the cross, Jesus forgave the sins of the thief (Luke 23:40-43), saving him based on faith. Once again, God was forgiving outside the covenant.
In each case, the forgiven person had faith and sought to live the life God would have him lead (to the extent possible under the circumstances). In none of these cases was God’s covenant-means of forgiving sins followed.
Now, we often reject that argument that the thief on the cross was forgiven without baptism, because the Christian dispensation had not yet begun. The thief was forgiven, we argue, under the Mosaic dispensation, which is true. But the thief was forgiven without complying with the covenant-means of forgiveness then in effect. God accepted his faith outside God’s own rules for how forgiveness was supposed to be gained.
We rarely study 2 Chronicles, but 2 Chr. 30 tells an important story. Hezekiah was king of the southern tribes of Israel and a reformer. He decided to restore the celebration of Passover, which had been forgotten for generations. He sent letters to the northern tribes, under a different kingship, inviting them to join in the Passover in Jerusalem.
While most from the Northern Kingdom scorned the message, a few men “humbled themselves and went to Jerusalem” (v. 11). We learn in verse 18 that those of the northern tribes “had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written.” By the time those in the Northern Kingdom learned of the Passover celebration, it was too late to undergo the required ritual purification from ceremonial uncleanness (Num. 9:6, for example).
The Law of Moses penalizes with death entry into the Tabernacle while defiled (Lev. 15:31). Hezekiah prayed to God, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God—the Lord, the God of our fathers — even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary” (2 Chr. 30:18-19) — and God overlooked the transgression.
The Israelites then celebrated the Passover “with great rejoicing, while the Levites and priests sang to the Lord every day, accompanied by the Lord’s instruments of praise” (v. 21). And God heard their prayers (v. 27).
In this case, even under the severity of the Law of Moses, God allowed ignorance of the Law to be an excuse — because those in ignorance were turning toward him. God accepted imperfect worship, judging the hearts rather than the “cleanness” of the worshippers. (And cleanness was achieved by a ceremonial washing, a precursor of baptism!)
We cannot lightly dismiss this lesson as limited to the Old Testament. After all, Paul refers to Jesus as our Passover lamb:
(1 Cor. 5:7-8) Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
If the death of Christ is comparable to the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, then our baptism, which is a re-enactment of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, is comparable to being cleansed to celebrate the Passover.
Does the God of Hezekiah still make exceptions? If the humble Israelites could participate without the required washings in the Passover, surely we can participate without the required washing in Christ.
One of the Old Testament’s most fascinating accounts is the story of Naaman. Naaman was a commander in the Syrian army. He was struck with leprosy and could find no cure. Eventually, he came to Elisha, a prophet of God, and Elisha told Naaman that he would be cured if he dipped seven times in the Jordan River. (2 Kings 5:11-14)
But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.
Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
This passage has often been used, by analogy, to demonstrate the importance of strict compliance with the ordinance of baptism. After all, Naaman was not cleansed until he had followed all of Elisha’s instructions — only on the seventh dip was Naaman cured. Thus, we have argued (correctly, I think) that one who has received instructions on baptism should do precisely as he has been told, for the promise is given only to those who meet the terms of the promise.
But we often overlook another intriguing element of the account:
(2 Kings 5:17-19a) [S]aid Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD. But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this.”
“Go in peace,” Elisha said.
Amazingly, Naaman (a) was not a proselyte to Judaism — nothing remotely suggests that he was, for example, circumcised, and (b) intended to continue to enter the temple of an idol and to feign worship of the idol. And yet Elisha approved Naaman’s proposal.
Here’s another example of worship and faith being accepted outside the covenant. Naaman came nowhere close to meeting the terms of the Law of Moses, and yet he is accepted by God’s prophet.
What does Elisha in fact do? He says to Naaman, “Go in peace.” “Go in peace,” says the prophet of the Lord to this man torn between the ideals of his new faith and the realities of his old life. …
“Go in peace,” says the prophet to the people we so quickly judge and dismiss when we make idols of our limited understandings. “Go in peace.” The words swirl in the air surrounding Naaman and surrounding us, telling us our God is not a tame God. We can grasp at him through our theologies of peace, hope, liberation, grace, or personal salvation through Christ. But always we know him only in part, always he rises fiercely and wildly above us just when we think we have pinned him down. He is not a butterfly to be chased and stuck to a board and admired. He is, finally, as we see in Jesus, a God of joy and love, but he is a God also whose ways remain partly mysterious and unknowable, and before whom we do well to bow with fear and trembling as he touches and moves our lives in ways our bottles of theology and doctrine are too small and fragile to contain.
Michael A. King, “Naaman and the Wild God of Israel,” Spirituality Today (Spring 1986), Vol. 38, pp. 4-8.