Salvation and the silly summit of some great thing.
This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
A few weeks ago, I shared a few comments on the stunning story of the “overcrowding epidemic” that is currently happening on the slopes of Mount Everest. The mass of people on Everest is putting countless climbers’ lives at risk. In fact, the death toll for mountaineers in the 2019 climbing season was 11. This statistic is made all the more startling when you realize that “the last time 11 or more people died while climbing Everest was during a 2015 avalanche.” So wrote Gaby Del Valle for Vox. “The latest deaths,” she continues, “seem to be the result of overcrowding, not inclement weather.”
What was once considered such an achievement that upon reaching the summit, one would subsequently receive knighthood is now being attempted with such frequency that there are too many people trying to reach its peak. What is the motivation to do something like this? Where’s the inspiration? Why risk your life by not only climbing but also competing for space on the world’s tallest point?
Again, I think it all comes back to the idea that we like to appear strong and successful and triumphant. We like to do the impossible. Overcrowding on Mount Everest betrays what our culture worships. We bow down at the altar of the impossible so as to be seen as the conquerors, the champions. We seek out the unattainable and unachievable goal in hopes of ascending the hero’s stage. Such is why the reckless Everest climbers serve as living parables of the human heart. The penchant to do the impossible exposes mankind’s foolish errand of self-salvation. Further proof of this is easily gathered from Scripture. In fact, the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5 is all the evidence we need that humans are addicted to idea of accomplishing the impossible and saving themselves.
The silliness of trying to do the impossible.
Naaman had an impeccable résumé. He was an “important,” “highly regarded” man; the “commander of the army for the king of Aram.” (2 Kgs 5:1) His leadership qualities and accomplishments had led to reputation and rank. We are told he “was a valiant warrior” — a conqueror and champion of highest order. Yet, despite all of Naaman’s exemplary credentials, they are all but negated by a simple phrase: “but he was a leper.” (2 Kgs 5:1) For all his might and strength, his weakness was profoundly apparent. For all his accomplishments and accolades, Naaman could never hide his leprosy.
We are told that Naaman’s soldiers raided Israel, bringing captives back with them as the spoils of war. (2 Kgs 5:2) Among these captives is an unnamed young girl, a “little maid” (in the KJV), who is placed in the service of Naaman’s wife. This anonymous young girl might seem unimportant but her significance to this story is worthy of a sermon all of its own (perhaps for another time). Regardless, this little maid sees the pain and plight of Naaman and tells her mistress of how he could be cured. “If only my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria, he would cure of his skin disease.” (2 Kgs 5:3) Word of this rumored cure reaches Naaman’s ears and after a series of events (2 Kgs 5:4–7), he is summoned to the door of the prophet Elisha. “Have him come to me,” Elisha says, “and he will know there is a prophet in Israel.” (2 Kgs 5:8)
Naaman comes to Elisha accompanied by a royal escort and staggering entourage of servants, companions, and possessions. (2 Kgs 5:9) He is, no doubt, making sure that his prestige and pedigree are well understood. You can imagine, then, the disgust on Naaman’s face when he greeted not by the prophet but by a mere messenger. “How dare this prophet of Israel,” I imagine him raging. “He doesn’t even have the decency of welcoming me?” Naaman’s fury is certainly not only over etiquette but the fact that his résumé is being disrespected. “Does he know who I am?”
But Naaman is not only angered by Elisha’s seeming inhospitality, he is angered by Elisha’s prescribed antidote for his condition. (2 Kgs 5:11–12) Notice its simplicity. “Go wash seven times in the Jordan and your skin will be restored and you will be clean.” (2 Kgs 5:10) “Go wash.” At the sound of such a remedy, we are told that Naaman “turned and left in a rage.” It’s his servants, then, that apply a little common sense to the scene, calling their commander out for such an irrational response. “If the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more should you do it when he only tells you, ‘Wash and bel clean’?” (2 Kgs 5:13) Naaman, a terminal leper, is told how to be healed and, instead, walks away from healing. He is still a leper as he goes away “in a rage.” I imagine the servants giving each other puzzled looks. “I know you don’t like the sound of this,” they might’ve said, “but shouldn’t you at least try it? Wouldn’t you have jumped to do ‘some great thing’?”
The servants’ words betray Naaman’s heart. He stormed off because he was not given a long assignment or complicated ritual to perform. Elisha’s solution is too simple; the fix is too easy. “Wash and be clean.” This sounds terrible to Naaman’s ears. He wanted something hard to do. He wanted “some great thing” to accomplish. He wanted something to conquer. He wanted to do the impossible. Nevertheless, after the coaxing of his servants, Naaman stubbornly comes to his senses and does as Elisha commanded. He washed in the Jordan seven times and he comes out wholly clean. “Then his skin was restored and became like the skin of a small boy, and he was clean.” (2 Kgs 5:14) But what does Naaman do after experience this miraculous healing? Well, exactly what you’d expect a self-aggrandizing captain of the host to do.
The silliness of trying to buy what is yours.
You see, not only is Naaman dissatisfied with the ease of his restoration, he is dissatisfied with its freeness. It just won’t do for his résumé to be disregarded in this way. So, he goes back to Elisha’s door and tries to reimburse him for the cleansing he has received. (2 Kgs 5:15–19) “Thank you for healing me,” Naaman says, in a sense; “here’s some money for your troubles.” Naaman is so resistant to an easy and free healing that he tries to renegotiate the terms of healing. But Elisha was having none of it. “Go in peace,” the prophet says. (2 Kgs 5:19) “You can’t pay for this.” As Naaman was trying flaunt his status and show off his résumé, Elisha was insisting that what he had given was a gift. And gifts can’t be bought — they are only given.
In that way, Naaman is not much different than you and I. Whereas Naaman resisted cleansing because it seemed too easy and too free, we are just like him in our resistance to grace. It’s too free. It’s not hard enough. We want something to add to our (religious) résumés. We want “some great thing” to accomplish. Such is why Naaman’s story and the story of the Everest climbers serve as the perfect parable of our failure to understand God’s salvation. Naaman’s efforts to earn or purchase his healing reflect our own attempts to earn or purchase our redemption. Nothing offends God more than this. I know I have used this illustration before — but it is so timely and so relevant to Naaman’s story and our own stories of deliverance — but trying earn or buy your salvation is like trying to pay a bill that is already paid in full. In the gospel, nothing is left undone. Jesus paid the full price for your sin and righteousness. “It is finished.” Your redemption and reconciliation with God the Father is rooted in God the Son standing in your place, standing for you in your place of punishment and condemnation.
And just like Naaman was unable to renegotiate the terms of his healing after the fact, you and I cannot renegotiate the terms of our reconciliation. We can’t pay God back for Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross with our good works. (Is 64:6) It’s utterly impossible. But we often live like that, don’t we? Like Naaman, we experience restoration and immediately try give God our payment. “Here, take my offering, take my sacrifice, take my time, take my Bible reading,” etc. If we are not careful, our spiritual life can turn into a life of devotional reciprocity. But the truth is, the salvation God tenders in the gospel is not like a mortgage: it’s not something you can pay off through a series of installments over a period of time. If God’s salvation was a bank note, though, it would read, “Paid in full.” “Our ultimate reconciliation,” writes Robert Capon, “was announced as a fact accomplished without our cooperation by a grace unconditioned by our concurrence.”1 It is fulfilled in the finality of Jesus’s “it-is-finished-ness.”
The crux of the matter, like the crux of Naaman’s story, and like the crux of so many other stories throughout Scripture, comes down to a matter of faith. The Jordan River does not flow with magical waters. Neither did Elisha give Naaman some mystical formula or secret location to bathe that would somehow lead to his healing. Likewise, there is no magical, mystical prayer we can utter that leads to the salvation of our souls. All that is left for us to do is put our faith in the finished work of Christ, in his complete restoration. All we can do as a disciples of God is, as Martin Luther puts it, stake our lives on a “living, daring confidence in God’s grace.”
Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy.2
Such is the life of a Christian: a daring confidence in the simplicity and sovereignty of God’s grace. Therefore, I hasten to ask: Do you have the faith to believe in this grace? Do you believe that the work of salvation is done for you already? Do you trust that you did not earn this redemption nor can you buy it with anything you can do? Do you believe that this salvation is offered to you for free? Or are you, like Naaman, trying to do “some great thing” to earn or win or buy your eternity?
Robert Farrar Capon, The Youngest Day: Shelter Island’s Seasons in the Light of Grace (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2019), 163.
Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, translated by J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954), xvii.