Should Christians Evangelize Non-Christian Jews?
In 2015 the Roman Catholic pope made a proclamation telling Catholics not to actively seek to evangelize non-Christian Jews. Many Jews are becoming increasingly upset by the growing numbers of Jews who are turning to Christ, and this has led to hostility towards Christians. Apparently in an effort to reduce this hostility, the pope told Catholics not to evangelize Jews. And we can be sure that he would like all Christians to avoid doing this.
So did the pope get this right? Should Christians today avoid proclaiming the gospel to non-Christian Jews?
In a word, no. Non-Christian Jews today need to hear the good news of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ as much as anyone else. The fact that the pope could even say such a thing is a strong indicator – one among many – that he is in no way fit to be a Christian leader. What he said on this issue sharply contradicts the teaching of the New Testament.
Leaving aside the exceptional cases of those who die at a very young age or who suffer from severe mental disability, the NT knows nothing of people living in the Christian era who are saved from their sins without faith in Christ. Importantly too, the NT is full of clear indications that Jews need to believe in Jesus to be saved. Jews don’t cease to be Jews when they believe in Jesus and become Christians. But they do need to believe in Him if they are to be saved from sin and hell.
Any attempt to deal with all the relevant NT material on this topic would make this article far too long. In what follows I will therefore concentrate on two parts of the NT which show that only through faith in Christ will Jews receive salvation. These are the Gospel of John and Paul’s letter to the Romans.
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
Let’s begin, then, with John’s Gospel. There are so many passages that are relevant for our purposes that I will cite just a few of them:
In John 1:11-12 John tells us:
“11 He [Jesus] came to what was His own, but His own did not accept Him. 12 But as many as did accept Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, that is, to those who believed in His name.”
In v. 11 “what was His own” refers to the Jewish people as a whole, who, generally speaking, didn’t accept Jesus as Messiah. Then v. 12 qualifies v. 11 by focussing on the minority of Jews who did accept Him (as well as Gentiles who accepted Him).
The passage implies that Jews who didn’t accept Jesus and believe in His name were not given the right to become God’s children, which surely means that they were not granted salvation.
In John 3:18 John writes:
“He who believes in Him [Jesus] is not judged. But he who does not believe has already been judged, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
This is clear that failing to believe in Jesus involves judgment, and this judgment surely involves missing out on salvation.
In John 8:24 Jesus, speaking to Jews, says:
“For unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.”
This verse strongly implies that Jews who don’t believe in Christ will not be saved.
In John 12:46 Jesus teaches:
“I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness.”
This implies that those who don’t believe in Jesus will remain in darkness, which surely means that they will not be saved from their sins.
In John 14:6 Jesus states:
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
If someone doesn’t come to the Father, that implies that they are not in relationship with the Father, which in turn implies that they will not be saved.
In John 15:6 Jesus says:
“If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown out like a branch and dries up, and they gather them and throw them into the fire and they are burned.”
Being burned here is a reference to judgment in hell. So this verse implies that abiding in Christ by faith in Him is necessary for salvation.
In John 20:31 we are told that John’s Gospel was written for this reason:
“. . . so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that, believing, you may have life in His name.”
The first thing to note here is that this verse clearly implies that without believing that Jesus is the Messiah, people will not have life.
Secondly, other passages in John’s Gospel make it clear that those without life will not be saved from their sins.
For example, in John 3:36 we read:
“He who believes in the Son has eternal life. But he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the anger of God remains on him.”
Note here how a person who doesn’t have life also has God’s anger remaining on them. This certainly implies that they are not saved from their sins.
So a person is not saved without life, and a person doesn’t have life without believing in Christ.
In addition to the passages I have cited, others in John’s Gospel also point in the same direction. If we take what this Gospel teaches seriously, we are compelled to conclude that Jews who don’t believe in Jesus will not be saved from sin and hell.
Either the pope’s ability to interpret what John teaches is extremely poor or he thinks that he knows better. Either way, Christians today should reject his anti-biblical teaching and follow holy Scripture.
Let’s turn now to what the apostle Paul has to say on this subject in his letter to the Romans. Again, I will quote only some of the relevant passages:
In Romans 1:16 Paul tells the Christians in Rome:
“For I am not ashamed of the good news, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
This quite strongly suggests that we can expect Jews and Greeks who don’t believe in Christ not to be granted salvation.
In Romans 3:9, referring back to what he has written in the first two chapters of his letter, Paul states:
“. . . we have already made the charge that Jews and Greeks are all under sin.”
“Greeks” here is a way of referring to Gentiles generally.
Then in 3:10-18 Paul lists some Old Testament texts to support this claim that every human being is a sinner.
And then in 3:21-23 he begins to outline the solution to the problem of sin:
“21 But now, apart from the Law, the uprightness of God has been manifested, something that is testified to by the Law and the prophets, 22 the uprightness of God that is by faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .”
I have already noted how in v. 9 Paul says that both Jews and Gentiles are under sin. Therefore, when he refers in v. 22 to “the uprightness of God that is by faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” and follows this by “for there is no distinction,” he is surely implying that there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles in the way that they receive God’s uprightness. In other words, he is implying that both Jews and Gentiles need faith in Christ for salvation.
In Romans 9-11 Paul discusses at length how the rejection of Jesus by the majority of Jews in his day fits with the purposes of God.
In Romans 9:27 he says:
“Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, ‘Although the number of the sons of Israel is like the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved.'”
In the context, Paul clearly understands this remnant to be the minority of Jews who believe in Jesus. In saying that the remnant will be saved, he is strongly implying that those Jews who are not part of the remnant will not be saved.
In Romans 10:1 Paul states:
“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [the Jewish people] is for their salvation.”
Because the context of this verse is Jewish failure to believe in Jesus, by using these words Paul is clearly implying that Jews who don’t believe in Him are unsaved.
In Romans 10:9, still speaking in the context of Jewish rejection of Jesus, Paul writes:
“. . . if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Again, this implies that Jews who don’t believe in Jesus will not be saved.
In Romans 11:20-22 Paul warns his readers:
“20 . . . they [unbelieving Jews] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant but fear, 21 for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either. 22 See, then, the kindness and severity of God – to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in that kindness.”
Jews who don’t believe in Christ are portrayed in this passage as having been broken off from the olive tree that represents the group of people who experience salvation.
Other passages in Romans could be added to the list I have given. But the ones I have quoted make it clear that Jews need faith in Christ to be saved from sin and hell.
Again, the pope either doesn’t know what Romans has to say on this subject or he thinks that he knows better.
Nor is it just Romans and the Gospel of John which teach this. Numerous passages in other parts of the NT too, including large parts of Galatians, teach the same: Jews need faith in Jesus Christ to be saved.
SALVATION OF JEWS BEFORE THE TIME OF CHRIST
Before Jesus came to earth, Jewish people could be saved from their sins with a general faith in the God of Israel. Some Jews had that faith and were saved. Others didn’t have that faith and were not saved. Being Jewish in itself did not save anyone. Saving faith did.
In Romans 4:1-25 Paul explains how Abraham was saved by his faith. Abraham was not able to have faith in Jesus, because the existence and role of Jesus had not yet been revealed. But he nevertheless had a faith in God that pleased Him. And we can be sure that he would have believed in Jesus if he had been able.
A MORE SPECIFIC FOCUS FOR FAITH IS NOW NEEDED
Now that Jesus has come, in essence nothing has changed. Jews are still saved from their sins by faith. But this faith now needs to have a more specific focus. It needs to be faith in Christ.
Jesus’ coming to earth is the heart and soul of God’s dealings with the human race. Nothing else remotely compares to what God accomplished in and through Him, the God-Man. If a Jew today fails to believe in Christ, then he or she has utterly failed to recognize what God has done in our world. Today if a Jew (or Gentile) rejects Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, that person simply cannot have genuine, Abrahamic, saving faith.
Like all Gentiles, Jewish people today are sinners who desperately need to be saved from the impending punishment after death that their sins deserve. And in order to be saved, they need to believe in the Messiah, Jesus, who, as it happens, was sent first of all to the Jewish people.
JEWS TURNING TO CHRIST
Despite the efforts of the pope and others to hinder evangelism to Jews, it seems to be the case that at the present time Jews are turning to Christ in larger numbers than they ever have done. The number of Jewish Christians is growing noticeably not only in places like the United States but also in the land of Israel itself.
In Romans 11:26 Paul prophesies that “all Israel will be saved.” It seems highly likely that he is referring here to ethnic Israel, and that he is looking forward to a time when Jews will turn to Jesus en masse.
We should always be very cautious about claiming that present-day events are the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Nevertheless, I think it is not impossible that in our day we are beginning to see the fulfillment of this prophecy.
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