As a Presbyterian minister, I often find myself presented with opportunities to openly discuss questions of Christian faith and practice. While sometimes these opportunities take the form of simple statements concerning the doctrines passed down by tradition, other times, they lead to deeper, more illuminating discussion. Due to the habituality of my dialogue on these issues, it isn’t uncommon for me to say something in passing that later opens the door for one of these deeper discourses – but I am rarely able to anticipate which statements these will be or when the conversations will take place.
This last week is a case in point. In the midst of a discussion on conflict management, I made an off-hand reference to Jesus being “the only route to[wards reconciliation] with God.” Since this has been the perspective of the overwhelming majority of Christian traditions since the beginning of the faith, c.f., Acts 4:12, I thought nothing more about it.
The next morning, I was surprised to find that my passing declaration had become the source of sincere dialogue amongst the group – each member having understood it somewhat differently from the rest. Recognizing the important role that context (both theirs and mine) played in gaining a clear understanding of my personal beliefs, these co-laborers determined to send me a follow-up question. It was, in fact, such an excellent question that I have decided to share both the question and a full exposition of my answer with the rest of you:
Question: “Are persons of Jewish faith able to enter the kingdom of heaven?”
Answer: I believe that the only way to salvation is and always has been through the shed blood of Jesus Christ as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. This blood is freely applied to all who have a relationship with the one true and living God whether they freely subscribe to the Christian faith or not. (This is important not only for our Jewish neighbors, but also for those who have never had an opportunity to hear the Good News.)
Here is how I believe this mechanism works: Scripture is clear that there is one and only one God (Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 6:4; 34:39). Scripture also teaches that this God is triune, i.e., that God exists in community with God’s self as three persons revealed as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:20). It is possible, therefore, for someone to have a genuine relationship with God the Father but be completely unaware of or unfamiliar with Jesus as the Messiah. That is, if you know the Father, you know the Son and vice versa because there is only one God (Matthew 11:27; John 14).
We see this principle demonstrated repeatedly throughout the Jewish Scriptures. (Some might wisely note that since the Apostles were all Jewish, all of the Christian Scriptures are, in fact of Jewish origin.) Perhaps the most prominent case, however, is that of Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, who was saved through faith in God (Genesis 15:6), not through a knowledge of Jesus Christ as the mechanism through which that salvation would be made possible. (To claim otherwise, as some have, i.e., that God miraculously revealed this plan to Abraham so that he could believe, is to speculatively add to Scripture what is not already plainly contained therein – something which both the Jewish and Christian faiths steadfastly guard against.)
That said, two issues can complicate this understanding of Christ’s role in reconciling us to God when we begin thinking about Jews and Judaism in a modern context. The first is the question: “But don’t Jews now know about Jesus and yet choose to reject Him?”
The answer, in this case, is sometimes yes – they have met Jesus in His fullness as God and rejected both the Son and the Father. In most cases, however, I would argue that my Jewish friends have met someone named Jesus, but who is a false Messiah. They have rightly rejected this less than (and sometimes anti) divine variant as inconsistent with the True and Living God with whom they already have a relationship. This is, in fact, a prudent and wise decision!
A great example would be a decision to reject the Jesus who the Reich Church appealed to as the divine motivation for their actions during the Holocaust. I wholeheartedly reject this Jesus too! I don’t know who he is, but he certainly isn’t/wasn’t anything like the Son of God I’ve encountered in the Christian Scriptures! I applaud my Jewish friends for knowing their own Scriptures and the God who delivered them well enough to identify this impostor. (This is more than many of the Christians I know are capable of doing.)
The second question is: “How does this method of reconciliation apply to Jews who aren’t religious?”
In this case, I would point out that identification with “the right people” is not the same as a relationship with “the right person.” Just as one’s racial or ethnic background is insufficient reason for an individual to be condemned, it is insufficient for Salvation. The color of our skin whether white, black, or olive; the church we attend whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim; the place of our birth in America, Israel, or Afghanistan all have no bearing on our eternal destiny. It is our faith in the One True and Living God, our relationship with our Creator, that saves us – and this alone.
I can honestly say that I believe my eternal destiny and that of my closest Jewish friends (mostly Rabbis) is the same. They live lives that show ample evidence of the love of God and the fruit of the Spirit. They have rejected a false Jesus, but the blood of the real Jesus still has them covered. In this way, I continue to embrace Jesus as the sole avenue for humanity’s reconciliation with God yet leave room for God to work among those who do not share a traditional Christian understanding of Christ’s redemptive work.
God could, of course, be working more narrowly than my understanding permits or much more broadly than a more traditional understanding allows – but that is not up to me to decide. Instead, I continue to faithfully preach the Good News that God has “expressed… his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace [we] have been saved, through faith—and this is not from [our]selves, it is the gift of God— not by works [or by the obtainment of a complete and accurate theological understanding], so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:7-9).