Undermining God’s Saving Purposes Through Christ

This statement from the Vatican reflects an erroneous view of God’s saving purposes through Jesus

Yesterday, the Vatican released a statement saying that the Roman Catholic Church should not engage in an “institutional mission work directed towards Jews.” Why? The statement is long—too lengthy to summarize here. But the gist of the argument goes like this. God has spoken to the Jews in the Old Testament. The Old Testament bears prophetic witness to Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World. We know from Paul that “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” Therefore, whether they realize it or not, the Jews are saved by Christ.

In one sense, there is nothing new here. Vatican II opened the door to the idea that “implicit faith in Christ” might be saving (source), and this latest statement is merely cashing-in on that possibility. That is nowhere clearer than in Section 17, which among other things says,

While affirming salvation through an explicit or even implicit faith in Christ, the Church does not question the continued love of God for the chosen people of Israel.

Bottom line: Jews don’t have to believe in Jesus Christ explicitly in order to be saved by Christ. They can be saved by Christ simply by believing the promises of God in the Torah.

36. From the Christian confession that there can be only one path to salvation, however, it does not in any way follow that the Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God. Such a claim would find no support in the soteriological understanding of Saint Paul, who in the Letter to the Romans not only gives expression to his conviction that there can be no breach in the history of salvation, but that salvation comes from the Jews (cf. also Jn 4:22)… That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery…

In short, God can save people through Jesus without those people believing in Jesus, and that truth would certainly apply to the Jews, for whom “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (quoting Romans 11:29). The upshot of this view of Jewish salvation is that it is not necessary for the church to evangelize the Jewish people.

The Church is therefore obliged to view evangelisation to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews. While there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission, Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah.

I will not even attempt a comprehensive response to this statement in this short space. Nor will I rehash the serious soteriological differences that still divide Protestants and Catholics. Those differences are real and are as yet unresolved—some of them having to do with fundamental truths of the Bible. Having said that, I will point out two critical errors in this statement that cut at the heart of the Christian faith:

(1) The statement is an exegetical disaster. It really distorts Paul’s message inRomans 9-11. It is true that the Jews have a special role as the people of God in salvation history. It is also true that the “gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). But it is not true to suggest that anyone—Jew or Gentile—will be saved apart from explicit faith in Christ. To wit, this statement ignores what Paul says inRomans 11 about unbelief. In particular, it ignores the fact that Paul says both Jews and Gentiles are “cut off” from God’s promises by “unbelief” (Rom. 11:20). Anyone who fails to believe in Jesus as the Christ is therefore “cut off” from the saving work of God through Christ. In fact, all of Romans 9-11 is Paul’s attempt to explain how the Old Testament promises of God have not failed even though the Jews of his day by and large did not embrace Jesus as their Messiah. Paul wanted the Jews to be saved, but he knew that they wouldn’t be saved apart from explicit faith in Christ: “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed?” (Rom. 10:13-14).

(2) The statement also ignores the fact that Paul tried to evangelize the Jews in every place that he went to (e.g., Acts 13:14; 14:1; 17:1-2, 10; 18:19). It also ignores the fact that Paul expresses his evangelistic intent toward the Jews even in the book of Romans itself: “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is for their salvation… For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:1, 4).

In short, this statement from the Vatican reflects an erroneous view of God’s saving purposes through Jesus. As a result, it presents a distorted picture of the evangelistic mission that God has given to the church. God is on a mission in His world to see both Jews and Gentiles come to faith in Christ—the only way of salvation (John 14:6). God calls his people to join him on that mission and to make disciples of every nation (Matt. 28:19-20). If this is true, then the Vatican’s statement is calling people away from God’s saving purposes in the world. There is nothing more serious than that.

Denny Burk is Associate Professor of New Testament and Dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.