I wish that I could say, “Yes! God has made a special way for Jews to be saved without believing in Jesus.” After all, my wife and I are Jewish. Our families are Jewish. Many of our friends growing up were Jewish. To this day, I am in close, ongoing contact with religious Jews, and we have had many in-depth discussions about the things of God. They would tell me plainly that they love God deeply but they do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Isn’t there a way for them to be saved without faith in Yeshua?
Certainly, each individual, Jew and Gentile, will have to stand before God on his or her own, and we cannot claim to know the fate of every human being. But of this we can be sure: God has not made a special covenant with the Jewish people that allows them to be saved without Yeshua. The testimony of the Scriptures is clear.
Why then do some Christians teach that Jews can be saved without believing in Jesus? For some, it is primarily a sentimental issue. That is to say—in overly simplistic terms—they go to Israel, they see Jews praying at the Wailing Wall, they recognize that the Jews are the chosen people, they read about the church’s past persecution of the Jews—in the name of Jesus no less—and they simply cannot imagine them being lost. After all, at certain times in history, it appears that the Jews have been far more righteous than the Christians! Isn’t it arrogant, then, to think that believers in Jesus are saved while these righteous Jews are lost? The unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust has also made it difficult for many Christians to believe that Jews who do not believe in Yeshua will not be saved.
Others, however, base their views on a number of scriptural arguments, most of which boil down to the claim that God gave Israel the Mosaic covenant, and Jews who adhere to that covenant remain in right standing with the Lord. This is allegedly reinforced by Paul, who taught that “those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” and that there will be “glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 2:13, 10), implying that Torah-keeping Jews will be accepted by the Lord as righteous.
These arguments, however, do not stand up to close scrutiny, and the overall message of the New Testament stands against this line of reasoning. Jesus told His fellow Jews that if they knew the Father, they would know Him also, and those who rejected Him rejected the Father as well (see Luke 10:16; John 5:36-47; cf. also 9:39-41). In keeping with this, John wrote that “he who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life,” and that “no one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 John 5:12; 2:23).
Repeatedly in the book of Acts, the Jewish apostles shared the Good News with their people, and repeatedly their message was rejected by many of their people. Did the apostles say, “Well, that’s not that big of a problem. You still have your own way to God.” No, Peter plainly stated to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing body, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12—yes, this verse was originally spoken by a Jewish man to a Jewish audience, not by a narrow-minded, fundamentalist preacher on TV). Paul too made himself clear when his people rejected the message of the Messiah: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46; this is basically how Acts ends; see Acts 28:16-31). That’s why Paul had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart: so many of his people were not saved (see Romans 9:2), including those whom he said were “zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Romans 10:2). In fact, it was for those very people that he prayed (see Romans 10:1), “Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Romans 10:3).
So, according to Paul, despite the religious zeal of the Jewish people, they failed to understand the gift of God’s righteousness and therefore “his heart’s desire and prayer to God for [them was] that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1). Let me repeat: Even Jewish people who are zealous for God (Romans 10:2) and are pursuing a law of righteousness (9:31; 10:3) are in need of salvation through Yeshua.
As for the notion that Jewish people can be saved by observing the Mosaic covenant, Paul wrote:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin (Romans 3:19-20).
I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (Galatians 2:20)
All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” (Galatians 3:10-11)
That is why, to the end of his life, Paul reached out to his people: He longed to see them saved. And that is why he was willing to suffer so much persecution from his own people, coming back again and again to share the Good News (see, e.g., 2 Corinthians 11:24; Acts 21-22).
It is also important to remember that, in Jesus, God made a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 22:19-20; Hebrews 8:7-12), and, “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:13). So, Israel’s way to God is through the new covenant rather than the Mosaic covenant, a point made emphatically clear with the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, a destruction that has lasted to this day.
Jesus made it clear that He was the fulfillment of the Torah and Prophets (see Matthew 5:17-19), while the disciples recognized Him to be the one of whom Moses and the prophets spoke (see John 1:45; Acts 3:24-26). After His resurrection, the Lord said to His disciples, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44), commissioning them to preach “repentance and forgiveness of sins . . . in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).
All this means that Jesus is either the Messiah of the Jewish people or the Messiah of no people; He is either the Savior of everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, or the Savior of no one.
I personally agonize over these issues, wishing at times that somehow, almost everybody could just make it in, especially my own Jewish people. But I know that all of us fall infinitely short of God’s standards and that, without His mercy displayed in the cross, there is no hope for any of us, Jew and Gentile alike. And it is significant that religious Jews who come into a life-transforming faith in Yeshua do not simply say, “I had the same relationship with God before I believed, but now I just understand things a little better.” To the contrary, their normal response is, “Now I’ve found the truth! Now I really know God! Now my sins are forgiven!” That’s what happens when we enter into the new covenant through Messiah’s blood.
How then should we view Jewish people who died without ever hearing the Gospel, especially those who were only exposed to a hypocritical, anti-Semitic “church”? We must leave their fate as individuals to God—just as we must do for all who died without hearing the Gospel—but we should not hold to the hope that somehow, they were still under the Mosaic covenant and were thereby good enough to become accepted by God. That is simply not true, as well-intended as it may be.
This much we know. Israel’s salvation matters dearly to the Lord, and to the extent that Christians share His heart for Israel and pray and intercede, to the extent that Christians better understand the Jewish roots of their faith and become more considerate in their witness, to that extent they can help bring the Good News to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and to that extent they can help hasten the day in which “all Israel will be saved.”