Why Evangelize the Jews?
God's chosen people need Jesus as much as we do.
By Stan Guthrie, author of Victorious: Corrie ten Boom and The Hiding Place
Larry King is not known as a tough interviewer. Yet with smooth-talking pastor and author Joel Osteen, he went for the jugular, asking whether Jews and Muslims must believe in Christ to go to heaven. And Osteen blinked: "I'm very careful about saying who would and wouldn't go to heaven. I don't know."
While Osteen later apologized for seemingly downplaying the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, the pluralistic pressure to waffle on this issue is intense. Several mainline denominations support a two-covenant theology, which holds that Judaism and Christianity are parallel, divinely guided paths to God. In addition, in 2002 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a document, "Reflections on Covenant and Mission," affirming that "Jews already dwell in a saving covenant with God."
Noting that many church leaders and theologians have "retreated from embracing the task of evangelizing Jews," in 1989 a global group of evangelical theologians (including Vernon Grounds, Kenneth Kantzer, J. I. Packer, and Tokunboh Adeyemo) drafted the Willowbank Declaration on the Christian Gospel and the Jewish People. They denied that "any non-Christian faith, as such, will mediate eternal life with God."
Such a statement, attacked when it was released, remains politically incorrect. Voices both inside and outside the church say that evangelizing Jewish people—calling them to repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord, Savior, and Messiah—is inappropriate. Rabbi David Rosen recently told CT that if someone relates to him "as someone who's going to burn in hell, then I can't really see that as genuine love toward my people and my faith."
I love and respect the Jewish people and their faith. After all, Jesus was a Jew, and Christianity is firmly rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. Certainly the Holocaust and the church's horrific anti-Semitism have changed the context for evangelism. We have much for which to apologize. But we cannot apologize for the gospel, which is Good News for Jewish people precisely because they—like all human beings—need Jesus. Paul, a Hebrew of Hebrews, said plainly, "What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. for … all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin."
Some believe that Romans, which states emphatically that "all Israel will be saved," teaches that Jews do not need to hear the Good News from us. (Along those lines, Rosen asks evangelicals to "suspend your proselytizing and allow the Almighty to do whatever the Almighty thinks is the thing to do in his own time.") Such interpretations remind me of the apocryphal story of the misguided churchman who condescendingly told budding missionary William Carey, "Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine." If Carey had sat down, the modern missionary movement might have died stillborn.
Ordinarily God uses people to spread his message. Good news is no news at all if it is not communicated. And it must be shared first with the Jews (Rom. 1:16). Their calling as God's covenant people makes our evangelistic obligation to them greater, not less. "The biblical hope for Jewish people," Willowbank says, "centers on their being restored through faith in Christ to their proper place as branches of God's olive tree, from which they are at present broken off."
Some people denigrate the methods and motives of people who evangelize Jews. They claim that focusing ministry on—or "targeting"—Jews is just plain wrong. "Billy Graham didn't target Jews," pastor John Hagee says. "Bill Bright refused to target the Jews. I'm not targeting the Jews."
Others charge that those who evangelize Jewish people are deceptive or are attempting to snare the vulnerable in the Jewish community. These would include students, the aged, Russian Jews, the impoverished, those from dysfunctional or interfaith families, and the uneducated.
Strangely, other types of focused evangelism—such as among students or the homeless—seem to be acceptable. As Willowbank correctly notes, "The existence of separate churchly organizations for evangelizing Jews … can be justified … as an appropriate means of fulfilling the church's mandate to take the gospel to the whole human race."
Of course, deception and manipulation are always wrong. The ends do not justify the means when it comes to evangelism. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church has rightly told Jewish audiences that he doesn't believe in coercion—though he does believe in persuasion.
So must we. As we continue the good works of dialogue and practical ministries among our Jewish neighbors, let's renew our commitment to also sensitively but forthrightly persuade them to receive the Good News.