Why the Vatican Is Wrong About Evangelizing Jews

Late last year the Vatican released a document declaring that the Roman Catholic Church would no longer engage in organized mission to Jews. Titled “The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable,” the document states: “In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”

As a Jewish believer in Jesus, I was horrified when I first heard about this rejection of mission to my people. But the Bible commands us, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). Reading the whole 10,000-word document doesn’t diminish the shock of the Roman Catholic Church’s announcement. But it does reveal the thinking that led to the final conclusion, just as a student’s work in a math problem explains the mistaken answer at the end.

Glimpses of Truth

The Vatican’s document isn’t wrong all the way through. Instead, it’s a strange patchwork of truth and error. For example, consider the following perfectly expressed statement:

The new covenant for Christians is therefore neither the annulment nor the replacement, but the fulfilment of the promises of the old covenant.

Or consider this helpful reflection on salvation history, which could have been penned by Don Carson or John Piper:

At every step of his people along the way God set apart at least a “small number” (cf. Deut. 4:27), a “remnant” (cf. Isa. 1:9; Zeph. 3:12; cf. also Isa. 6:13; 17:5–6), a handful of the faithful who “have not bowed the knee to Baal” (cf. 1 Kings 19:18). Through this remnant, God realized his plan of salvation.

Or this wise warning:

Without her Jewish roots the Church would be in danger of losing its soteriological anchoring in salvation history and would slide into an ultimately unhistorical Gnosis.

But alongside such excellent insights, the Vatican’s document includes eternally harmful assertions. While it maintains that salvation is ultimately always achieved through Christ (“Christian faith proclaims that Christ’s work of salvation is universal and involves all mankind”), the document nonetheless states that Jewish people can be saved without faith in Christ. This supposedly isn’t a contradiction, but a “mystery”:

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. . . . 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.

Having argued that the Jews don’t need the gospel, the Vatican then makes the further step of announcing what it calls “a principled rejection” of mission to the Jews:

It is easy to understand that the so-called “mission to the Jews” is a very delicate and sensitive matter for Jews because, in their eyes, it involves the very existence of the Jewish people. . . . The Church is therefore obliged to view evangelization to Jews . . . in a different manner from that to people of other religions and worldviews. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed toward Jews.

In summary, the Vatican says that mission to the Jews is both unnecessary and insensitive, and should therefore cease immediately.

Three things need to be said, urgently and forcefully, in response.

1. Lose the Necessity, Lose the Practice

The history of mission has been motivated by the biblical conviction that “righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22) and “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Hudson Taylor, for example, resolved on Brighton Beach to take the gospel to the interior of China because he was convinced that people could only be saved if they heard it:

On Sunday, June 25, 1865, unable to bear the sight of a congregation of a thousand or more Christian people rejoicing in their own security while millions were perishing for lack of knowledge, I wandered out on the sands alone in great spiritual agony. The Lord conquered my unbelief there, and I surrendered myself to God for this service. . . . There and then I asked him for 24 fellow workers, two for each of the eleven Inland provinces which were without a missionary, and two for Mongolia. Writing the petition in the margin of the Bible I had with me, I returned home with a heart enjoying rest that it had been a stranger to for months.

This belief in the necessity of mission for the salvation of the unreached is wholly absent from the Vatican’s document. So it shouldn’t surprise us when the Roman Catholic Church ceases mission to an entire people group. In fact, its example should serve as a warning: when people no longer believe in the necessity of evangelism, they will no longer engage in the practice of evangelism.

When people no longer believe in the necessity of evangelism, they will no longer engage in the practice of evangelism.

2. The Reformation Is Not Over

Though the Vatican document quotes the Bible throughout, its authors cherry-pick verses that seem to support their case while ignoring ones that openly contradict their position. No mention is made of passages such as Acts 13:46, where Paul and Barnabas say to the Jews of Pisidian Antioch: “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.” Or consider Jesus’s words in Matthew 10:32–33: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”

The worst example of the document’s attitude toward Scripture is its handling of the book of Hebrews—a letter that patiently explains why Judaism without faith in Jesus cannot save. The document makes only a passing reference to the letter, offering this unsubstantiated summary of its teaching: “At issue in the Epistle to the Hebrews is not the contrast of the old and new covenants as we understand them today, nor a contrast between the church and Judaism. Rather, the contrast is between the eternal heavenly priesthood of Christ and the transitory earthly priesthood.” Yet the issue in Hebrews is precisely the contrast between the old and new covenants (e.g., Heb. 8:6–13) and the contrast between the church and Judaism (e.g., Heb. 12:18–24). These contrasts are impossible to miss. The Vatican’s mischaracterization of the book’s contents is cruelly deceptive.

For such a significant Roman Catholic document to treat the Bible in this way is revealing. It shows the Roman Catholic Church still refuses to listen to the clear voice of God found in his Word. Next year marks the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Protestant Reformation. Its work is needed now as much as ever.

Next year marks the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Protestant Reformation. Its work is needed now as much as ever.

3. Pray, Give, Join

Let us disagree with the Vatican’s rejection of Jewish mission, not only in our thinking but also in our action. What is the nature of the task? Outside of Israel, Jewish people are concentrated in the United States, France, Canada, Britain, Russia, and Argentina, but can be found in smaller numbers in many other countries, composing a global population of 14 million. The challenge of evangelizing these millions is immense. The highly insular, Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox Jews—numbering more than 1 million worldwide and growing rapidly—are particularly hard to reach. Yet, with God’s help, there are ways in which we can contribute to this cause.

First, let’s pray. “Ask the Lord of the harvest,” Jesus commands, “to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matt. 9:38). Second, let’s give financial support to organizations like Jews for Jesus and Chosen People Ministries. Third, let’s join with Jewish mission personally. If you have Jewish friends at college or in your office, you could gently ask them if they’ve ever considered Jesus’s claims to be the Jewish Messiah. You could ask if they’ve read Isaiah 53.

Our aim should be for our Jewish friends and neighbors to become believers in their own Messiah, following in the footsteps of Jesus’s earliest disciples, who continued to identify as Jewish (see Acts 22:3). We must avoid the insensitivity that rightly concerns the Vatican, while categorically opposing its decision to deprive Jewish people of “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

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