The Gentiles are saved by the salvation of Israel

It is a basic error of modern evangelicalism that it has over-compressed the biblical narrative in order to provide a simple, user-friendly “gospel” for the practical purposes of personal evangelism, pastoral instruction, and the highly subjective forms of worship that prevail in our churches. My concern here is much less with the simple gospel—“Jesus died for my sins” is a good enough post-biblical shorthand—than with the horrible deformation of biblical thought.

The doctrine of atonement is a good example. Evangelicalism has taken the three-dimensional political narrative of atonement that we find in the New Testament and reduced it to a two-dimensional theory of personal salvation.

I have put this point of view across recently in a piece on Atonement, without the theoretical nonsense and another on Paul’s argument about the atonement of Israel in Romans 3-4. I also intend to write a piece on redemption in Ephesians 1-2 in the next couple of days. This is just a summary with a couple of simple diagrams.

The argument is basically that the New Testament understands the death of Jesus for Israel and the death of Jesus for the Gentiles in different ways. Roughly speaking, Jesus’ death was an atonement for the sins of Israel which secondarily removed the obstacle of the Law against the participation of Gentiles in the people of God, which many of them received as a free gift.

We may picture it in this way. Israel’s house is burning—this is the fire of God’s wrath (I apologize for having to use the word, but it’s there in the New Testament). The door of the Law is firmly closed, allowing neither Jews out to find salvation nor Gentiles in to become part of the covenant people. The outlook for the whole biblical program looks grim.

However, Jesus gives his life as a ransom or redemption or act of (penal substitutionary) atonement in order to save the house from being completely reduced to ashes. These are not theological abstractions, of course. Israel’s “house” would eventually be burned and razed to the ground by the armies of Titus, but Jesus had provided a new temple—a new place where a rescued remnant might worship God in the Spirit.

In the process, however, the heavy door of the Law is destroyed. Therefore, there is nothing now to keep Gentiles from entering the house. If they believe that God is doing something extraordinary in the world through this renewed people for whom Jesus died, they are free, as Paul says, to become members of the commonwealth of Israel and share in the promises made to Abraham (Eph. 2:11-22).

Indirectly, Jesus died for them—this certainly would not have become possible if Jesus had not died; and they must leave behind the old self, “which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:22). But really “salvation” and inclusion—and of course the Spirit of God—are just gifts of God’s grace.


From another point of view, the 'political' version of the salvation of Israel is itself a compressed interpretation, ignoring the wider ramifications of the story. It can be argued that Israel always was the arena for God's actions as a witness to the nations, on behalf of the nations, and finally for the nations, with the promises to Abraham as the mainspring. 

It follows that the death of Jesus, particularly as described in Romans 3 and 4, fulfilled the story, 'modern evangelicalism' notwithstanding. This interpretation provides a more adequate explanation of the gifts of grace: 'leaving behind the old self', 'inclusion', 'Spirit', as directly consequential to that death, and not disconnectedly or randomly given.

Peter, if I’ve understood you correctly, I would agree with your comment. I suspect we would handle the details differently, but I think it makes sense to see the story of Israel and its salvation through Jesus as a microcosm—summation, encapsulation—of what God was doing in the midst of the nations, and further in the cosmos.

I don’t understand your point about the “gifts of grace” though. I did not mean to suggest that they are “disconnectedly or randomly” given to the Gentiles. On the one hand, they are the overflow of God’s mercy to his people Israel; on the other, the Gentiles are as much “chosen” as the Jewish believers.

Andrew, in the post above I follow along just fine until I hit the comment that "The door of the Law is firmly closed, allowing neither Jews out to find salvation nor Gentiles in to become part of the covenant people."  I plan to read your Romans post in this series in just a couple minutes but for the meantime, while I can see Paul's argument at the beginning of Roman's does argue that the Jews are locked out of salvation, I don't remember the argument that the Gentiles are locked out.  How did the law close the door to the Gentiles if they in fact could choose to follow it?  Weren't there cases of converts to Judaism in the Old Testament?  My memory is poor, but Rahab comes to mind.  She's an especially interesting case since she survived despite God's own command to extinguish the life of her and all her countrymen while also being mentioned as an example of faith by the author of Hebrews.  So my question is, where does Rahab fit in Romans 1-4 prior to the coming of Christ?  What is her dillemma, a Jewish one, or a Gentile one?

That's one point of hang-up.  As I read on I come to another.  In your diagram, you have a text which says that "Jesus death saves Israel from destruction."  How?  After all, when Jesus warned his disciples about the coming destruction, he doesn't say believe in me to be saved.  He instead says something very unspiritual: "Those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and hope to God you're not pregnant."  Surely, there were true people of God (disciples) who died in the war and were not saved.  Not because they didn't believe.  They simply failed to get the heck out of Dodge.  So while his warning may have saved a few people, I fail to see how his death saved anyone historically from Roman destruction.  Maybe here I'm misinterpreting you, but help me understand.

How did the law close the door to the Gentiles if they in fact could choose to follow it?

Yes, Alex, that’s probably overstated, though i) it makes a huge difference that the Law has been removed as a requirement for the Gentiles; and ii) it had come to the point for Israel that the Law pronounced judgment rather than blessing on the people of the Law—even those Gentiles who converted would presumably have come under the same judgment. As Jesus said: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15).

Rahab comes at a different point in the story, when Israel, for all its failings, was coming into the land. When he get to Jesus, Israel faces being decisively rejected from the land.

As for your second question, I think the point is that Jesus’ death and resurrection anticipate the whole story of his disciples’ continuation of his prophetic ministry towards Israel: his suffering foreshadows their suffering (including the turmoil of the run-up to war), and his resurrection foreshadows their eventual vindication. If the disciples had not bought into this narrative, and if others had not been baptized into it, there would have been no salvation for the people of God. The basic argument, therefore, that the only path by which the community of Jesus’ followers would find life was a path of Christ-like suffering in faith that God would see them through to life.

It’s late here, and this may not make complete sense. Let me know. I’ll come to your comment on the Romans post, which Ive just seen, tomorrow.

Good response.  Makes perfect sense.  When you said, "it makes a huge difference that the Law has been removed as a requirement for the Gentiles..." that answered my question about the mechanism by which the door was shut.  I hadn't thought of that when I read your original post.

The second issue is more interesting.  It seems as if you're saying that the disciples were saved by redefining the word saved.  Whereas, historically, to die at the hands of enemies was the very definition of not being saved, now, thanks to Jesus anticipation/foreshadowing/example, the disciples could realize that death at the hands of enemies did not mean defeat (since it didn't mean that for Jesus) and instead salvation gets pushed forward on the time continuum into a time of future resurrection.  Victory is not not-dying.  Rather it is dying and then living again.  So it's almost appears like Jesus and his disciples are pulling a bait-and-switch with the word saved, and they would be, if Jesus weren't raised to show that salvation had been redefined.

I know there are issues of community salvation vs. individual salvation that come in at this point, but I don't want to drone on.

"The heavy door of the Law is destroyed"! what an absured contridiction. "It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." Rom. 2:13 "Think not that I am come to aboliosh the law." but you do indeed think contrariwise to both of those apostles. So you  are right and both of them are wrong? 

Did you consider the possibility that both Jesus and Paul were speaking to or about Jews, who heard the Law and didn’t obey it? If Israel had repented following the judgment of AD 70, not doubt the Law would have stayed in force for God’s people. But that didn’t happen, and the people of God became an overwhelmingly Gentile, non-Law-based movement. That’s how I see it, anyway.

I’ve only just encountered your site, on which there are some nice things to think about!

“the Law would have stayed in force”

You seem to me to be implying that to be part of God’s people in the Old Testament, it was necessary to both have faith in God and to be under the Law. And then, that if there had been large scale following of (faith in) Jesus when he went about teaching, that that ‘faith and Law’ would have remained normative for God’s people, so that Gentiles would have had to also have ‘faith and Law’ to be part of God’s people. (Perhaps Jesus would not go through crucifixion if the latter had happened.)

If so, that would be ‘very puzzling’ things to think about!

Yes, very puzzling. For Old Testament Israel faith and Law were inseparable and not mutually exclusive. Israel’s faith was ideally expressed through the Law. If Israel had kept the Law, there would have been no wrath and no need for redemption. It’s not that they would all have believed Jesus—there would have been no Jesus.

Jesus is sent to Israel only because the Jews were disobedient. Israel would have been a light to the nations, Gentiles would have come to Zion seeking truth and wisdom, some would have become proselytes.

But, as Paul argues in Romans, Israel did not keep the Law and probably could never have done so because Jews share the same sinful nature as Gentiles. The Law doesn’t change that—all it can do is condemn.

This seems to imply that it is not sins, but covenant breaking that Jesus came to remedy. But my reading of the Bible suggests to me that indeed sinning is the problem, and covenant breaking was bad because covenant was broken by sins that would be sins with or without covenant. Why isn’t covenant breaking just another kind of sin, so that Jesus would have had to come where there were sins whether or not there was covenant.

And what would it mean that Jews kept the Law. Would that mean, Jews never sinning. But, if they were a light to the Gentiles, and the Gentiles subsequent to sinning could become proselytes and acceptable to God by forgiveness without Christ, then why not sinning Jews?