Who Is a True Jew?
Updated: Oct 9, 2018
Recently, I was asked a question about what it means to be an "Israelite by faith" or as I understand it, a "true" Jew.
Paul's letter to the Romans deals with this issue in great detail. Below, I attempt to answer this question by looking at a number of passages in Romans and drawing some conclusions. If you are interested in this question, here is my answer:
Let's draw our conclusions from the text itself.
 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.  But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:28-29)
One of Paul’s major burdens in Romans is to show how the Gentiles now have full, unfettered access to the people of God by faith. This flavors the entire book. That was the major controversy in his day. What has Jesus accomplished? How do Gentiles now fit into God’s people which for so long was identified with ethnic Jews? Paul essentially distinguishes between “true” and “false” Jews. In his view, a “true” Jew is someone who truly loves God, truly serves him from the heart, and is led by God’s Spirit, as in the passage above. Since the coming of Christ, this is synonymous with someone who trusts and believes in Christ. “Circumcision” is coterminous with being a Jew. “Uncircumcision” is coterminous with being a Gentile. What matters to God, Paul says, is not ultimately whether one is physically circumcised (an ethnic Jew) but whether one is spiritually circumcised (a believer in Christ, someone who loves God from the heart by the Spirit.) Apparently, many Jews believed that merely since they were ethnic Jews (even obedient keepers of the OT Law) that they were “God’s people”. But Paul says, “No.” Jesus himself condemned the law-keeping but self-righteous Pharisees. It is Spirit-wrought love of God from heart that makes one a “true Jew”.
 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness.  How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.  He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,  and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4:9-12)
Here Paul argues from Israel’s history. Being a part of “God’s people” for Paul means being right with God, having a right standing before him, having God’s righteousness (Romans 1:16-17, 3:21-26). Abraham was counted as righteous before God. When? How? By his works or by his faith? He was counted righteous, not because of works, but because of his faith—his trust in God and His promise. We know this for sure because God declared him righteous BEFORE God gave him the sign of circumcision. Circumcision here represents the entire complex of the law that would be given later, which many Jews were trusting in to save them. They thought obedience to God’s Law as a Jew was their righteousness. But Paul here shows that God declared Abraham righteous by faith BEFORE he gave him circumcision (the Law). Why did God do it this way? “The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well.” (v11) Paul understands then, that in an ultimate sense, God views Abraham as the father of the uncircumcised (Gentiles—who do not have the OT Law) if they believe, that is, share his faith in God. A “true” Jew then, a true child of Abraham and member of the family of God, is one who believes like Abraham did, whether ethnic Jew OR Gentile. In the New Covenant, this means faith in Christ. Believing ethnic Jews and Gentiles TOGETHER then make up the one new family of God (see Ephesians 2:11-22).
 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.  For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.  For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.  That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (Romans 4:13-16)
Paul continues here in Romans 4 with more conclusions. According to Paul, righteousness can come only through faith and not through the Law. Assumed here is that no one can truly keep the Law. We all violate God’s Law, therefore, for anyone to be saved, they must obtain right standing before God another way, namely, through faith. Therefore, even the ethnic Jew, the “adherent to the Law”, needs faith because even though the Jew has the Law, he himself cannot keep it. By granting righteousness as a gift through faith (Romans 3:21-24), he rests his promise on grace and not on our works (thank God!). Then, Paul again reiterates that the one who shares the faith of Abraham truly does have Abraham as his father (“who is the father of us ALL” [v16]), making the believer a “true” Jew.
In Romans 6-8 Paul shows how this grace does not lead to license to sin, but to a new life in Christ enabled and energized by the Spirit to battle sin and live righteous lives for God.
Romans 9-11 asks and answers a critical question. If God gave his promises to Abraham and his offspring (ethnic Jews), but now that Christ has come, most Jews AREN’T believing in him and thus are not receiving the blessings of the promises, has God’s word failed? Has God broken his promise to Abraham? Again, Paul answers, “No.” (Romans 9).
 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,  and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”  This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.  For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”  And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac,  though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—  she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:6-13)
Paul makes an argument via analogy. He notes that not even all of Abraham’s physical offspring received the blessings of the promise. Ishmael didn’t, and Abraham’s other children via Keturah (after Sarah died) weren’t considered ethnic Jews either, though they were children of Abraham. That is, not all of Abraham’s physical offspring were “children of the promise”. The promise was given to Abraham, then handed down to Isaac (Gen 26:1-5), not to his other children. Isaac then had Esau and Jacob, but according to God’s purpose the promise was handed down only to Jacob, not Esau (Gen 28:10-17). It was only in Jacob and his 12 sons that all those thereafter born were considered the Jewish people. But what Paul is saying that, like Ishmael and Esau were children of Abraham but not children of the promise, so in his day (and throughout Jewish history) there were ethnic Jews who were ethnically children of Abraham, but not children of the promise (i.e. saved, born again, truly a part of God’s people). As Paul said above, “it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (v9:8).
In Romans 10, Paul reiterates that it is the one who believes, not the ethnic Jew, that is saved. Indeed the OT prophesied that Israel would be hardened and that Gentiles would be brought in.
That brings us to Romans 11. Important to note here is that because of what he’s discussing, he uses the term “Israel” primarily in an ethnic, national sense (ethnic Jews) rather than a universal (all those who believe in Christ) sense, as explained below.
 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.  God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel?  “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.”  But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”  So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.  But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:1-6)
If the Jews’ hearts were hardened, and God prophesied how the Gentiles will be brought in to make them jealous, has God rejected his people? NO! How? Well, Paul himself is a Jew. God hasn’t rejected his people because among the ethnic Jews there is a “remnant, chosen by grace” (v11:5). So, no, God hasn’t rejected his people (in an ethnic Jewish sense) because there ARE ethnic Jews set apart by God to believe.
 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.  Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! (Romans 11:11-12)
So Paul says part of the reason the Jews are disbelieving as they are is to open the door for the Gentiles to come in! This is to make ethnic Israel jealous, so that they too might come back to the Lord!
 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree,  do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.  Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”  That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. (Romans 11:17-20)
 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.  For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. (Romans 11:23-24)
Paul here is addressing the Gentiles. His analogy is that Gentiles were “grafted in” to the olive tree of Israel through faith in Christ. In Christ, then, we have access to the same promises given to ethnic Israel. Ethnic Jews, however, were by and large “cut off” from their own tree because of their unbelief. Nevertheless, God is able to “graft” them back in.
 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.  And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;  “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”  As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.  For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:25-29)
Paul here then says that there is a mystery—a part of God’s plan that has thus far been hidden. Namely, that when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, God will bring an awakening to the ethnic Jewish nation, and most will believe in Christ and be saved (though some debate Paul’s meaning of that latter use of “Israel.” Does it refer specifically to all of ethnic Israel or “all Israel” in the sense of “all of God’s people, Jew and Gentile? I prefer the former.).
So in conclusion, Paul says that what matters most to God is not one’s ethnic or cultural background but whether one trusts in Christ and lives for him. The promises were given to Abraham. But they were given in such a way as to make ALL WHO BELIEVE—Jew or Gentile—his children and inheritors of the promise. So a “true” Jew is one that is by faith, faith in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, God has a future plan and purpose for ethnic Israel, to bring them in at the end of days so that together the one people of God may rejoice in him forever.