The Watchtower’s emphasis on proving worthy keeps Jehovah’s Witnesses on a never-ending treadmill of works, continually uncertain of where they stand with Jehovah and fearful that they will be judged to have fallen short.
In a 1983 publication, the Watchtower spelled out four requirements for living forever on God’s paradise earth:
- Take in knowledge of God and Christ by studying the Bible.
- Obey God’s laws, conforming to the Bible’s moral requirements.
- Associate with God’s channel, his one organization on earth.
- Loyally preach and advocate God’s kingdom rule to others.
In a 2008 article, the Watchtower specified three more requirements for salvation:
- Exercise faith in Jesus’ ransom sacrifice.
- Show love for others.
- Sanctify God’s name (treat it as holy and make it known to others).
The Watchtower would say that these are not additional requirements, that they are included in the first list—obeying God’s laws and serving with his organization. But this only serves to highlight the point that in a works salvation system, there is no end to the number of things you have to do. Likewise, there is no way to know if you have done enough.
How much knowledge of God and Christ do you need to have? What level of obedience to God’s laws do you need to achieve? How much service do you need to perform as part of God’s organization? How many hours do you need to spend preaching to others about God’s kingdom?
You attended almost all the meetings and put in five hours of field service this month? That’s good, but couldn’t you have attended all the meetings and put in 10 hours of field service this month if you had really tried? And how does your effort look to Jehovah compared to that of Sister Smith, who attended all the training sessions and “pioneered” this month (a Watchtower term involving putting in a relatively large number of hours in the door-to-door work)?
How does Sister Smith feel? True, she pioneered this month, which earned her recognition within the congregation, but how does that compare to faithful ones who have been pioneering for years? A former Jehovah’s Witness once told me that she knew a woman who had been pioneering for 50 years. Despite this incredible record, this dedicated servant still wasn’t sure she would be accepted by Jehovah. Who knows how much is enough? And how can she be sure that she will successfully endure to the end?
In the Watchtower system, how much depends on the works of the Jehovah’s Witness and how much depends on Jesus? As with all faith-plus-works systems of salvation, works dominate. After all, Jesus did his part 2000 years ago. Now the focus is on your part, on all the works you must perform faithfully for the rest of your life.
Former Jehovah’s Witness Ted Dencher went so far as to say, “Jehovah’s Witnesses would not know the difference if Christ had never come. They could get along just as well without Him. They are still slaves to a system of works which is supposed to gain salvation for them.”
My own summation of the Watchtower doctrine of salvation is this: “Jesus made the down payment, but you have to keep up the installments.”
In contrast to all the uncertainty this creates, 1 John 5:13 says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Jehovah’s Witnesses know nothing of the assurance of which John is speaking.
Former Jehovah’s Witness Circuit Overseer Peter Barnes tells a personal story that highlights the Witnesses’ constant state of spiritual uncertainty. During the course of a witnessing session, a Christian householder asked Barnes and his fellow Witness if they were saved. After they explained to him the Watchtower teaching that salvation requires continued obedience to Jehovah, he asked them if there ever would come a time in their lives when they would be assured of their own salvation. Their attempt to answer his question highlighted to them just how uncertain Watchtower salvation really is.
After they left the house, Barnes commented to his witnessing partner, ” Isn’t it strange? Apparently many of these born-again Christians are convinced that once they receive salvation, they also receive eternal life and it can never be taken from them. And yet, here we are, the real Christians and look what we have to do to gain everlasting life… We have to obey Jehovah and serve Him from now until Armageddon. We have to maintain our integrity to God throughout the entire period of the great tribulation, then, when the kingdom is established, we will still be sinful and imperfect. Yet we are going to have to stay obedient for the entire 1,000 years or we will lose our salvation. And at the end we must face God’s final test when Satan is let loose on the earth again. Only if we pass that judgment can we then be sure we will be granted eternal life. My companion looked at me, but he didn’t say anything.”
Given Barnes’ explanation, perhaps I should modify my summation of the Watchtower doctrine of salvation: “Jesus made the down payment, but you have to keep up the installments—both in this life and for 1000 years more in the next!”
One way to highlight this problem to Jehovah’s Witnesses is to get out a pad of paper and write down their answers to these questions:
- “What do I have to do in order to obtain everlasting life?”
- “How well do I have to do this?”
- “How long do I have to do this?”
- “Is that list complete? If not, what more will I need to do in order to obtain everlasting life?” (If they add to the list, repeat the cycle of questions.)
- “If you don’t mind me asking a personal question, how sure are you that if you die tonight Jehovah will deem you worthy of being resurrected?”
- If they express a high degree of confidence, ask, “How do you know Jehovah views your level of performance that highly?”
- If they express a high degree of uncertainty (which they often do in order to show humility), say something like this: “I’m puzzled. How can you offer me everlasting life in paradise when you are that unsure about whether you will obtain it yourself?”
Your goal in asking these questions is not to humiliate them. It is to help them see that God’s provision for salvation must be far better than what the Watchtower teaches.
What suggestions can you give us for helping Jehovah’s Witnesses see the flaws in the Watchtower’s works-salvation system?
Share your thoughts in the comments.
 The Watchtower, “You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth—But How?, 2/15/83, pp. 12-14
 The Watchtower, “Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Believe That They Are the Only Ones Who Will be Saved?”, 11/1/08, p. 28
 Ted Dencher, Why I Left Jehovah’s Witnesses (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1975), p. 53
 Peter Barnes, Out of Darkness into Light (San Diego: Equippers, Inc., 1984), p. 60