The Watchtower Society suggests for book studies for January and February: Good News From God!, and Listen to God and Live Forever. What is this Watchtower good news and how are we to benefit from it?
Quoting Jeremiah 29:11, they say, “Soon [God] will act to provide a better future for people in every land. He will relieve mankind of the causes of suffering.”
This is the fond hope of everyone who sees the wickedness of the world. Jeremiah 29:11 is a text to which most Christians mistakenly turn for comfort in their individual trials. In this instance it is a correct application insofar as it is not about ‘God’s plan for your life’ but about God’s plan for his people. Of course, the question of who are God’s people is another issue altogether.
They go on to make familiar claims of peace and good health in a better future, lifting verses from the Old Testament: Isaiah 25:8;33:24; Daniel 2:44. But it is how this is to be achieved that draws our attention. It is here that there is a frustrating sense that they have missed the point entirely.
They say, “Suffering will end only when God clears the earth of bad people” (Zephaniah 2:3)
Perhaps our first reaction is, ‘Well, that means everyone then’ and we are left wondering how this could possibly be good news. But Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t see it that way. In the booklet Listen to God and Live Forever, Noah is presented as an example of how and why God saves people. The argument is that Noah was a good man, obeyed God and built the ark, therefore God saved Noah and his family. Noah warned people but they refused to listen, and so were bad people, and God destroyed them.
Evangelical Christians believe Paul when he declares, ‘There is no one righteous, not even one…All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.’ (Rom.3:10-24, read the whole passage)
Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, divide the world between good people and bad people. They insist that, just as Noah was a good man in his day, so there are good people today:
“God destroyed the wicked but saved Noah and his family…Some people are like Noah. They listen to God and do what he says; they are Jehovah’s Witnesses” God, we are told, “will destroy the wicked and save the good people.” (Listen to God and Live Forever)
How do we square that with the clear teaching of Romans that, “there is no one righteous, no not one?” Is Paul contradicting Genesis, which clearly states, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God?” (Gen.6:9 NIV)
Was Noah perfectly blameless? Does the life of Noah stand as a timeless contradiction to the teaching of Paul? Further on in the same story we find Noah planting a vineyard:
“When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked backwards and covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father’s nakedness.” (Gen.9:21-23)
It would seem that, at this point in the story, Noah’s righteousness was outshone by the righteousness of Japheth and Shem, and we don’t need to look far to discover the root of Ham’s sin in mocking his father’s nakedness. Noah’s righteousness was not perfect, but he “was blameless among the people of his time, in his generation, among his contemporaries.”
God’s assessment of man after the flood is very clear, “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.” (Gen.8:21) Through Noah and his family, sin still prevailed on the earth. So, why did God single out Noah? Was it because he was the most righteous in his generation? The wording of chapter 6 verse 8 is key here:
“But Noah found favour in the eyes of Jehovah” (NWT)
“But Noah found favour in the eyes of God.” (NIV)
The word ‘favour’ translates chen, which is also translated ‘grace’. This is not the same as grace as it is understood in the New Testament. For that the Old Testament has another word, chesed, normally translated, ‘loving-kindness,’ and standing for God’s covenant love, his determination to continue faithful to his covenant people. At this point in the story of Noah there is no particular relationship between God and Noah and so we get chen, favour, grace. Alan Richardson’s Theological Word Book of the Bible explains:
“The idea of grace more than any other idea binds the two Testaments together into a complete whole, for the Bible is the story of the saving work of God, that is, of the grace of God. Without grace, there would never have been any chosen people, any story to tell at all. The first thing that we read concerning Noah after the introduction of his name and genealogy at the end of Gen.5 is that ‘Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord (Gen.6:8). Here the world is chen, favour, necessarily here independent of any covenant between God and Noah, since that covenant was not yet made. This makes it all the more clear that the establishment of the covenant itself was due in the first place to God’s favour, undeserved and unconditioned.”
In his Bible Speaks Today (BST) commentary David Atkinson writes, “There is a richness in the words of Genesis 6:8: Noah found favour [grace] in the eyes of the LORD; whose meaning we understand best, as J. A. Motyer has suggested, by reading the translation backwards: ‘grace found Noah.’ God’s initiative of grace towards Noah is mentioned before there is any reference to Noah’s faith and righteousness.” (Genesis 1-11, BST, 1990, p.137)
So, God favoured Noah, not because of Noah’s righteousness – though he was clearly a good man in his generation- but because of God’s grace. It was that grace that issued in Noah’s obedience in building the ark and preaching to the sinful society around him.
This anticipates Paul’s words to the Philippian church, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purposes.” (Philip.2:12) Noah’s conduct following the flood, as well as God’s own assessment that, “…every inclination of [man’s] heart is evil from childhood.” is evidence that sin still reigned. Paul’s assessment of man’s state before a righteous God in Romans 3:23-24 applies as much to Noah as to the rest of mankind.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, quoting Mt.24:37-39, say, “God will again destroy the wicked and save the good people.” I remember a Jehovah’s Witness saying that God chose Paul because he saw the potential in him. If he had spoken to the ‘chief of sinners’ (1Tim.1:15), I suggested, he would have said the only potential he had was sin and death before Christ stepped in and showed grace.
Like Noah, like Paul, everyone needs God to ‘show favour/grace’ otherwise we remain dead in our sins. There are no ‘good people’ outside Christ, to this day every imagination of man’s heart is wicked from childhood. We are either dead in our sins, or dead to our sins (Eph.2:1; Rom.68-11) To claim to be among the good whom God will save without the merit of Christ is to delude yourself. Yet, reading Listen to God… it is impossible to see any solution to the sin problem.
Citing John 3:16, it confidently claims, ‘Jesus died so that we may live.’ It goes on, ‘Jesus gave up his life to pay a ransom for mankind. (Matthew 20:28) By means of that ransom, God makes it possible for us to live forever.’ Yet, it fails to explain here how people may avail themselves of this benefit, but simply says, “Those who listen to God will survive into a righteous new world, where there will be no more fear, a world where people trust and love one another.”
We must look elsewhere if we are to understand how Jehovah’s Witnesses address the issue of sin and salvation. Doug Harris comments in Awake to the Watchtower:
Ask a Witness if their salvation is by faith and they will say ‘yes’. However, asking the same Witness what would happen to them if they left the Society shows that in reality they believe that their salvation is in ‘God’s organisation’.
The Society defines salvation as follows:
“Preservation or deliverance from danger or destruction. That deliverance may be from the hands of oppressors or persecutors. For all true Christians, Jehovah provides through his Son deliverance from the present wicked system of things as well as salvation from bondage to sin and death. For a great crowd of faithful servants of Jehovah living during ‘the last days’, salvation will include preservation through the great tribulation.” – Reasoning, p.356.
However, compare this with the following quotes:
“Remember, though, that you must work hard to receive these blessings. it will cost you time and effort…We therefore urge one and all to lay hold on God’s promises and to trust him fully. By continued diligent study of the Bible and by application of its wise counsel you MAY attain to the grandest of blessings, including everlasting life in a paradise earth! -“ – WT, 1 July 1984, p.6.
“Salvation cannot be earned by attendance at meetings or in any other way. It is free, a gift from God. Yet, Jehovah God does require efforts on our part if we are to receive his gift of everlasting life.” – WT, 15 January 1986, p.10.
This is like winning a ‘free’ holiday but having to pay £200 for insurance! The gift is free but we must pay before we receive it. It should not surprise us to find that the Witnesses’ gospel of salvation is not the one of Scripture when we read:
“But the Kingdom witnessing of Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1914 has been something far different from what Christendom’s missionaries have published both before and since 1914.” – WT, 1 October 1980, p.28.
The Watchtower Society teaches that, in order to be among the ‘good,’ we have to be part of their organisation, listen to Jesus (which means the organisation), do everything you are told and prove yourself good and worthy to be ransomed. This is a salvation by works that earn for us grace, whereas the Bible teaches a salvation by grace that issues in works. The latter is the good news, the former is bad news indeed.
What is especially concerning is that this information is not presented in the initial studies but is drip fed as people get drawn further into the organisation. The promise of a better world is sold upfront while the hidden cost, highlighted by Doug Harris, is introduced later. One of the marks of a cult, of course, is the controlling of information, which is why this work of informing and equipping people is so vital.
The Good News
What is the good news? In John’s gospel Jesus spelled out clearly the good news:
“Most truly I say to you, He that hears my voice and believes him that sent me has everlasting life, and he does not come into judgement but has passed over from death to life.” (John 5:24 NWT)
Note in this passage that ‘everlasting life’ is a present possession, not just a future hope, it is something the believer has now. Note also that passing over from death to life is a past event, to the believer. Finally, note that a true believer can know with confidence that ‘he does not come into judgement.’ Isn’t this better than the Watchtower good news?
What does it mean to believe? To believe is to hold on to something firmly, with conviction and confidence. In Deuteronomy there is a vivid description of people who will not trust God:
“And the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. And among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot, but the LORD will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul.
Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life.
In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see.” (Deut.28:64-67)
By contrast, Isaiah describes the state of someone who believes, trusts, in God: ‘You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts the LORD’ (Is.26:3)
In John’s text, ‘believe’ translates a word meaning to trust, to entrust your spiritual well-being to Christ. By implication it means to not trust your spiritual well-being to yourself. It is a verb, an action word; I actively trust in Christ such that my eternity is in his hands. The person who fails to trust may well suffer a trembling heart and failing eyes, their life hanging every moment in doubt. But the one who trusts God can be relied upon to have a steadfast mind, and who can wonder, given the promises of Jesus in John’s Gospel.
Obedience is a concomitant of believing, ‘works that follow,’ the issue of changed hearts and minds, the fruit of faith: faith is the root and works are the fruit. The life rooted in the finished work of Christ on the cross is bound to issue in the fruit of good works. As an apple tree produces apples so the Christ tree produces Christian obedience.
There is no good news in the message of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The question we face is, can we show clearly the error of their message by holding it up to the clear light of truth? Can we show them where they are in error by explaining to them the Good News of Jesus?