Last Thursday was a bit curious — I actually had a scheduled visit from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Typically, this had started with the ringing of the doorbell (at an inconvenient moment, but then what moments are convenient for such a visit?) by a young woman with child in tow.
It is usually easy to spot JWs , and tempting simply to tell them to go away, but I think being a Jehovah’s Witness must be like working for a call centre. It must be awful knowing everyone hates you and wants you to go away. So I usually try to be pleasant, both on the phone and at the front door.
Anyway, this time one thing led to another, and I said I’d be quite happy for her to call again, which she duly did, with her ‘supervisor’, as arranged, last Thursday.
Personally, I’ve long since given up wondering whether JWs might just be right. My first encounter with them was in 1972, when they were still forecasting the end of the world in 1975, and might reasonably have claimed to have still been in with a chance.
However, I think any organization predicting the date of Christ’s return (unwise in itself) ought to operate on a ‘three strikes and you’re out basis’, and so having been wrong in 1914, 1925 and 1975, the JWs really ought to call it a day.
Nevertheless, my encounters with them in ‘72 resulted in the purchase of my first theological book: A A Hoekema’s The Four Major Cults, which I read avidly. As a result, I reckon I’m pretty well informed about what the Witnesses believe and teach — sometimes more so than a novice Witness. But the important question is surely not so much, “How can I prove the Witnesses wrong?” (especially since they are approaching the conversation exactly with the intention of proving you wrong) as, “How can I get through to this person with the gospel?”
Sometimes this may indeed be by proving them wrong. Back in the ‘70s I had a ‘result’ with two Witnesses over the issue of the 144,000 in the Book of Revelation. ((I basically objected that if the number itself was 'literal', then so, too, ought to be their description as being male Jewish virgins.) One of them later told a friend of mine they’d given up being Witnesses after their conversation with me. But I’ve also had unfruitful and unproductive conversations which have gone nowhere, on whether Jesus was God, on whether the doctrine of the Trinity is true, and so on.
More recently, therefore, I’ve tended to concentrate on another question, namely, “How are we saved?” This has, I think two advantages. First, it isn’t part of the JW training and, secondly, it gets really to the heart of the matter.
I did actually bone up a bit before our Thursday meeting, from the book the woman had left with me previously, so I did know the ‘right’ answer was that Jesus had paid a ransom for us. (Of course, JWs have a very different understanding of ‘Jesus’ from orthodox Christianity.) What our discussions revealed, however, was that this ransom provides no assurance of salvation. Thus the younger Witness said to me at one stage, “I don’t sin at all.” And the reason was because if she did, Jehovah would condemn her.
This naturally led to a discussion about God’s answer to sin — in fact I kept trying to press the point, “What does God do about our sins?”, though without getting a clear answer.
Then came the wonderful moment when the older Witness asked me, “So do you think you could just go to the confessional and say you were sorry and then go out and sin again, and keep on being forgiven?”, to which I said, “It’s funny you should say that, because if you turn to Romans 6, you’ll find exactly that question. And,” I went on, “It’s a question you’ll only ask if you’ve really understood the gospel, because only the gospel will ever allow you to think that is possible — no other religion will ever make you think that way.”
After that, we talked on for a bit, but I felt we’d reached the most useful point, and I think they felt they weren’t getting anywhere. Certainly they left without trying to book another appointment.
But it left me wondering, “Can you be a Witness and be saved?” I think my answer would be, “Yes, but accidentally, and without really knowing it, or being in a position effectively to bring others to salvation.”
Today on the train back from the Reform conference in London, I was reading John Stott’s classic Your Confirmation. In it, he talks about salvation in these terms:
We must believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died on the cross to be the Saviour of the world. This is about all you need to believe in order to become a Christian. Of course, there is much more to believe later. Once you are committed to Jesus Christ, you will be in a better position to think through the rest of the Christian creed, than if you remain uncommitted. You do not have to believe the whole Bible to become a Christian; nor to be well versed in the Christian philosophy of religion; nor to know the Catechism by heart! These things can wait. What you do have to believe is first that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, uniquely divine, who came down from heaven and became man; and secondly that He deliberately went to the cross to die for the sins of the world.
Of course, JWs explicitly deny that Jesus is ‘uniquely divine’, but on the other hand, many of them do indeed believe that Jesus ‘went to the cross to die for the sins of the world’.
The fundamental problem, as far as I can see, is that identified by Stott later in the same book:
If you are hoping that you are forgiven and that you are going to heaven when you die, in what are you trusting for these things? ... If you reply (as many people do to whom I have put this question): “Well, I have tried to lead a good life; I go to church regularly; I say my prayers; I ...” I must stop you. You need go no further. The first word of your answer was “I”. Exactly! You are trusting in yourself and in your own works, your good deeds and religious observances. No wonder you have no assurance of salvation. The answer to my question in one word is “Christ” ...
Of course, it could be argued that the answer, “Because I,” means I am in a wrong relationship with God, and therefore not saved. But it also means that the first issue to address with my two Witnesses was the effectiveness of Christ’s death, and their own need for assurance.
Clearly, their own assurance came from their own works, even though they explicitly said they weren’t ‘earning’ their salvation. But the equally important point is that an argument about the nature of Christ or the precise status of ‘Hell’ would have taken us off on a diversion, rather than getting to the heart of the matter.
Naturally, I would also want to challenge their view of Christ, but I suspect it would be easier to do so when the extent of Christ’s saving work was properly understood. Arguing about whether Jesus was divine, or whether, as Witnesses teach, he was an incarnation of the Archangel Michael, is less ‘academic’ when his nature means his death is capable of dealing with all the sins of the whole world.
Meanwhile, though, I also find myself asking whether new understandings of the atonement, which see Christ’s death and our works acting ‘cooperatively’ do not undermine assurance just as much as the teachings of JWs, and therefore whether we shouldn’t be just as inclined to proclaim the fullness of salvation as the truth in opposition to error in these cases as well.