How to Talk to a Jehovah's Witness
About Salvation by David Englund
More times than I care to count, I have had utterly fruitless conversations about the Bible with Jehovah's Witnesses. My standard questions were met by their stock answers. We would trade Bible verses for hours on end, session after session, and at the end of it all I felt was as if I had been extolling the virtues of General Motors to a Ford salesman. What was I doing wrong?
Let's discuss the issue of salvation. Knowing that the Watchtower system is a works-oriented treadmill, whenever I talked with JWs I wanted to slow them that the real gospel message is far better than the WT version. Specifically, I was determined to show them from the scriptures that salvation is truly a free gift, dependent on Christ's finished work and is received by faith apart from works. I would quote Eph. 2:8,9: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast." The JWs would acknowledge the importance of faith and "Jehovah's undeserved kindness," but would immediately bring up a passage like Heb. 5:9: "He [Jesus] became the source of eternal life to all who obey him." (Their point: The genuineness of faith is shown by obedience.) I countered with Romans 4:4,5: "Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.."
"Yes, yes," the Witness would say, "but genuine faith must produce good works." They would then quote James 2:14, 26: "What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead." They would quickly add in Matt. 24:13 to the effect that he who endure to the end will be saved." Back and forth we would go with our proof texts, getting nowhere. I felt as if I were talking to a Watchtower book or magazine rather than really communicating with another human being.
Our discussions followed very predictable patterns. They always seemed to end in a stalemate, "You have your religion and I have mine; let's just leave it at that." As a Christian, I didn't want to accept this stalemate as inevitable. There had to be a better way. As I prayed and thought about this problem, I realized the approach I was using had several major drawbacks.
First, I wasn't inspiring any original thinking on the part of the Witness. The points we discussed were already "answered" in the WT reference book. Reasoning From the Scriptures. It all went exactly according to the Watchtower's script. Far from challenging their thinking, I was actually reinforcing their WT training, giving them.. no need to even think about it.
Second, I was trying to teach them correct Bible doctrine. My efforts crashed head-on into the wall of WT indoctrination which tells JWs that they are "in the truth" and that the rest of us are not. They couldn't imagine that I could have any insights worth considering. My understanding of scripture came across as religious errors for them to refute rather than as thoughts they should evaluate seriously. The idea that the WT might be wrong was simply not an option they would allow themselves to consider.
Third, I was coming on as a vocal critic of the Watchtower. In their eyes that made me an opposer of "the truth" and of them personally as Jehovah's Witnesses. The harder I pushed, the more they pushed back.
Fourth, nothing I was doing went beyond the surface to get at the real obstacles. I couldn't get past the language barrier.
What do I mean by this? With regard to salvation, the WT writers will admit that the Bible teaches that we cannot earn our salvation by good works. They say that true faith will produce good works. They say that true faith will produce good works. On the surface, it seems as if the WT is consistent with scripture and with orthodox Reformation theology. Going beyond the language itself, though, for them God's grace is not accessed by faith itself but by the constant "exercising" of faith. Theirs is a works salvation disguised by skillful use of language. The Watchtower Society maintains strict control over the whole process. How? By defining "exercising faith" for JWs by measuring meeting attendance, door-to-door work, placing literature, participation in building Kingdom Halls, donations, externals that can be recorded on time cards or record sheets.
The treadmill never stops. Because of where the WT puts its constant attention. JWs are forced to focus their own daily attention - not on Christ and his finished atoning work - but on self-effort, on constantly demonstrating their faith by their acts of obedience to "God's organization." JWs may say we cannot earn our salvation by good works, but they all firmly believe that if they don't do enough, they will be rejected in the last day. Their "faith" will not have saved them. Somehow I needed to be able to address these issues with Jehovah's Witnesses.
Yet, how could I do so without appearing to attack them or the Watchtower Society, an approach guaranteed to get them to defend the organization and its doctrines all the more?
Remember the fictional detective, Lieutenant Columbo? Unlike other policemen, he didn't make accusations or demand explanations. He realized that such an approach merely served to shut off communication. Instead, he humbled himself and kept asking for help to clear up problems he was having with the case. In that way, he got past the usual defenses and found what he was looking for. My alternative approach is similar. Unlike Columbo, however, we aren't trying to trap a criminal into a confession. We are simply trying to plant seeds as we ask questions the WT successfully keeps them from asking or answering on their own. The alternative approach follows these principles.
Try to inspire original thinking on the part of the JWs by approaching issues in a different way from what they would expect.
Rather than trying to "teach" JWs directly, let them teach themselves and reach their own conclusions. This includes suggesting options rather than arguing doctrine. Avoid giving them a target they can attack.
Step into the Jehovah's Witnesses' shoes and be their investigative ally rather than their opponent.
Ask the questions they can't or won't ask, but do so in a manner they will find safe and non-threatening.
Rather than trying to wring concessions out of them, be satisfied to plant seeds for God to grow at His own pace. That means being willing to leave matters uncertain rather than trying to score some sort of clear debating victory.
If I stress faith, I know a Jehovah's Witness will stress works. To avoid this, I may begin by asking him to to explain why we are in need of salvation in the first place. He will quote me Bible verses to the effect that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I will then ask him why it isn't enough to have our good works outweigh the bad. After all, we aren't as bad as Al Capone or Adolph Hitler, are we? I am focusing the JW's attention on our common sinfulness and need of a savior. I am identifying with him and letting him teach me about sin and righteousness and judgment. I am trusting the Holy Spirit to work to remind the Witness of his own sinfulness. I let the JW tell me about Christ's sacrifice and the need for faith. Then I will bring up works by saying something like this, "Yes, but is it really by faith? Doesn't the Bible say that faith without works is dead?" I preempt his issue by playing devil's advocate. I let him explain the importance of faith and explain why we can't earn salvation by good works. At some point I will say something like this: "Please don't think I am being flippant with this question. I don't mean to be. But since faith without works is dead, when it comes to paying off our sin debt, when it comes to paying off our sin debt, do you think that it would be accurate to say that Christ made the down payment by his sacrifice but that it's up to us to keep up the installments by our good works?
The JWs I have encountered aren't prepared for this question. They are usually puzzled by it. Some see right away that this view of salvation waters down. Christ's sacrifice and has us at least partly earning our salvation. They tell me it's misunderstanding. Then I ask them to help me clear up the misunderstanding. How does my example misstate things? Help me clear things up. How does it work? This question forces them to focus on the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice and to explain it to me. They are doing the teaching and I am praying silently for the Holy Spirit to be teaching them.
Some JWs think the comparison with down payments and installments is a good one. They will say, "Yes, that's good illustration of the way it works." I then ask how much of the debt is really paid off by Christ's sacrifice and how much by our works. This makes for a good discussion. It's especially interesting if one JW accepts my illustration and his partner rejects it. We have an honest exploration of scripture instead of following a WT script.
If the Witness knows his doctrine well, he eventually tells me that salvation comes purely by our faith in Christ's sacrifice but that the evidence of our faith is our good works. At that point I say, "How much is enough so we know we will be forgiven and accepted by God? For example, I suppose there are JWs who do the door-to-door ministry full time and I suppose there are some JWs who do very little. Most are probably somewhere in the middle. If I were a Witness, how could I know I had enough faith that, if I died in the middle of the night, God would find my faith acceptable?"
I might refer to Peter, who had enough faith to walk on the water one minute and who almost drowned the next. Jesus said at that point he had "little faith." How much is enough? How do we know? What am I doing here? I am asking questions that JWs don't want to ask openly but which the WT uses subconsciously to control them through fear and guilt.
I don't point this out directly to a JW. If I did, I'd be making myself his opponent and forcing him to defend. the honor of the Watchtower organization. I might make this point another way by saying, "You have probably learned how to deal with this, but I don't know if I could look at my service as evidence of my faith or do good works out of gratitude to God. I'm afraid I would always be trying to do just a little more to make sure I was in his favor but never knowing for sure if he accepted me." Why am I doing this? To identify with his innermost fears and to provide an atmosphere in which the Holy Spirit can create in him a conviction that God must have provided us more than this.
I might point out that many people do good works without any reference to Christ's sacrifice and ask how one can know if what he is doing is truly being done from faith in Christ. "Sometimes I can con myself into thinking I'm spiritual when I'm really relying on my performance like the Pharisees did. How can I know if my works really come from faith?" I'm not accusing them of anything, I'm simply saying that's how I would feel. I am asking questions the Jehovah's Witnesses should be asking for himself, but often doesn't. If he does ask them, he often fails to follow through because the Watchtower keeps him so busy with its performance treadmill.
My goal is to plant seeds so the Holy Spirit can convince him that he's really depending on works rather than on Christ and to create in him a desire for something better. If a JW asks me how I resolve these issues, I try not to switch to a direct teaching mode. That would just give him a familiar target to attack, and the WT training would kick in. We'd stop communicating. To avoid creating a target, I am content to leave things a bit uncertain. I may say, "It's difficult, isn't it? The more I try to please God by being spiritual,the less I seem to be trusting in Jesus. Maybe you haven't had that problem, but it works that way for me."
Making headway with a Witness first involves getting past the Watchtower defenses and arguments in a way that will resonate with him and make him think for himself. We need to be flexible so as to help JWs rather than debate them. We should not be out to win an argument My suggestion is that we do our best to come alongside JWs and plant and water seeds which help them seek for and find the real Jesus and the real way of salvation. (Source: The Free Minds Journal, Vol 19, Nu 3,July/ September 2000 pp.7,8)
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