We see them often in our neighbourhoods. A guy and a lady offering to share God’s word with us and leave behind some literature. Their iconic shoulder bag is a constant witness to their devotion and zeal.
Jehovah’s witnesses are a religious group comprising about 8 million members globally across over 100,000 congregations. Founded by Charles Taze Russell (1852 – 1916) in the USA, it has grown into a global religious movement. Though sometimes regarded as a Christian denomination, the organization holds beliefs which differ from historic Christianity.
In his classic volume on cult systems and heretical groups, Kingdom of the Cults, the American minister and scholar, Walter Martin, identified several points on which Jehovah’s Witnesses differ from biblical Christianity, such as their view of God, their understanding of Jesus, the nature of Man, and the personality of the Holy Spirit.
However, in this article, I will focus on just two critical points: The person of Jesus Christ and the nature of the atonement.
I have listed these two because they are at the core of the Gospel. Christians may disagree about many things, and they do. Yet, some beliefs are so fundamental that to deny them is to deny the Gospel. And no individual or group who denies them can be called Christian.
The Deity of Jesus
Christianity is built upon the truth of who Jesus is and the significance of his death and resurrection. The question which Jesus put to his disciples still stands: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13) At the heart of Christianity is the identity of Jesus. This is no ordinary prophet, nor a common rabbi; this is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And on this very truth the apostles staked not only their reputations, but their very lives. It is the foundational creed of the church. Every other statement is an elaboration of this basic confession.
To the apostles, the divinity of Jesus was a basic premise. This was why their faith was such a disturbing movement; it upset both the Roman and Jewish worldviews. For the Romans, Caesar was Lord, Supreme over all things. He was already being worshiped as divine. So when the Christians proclaimed the Lordship of Jesus, they were claiming for him the supremacy which the Romans had ascribed to their emperor.
And for the Jews, Yahweh was the one true God. To accept the claims of Christ was to accept that God had taken on human fless and come down. This was the logical conclusion of biblical revelation, but it was unthinkable for the Jews of Jesus’ day.
Several passages of the Bible show the divinity of Christ. These include: Isaiah 7:14; 9:6; Micah 5:7; John 1:14; 8:58; 17:5; Hebrews 1:3; Philippians 2:11; Colossians 2:9, among others.
In view of the significance of this truth, a group cannot be a Christian body when it denies this central claim of Christianity.
As to the atonement, the group gives a different sense to the classic doctrine. According to its website:
Human sin causes division between God and man, for Jehovah does not approve of sin. The breach between man and his Creator could be healed only by fulfillment of the requisite of a true “covering,” or atonement, for such sin…
Jesus’ perfect human life offered in sacrifice is the antitypical sin offering. It is the valuable thing that accomplishes the purchase of mankind, redeeming them from inherited sin and death. Christ himself declared: “The Son of man came, not to be ministered to, but to minister and to give his soul a ransom [Gr., lyʹtron] in exchange for many.” His sacrifice atoned exactly for what was forfeited by the sinner Adam, since Jesus was perfect and hence Adam’s equal prior to the first man’s sin.
Their idea of atonement considers that Adam ‘lost everlasting life in human perfection, bequeathed sin and death to his offspring.’ Adam had forfeited perfect human life. Therefore, ‘anything making satisfaction for something that is lost or forfeited must be “at one” with that other thing, completely covering it as its exact equivalent.’
Christ came to offer an equivalent perfect human life just as Adam had forfeited. And that is the atonement. Thus the atonement in view by Jehovah’s Witnesses is one where a perfect life is traded for a perfect life formerly lost, not a dying for sins committed against God.
Here is the biblical view of the atonement expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
The idea that Christ bore God’s punishment for our sins is taught throughout scripture, including in passages like Isaiah 53:6; Romans 4:25; 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18; 1 John 2:2.
Along with their denial of what historically has been termed ‘penal substitution’ is their rejection of Christ’s bodily resurrection. Among Christians, the two ideas go together. And logically, Jehovah’s Witnesses reject both.
As a group, witnesses maintain a commendable emphasis on purity of life and moral character. And in my interactions with many over the years, they are a decent and respectable community. They display an unflinching zeal for evangelism and a concern for the suffering and oppressed, two attributes which the biblical Church must recover.
Nevertheless, their worldview is a sad distortion of the truth revealed and recorded in the Bible. They hold to a God who is less than glorious, for he is cut off from other members of the trinity. Christ, in their view, is not worthy of worship for he is but a creature, however distinguished. And the divine Holy Spirit, through whom the universe was brought forth, is reduced to a mere life force. The atonement, with the joy of sins forgiven which it presents to the believer, is reinterpreted to consist in the perfect human life lived by Jesus.
The true gospel sounds a different note. For it displays a triune God whose very nature is love. Through his love, and the collective work of the godhead, he executes a plan of redemption that really deals with human guilt and bestows forgiveness to everyone who comes to Christ in faith and repentance.
The Biblical gospel saves because it is true. It honours God because it takes what he has revealed about himself and exalts in it. How sad to go for something less!