Pick up any Christian book on systemic theology, and you will find in the index a section on soteriology – the doctrine of salvation. Therein will be topics such as “Grace,” “Conversion,” “Faith,” “Justification” and “Sanctification.”
How then do Jehovah’s Witnesses understand this subject of salvation? How is a Jehovah’s witness saved? What is he or she saved from? Is witness salvation the same as Christian salvation? Through this essay, I will endeavour to explore these questions with a view to getting behind the JW understanding of salvation. By this I mean, what actually happened in the History of the WBTS, which helped mould and galvanise their doctrine of salvation.
Before Jumping ahead to the modern JW era it will be helpful to explore History, which will help unravel the JW conundrum. Therefore before looking at the modern organisation and its current view of salvation I wish to embark on a Historical Survey. It is important not to just understand what witnesses believe but how they came to believe it. Arming ourselves with History is a useful tool in helping unlock a JW’s mind.
We begin our investigation with the 1889 WT publication “Divine Plan of the Ages”. For intellectual honesty we must admit in those early days Russell’s aims to ‘find truth’ appears noble and commendable. He says:
“Truth-seekers should empty their vessels of the muddy waters of tradition and fill them at the fountain of truth – God’s word. No religious teaching should have weight except as it guides the truth-seeker to that fountain” Page 12.
However Russell is not without his own presuppositions. Having rejected both the Papacy and the Reformers he draws heavily on his mentors namely the Seventh Day Adventist and Christadelphians. Both of these groups rejected orthodox Christian doctrine and formulated their own interpretations of scripture. Both groups were keenly interested in eschatology and thus prophetic speculation formed the bedrock of Russell’s faith. He believed that mankind had entered a new era and that the dawn of a new age was approaching.
“Gradually God opens up his truth and reveals the exceeding riches of his grace; and consequently much more light is due now than at any previous time in the Church’s history. And still new beauties shall we see, And still increasing light” Page 28.
You see Russell was convinced that he had been given fresh revelation of God’s divine plan. His basic theology was built upon his view of redemptive History. According to Russell, God’s “Plan of the Ages,” could be split into three main dispensations.
1) Creation to the Flood
2) The Patriarchal age, Jewish Age and Gospel age.
3) The Millennial age and age to come.
Using various calculations including pyramidology Russell believed that the world had entered the final period of the second dispensation; in other words, the end of the Gospel age had arrived and on the horizon lay the millennial age. He felt the Churches had neglected this “truth” and thus had made little progress in understanding the Divine plan.
“Since their day [reformers] little progress has been made, because instead of walking in the light, they have halted around their favorite leaders…they set boundaries to their progress in the way of truth…a great deal of error [was] brought in from the “mother” church [papacy]” Page 23.
Russell was convinced that HE had NEW LIGHT, and that mankind was now living in a final ‘harvest time’.
“The nominal Church because of her mixed condition, the Lord calls “Babylon” – confusion; and the harvest is the time for separating the different classes…wheat [class] will be separated… [and] in due time become Christ’s bride” Page 239.
Herein lies a warning for those of us interested in eschatology today. We must be careful not to trap ourselves in our own cunning! You see Russell had moved beyond speculation and had created a “plan” which He believed to be God’s and which He claimed was absolute. Russell reminds me of the 1st/2nd century Gnostics who claimed superior knowledge beyond that in scripture. Such “knowledge” puffs-up and as can be seen above, Russell soon began criticising the whole of the Christian Church. Eschatological speculation is one thing but if a person allows an idea to become a “divine truth” a line has been crossed.
It is necessary to understand Russell’s eschatological outlook because it is integrally linked with his understanding of salvation. So let us now explore Russell’s understanding of salvation. In study IX of “Divine Plan of the Ages” under the heading “Ransom and Restitution” Russell lays down his soteriological formulations. Please remember Russell’s understanding of salvation is restricted by his theory of “Gods divine plan”.
“The “ransom for all” given by “the man Christ Jesus” does not give or guarantee everlasting life or blessing to any man; but it does guarantee to every man another opportunity or trial for life everlasting” Page 149.
What is Russell saying? Simply this: God’s plan was for mankind to live on earth eternally. That plan has not changed and must be fulfilled. Therefore a parenthesis has occurred in Gods divine plan. Adamic sin prevents us from attaining this everlasting life on earth. However Jesus came to ransom ALL  from the penalty of death and give everyone a ‘second chance’. Russell explains the second chance is offered to all including the unsaved dead who will be resurrected in the millennium to a paradise earth to undergo the ‘trial for life.’ So faith in Jesus sacrificial death does not give life but simply gives a person another opportunity or trial. What is this trial?
“When as a result of the ransom, he [man] is granted another trial, an individual trial, under the eye and control of him who loved him…we may be sure that only the wilfully disobedient will receive the penalty of the second trial. That penalty will be the second death [annihilation]” Page 150-151.
For Russell Jesus sacrifice was nothing more than the redemption of Adams life making possible a restoration for all those who pass the trial. Salvation was about taking hold of the trial for life and proving oneself worthy.
Russell further separates people in general from the Church. He states…
“One difference between the experiences of the world under trail and the experiences of the Church under trial will be that the obedient of the world…receive the blessings of restitution by a gradual removal of weaknesses – mental and physical; whereas the Gospel Church, consecrated to the Lord’s service even unto death, goes down into death and gets her perfection instantaneously in the first resurrection” Page 153.
Herein we see Russell’s dichotomy. We have the “World” of mankind who are each given the opportunity to reach perfection by a slow reversal of adamic sin during the Millennium. This perfection is dependent on the individuals obedience under trail. Whereas the Church is viewed as undergoing the trial for life NOW in this life, thus at death these faithful ones receive their heavenly reward instantaneously. Notice that in Russell’s theology “heaven” is reserved only for the “true Church” who rule over planet earth on which the resurrected unsaved dead will undergo their trial for everlasting life.
Throughout his writings Russell contradicts himself as he stumbles around soteriology. On page 233 Russell acknowledges that for the true Church, believers are “imputed” with righteousness but that full fellowship comes in “God’s due” time. Russell states “our works were not called for to secure justification…by faith we accepted his finished work, we were justified”
This sounds much like the orthodox view of salvation by faith i.e. that is humans who accept Christ sacrifice and exercise faith in Jesus are imputed with righteousness and receive eternal life. However Russell flaps around with this simple truth. He goes on….
“But now, if we would go further, we cannot go without works. True, we must not lose our faith, else we will thereby lose our justification; but being justified, and continuing in faith, we are able…to do good works…And God requires this”
Here we find Russell’s major soteriological error. While in one breath He speaks of justification by faith alone in the next breath he states to hold onto your justification you must do good works and not lose faith. The historical confession of Christendom is that salvation is attained by faith alone.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)
No matter which way you slice the cake anything other than salvation by God’s unmerited grace is a works orientated salvation. According to the scriptures you cannot “work” for salvation, it is a gift from God by Faith.
As Russell’s eschatology mapped out God’s plan, He asserted that the true Church (sanctuary class) would be raptured in 1881 and that the end of the age would occur in 1914 ushering in the “Millennial Kingdom” and following on into the age to come.
By 1916 Russell was dead and by and large so were his prophetic speculations. The honest recourse of his followers would have been to abandon Russell’s “Divine Plan” and accept that Russell had made monumental mistakes. In my opinion the correct redress would have been for Russell’s followers to seek the LORDS forgiveness for the many false predications and false teachings that had been promulgated for over forty years. Instead, head strong and arrogant, out of the ashes of an organisational schism, rose the Watchtower organisation stronger and more powerful than ever.
A major doctrinal change took place in 1935. Prior to this time the Watchtower followed Russell’s teaching that they were in a harvest period and a remnant were being drawn into Jehovah’s organisation all of which had a heavenly calling. The view was held that because some believer’s fell away and thus forfeited their salvation, that God was yet calling new ones in to replace them. However, with the decades passing from the 1914 terminus date this explanation was less than tenable. Thus “NEW LIGHT” from the society helped clarify why the end had not yet arrived.
In 1939 the second Watchtower President, J. F. Rutherford, ironically wrote and published the book “Salvation” which outlined the work of the “Jonadabs” (Great crowd) and their role in the coming new world order. The book had nothing to do with the pure truth of Gods word concerning Christian salvation but rather it was a survival handbook for “Jonadabs”.
Furthermore, despite the modern rhetoric, how did the WT leaders deal with Russell’s dates such as 1881? WT President Joseph Rutherford simply moved the date forward to 1931:
“Although Jehovah had come to his temple in 1918 and had begun judgment of this anointed class, still others must be brought in, because some were found unworthy and they must be replaced. The evidences show that this continued until especially 1931, when there began a work of gathering those recognised as “other sheep” of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Jehovah’s Witnesses In The Divine Purpose 1959 p.139
Later the date was moved to 1935:
“Hence, especially after 1966 it was believed that the heavenly call ceased in 1935.” Watchtower 2007 May 1 p.30
So with the heavenly class sealed the W.T presents their followers with the doctrine of the “Great Crowd” – This “New Light” was that God was now collecting a new class of people. Jehovah would protect these faithful ones during the coming Great tribulation and Armageddon. These ones would form the nucleolus of the New World order. Thus Jehovah’s ‘organisation’ was now seen to be a forerunner for world domination that would come after Armageddon. In other words the world would have to bow the knee to the WT – not Jesus Christ!
Thus since 1935 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been actively evangelising the world with this message; “Armageddon is coming, if you want to survive – get on the ark which is Jehovah’s organisation – only then might you be able to enter the Kingdom of God on earth”
Incidentally this “Great Crowd class,” are not seen as Christ brothers, but following Russell’s teachings these worthy ones get the chance to undergo the “trial for life” in the Millennial Kingdom. You see nothing is secure for a JW. Eternal life for a JW is about obedience, loyalty, survival and works – never grace.
Let us now jump to more modern times. Russell’s doctrines are firmly embedded in the JW psyche. For example if you ask a modern day Jehovah’s Witness “are you saved by faith,” they will emphatically answer YES. However ask them if you can be saved by faith apart from becoming a Jehovah Witness and they will say NO. They may dodge the question and say “we leave that to Jehovah to decide,” but deep down they believe only an active JW is in a position to hopefully make safely through Armageddon into the paradise earth.
Read the WT definition of salvation taken from “Reasoning from the scriptures” Page 356-351 is:
“Definition: 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.”
Let us now summarise the Jehovah’s Witness view of salvation for the “Great Crowd” class:
1) Salvation is escape from Armageddon.
2) Salvation is obtained by the exercising of faith in Jesus ransom sacrifice.
3) Salvation is secured only by ongoing faith and obedience to the Watchtower organization obedience proves your faith is genuine.
4) Salvation [i.e. faith in Jesus ransom sacrifice] presents a person with a “second chance” or “trial for life” in the Paradise earth.
5) Salvation is not eternally secure and can be lost through disobedience to the Watchtower organization either now or in the Paradise earth. Even those with a heavenly calling can loose their inheritance by willful disobedience to the society.
Now an honest JW must acknowledge that these five points are true. To leave the Society is to loose any chance of survival through Armageddon. To say you have faith in Jesus ransom sacrifice is simply not enough you must do works. Let me prove this. According to the Watchtower, Feb. 15, 1983, p. 12, there are four requirements to salvation. These would include:
1) Take in accurate knowledge (this means learning WT doctrines)
2) Baptism (this means pledging allegiance to the WT society)
3) Do Gods will / Public declaration (this primarily means house to house WT evangelism)
4) Obey God’s Laws (this really means the WT’s laws)
“When a person, on the basis of the Scriptural knowledge he has gained, has belief in Christ as the Savior whom God provided and shows that faith by his works, he can consider himself as being on the way to salvation. It would be a mistake for him to think that he is now saved and cannot fall. He must show by his endurance in the Christian faith that he is worthy of salvation. “Let him that thinks he has a firm position beware that he does not fall.” 1 Cor. 10:12… Salvation from death is a gift from God to those that obey him, not to those that disobey,” (Watchtower, March 1, 1960, p. 134).
Raymond Franz highlights that while the WT claims to believe in salvation by faith alone, in actual practice they deny this claim. For a JW Christian freedom does not exist. They have no concept of the superior righteousness of God based on faith, love and truth. True Christian faith, is not passive but active, true faith is superior to works of legalism, for true works, flow out of love of the Saviour and a person relationship with him. JW’s don’t have this for they are not truly saved. Rather they are enslaved to a system and submissive to a centralised authority.
The wonder of true Christianity is that contrary to all the claims of the WT – salvation is a FREE gift.
“But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” Romans 5:15-17. (ESV)
Paul contrasts works of Jewish Law and acts of legalism with the purity and wonder of Grace. What is grace? The underserved, unmerited favour of a benevolent God who unilaterally imputes righteousness to whomever he pleases.
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.“ Romans 12:3 (ESV).
You see FAITH itself is a gift. I don’t confess to understand the dynamics of salvation but I do know the scriptures make it abundantly clear that God Almighty asks nothing more than that we believe in his Son as LORD and Saviour.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” John 3:16-18 (ESV)
“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” John 10:28 (ESV)
Jesus words are unambiguous. To believe in Him is to be saved. To be saved is to secure eternal life, not as a maybe, but as a certainty. No more fear or condemnation – Amazing!
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” Ephesians 1:13-14 (ESV)
The equation is simple: FAITH IN JESUS + NOTHING = SALVATION.
If we add anything to FAITH then we undermine grace. Grace is a FREE gift to ALL who believe. This truth vanquishes the false doctrine of earthly and heavenly classes. Jesus came to save ALL. He offers the same destiny for ALL people.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word…Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” John 17:20; 24 (ESV)
I ask you does Jesus High priestly prayer sound like he has two classes of humans in mind? Firstly having spoken to his Father about his disciples he links them with ALL who would afterward believe. That means YOU and ME brethren! What a wonderful truth! Together hundreds of thousands of men and women who put faith in Jesus Christ are to be – WHERE HE IS! – Wherever our LORD dwells we who believe in him will be with him. That’s Gods promise!
For me the fatal mistake that JW’s have made is to misunderstand the question of truth. You see Russell was as he said “Truth-seeking” yet he never really asked the right question. You see the question is not WHAT is TRUTH but WHO is TRUTH! Pilate flippantly dismissed truth “What is truth?” he asked. Wrong question! Had he asked WHO is truth perhaps Jesus THE TRUTH incarnate would have said, “I am”.
So often in History men and women have searched for truth when truth, i.e. THE TRUTH – JESUS is standing straight in front of them. Russell was one of those men. I am not the judge of his salvation, but I do know in his search for truth he was misleading others. He claimed to use only the Bible yet much of his belief system is borrowed from other groups. His eschatological predictions failed and sadly they have been transformed and adapted by his followers producing today a monolithic man made effigy – the Watchtower Society.
Yet I hear all you JW’s crying out, BUT “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). If that’s your proof text then please take my advice and re-read the WHOLE of James, in context, don’t pick out a verse that suits your theology. For example consider the original setting. Ask these questions. What situation was the author dealing with? Who were his audience? Very quickly you will see that James is not making a soteriological statement but one of practical needs and responsibilities.
Finally a word on justification and sanctification, neither of these words are understood by JW’s. Their worldview hangs on the metanarrative that faith in Jesus demands works in order to be good enough to survive Armageddon. How far from the truth that is!
As Paul explained “as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one” Romans 3:10 (ESV). It is the fact that we are unrighteous sinners, alienated and separated from God that brings the conviction that we need HIM. We don’t need a religion, or an organisation we need a saviour and his name is JESUS. Faith in Him brings justification, undeserved and unmerited. What a gift from God!
While it is true God’s wrath rests still on the unsaved and one day will be poured out upon the earth (John 3:36, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, Rev 19:15) for believers our eternal security is sure.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8:1-2 (ESV)
From our relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit flows the power of sanctification or regeneration. Louis Berkhof comments:
“Sanctification may be defined as that gracious and continuous operation of the Holy Spirit, by which He delivers the justified sinner from pollution of sin, renews his whole nature in the image of God, and enables him to perform good works…it is essentially a work of God…though man is expected to co-operate”
In laymen’s terms sanctification is the process of transformation into the image of God. Rather than needing hundreds of laws or power hungry men to tell us what to do, sanctification takes place in the inner life of man, in the heart. As the inner man is changed so is the outer man and thus Gods love flows from the believer into this world giving witness to the Gospel message.
So how can we help JW’s to understand what salvation, justification and sanctification really are? First prayer is essential. A spiritual darkness envelops and blinds the minds of JW’s. Don’t for a minute think that witnesses are any less lost than atheists they are both equally lost. Pray that the LORD may open the witness mind to Holy writ, that the Holy Spirit may illuminate a text. Be specific in your prayers for example pray for witnesses by name.
Practically speaking, prepare yourself to engage these sincere but lost people and earnestly show them the love of Christ. Never argue, but try and listen. Ask questions that probe the soul such as, “How does it make you feel that you might not be worthy enough to make it through Armageddon?” Try and get them to think for themselves.
I end this essay with the words of Thomas F. Torrance professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Edinburgh:
“In Christ the eternal God has entered into the present evil world which in due course will pass away before the unveiling of the glory of God. By the cross the believer has been put in the right with God once for all – Christ is his righteousness. He is already in Christ what he will be – to that no striving will add one iota.”
Blessings to you all in Yeshua our LORD Jesus Christ
(Please read footnotes below for further information)
 A read through Russell’s publications quickly reveals a serious lack of biblical hermeneutics or exegesis. Rather much is his own thoughts and ideas with scriptures used as proof text to support his theory.
 Note that Russell emphasizes the word ALL in 1 Timothy 2:6 “he gave himself a ransom for all” Russell interprets this verse as God’s guarantee that all people will have second chance. However the context indicates that in the “fullness of time” Jesus was born and died giving His life as payment to free the human race (“all”) from slavery to sin. Jesus’ death made all people savable. Limited redemptionists interpret “all men” to be all the elect. Universalists interpret “all men” to be every human individual. Passages that indicate that not everyone will be saved refute the universalists (e.g., Matt 25:46; Rev. 20:15; et al.) Constable, (Dr.) Thomas L. “Notes on 1 Timothy 2012 Edition” Page 22.
 Russell said “As the entire race was in Adam when he was condemned, and lost life through him, so when Adam’s life was redeemed by the man Christ Jesus, a possible race in his loins died also, and a full satisfaction, or corresponding price, was rendered to justice for all men; and he who bought all has full authority to restore all who come unto God by him” Note Jesus redeems Adam! – and only by extension the offspring of Adam. Jesus ransom is applied with a view to restoration, not eternal salvation. “Divine Plan of the Ages” Page 155.
 Note the exception to this “second chance rule” if Armageddon comes before a person dies or before a person has accepted Russell’s teachings, he or she is basically caught out and dies at Armageddon – that is they are irrevocably annihilated never to obtain a second chance. Consequently Armageddon becomes a powerful tool to scare WT adherents into abject subservience.
 Please note for Russell the age to come or “New Heavens and New Earth” were not literal, i.e a new universe. Rather Russell understood his soteriology in terms of restoration not replacement. For him the earth had been made for man and this was an eternal covenant. Thus God would restore planet earth and offer all humans a second chance to dwell on it eternally. Refusal to conform would result in annihilation.
 This view is a misnomer as Russell had said the doors had closed to the heavenly class in 1881! “Remember, too, that the Scriptures proved to us in various ways-by the Jubilee Cycles, the 1335 days of Daniel, the Parallel Dispensations, etc.-that the “harvest” or end of this age was due to begin in October, 1874, and that the Great Reaper was then due to be present; that seven years later-in October, 1881-the “high calling” ceased, though some will be admitted to the same favors afterward, without a general call being made, to fill the places of some of the called ones who, on being tested, will be found unworthy.” Thy Kingdom Come p.362
 “Reasoning from the Scriptures” WBTS Page 356.
 Great emphasis is placed on the words “exercising faith” the claim is made that exercising faith by way of obedience to the WT is proof of being a true believer. Without such “exercising of faith” the person is deemed not a true believer. Thus a person who leaves the protection of the WT is defined as an apostate who in due time will be annihilated – unless that is they return to the fold, however apostates are often labeled unredeemable.
 For a active Jehovah’s Witness the Watchtower Society is synonymous with Jehovah God. I.e. The two are one of the same. Disloyalty to the earthly organization is to be disloyal to Jehovah in heaven.
 Franz Raymond, “In search of Christian Freedom” Page 179-180.
 χάρισμα, τος n: (derivatives of χαρίζομαιa) ‘to give graciously and generously,’ 57.102) that which is given freely and generously—‘gift, gracious gift.’
Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (568). New York: United Bible Societies.
 Berkhof Louis “Systematic Theology” Banner of Truth Trust 1981 reprint. Page 532.
 Torrance Thomas F. “The doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers” Wipf & Stcok Publishers 1996.