[Enoch was kind enough to lighten my load this week by supplying most of the research and wording for this article.]
[From ws12/16 p. 26 January 30-February 5]
“Sin must not be master over you, seeing that you are . . . under undeserved kindness.”—ROM. 6:14.
This week’s study article will attract more than the usual attention from both JWs and non-JWs as it cuts to the heart of what many feel is one of the biggest problem areas within the Organization: Its interpretation of how to handle sin within the congregation.
Watchtower apologists will take this study article as clear evidence that Jehovah’s Witnesses have benefited from God’s undeserved kindness (or grace, as the rest of Christendom would term it) since the publication of the first Watchtower in 1879. Critics of the Watchtower ranging from Bible scholars to some currently active members take a different position. They feel that whilst the Watchtower may have started out under grace that it has since gone beyond what is written in Scripture and established its own laws to govern forgiveness of sins. They feel that rather than being under grace, most Jehovah’s Witness are under the law of the Watchtower. (Compare Romans 4:3-8; 8:1; 11:6) In support of their position, critics will point to the JW judicial system as evidence that their belief in God’s grace is relative. Jehovah’s Witnesses are afforded the right to approach Jehovah in prayer through Jesus Christ on minor sins but are commanded to confess to the elders all serious sins. Critics say that this procedure creates a two-tiered approach to grace since the elders act as substitutes for Christ in determining whether or not to forgive a serious sin. (Compare 1Ti 2:5)
So which position is correct? Are the Witnesses under grace as this week’s Watchtower title proclaims, or are the critics correct in saying that JW’s are under the law of the Watchtower rather than grace? It is our hope that this review will help us to answer these questions.
Underserved Kindness or Grace, Which?
Let us begin by explaining why Witnesses prefer the term “underserved kindness” to the far more common “grace”.
While most Bibles will render the Greek word charis or kharis as “grace” in English, the NWT prefers what Witnesses consider to be the more accurate translation of “underserved kindness”. (See Insight on the Scriptures, vol. II, p. 280 under the heading Undeserved Kindness.) Witnesses adopt the “We’re not worthy” mindset in their approach to God’s love. Is this the view that Jehovah wants his children to have of his fatherly love? It is true that as sinners, we do not deserve kindness based on our merits, but does the worthiness of the loved one even factor into the idea of grace and favor from God? Whatever the answer, our view must be subservient to that of God.
Exploring the use of the Greek word via the link above will allow the studious reader to see that modifying the noun with the adjective “undeserved”, imposes a restrictive meaning to charis which robs it of much of its richness. The word is not limited to the action of showing kindness to the undeserving. Grace, on the other hand, lacks meaning to a Jehovah’s Witness. It requires meditative study to comprehend what grace or charis means to a Christian specifically and for that matter to the world at large. Perhaps we might be better served were we to do what English speakers have done for centuries and adopt a foreign word into our language to better express a new concept. Perhaps charis would make a good candidate. It would be nice to have a word that can only apply to God, but that is a topic for another time. For now, we’ll contrast grace as understood in Christendom with undeserved kindness as preached by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The question we should ask ourselves is where should the focus go?
Imagine you are a homeless person. You are lost, cold, hungry and alone. One night a stranger approaches with some warm blankets, bread and hot soup. The stranger also gives you some cash to help you out. You thank him from the bottom of your heart and say “I can’t repay you”.
The stranger responds, “I know you can’t repay me. You actually don’t deserve my kindness. In fact I don’t really have to help you at all. It’s not because of you but because of the generous person I am that I do this. I hope you’re grateful.
Is this the image God wants us to have of his acts of kindness, his grace? Let us contrast this with another response.
The stranger responds, “I don’t expect repayment. I do this out of love. When you can, imitate me and show love to others.”
Which of the two examples resonates with you the most? Which stranger would you call a gracious man? One long-time Witness remarked, “I don’t like using the NWT because I feel like it is telling me I don’t deserve God’s love but I deserve to die, whereas when I see the word “grace”, it me makes me feel like God is eager to extend love”. (John 3:16)
Let’s look at the way the article quotes Romans 6:14 as its theme text.
“Sin must not be master over you, seeing that you are…under undeserved kindness”
The writer of the article has abridged the scripture with an ellipsis, cutting out the words, “not under law”. Why? Do the words take up too much room?WT apologists will likely say it is to give greater clarity to the subject, but one can’t rule out the possibility that the term would not support the Organization’s judicial procedures for handling sin. The JW judicial system is not about grace as revealed in the Bible, but rather the imposition of the law of men, both written and oral.
Food at the Proper Time?
Witnesses are taught that they get the food they need when they need it. This food is provided by Jesus. If we accept this teaching, then we must accept that Jesus is mostly concerned about having us avoid certain types of music and entertainment, materialism, and social interactions. Also, his chief concern seems to be that we are obedient to the dictates of the Organization. Developing Christian qualities like love do not receive the same level of emphasis. This article is a case in point. Here we are studying one of the most important truths revealed by Jesus and we give it scant attention, not even helping the brothers and sisters to understand the actual word in Greek under study. If we really wanted them to get the breadth, depth, and height of the term, we’d have provided them with hyperlinks to outside reference material.
Here again is a link to several lexicons and concordances, so you can see for yourself how charis is used in the Scriptures.
At least the article gives us one definition of charis.
He used a Greek word that, according to one reference work, has the sense of “a favor freely done, without claim or expectation of return.” It is unearned and unmerited. – par. 4
Why does the article not tell us the reference work it is quoting so that we can look it up for ourselves. Perhaps because if we had that information, we would learn that the statement that charis is “unearned and unmerited” gives a skewed understanding that is not entirely accurate.
Is it not the case that a favor can be freely done, without the giver giving any thought as to whether it is merited or not? So why force that determination? Why make the gift not about the giver’s love, but about the recipient’s unworthiness?
In paragraph 5, the WT upholds the Organization’s use of the term “undeserved kindness” with a quote from scholar John Parkhurst stating that “the rendering “undeserved kindness” in the New World Translation is fitting”. To be fair, we should reject this quote out of hand, because the WT has failed to give us a reference that we can verify ourselves. Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt, by failing to provide the reference we have no way of knowing in what sense Parkhurst felt the rendering was fitting, nor do we know if he felt another rendering was more fitting and more accurate.
Appreciation for God’s Undeserved Kindness
The bible has many examples of those who were forgiven for all sorts of serious transgressions. These examples include such sins as murder and adultery (King David), incest (Lot), child sacrifice and idolatry (Manasseh). These examples aren’t recorded to downplay sin but they do give confidence that God’s servants can be assured of forgiveness even for very serious and gross sins, as long as they exhibit repentance.
You might think that in a study entitled “By Undeserved Kindness You Were Set Free” the writer would make use of such examples of God’s forgiveness, but instead the article heads in a different direction and presents grace, not in terms of what it is, but rather, what it is not. For example, if you asked a friend what loving his wife involves and he said “Well it involves not hitting her, not screaming at her, and not cheating on her”, would you agree? Your friend isn’t defining love by what it is, but by what it isn’t. A balanced view is to show both sides, as Paul does at 1 Corinthians 13:1-5.
In paragraph 8, we get a hypothetical example of a Jehovah’s Witness who says “Even if I do something wrong—something God views as sin—I do not have to worry about it. Jehovah will forgive me. “ If a Christian is under grace and repents of his sins then that statement is correct but instead the article refers readers to Jude 4.
“My reason is that certain men have slipped in among you who were long ago appointed to this judgment by the Scriptures; they are ungodly men who turn the undeserved kindness of our God into an excuse for brazen conduct and who prove false to our only owner and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 4)
In this scripture, Jude is not referring to the average congregation member who might fall into serious sin but to “men who slipped in”. The whole context of Jude shows that these men were not sincere Christians who have sinned, but rather wicked impostors, “rocks hidden beneath the water”. These “rocks” are engaging in willful, unrepentant sin. Is the writer implying that anyone committing a serious sin in the congregation fits with those Jude is referring to?
Ignoring the Context
One of the problems with studying the publications as we do is that it exposes us to the negative effects of eisegesis. We are given a few verses here and there and led to conclusions which are not supported by the context. Cherry picking verses is a great way to twist the Bible to fit one’s own doctrines when instructing the trusting and unwary, but it does not hold up under scrutiny.
If they proved faithful, they would live and rule with Christ in heaven. But Paul could speak of them while they were still alive and serving God on earth as having “died with reference to sin.” He used the example of Jesus, who died as a human and then was raised up as an immortal spirit in heaven. Death was no longer master over Jesus. It was similar with anointed Christians, who could consider themselves “dead with reference to sin but living with reference to God by Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 6:9, 11)
Paul is speaking about anointed Christians here. The article even acknowledges this. It also acknowledges that the death referred to here is not literal, physical death, but the more important spiritual death. Though physically alive, these Christians were dead prior to their acceptance of Jesus, but now they were alive; alive to God. (Compare Mt 8:22 and Re 20:5)
The problem facing the writer is that his readers do not consider themselves as anointed Christians. The next paragraph opens with the words: “What of us?” What indeed! We are being taught that like the anointed, those the Governing Body claims are Other Sheep with an earthly hope are also alive with reference to God? They are, according to this article, but how can they be when the same Governing Body teaches us that the Other Sheep are resurrected into the new world still in a state of sin, still dead in God’s eyes and will remain so for a thousand years? (See re chap. 40 p. 290)
To make matters even more confusing, the Governing Body through this article is teaching us that the death and life referred to in this chapter of Romans is spiritual, yet they cherry pick the 7th verse and say that in this instance, contrary to the context, the death is literal.
“For the one who has died has been acquitted from his sin.” (Ro 6:7)
The Insight book says:
Those resurrected will not be judged on the basis of the works done in their former life, because the rule at Romans 6:7 says: “He who has died has been acquitted from his sin.” (it-2 p. 138 Judgment Day)
A Fight that You Can Win
In discussing the topic of grace the bible does not give a sliding scale of sins, some requiring God’s grace and some not. All sin is under grace. People are forgiven serious sins on conversion to Christianity but they are also forgiven serious sins after their conversion. (Compare 1Jo 2:1,2; Re 2:21, 22; Ec 7:20; Ro 3:20)
In paragraphs 13-16, the article takes an interesting turn. It speaks about serious sins being forgiven before conversion, and then switches to sins that it groups as “less serious”.
“However, are we also determined to be “obedient from the heart” by doing our best to avoid sins that some would view as less serious.” – par. 15
The Bible is clear that all sin comes under grace with the exception of sin against the Holy Spirit. (Mark 3:29; Ma 12:32) When Christian commentators discuss being under grace, they don’t refer to a two-tiered sin, so why would the Organization take this particular tack?
One possible reason could be that stated at the beginning of this review, that grace for Jehovah’s Witnesses is only for sins they consider minor (less serious) but in cases of serious sin, more is needed. God’s forgiveness can only be granted if there is a judicial committee involved.
In paragraph 16, it is suggested that Paul never committed a sin that was serious after conversion and that when lamenting his sinful condition in Romans 7:21- 23 Paul is only referring to sin that was ” less serious”.
’However, are we also determined to be “obedient from the heart” by doing our best to avoid sins that some would view as less serious?—Rom. 6:14, 17. Think of the apostle Paul. We can be sure that he was not sharing in the gross wrongs mentioned at 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Nonetheless, he confessed that he was still guilty of sin.
Whilst it may be true that Paul never committed one of the sins mentioned at 1 Cor 6:9-11, he was still an imperfect man and thus would have struggled with temptation to commit both minor and serious sin. In fact the verses in Romans 7:15-25 are possibly one of the best descriptions of why all of us sinners are in need of grace. Paul’s expression at verses 24 and 25 assures sincere Christians they can be accepted by Jesus despite having committed any manner of sin. What counts isn’t the type of sin, but the willingness to repent and the willingness to forgive others. (Mt. 6:12; 18:32-35)
In the final paragraphs, 17-22, the article introduces us to examples of “less serious” sins. These include—according to the writer—such sins as lying in half truths; drinking excessively but not to the point of drunkenness and not committing immorality but watching it in the form of lewd entertainment.
The Organization tells its followers that they are in a spiritual paradise because its disfellowshipping procedures keep the congregation clean. But here it openly acknowledges that members of the Organization are engaging in conduct that is just short of what it considers disfellowshipping offenses. Could this be because the judicial system that JW.org has created has replaced grace and is causing some members to feel they are good with God so long as they don’t violate the oral and written rules of the Organization? Is this an indication that Witnesses have become legalistic, replacing God’s grace with human rules?
For example. Two JWs go out for the evening and engage in excessive drinking. One says he was drunk but the other says he was just short of it. He may have drunk excessively but he didn’t think he reached the threshold of drunkenness. The first witness must confess his sin to the elders, while the second one is not required to do so.
This article presents a rather muddled explanation of grace that appears to be slanted towards the Organization’s own judicial or internal arrangement for handling sin rather than that set up by Christ. Instead of giving examples of why sinners can be forgiven, the article focuses on situations where they cannot simply repent to God, but must involve the elders in the process. While we condemn the Catholic confessional, claiming it is invalid since no man can forgive the sins of another, we have replaced it with something even worse.
The reasoning of the Organization regarding the handling of sin in the congregation may appear sound at a very superficial level, but deeper investigation shows that they have usurped the grace of God for a human system of judgment, and put sacrifice above mercy.
“. . .Go, then, and learn what this means, ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came to call, not righteous people, but sinners.. . .” (Mt 9:13)