There is a story about a group of Christian scholars sitting in a room debating what distinguishes Christianity from all other world religions when C.S. Lewis walked into the room. When the question was posed to Lewis he gave a one word answer, “Grace.”
I don’t know whether the story is true or not. But either way it is a profound answer. Only Christianity among all the world religions offers you eternal life as a free gift. You do not do anything to earn it. In fact, as an imperfect being you can never do enough to earn it. We do not “work” our way into the kingdom. God simply gives us the keys.
I am always perplexed by belief systems (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses) who claim to use the same scriptures as other Christian denominations. Even under the alternate “New World Translation” used by the Witnesses, there are some things about their theology that simply do not make sense.
Specifically, the Witnesses insert personal works into the salvation formula. Your eternal destiny is somehow tied into how good of a life you have lived here on Earth. This is admittedly a simplification and they would likely explain the salvation process in much more detail, going into how Jesus undid the effects of Adam’s sin, etc. But after they have gone into all this detail, the conclusion they arrive at still ends up based in your personal good deeds. The question is whether this conclusion is supported by their own scriptures.
A couple of passages from the Bible come to mind. In order to be as fair as possible to the Jehovah’s Witnesses (because they translate the scriptures differently) I have copied the two passages from the New World Translation so that it is clear that the translation does not alter the ultimate conclusion:
PASSAGE #1: Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of the heavens is like a man, a householder, who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vinyeard. When he had agreed with the workers for a de•nar´i•us a day, he sent them forth into his vineyard. Going out also about the third hour, he saw others standing unemployed in the marketplace; and to those he said, ‘YOU also, go into the vineyard, and whatever is just I will give YOU.’ So off they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour and did likewise. Finally, about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing, and he said to them, ‘Why have YOU been standing here all day unemployed?’ They said to him, ‘Because nobody has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘YOU too go into the vineyard.’
“When it became evening, the master of the vineyard said to his man in charge, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, proceeding from the last to the first.’ When the eleventh-hour men came, they each received a de•nar´i•us. So, when the first came, they concluded they would receive more; but they also received pay at the rate of a de•nar´i•us. On receiving it they began to murmur against the householder and said, ‘These last put in one hour’s work; still you made them equal to us who bore the burden of the day and the burning heat!’ But in reply to one of them he said, ‘Fellow, I do you no wrong. You agreed with me for a de•nar´i•us, did you not? Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last one the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I want with my own things? Or is your eye wicked because I am good?’ In this way the last ones will be first, and the first ones last.”
Passage #2: Luke 23:39-43
But one of the hung evildoers began to say abusively to him: “You are the Christ, are you not? Save yourself and us.” In reply the other rebuked him and said: “Do you not fear God at all, now that you are in the same judgment? And we, indeed, justly so, for we are receiving in full what we deserve for things we did; but this [man] did nothing out of the way.” And he went on to say: “Jesus, remember me when you get into your kingdom.” And he said to him: “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.”
In these two passages we can see a descending scale. Jesus’ parable in Matthew speaks to God’s sovereignty. The denarius is a metaphor for the salvation granted to all who come to Christ (the householder). Regardless of when in your life you come to Christ or how much work you put in thereafter, all true believers are granted the same salvation.
The parable includes five groups of workers:
(1) Those who worked 12 hours
(2) Those who worked 9 hours
(3) Those who worked 6 hours
(4) Those who worked 3 hours
(5) Those who worked only 1 hour
All of these workers agreed to work for the householder. But despite the different amounts of work they each put in, all five groups received the same payment. The amount the received had nothing to do with the amount of work they put it. They all agreed to come to the vineyard and work it, but that alone was enough for the owner to graciously give them the reward.
The same is true of Christ. True believers agree to put their faith in Christ. Part of that means working for the kingdom. After all, Jesus is not only our Savior, He is also our Lord. When you accept Him as your Lord that means you are agreeing to do His will.
So when we become believers we agree to work the vineyard. But we have no idea how long we will be working. God may call some of us home after 30 years. For others perhaps it will only be 30 minutes. Jesus does not give us our “denarius” based upon the amount of work we put it but rather based solely on our acceptance of Him as both Savior and Lord.
Some people may object by pointing out that even those who came at the eleventh hour still put in one hour’s worth of work. But that is the point of the passage from Luke. The robber on the cross next to Christ admits that he did nothing in his life worthy of reward. Yet when he asked Jesus to remember him, he was asking the householder to enter the vineyard. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus gave him his denarius.
This passage allows us to add a sixth category to the parable:
(6) Those who worked 0 hours
Yet even the robber in this sixth category was given his denarius.
The New World Translation attempts to alter the conclusion of my argument by inserting the comma after “today” rather than before it (so that Jesus is saying that he is telling the robber “today” rather than telling the robber that he will be in paradise “today”), but ultimately it does not matter. It makes little difference when the robber would enter paradise. What matters is when he died. He was in the process of being executed when Jesus said he would receive his denarius. The opportunity to do good work for the kingdom is gone. All he can do at this point is profess his faith. If his works were to be evaluated by God after his death, the balance sheet is certainly going to come out in favor of condemnation for this man. Yet Jesus invited him to paradise.
I have heard Jehovah’s Witnesses say that Jehovah will evaluate how they lived their life and decide their fate for the afterlife. Regardless of how you feel about any other issue the Witnesses raise, these two passages alone (which I have taken from their translation of the scriptures) should cause them to take a serious second look at their theology. When your eternal destiny is at stake, you must be very careful to ensure that your worldview is consistent with what you claim as its foundation.
Christ does not weigh your good deeds versus your bad deeds and decide whether you are worthy of salvation. Christ said this with His own tongue. The fact is that God is perfect. Unless you are perfect, any eternal communion with God would create a stain upon His holiness. ANY bad work, even one, is enough to disqualify you from eternity with God. Only by having Christ’s righteousness imputed to us can we have any hope of heaven. If you continue to depend upon your own righteousness, you will be in for a surprise when you stand before the judgment seat and learn that you are not as good of a person as you may like to believe. Accept God’s free gift in the spirit in which it is offered. Come to the throne in humility and with a trembling heart and you can be saved.