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Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Believe in Salvation by Grace?

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Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Believe in Salvation by Grace?

Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #16
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

Summary: Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that salvation is a “gift” but is given conditionally to those who must still prove themselves worthy. Only those who use and proclaim the name of Jehovah, accept the direction and teaching of the Jehovah’s Witness leadership, are baptized (as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses), observe the organization’s rules, and faithfully engage in the preaching of the Watchtower’s message of the kingdom are true Christians today and have the hope of being saved.

This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.

What the Watchtower Teaches

The Watchtower Society has for many decades presented the same basic requirements for salvation, sometimes subdividing one or more of them to emphasize some specific activity required of Jehovah’s Witnesses: 

  1. “Taking in knowledge” by studying the Bible through the approved publications of the Watchtower Society.
  2. Conforming to the standards that the Watchtower teaches are God’s laws, primarily regarding various prohibited activities, including notably refraining from giving or receiving blood transfusions.
  3. Associating with the “organization” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is considered the only true religion, by being baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness.
  4. Proclaim or preach the message that Jehovah is the true God (meaning that one must make regular use of the name “Jehovah” to be a true believer) and that Jehovah’s kingdom was established invisibly on earth in 1914, so that safety from divine judgment can be found only in the Jehovah’s Witness religion.

This basic pattern of requirements for salvation has been repeatedly presented, especially in very similar articles published in 1967, 1983, and 1997 in the Watchtower magazine.1 As we shall see, these requirements have also been reaffirmed in more recent publications.

1. Studying the Bible Using Watchtower Literature

Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that “taking in knowledge”is necessary for salvation. “Taking in knowledge” is the translation of John 17:3 used in earlier editions of the New World Translation (NWT) and still quoted and used on the Watchtower’s official website, According to the Society, one cannot truly believe in Jesus without having the correct understanding provided in its literature of a wide range of doctrinal matters. One Watchtower article exclaims, “Yes, to ‘believe on Jesus’ meant understanding many things!”3 According to one of the articles mentioned above, “The Greek word here translated ‘taking in knowledge’ signifies ‘to come to know, recognize’ or ‘to understand completely.’” This means that salvation is never secure or assured, because one must continually work on understanding everything completely: “This process can continue forever, for we will never learn all that there is to know about Jehovah.”4

This correct understanding of Scripture, claims the Watchtower Society, comes only through its official publications:

If we are to have Jehovah’s favor and blessing as individuals, we must support his organization and accept adjustments in our understanding of the Scriptures.5

2. Conforming to Watchtower Rules

One will find statements in Watchtower publications indicating that living a clean, moral lifestyle, or that loving other people, is essential to salvation. These statements entail that one must merit or deserve salvation by attaining a certain measure of goodness. Still, we cannot fault Jehovah’s Witnesses for insisting on their members avoiding immorality or for expecting them to treat other people with love. Our focus here is on the Watchtower’s claim that only those who adhere to their controversial rules may be saved.

The Watchtower imposes many questionable prohibitions on Jehovah’s Witnesses as requirements for salvation. They are forbidden to give or receive blood transfusions; to celebrate Christmas, Easter, or any other holidays; to celebrate birthdays; to vote; to serve in the military; or to use a flag or a cross as a symbol. Witnesses are not free to disagree with the organization’s policies in this matter if they wish to remain in the religion. They must abide by all of these prohibitions to the letter or they risk being kicked out of the religion and told that they are not true Christians.6

3. Being Baptized in Association with the Watchtower-Run Organization

The Watchtower Society publishes literature and provides the organizational structure through which the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religion operates. In their literature, they teach that anyone who wishes to be saved must “be associated with God’s channel, his organization.” They must “serve Jehovah with his spirit-directed organization,” that of “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” In short, one must be a practicing Jehovah’s Witness in good standing in order to be saved.7 The Watchtower warns: “If you belong to a religious organization, you are, in effect, putting your spiritual life in its hands. This includes your prospects for salvation.”8

Baptism as a Jehovah’s Witness is an absolute requirement for salvation. Two statements from fairly recent publications make this explicit: “Baptism is a requirement for those seeking salvation.”9 “And baptism is needed in order to gain salvation and live forever.​”10 The Watchtower recognizes no baptism as valid other than its own.

4. Preaching Jehovah and the Coming of His Kingdom in 1914

The Watchtower teaches that another requirement for salvation is “the preaching requirement,”11 that is, the obligation to spread the message of Jehovah’s name and kingdom. They are told that “loyally advocating his Kingdom rule to others12 or being “loyal proclaimers of God’s Kingdom13 is a requirement for salvation. In practice the main way in which Jehovah’s Witnesses seek to meet this requirement is by working to disseminate Watchtower literature, either by going door to door or by standing in public places with a small literature stand. A Watchtower publication meant only for active members lists “Twelve Reasons for Preaching,” the seventh of which is, “It is a requirement for our own salvation.”14

What Jehovah’s Witnesses mean by “God’s Kingdom” needs to be understood here. Their “Kingdom” message is “that Jesus is already present and has been reigning invisibly as King in heaven since 1914.”15

An associated requirement for salvation is the use of the divine name Jehovah. According to the Watchtower, “those seeking salvation need to use God’s name. They also need to teach others about God’s name and qualities.”16 Their publications warn that if you have not “been taught to use God’s name, Jehovah,” then “your salvation is in jeopardy.”17

Salvation: A “Free Gift”—for Those Who Meet the Requirements

Jehovah’s Witnesses do not use the word “grace” in reference to salvation, preferring instead the term “undeserved kindness” to translate the Greek word charis.18 This translation is not itself objectionable. The Watchtower does teach that people are saved “by undeserved kindness,” even quoting such familiar passages as Ephesians 2:8-9 on the matter. After quoting that passage, one Watchtower publication comments: “There is no way that a descendant of Adam can gain salvation on his own, no matter how noble his works are. Salvation is a gift from God given to those who put faith in the sin-atoning value of the sacrifice of his Son.”19

Such statements could give the impression that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they are saved by God’s undeserved kindness, or grace, and not by their works. As we have seen, however, the Watchtower also teaches that in order to be saved, a person must study the Bible using Watchtower literature; adhere to such rules as no blood transfusions, no birthday celebrations, no holidays, no voting, and so on; be baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness and remain in good standing with the organization; and proclaim the name of Jehovah and the Watchtower’s doctrine that Christ began ruling as king over the whole earth invisibly from heaven in 1914.

If this sounds contradictory, it is. The inconsistency is presented in one breath when the Watchtower asserts, “Salvation is a free gift from God. It cannot be earned. Yet it does require effort on our part.” The same article asserts about true Christians, “As a group, their salvation is sure. Individually, they must meet God’s requirements.”20 Something that must be obtained through a lifelong process of effort to meet various requirements is not a free gift.

Obviously, in order to benefit from a gift, one must accept that gift. However, the Watchtower Society is saying much more than that. Suppose I tell you, “I have a free gift for you, but first you must put in dozens of hours every year for the rest of your life disseminating my products and adhering to my strict code of conduct, and then, if you’ve tried hard enough, I’ll let you have the gift.” You would not consider that a free gift.

What the Watchtower doctrine really means can be stated this way: The opportunity to be saved is a free gift, in the sense that God freely provides people with a way of gaining eternal life. However, salvation, or eternal life, is not itself a free gift. Rather, it is something that must be obtained by meeting the stringent requirements that the Watchtower claims are taught in the Bible.

Biblical Response

In various ways, the New Testament clearly teaches that salvation is itself a free gift that God gives to those who humbly accept that gift. By “humbly” I mean what the New Testament calls repentance: an acknowledgment of one’s need for salvation because of one’s sin against the holy God. By “accept” I mean what the New Testament calls faith, or believing, in Christ: trustfully depending on Christ alone as Savior and Lord.

But to all who did receive [welcome, accept] him, who believed [trusted, had faith] in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12).

Hence, Jesus called upon people to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15), and Paul could summarize his message as one “of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin: repentance is turning away from our sins toward God, while faith is trusting and depending on God to save us from our sins.

The New Testament consistently identifies faith or belief as the critical factor separating those God saves from those he does not. It does this in every major part of the New Testament: in the Gospels (e.g., Matt. 21:32; Luke 8:12; John 3:15-18; 20:31), in the apostles’ preaching in Acts (e.g., Acts 16:31), in Paul’s epistles (e.g., Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22-28; 10:9-11; 1 Cor. 1:21; Eph. 2:8; Titus 3:8), and in several other epistles (e.g., Heb. 11:6; 1 Peter 1:5; 1 John 5:13; Jude 5).

Jehovah’s Witnesses commonly misunderstand the evangelical view of salvation with regard to the issue of good works, as do many others. The evangelical doctrine is nicely summed up in the following statements by the apostle Paul:

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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:8-10).

Paul expresses three truths about salvation in this short passage.

(1)   We are saved by grace, meaning that salvation is itself “the gift of God,” not something we earn, deserve, or merit.
(2)   We are saved through faith, meaning that faith is our acceptance or way of receiving God’s free gift of salvation.
(3)   We are saved not as a result of works but for good works, meaning that good works are the fruit or result, not the precondition or requirement, for receiving salvation. Good works are related to salvation, but they are the outflow or product of a saving relationship with God. Salvation is not the result of good works, but rather good works are the result of salvation.

The evangelical view of salvation does not neglect the importance of good works, but it puts them in their proper place or context. True faith results in obedience, produces good works, and exhibits love toward God and other people (Rom. 1:5; 16:25-26; Gal. 5:6). This is the point that James makes in his epistle, in a passage commonly thought to contradict the evangelical view of faith and works (James 2:14-26). It doesn’t. James’s point is that the faith that saves produces good works. Evangelical Protestants strongly agree.

Let’s turn now to examining biblically the “requirements” for salvation that the Watchtower teaches.

Taking in knowledge: John 17:3 is properly translated, “This is eternal life, that they may know you…,” not “their taking in knowledge,” as in the NWT. It is interesting that after more than sixty years of defending and constantly appealing to the rendering “taking in knowledge,” the Watchtower adopted a different wording in its 2013 version, “coming to know.” This rendering is much closer to the meaning of the Greek text. Yet the Society has continued to quote the older translation, as noted earlier, and numerous articles talking about “taking in knowledge” as a requirement to study and master Watchtower doctrine remain on its official website.

The truth expressed in John 17:3 is that eternal life is about knowing God and Christ personally, not about acquisition of doctrinal knowledge—and it certainly is not about studying Watchtower literature. There is nothing wrong with producing literature to help people understand the Bible; Christians have published thousands of commentaries as well as innumerable other teaching publications. The Watchtower, however, insists that no one can understand the Bible adequately in order to be saved apart from its publications. That is a patently unbiblical claim, as we discussed in part 3 of this series.21

A certain measure of sound doctrine is of course very important in the church and in an individual’s Christian life. We must not make the mistake, though, of thinking that salvation is dependent on mastering a religious system of doctrine. When that system of doctrine is itself woefully unbiblical—as we have been explaining in this series of articles is the case with Watchtower theology—accepting that doctrine actually becomes an obstacle to salvation.

Conforming to the organization’s rules: True Christians do seek to learn about God’s will and to obey God as they grow in their faith. As we have explained, obedience to God’s commandments in Scripture is an expected result or outcome of genuine faith in Christ. The person who has faith will want to please God (Heb. 11:6). On the other hand, the commandments that God expects Christians to obey are those found clearly taught in the Bible, not man-made rules “discovered” by a particular sect’s leaders in the twentieth century. In his epistle to the Colossians, Paul warned against submitting to such man-made rules:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Col. 2:20-23).

The specific rules change from one era to another and from one sect to another, but the principle such rules violate remains the same. The Watchtower’s rules, almost all of which are followed only by Jehovah’s Witnesses, create an environment in which members feel that they must be the only true religion because only they live by these standards. Are they not different from “the world”? Yes, but no more so than Mormons who won’t drink coffee or tea. The rules may be different, but they are still just man-made rules.

Being baptized in association with Jehovah’s Witnesses: The claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses are the only true Christians on the earth today is a bold one. Scripture never conditions salvation on being a member of the right organization. True Christians will associate with and love their fellow Christians (1 John 3:14; 4:20; 5:1), but this association is more like a very large extended family, not affiliation with an institution or organization.

Jehovah’s Witnesses teach, as do some other religious groups, that baptism is a requirement for salvation. There is indeed a close link between baptism and forgiveness of sins. For example, in the first Christian sermon, the apostle Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Ananias told Paul, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). In these passages, the relationship of baptism to forgiveness is that of symbol to reality. That is, baptism symbolizes the reality of God forgiving us of our sins. The act of baptism symbolizes forgiveness of sins and expresses the acceptance of that gift by those who undergo baptism. Baptism is therefore “necessary” for salvation only in the sense that accepting the gift of forgiveness and salvation (which baptism symbolizes) is necessary in order to receive it. The rite or ritual of baptism does not save anyone, but what baptism represents is indeed necessary for salvation (1 Peter 3:20-21).

Of course, the vast majority of practicing Christians in virtually all denominations have been baptized. Since that is the case, does this mean Jehovah’s Witnesses regard those baptized Christians as having met that requirement? No, it does not. The Watchtower teaches that only baptisms performed in their meetings, by members of their religion, are valid. There is simply no basis for this claim anywhere in the Bible.

Preaching Jehovah and the kingdom as having come in 1914: In two previous articles in this series, we showed that the Bible does not treat the use of the name Jehovah as a matter of salvation. The simple proof that this is not the case is that the Greek New Testament does not use the name (although it uses the shortened form Jah in the expression “Hallelujah” in Revelation 19:1-6). Here again, the Watchtower has invented a requirement for salvation not taught in Scripture and that actually conflicts with Scripture.22

In a future installment of this series, we hope to discuss in detail the Watchtower doctrine about Christ becoming invisibly “present” as king in 1914. It should be obvious, however, that acceptance of such a doctrine cannot be a requirement for salvation. The doctrine requires such convoluted interpretations of unrelated biblical passages that most Jehovah’s Witnesses would be hard-pressed to explain the supposed biblical basis for it. Moreover, no one saw this idea in the Bible until the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Watchtower doctrine of an invisible presence of Christ in 1914 is tied up with their claim that no true Christian religion existed from about the second century until the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the early twentieth century. We did examine that claim in an earlier article.23

Finally, the claim that one must engage in regular “preaching” in order to be saved is another man-made requirement. There is nothing in the Bible to support this claim. The Watchtower has tried to find such support in Romans 10:10, which it translates, “With the heart one exercises faith for righteousness, but with the mouth one makes public declaration for salvation” (NWT). The Society’s interpretation of this verse is that “Making a ‘public declaration’​—sharing our faith with others—​is vital for salvation.”24 This is a rather forced interpretation. Paul’s point is that when a convert verbally professes or confesses his faith in Christ as the risen Lord (verse 9), God saves him through that genuine faith. This “confession” normally happens in baptism, when a new believer publicly unites with other believers in becoming identified as a follower of Jesus Christ. Nowhere does the New Testament require Christians to engage in regular evangelism or preaching as a requirement for their own salvation.

It is striking that all of these so-called “requirements” actually focus on the Watchtower organization itself. The Society teaches Jehovah’s Witnesses (and prospective members) that in order to be saved they must learn the Watchtower’s doctrinal system, obey the prohibitions laid down by the Watchtower, associate themselves with the organization operated by the Watchtower, and propagate the teachings of the Watchtower (mainly through disseminating its literature). This teaching is not only salvation by works, it is salvation by working for the organization. It is certainly not the biblical doctrine of salvation as the free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 6:23).



1. “What Is Needed for Salvation?” Watchtower, Dec. 1, 1967, 707–711; “You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth—But How?” Watchtower, Feb. 15, 1983, 12–13; “What Does God Require of Us?” Watchtower, Jan. 15, 1997, 19–22.

2. New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures—With References (1961, 1981, 1984; 2016 printing); see also “Act in Harmony with Jesus’ Prayer,” Watchtower (Simplified), Oct. 15, 2013, 23; “Young Ones—‘Keep Working Out Your Own Salvation,’” Watchtower (Study), Dec. 2017, 25; “John Study Notes—John 17,” in New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Study Edition) (2019).

3. “Salvation—What It Really Means,” Watchtower, Aug. 15, 1997, 5.

4. “What Does God Require of Us,” 19.

5. “Are You Moving Ahead with Jehovah’s Organization?” Watchtower, May 15, 2014, 29.

6. See the publication Reasoning from the Scriptures (1989) for entries on all of these topics.

7. “You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth—But How,” 12–13; “What Does God Require of Us,” 21–22.

8. “Why Question Religion?” Watchtower, July 1, 2013, 3.

9. “Highlights from the Letters of James and of Peter,” Watchtower, Nov. 15, 2008, 21.

10. “Young Ones—‘Keep Working Out Your Own Salvation,’” Watchtower (Simplified Edition), Dec. 2017, 21.

11. “What Is Needed for Salvation,” 709.

12. “You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth—But How,” 13.

13. “What Does God Require of Us,” 22.

14. “Twelve Reasons for Preaching,” Kingdom Ministry, June 2012, 1.

15. “Christ’s Presence—What Does It Mean to You?” Watchtower, Feb. 15, 2008, 25.

16. “Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Believe That They Are the Only Ones Who Will Be Saved?” Watchtower, Nov. 1, 2008, 28.

17. “Salvation—What It Really Means,” Watchtower, Aug. 15, 1997, 6.

18. See the explanation in “Kindness,” Insight on the Scriptures, 2:155–56.

19. Reasoning from the Scriptures, 359.

20. “What Must We Do to Be Saved?” Watchtower, Feb. 1, 1996, 7.

21. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Do we need the Watchtower to understand the Bible?” (IRR, 2017).

23. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “No True Religion until 1919? Jehovah’s Witnesses’ View of Church History” (IRR, 2017).

24. “Does the Bible Contradict Itself?” in The Bible—God’s Word or Man’s? (2006 printing), 92.