Justified: More or Rather?

Jehovah’s Witnesses. I wish i could take the title for myself, but unfortunately it has been ruined by an anti-Christian cult.

As such they have faulty views on many Basic Christian doctrines. One such doctrine is the doctrine of justification. As Shai Linne states, this doctrine answers the question: “How do sinners get right in a holy God’s sight?”

In Luke 18 Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector, and if we compare the Greek/faithful English translations to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation, we quickly find a glaring problem.

The majority of the parable reads identically regardless of the translation, so i share it below in its entirety from the Holman Christian Standard Bible. We must understand it as a whole to understand where the Jehovah’s Witnesses get it wrong. Luke 18:9-14 reads:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else:  “Two men went up to the temple complex to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this: ‘God, I thank You that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’  “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, turn Your wrath from me—a sinner!’  I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Parable Explained

A few comments are necessary before coming to the glaring discrepancy.

The first thing to note is who Jesus is speaking this parable about. Luke explains in verse 9: “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” It is interesting, with this in mind, to note the words Jesus puts in the Pharisee’s mouth: “God, I thank You.” Jesus wants us to know that even though outwardly the Pharisee is giving the credit for his outward righteousness to God, inside he is still trusting in himself, and pointing to his good works to earn him favor in God’s eyes.

Jesus contrasts this with the tax collector. “God, turn Your wrath from me–a sinner!” The tax collector knows that he has nothing to offer God that can earn him favor, so he simply pleads for mercy. In the Greek it is even more clear: he literally pleads, “turn Your wrath from me–the sinner!” (The NASB translation is the only modern translation that renders it with the definite article translated.)

Whereas the Pharisee compares himself to the “sinful” tax collector, the tax collector recognizes himself as the only sinner he needs to concern himself with. And Jesus’ words at the end of the parable are the point: “I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (emphasis added).

Justification is by grace through faith, and not one iota of works will ever add anything to justification.

The Parable Destroyed

However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation turns this parable on its head when they translate verse 14 as follows: “I tell you, this man went down to his home proved more righteous than that man; because everyone that exalts himself will be humiliated, but he that humbles himself will be exalted” (emphasis added).

It is the italicized portion wherein the deceptiveness lies.

For a comparison, i have cited ten English translations below spanning the course of 419 years of church history (beginning with the HCSB, which i quoted at the start, and then continuing through an approximate publication chronology):

  • Luke 18:14 (HCSB)
    “I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
  • Luke 18:14 (GenevaBible)
    “I tell you, this man departed to his house, justified rather than the other: for every man that exalteth himself shall be brought low, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
  • Luke 18:14 (KJV)
    “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
  • Luke 18:14 (NRSV)
    “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
  • Luke 18:14 (NKJV)
    “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
  • Luke 18:14 (NASB)
    “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
  • Luke 18:14 (NET)
    “I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
  • Luke 18:14 (MSG)
    “Jesus commented, ‘This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.'”
  • Luke 18:14 (NIV)
    “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
  • Luke 18:14 (CSB)
    “I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

What should be clear in each and every instance is the fact that the translators understand the passage as “justified rather than the other” instead of “more righteous than that man.”

The problem with the Jehovah’s Witness translation does not lie in their rendering of the Greek word as proved righteous instead of justified. Those phrases mean the same thing. The trouble lies in the fact that they add the word “more” in between “proved righteous.”

Literally, the verse reads, “This one went down to his house having been justified [preposition: para] that one.” A Greek lexicon explains that the word “para” when being used with a direct object can often be translated “in a comparative sense: in comparison to, more than, beyond.” However, they go on to say, “When a comparison is made, one member of it may receive so little attention as to pass from consideration entirely, so that ‘more than’ becomes instead of, rather than, to the exclusion of.” They then go on to cite Luke 18:14 as an example of this very thing (page 616, emphasis in original).

And if we look back at the translation i gave at the start of the previous paragraph, it is plain to see why it should be translated “rather than” instead of “more than.” Much time is spent on the tax collector: “This one went down to his house having been justified”. The Pharisee gets two words (only one in Greek) after the preposition: “that one.” The Pharisee passes from consideration, and the justified one is the tax collector instead of the Pharisee.

Jesus is not comparing the Pharisee and the tax collector and then concluding, “The Pharisee is righteous, but the tax collector is more so.” In fact, for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to actually make their translation read this way, they would actually be subverting their own religion. Josh McDowell, in his Handbook of Today’s Religions, explains,

In Watchtower theology, salvation is not regarded as a free gift from God based upon Jesus Christ’s work on the cross. Rather, their literature stresses a salvation by works.

“All who by reason of faith in Jehovah God and in Christ Jesus dedicate themselves to do God’s will and then faithfully carry out their dedication will be rewarded with everlasting life . . .” (Let God be True, p. 298). (McDowell, 57, underline added).

Therefore, for the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation to stand, they must say that the Pharisee is actually more righteous than the tax collector. This 100% destroys the point of the parable, and is a damnable heresy.

Jesus specifically says that “this man”–referring to the most recently discussed man (the tax collector)–“went down to his house having been justified” (emphasis added). The way it is worded, his justification was an already completed action as of the moment he left the temple and headed home.

For this reason there is no possible way that someone can ever be “more justified” or “proved more righteous” than someone else. It is a question of: has a person been justified or have they not been justified? Charles Hodge describes justification as follows:

Those, who by faith receive [Christ’s] righteousness, and trust upon it for justification, are saved; and receive the renewing of their whole nature into the image of God. Those who refuse to submit to this righteousness of God, and go about to establish their own righteousness, are left under the demands of the law; they are required to be free from all sin, or having sinned, to bear the penalty (3:494).

What Must We Then Do?

So ultimately, the question becomes, “Have you been justified?”

It is not a question of, “How justified are you?”

You see, we are all sinners. We have all sinned against God. We are all guilty of sins against God: pride, greed, lust, thievery, slander, lying. These sins mean that we deserve death. A holy God cannot stand in the presence of sin.

The Pharisee wanted to look to his deeds for favor in God’s sight. Do you look to your deeds to say, “This is why God should save me”?

The tax collector only looked down on himself. He begged God for mercy, simply identifying himself as a sinner. He knew he had nothing to offer God for his salvation. Is this your attitude toward salvation?

You see, the doctrine of justification is summed up in 2 Corinthians 5:21. “He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

When Christ died on the cross 2,000 years ago, God saw Christ as having committed the sins we are guilty of committing, so that He could see us as possessing the righteousness of Jesus’ perfect life. When the tax collector identified himself as a sinner and begged for mercy, he was basically identifying himself as deserving the death Christ would die in his place. The Pharisee, by contrast, didn’t identify himself as a sinner, didn’t call out for mercy, and therefore was not justified.

If you want to be saved, cry out to God for mercy and admit that you are a sinner! Place your faith in Christ, and stop looking to your own works for salvation! I’m begging you to trust Him!

If you are trapped in the Jehovah’s Witness cult, bring this up to them. Ask them why their own translation is not clear on what the actual point of Jesus’ parable is here. Ask them how to be made right in God’s eyes. Ask them why they make everything more complicated than the Scriptures make it. And please, comment your findings below! If you get a good answer, i’d be honored to converse with you about it in the comments below.

But, whether Jehovah’s Witness or not, please place your faith in Jesus, and in Jesus alone! He is the only way. It is by His death that we are saved.

In conclusion, John Piper writes,

The person who stands before God at the last day with the assumption that he will be justified “in that [he has] done what is right and good” is more likely a candidate for Jesus’s indictment: they “trusted in themselves that they were righteous”–even though they say, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:9, 11). (7:155, emphasis in original).

Soli Deo Gloria

Solus Christus

Sola Gratia

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