Bill and his wife Beni Johnson are the Senior Pastors of Bethel Church, Redding, California. Bill is a fifth generation Pastor and is involved in an ‘apostolic network’ that crosses denominational lines. Their healing and deliverance ministry is central to the work of the church.
According to their website, ‘Bill and the Bethel Church family have taken on this theme for life and ministry. Healings, ranging from cancer to broken bones, to learning disorders and emotional healing, happen with regularity. This is the children’s bread. And these works of God are not limited to revival meetings. The church is learning how to take this anointing to the schools, workplace, and neighbourhoods with similar results. Bill teaches that we owe the world an encounter with God, and that a Gospel without power is not the Gospel that Jesus preached.’
In 1987 Bill Johnson attended, and was influenced by, a John Wimber conference and went to the Toronto Airport Vineyard revival in 1995. Just a year later Bill and Beni became Senior Pastors at Bethel.
More recently Bill Johnson and Jack Deere assisted in helping Rick Joyner restore Todd Bentley back into ministry following the Lakeland Revival, after Bentley divorced and re-married. Great debate and controversy arose concerning whether Todd Bentley should be restored to ministry in the light of the qualities of church leadership outlined in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
Further controversy ensued when, in one of his sermons, Johnson professed that Jesus was ‘born again’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuHmcZnyGaw. However, this article will not address his involvement with Todd Bentley in any depth or the serious theological problems that would arise if Jesus was born again.
The focus of this article concerns his book ‘When Heaven Invades Earth’. Please note, not all of the content of his book is commented on as there were simply so many controversial topics to evaluate, hence generally speaking only the weightier ones were examined. The scope therefore includes (1) the ‘coming revival’, (2) Kenosis , (3) healing in the atonement,(4) the ‘restoration of the Apostolic order’,(5) the Gospel, (6) being above reproach,(7) spiritual warfare, (8) creativity and (9) spiritual gifts being administered decently and in order.
1.The Coming Revival
In his Introduction Bill Johnson writes,
‘My heart burns for the coming move of God. I live for the revival that is unfolding and believe it will surpass all previous moves combined, bringing more than one billion souls into the Kingdom.’ (WHIE 23)
Though a genuine revival such as the Edwards, Whitefield and Wesleyan ones would be tremendously encouraging and bring glory to God, especially if one billion people were truly regenerate, is this realistic in the light of passages in Scripture that confirm ‘narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it’ (Matt. 7:14) and before the coming of the Lord Jesus that day will not come unless the falling away comes first (2 Thess. 2:1-3)? Undoubtedly nothing is impossible with God (Jer. 32:17). Nonetheless a revival of that magnitude is never mentioned in Scripture.
Jonathan Edwards wrote in The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the True Spirit…
‘In the apostolic age, there was the greatest outpouring of the Spirit of God that ever was; both as to his extraordinary influences and gifts, and his ordinary operations, in convincing, converting, enlightening and sanctifying the souls of men. But as the influences of the true Spirit abounded, so counterfeits did also abound: the devil was abundant in mimicking, both the ordinary and extraordinary influences of the Spirit of God, as is manifest by innumerable passages of the apostles’ writings. This made it very necessary that the church of Christ should be furnished with some certain rules, distinguishing and clear marks, by which she might proceed safely in judging of the truth from the false without danger of being imposed upon.’ (86)
2. Kenoticism- Laying aside majesty or divinity
According to Bill Johnson…
‘Jesus lived His earthly life with human limitations. He laid his divinity aside as He sought to fulfil the assignment given to Him by the Father: to live life as a man without sin, and then die in the place of mankind for sin. This would be essential in His plan to redeem mankind. The sacrifice that would atone for sin had to be a lamb (powerless), and had to be spotless (without sin).’ (WHIE 79)
This teaching is dangerous. If Jesus really had emptied Himself of His divinity then He would have ceased from being God. Since He is an eternal self-existent being, He cannot not be God at any time! When the Lord Jesus was born of Mary, He was fully God and fully man since He took on the form of man which is what theologians refer to as the ‘hypostatic union’ (see Col 2:9).
Johnson appeals to Philippians 2:5-7 to support his view and confuses Jesus laying aside His majesty with laying aside divinity. He appears to be teaching Kenoticism.
The kenosis theory states that Jesus gave up some of His divine attributes while He was a man here on earth. These attributes were omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. Christ did this voluntarily so that He could function as a man in order to fulfil the work of redemption. This view was first introduced in the late 1800s in Germany with Gottfried Thomasius (1802-75), a Lutheran theologian.
The Kenosis theory is a dangerous doctrine because if it were true then it would mean that Jesus was not fully divine. If Jesus was not fully divine, then His atoning work would not be sufficient to atone for the sins of the world.’ (CARM)
Johnson uses the idea of Jesus laying aside his divinity to explain that since He accomplished His earthly ministry as a man, mankind can continue with the original commission given to Adam before he lost his dominion. This is the premise of dominion theology, a system of thought that ultimately undermines the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ and elevates mankind.
‘Jesus became the model for all who would embrace the invitation to invade the impossible in His name. He performed miracles, wonders and signs, as a man in right relationship to God…not as God. If He performed miracles because He was God, then they would be unattainable for us. But if He did them as a man, I am responsible to pursue His lifestyle. Recapturing this simple truth changes everything…and makes possible a full restoration of the ministry of Jesus in His Church.’ (WHIE 29)
‘Not only was mankind lost to sin, his dominion over planet earth was lost. Jesus came to recapture both.’ (WHIE 31)
3. Should Sin be equated with Sickness?
According to Johnson physical healing is included in the atonement.
‘Jesus destroyed the power of sin, sickness and poverty through His redemptive work on the cross. In Adam and Eve’s commission to subdue the earth, they were without sickness, poverty and sin. Now that we are restored to His original purpose, should we expect anything less? After all, this is called the better covenant!’ (WHIE 33)
‘If the doctor says you have a tumour, it’s silly to pretend it’s not there. That’s not faith. However, faith is founded on reality that is superior to the tumour. I can acknowledge the existence of a tumour and still have faith in the provision of His stripes for my healing…I was provisionally healed 2,000 years ago. It is the product of the kingdom of heaven – a superior reality. There are no tumours in heaven, and faith brings that reality into this one.’ (WHIE 46)
This doctrine encourages people to claim their physical healing on the basis that they can be restored because Jesus stripes have healed them. When healing is claimed and the physical condition of some deteriorates and others even die, at times some are told it is because they do not have enough faith and worryingly, others question the reality of their faith altogether!
Interestingly Paul writes that faithful Epaphroditus was sick almost to the point of death (Phil. 2:25-27) and he also left Trophimus in Miletus sick (2 Tim. 4:20). Clearly, physical sickness is a result of the fall that sadly exists since we still reside in a fallen world.
Subsequently Johnson has a problem with the view that God may allow sickness to build character.
‘For example, if I believe that God allows sickness in order to build character, I’ll not have confidence in praying in most situations where healing is needed. But, if I believe that sickness is to the body what sin is to the soul, then no disease will intimidate me. Faith is more free to develop when we truly see the heart of God as good.’ (WHIE 45)
God allowed Job to be afflicted for a season and there are many painful though essential lessons to learn from him. Irrespective of how or what one identifies as Paul’s thorn in the flesh, it was given to him ‘lest I be exalted above measure.’ (2 Cor. 12:7) God is good regardless of how anyone perceives Him. Sometimes, though, He chastens believers so that they yield the peaceable fruit of righteousness. (Heb. 12:11)
4. The Apostolic Order of God
Johnson considers that the ‘restoration of the apostolic order of God’ is enabling unity between believers concerning nonessential doctrines. (Apostles were people sent or appointed by God to preach the gospel, who had seen the resurrected Lord Jesus – 1 Cor. 9:1, 15:7). Exactly how a restoration of an apostolic order is supposed to arise is questionable at best as is the elevation of those ‘contemporary apostles’ with lack of scriptural authority for their appointment.
‘In this post-denominational era we are seeing an unprecedented movement of believers gathering around spiritual fathers (not gender specific). In times past we gathered around certain truths, which led to the formation of denominations. The strength of such a gathering is the obvious agreement in doctrine, and usually practice…But now this gravitational pull toward fathers is happening even without denominations. Such a gathering of believers allows for differences in nonessential doctrines without causing division. Many consider this movement to be a restoration of the apostolic order of God.’ (WHIE 90)
Surely fellowship should be based on truth and sound doctrine as opposed to gathering around a restored apostolic order of God. In fact, certain truths and doctrine would reveal that while there are gifted teachers, preachers and Bible expositors, there is no Scriptural support for the ‘present restoration of an apostolic order’.
5. Is this the Gospel?
Throughout this book I was concerned that the centrality of the gospel was undermined at the expense of the overemphasis on experiencing the miraculous. While in fairness the subject matter is outlined in the subtitle heading ‘A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles’, Johnson refers to the gospel and waters it down.
‘The gospel is the story of the Father wooing the hearts of mankind through His love. All the other stuff we do overflows from that discovery…We can travel the globe and preach the gospel, but without a revelation of the Father’s heart we’re carrying around secondhand news-a story without a relationship. It might save people because it is truth, but there is so much more. Jesus, at the age of 12, taught us that lesson: we must be about our Father’s business. And the Father’s business flows from His heart. When we discover this, we find both the joy and power of all ministry – we will find His presence.’(WHIE 101)
Certainly the believer should strive to become mature in their faith and seek close fellowship with God, but is that the gospel? What about sin as an offence to God’s perfect standard of righteousness and separation from God, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross because God so loved the world, confession of those sins and repentance? What about believing in the Lord Jesus that He died and rose from the grave and is the only way to the Father; and being justified by faith by God’s grace through faith, not of works lest anyone should boast; and that there is appointed unto man a day of judgement? The above constitutes the inoffensive ‘God loves you, and you’re special message’ whilst the true gospel is pushed to one side.
6. Above Reproach?
Johnson explains his reaction when someone brought a book into his office that was critical of the Toronto revival in 1994.
‘I refused to read it and threw it away. You might say, “You’re not very open minded.” You’re right. I am responsible to protect what God has given me. No one else has that assignment. Burning within my soul is a piece of the original flame from the day of the Pentecost. It’s been handed down generation after generation. That fire burns deep inside, and because of it I’ll never be the same again. My passion for Jesus is growing continually. And the signs and wonders He promised are happening as a regular part of my life.’ (WHIE 115-116)
Whilst we do not know whether that particular book was helpful or hyper critical or from what agenda it was being written, Scripture confirms to ‘Test all things; hold fast what is good.’ (1 Thess. 5:21)
Similarly Johnson is so wary of being introspective that he refuses to examine his motives, although 2 Corinthians 13:5 says ‘Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you? Unless indeed you are disqualified.’
‘It may sound strange, but I don’t examine my motives anymore. That’s not my job. I work hard to obey God in everything I am and do. If I am out to lunch on a matter, it is His job to point that out to me. After many years of trying to do only what He could do, I discovered I was not the Holy Spirit. I cannot convict and deliver myself from sin. Does that mean I never deal with my impure motives? No. He has shown Himself to be very eager to point out my constant need for repentance and change. But He’s the one with the spotlight, and He alone can give the grace to change.’ (WHIE 147-148).
The problem with that reasoning is God may use someone to point something out to him, though like the book episode he may refuse to consider it. This type of thinking can lead to unquestioning acceptance of various manifestations.
‘On many occasions laughter has filled a room, bringing healing to broken hearts. Gold dust sometimes covers people’s faces, hands, or clothing during worship or ministry time. Oil sometimes appears on the hands of His people; and it especially happens among children. A wind has come into a room with no open windows, doors, vents, etc. At some locations, believers have seen an actual cloud of His presence appearing over the heads of worshipping people. We’ve also had the fragrance of heaven fill a room. In my own experience the fragrance of heaven filled our car while Beni and I were worshipping on a short trip. It lasted for about 30 minutes, and was a smell that I could actually taste, similar to granules of sugar sprinkled on my tongue. I have seen the small gems that suddenly appeared in people’s hands as they worship God. Since early in 1998 we have had feathers fall in our meetings. At first I thought birds were getting into our air conditioning ducts. But then they started falling in other rooms of the church not connected with the same ductwork. They now fall most anywhere we go – airports, homes, restaurants, office and the like.’ (WHIE 141-142).
7. Spiritual Warfare- We are not ignorant of his devices
Johnson thinks that the church has played defence for too long and needs to go on the offensive despite the command in Ephesians 6:11-14 to stand and in James 4:7 to resist the devil. Whilst an obsession with the wiles of the devil would be unhealthy and unnecessary, Johnson is not concerned about the devil’s schemes, to the point of nonchalance in that respect.
‘This may come as a surprise, but I don’t care what the devil plans to do. The Great Commission puts me on the offensive. I’ve got the ball. And if I carry the ball effectively, his plans won’t matter.’ (WHIE 153)
Although Satan transforms himself into an angel of light, (2 Cor.11:14) Johnson figures that Satan will allow his strategies to become known because he likes being in control. This is surely nonsensical because it is the devil’s deception that is most effective in gaining control since he is the father of liars (John 8:44).
‘I honestly believe that Satan will allow his strategies to become known so that we will react accordingly. Satan likes being in control. And he is wherever we are not. Reactions come from fear.’ (WHIE 154)
Thankfully we are not ignorant of the devil’s devices (2 Cor. 2:11). The Bible reveals the devil’s strategies, (Gen. 3: 1-5; Isa. 14:12-14; Eze. 28: 15-19; Luke 4:1-13; Rev. 12:1-12) not to pay him a consolatory favour but to help believer’s avoid temptation and avoid his deceitful scheming’s!
8. A Call to creativity
In Chapter 17 Johnson lists various topics of things apparently mentioned in Scripture though yet to be fulfilled. One of those headings is “creativity”. Strangely enough, no Scriptural references are listed in that particular section.
‘Creativity – The Church is often guilty of avoiding creativity because it requires change. Resistance to change is a resistance to the nature of God. Because the winds of change are blowing, it will be easy to distinguish between those who are satisfied and those who are still hungry. Change brings to light the senses of the heart.
This anointing will also bring about new inventions, breakthroughs in medicine and science, and novel ideas for business and education. New sounds of music will come from the Church, as will other forms of art. This list is endless. The sky is the limit. Arise and create!’ (WHIE 1810)
While admittedly, and through necessity, most things in life do involve change, if any progress is to be made to avoid being stuck in a rut, it is difficult to decide where to begin with these statements. Firstly, where the does the Bible discuss creativity in a full restoration of the arts? Secondly, how is one to determine what the winds of change refers to or if indeed they are blowing? Thirdly, are ‘the winds of change’ supposed to be the authority to determine who is satisfied and who is hungry? Fourthly there is an assumption that the above is an anointing!
9. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be like the Corinthian Church?
It would be an understatement to say that the church at Corinth had its fair share of issues. ‘Paul addresses a variety of problems in the lifestyle of the Corinthian church: factions, lawsuits, immorality, questionable practises, abuse of the Lord’s supper and spiritual gifts.’ (NKJV 1002)
Johnson wishes modern churches had the same problems that the church of Corinth faced regarding the abuse of spiritual gifts.
‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have churches so explosive in the supernatural that we would have to find ways to calm them down? That’s what Paul had to do with the Corinthian church. The instructions about the gifts of the Spirit were given to a people who had so much they needed to reorganise it. “Let everything be done decently and in order.” You can’t organise what you don’t have. Everything has to be done before you can add structure to make it more effective. Order is a poor substitute for power. But if you have much power, you’ll need good order. Only in that case will order add a new dimension to the role of power in the Church.’ (WHIE 180)
Of course 1 Corinthians 12-14 gives insight into how the gifts were intended to be used, nonetheless desiring to see churches so explosive that they resembled the Corinthians would not be a good problem to have. Paul didn’t commend them for their explosiveness but rather encouraged them to use those gifts for the edification of the church.
This attitude toward the administration of spiritual behaviours may explain why myriads of various manifestations, both at Bethel and some hyper-charismatic churches, are seldom assessed in the light of what the Bible teaches. An unusual or strange behaviour doesn’t automatically mean that it is not a work of God, though if it either violates what Scripture permits, or exceeds the boundaries of Scriptural precedent, both the fruit in the lives of professing believers and the root of the doctrine of what the same hold fast to should be examined. Anything less means failing to test the spirits and leaving oneself open to possible deception.
A number of serious doctrinal errors are evident in this book. The problem is that what we believe will ultimately determine what we do. Unorthodox beliefs result in unorthodox practises and that is why it is necessary to critique error and contend for the faith.
Most importantly the means by which we reach out to those involved and advocating those views is vital. Galatians 6:1 tells us ‘Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.’
Also James 5:5-19-20 reminds us ‘Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.’
A good place to start with a friend who holds opposing views is by establishing Biblical principles that you do agree on. Even if you disagree with someone on several points you should be able to agree that we should speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), that it is noble and fair-minded to search the Scriptures to see whether what is taught is so (Acts 17:11) and that we are to earnestly contend for the faith (Jude 3).
If you force someone into a corner they will usually fight or take flight. Rather than saying to someone initially that the teaching of Jesus laying aside His divinity is heretical (although it clearly is), it may be more helpful to question what the implications would be if Jesus did lay aside His divinity as opposed to His majesty? That way, the other person will come to realisation of the truth for themselves and will not be continually doubtful that Jesus was fully God and fully man during His earthly ministry (Col. 2:9).
With the physical healing in the atonement doctrine, although 1 Peter 2:24 puts Isaiah 53:5 in context, it could prove useful to start further back and ask whether believers in the New Testament always had a clean bill of health and leave someone to consider whether Paul, Timothy, Epaphroditus and Trophimus ever tried to claim their own healings?
Though there is no Scriptural precedent, someone may be adamant that an apostolic order is emerging in the last days before the return of Christ. If someone holds to that view, wrestling with them or arguing until you are blue in the face probably won’t make them change their minds. However, if a highly questionable doctrine is taught by ‘an apostle’ simply ask where it is to be found in the Bible and ask them why someone should accept that teaching if there is no proof for it?
If a watered down gospel is presented ask someone why Jesus died on the cross, what the wages of sin are, who is sinful, what did Jesus save us from and why Jesus called His believers to take up their cross? If someone is honest and uses the Bible in context, that will expose the inconsistency of a ‘seeker friendly’ gospel.
If another person refuses to listen and is above reproach ask them would they ever try to help someone if they were concerned that they had fallen into error? If some still say no, since they are certain that God will convict them, ask them why Galatians 6:1 and James 5:19-20 was written?
If someone has extreme views about taking the offensive in spiritual warfare, offer to do a Bible study to determine how to approach the subject on the basis of what the Bible teaches so you can learn together. A lot of material is written concerning spiritual warfare based purely from experience or theory that is not commended in Scripture.
Some are convinced that the more outlandish the apparent manifestations the more evidence there is for the Holy Spirit at work and will go to great pains to justify the most bizarre behaviours! Ask them what it means that concerning spiritual gifts, everything should be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40)?
‘When Heaven Invades Earth’ presents wayward and unscriptural doctrines that have inevitably resulted in some unbiblical practises. Although there is an abundance of Scriptural references throughout the book and in each individual chapter, many passages are taken out of context and some ideas are not supported by Scripture at all. Generally speaking there is an overemphasis on moving in the gifts of the Spirit and experiencing spiritual encounters at the expense of holding fast to the foundational and essential truths of the gospel.
Of further concern is the refusal in some instances to even consider whether certain ‘revival behaviours’ are Biblical when the Bible clearly instructs the need to exercise discernment. At best this unquestioning attitude results in leaving oneself open to deception and at worst when certain leaders are endorsed above sound doctrine, extremes such as the ‘Lakeland Revival’ are exhibited.
Please pray that Bill Johnson and his church at Bethel will be willing to reassess what their spiritual priorities should be and whether what is being taught and practised is in accordance of what is clearly and consistently evidenced in scripture.
Bill Johnson Ministries http://www.bjm.org/home.html
Bill Johnson – Was Jesus a ‘Born-Again’? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuHmcZnyGaw
Bill Johnson ‘When Heaven Invades Earth’ (Shippensberg: Destiny Image, 2003)
Jonathan Edwards on Revival (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1999)
The Holy Bible The New king James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988)