Friday, May 10, 2013

An Invasion of Error- A Review of Bill Johnson (Jesus Culture)

Bob Dewaay does a fin job in explaining some of the problem teachings of Bill Johnson of Bethel Church, home of the Jesus Culture. They have some good songs, but we still have to be careful to check and see if the teachings are from the Bible or not. And to evaluate how serious these errors are. Here is a good start. DB

Bill Johnson of Redding, California has become a popular teacher in one of the latest iterations of the Signs and Wonders movement. His book, When Heaven Invades Earth, reveals his underlying theology.
Johnson believes that there will be a great end-time revival that will be initiated by an “Elijah generation”[1] (a concept from the heretical Latter Rain movement) that shall transcend all other generations of Christians in regard to their ability to do great works of power. Johnson claims the following about himself and associates: “We will carry the Elijah anointing in preparing for the return of the Lord in the same way that John the Baptist carried the Elijah anointing and prepared the people for the coming of the Lord” (Johnson: 184)[2].
Supposedly these elitists will set off a great revival of signs and wonders greater than those of Jesus. This miracle explosion, they expect, will cause a great revival before the return of Christ. Johnson states, “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” (Johnson: 23).
The basic premise is that God always wants to do abundant and remarkable miracles but is kept from doing so by the fear and unbelief of the church. God awaits the arrival of specially anointed and enlightened Christians who will make it possible for Him to bring at long last an invasion of heaven to earth before the return of Christ. That is the point of Johnson’s title. His subtitle is A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles. Accordingly, with the right information, zeal, desire, piety, faith and anointing, any Christian can “make the supernatural natural” (Johnson: 133).
In this article I will show from Johnson’s book that he has departed from orthodox Christian teaching in many serious ways. He teaches the heretical kenosis doctrine about Christ. He denies the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. He embraces pietism, elitism, subjectivism, fideism, dominion theology, and many other errors. I will claim that his supposed end-time revival is actually end-time apostasy.
How to Introduce Heresy
As I read Johnson’s book, I noted the various errors in it by category. At the end of the process the largest number of entries was under “anti-scholastic bias.” Johnson is firmly against careful scholarship based on sound exegesis of Scripture. To him, such study is likely to bring one into bondage and spiritual death. Sadly, this bias is widespread in current evangelicalism, but Johnson is quite blatant in his rejection of scholarship.
Johnson claims, “For decades the Church has been guilty of creating doctrine to justify their lack of power. . .” (Johnson: 116). It is hard to imagine what “problem” he is reacting to when most of our evangelical educational institutions are committed to postmodern mysticism, with their heroes being mystics like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. It is hard to find a Bible college or seminary that does not promote “spiritual formation,” which is merely a fancy term for Roman Catholic mysticism. Yet Johnson decries the presence of doctrine. We will see later just how willing he is to depart from orthodox doctrine.
He resorts to an often misused passage that promotes his anti-scholastic bias: “A powerless Word is the letter not the Spirit. And we all know, ‘The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’” (Johnson: 116). This twisting of Paul’s meaning in 2Corinthians 3:6 has a long history of use to promote subjectivism and mysticism. The false implication is that studying the Bible will kill you spiritually. The context shows that Paul was speaking of the letters written on stone (verse 3), meaning the Decalogue. Paul explains how the law “kills” in Romans 7:56. It kills because of our sinful passions that it exposes, not because it is studied for what it means.[3]
For example, does “you shall not steal” have some secret, mystical meaning that can only be assessed by certain elite persons with subjective spiritual impressions, or does it mean what it says? It means what it says. But to truly live as a person who is free from the sin of stealing we need the grace of God that comes through the gospel. In 2Corinthians 3, Paul is speaking of those who have the Law but reject Christ. Bill Johnson is warning Christians that studying the Bible will kill them. In so doing he abuses the passage and lowers the value of Scripture in the minds of his readers.
Johnson warns against “a powerless Word.” The only way God’s Word lacks power is if we refuse to believe and obey it. The suggestion is false and abusive to the Lord’s flock that people like Johnson, who refuse to be taught the truth but relish signs and wonders, have “power” while those who love and believe God’s Word are powerless.
It is easy to see where Johnson is taking his attack against Christian scholarship:
Those who feel safe because of their intellectual grasp of Scriptures enjoy a false sense of security. None of us has a full grasp of Scripture, but we all have the Holy Spirit. He is our common denominator who will always lead us into truth. But to follow Him, we must be willing to follow off the map—to go beyond what we know. (Johnson: 76)
We will see in the next section just exactly where Johnson has gone “off the map” and where he wants to take us. The claim that we cannot know the Scripture but can know what the Holy Spirit is saying by other means is absurd. The Bible claims that Scripture is the Holy Spirit speaking to the church. The Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures. We understand the Bible using our intellect.
Johnson’s approach is to use the person of the Holy Spirit as an excuse to reject scholarly Bible study in favor of undefined, subjective religious experiences. He further denigrates the Bible:
But in reality, the Bible is a closed book. Anything I get from the Word without God will not change my life. It is closed to insure that I remain dependent on the Holy Spirit. (Johnson: 93)
His categories are false. The Bible is the Holy Spirit speaking to us and its power is not dependant on us using religious experience to escape its boundaries. Any lack of life-changing power is due to unbelief, not the meaning of Scripture as correctly understood. But Johnson claims that the Holy Spirit leads us off the map. Thus he denigrates sola scriptura.
The absurdity of Johnson’s claim is such that it amazes me how many are deceived by it. For example, the claim that the Holy Spirit leads us into truth (which He does through Scripture) by some subjective means that go “off the map” and beyond an “intellectual approach” is disingenuous. Those who go off the map are going somewhere. If they have gotten information directly from the Spirit about where they think they should go and then follow it, they are using their intellect as well. The subjective information from the spirit realm must register in someone’s mind in order for them to act on it. So if the intellect is as bad thing when contemplating the Scriptures, why is it a good thing when determining which subjective impressions to follow? But Johnson warns, “The Church has all too often lived according to an intellectual approach to the Scriptures, void of the Holy Spirit’s influence.” This false dilemma (i.e., either intellect or Spirit) fools his readers into thinking that if they attend hyped up meetings such as Johnson promotes, the Spirit is at work; whereas if they were to carefully study God’s once-for-all revealed Word they would be stuck in a “powerless” situation (Johnson: 76).
By discounting careful Bible study, scholarship, and using one’s mind Johnson disarms his readers to the point that they are susceptible to heresies such as those he teaches. For example, “Reaction to error usually produces error” (Johnson: 51). If this is true, why did Paul write Galatians, Colossians, and other of his epistles to correct error? Johnson brags that he doesn’t read any books of people who disagree with his version of revivalism. He consistently downplays or rejects the value of scholarly study. He says: “It’s in the environment of worship that we learn things that go way beyond what our intellect can grasp” (Johnson: 44). That statement reminds me of one I read from a New Ager who suggested we contemplate “the sound of one hand clapping.” How do we learn things but they never register on our minds? Probably by subjective, religious feelings that remain undefined. By such feelings people like the Dalai Lama feel close to God. But are they?
Johnson Goes “Off the Map” by Teaching a False Christology
Bill Johnson embraces a doctrine that teaches that during His earthly ministry Jesus operated only as a man and not God. Johnson claims that Christ laid aside His divinity. Johnson says, “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” (Johnson: 29; emphasis and ellipses in original). Johnson’s theology requires that Christians do greater miracles than Jesus. If Jesus’ divinity had any influence on His mighty works, then we might think we could not do the same (and rightly so). So Johnson embraces what is often called the kenosis heresy—that Jesus laid aside His divine nature. He writes elsewhere: “He laid his divinity aside as He sought to fulfill the assignment given to Him by the Father . . .” (Johnson: 79).
Johnson’s priority that believers must be able to do signs and wonders causes him to make many statements that blur the distinction between us and Christ and thereby diminish the uniqueness of Christ: “For us to become all that God intended, we must remember that Jesus’ life was a model of what mankind could become if it were in right relationship with the Father.” (Johnson: 138). On the contrary, the Biblical writers claimed that Christ was the Creator (see John 1:3Hebrews 1:2). Jesus was affirmed to be the unique divine son (Mark 9:7) by a voice from heaven. Jesus’ deity was affirmed many places in the gospels. The gospel writers used Jesus’ mighty works to prove His deity. If Johnson is right and Jesus had laid aside His deity, then the mighty works prove only that Jesus learned what anyone could learn if he had the right faith and relationship to God. The claims of the gospels thereby become moot. Jesus is no longer unique, but only a special enlightened one who could lead the way to many such enlightened ones in the future. Thus we have a New Age Christ rather than the Biblical one.
If Johnson is correct and we can do greater works than Jesus (based on his misinterpretation of John 14:12; Johnson: 136), then whoever did greater works would have even greater reason to make himself the object of someone’s faith and worship.[4] The apologetic that points to Jesus’ life and miracles as proof of His deity would become worthless because others could do the same.
The kenosis doctrine is based on a misuse of Philippians 2:7 where Paul says that Jesus emptied Himself. False teachers claim that Jesus “emptied” Himself of deity and became only a man during the Incarnation. This claim is tantamount to the outright denial of Christ’s deity. This important issue is missed on people like Johnson, who attack the validity of Christian scholarship. Johnson’s denial of Christ’s deity during His earthly ministry is the same as the Word of Faith heresy’s denial of Jesus’ deity when He died on the cross. They claim he lost His divinity and suffered in hell as a man. Both denials are blatant heresy. Let me explain why.
A truly theistic understanding of deity has certain necessary definitions. The most basic definition is “eternal, non-contingent existence.” The reason such a definition is essential to Christian theology is to distinguish God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture from other deities. The God of the Bible is unique: “To you it was shown that you might know that the Lord, He is God; there is no other besides Him” (Deuteronomy 4:35). The true God is eternal, and He created the world out of nothing. All false gods are created (if they have any status of existence), and thus are not eternal. The prophet wrote: “Thus you shall say to them, ‘The gods that did not make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens’” (Jeremiah 10:11). The New Testament claimed that Jesus was the Creator to establish His true deity.
Non-contingence is a corollary to God’s eternal existence. If God existed from all eternity before anything else existed, there is nothing outside of God that could have caused His existence. This means that God as God is not contingent on anything outside of Himself. This is important because in Bill Johnson’s Christology, Christ’s deity is contingent. It goes away during the Incarnation only to return later. That which comes and goes is not eternal and non-contingent. This is the same fatal error of the Word of Faith heresy and similar to other such errors that were condemned in church history. The heretic Arius was famous for saying about Christ, “There was a time when He was not.” Various Christological heresies were rejected by early church councils and the definition of Chalcedon (451) stands as a valid definition based on the true teaching of Scripture.[5]
What does this have to do with Bill Johnson and kenosis? If Jesus’ divinity can be laid aside then it was never true divinity. Deity is not an attribute that comes and goes. It is or it is not. If lost and then regained it is contingent, and if contingent, then not true divinity. Anything less leads to every form of heresy, cult, and New Age teaching. If divinity can be gained, then created man can possibly attain it. The Bible denies this. Furthermore, if divinity can be laid aside it is not divinity. R C Sproul explains:
If God laid aside one of his attributes, the immutable undergoes a mutation, the infinite suddenly stops being infinite; it would be the end of the universe. God cannot stop being God and still be God. So we can’t talk properly of God laying aside his deity to take humanity upon himself.[6]
If Jesus laid aside divinity, that would be proof that He never had true divinity. Thus Johnson’s doctrine is a de facto denial of the deity of Christ. Christological heresy is heresy. Period. So what does Philippians 2:7 imply that Jesus did empty Himself of? The answer is not divinity, which is eternal and cannot be compromised, but divine prerogatives. Paul’s point was about Christ’s humility that we should emulate, not His ontological status as God. Sproul explains:
I think the context of Philippians 2 makes it very clear that what he emptied himself of was not his deity, not his divine attributes, but his prerogatives — his glory and his privileges. He willingly cloaked his glory under the veil of this human nature that he took upon himself. It’s not that the divine nature stops being divine in order to become human. In the Transfiguration, for example (Matthew 17:1-13), we see the invisible divine nature break through and become visible, and Jesus is transfigured before the eyes of his disciples.[7]
The true doctrine of Christ is that in the Incarnation He took upon Himself humanity, not that he laid aside deity. The Incarnate Christ is fully human and fully God. In theology this is called the hypostatic union. Johnson claims that the Holy Spirit has led him “off the map.” I agree that Johnson is indeed “off the map.” The “map” for Christians is Holy Spirit-inspired Scripture. Our doctrine is to come from the Bible (2Timothy 3:16). The “map” draws out boundaries and when we cross those boundaries we are not merely lost, we are in ungodly error. The Holy Spirit does not lead God’s people off the map that He has given us, once for all.
So Johnson gives us a double whammy. First, he warns against scholarship and scholarly Bible study under pains of becoming spiritually dead. Then he introduces heresy that his followers have no means to discern because they have been scared away from the necessary tools for discernment. This is how entire movements depart from Christian orthodoxy and are plunged into theological ruin. The kenosis heresy is a damnable heresy and is as egregious as the Arian heresy, which still has life in modern times through the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christological heresy is not an aid to the working of the Holy Spirit as Johnson claims, but it grieves the Holy Spirit.
Likely Johnson’s thousands of followers have no idea they are being led into rank heresy. They come for the signs and wonders in the hope that they will do greater miracles than Jesus. They are mesmerized by the claims that they shall be part of an Elijah generation that will defeat evil on the earth before the return of Christ. Very few will ever realize that the doctrine of Christ they are taught departs from the teaching of the church that has been embraced by nearly every Christian group for centuries.
It could be argued that the definition of Chalcedon is unbiblical (which it is not). But the burden of proof lies with those who would deny it. One cannot lightly reject the doctrine of Christ that has held sway for centuries. To do so would require extensive theological work and Biblical argument designed to persuade conservative Christian scholars. One cannot go into such an undertaking lightly. But Johnson does, glibly denying the deity of Christ for no better reason than he thinks that doing so will likely make it easier for Christians to think they can do greater miracles than Jesus. He doesn’t offer any scholarly proof that his kenosisdoctrine is Biblical. Why should anyone take him seriously? Sadly, thousands do.
....Next time we'll pick up where he left off. Click the link above if you cannot wait...
End Notes:
[1] Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth – A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles, (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image, 2003) 150. All subsequent citations from this book will be bracketed within my text.
[2] See Critical Issues Commentary issue 103 for a discussion of latter day apostles, the Latter Rain movement and their false understanding of an “Elijah Company” that will appear to defeat God’s enemies.
{3] See Critical Issues Commentary issue 16 for a full discussion of 2 Corinthians 3:6 and its common misuse in the church.
[4] See Critical Issues Commentary issue 65 for contextual and exegetical analysis that disproves this misinterpretation of John 14:12.
[7] Ibid.
[8] See Critical Issues Commentary issue 23, “New Age Miracles.”
[10] See Critical Issues Commentary issue 63, “Antichrists and The Antichrist.”
[11] See Critical Issues Commentary Issue 101, “How Pietism Deceives Christians.”

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