Book Review: When Heaven Invades Earth, by Bill Johnson

Review
03.01.2017

Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles. Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image, 2013. 192 pps. $16.99.

 

It’s no light matter to call someone a heretic.

Heresy isn’t merely theological error; it’s error that tampers with our understanding of God and Christ and threatens, if not completely undermines, our standing before him. Historically, heresy has been saved for matters that deny the Trinity or reject the early church councils.[1] Therefore, we must use the greatest caution when invoking the term.[2]

And yet, when Trinity-eroding, Christ-denying, gospel-subverting error is published, we ought not shy away from declaring a teacher or teaching as heretical.

For that reason, I must use the word heresy to speak of Bill Johnson’s book When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles. As I will argue, Johnson’s teaching about living a life of miraculous power is heretical precisely because it misrepresents what the Bible says about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While this review could focus on the sign-gifts Johnson attests to, I’ll instead focus on his intended (or unintended) teaching about God to show how he deviates from Christian orthodoxy and, as such, poses grave danger to Christians and non-Christians alike.

BILL JOHNSON AND BETHEL CHURCH

Bill Johnson is the pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California. As his bio indicates, he’s “a fifth-generation pastor with a rich heritage in the Holy Spirit.” His family line includes a grandfather who sang for Aimee Semple McPherson and others who were deeply impacted by early Pentecostal minister Smith Wigglesworth. In short, Johnson is a committed Charismatic, whose ministry has garnered an international reputation through his revival preaching, his church, and their School for Supernatural Ministry. To be clear, what follows is not a critique of Charismatics as a whole, but the specific strain of Bill Johnson’s “gospel of power.”

It should also be noted that Bethel’s music ministry has reached the widest audience, especially in the evangelical world. Their digital downloads have at times eclipsed Adele and Coldplay. This, combined with a large YouTube following, the reputation of Bethel Church and its supernatural manifestations, has grown far and wide. In May 2016, the cover story of Christianity Today focused on Bethel Church and the “manifestations” of God it reports (e.g., holy laughter, miraculous healings, gold dust, etc.). Johnson describes these in the book (159–60)[3]—and though they’re worth investigation, this review will limit its focus to what he says about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

By focusing on Johnson’s aberrant theology, I pray pastors will be better equipped to counsel members influenced by his wide-reaching ministry. At the same time, these doctrinal considerations may lead Bible-centered churches to exchange the often subjective songs of Bethel Music and Jesus Culture for lyrics that more expressly praise the triune God. My hope is that what follows does more than “expose” the heretical teaching of When Heaven Invades Earth; I also hope it clarifies for all of us the true power of God’s gospel (Rom. 1:16).

AN IMPERSONAL POWER, NOT A PERSONAL GOD

When critiquing the Gnostics in the second century, Irenaeus observed,

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of a man all to pieces, should re-arrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed. (Against Heresies 1.8.1)

Similarly, Bill Johnson speaks often about God’s power, but instead of rightly asserting God’s power in biblical categories (i.e., the power of his word or the power of God in creation, providence, or redemption), he describes God’s power in repeatedly impersonal ways.

For instance, in a life-altering “power encounter,” Johnson speaks of God as an overwhelming force. He describes his life-shaping power encounter like this:

Once, in the middle of the night, God came in answer to my prayer for more of Him, yet not in a way I had expected. I went from a dead sleep to being wide-awake in a moment. Unexplainable power began to pulsate through my body, seemingly just shy of electrocution. It was a though I had been plugged into a wall socket with a thousand volts of electricity flowing through my body. My arms and legs shot out in silent explosions as if something was released through my hands and feet. (126–27)

Johnson explains his prayer life leading up to this experience, which recurred for three nights straight (126–28). And what was his conclusion? This power encounter was God: “This was simply the most overwhelming experience of my life. It was raw power. . . it was God” (127, emphasis his).

Noticeably absent is any mention of verbal communication or propositional truth, not to mention any biblical meditation or spiritual conviction. His experience is entirely visceral, not verbal. The Logos is absent. The Bible tells us that God spoke the world into existence (Ps. 33:5–6) and has given us a Spirit-inspired book (2 Tim. 3:16). Yet Johnson says of this experience, this power, “it was God.”

For all his talk about power, Johnson neglects to consider the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16­–17), Jesus’ power to forgive sins (Mark 2), or God’s power to raise spiritually dead men to life (Eph. 2:1–10). In fact, in one of the few places Johnson mentions Jesus’ death, his orthodox statement about salvation (Jesus “live[d] life as a man without sin, and then die[d] in the place of mankind for sin,” 88) is immediately called into question because of how he espouses the kenotic theory: “He [Jesus] laid His divinity aside (see Phil 2:5–7) as He sought to fulfill the assignment given to Him by the Father,” (87–88).

Historically, the kenotic theory has been rejected by orthodox theologians because of the way it brings into question the hypostatic union of the Son, an essential Christological doctrine. (For a helpful critique of the kenotic theory, see Donald Macleod’s The Person of Christ, specifically pages 209–12.) Whether this is due to imprecision or error, Johnson’s resulting Christology is aberrant and another indication that his God-of-all-power theology is likewise unbiblical. As a result, one walks away from When Heaven Invades Earth with the sense that the ultimate communion with God should be something like a drug-induced high where God is the opiate—only in this case, God is the opiate.

Of course, this is not how Scripture portrays our triune God. God is personal, and his power always works in covenantal relationship with his creation. By contrast, Johnson regularly speaks of God impersonally, which is the first reason why I believe his teaching is heterodox. The next two reasons relate to the Holy Spirit as a spiritual drug and Jesus as a powerful model to imitate, rather than the incarnate Lord to worship.

Of course, this is not how Scripture reveals the Lord. Instead, Johnson rejects the sufficiency of Scripture, insists on new revelations, and chastises pastors and teachers who insist on sound doctrine (85, 91, 103). Most evidently, he speaks of the Spirit as something like a drug to experience and Jesus as a powerful model to imitate, not an incarnate Lord to worship. This is the first reason why I believe his teaching is heterodox.

THE HOLY SPIRIT AS A DRUG

When Jesus told his disciples he was leaving, he told them he would send them a helper just like himself. This helper is the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Holiness, one who bears witness to Christ and manifests himself through holiness, unity, and love among God’s people. Yet, from Bill Johnson, you wouldn’t know the Spirit of John 14 to 16.

Instead, across the pages of When Heaven Invades Earth, the Spirit is described in material ways. For instance, he describes the well-known charismatic events at Toronto and Pensacola as “watering holes” (81). For those longing for a blessing, these locales are places where the Spirit is being poured out. But this stands in direct opposition to Jesus’ words in John 4, that true worship is no longer attached to location. Going further, Johnson also says, “Part of the privilege of ministry is learning how to release the Holy Spirit in a location” (83). I struggle to understand how this conception of spiritual power is any different from the desires of Simon the Magician in Acts 8:9–25, who, seeing the power of Peter to heal, longed to have the Spirit to do his own magic.

For Johnson, the Spirit is less a person to know, and more a power to experience or a “substance” to release (84). The most charitable reading is that Johnson is careless with his words and that in comparing the Spirit to anointing oil, he does not properly differentiate the two.

Moreover, Johnson envisions a spiritual kingdom where the Spirit receives more attention than Jesus (79, 89, 125) and the power of the gospel is some non-descript experience or manifestation (146). Whereas Romans 14:17 explains the manifestations of the kingdom as righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, Johnson speaks often of the kingdom in terms of overcoming sickness and controlling nature itself.

Once more, these delusions of grandeur may appeal to some, but they’re not the manifestation of power that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 2. Spiritual power brings new life, with its accompanying attributes of holiness, humility, love, and unity among diverse people. The kind of power Johnson offers is far less personal, and far more sensual. Therefore, I conclude it is unbiblical and sub-orthodox.

JESUS AS MODERN MIRACLE-WORKER

Friedrich Schleiermacher is often called the father of liberalism, and in his system of thought he exchanged the historic reality of the triune God for the subjective experience of God-consciousness. As to the Incarnation, Schleiermacher conceived of Jesus the model man, one who lived with absolute God-consciousness. Accordingly, Jesus held out hope to all mankind that we too could walk in this way.

In similar fashion, Johnson sets up Jesus as a man who performed miracles, exorcised demons, and walked with the very power of God upon him. Johnson reasons, therefore, when Jesus promises we will do even greater works in his name, it only makes sense that we would likewise experience “a life of miracles” (the subtitle of this work).

Johnson paints a picture of Christ as powerful miracle worker to imitate more than the incarnate Lord who laid down his life for his sheep. For instance, he takes one of the most exalted passages in Scripture (Hebrews 1:3) and turns it into an imitation imperative: “Jesus was an exact representation of the Father’s nature (see Heb 1:3 NASB). His re-presentation of the Father is to be a model for us as we learn how to re-present him” (134).

Of course, we do represent God on earth—this is what it means to be an image-bearer—but again, to channel Irenaeus, Johnson’s mosaic makes Jesus a miracle-worker for us to imitate. Johnson may sound biblical as he quotes verses, but to those familiar with the Scripture’s storyline, it quickly becomes apparent: this Jesus is a phony. As Stephen Wellum has recently observed, the name of Jesus “has almost become a meaningless word due to its separation from the content and framework of Scripture.”[4] This is Johnson’s error in regard to Christ, and thus he makes serious Christological errors in his writing.

CONCLUSION

In the end, I must submit, Bill Johnson’s book is modern-day heresy. In his “gospel of power” he has made an encounter with the “power” of God more important that trust in the triune God of Scripture. As a consequence, he has proffered a God that is impersonal, a Jesus who minimizes his Lordship, and a Spirit whose electric power overwhelms his eternal personhood.

For these reasons, I can only issue a warning against this book and any teaching (including music) associated with Bethel Church.[5] As for broader applications, this book brings to mind four applications.

  1. Ministry in the Internet age means pastors are going to be dealing with heresies located far from their churches. In our “glocal” context, we must be prepared not only to instruct in sound doctrine and reprove false teaching arising in our own congregations. We must also stand equipped to respond to false teaching that comes through an Internet download.
  1. There’s nothing new under the sun, and men will forever create idolatrous visions of God. Moses had to contest the Golden Calf; Jesus had to expose the Pharisees who put traditions over the Word of God; Irenaeus had to contest Gnostics; Calvin had to fight Rome’s relics; and Machen had to maintain Protestant Liberalism was a different religion entirely. So, too, in our age of hyper-subjectivism, faithful Christians must show the error of false teaching and why it abandons biblical truth and theological orthodoxy.
  1. There’s a difference between the extreme teaching of Bill Johnson, as a product of the Charismatic movement, and the Charismatic scholarship of Gordon Fee or the scripturally-saturated continuationism of Wayne Grudem. As evidenced above, Johnson’s approach to God, the Bible, and ministry has deviated widely from orthodoxy. By contrast, other continuationists who place prophecy and miraculous gifts under Scripture have not. As strongly as we might oppose the aberrant views of When Heaven Invades Earth, we must not confuse his position with others who are open to miraculous gifts.
  1. There remains a time and place to call out heresy, but not every disagreement must raise itself to that level, either in argumentation, rhetoric, or tone. Therefore, we conclude as we began: we must use caution when calling anyone heretical. But we must not shy away from the term when a teacher or teaching plainly denies the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

In this case, When Heaven Invades Earth repeatedly presents a sub-orthodox view of the Triune God. Whether the author realizes this is unknown, but what is known is that those who teach will be held to a higher standard of judgment (James 3:1).

Again, Bill Johnson’s teaching impersonalizes the Father, denigrates the Son, and misrepresents the Holy Spirit. Do not be deceived: this book will only confuse the true power of the gospel. So, brother-pastors, guard your flock from his teachings, and keep preaching the power of God to save sinners—a miracle of no small measure.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Harold O. J. Brown notes in his definition of heresy, “In the early church, heresy did not refer to simply any doctrinal disagreement, but to something that seemed to undercut the very basis for Christian existence. Practically speaking, heresy involved the doctrine of God and the doctrine of Christ.” Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984), 2–3.

[2] When disagreeing over God’s sovereignty and human responsibility (Calvinism vs. Arminianism), the nature of baptism (paedobaptism vs. credobaptism), or the use of miraculous gifts (cessationist vs. continuationist), the term “heresy” is inappropriate.

[3] Johnson writes of the limitless manifestations of God they have experienced:

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 worshiping people. We’ve also had the fragrance of heaven fill a room. . . . I have seen the small gems that suddenly appeared in people’s hands as they worshiped. Since early in 1998 we have had feathers fall in our meeting. . . . They [feathers] now fall most anywhere we go—airports, homes, restaurants, offices, and the like. (159–60)

[4] Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 111.

[5] Ironically, this test of trinitarian orthodoxy clarifies the reason why I can sing with gusto many songs by Matt Maher, a modern Catholic musician. Maher maintains orthodox views on the Trinity and Christology. His words cohere with the Apostolic Creed and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is different from much Bethel Church music, which more regularly speaks in vague spirituality and immediate experience of God—like Bill Johnson’s power encounter.

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