Our last post, Is Bethel Church a Cult?, addressed the criticisms of Bethel church in the first part of an article someone sent me titled Bethel Church Believes a Different Gospel. Today we are responding to the second part of that article, which contains more serious allegations of false teaching. But first, let’s quickly review what the Bible teaches about how we test the spirits.
The Litmus Test Is The Incarnation
The book of first John gives us a definitive test which we can use to tell if a spirit or teaching is from God.
1 John 4:1-6 (RSV) Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already. Little children, you are of God, and have overcome them; for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world, therefore what they say is of the world, and the world listens to them. We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
2 John 1:7 (KJV) For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.
Could it really be that every issue we face boils down to the incarnation? Yes! Some study shows that the implications of the incarnation are far-reaching and relate to just about every issue we could imagine. A spirit that denies Jesus came in the flesh is at the root of all the major problems in our societies today. I wrote about this subject in greater detail in my book Jesus Has Come In The Flesh. Today, I will briefly point out how understanding the incarnation applies to the controversy over Bill Johnson’s teaching.
The Gnostics were an early heretical group that denied Jesus came in the flesh. Their doctrine heavily influenced the early church. Quoting a Wikipedia article on Gnosticism:
Some early Church fathers, such as Irenaeus, seemed to think that all heresies were Gnosticism at root, and thus that any heretic was in a sense a Gnostic.
Is Healing Central To The Gospel?
Pastor Gabe begins his critique of Bill Johnson’s teaching:
Johnson teaches that the gospel is miraculous physical healing, and if anyone says that God doesn’t miraculously heal, or that He would even bring harm rather than healing, they’re teaching a different gospel. But the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t physical healing, it’s spiritual healing…the Bible does not say or even allude to the idea that the good news of Jesus Christ will miraculously heal you from any of your physical diseases.
First, this is a misrepresentation of Bill Johnson’s teaching. Johnson does not teach that the gospel “is miraculous physical healing,” as if to exclude regeneration and forgiveness. He teaches that physical healing is an essential element of the gospel, not the whole gospel.
So how does this relate to the incarnation? The primary reason that the Gnostics denied Jesus came in the flesh was that they taught a false dichotomy between the physical and spiritual worlds. This false dichotomy is both unscriptural and unscientific. Johnson’s position is in line with the incarnation. Teaching that the gospel is only spiritual is in line with the doctrine of the Gnostics.
As to the statement “The Bible does not say or even allude to the idea that the good news of Jesus Christ will miraculously heal you…” I find it astounding that someone familiar with scripture could make such a statement. I don’t need to fully respond to it here, but you may want to check out the article 13 Solid Scriptural Proofs Of God’s Will To Heal.
Pastor Gabe continues:
Bill Johnson would say I’m teaching a different gospel. But it is he who is preaching a message that can neither save the human soul, nor can it deliver what Johnson says it will. Johnson cannot heal you. Just look at the man. If the gospel means miraculous physical healing, why is he wearing glasses?
What’s wrong with this criticism? It ignores the element of the gospel that we continue to apply to our lives and which continues to bear fruit and transform us. It is no better than denying that Jesus made provision for our peace because you see an anxious Christian, or denying that Jesus’ work has power to deliver us from sin because you don’t know any Christians who never sin.
I responded to this kind of thinking in greater depth in the articles Do You Get 100% Results Ministering Healing? and If Jesus Redeemed Us From Sickness, Why Are So Many Christians Sick?
Does Bill Johnson Deny Jesus’ Divinity?
Pastor Gabe then accuses Bill Johnson of denying Jesus’ divinity:
Johnson teaches about a different Jesus than the Jesus of the Bible. He and many other word-of-faith charismatic preachers believe that when the Bible says Jesus left His throne in heaven and “emptied Himself” (Philippians 2:7), He actually gave up being divine. The incarnate Christ was fully man but not at all God. When Jesus lived a life of sinless perfection, it wasn’t as our substitute but as a model. Anyone of us are capable of the same perfection. Jesus didn’t do miracles because He was God. He did miracles to show us that we can do them, too, if we just believe that we can.
Here is Johnson in his own words…
“Jesus was so emptied of divine capacity, eternally God but He chose to live with the restrictions as a man. Why? To set a model, to set something to follow, an example. His lifestyle, if He did all of His miracles as God, I’m still impressed but I’m not compelled to follow. I just stand back and go, ‘Wow, that’s amazing. God, do some more. That’s awesome, do some more, God!’
“But when I find out that He set aside divinity and chose to display what life would be like for anyone who had no sin, and was completely empowered by the Spirit of God, He models something that is made available because the blood of Jesus was shed to deal with the sin issue. There is no lack in the power or the effectiveness of the blood of Jesus. There is nothing He left outside of its reach. There’s nothing if He had it to do over again He would include that He didn’t already include. It’s all covered.
“When He said, ‘It is finished,’ He meant it. He meant it is a complete job, and it is more than sufficient for absolute transformation. So what does He do? He models for us the normal Christian life.”
Boy, there are all kinds of problems with this, but let me try to narrow it down to three. First of all, did you catch that Johnson isn’t interested in following Jesus if Jesus was still God? He would be amazed by Him, but he wouldn’t be compelled to follow Him. That’s craziness. Many unbelievers think Jesus was a good man who did some amazing things, but they refuse to honor Him as God (Romans 1:21). Johnson’s Jesus is no better than an atheist’s!
OK, why does Pastor Gabe accuse Johnson of teaching that Jesus “actually gave up being divine?” Even in the quote that he uses of Johnson, Johnson makes the qualifying statement that Jesus is “eternally God.” Bill says Jesus is eternally God and Pastor Gabe takes the quote containing that statement as a denial of Jesus’ divinity?
I’ve run across several others who accuse Bill Johnson of denying Jesus’ divinity. It’s preposterous. Not only has Bill Johnson repeatedly been clear about Jesus’ divinity, but a few years ago he publicly rebuked Jason Westerfield and warned the church to stay away from him. Why? The primary reason was Jason’s denial Jesus’ divinity. Bill stated that this was an essential issue that the church cannot compromise on.
I have heard Bill give the same teaching on other occasions. Similarly, he often uses the clarifying statement “Jesus never stopped being God, but…” Essentially, he goes on to say that Jesus became like us in every way. And this is a solid scriptural tenant of the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation.
Hebrews 2:14-18 (NIV) Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Hebrews 5:7-9 (NIV) During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.
John 5:19 (NIV) Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.
In two different places, scripture says that Jesus had to be strengthened by angels. (His temptation in the wilderness and in the garden of Gethsemane.) Jesus never stopped being God, but he did become weak and dependant on God the Father exactly as we are. He himself said that he could do nothing on his own. Jesus needed to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, just as we do.
Jesus never stopped being God, but he could do no miracles without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit!
The Mystery Of The Incarnation
The “hypostatic union” is a theological term to describe the doctrine that Jesus is fully God and fully man. This is exactly what Bill Johnson teaches. And like many orthodox Christian doctrines (such as the Trinity), there is a bit of mystery to this truth, isn’t there?
1 Timothy 3:9 (NRSV) they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.
1 Timothy 3:16 (NRSV) Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.
It is Pastor Gabe who fails to understand the mystery of the incarnation. He thinks Jesus being fully human and like us in every way contradicts Jesus’divinity, so he accuses Johnson of denying Jesus’ divinity because Johnson teaches that Jesus became fully human. Yet Johnson also teaches Jesus’divinity.
Again, this is where the incarnation comes in when it comes to testing the spirits. Johnson teaches the incarnation. Pastor Gabe, in his criticism of Johnson, fails to fully accept the truth of the incarnation and of Jesus’ humanity.
Jesus Our Model For Walking With The Father And Depending On The Holy Spirit
Pastor Gabe says Johnson teaches Jesus came “not as our substitute, but as our model.” First, nowhere does Johnson teach that Jesus didn’t come as our substitute. Jesus came as our substitute and as our model. If Jesus didn’t come as our model, why did Jesus tell his disciples “follow me?” If Jesus didn’t come as our model, why did Jesus say those who believed in him would do the same works and greater works? If Jesus didn’t come as our model, why does scripture tell us to imitate Christ, live as Jesus did, follow Jesus’ example, and follow in his steps? If Jesus isn’t our model, why does scripture call him our “forerunner?”
Pastor Gabe seems to think that Jesus’ example for us and Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice for us are conflicting truths. Thus he accuses Bill of denying that Jesus is our substitute because Bill teaches that Jesus is our model. But both of these truths are solidly scriptural. Jesus is our substitute and our model. He is pitting Biblical truths against each other in his accusations towards Johnson.
Bill Johnson’s statement about what compels him to follow/imitate Christ is simple. If Jesus had not become like us in every way, what he did might be impressive, but it would be impossible to imitate. Jesus coming as a man gave us something to imitate. This applies not only to works of power but also to walking in holiness. This issue also boils down to the incarnation.
I’ve heard some Christians say that they cannot forgive or overcome temptation. When we talk about Jesus’ example, they say “That’s different. Jesus is God.” These Christians, like Pastor Gabe, do not understand that although Jesus never stopped being God, he came with every weakness we have and was tempted in every way as we are, but without sin. It is because Jesus became like us in every way that scripture encourages us to imitate him. Consider the following verses:
James 1:13 (NIV) When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone…
Hebrews 4:15 (NIV) For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
Does Bill Johnson Teach Sanctification?
Pastor Gabe quotes Bill and then accuses him of leaving no room for sanctification, and finally, denying that Jesus was sinless.
“When He said, ‘It is finished,’ He meant it. He meant it is a complete job, and it is more than sufficient for absolute transformation. So what does He do? He models for us the normal Christian life.” Bill Johnson, in teaching the perfection and sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, might as well have been quoting Hebrews.
Hebrews 10:14 (NRSV) For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
But Pastor Gabe writes:
“…there’s no room for sanctification in his message. If the moment you come to Christ, you’re instantly perfect, there’s no growth in holiness because you’re instantly holy. That is counter-biblical.”
Again, Pastor Gabe is pitting two biblical truths against each other. The first fact, that Jesus’ sacrifice makes us perfect before the father, does not negate the second, which is that we are transformed to reflect Christ as we behold his glory. This is an issue where, as I said in the last post, anybody who wants to “research” Bill Johnson or Bethel church should listen to what Bill himself says instead of what people say he says. I have often heard Bill talk about sanctification in his messages.
Pastor Gabe then concludes that if Bill leaves no room for sanctification, he also denies justification. This is preposterous, since, justification is the very truth Bill was talking about in the quote and the very truth which Pastor Gabe pitted against sanctification.
Pastor Gabe goes on to accuse Bill of teaching that Jesus had sin. This is his train of logic.
1) Bill teaches that Jesus became like us in every way, therefore Bill denies Jesus’ divinity.
2) Second, Jesus said that “nobody but God is good.”
3) If Jesus wasn’t God he wasn’t good, so he was imperfect.
4) Bill Johnson teaches that Jesus was imperfect.
The first item is where Gabe is completely in error, in that he has pitted Jesus’ humanity against his divinity. The reason the Gnostics denied Jesus had come in the flesh was their belief that God is a spirit and is holy but the physical realm is evil, so a holy God could not have come in a human body. Jesus’ humanity and divinity are not at odds with each other.
Although I am sure Pastor Gabe acknowledges that Jesus came as a human, he does not accept the scriptural teachings about Jesus’ weakness, identification with us, and dependence on the Father as a human. Pastor Gabe says Bill Johnson teaches Jesus is imperfect. If you have listened very much to what Bill himself says, you have already heard him state point blank that Jesus lived a sinless life.
Those who follow this teaching believe they are sinless. Todd White, an evangelistic partner with Bethel Church, recently said about himself that he was without sin.
However, Todd was not saying that he has never sinned. That should be clear from Todd’s testimony. Todd was simply saying that Christ’s sacrifice completely cleanses us from sin and empowers us to walk as Jesus did.
Pastor Gabe’s conclusion is that Bill Johnson doesn’t teach Jesus is perfect or divine, therefore Bill Johnson’s Jesus is “another Jesus,” with “another atonement” which will not save you from your sins. If you received another atonement, you are still dead in your sins. The logic here is intact if the first premises are true. But the first premises are anything but true. Johnson clearly teaches Jesus’ divinity and sinlessness, as well as teaching the truth of the incarnation.
The entirety of Pastor Gabe’s theological arguments is pitting one Biblical truth against another. He accuses Bill Johnson of denying Christ’s divinity because Bill teaches Christ’s incarnation. He accuses Bill of denying that Jesus is our substitute because Bill teaches that Jesus is our model. And he accuses Bill of denying sanctification because Bill teaches justification. And finally, Pastor Gabe falls into the teaching of the Gnostics, who denied Jesus came in the flesh, when he accuses Bill of teaching that Jesus is imperfect because Bill teaches that Jesus came as a man.
When it comes to the litmus test of the apostle John, which is the incarnation, Bill Johnson passes with flying colors!