Does Bill Johnson claim that he teaches a “different gospel?”
An Open Letter to Bill Johnson and Those Who Follow Him.
Many of my friends follow Bill Johnson. Perhaps you are reading this because you are one of them. Whether or not I know you is unimportant to the message of this letter. It’s intended for all who follow Bill Johnson or, perhaps more accurately, Bill Johnson’s teachings. But it has special, personal relevance to those of my friends who follow Bill Johnson.
Lately Bill Johnson and his followers have made some most extraordinary claims. Chief among these, I think, is that what they call a “glory cloud” –a physical manifestation of the presence of God, taking the form of a sparkly, luminescent cloud–had been regularly appearing at Bill Johson’s Bethel Church. The appearance of that phenomenon has been the occasion of discussion, some of it quite heated, between followers of Bill Johnson and others, including me. A primary issue in those discussions has been the authenticity of the glory cloud, which might be, as Bill Johnson’s followers understand it to be, an authentic theophany. Alternatively, it might be a man-made or natural phenomenon. Finally, it might even be a false miracle (2 Thess. 2:9).
I myself am skeptical concerning the nature of the so-called glory cloud. Whatever it may be, I strongly doubt that it is a divine manifestation. My expressed skepticism has led some of my friends to accuse me of being hyper-critical, of working in active opposition to God by failing to attend to the unity of the visible church, and any of a number of shortcomings and sins.
Not too long ago, one of my friends initiated a series of discussions of the glory cloud and related issues with me and others on a Facebook page created to publish warnings and critiques concerning Bill Johnson’s Bethel Church. Later, my friend was joined by another apologist for Bethel. Our discussions touched on a number of topics but at the end of the day we had made little progress toward better understanding one another’s views and, if anything, were probably less favorably disposed than before to accept one another’s views.
I spent time today reflecting on these discussions and have concluded that almost all of them were a waste of time. That’s the case not simply because no progress was made. It’s the case because one of the topics we discussed is vastly more important than the other. And, interestingly, in my own view, that’s the topic that I believe was never squarely addressed by followers of Bethel. I returned time and again to that topic, even at one point reducing my argument to a yes/no question. But I never received a forthright response.
That topic and my associated question are my reason for writing this letter. My question was this, “Does Bill Johnson claim that he teaches a ‘different gospel?'” Now, let me cut to the chase and state that, from my standpoint, the answer to this question is an unambiguous “yes.” This is so not because I have analysed Bill Johnson’s gospel and found it to be at odds with the biblical gospel. I have done so, but that is beside the point. It is unambiguously so because Bill Johnson himself says it’s so. And I believe he should be taken at his word.
In a sermon titled “The Requirement of Miracles” (Dec. 11, 2011, evening service. Available viaibetheltv.com) Bill Johnson explains that the gospel preached by most of the visible church, today and in recent history, is not the authentic biblical gospel but a “different gospel.” To be authentic, he argues, the gospel must be presented in the context of signs and wonders. To be clear, he does not claim that the gospel could be presented in the context of signs and wonders. He does not claim that the gospel should be presented in the context of signs and wonders. He claims, as I wrote, that the gospel must be presented in the context of signs and wonders. As he puts it, a gospel message not confirmed by signs and wonders is a “different gospel.”
Those who are familiar with Christian theology recognize Bill Johnson’s claim as a most extraordinary one. Two important questions follow immediately: (1) Is he right? Must the gospel be presented in the context of signs and wonders? and (2) What are the implications of his claim? In this letter, I propose to deal only with the second of these questions; that is, the implications of his claim. It’s not the case, of course, that the first question is unimportant or undeserving of analysis. But I think that the second question is actually more immediately relevant because I believe that Bill Johnson and his followers haven’t adequately considered it.
The gospel is the central fact and doctrine of the Christian faith. Moreover, it is the boundary that distinguishes that which is Christian from that which is non-Christian. Those who trust in the gospel are Christians and part of the body of Christ. Those who don’t trust in the gospel are neither Christians nor part of the body of Christ. Bill Johnson’s claim, therefore, that most of the church preaches a “different gospel” is a most far-reaching claim because it entails that most of the visible church is not actually part of Christ’s body. To be sure, Bill Johnson does not deal with this implication of his claim. He might even deny this implication even as he affirms his claim. But no such have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too option is available to him. The Apostle Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians explicates with great clarity and force the uniqueness and eternal immutability of the gospel; there is only one gospel message and it can never be changed. Paul expresses himself in the strongest possible terms:
“But even if we (or an angel from heaven) should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be condemned to hell! As we have said before, and now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let him be condemned to hell!” (Gal. 1:8-9).
Another implication follows from Bill Johnson’s claim that most of the church preaches a “different gospel” than that preached by Paul: Those who preach a different gospel, by implication including me and those in my own church, are under Paul’s anathema. We are cursed and bound for eternal doom, Of course, Bill Johnson may be wrong. It is possible, and indeed I would insist it’s the case, that it’s Bill Johnson who preaches a gospel different from that preached by Paul. In that case it’s Bill Johnson who is under Paul’s anathema. Now, as I wrote, I have stated my opinion but don’t propose to argue in this letter who is right and who is wrong. Instead, I want only to clarify the implications of Bill Johnson’s claim.
The key implication I want to call out is this: Simply put, Bill Johnson’s claim divides the body of Christ. One group or another–those who follow Bill Johnson’s understanding of the gospel or those who do not–is not actually part of Christ’s body. This implication of Bill Johnson’s claim is ironic in view of the high value his followers claim to place on Christian unity. One good friend of mine, a pastor, has actually claimed that God values unity over truth; that God is more concerned that Christians not judge or criticize one another than He is concerned that they be united in truth. I disagree with my friend’s claim in the strongest possible terms. Unity at the expense of the gospel is no unity at all. But, again, I don’t propose to argue in this letter for my view over against the view of Bill Johnson. My concern is only with the implications of his claim that I and those in my church, because we do not regard signs and wonders as integral to the gospel, believe and preach a non-biblical gospel.
The frank implication is this. Bill Johnson and those who accept his claim are not my brothers or sisters in Christ. We can argue about which is which but either I or they are not part of Christ’s church. Either I or they are presently on the broad road leading to destruction and so, absent repentance and acceptance of the true biblical gospel, either I or they will spend eternity in Hell.
Now, if you are among Bill Johnson’s followers, I am pretty sure you’re saying to yourself right now that Bill Johnson said no such thing. He didn’t say that I and those like me are damned. Bill Johnson, you might protest, loves the whole church. If that’s what you’re thinking I need to remind you that Bill Johnson doesn’t have the option to indulge this view at the same time he claims that I and others like me believe and preach a different gospel. There cannot be two gospels. If they are different, at least one is wrong. And one who holds a wrong gospel is outside the Church.
So here’s where we’re left. Either I’m outside the church because I’ve never believed the true gospel or Bill Johnson is outside the church because he has apostatized from the true gospel and now teaches a different gospel. It really doesn’t matter, in some ways, which is right. For instance, if you follow Bill Johnson’s view, Christ’s Great Commission requires that you work to convince me that Bill Johnson preaches the true gospel. I on the other hand, since I do not follow Bill Johnson’s view, am required to call him and those who follow him, who are apostates in my eyes, to return to the true gospel. In my view, we need to face these facts and deal forthrightly with them. And that, friends, is the purpose and bottom line of my letter. No other issue that we’ve recently discussed matters as much as this. Whether or not God sends disease, whether or not the glory cloud is authentic, whether or not Jesus healed all who came to Him–these issues pale in comparison to the issue I put before you now.
Far and away the most important issue is this: Does the gospel include, as a matter of necessity, signs and wonders? I submit that it does not. I submit that if you think it does you are holding a different gospel and have placed yourself under Paul’s Gal 1:6 anathema. I call on you now, at peril of your immortal soul, to repent and return to the true gospel of Christ. To be sure, you’re welcome to all the signs and wonders the Spirit is willing to extend so long as you do not claim them as a necessary part of the gospel. But if you add anything at all to the Gospel–signs and wonders, promises of bodily health, promises of financial prosperity, anything at all–you have departed from the faith once for all delivered. Friends, I reiterate: your immortal soul is in peril. Repent from Bill Johnson’s false gospel of signs and wonders. Flee to the simplicity of Christ. Your so-called gospel of signs and wonders is in reality a subtle form of legalism that binds you, keeping you from the grace that God freely offers.
Moreover, this is no mere difference of opinion. Unless you repent, I cannot biblically continue to regard you as brother or sister in Christ but must regard you as an enemy of the gospel. And even if you don’t change your own view, if you are consistent in biblically working out its implications, you must regard me similarly–not could, not should, but must.
May God have mercy on us all.