Examining the Theology of Bill Johnson’s “Face to Face with God” (Chapter 1)

Josiah Espinoza | June 17th, 2019

A few years ago I was introduced to Bethel Music. As a worship minister at my local church I was impressed with the musical abilities of Bethel. The composition of the songs, the dynamics, the structure and even the lyrics to the first songs I was introduced to were very beautiful. Then I started to take notice of some of their lyrics and I also noticed the very repetitive nature of their songs. As a worship minister, I have always been very mindful of the lyrics of songs and the composition of songs. How are they structured? What do they mean in the chorus? Why is the bridge so repetitive? Etc. Etc. As I looked deeper into Bethel’s music I was propelled into a flurry of accusations of heresy toward Bill Johnson and Bethel’s Music and School of Supernatural Ministry. I recently was re-introduced to some content that worried me. Cultish of Apologia Studios, a podcast that deals specifically with cults and cult like behavior in churches, released a three part series featuring Lindsey Davis and her testimony while she attended Bethel’s School of Supernatural Ministry. The things stated in these videos shocked me and had me greatly concerned for my church and all churches impacted by Bethel. So, I decided to study these things on my own. This article is designed to better understand the areas of agreement, disargreement, false teachings and blatant heresy in Bill Johnson’s teachings.

Chapter 1- “The Journey Begins”

Bill Johnson begins his book by describing a new time of refreshing revelation. He states, “Like birth pangs signaling the time of delivery, things are being released in revelation knowledge that have been preserved through the ages for this particular hour.” This “revelation knowledge” is not extra-canonical writings but the “unlocking” of the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus Christ. The desire to seek God and this revelation is given to us by God so that we may be exposed to God’s nature. (2) According to God’s goodness we are drawn into a deeper and more meaningful communion with God, if we are willing to yield to his transforming work by the Spirit. (3) Johnson states that so many things can prevent us from pursuing God fully, such as, secular reasoning and religious disappointment. (4) Yet, this quest of pursuing God is still doable by every Christian, child, woman and man. Johnson’s purpose in this book is to release what God has been revealing to him as he pursue’s God and lives for him.

Bill Johnson continues stating that he was called into this mission of searching the deeper things of God one Sunday in 1971 when his dad taught a message from Ezekiel 44. Johnson states, “As I heard him teach the Word, I was stirred beyond anything I had ever felt before…From the pew where I sat, I bowed my head and said, “Heavenly Father, I give you the rest of my life to teach me this one thing.” This one thing was to minister to the Lord in his presence as an act of worship. (6) In pursuit of this ministry, Johnson traveled to other cities where God “visited in unusual and notable ways” in his quest for “increased power and anointing” in his life. (6) He states that in pursuit of this “anointing” he was rebuked by his brothers and sisters for pursuing signs and wonders but he responded to them with, “If they’re not following you, follow them until they follow you” (7) In 1995 Johnson had a life altering experience. He tells of one night when he was crying out to God:

“I went from being in a dead sleep to being wide-awake in a moment. Unexplained power began to pulsate through my body. It was as if I had been plugged into a wall socket with a thousand volts of electricity flowing through my body. An extremely powerful being seemed to have entered the room, and I could not function in His presence. My arms and legs shot out in silent explosions as this power was released through my hands and feet. The more I tried to stop it, the worse it got. (7)

This experience that Johnson had came after a time of ministry with his “good friend and prophet”, Dick Joyce. During this time of ministry Johnson received a “prophetic word” for his friend that was having a “hard time receiving from God”. He told his friend that God was going to visit him and touch him in a powerful way perhaps “two in the afternoon or even three in the morning.” (7) That night at exactly 3:00 a.m., Johnson was the one who was “visited by God”. He states that he spoke out loud to the Lord saying, “You set me up,” implying that the “prophecy” that he received for his friend was actually really for him. He goes on to say that he had similar experiences in the past 10 years but never to the extent he had that night. He likens the event to Jacob’s and Mary’s encounter with God and how each encounter left them changed forever, but with a price. He explains that he had prayed that God would grant him more of him if that meant paying the cost of respectability. These experiences of “power surges” didn’t stop until 6:38 a.m. that morning followed by another similar experience the next night. Johnson explains that “later he learned that what he had experienced was actually a face-to-face encounter with God,” meaning he had a personal experience with God that resulted in these power surges.

Johnson became pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California in 1996. The church had been desiring revival and Johnson told them that “if they want the move of the Spirit of God–along with the messes that come with an outpouring (Proverbs 14:4)–they didn’t want me, because revival is not negotiable!” After becoming pastor he explains that miracles began to happen, bodies were healed and “divine encounters in amazing proportions” were increasing. However, while all these miracles were taking place 1000 people left the church because they disagreed with his beliefs and direction of the church. That did not discourage Johnson however, he continued serving the Lord and he was hungry for God’s will. As they searched for God, “prophetic words” came to them to give them guidance for the direction of their church and God continued to increase their desire to do his will.

At the outset, I agree with Bill Johnson’s (BJ) expressed desire in his book. We are indeed called to search after God and his holiness, his beauty and his face. This desire is the absolute work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the sinner and that power of God in us should cause each believer to desire to search after the deeper things of God. We should all be increasing in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and we should all desire to better understand his Word. However, I do have a concern in how BJ expresses his statement about the nature of God’s timing in revelation. What does BJ mean when he says, “Like birth pangs signaling the time of delivery, things are being released in revelation knowledge that have been preserved through the ages for this particular hour?” By “this particual hour” does he means since the time of the Incarnation? Does he mean since the Outpouring of the Spirit? Does he mean since the closing of the Canon? Or since the beginning of a modern movement? (i.e. Azusa Street Revival, Toronto Blessing, New Apostolic Reformation, all which I have deep concerns for). If he means within the last 50-100 years, I think there is great concern, for why would God withhold revelation from his people for 1900 years only to reveal them to this generation of believers?

BJ’s explanation of his encounter with the Lord is indeed an interesting experience. I can personally recall early in my walk with Christ many sleepless nights, many nights weeping in my pillow and continuously crying out for more of God’s Spirit. I can recall desiring God above all my other passions, asking God that he would use me to preach the gospel, to save the lost and to declare the riches of his mercy to a wicked and lost generation, but never without the Scriptures in my hand. As I came across Romans 12 I asked that God would grant to me gifts of grace, to be hospitable, merciful, to give prophetic words, to serve and to teach God’s people the truth of his Scripture. (Romans 12:6-8) When I came across Ephesians 4:11 I asked that God would grant to me courage to evangelize the lost, to teach his word with conviction and to shepherd his people passionately. I asked God that he would send me into the world as he did with the Apostles, however never once thinking that I could be equal in calling and power to the 12 Apostles. When I came across 1 Corinthians 12-14 I cried out for greater and greater manifestations of the Spirit in my life. I cried out for all the gifts of the Spirit, to love as God intended me to love and to operate in the Spirit in an orderly fashion, never presuming that God must obey my prayers and request, but always submitting to his will. In fact, I still pray like that to this day. So I can relate to those experiences that he had and I relish in those experiences today as God continually ministers to me in my weakness and suffering.

When reading BJ’s experience several questions come to mind. Firstly, what does he mean by “increased power and anointing?” Does he mean that he desired to be a miracle worker above a preacher of the gospel? It seems to me that he desired to be endowed with miracle working power rather than a greater desire to have the gospel preached. When Jesus said to his disciples in Luke 24:45-49 that they were “to wait until they were clothed with power from on high” this was not to be primarily a miracle worker (though the Apostles were indeed granted miraculous working power) but rather to be faithful witnesses of the gospel. Acts 1:8 also says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” It seems to me that true power is not a “surging of power” through your body, but rather a mighty work of God whereby you faithfully proclaim the riches of the gospel of Jesus. It is telling that Johnson does not mention once a greater desire to proclaim the gospel to captive souls but rather explains in his “revival” at Bethel that there were healings and “divine encounters” whatever that means. I cannot help but recall Jonathan Edwards work in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, and how he emphasized the preaching of the gospel, the increase in holiness and a greater desire to understand the word of God, rather than the evidence of miracles. True revival is not the healing of bodies or “divine encounters”, nor is it sensations of “greater power”, it is the ever increasing desire for the gospel to be preached faithfully and courageously, it is the greater call to faith and repentance and it is the continued increase of lost souls being saved. If Spiritual gifts are granted, it is the footnote to the power of God unto salvation, the gospel is where the true power of God manifests.

Secondly, no where in the Scriptures is it ever mentioned that when someone has an encounter with God that “power surges” radiate through your body. When the Bible teaches about face-to-face encounters, it is a dreadful thing because God’s holiness is fearful in light of our depravity. Isaiah in his vision exclaimed, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Moses was only allowed to see the residual glory of God for no one has ever seen the face of God. (Ex. 33:18-20) John the Apostle fell down as one dead. (Rev. 1:17) Peter, James and John only saw the brilliance of Christ and God had to cover Jesus with a cloud as they fell on their face terrified. (Matt. 17:1-8) Paul was blinded by the brilliance of Christs glory. (Acts 9:1-9) So, for BJ to explain his experience as a “face-to-face” encounter is a strange way of explaining it. As I stated before, I too had experiences with God, but I would never describe it as a “face-to-face” nor was I made paralyzed, I had full control of my body, yet I wept on my face before God over the depth of my sin and I cried out for mercy.

Lastly, BJ describes a false prophecy. When he said to his friend that God gave him a prophetic word, BJ was making a truth claim on behalf of God. He told his friend that God would show up for him at three a.m. but instead BJ encountered God at three a.m. God does not trick his children in his prophetic words and it is very alarming that BJ claims that God tricked him with this “sneeky prophecy”. BJ even says that he shouted at God, “You set me up”, as though God gives fake prophecies to anyone! Deuteronomy 18:22 says, ”  When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” It seems to me that BJ did speak presumptuously and then he accused God of setting him up with a fake prophecy that was supposedly intended for him. In my opinion, that is the very definition of a false prophecy and should not be taken as truth. All prophecies from the Lord will come to pass and they will come to pass according to how he has spoken, nor more and no less.

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