Top critical review
Very poor handling of Scripture and Sad focus on the self
Reviewed in the United States on October 21, 2021
I was approached a couple of months ago by a marketing company asking if I would be interested in reviewing Bill Johnson, the Pastor of Bethel’s new book called Open Heavens. I’m convinced they had not looked at any of my other content, or maybe they had, but I thought it could definitely be interesting so I said, “Sure, why not?” I wasn’t actually convinced we’d ever get to the point of me actually receiving it, but it ended up showing up to my surprise.
Also to my surprise was that this book is almost 300 pages. In seminary, we had to write on a paper what percentage of the reading we did for the semester. I want to be up front and tell you that I probably got through about 65% - 70% of this book. I tried, but I just couldn’t finish it all. I will talk about why momentarily.
If I’m honest, I’m not even sure where to begin with this review. Johnson says in the last chapter the subject or target of the book consists of three areas: revival, reformation, and renaissance. In the preface he says, “There are very few things in life that are more terrifying than misrepresenting God. So, I offer this book to you as my best effort to touch and reveal the heart of God for planet Earth.”
The book itself doesn’t feel very cohesive, there’s a whole lot of quoting Scripture out of context so Johnson can make it mean what serves his purposes, and there’s a strong emphasis on what Christians can gain from God rather than what he deserves from us.
Johnson discusses the concept of what he calls an open Heaven in the first chapter. He defines it as “where God’s perfect world of beauty, order, and purpose fills this one so completely that it resembles Heaven in eternity, even though we’re still here in time.” He goes on to say an open Heaven is God’s will and that a combination of prayer and obedience releases Heaven on earth. He cites the Lord’s prayer for support, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Johnson seems to cite any Scripture available using the words “open” and “heaven”. He uses Malachi 3:10, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.” He also cites Revelation 4:1-2, “After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven…” He goes on to cite more as well, but Johnson’s error is a fundamental one. Context matters. Every good hermeneutics class will teach the student that we must understand passages within their context. Johnson takes very specific verses and passages and generally applies them to everyone. This is a big mistake for a pastor of his stature.
So much could be said that I honestly can’t tackle it all. Johnson has some interesting ideas about who God is, how we experience him, and his purposes. He likes to throw around the word sovereignty often, but I’m not sure he knows what it means or at least ignores the Scriptures that don’t fit his definition (more on that shortly). Later in chapter one he says:
His [Jesus] victory became our victory. So, now, in His name we have the right and responsibility to trample the powers of darkness and put on display the beauty of God’s original plan: defeat the powers of darkness through those made in His image.
I’m not sure how he could gather that God’s original plan is about us defeating the powers of darkness. Isn’t the original plan all about Jesus? Jesus is the serpent crusher. He is the victory. We are the beneficiaries of the plan, but we are not the ones who carry it out.
After chapter one, I’m not sure the open Heavens are ever mentioned again in the book, which is a bit humorous since that seems to be what it’s all about. Revival, however, is mentioned a lot. I’m no expert on revival and Johnson, being charismatic, has surely studied it much more than me. But I am under the impression that revivals are supposed to make God big. Their emphasis is on the God who produces them because he wants the glory and he wants the focus. Johnson just seems to make so much of these things about himself and the Christian experience, though.
He talks about experiences of unexplainable power pulsating through his body just shy of electrocution. I’m almost positive there is nothing in Scripture that even hints of this. He talks about a woman falling on the ground in one meeting and she trembled under the weighty presence of God’s power. Once again, this does not seem biblical. In fact, it seems counter to how the Bible explains the Christian life.
The major red flag to me is this statement: “In my personal quest for increased power and anointing in my ministry…” Johnson seems so focused on having more power from God. However, I don’t see this modeled by the disciples. Instead the New Testament seems to put an emphasis on humility. Johnson will later say though, “You could argue the case that He was already there, which would be biblicallly accurate. We gathered in His name and He was present. But there are dimensions and levels of His presence that a doctrine won’t satisfy, any more than a marriage license can satisfy the longing we have for relationship with our spouse.” The biblical revelation isn’t enough. Johnson wants more.
There is so much emphasis on personal experience in gatherings. Johnson never seems to view the worship gathering as our offering to God, but always seems to be after what can be received. It seems for him to be more about the miracles, signs, and wonders than it is about Jesus.
I have so many notes on mishandling and misinterpreting Scripture in this book, but this is supposed to be a review rather than a full on critique. Scripture is just mishandled so much it floors me. I will touch on one more thing then give the only positive thing I have to say about this book.
I wanted to return Johnson’s view on God’s sovereignty because he uses a chapter to focus on it. I’m going to start with an extended quote from him:
I make some people nervous when I teach on anything to do with the sovereignty of God. Because those concerns come from very respectable people, consider what I have to say carefully in light of Scripture and eat the meat and throw out the bones. Admittedly, my emphasis is generally on our responsibilities before God. Never is it my intention to question or challenge God’s nature or heart or what He can and cannot do. He is the sovereign Lord over all. He can do whatever He wants without ever having to explain Himself to any of us. He owes me nothing, yet He gives me everything!
My bigger concern and focus are on our our responsibility to do our part in carrying out His sovereign plan. I just don’t want to fall short in embracing the assignment He has given me. In other words, I don’t want to be found waiting for HIm to do something when He is waiting for me. In my way of thinking, that is the greater concern.
It just would seem to me that Johnson doesn’t quite understand God’s sovereignty. We can’t fall short in carrying out God’s sovereign plan. If it is a sovereign plan then we cannot stop it from being carried out. He will later talk about two realities that don’t need to be in conflict. “One is the absolute sovereignty of God where He is able to act completely separately from our will or desire. We do not control him at all. The second is that, at the same time, He welcomes us into a relationship where by His design we have the privilege to influence Him. That is the basic privilege or prayer.” Johnson seems to think God is sovereign over everything but humans. It is a deficient premise for the chapter.
I will close out by saying that Johnson’s emphasis on prayer challenged me. He spoke of the necessity of prayer and how we should be a praying people. He spoke of the importance of prayer and this truly challenged me. Prayer is something I could stand to focus on more. It is my one positive take away from the book, but I do think there are better books if we’re looking to focus on prayer.
I do think Johnson is sincere about what he wrote and what he believes, but I think he is sincerely wrong. His focus is wrong. The Christian life is not all about what we can get from God. It’s not about having revival every day. This is not the biblical testimony of the Christian life. The Christian life is about casting ourselves on the grace and mercy of Christ. It’s about showing others the God who can save them from their sins. Jesus is seated on the throne in heaven and he is enough.