briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, December 20, 2019

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, December 20, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A Heartbreaking Confusion of the Promises of Christ: Bethel Church Prays for Physical Resurrection for 2-Year-Old Girl

Amidst all the tumult of recent days comes a series of headlines from California. The New York Post ran an article with the headline, “California mega church tries to resurrect two year old girl through prayer.” Yesterday’s print edition of USA Today offered an article with the headline, “Church seeks to bring girl back to life.”

Damon Arthur is the reporter for USA Today and he tells us, “After the sudden death of their daughter last week, one family has taken the unusual step of enlisting others at a California mega church to attempt to bring the child back to life. Since Saturday,” we are told, “members of Bethel Church in Redding had been using prayer, music and singing in the effort.”

The reporter goes on to tell us that the two-year-old girl who died was Olive Alayne Heiligenthal. Her parents are Andrew and Kalley, and of course they are grieving parents as well we can understand. The little girl, age two, was absolutely beautiful as the photographs testify. There is no doubt that the grief of her parents is beyond estimation and understanding. There is no report about how the child has died, but only the two year old died and that her parents who were involved with Bethel Church in Redding, California have turned to the church to ask for the church to act in order that the child would be resurrected from the dead.

A statement released by Bethel Church on Tuesday stated, “Bethel Church believes in the stories of healing and physical resurrection found in the Bible and that the miracles they portray are possible today.” Kalley Heiligenthal, the mother of the child, is associated with Bethel Music with which she is both singer and songwriter, and much as is the case with Hillsong music from Australia, the music of this church in Redding, California, has spread far beyond the theological movement that gave the church birth.

But we need to look at that theological movement and understand what is going on here. Bethel Church in Redding has become rather well known, infamous might be another word, for its unique brand of prosperity theology that is centered on signs and wonders, on the special gifts and miracles, some of them far beyond human reason or for that matter acceptance. Bethel Church is actually heterodox. It teaches what historic Christians would recognize to be heretical teachings. The founder of the church Bill Johnson holds to what he calls a “Jesus is perfect” theology, and in that theology he claims that it is always God’s will to heal someone, someone who is ill, someone who has had an accident, or for that matter someone who is dead.

Now, this is not something completely new in the history of Christianity. It is not even new in the history of this kind of fringe movement going back over the last several decades in the United States. Several years ago in Pensacola, Florida, there was a movement known as the Brownsville Revival and similar kinds of teachings and patterns were evident then. In the Jesus is perfect theology, again that’s what Bill Johnson calls it, he teaches, “How can God choose not to heal someone when he already purchased their healing? Was his blood enough for all sin or just certain sins? Were the stripes he bore only for certain illnesses or certain seasons of time?” He went on to say, “When he bore stripes in his body, he made a payment for our miracle. He already decided to heal. You can’t decide not to buy something after you’ve already bought it.”

Now when you look at that, you recognize this is a certain use of Scripture, taking Scripture out of context, but it is also an active fight against human rationality and not only the teachings of Scripture, but what might be defined as the normative Christian experience and normative Christian teaching over the course of the last 2000 years and more.

What are we talking about here? Well, we are talking about a health and wealth and prosperity gospel that goes far beyond what is normally found even within that context. In the teaching of Bill Johnson, the founder of Bethel Church, is the claim that God wills to heal everyone unconditionally, or at least every Christian, but that simply is not so. That is not what we are promised in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Here’s the big issue. Biblically minded Christians need to recognize that in the gospel of Christ, we are not promised less than Bethel Church promises, we are promised more. There can be no doubt that in the Bible there are several dead people who are raised to life. Think of the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Think of the apostle Paul with Eutychus who fell out of the window and was dead until the apostle Paul stretched himself out upon him and the Holy Spirit brought him back to life. Think, of course, most famously of Lazarus coming out of the grave as Jesus called him out of the grave, but you can also think of incidences such as Jesus healing Jairus’s daughter who had also been dead.

Here’s the point: Jesus does not promise that that experience will be our experience in this life. Instead, Jesus Christ who is himself the resurrection and the life and whom the Father did raise from the dead for our salvation, he promises that there will be a resurrection and that every single one of us will be raised to everlasting life, but he does not promise to us no sin, no sickness, no accident, no death. He does not promise to us resurrection in this life to a continuation of this life on earth. Rather, he promises us resurrection to eternal life in his kingdom, amongst his own, his redeemed.

But one of points we need to understand here is that you do not arrive at this kind of argument out of a vacuum. It comes out of a far larger, contorted and misformed theology. For example, in Bill Johnson’s book entitled The Physics of Heaven, he writes, “There are anointings, mantles, revelations and mysteries that have lane unclaimed literally where they were left because the generation that walked in them never passed them on. I believe it’s possible,” he wrote, “for us to recover realms of anointing, realms of insight, realms of God that have been untended for decades simply by choosing to reclaim them and perpetuate them for future generations.”

Now, one of the things we need to note is that when you are looking at a phenomenon like Bethel Church in Redding, it comes from a misunderstanding of Scripture, a miss teaching of Scripture, a contortion of biblical theology. It comes from a corruption of the gospel of Jesus Christ from eternal life and the promise, most importantly, if forgiveness from sins to the promise of health and wealth and prosperity, and it comes in very strange forms at Bethel Church.

For example, there have been claims that during worship at Bethel Church, there has been the experience of gold dust falling from the air. There has also been the claim that during the course of worship, angel feathers have come out of the air and materialized within the center of worship. They have claimed that at the center of worship, there is often what they identify as a glory cloud. That is to say something that looks like a collection of dust and smoke that they claim is nothing else than the Shekhinah glory of God present in the congregation in a cloud form.

Over the course of the last several years, we’ve seen several bizarre headlines come out about this church and its movement. One stated, “Meet the young saints of Bethel who go to college to perform miracles.” It’s interesting to note that the reporter for USA Today clarified, “Attempting to bring someone back to life is not widely accepted in the Christian faith, but may be more particular to Bethel Church.” That’s a citation attributed to Patrick Blewett, who’s identified as dean of the A. W. Tozer Theological Seminary at Simpson University in Redding. Now, that’s a university that’s associated with the charismatic and Pentecostal movement located right in the proximity of this church.

This professor went on to clarify, “This fits more into Bethel Church and to what they’re teaching.” This shows you just how far outside even of modern charismatic and Pentecostal circles Bethel Church actually operates. For example, the USA Today article states, “The Bible associates miracles of resurrection in reference to Jesus either through his own or in bringing others back to life,” and attributes that teaching again to professor Blewett there at Simpson University in Redding. But he went on to say that he and others at the university are praying for the family during its time of grief. You will notice what’s absent from the professor’s statement. Even coming from historic Pentecostalism, he is not stating that he and his colleagues are praying for the child to be raised from the dead in this life.

Part II

A Far Greater Promise Than That Claimed by Prosperity Preachers:  All of Christ’s Promises Are Truer Than True

Writing for Christianity today, Craig Keener, a prominent New Testament scholar who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary wrote, “Miracles are a foretaste of a perfect future, but they remain a foretaste. They offer present signs of the kingdom, but not its completion.” That’s an extremely important statement. Indeed, miracles are a foretaste of the kingdom of Christ to come, but they remain a foretaste. That’s a very careful statement and it is a very accurate statement. We are not taught in Scripture that we should expect that we or our loved ones are going to be resurrected from the dead in order to continue this life on earth. That is not the promise.

There are miracles of resurrection unto continued life in the Bible, but they are themselves extremely rare, and the point in every one of them is that these rare occurrences point to the work of God, the sovereign work of God, in such a remarkable way that in this extremely out of the ordinary circumstance, whether it be in Elijah’s ministry or Elisha’s or the apostle Paul’s or most importantly in the life and ministry of Jesus, they are pointing to not the normative experience of that kind of resurrection, but rather something that is far greater, and that is the absolute promise to every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ of the fact that Christ’s resurrection from the dead shall be our own experience, but not in order to continue this life on earth, but rather to know the perfect life with Christ in his kingdom yet to come.

When we look at this story, we see absolute heartbreak and our hearts are with these parents and with the entire family. Our hearts are even with all of those who are grieving in this church, but I just used the word “church” and actually, by biblical definition, I do not believe that Bethel Church is a church. I understand that sociologically when you look at headlines it’s going to be referred to as a church, but it fails the test of the reformer Martin Luther when he rightly identified the first mark of the church as the right preaching of the Word of God, which as Luther made clear means that the gospel of Jesus Christ is clearly preached from Scripture. That is what is absent from the picture at Bethel Church.

We also need to note something else. The theology of Bethel Church actually detracts from the gospel of Jesus Christ. It also sets up the reputation of the Christian Church for an incredible humiliation and embarrassment when promised miracles do not happen. As some have pointed out, the grief of these parents and the death of their child is likely to be multiplied by the grief that comes when a resurrection they believe they are promised does not happen, when the miracle that they believe is promised does not come.

Just a couple of final thoughts on this. One of them comes down to this: I was called by a reporter years ago for a major American secular newspaper who asked me on background to identify who I thought was the most credible amongst the faith healers than operant in America. I stated that I wouldn’t consider anyone to be credible in the so-called field of faith healing unless they were, oh, I don’t know, something like 200 or 300 years old.

What was my point? The faith healers tend to die right on time. They who are promising the power of even resurrection from the dead and the continuation of this life, who are promising in the gospel of Jesus Christ, healing from all of our diseases, they tend themselves to die right on time. So do those who are attracted to their religious meetings.

But even as our first response is heartbreak for these parents and this family, we are also heartbroken for the damaged reputation of the gospel that comes by this kind of headline. But there’s something else we do need to note, and there’s a bit of common grace in this. These headlines and these news stories tend to have to state explicitly, this is not a common normative definition of biblical Christianity because even secular reporters have to ask the question, “Why isn’t this going on at every church?”

Finally on this story, let’s just remind ourselves that we cannot possibly understand how anyone would survive the experience of this kind of loss, the death of a precious little girl, unless we genuinely believe that all of Christ’s promises are truer than true, and that all that he has done for us and promised to us will indeed happen. In that resurrection, everything will be made right, and as the Scripture says, everything will be yes and amen. Every eye will be dry and every tear will be wiped away. His promises realized then in truth will be far infinitely greater than the confusions of his promises that are in this case communicated to the entire world through the words of a grieving set of parents and a very biblically confused congregation.

Part III

Far As the Curse Is Found: The Declaration of Joy to the World

But next, we recognize that there is so much going on in the world. Just consider the momentous events of this week. Consider the political, moral, cultural tumult that continues all over the world. Consider the headlines coming to us from virtually every direction and let’s just pause for a moment and recognize that when we are thinking about the death of that little two year old, we are actually forced to think about the reality of death. We have to explain death even as the biblical worldview explains death as a part of the curse of sin.

That takes me to one of the most familiar of all the Christmas carols that turns out actually, to perhaps the puzzlement of many Christians, not to have been intended as a Christmas carol at all. I’m talking about the song by Isaac Watts that we call “Joy To The World.” Watts led in the development of hymns in the English tradition, drawing many of his hymn texts directly from the Psalms. The song we know as “Joy To The World” is actually based upon the 98th Psalm, which declares creation’s joy when the Lord comes to rule and to judge.

When we sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” it applies when we talk about Bethlehem and when we rejoice in the gift of the infant Christ, but the song also reminds us that Christmas isn’t over. The promises of Christmas are not yet fulfilled. Earth will fully receive her King when Christ comes again to reign and to rule.

The main point of Isaac Watts in that song “Joy To The World” was about what Christians rightly call the second coming of Christ, Christ coming to establish his kingdom. But in defense of our singing joyfully this song at the Christmas season, let’s remind ourselves that that second coming only makes sense because of his first coming as that lovely babe laying in Bethlehem’s manger.

I want you to think with me about the third verse of that great hymn, “Joy To The World.” It states, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is foundm far as the curse is found.”

The reversal of the curse is what is promised to us in the ministry of the Messiah and the fulfillment of his atoning work. Implicit in the third verse of “Joy To The World” is the promise of the new creation. We live right now in the midst of that promise, no matter what headline, no matter what development, no matter what might happen in our personal lives or in the lives of those whom we love and observe. The reality is that we live in the light of that promise because we look back to Bethlehem, we look to a cross, we look to an empty tomb, and we celebrate Christmas. We look carefully at the reference to the curse. Christ’s victory over sin is declared and that victory is to extend far as the curse is found.

Well, what curse and how far is that curse found? We find the answer to that in the third chapter of Genesis. Eve has eaten of the forbidden tree and after her, Adam also ate, and after that they found themselves facing God and the reality of their sin. God first cursed the serpent saying, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field on your belly you shall go and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring, he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.”

And then God spoke a curse to the woman, to Eve. “To the woman,” he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing. In pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

Then came the curse to Adam and through Adam to all humanity. God spoke, “Because you’ve listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you. You shall not eat of it. Cursed is the ground because of you. In pain, you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground for out of it you were taken for your dust and to dust you shall return.”

The curse is death. God’s righteous verdict upon Adam and Eve and all who would follow them for indeed all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. In Adam, our federal head, the curse of sin came upon all humanity and like him, we are now dust who must return to the dust and all creation is under the effects of the curse. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” God said to Adam. Even the ground is now cursed.

How far is the curse found? To every atom and molecule of the entire created order. The entire cosmos is under the curse and shows the effects of sin. That is why we have headlines of mayhem and murder. That is why we have obituaries with people’s deaths declared and their funeral schedule. That is why we have grieving parents and grieving loved ones. That is why to merely human eyes the grave appears to have the very last word.

With that as reality, how is it that we can sing “Joy To The World”? Well, it is because of what Christ has done. Paul speaks of this in the third chapter of Galatians when he writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree,’ so that in Christ Jesus, the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Did you get that? We can sing “Joy To The World” because Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, from the curse of sin by becoming a curse for us.

That is what Jesus did on the cross. That is what the Father vindicated by raising him from the dead. That is also what we should think about at Christmas. The Reformer, Martin Luther said it rightly when he said that when we look at the manger in Bethlehem, we should see wood that one day would take the shape of a cross. This is a baby who came born to die.

How is it that Christ saves us from the curse by becoming cursed for us? Well, it’s because Christ died on the cross in our place. He bore our shame and our guilt. He paid the full penalty for our sin dying as our substitute in our place by his shed blood. He redeemed us from the curse by becoming a curse for us. He died our death in our place, bearing the penalty for our sins, redeeming us from the curse. On the third day, the Father raised him from the dead, the cursed and crucified savior rose victorious from the grave.

Just several weeks ago, my wife and I were at that very burial ground in London where Isaac Watts has his final grave. There his grave though growing very old and his grave actually breaking down because of age, reminds us of the fact that Isaac Watts died just like all humanity more or less right on time. He’s buried there in London’s Bunhill Fields. That’s a cemetery in which there are thousands and thousands of believers buried because it was the dissenting cemetery within the London environs. It was there that people like Baptists and Methodists were buried precisely because we could not be buried in the Church of England’s cemeteries. It is there that you can find Isaac Watts’s remains even now.

He like all the others buried there in Christ is awaiting the resurrection from the dead. He’s buried not far from John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. You go to that cemetery and you’re just reminded that here just in a very small piece of ground, there are thousands and thousands of believers waiting for the resurrection that is to come. Just a small sign of all the believers throughout the entire history of the Christian Church who have also died and because they have died in Christ, they have died safely and they are now along with all other believers awaiting the resurrection that is to come.

Isaac Watts in composing that great hymn, “Joy To The World,” that we most often sing at Christmas, as you recall in verse three he wrote, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow.” Just think about that. In the world we see right now there are all kinds of thorns and thistles and germs and bacteria. There are great white sharks and grizzly bears and there are others who would do us evil. There are human beings all around us with evil intent. Of course, there are those who simply die. Sometimes even without any kind of medical explanation. Death just comes to us. There are tumors and there are illnesses. All kinds of horrible things happen, of which there is the biblical reference to thorns and thistles, but Jesus Christ comes to establish his kingdom in which thorns and thistles are no more.

All of the promises of the gospel are true precisely because when we celebrate the coming of Christ at Christmas, we’re celebrating the fact that that baby laying in Bethlehem’s manger was truly God and truly man. That baby who came to live a sinless life, that baby also came to die a substitutionary death. That baby came to be raised from the dead as the promise and the foretaste of our own resurrection. But as you’re thinking about that baby, you recognize that all of the promises that are incarnate in that baby are the promises that are fulfilled precisely because he is also the coming Lord. He is Lord of the entire cosmos. He is Lord of all.

That’s why Isaac Watts, when he wrote that great hymn that we sing so rightly at Christmas, he began with the words, “Joy to the world. The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare him room and heaven and nature sing.” And that’s why the last verse of that hymn triumphantly declares the accomplished work of Christ. “He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”

And all of this reminds us that Christmas is not merely about sentimentality. That sentimentality comes to us quite naturally, not only as Christians, but that sentimentality actually bleeds over even into a secular society filled with confused people who celebrate Christmas but don’t actually understand why. We as Christians have to understand why, and it’s a much bigger story than a watching world seems even possibly to understand.

It is about the preexistent Son of God who obeyed the command of the Father to assume human flesh and to come to be born in fulfillment of biblical prophecy in the city of David in that little village of Bethlehem. And then to accomplish all that the Father assigned him all the way through his sinless life, all the way through his perfect teachings, all the way to his substitutionary atonement and his resurrection from the dead. It is because that very same Jesus crucified for our sins and raised by the power of God is even now the Lord of all and the King of Kings who rules over all creation. That is the promise, that however far the curse is found, there will be the declaration of joy to the world.

Even in the midst of all of this tumult—no it is better to say, especially even into the reality of all of this tumult—just remember the words, “Joy to the world. The Lord is come,” and then the words that follow, “Let earth receive her King.”

To all of you who are listening to The Briefing and all of your loved ones, I wish a very, very Merry Christmas filled with the glory of the incarnate and resurrected Christ.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I do wish you a very Merry Christmas and I look forward to meeting you again for The Briefing on Monday, January 6, 2020.

Lord willing, I’ll meet you again then for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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