A Review of “Operating in the Courts of Heaven”, by Robert Henderson, Part One
I don’t enjoy writing critical reviews. But sometimes it is necessary. I was alerted to this book by Robert Henderson some time ago, and the book itself was published in 2014. Evidently its influence is beginning to spread.
You’ve often heard the expression, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” That’s probably a good policy to follow. But in this case my judgment was formed not by the cover of the book but by its sub-title, which honestly caught me by unpleasant surprise. The sub-title is: “Granting God the Legal Right to Fulfill His Passion and Answer Our Prayers.”
I greatly appreciate Henderson’s zeal for prayer and how he stresses the important role it plays in God accomplishing his purposes. But let me say this as clearly as I can. God does not need us or anyone else to “grant” him the “right” to do what he wants to do. Even the suggestion that we have this power over God accomplishing his good pleasure is indicative of a deficient view of God. God is not hindered by anything other than the good pleasure of his own will. Let me briefly remind us all of who this God is who, according to Henderson, stands in need of our permission:
“Then Job answered the Lord and said: ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted’” (Job 42:1-2).
“The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Ps. 33:10-11).
“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3).
“For I know that the Lord is great, and that our Lord is above all gods. Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps” (Ps. 135:5-6).
“This is the purpose that is purposed concerning the whole earth, and this is the hand that is stretched out over all the nations. For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?” (Isa. 14:26-27).
“Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposes, and I will do it” (Isa. 46:8-11).
“At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:34-35).
“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11).
These texts alone, among dozens of others, testify that whatever God is pleased to do, he will do, and nothing or no one can stay his hand or hinder him. To suggest that God is somehow limited or hindered from accomplishing his “passion” and desires and will is indicative of a deeply flawed view of God.
Henderson’s basic thesis is that “prayer is an activity that takes place in the courtroom of Heaven” (15). He contends that the primary reason our prayers go unanswered is because Christians “rush into a conflict without securing a verdict from Heaven” (16). In order to see our prayers answered, we must first secure from the courtroom of heaven “a legal precedent to be there” (16). That is to say, we must first obtain “legal verdicts from Heaven” (18) for our prayers to be answered. We must go “into the courts of Heaven” and get “things legally in place so God’s will can be done on the Earth” (41).
How does this happen? Henderson believes it occurs “when we begin to present cases from the revelation we are seeing and understanding out of the books of Heaven” (42). There are “legal arguments” that give Satan the right to rule individuals and nations and “step by step and piece by piece we take away these legalities and grant God the legal right to fulfill His Kingdom will” (43). If you’re wondering where in the Bible any such notion is found, the answer again is, Nowhere!
At the bottom of this unbiblical approach to prayer is the belief, by Henderson, “that what Heaven wants done cannot happen without our involvement” (44). Of course, it is true that God has chosen to accomplish his purposes in response to the prayers that he himself has evoked in the hearts and voices of his people. But whether or not God’s deepest “passions” or desires or purposes are accomplished is ultimately up to God alone, and no one can hinder him from achieving his aims or thwart his predetermined plans.
As noted above, Henderson’s underlying motive in this book is itself quite admirable. He is burdened that so many of our prayers appear to go unanswered. He longs to understand why, and to provide an approach to prayer that will greatly increase the believer’s effectiveness. But the proposed solution to this dilemma is, in my opinion, misguided and even dangerous to the life of the believer.
As I said, it grieves me to have to write a review of this sort. I am a practicing charismatic who believes in and prayerfully pursues the exercise of all spiritual gifts. But it is precisely because I cherish the teaching of Scripture on this subject that I cringe when others who also self-identify as either Pentecostal or charismatic do such damage to our reputation by the way they misinterpret and misapply Scripture.
The essence of Henderson’s proposal is that “we must learn to only make war based on judgments, decisions and verdicts that are received out of the courts of Heaven” (18). He believes the fundamental problem is that “we have tried to win on the battlefield [of prayer] without legal verdicts from Heaven backing us up” (18). But is this truly what Scripture teaches? As you will see from what follows, my answer is No.
Before I delve into this general thesis, we should take note of the many texts that are seriously misunderstood and misapplied with a view to supporting it.
Henderson believes he finds grounds for this view from the story in Luke 18:1-8, a passage that I believe he badly misinterprets. He argues that the story of the unjust judge and the widow demonstrates that “when we pray, we are entering a courtroom” (19). The parable concerns a judge who did not fear man or God, and a seemingly helpless widow who brings her request to him for justice. This parable supposedly teaches us that “all we need is a legal precedent based on a verdict from Heaven and the fight is over. We then simply put into place the verdict that has been set down” (21). Of course, there is absolutely nothing in the parable about this widow securing a “legal precedent” or a “verdict from Heaven.”
People are often misled when they try to press the details of a parable and derive from them some profound theological lesson. Jesus taught his disciples in parables drawn from numerous settings in everyday life, be it the roadside (Luke 10:25-37), the banquet hall (Luke 14:12-24), the farm (Luke 12:13-21), the open country (Luke 15:1-7), one’s house (Luke 15:8-10), the family property (Luke 15:11-32), the temple (Luke 18:9-14), the vineyard (Luke 20:9-18), and so on. In none of these instances does Jesus intend for us to frame our reference for Christian living based on the locale of the story. The fact that Jesus told a parable set in a courtroom does not mean that the only effective way to pray is by conceiving ourselves in the courtroom of heaven. This courtroom was on earth.
Many have read this parable as if it is teaching that God is like the judge and we are like the widow. No. The point of the parable is to encourage us to pray without ceasing given the fact that God is not like the judge and we are not like the widow. Unlike the judge, God is kind and generous and quick to help us, and we are his redeemed, adopted, and well-loved children, not helpless widows with no one to advocate on our behalf. Therefore, if this helpless and defenseless widow can obtain what she needed from a heartless and self-serving judge, how much more should we, the redeemed and beloved children of God, persevere in prayer to receive what we need from a gracious and kind-hearted heavenly Father!
Henderson makes much of Daniel 7:10 and the reference to “the books” in heaven. From this text and Psalm 139:16 he draws the conclusion that “every person ever born has a book written about them” (26). But that is not what the text says. Psalm 139:16 speaks of “God’s” book, not ours. His book is the plan he has for each of us, specifically “the days that were formed” for us, “when as yet there was none of them.” Henderson argues, with no text to prove his point, that “there are also books about churches, apostolic networks, businesses, ministries, cities, states, regions, and nations” (28). When you read something like this, you should always ask the question: “Where is that in the Bible?” In this case, the answer is, Nowhere.
What, then, are the “books” of Daniel 7:10? The scene is undoubtedly one of judgment, and the “books” most likely is a reference to the record of evil deeds committed by non-Christians. We read that “books were opened” at the final judgment (Rev. 20:12). John says that “the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (Rev. 20:12). These are not “books” about believers, or “books” that record our destiny or purpose. The “books” in both Daniel 7:10 and Revelation 20:12 contain the record of the deeds of those who have rejected Christ and thus are used as the grounds on which they are eternally judged and cast into the lake of fire.
I should also point out that the description in Daniel 7 is nowhere related to the nature of prayer. Nothing is said in the text that would lead us to believe that our discerning of the “secrets” contained in these “books” is the key to seeing our prayers answered.
In this text we find Jesus Christ making use of Psalm 40:6-8 to declare that his coming to put an end to sin and accomplish God’s will was “written” of him “in the scroll of the book” (Heb. 10:7). Henderson makes illegitimate use of this text by arguing that “even Jesus had a book” (26). He writes:
“There is a book in Heaven that chronicled what Kingdom purpose Jesus would fulfill in the Earth. Jesus came with a passion and a commitment to complete what had been written in the books of Heaven about Him” (26-27).
The problem is that “the scroll of the book” that was written about Jesus and anticipated his obedience and self-offering was, for David, the psalmist (who wrote Psalm 40), most likely the texts that recorded the Davidic Covenant itself (see 2 Sam. 7:12-14; Pss. 89:30-37; 132:11-12). Others suggest it was the Pentateuch, the first five books of the OT. In light of Christ’s coming this “book” or “scroll” most likely expands to encompass the entire OT. My point is that Henderson again tries to find a text that refers to these alleged “books” in heaven, one that even was designed for Jesus, when in fact the author of Hebrews is clearly referring to the Bible itself, in particular the OT which foreshadowed and prophesied of the coming of Messiah.
Henderson also appeals to Revelation 10:2 and the “little scroll” in the hand of the angel. The question is whether or not this “little scroll” in chapter 10 is identical with the “scroll” of chapter 5. You may recall from Revelation 5 that the scroll was sealed with seven seals. It couldn’t be opened and its contents revealed until the seven seals were broken. The seventh and final seal was broken in Revelation 8:1. Now, here in Revelation 10:2, it makes sense that the scroll is finally said to be “open.” The content of the scroll is God’s sovereign purpose for establishing his kingdom on earth. Therefore, in all likelihood, the “little scroll” here in chapter 10 is identical with the “scroll” in chapter five and contains the substance of the book of Revelation itself.
Henderson contends that when John prophesied from the “books” (although Revelation speaks only of a single “book”), “it allowed court sessions to begin” (29). But John says nothing about court sessions beginning. And John says nothing about the nature of prayer in Revelation 10. This habit of reading out of texts things that are simply not present in them is one of the major problems I have with Henderson’s book.
2 Timothy 1:9
Another example of this is his misinterpretation of 2 Timothy 1:9. He argues that “Paul is exhorting Timothy to fulfill what was planned before time began” (30). But Paul nowhere exhorts Timothy to do any such thing. Paul is extolling God because he saved us in accordance with “his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim. 1:9). This means, says Henderson, “that purpose and grace have been waiting on us to discover them from before time began” (30). But Paul says no such thing. We don’t have to discover anything because God himself has “manifested” this sovereign and gracious purpose “through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:10).
Perhaps the most distressing misinterpretation of the text is Henderson’s altogether novel reading of Romans 8:29-30. I think I can say with some degree of confidence that his interpretation of this text is a first in the history of Christianity. Among the hundreds of commentaries and thousands of journal articles on Romans, no one has ever proposed anything remotely similar to what Henderson says.
He interprets God’s “foreknowledge” (Rom. 8:29) as decisions in the counsel of the Lord that include “individuals, cities, states, businesses and all the way up to nations” (36). Of course, that isn’t what Paul says. Paul speaks of “those whom” God foreknew, which from the context is a reference to the “saints” (Rom. 8:27) who “love God” and “are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Nothing is said in the text about cities or states or businesses or nations.
Henderson’s view of predestination is equally strange. He argues that “we can have a predestined plan for our lives and not fulfill it” (36). Each person, he contends, has a book in heaven “with a predestined plan concerning their life” (36). But “we can either choose to discover what is in the books about us or disregard it and go our own way” (36). Again, Paul says nothing to this effect. What he does say is that all those whom God foreknew he “also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). In other words, the focus of this passage is soteriological, pertaining to our salvation from its beginning with God’s foreknowledge and its consummation in our glorification.
These, says Paul, “he also called” (Rom. 8:30), which Henderson says refers to “the stage where we begin to get glimpses of what we were made for” (37). And how do we “get glimpses” of this sort? We are to “look into” our hearts (38). “When we discover the passion of our heart, we will begin to discover what is written in our books in Heaven” (38). Again, this is pure speculation based on nothing in the biblical text. To be “called” is to hear and respond to the effectual invitation of the Spirit to embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior.
To be justified, says Henderson, “is where we have been into the courtroom of Heaven and every accusation the devil is using against us is silenced” (38). No, to be justified is to be declared righteous because the righteousness of Jesus himself is imputed or reckoned to us by faith (Rom. 3:23-24; 5:1). And what does Henderson make of our having also been “glorified” (Rom. 8:30). This is not “talking about going to Heaven. It is speaking about us fully stepping into all that is written in the books of Heaven about us” (39).
To get a clear sense for the way this passage is misunderstood, Henderson says that “the most critical stage of this process for individuals all the way to nations [where are “nations” mentioned in Romans 8:29-30?], is being justified. Once we maneuver our ways through the courts of Heaven and get legal things arranged, God can freely then grant to us the passion of His heart” (40). But friends, we already “have been justified by faith” in Christ (Rom.5:1). We are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). We don’t have to “maneuver” anywhere through anything. We are declared righteous and fully accepted before God when we trust Christ for our salvation.
I’m not repudiating the idea that there are “courts” in heaven and that legal matters are determined there. But nowhere in the Bible are we explicitly told that in order to get our prayers answered we must “discover secrets” (20) that are inscribed in the books of heaven. Perhaps you would respond by pointing to Hebrews 4:16 where we are urged to “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Henderson believes this is where we find answers to help us “on a personal or family level” (46). But there is no restriction placed by the author of Hebrews on what kind of need we may have or for whom or for what reason we might pray. And note that it is to a “throne of grace,” not a lawcourt to which we draw near, with the assurance that there we find “mercy” and “grace” to help us in our time of need, not secrets written in books that we must discern and decree.
1 John 1:9
Henderson contends that since “mercy” is nowhere mentioned in this verse that forgiveness is entirely a matter of justice. Now, make no mistake. Justice has been served in the death of Jesus in our place. The legal requirements of the law have been fulfilled in his sinless life and the penal consequences of our sin have been exhausted in his suffering on the cross. But that does not mean that the forgiveness of our sins is wholly legal and not also the fruit of God’s mercy and grace. It is both.
Paul says that it was because God was “rich in mercy” and had such “great love” for us that he made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:4). If that were not enough, the apostle again writes “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us [this would include the new birth, justification, forgiveness of sins, etc.], not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy [!], by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). The apostle Peter concurs, attributing our new birth and salvation to God’s “great mercy” (1 Peter 1:3-5).
Henderson repeatedly emphasizes repentance, and rightly so. But he does this for the wrong reasons. “Our repentance,” he says, “grants God the legal right to display and show His mercy” (51). But how can this be when our repentance is itself the gift of God? We only repent because God mercifully enables us to do so, as we clearly see in such texts as Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:24-26.
To demonstrate his thesis that God “can do nothing unless we give him the legal right” (55; yes, you read that correctly!), he cites the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:18-19 which speaks of the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” and the authority of the church either to “bind” or “loose”. According to Henderson, “Jesus was saying that the Ecclesia [church] has a judicial responsibility to establish binding contracts with Heaven that allow God the legal right to invade and impact the planet. The Ecclesia also has the job of legally dissolving contracts with the devil that allow him to operate in the Earth. When we learn to get legal things in place, we can then see the devil expelled and God’s will established” (56).
Well, no. This text is not about prayer. It is not about establishing or dissolving contracts. The person with “keys” “has the power to exclude or permit entrance (cf. Rev. 9:1-6; 20:1-3)” (D. A. Carson, Matthew, 370). The words translated “shall be bound in heaven” and “shall be loosed in heaven” may well be rendered, “shall have been bound in heaven” and “shall have been loosed in heaven” (a strict rendering of the future periphrastic perfects in Greek). This binding and loosing pertains to persons and their respective responses to the gospel of the kingdom. Carson explains:
“Peter accomplishes this binding and loosing by proclaiming a gospel that has already been given and by making personal application on that basis . . . Whatever he binds or looses will have been bound or loosed, so long as he adheres to that divinely disclosed gospel. He has no direct pipeline to heaven, still less do his decisions force heaven to comply; but he may be authoritative in binding and loosing because heaven has acted first . . . Those he ushers in or excludes have already been bound or loosed by God according to the gospel already revealed and which Peter, by confessing Jesus as the Messiah, has most clearly grasped” (373).
It’s not an easy text to decipher, but one thing is clear: this has nothing to do with navigating the courts of heaven and discerning secrets in the books so that we either establish or dissolve contracts and in doing so give God permission to accomplish his will.
This passage relates how Jesus promised to pray for Peter that his faith would not fail. Henderson believes that “Jesus went into the courts of Heaven on behalf of Peter and secured the destiny written in the books of Heaven for him” (56). Needless to say, as we have seen time and time again, Henderson reads into the text ideas and words that simply aren’t there. Jesus asked the Father on Peter’s behalf for strength to persevere, and it was granted.
There are numerous other texts cited by Henderson in defense of his view, but none of them ever say what he wants us to believe they say. His thesis is repeated throughout the book: “We must learn to operate in the courts of Heaven and grant the Lord His legal right to bless the nations and us again. It is His heart to bless us, but we must grant Him the legal right to do so” (69). Again and again he appeals to you, the reader: “Let’s grant God the legal right to fulfill the passion of His heart and what He wrote in the books before time began” (75).
By “conclusion” I don’t mean the end of this review. This was only Part One. Part Two will soon follow. But I hope you are getting some idea of the repeated exegetical and theological errors that Henderson commits in his effort to defend a view of prayer that I simply don’t believe can be found in Scripture.
To be continued . . . Part Two to follow . . .