A Review of “Operating in the Courts of Heaven”, by Robert Henderson, Part Two1
Robert Henderson has written a series of books defending his thesis about the nature and power of prayer. My review is limited to the first and foundational book in this series, Operating in the Courts of Heaven (2014). Should I discover that in those subsequent volumes he reverses or corrects what was written in the first volume, I will write whatever retractions are required.
Before I finish my review of Henderson’s first book, I need to say something about prayer. What we saw in Part One of my review is that the many texts Henderson cites to support his thesis do not even remotely pertain to what he is hoping to prove. So, what does the NT say about prayer? What are we taught in terms of how we are to approach the throne of grace, and why is it that Henderson does not mention the texts below that I cite?
We read in Luke 11:1 that one of Jesus’ disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” This would appear to be an excellent opportunity for Jesus to instruct us to pray as Henderson says we should. But we find nothing about operating in the courts of heaven or securing a legal verdict that would allow God to answer our prayers. Instead, Jesus tells us to address God as “Father,” not Judge (although that isn’t to say God isn’t a Judge; of course he is). See the parallel of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:5-15. Throughout this latter paragraph Jesus tells us to address God and to come to him in prayer as Father. The personal address of God as “Father” is found twice in v. 6, once in v. 8, once in v. 9, once in v. 14, and once in v. 15.
If there is any one text that ought to govern how we pray, it is Luke 11:5-13. The basis for the reassurance that if we persevere in prayer, we will receive an answer, is the goodness of our Father. Jesus makes no mention of releasing God to act or granting him permission. We receive answers to our requests because our heavenly Father, as over against “evil” people like you and me (v.13), is good and kind and generous. That is why he is “much more” inclined to “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (v. 13). In Matthew’s account, the Father doesn’t only give us the Holy Spirit when we ask (note well: “ask,” not decree or declare or secure a verdict, but simply “ask”) but also gives us “good things”.
When the early church prayed, they asked God to “grant” to his servants boldness to speak the word (Acts 4:29). It is God who “grants” to us what we need, not we who “grant” God permission to give us what he desires but would otherwise be hindered from giving. Prayer is referenced numerous times in Acts, but not once in the way that Henderson says it should be done (see 1:24; 2:42; 4:29, 31; 6:4, 6; 8:15, 22, 24; 9:11, 40; 10:2, 4, 9, 30, 31; 11:5; 12:5; 13:3; 16:25; 20:36).
Prayer is mentioned in numerous NT epistles, such as Romans 1:9-10; 8:26-27; 10:1; 12:12; 15:30; 1 Cor. 7:5; 11:4-5; 14:13, 14, 15. I could continue to cite texts in 2 Corinthians where prayer is often mentioned. Paul speaks of prayer numerous times in Ephesians (see 1:15-18; 3:14-21; and 6:18). The same is true of Philippians (1:3-10, 19; 4:4-7), Colossians (1:3-4; 4:2-4), 1 Thessalonians (1:2; 5:17), 2 Thessalonians (1:11; 3:1), 1 Timothy (2:1-2, 8), just to mention a few. I’m sure I’ve overlooked some texts, especially those where the word “prayer” does not occur but prayers are actually being prayed. There is also James 1:5-6; 4:2-3; 5:13-18; 1 Peter 3:7; 1 John 5:14-15, 16-17; 3 John 2; Jude 20; and numerous references in the book of Revelation.
Why did I list all these texts? Simply to show that in none of them do we find the model or theology of prayer advocated by Henderson. This is a major concern of mine when it comes to my brothers and sisters in the charismatic world. Although they regularly affirm their belief in the sufficiency of Scripture, their practice and writings often suggest they don’t understand what it means or do understand and simply ignore it. The tendency to create doctrines and practices that not only are absent from Scripture but some that actually contradict what is in Scripture is deeply dangerous. I fear that the hankering after something novel and “never heard before” often drives charismatic authors and leaders. May we fully embrace the wide range of spiritual gifts set forth in the NT at the same time we rest confident in the complete sufficiency of Scripture to teach us and provide for our every need, especially when it comes to prayer.
We now turn to the second half of Henderson’s book where he discusses what he calls “Voices in the Courts.” He contends that there are “many different voices in the courts of Heaven” and that “our job is to understand these voices and come into agreement with them” (77). Only as we “join with these voices and release our faith and agreement with them” will God’s kingdom on earth be accomplished (77). If there is “a lack of manifestation of Kingdom purpose” it is because you and I “have yet to grant the Father the legal right to fulfill His passion toward us” (77).
If you are asking, “Where in Scripture do we find this,” the answer is, again, nowhere. Of course, Henderson thinks otherwise, and points us to Hebrews 12:22-24,
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirit of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:22-24).
I don’t have space to address the numerous ways in which Henderson misunderstands and misapplies Hebrews 12. So let’s get right to his major point. He writes: “Hebrews 12:22-24 lists the voices within the court system of Heaven. There are eight voices [later he includes a ninth] mentioned that we can encounter in the courts of Heaven and are to come into agreement with” (87). And “when we come into agreement with these voices, we become a part of granting God the legal right to fulfill His passion” (87). Do you see any of this in Hebrews 12? I don’t. Nowhere in Hebrews 12 are these realities described as “voices” to which we should listen.
The only place where anything remotely approaching a “voice” can be found is the reference in v. 24 to “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” and “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Following Cain’s murder of Abel, God declared that the latter’s blood “is crying to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). Clearly, the point of this text is that Abel’s death calls for justice. Cain must suffer the consequences of his deed. Earlier, in Hebrews 11:4, the author of Hebrews says that Abel, “though he died, . . . still speaks.” What does this mean? Is the blood of Abel literally talking? Is Abel literally speaking to us today? No. This is obviously a vivid image designed to emphasize the lasting influence of Abel’s testimony. It is Abel’s faith to which we are being directed. His “blood” only “speaks” in the sense that his death is an example to us all of the price that must often be paid for faith and loyalty and obedience to God.
In Hebrews 12:24 the contrast is between the blood of Jesus and the blood of Abel. Whereas Abel’s blood cried out for justice and penal retribution, the blood of Jesus declares forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God. That is why “the sprinkled blood” of Jesus is “better” than “the blood of Abel.”
At times, I can’t help but wonder aloud where Henderson gets his ideas. For example, he believes that his (Henderson’s) “literal blood” in his veins “had a voice of violence” (96). He says that “the anger that was in me had its roots in my blood that was defiled by the sins of my past generations” (96). Or could it simply be that this problem with anger was due to his fallen flesh? Instead of placing the blame on something your “past generations” may have done, take responsibility for the brokenness of your own heart and its sinful desires and ask God for forgiveness and the power to resist the temptation to explode in rage.
Another example of such unbiblical thinking is his claim that “if God loses, it is because something legal has not been dealt with by us” (111). In another place he says that “our financial giving, sacrifices and offerings of ourselves create a basis for us to pray and intercede” (112). Well, no! The basis or grounds on which we pray and intercede at the throne of grace is the once-for-all finished work of Christ for us on the cross and his resurrection from the dead.
As we’ve already seen, Henderson has an odd view of justification. He seems to believe that God will continually impute his righteousness to us and justify us each time we repent (113) when in fact justification is a one-time event that occurs at the moment we put our trust in Christ for salvation.
Echoing a theme that is found throughout this book, Henderson argues that “if we do not take our place in the courts of Heaven, God’s plan for the planet cannot come to fruition” (120). Really?
Henderson comes close to adopting a Roman Catholic view of the communion of saints when he argues that the martyrs “are still praying and interceding” (122). Interceding for whom? Surely not for us. Contrary to what Henderson believes Revelation 6:9-11 is saying, the martyrs are simply asking God when he will he avenge their blood on those who took their lives. They are not praying for us or interceding for anyone.
He also interprets Hebrews 12:1 as teaching that the saints who have died for their faith “are actually in the courts releasing their voice and testimony on behalf of those of us who must now complete the work for which they gave their lives” (123). But I see nothing in the text that says this is what these “witnesses” are doing. Insofar as these “witnesses” are likely the OT faithful saints just described in Hebrews 11, they bore witness or gave testimony through their lives to the grace of God and the possibilities of a life of faith. Their lives of faith are the evidence, so to speak, to which they direct our attention that God is worthy of our trust. It isn’t so much that they are looking at us, but we are encouraged to look to them and their witness and in doing so be encouraged and strengthened and reminded of what can be accomplished when we exercise faith in God. Simply put, these OT saints bore witness through their lives of faith and perseverance, an example we are now admonished to follow. But there is nothing in the text that would lead us to believe that they “still have a voice and are releasing testimony in the courts of Heaven” (123).
Henderson still contends that “as we function in the courts from the earthly realm, we are to come into agreement with the intercession of these witnesses. Our agreement with them produces the legal right for Heaven to fulfill the reason for which they laid down their lives” (123). Again, I must repeat myself. Where in the text is anything like this represented? What words in the text justify drawing this conclusion? I know of no text in the Bible where the church on earth is admonished to “come into agreement” with the church that is in heaven in order for God’s kingdom will to be accomplished (124).
Yet another misinterpretation is Henderson’s view of Hebrews 11:39-40. There we read of the OT believers who “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” The failure to receive what was promised was mentioned earlier in Hebrews 11:13 and has reference to the consummation of God’s redemptive purposes for his people. Their purification from sin could not be fully and finally achieved by the sacrifices of the old covenant, but had to await the “better” covenant that Jesus inaugurated by which we are all, together, “made perfect”.
But Henderson believes this text is telling us that “their ultimate passion cannot be fulfilled without us finishing and joining with their sacrifice to see God’s agenda done” (125). However, it isn’t about “us” finishing anything or “joining” with their sacrifice, but rather God bringing us into the state of moral perfection by virtue of the finished work of Christ. “The cloud of witnesses,” says Henderson, “is committed to helping us fulfill our assignments in our generations [nowhere does the text say this] because without us, they will not be made perfect” (127). But they have already been made perfect, as Hebrews 12:23 clearly asserts. This perfection refers to the full and final forgiveness of sins that awaited the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
In his appeal to God “the Judge of all” (Heb. 12:23) Henderson argues that “there can be legal issues that hinder His fatherly desires being fulfilled. God will never compromise Himself as Judge in order to fulfill His fatherly desires. To do so would make Him less than God” (131). Well, of course God never compromises his justice as Judge. But what makes him “less than God” is the belief that he is impotent and helpless to accomplish his desires and so utterly dependent on us that he would otherwise “lose” should we fail to exercise our legal rights in heaven. To say that “God cannot intervene until we give Him the legal right to do so” (134) is to reduce the omnipotent and altogether majestic God of heaven and earth to a puppet of our will.
Again, Henderson appeals to Hebrews 12:23 to argue that “the Church of the firstborn is registered in Heaven for operation in the courts of the Lord.” Yes, they are registered in heaven, their names having been written down in the Lamb’s book of life. But where does he get the notion that they operate in the courts of the Lord? Not from Hebrews 12, that’s for sure.
Once more, Hebrews 12 is cited to prove that “angels have the important task of gathering and presenting evidence. They release the necessary testimonies and evidence needed for God to render judgments” (165). I know I’m sounding like a broken record, but again, where in any text (much less Hebrews 12) does the Bible say this? Not only the angels but “all the voices in Heaven operate for this purpose, but it is our job to agree with them until legal precedents are in place” (166). These ideas are the fruit of Henderson’s imagination, not the result of a careful reading of the biblical text.
Why did the events of 9/11 take place? Henderson contends that it was due to our failure “to take our place as the Ecclesia and grant God the legal right to thwart the plans of the devil” (174). I simply have no words left to respond to such an outrageous claim.
I could cite a dozen or more additional instances where Henderson inserts into biblical texts his personal theological concepts. This is not exegesis, but eisegesis, a reading into texts meanings and applications that cannot be read out of the texts.
There is one final element in Henderson’s book that needs to be addressed. He speaks often of repenting for the sins of other people. One of several examples is where Henderson himself says that he “began to repent for what” his “forefathers had done” (95).
The idea that a person can and should repent on behalf of others is based largely on Old Testament texts that describe the land being defiled or corrupted by the sins of Israel. The idea is that, in order to overcome or reverse this judgment, we today must in some way “identify” with the people of the past and “repent” for the sins they committed. George Otis describes this “repentance” in two stages: “(1) an acknowledgement that one’s affinity group (clan, city, nation, or organization) has been guilty of a specific corporate sin before God and man, and (2) a prayerful petition that God will use personal repudiation of this sin as a redemptive beachhead from which to move into the larger community” (Informed Intercession, 251).
But note that Otis nowhere makes reference here to the biblical concept of repentance. Yes, we must acknowledge the sins of the past and repudiate them, committing ourselves through the power of the Spirit not to repeat them in our experience. But this is far and away different from saying that we can “repent” for the sins of our ancestors.
Repentance, by definition, is the acknowledgement (which typically entails deep sorrow and contrition), confession of, and turning from the sins that one has committed, both in terms of what one believes and how one behaves. That being the case, it is impossible that I can repent for sins I haven’t committed. However, that isn’t to say that the sins of others, whether those of our ancestors or our contemporaries, are irrelevant to us. So how do we respond to the sins of others? What is our responsibility?
First, we should acknowledge and confess such sins. We should acknowledge that our ancestors or our contemporaries with whom we are in some manner connected or related, have transgressed the law of God. Perhaps the most explicit example of this in the Bible is found in Nehemiah. There Nehemiah says:
“O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statues, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.” (Neh. 1:5–7)
A similar prayer was spoken by Daniel during the time of the Babylonian Captivity (see Daniel 9:1–19). But note carefully that nowhere do either Daniel or Nehemiah “repent” for other people. They identify the sins of others. They declare that they and others in Israel have transgressed. They make no excuse for their sins. They both ask God to have mercy on themselves and the people of Israel. But that is not the same as “repenting” for the sins of others. They undoubtedly repented for their own sins by resolving to forsake their sinful ways and to obey God’s revealed will. But one person can’t do that in the place of another. Each individual must do this for himself or herself.
We must also remember that both Nehemiah and Daniel were living under the dictates of the Mosaic Covenant. The blessings and curses (see Deut. 28) that would come on the people of Israel for their obedience or rebellion are no longer applicable to any other geopolitical nation state. God does not enter into covenant with nations, but only with the “holy nation” of the Church of Jesus Christ, a distinctively multiethnic, spiritual body of believers (1 Peter 2:9). We must guard against the tendency (especially seen in the broader Pentecostal-charismatic world) to apply uniquely old covenant texts with its promises and warnings to those who now live under the terms of the New Covenant in Christ.
Thus, I might confess to God that “we” at Bridgeway Church here in Oklahoma City have in some manner turned away from God and that “we” are rightly under his discipline. I can declare the truth regarding our transgressions, renounce them, and cry out to God on behalf of the people as a whole. But I cannot repent for what anyone else has done, only for what I have done, and then pray that God’s Spirit would awaken others to likewise repent of their own sins.
Second, we should also renounce, repudiate, and disavow the sins of our ancestors or our contemporaries with whom we are in close relationship. We should make it clear by confession and behavior that we want no part of that sort of wicked behavior, that we wish never to repeat such sinful activity, and that we choose to distance ourselves from the destructive consequences that follow upon the sinful behavior of our ancestors or contemporaries. But to renounce the sins of others is not the same as repenting for the sins of others.
Third, it’s important to remember in all this that none of us is held guilty by God for the sins of our ancestors or contemporaries, unless of course we ourselves contributed to their sins by encouraging them to behave wickedly or by choosing to repeat in our own lives the sinful behavior of theirs. But God will not hold me guilty for the sins of my ancestors, nor will he punish or judge me for what they have done.
What then do we make of texts such as Exodus 20:5–6?
“You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Note carefully that the visitation of the iniquity of one’s ancestors on subsequent generations comes only upon “those who hate me.” It is only when we choose to repeat or copy or perpetuate the sins of our ancestors that we suffer divine judgment. Likewise, it is on those who love God and keep his commandments that steadfast love comes.
Along these lines, we must take into consideration Deuteronomy 24:16 (NASB) – “Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin” (cf. Ezek. 18:2–4, 20). The point is this: If you do not hate God, this threat is not applicable to you.
I close with a simple warning and a word of counsel. This is not a helpful book. It will not serve to empower your prayer life. It is a book that should be avoided by all Christians.
My counsel is equally simple and straightforward. The most basic question anyone can ask when they hear of some strange new theory or interpretation is this: “Where is that in the Bible?” Don’t simply embrace the agendas or theologies or strategies that someone claims are justified by certain biblical texts. Examine the texts for yourself and simply ask: “Is that actually in the words of Scripture? Where in the text does he find that?” This will serve you well as you seek to understand the teaching of God’s Word.