The ministry of William Branham spanned a thirty-two-year period from 1933 to 1965. Last month we illustrated the foolish claims made concerning Branham himself and his work. In this article we focus on Branham’s teaching.
People ‘watched with astonishment’, it is claimed, as Branham’s ‘prophetic ministry unfolded before them’. They also tell us that people are ‘still being challenged by the legacy of his ministry’.
Branham’s 1964-65 English sermons are now available in printed form. There is excitement, too, on the part of his followers because twenty-four recently discovered messages have been made available on cassette.
There is more being claimed by this group. It is stated that in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s Branham’s ministry was superior to that of other ‘evangelists’ and ‘revivalists’ operating in the United States.
How? Other men, they say, ‘left only memories of signs and wonders’ after their death. By contrast, the ministry of William Branham is supposed to have ‘left the legacy of A Message’.
And that Message, they inform us, is ‘cherished’ by thousands of believers around the world.
The claim expands. Branham left a Message which challenges ‘Traditional Christianity’ and ‘our traditional way of thinking about practically everything that is called Christian’.
They see their website as ‘a serious challenge’ to our faith. We are challenged, ‘not only to believe that God has sent a prophet to this Last Age, but also to believe the Message he brought to restore, correct and set the bridge of Jesus Christ in order for the rapture’.
No wonder some pastors and congregations, especially in Eastern Europe, Africa and South America, are confused over Branham’s claims and message.
Their confusion is aggravated in two ways. First, Branham’s claimed that he had enjoyed ‘constant communication with God and Angels’ and, as a result, received a divinely given message for people in the end-times.
Such a claim must be rejected as being illusory and occult. This point was made last month.
Secondly, confusion is deepened by the group’s insistence that through the ages, God’s people have ‘always followed a man’ and a man of God’s choosing (see Following a man?, p.1).
The logic of their argument is clear. Paul urged believers to be ‘followers of me’ (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1). Then they argue that God does not use stars or angels to reveal his Word to people. No, ‘He chooses a man like Moses, Elijah and the prophets’.
We agree wholeheartedly. John Calvin, for example, is one of many Reformed writers who uphold this principle.
In his commentary on Acts 10 Calvin illustrates the principle in action. God did not send an angel to preach to Cornelius in Caesarea. Rather, the angel was sent to tell Cornelius to bring Peter from Joppa, as he would preach the Word to him.
Yes, God is sovereign but chooses to use men and human preaching to bring the elect to faith in Christ. This is important.
However, Branham and his followers assume that because God revealed himself in Bible times through visions or angels, he continues to speak to chosen individuals today in the same way. But he is wrong.
Rather than using angels or visions, as in the Old and New Testament periods, God now speaks through the Word and by men expounding that Word faithfully.
Furthermore, as their argument develops, it self-destructs. They point out that most people in Christendom are ‘following someone’, whether it is a pastor, bishop, pope or evangelist.
That is fair enough on one level, though a true Christian is, above all, a follower of Christ, not men.
But they then contradict the very principle they have stated by insisting that we should follow a single uniquely and divinely gifted man! He alone, they claim, is able to bring the Word or ‘present Truth’ to the contemporary world just prior to the Lord’s return.
This claim is obviously without foundation in Scripture. When Paul urged his readers to follow him as he followed Christ, he clearly did not mean they should follow him to the exclusion of, say, Peter or John. Indeed, he condemns a factional spirit in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17.
However, the claim that Branham’s ministry is unique, unfortunately appeals to some who lack good Bible teaching.
Check all things
There are some points where I agree with this group. ‘Check all things’ by the Word, they insist, and ‘not by emotion or sensations…’ Correct, but remember that they themselves are mishandling the Word.
Their criticism of the ‘charismatic church world today’ is also perceptive. They regard many charismatic speakers as ‘entertainers and not preachers … the excessive joking and laughing which accompany much of their preaching is unbecoming to the Gospel’.
I agree with this, as well as the further point that some use ‘mass, fervent religious hype and psychology to influence and deceive the people’. Sadly, it is a fact.
One other point of agreement is the rejection of ‘decisionism’. Branham rightly underlines the necessity of repentance and faith, followed by perseverance in the Word and obedience as evidences of saving faith. This needs to be emphasised today.
Becoming a Christian
But what is Branham’s distinctive ‘message’?
After reading the available material, I have concluded that two crucial points lie at the heart of this ‘message’. The first is his strong note of protest at ways in which his contemporaries cheapened the gospel of grace and tolerated sin. The protest was reasonable, but he became unbiblical in the way he expressed it.
Secondly, and more significantly, despite his emphasis on ‘salvation’, ‘grace’ and ‘faith’, his teaching on the crucial matter of becoming a Christian is confused and unbiblical.
His exposition of key terms like ‘grace’ and ‘salvation’ is woefully inadequate and always coloured by a strong protest against a type of sin-indulging decisionism. He spells out his understanding of these terms in his three Steps to Salvation.
For Branham, the first step to salvation is justification, which he mistakenly describes as ‘God’s first work of grace in you’ (This is the Way Walk Ye In It, p.10). In reply, we must insist that justification is not an experience but a legal declaration by God that the sinner who trusts in Christ is righteous before him.
To be justified is the opposite of being condemned. And, according to the Bible, it is the action and decision of God our judge: ‘Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies’ (Romans 8:33).
But how can God declare us righteous when, in fact, we are sinners? Only because Jesus Christ fully bore our sin and punishment, once-for-all, when he died as our substitute on the cross. And, in his glorious grace, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to each believer.
To put it differently, God credits Christ’s righteousness to my account when I trust in the Lord Jesus. In fact, God regards this divine righteousness as now belonging to me as a believer (Romans 4:5).
Branham, therefore, is wrong in his teaching about justification. As a result, all his other teaching is out of line with the Bible. You have been warned!
The second step to salvation for Branham is sanctification. Although he quotes 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4 and 2 Thessalonians 2:13, his teaching is misleading and superficial in the extreme.
He views sanctification as ‘an absolutely wonderful experience’ in which the individual ‘feels swept, clean, fresh…’ It is further described as ‘cleaning the vessel of all evil works and the dominion of sin … creating in us the desire to always live a holy and sanctified life…’ (p.11).
Branham’s view is a dreadful mishmash of ideas from within ‘holiness’, ‘faith’ and ‘charismatic’ circles. It is a view that is imposed upon, and distorts, the biblical teaching on the subject.
The Bible views sanctification in two main ways. It is initially God’s definitive act in setting aside the sinner for his glory and freeing him from the power of sin (1 Corinthians 1:2; 6:11; Romans 6:18).
In addition, sanctification is a life-long process of conforming us to Christ’s likeness. The believer is active in this process but dependent on the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13-14; 1 Thessalonians 5:23).
The third step to salvation for Branham is ‘Holy Spirit baptism’. This is described as ‘experiencing salvation’ (p.25), a spiritual ‘resurrection’ producing ‘a new birth, a new life…’ (p.28).
Branham confuses the initial supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration with the conscious and experiential reception of the Spirit by ‘the hearing of faith’ (see Galatians 3:2).
Although these two events may coincide in time, they are distinct. We cannot receive the Spirit by faith until we have first been given faith in regeneration.
Conversion is only possible as a consequence of the initial, supernatural work of the Spirit in new birth. All sinners are spiritually dead; they must first be made alive to God before they can believe and repent (John 3:3-7; Ephesians 2:1-5).
To conclude, Branham’s ‘three steps’ could well confuse sinners rather than lead them to salvation. This is the tragedy of his teaching.