Strange Fire?


Four weeks ago John MacArthur grabbed the attention of the evangelical world with his Strange Fire conference, in which he and others leveled a serious critique against the charismatic movement (serious critique is probably too soft of a wording). This was all a lead in to his new book, just released on Tuesday. I wanted to share some thoughts at the time of the conference, but thought it unfair having not actually been there.  But then a gracious church member who was at the conference brought me back a copy of the Strange Fire book, so I was able to read it in advance of its release (Thanks Keith!). Having read the book and numerous articles online from varying viewpoints, I am thankful for John MacArthur and his book even though I don’t share his conclusions.

A Farce and a Scam?

In the book MacArthur compares charismatic worship to the strange fire offered by Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10. They worshipped God in a way that was careless and irreverent and they were consumed by God because of it. MacArthur says that this is parallel to what is being done in the modern Charismatic Movement. Charismatics are offering strange fire by worshipping God in ways he has not prescribed and thus they dishonor God. He says, “It is a sad twist of irony that those who claim to be most focused on the Holy Spirit are in actuality the ones doing the most to abuse, grieve, insult, misrepresent, quench and dishonor him” (p.xiii).

MacArthur goes on to say “by elevating the authority of experience over the authority of the Scripture, the Charismatic Movement has destroyed the church’s immune system—uncritically granting free access to every imaginable form of heretical teaching and practice. Put bluntly, charismatic theology has made no contribution to true biblical theology or interpretation; rather, it represents a deviant mutation of the truth” (p.xvi). Later he adds “what we are seeing is in reality the explosive growth of a false church, as dangerous as any cult or heresy that has ever assaulted Christianity. The Charismatic Movement was a farce and a scam from the outset; it has not changed into something good” (p.xvii).

Them’s fighting words.

Broad Categories

In John MacArthur’s world there are only two camps when it comes to the continuation of the miraculous spiritual gifts. There are cessationists like MacArthur who believe the miraculous gifts (particularly apostleship, prophecy, tongues and healing) ceased at the close of the biblical canon and the death of the apostles.  And then there are charismatics or continuationists who believe that these gifts have not ceased and they carry on to this day. MacArthur puts all continuationists together in one camp and paints them with the same broad brush.  This is problematic. If your category includes both John Piper and Benny Hinn, there’s something broken about your categories. D.A. Carson and Oral Roberts can’t be on the same team, can they?

Much more helpful are the four categories in the Wayne Grudem edited Are the Miraculous Gifts for Today? The four categories there are 1) Cessationist 2) Open But Cautious 3) Third Wave and 4)Pentecostal/Charismatic.  This distinction makes sense of this massive gap between Reformed evangelicals who uphold the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, but don’t see cessationist position as faithful exegesis, and those whole denominations that teach that tongues-speaking is the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

In the end, MacArthur lumps everyone in together and then warns the reformed continuationists that they are lined up on the wrong team. He argues that if there are continuationists who still hold to the authority of Scriptures and sound doctrine, this is an anomaly. Give it time. It will all come up Benny Hinn eventually.  But in lumping everyone together he ends up attacking his own team. If he’s worried about the pervasiveness of the prosperity gospel (which he and we all should be), then go after it. It’s a repugnant false gospel that is leading millions of people away from the call of Christ. By all means, fire away. But I’m pretty sure Sam Storms and John Piper aren’t the bad guys in all this. It’s pretty clear where John Piper stands on the prosperity gospel.

But He’s Right… (In Places)

But that being said, I found myself in agreement with MacArthur most of the time. Strange Fire rightly takes on the prosperity gospel that is rampant in the Charismatic Movement. He exposes fraudulent tongue-speaking and fake miracles. He exposes the sinful character of the charlatans who are robbing the poor in the name of Christ. MacArthur rightly points out that the Charismatic Movement as a whole is rife with heresy, immorality, manipulation and abuse. There’s all kinds of teaching and behaviour that needs to be called out and corrected.

MacArthur rightly and helpfully outlines what the actually priority and work of the Holy Spirit is according the Scriptures. The true work of the Holy Spirit glorifies Christ (Jn 14:26). In fact, the more “Spirit-filled” a church is, the more Jesus will be exalted. The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth (Jn 15:26) and works to illuminate the Scriptures. Where the true Spirit is at work there is growing faithfulness to the Scriptures and sound doctrine. The Holy Spirit produces holiness and the fruit of the Spirit. Where the true spirit is at work, people grow more and more like Jesus. And so the evidence of the Spirit’s work is not wild and sensational experiences, but a growing godliness, sound theology and an exaltation of Jesus. The problem is, you can’t get rich promoting fruit of the Spirit.

Abuse and Proper Use

I’m thankful that MacArthur is pointing out these horrid abuses and unbiblical behaviour. I applaud him for it. However, an abuse of thing does not negate its proper use. For example, if I use a baseball bat to attack someone, that does not mean baseball bats are always wrong. My wrongful use doesn’t mean that right use isn’t possible. When we see abuse of certain gifts the right response is to seek out the proper and biblical use, not to condemn it altogether.

MacArthur rules out the miraculous as counterfeit. I agree that much of it may be counterfeit, but I’m not prepared to limit God. For instance, MacArthur believes that God does not ever give dreams, visions or impressions. I’ve met Muslim background believers from Arab countries who claim that a vision of Jesus was the catalyst for their conversion and the conversion of countless others. MacArthur says “Do I believe that people in the Muslim world are actually seeing Jesus Christ? No, I do not.” Certainly many people have claimed to have had a vision, impression or prophetic word from God that was simply false. We need to test these things against Scripture and use much discernment. But that doesn’t mean that God couldn’t use a vision to communicate.

Instead of abandoning the gifts, we need to seek to use them biblically. If charismatics rigorously applied I Corinthians 12-14, we would be spared from the abuse and the circus sideshow. In that passage we learn that there is a diversity of gifts given to build up the unity of the church. The elevating of some miraculous gifts over other less-miraculous gifts and interpreting the so-called miraculous gifts as a sign of maturity is the very problem that Paul is writing to correct. The right use of the spiritual gifts is for the building up of the whole church (not the individual), and they are to be used in an orderly, structured, intelligible way so that the church is edified and unbelievers hear the gospel. This is why Paul would rather speak five words with his mind to instruct others than 10,000 in a tongue (1 Cor 14.19). The goal is building up the church.

I’m thankful for John MacArthur, I really am.  He’s started an important conversation and exposed some significant and dangerous errors. Do I agree with his conclusions? No. But I do think the conversation is an important one for us to be having.


This post was originally published at Grounded in the Gospel.