Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Strange Fire by John Macarthur

Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit WorshipStrange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship by John MacArthur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is easy to take John Macarthur for granted. He has become such a mainstay in conservative evangelical thought that it is easy to forget about him. It is for me at least. As I search the books I want to read, I almost always find myself looking for the next author and the next idea. I forget how much I enjoy and benefit from Dr. Macarthur’s writings and teaching. I can honestly say, without hesitation, that I have never been disappointed in a Macarthur book. I have always learned. I have always been challenged. I have always enjoyed the experience of reading it.

I have not, however, always agreed with what Dr. Macarthur has had to say. Dr. Macarthur and I look at many things very differently. Sometimes I have felt he was overly harsh or unfairly made his points using caricature and hyperbole. But we are brothers in Christ and he is a gifted teacher. His writings are lucid and entertaining, deep yet readable.

One thing I admire about Macarthur is that he is not afraid to take a stand. He plants his feet on important issues. He is not afraid to divide over important issues…which is a good thing. It is a good and necessary thing to be willing to divide when necessary; it is another thing altogether to be divisive. Sometimes I have felt that Macarthur has been too quick and too willing to divide over issues that were not necessarily worthy of division. With all the controversy surrounding the writing and release of this book, along with the conference that accompanied it, I was concerned that this was exactly what Macarthur was doing.

In Strange Fire, John Macarthur sets out to make an argument for a cessasionist view of sign gifts, arguing that the apostolic gifts ceased with the Apostles. Macarthur is characteristically bold in his argument, sometime to a point that is a quite disorienting and even concerning. It is one thing to be critical and to even be harsh; it is another thing to attack and disparage. I am not sure that Macarthur is guilty of this, but he walks right up to the line and leans over it a good ways at times.

In Jesus’ day, the religious leaders of Israel blasphemously attributed the work of the Spirit to Satan (Matt. 12:24). The modern Charismatic Movement does the inverse, attributing the work of the devil to the Holy Spirit. Satan’s army of false teachers, marching to the beat of their own illicit desires, gladly propagates his errors. They are spiritual swindlers, con men, crooks, and charlatans. We can see an endless parade of them simply by turning on the television. Jude called them clouds without water, raging waves, and wandering stars “for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever” (v. 13). Yet they claim to be angels of light—gaining credibility for their lies by invoking the name of the Holy Spirit, as if there’s no penalty to pay for that kind of blasphemy.

Macarthur makes serious charges and does well in defending his position. I personally would be afraid to make such bold assertions, but Macarthur’s fear seems to be the opposite. He is so convinced that the modern-Charismatic Movement is operating in opposition to God that he feels compelled to sound the alarm. One reason for his increasing concern over the movement is the acceptance of the movement within mainstream Evangelicalism along with the Charismatic movement being the face of Christianity to the majority of the unbelieving world.

In spite of their gross theological error, charismatics demand acceptance within mainstream evangelicalism. And evangelicals have largely succumbed to those demands, responding with outstretched arms and a welcoming smile. In so doing, mainstream evangelicalism has unwittingly invited an enemy into the camp. The gates have been flung open to a Trojan horse of subjectivism, experientialism, ecumenical compromise, and heresy. Those who compromise in this way are playing with strange fire and placing themselves in grave danger.

Macarthur has seen no benefit to modern charismatic theology, arguing that it has offered nothing to the cause of Christ.

Put simply, charismatic theology has made no contribution to true biblical theology or interpretation; rather, it represents a deviant mutation of the truth. Like a deadly virus, it gains access into the church by maintaining a superficial connection to certain characteristics of biblical Christianity, but in the end it always corrupts and distorts sound teaching. The resulting degradation, like a doctrinal version of Frankenstein’s monster, is a hideous hybrid of heresy, ecstasy, and blasphemy awkwardly dressed in the tattered remnants of evangelical language. It calls itself “Christian,” but in reality it is a sham—a counterfeit form of spirituality that continually morphs as it spirals erratically from one error to the next.

Macarthur is clear. The Charismatic Movement, in his eyes, is heretical. He highlights moral failures of leaders, false worship, and a focus on the self demonstrated clearly in some of the more excessive forms of Charismatic worship. Macarthur does so, not to build a straw man for his argument but because he believes that this is the natural outflow of what the Charismatic Movement is based on.

Macarthur cites the Charismatic Movement’s elevation of experience as ultimate authority as the reason for much of, if not all of, their error.

But how has such blatant heresy managed to not only survive but flourish in charismatic circles? The answer points to a critical and systemic defect within charismatic theology—a flaw that accounts for just about every theological aberration or abnormality that makes its home within the Charismatic Movement. It is this: Pentecostals and charismatics elevate religious experience over biblical truth. Though many of them pay lip service to the authority of God’s Word, in practice they deny it.

The sad fact is that biblical truth has never been the hallmark of the Charismatic Movement, where spiritual experience is continually elevated above sound doctrine.

So what caused this elevation of experience to the role of ultimate authority? Macarthur traces the modern Charismatic emphasis on experience over biblical truth to the Romantic movement of Schleiermacher in 19th century Germany.

Schleiermacher sought to replace the foundation on which Christianity rests by exchanging the objective truths of Scripture for subjective spiritual experiences.

The modern charismatic counterfeit is following down that same perilous path—basing its belief system on something other than the sole authority of Scripture and poisoning the church with a twisted notion of faith. Like the medieval Catholic Church, it muddles the clear teaching of Scripture and obscures the true gospel; and like Schleiermacher, it elevates subjective feelings and personal experiences to the place of highest importance.

So if our experience does not determine a work of the Holy Spirit, what does? Macarthur borrows from Jonathan Edwards teaching on 1 John to test and see what is truly a work of the Holy Spirit.

We might frame these tests from 1 John 4:2–8 in the form of five questions: (1) Does the work exalt the true Christ? (2) Does it oppose worldliness? (3) Does it point people to the Scriptures? (4) Does it elevate the truth? (5) Does it produce love for God and others? These are the tests Jonathan Edwards applied to spiritual revival of the Great Awakening.

How does the Charismatic Movement’s experience based truth tests fare in these tests? According to Macarthur, not well at all. This is because, once again, the Charismatic Movement places the majority of its emphasis on personal experience, even to the detriment of Scriptural submission.

At the practical level, Pentecostal churches regularly elevate experience over truth. Unbiblical practices like being slain in the Spirit are promoted, not because they have scriptural warrant, but because it makes people feel good. Women are allowed to be pastors in the church, not because the New Testament permits it (1 Tim. 2:12), but because female leadership has always been a hallmark of the Charismatic Movement. Mindless and out-of-control forms of worship are encouraged, not because the Bible condones them (1 Cor. 14:33), but because emotional fervor is necessary to conjure up ecstasy. Many more examples could be given, all illustrating the fact that within Pentecostalism spiritual experience consistently trumps biblical authority.

In the same vein of the personal, subjective truth claims of individual experience, the Charismatic Movement suffers from the presence of “new revelation”. “God told me…”is commonplace and virtually irrefutable because, really, who can argue against someone’s personal experience and what God told them? This has always been a sticking point for me for much of my Christian life. I have had multiple conversations with preachers and friends about the danger of their “God told me…” moments. It doesn’t sit right with me and, apparently, it doesn’t sit right with Dr. Macarthur either.

The notion that God is constantly giving extrabiblical messages and fresh revelation to Christians today is practically the sine qua nonof charismatic belief. According to the typical charismatic way of thinking, if God is not speaking privately, directly, and regularly to each individual believer, He is not truly immanent. Charismatics will therefore fiercely defend all manner of private prophecies, even though it an undeniable fact that these supposed revelations from on high are often—one might say usually—erroneous, misleading, and even dangerous.

Not only does the Charismatic Movement promote new revelation, it does so because not only are the gifts still in operation but the office as well. This understanding that the office of Apostle is still active is commonplace in the Charismatic Movement. New revelation from active “Apostles” is a breeding ground for abuse of power and corruption, and, Macarthur argues, has tragically been shown in the history of the Charismatic Movement.

This is not the first time in church history that power-hungry false teachers have nominated themselves as apostles in order to gain greater spiritual influence over others. False apostles were prevalent even in New Testament times, where Paul denounced them as “deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ.

Modern charismatic leaders like Peter Wagner may argue for the continuation of the gift and office of apostleship; Roman Catholics might similarly insist on an apostolic succession that they apply to the pope. But both assertions are severely misguided. Any honest evaluation of the New Testament evidence reveals that the apostles were a unique group of men, hand-picked and personally commissioned by the Lord Jesus Himself to lay the doctrinal foundation for the church, with Christ as the cornerstone. No one alive today can possibly meet the biblical criteria required for apostleship. And even in the first century, when all agree the miraculous gifts were fully operational, only a very select group of spiritual leaders were regarded as apostles.

Macarthur rejects the idea of new revelation and the idea of the perpetuity of the Apostolic office, both of which would necessarily leave the Christian Canon open and challenge the sufficiency and authority of Scripture. I could not agree more with Macarthur here. This is my immediate and pervasive problem with the Charismatic Movement’s position on the perpetuity of the apostolic office. It leaves a canon open for further revelation and leaves room for anyone to anoint themselves “Apostle” and then burden their church with a “new revelation” that is not from the Lord at all.

But if there is no further revelation from God, does He communicate to me at all? And if God in no way communicates to me apart from what is explicitly in Scripture, do I pray and ask God to guide me in my life? Do I ask whom I should marry? Do I ask where I should attend school? Do I ask for guidance in everyday events that the Bible is not explicit about…?

Does this mean God has stopped speaking? Certainly not, but He speaks today through His all-sufficient Word. Does the Spirit of God move our hearts and impress us with specific duties or callings? Certainly, but He works through the Word of God to do that. Such experiences are in no sense prophetic or authoritative. They are not revelation but illumination, when the Holy Spirit applies the Word to our hearts and opens our spiritual eyes to its truth. We must guard carefully against allowing our experience and our own subjective thoughts and imaginations to eclipse the authority and the certainty of the more sure Word.

But Macarthur has not set out to simply offer a polemic against Charismatic excesses. He spends ample time showing what the Holy Spirit is doing today since He is not empowering apostolic type miracles or new revelations. Macarthur argues that the current work of the Spirit is five-fold and includes the Spirit working to 1)regenerate sinful hearts, 2)bring sinners to repentance, 3)enable fellowship with God, 4) indwell the believer, and 5) seal salvation forever.

So what does it mean to be “Spirit-filled”? Macarthur argues, forcefully and persuasively, not to mention, biblically, that to be “Spirit-filled” is more about being conformed to the image of the Son by the Spirit’s sanctifying work much more than it is about “tongues” and “prophecies” and being “slain in the Spirit” or “uncontrollable laughter, mongrel barking, erratic twitching, and bizarre symptoms of intoxication,” because “those who are Spirit-filled seek to please God by pursuing practical holiness”.

It needs to be made clear that Macarthur is not arguing that all those who embrace Charismatic doctrine are unregenerate. He is, however, warning believing brothers and sisters that, though they are in Christ, they are in serious danger by “exposing themselves” to the Charismatic Movement.

I do believe there are sincere people within the Charismatic Movement who, in spite of the systemic corruption and confusion, have come to understand the necessary truths of the gospel. They embrace substitutionary atonement, the true nature of Christ, the trinitarian nature of God, biblical repentance, and the unique authority of the Bible. They recognize that salvation is not about health and wealth, and they genuinely desire to be rescued from sin, spiritual death, and everlasting hell. Yet, they remain confused about the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the nature of spiritual giftedness. As a result, they are playing with strange fire. By continually exposing themselves to the false teaching and counterfeit spirituality of the Charismatic Movement, they have placed themselves (and anyone under their spiritual care) in eternal jeopardy. For true believers, the Charismatic Movement represents a massive stumbling block to true spiritual growth, ministry, and usefulness. Its errant teachings regarding the Holy Spirit and the Spirit-inspired Scriptures perpetuate immaturity, spiritual weakness, and an unending struggle with sin.

Why does Macarthur take such a hard stand against men like Henry Blackaby and Wayne Grudem, both extremely respected and conservative Christian scholars? While Macarthur acknowledges these men as brothers, his concern is that the” continuationist position exposes the evangelical church to continuous danger from the charismatic mutation.” It is the slippery slope that worries Macarthur so.

Nevertheless, continuationists insist on using biblical terminology to describe contemporary charismatic practices that do not match the biblical reality. Thus, any personal impression or fleeting fancy might be labeled “the gift of prophecy,” speaking in gibberish is called “the gift of tongues,” every remarkable providence is labeled a “miracle,” and every positive answer to prayers for healing is seen as proof that someone has the gift of healing. All of that poses a major problem, because it is not how the New Testament describes those gifts. For any evangelical pastor or church leader to apply biblical terminology to that which does not match the biblical practice is not merely confusing, but it is potentially dangerous teaching for which that person is culpable.

I felt that Dr. Macarthur made a brilliant case for a cessasionist view of the apostolic gifts. As always he has encouraged me to challenge my perspective and left me a little less sure of my own holding of the position he attacked…which is exactly what a good book will do. I do think he may be a bit guilty of “the baby with the bath water” as he uses the health and wealth, prosperity, TBN, televangelist, con-man, sideshow of the Charismatic Movement as the definition rather than the aberration, and then dismisses the movement as a whole. Also, Macarthur has seemed too willing to discredit any work that has been done by the Charismatic Movement in furthering the Gospel and very willing to definitively say that certain things are unquestionably the work of the enemy when I am not so certain and definitely feel the need to tread lightly in making a claim that, if incorrect, would seem to blaspheme the Spirit of God.

I have seen Charismatics respond negatively to this book, many having read none of it and just presuming what is the content. Strange Fire, flawed as it may be, has much to be considered and Macarthur has done a service to the church as a whole by bringing the topic to the forefront of evangelical thought. The discussion is necessary, even if Macarthur might have overstepped in certain areas.

I love how God uses John Macarthur to challenge, incite, encourage, and convict the people of God. When reading John Macarthur, for me, there are plenty of “amen” moments and plenty of “you’ve got to be kidding me” moments as well. Strange Fire does not find itself to be an exception to this rule. What you do not get in a Macarthur book is bored or disinterested and Strange Fire is no exception to this rule as well.

John Macarthur has done an extensive interview with Tim Challies dealing with some of the questions raised by his book and conference. It is well worth the read.

*I received a review copy of this book for providing an honest review.

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