Inconclusive Thoughts About Strange Fire

First of all, I have long profited from the writings of John MacArthur.  Just today, I heavily borrowed from and was blessed by his sermon series on Matthew while I prepared my own sermon.  I think his book Slave is one of the best books around on the Doctrines of Grace.  I am certain that I must have a dozen or more of his books and have found much of value in his ministry.  He is, perhaps, the greatest popularizer of historic Calvinism today.  Sure he is dispensational, but he is also a champion of the doctrines of the Reformation.  He is one of the great preacher and preacher-models around today.

Second,  I am not a Charismatic or a continuationist. (Cessationists beleive the gifts as described in 1 Corinthians and other places have ceased, while continuationists believe they continue.) I first encountered a Christian advocating charismatic gifts way back in 1976.  I was stunned by the encounter, so I studied the topic as best I could as a Christian novice.  I rejected the continuation of the gifts, but asked God to overrule me if I were wrong.  Over the years, I read a few books on the topic and studied it at one time.  I have generally agreed with the cessationist position; that is, the view that the charismatic gifts have ceased.  I think I have always been open and willing to be proven otherwise.  I have not had to combat charismatics in my church experiences, and in our Christian school, we have welcomed their involvement.

Third, I think that the particular cases and individuals that MacArthur has crititiqued and criticized received just treatment.  I would not know Benny Hinn if he showed up at my door, but I assume that what MacArthur carefully documented about him is true.  I do recall Oral Roberts and am convinced that his theology was just as warped as MacArthur says it was.  The scoundrels and charlatans, the moral failures and the presumptious claims, the phony promises and the excessive expectations that are chronicled in the book are, I assume, true.

All that being said, I found Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit With Counterfeit Worship unconvincing.  MacArthur paints with a broad brush.  Yes, there are charismatics who  are weird;  some leaders and prominent figures have proven to be scoundrels, charlatans, and hypocrites; and, there are cases of leaders who have raked in lots of money promoting very man-centered messages void of Bible doctrine and content.  By their fruits you shall know them.

But we have to be careful when denouncing whole theologies or movements because of particular people who have disgraced the causes.  Christianity as a whole, from the time of Judas to the present, has suffered from both wolves in sheep’s clothing and just really dumb sheep. I wish it were not the case, but every branch of Christian belief, every faction, subgroup, “ism,” and variety has cases of leaders who proved false to the faith.

If every person claiming the continuation of charismatic gifts was a money-grubbing,  Scripture-twisting denier of Biblical truths and life, the criticism would stick.  But there are people who adhere firmly to the authority of Scripture, the vicarious atonement, and other essential doctrines, who also are charismatics.  Every group has its problem areas.  It would be easy to write a book about the high sins and misdemeanors within Calvinistic circles.  (Greg Dutcher’s book Killing Calvinism:  How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology from Within is a good example of a very instructive and helpful book on problems among Calvinists.)

My problem again is that sin and hypocrisy strikes within the ranks of all Christian groups.  I strongly favor Reformed theology over other approaches to Christianity.  I attend and pastor a conservative, evangelical, Bible-believing Presbyterian church.  We Reformed Christians and Presbyterians have had plenty of errors, excesses, extremists, and wacky trends, teachers, and teachings.  We also suffer from lots of meanness.  For every Reformed pastor, theologian, and writer, there is a blogger somewhere blasting their work.  Or there is someone sitting in the pew blasting their preaching and life.  Or there is a splinter group that angrily broke with the larger group over some minimally critical doctrine.  (I am concerned here more about attitudes that develop, rather than true doctrinal convictions that might necessitate worshiping at different locations.)

Charismatics have lots of loonies to explain, but then, so do the rest of us.  Paul’s epistles are full of rebukes directed at both individuals and whole churches.  Whereas Origen could have prayed more and found a church with some single girls, picked one out, and married her, he opted for castration.  (That is one stupid practice that rarely reoccurs.)  American Puritans created some powerful foundations for our culture, but Michael Wiggleworth’s writing of the poem “Day of Doom” was not the high point of Puritan theological or poetic achievement.  James Davenport, a preacher during the Great Awakening, was also quite unbalanced.  Even the best of Christians suffer faults and failures, and most of us are not “the best of Christians.”  So, moral failures and hypocrisy does not answer the question of Charismatic gifts.

There are heresies, distortions, and outright denials of key doctrines within the pale of Christianity.  There are pulpits, seminaries, books, and movements that deny basic Biblical doctrines.  Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism is just as relevant today as when it was written.  There are societal issues where Christians have bought agendas that are far from Biblical.  An approving nod or a sympathetic wink can be found for almost any perversity, immorality, or heresy from someone or some group that professes Christ.

In contrast, many, if not most, charismatics are conservative, Bible-believing, pro-life, mission oriented believers.  Most are premillennial, but they work on Kingdom-projects as though they were post-millennial.   Many Reformed Christians have found fellowship with charismatics and co-workers in many areas.  And many Reformed Christians have been put to shame by the prayers, witnessing, and zeal of charismatic brethren.

The best part of MacArthur’s book is Part 3 Rediscovering the Spirit’s Work.  The first three chapters in this part deal with the Holy Spirit and salvation, sanctification, and the Scriptures.  This is vintage  MacArthur:  Sound doctrines explained, applied, and buttressed with lots of Bible verses.  I think the book as a whole would have been better if the focus, if the bulk of the book, had been expositions on the work of the Holy Spirit.  MacArthur could have addressed his concerns toward charismatics and continuationists after setting forth sound, agreed-upon truths.

The very last chapter of the book is “An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends.”  This perhaps should have been the opening chapter of the book.  It is warm and embracing.  Again, it is MacArthur at his best.  The questions and issues he raises are good ones, and I would like to hear how a continuationist would answer.  But I was a bit shaken by the chapter.  I knew that Wayne Grudem held to a continuation of gifts, but I did not know that others, such as John Piper and D. A. Carson were continuationists.  Rather than sealing the case for a non-charismatic like me, this all left me wondering whether I have misunderstood something or am missing some blessings.

I conclude with giving thanks to God for both John MacArthur and for the many Jesus-loving, Spirit-filled charismatics.

This book was provided to me free of charge for reviewing purposes.  I was not required to write favorably about it, and did not do so.  But I still endorse both the author and the publisher.

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3 thoughts on “Inconclusive Thoughts About Strange Fire

  1. Ben, I appreciate this review. I, too, have greatly benefited from John MacArthur’s ministry, in particular his writing ministry, but find that I do not and indeed cannot agree with him all of the time. I have yet to read this book (may or may not), but have read much of the online discussion it and the conference have created.

    Having had many friends and acquaintances during high school and college from charismatic backgrounds, I had many questions several years ago and read John MacArthur’s (1978) book called “The Charismatics” upon recommendation from my then pastor. (Is Strange Fire a new addition of The Charismatics or Charismatic Chaos?) While I agree with him on most points, I do not buy the argument using 1 Corinthians 13 that tongues/prophecies have ceased. I think this argument to be a very weak one and needs much more support. As a result of a lack of an ability to agree with this argument among others, I have considered myself a cautious continuationist. Just this past week, I was catching up with the “Ask Pastor John” Podcast and listening to #s 214 ( https://soundcloud.com/askpastorjohn/john-macarthur-and-strange ), 215, and 216 regarding Strange Fire and Piper’s stance on the sign gifts. I have been greatly influenced by his preaching and writing ministry, so it’s probably no surprise that I find myself in 100% agreement with John Piper.

    BTW, John MacArthur’s The Murder of Jesus has been my favorite of his (that I have read) thus far.

    • Brian, thanks for the comments. I read the earlier book sometime in the early 1980s. This new book borrows heavily from it. I was more convinced then by MacArthur’s arguments than I now.
      The new book has actually shaken me up a bit. It’s nice when a book answers our questions and eases our minds. But in this case, this matter will involve some rethinking, prayer, and a willingness to learn, and if necessary, to change.

  2. Amen, Ben. I think you nailed it. Like you, I am not a Charismatic. But, I have many, many Charismatic friends and co-laborers. Indeed, I often find my Charismatic friends far, far better company to keep than a goodly portion of my Presbyterian brethren. Mac’s a hero of mine. But, I am afraid that he’s gone a bridge too far here.

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