John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference has come and gone and the book will be shipping next week. Whatever you felt about the conference, there is little doubt that a lot of work and a lot of discussion remain as we, the church, consider the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the aftermath of the event, and with the book on its way, I think we all have questions we’d like to ask Dr. MacArthur. A week ago I asked for your questions and sent them through to him. Here are his answers to the first batch of questions. I anticipate adding a second part to this interview within the week.
What was the purpose of such a controversial conference like Strange Fire? Why did you choose not to invite one of the best of the reformed continuationists to speak at your event and to defend his position? Wouldn’t that have strengthened the cessationist arguments while also showing an earnest desire for unity?
Let me begin by thanking you, Tim, for the opportunity to respond to these important questions about the Strange Fire conference and book. I would also like to thank your readers for their willingness to post these questions.
The goal of the Strange Fire Conference was to sound a trumpet blast in the midst of an evangelical world that has largely grown ambivalent about this vital issue. Sometimes you need to take a strong stand in order to get people’s attention and we wanted the conference to make that kind of definitive statement. Because the honor of the Holy Spirit is at stake, we were convinced that we could not remain silent.
Our decision not to host a debate at the Strange Fire Conference was intentional. Debates are rarely effective in truly helping people think carefully through the issues, since they can easily be reduced to sound bites and talking points. By contrast, a clear understanding of biblical truth comes from a faithful study of the Scriptures. Our hope is that the conference sparked a renewed desire for that kind diligent study on this important issue.
I also expect continuationists to respond in writing to the things I have written in the book. I welcome that kind of interchange. It allows people to think carefully, over a prolonged period of time, about the arguments on both sides of the issue. It has always been through the written word that theological disputes like this have been grappled with in church history. That requires the kind of devotion and effort that brings serious discussion to the fore. I have taken those pains in Strange Fire, and would hope that others would interact on that same level.
There are some matters the Bible makes absolutely clear (e.g. You must trust in Christ alone for your salvation) and some things that continue to perplex us so that even genuine, Bible-loving Christians can disagree on them (e.g. baptism and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit). Why does God allow questions like these to remain unclear to us? Why are you taking such a strong stand on what is really just a secondary issue?
These questions remind me of an article Thabiti Anyabwile wrote during the Strange Fire Conference, in which he explained why this issue is so important. He wrote, “First, we have to admit that there’s a correct and an incorrect position on this issue. Somebody is right and somebody is wrong… . Second, we have to admit that how we view this issue substantially impacts the nature of the Christian life. It matters. It’s not an inconsequential idea. Someone worships God appropriately, someone doesn’t… . Third, we have to admit that this issue practically impacts Christian worship and fellowship. It’s not only a private matter, but a corporate one as well.”
I agree with all of that. This is an issue of critical importance because it affects our view of God as well as our understanding of how to live out the Christian life, both individually and corporately.
I don’t think, however, that this issue is unclear in Scripture. The fact that Christians disagree on what the Bible teaches does not mean that there is a lack of clarity in Scripture, but rather in Christians. The Word of God is our authoritative rule for faith and practice—meaning that it is perfectly sufficient for teaching sound doctrine and governing right living. Certainly, an orthodox pneumatology fits under that umbrella.
On the one hand, I would agree that this is a second-level doctrinal issue—meaning that someone can be either a continuationist or a cessationist and still be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. I have always maintained that position, and I reiterated that point several times during the conference. I have good friends who consider themselves continuationists, and I am confident that these men are fellow brothers in Christ. But that doesn’t excuse the seriousness of the error. In fact, I would appeal to my continuationist brethren to reconsider their views in light of what Scripture teaches.
On the other hand, I am firmly convinced that this secondary issue has the very real potential to taint a person’s understanding of the gospel itself. In such cases, it becomes a primary issue. For example, charismatic theology does corrupt the gospel when it expresses itself in the form of the prosperity gospel. Moreover, the global charismatic movement happily shelters other heretical movements—such as Catholic Charismatics and Oneness Pentecostals. Taken together, the number of charismatics who hold to a false form of the gospel (whether it is a gospel of health and wealth or a gospel of works righteousness) number in the hundreds of millions, which means they actually represent the majority of the global charismatic movement. That is why we took such a strong stand both at the conference and in the book.
You noted that you see this issue clearly resolved in Scripture. Can you explain, briefly, the biblical case for cessationism?
The full answer to this question would require a lengthy response; and I spend several chapters in the book making the case. But since you asked me to be brief, I’ll do my best to stay concise. I find it helpful to shape the case for cessationism around three questions: What?, When?, and Why?.
First, what were the miraculous and revelatory gifts (like apostleship, prophecy, tongues, and healing) according to the Word of God? Scripture gives us a clear description. But when we compare that biblical description with the modern charismatic movement, we find that the latter falls far short. Though charismatics use biblical terminology to describe their contemporary experiences, nothing about the modern charismatic gifts matches the biblical reality.