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John MacArthur Responds To His Strange Fire Critics (Part 2)
November 11, 2013
John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference is now several weeks behind us; the Strange Fire book releases tomorrow. Both have ignited a great deal of discussion about the place, the purpose and the continued existence of the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. Last week I began an interview with John MacArthur (read it here) in which I asked him questions about it all. Today the interview continues and concludes with another series of questions and answers. I ask him why he is focusing so much attention on this issue, how we should relate to those who practice speaking in tongues, whether he would participate in a debate-style conference, whether he believes Muslims are receiving visions of Jesus Christ, and more.
There are many areas of doctrine in which well-respected, godly theologians hold opposing views, and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit are just one of them. Again, we are thinking here of the best and most gospel-centered of the continuationists. Why focus on this area now when it threatens to inhibit unity and further divide true believers? Why not focus on baptism or eschatology or another issue?
Tim, thank you again for your willingness to host this interview. It is a joy to think through these issues for the glory of the Lord Jesus.
There are plenty of people who think that these kinds of robust theological discussions threaten unity in the church. As you might imagine, I’ve heard from a number of them since the conference.
It seems that in the postmodern climate of our time, the church has adopted the idea that if disagreement over doctrine exists within the church, it is the one who sounds the alarm that is being divisive. But I disagree with that sentiment. In the New Testament, a factious man was someone who taught doctrine contrary to what was handed down from the apostles (1 Tim 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13). Calling for the correction of error in the church is not creating disunity. That disunity exists by virtue of the doctrinal defection. In fact, it is the call for a return to sound doctrine that is the effort of true unity, because real, biblical unity centers on doctrinal truth and is motivated by love.
According to Ephesians 4:3, we are to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Paul doesn’t leave us guessing what the unity of the Spirit looks like; it’s the doctrinal unity delineated in verses 4–6, which comprises a comprehensive theology (“one body” points to a sound ecclesiology; “one Spirit,” pneumatology; “one hope,” eschatology; “one Lord,” Christology; “one faith,” bibliology; “one baptism,” soteriology; and “one God,” theology proper).
All true believers are unified at the core on those distinctives in the Spirit; but it takes time and study to experience that unity in our relationships. That’s why love must energize our quest for practical unity (Phil. 1:27)—love for God and His truth and love for one another. Even in 1 Corinthians 13:6, in the heart of Paul’s discussion about spiritual gifts, the apostle reminded his readers that “love rejoices in the truth.” So, drawing attention to serious error—error that’s being tolerated even in some of the otherwise-healthiest of churches—in order to recover and uphold the truth is a loving thing to do.
While it might be hard for some to understand, it was love that drove me to write this book and have this conference: love for God and His honor, love for His truth, love for His church and her purity, and, in the cases of the prosperity gospel that pervades the global movement, a love for the millions of souls who are trapped by some of the most deceitful false teaching that history has ever seen. It is my earnest desire and prayer to see the church unified. But a unity that knowingly tolerates error is not the unity that Scripture promotes. So, if we want to be truly unified, we have to be willing to confront error for the sake of the truth. And that might mean that superficial unity is disrupted.
Now someone might ask, “But isn’t this a secondary issue?” I would respond by asking, “Is the true understanding of the dignity of the Holy Spirit a secondary issue?” That’s a frightening notion, since the worship of the true God in the true way is our highest priority. And this issue has dramatic implications both for how we view God and for how we worship Him.
As we’ve witnessed over the past hundred years, charismatic distinctives have opened the door to doctrinal deviations that have distorted the gospel to create another gospel that many have embraced to their eternal destruction. As Conrad Mbewe brought to our attention, that false gospel is the face of so-called Christianity in many parts of the world. In light of what’s at stake, it’s hard to believe anyone would claim that the way we think about the Person and work of the Holy Spirit is not vitally important.
Regarding the other two issues you mentioned (baptism and eschatology), I actually have addressed those issues in the past. A number of years ago, I engaged R. C. Sproul in a dialogue about infant baptism at a Ligonier Conference. In that interchange, I contended that there is no New Testament warrant for infant baptism. At the 2007 Shepherds’ Conference, I addressed the issue of amillennial eschatology. Though on a smaller scale, I received the same kind of reaction to that message as I’ve received from charismatics regarding the Strange Fire Conference. So I think I’ve been pretty consistent in talking frankly about these various issues throughout the years.
Having said that, comparing intramural disagreements about baptism or eschatology to the present discussion is like comparing apples to oranges. Such an objection doesn’t take into account both the severity and the ubiquity of the charismatic error on the global level. Errant pneumatology is not ancillary to the charismatic movement. It is the very thing that defines it. And when an entire movement is defined by a heterodox theology that threatens the purity of the church by tolerating and even promoting false forms of the gospel, it must be boldly confronted.
Because of its potential to distort the gospel and to elevate experience over biblical truth, there is something considerably more ominous about charismatic error than those other two issues. Church history bears out that point. While paedobaptist and amillennial distinctives have been variously held by orthodox theologians throughout church history, charismatic theology has a much more sinister spiritual heritage: from the Montanists of the early church, to the Zwickau prophets and Münster radicals of the Reformation, to the Quakers, Shakers, Jansenists, and Irvingites of more recent church history.
There’s a sense in which our response ought to correspond to the threat level posed by the doctrinal issue in question. I’m convinced that charismatic theology poses a major threat, and consequently deserves a strong response.
We often hear today that many believers from a Muslim background—especially those from closed countries who do not have easy access to God’s Word—are claiming they had a vision of Christ and that in this vision he directed them to a place or person where they could hear the gospel. This proclamation of the gospel led to their conversion. Do you believe these stories? Do you consider such visions a valid means that God may work in our world today?
There are several points that could be made in answer to this question. Let me begin with just a general comment about how to interpret experience. It is important to remember that, as Christians, we ought to develop our theology from Scripture and then interpret experience accordingly. Danger comes when believers get that backwards—allowing experience to define their theology, and then reinterpreting the Bible to make it fit.
With regard to these kinds of stories, I am always somewhat skeptical about third- and fourth-hand accounts of supposedly supernatural happenings. It’s not that I doubt the power of God to do whatever He wants. Obviously, He can (Psalm 115:3). But I question whether the story itself is an accurate record of what actually took place. Sometimes well-meaning people misinterpret what really happened. Sometimes second-hand stories are unintentionally exaggerated. And sometimes, sadly, people purposefully manufacture tall tales.
For example, there are unbelievers in false religions all over the world who claim to have received divine revelations or to have witnessed miracles. I don’t believe any of those things, because they are reported by people who do not truly know God.
Regarding the visions in question, it is important to recognize that those who have investigated such claims have found the evidence to be sorely lacking. For example, this article directly addresses the issue.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled to hear that Muslims are coming to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is remarkable, and I rejoice in that reality! Moreover, I would gladly affirm that their regeneration truly is a miracle (just as it is for every sinner), even if I would deny the notion that any previous dreams, impressions, or experiences were revelatory or miraculous.
I suppose that brings us to the crux of the matter. Do I believe that people in the Muslim world are actually seeing Jesus Christ? No, I do not. Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 15:8 that he was “the last of all” to see the risen Christ. So, I believe that precludes anyone outside of those listed in 1 Corinthians 15 of being able to claim legitimate visions of the resurrected Savior. (The apostle John, of course, was one of those included in 1 Corinthians 15. Accordingly, I don’t believe the book of Revelation sets a precedent for believers to expect genuine visions of Jesus to occur throughout church history.)
Furthermore, it is important to note that these individuals are still unbelievers when they reportedly have these experiences. Consequently, these experiences (whatever they are reported to be) cannot constitute examples of the charismatic gifts having continued, since spiritual gifts are only given to believers (1 Cor. 12:7)—and these people do not come to saving faith until later.
Finally, the New Testament clearly states that the way in which the gospel is spread in this age is through preaching. As Paul explains in Romans 10:14–15, unbelievers will not hear the gospel unless missionaries go to them proclaiming the good news of salvation:
How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!”
To claim that the gospel is now being spread through supernatural visions and revelatory dreams (rather than gospel preaching) goes contrary to Paul’s words in those verses.
By the way, that is why we live-stream our church services every Sunday in Arabic (through gracechurch.org) so that those sermons are available to Arab-speakers all around the world. We believe that faith comes from hearing the proclamation of the good news. In our efforts to fulfill the Great Commission, we can’t assume that supposed visions are legitimate, when the means that God has ordained is the proclamation is the gospel.
Now, can God providentially work in such a way as to use people’s thoughts and impressions to draw them to faith in Jesus Christ? Yes, I believe that’s possible. As I noted earlier, God can do whatever He wants. But that work is neither revelatory nor miraculous. Phil Johnson gave a helpful explanation of this point in his breakout session at the Strange Fire Conference. He said this:
How do we understand that inner sense, especially when God seems to use it to prompt us to pray, or witness, or duck and run at precisely the right moment? Because let’s be honest: that kind of thing does happen to most of us from time to time.
Here’s the point: I do believe that God might providentially use a spontaneous thought in my head to accomplish something wonderful. But that’s what it is, and no more. It’s a remarkable providence, not a prophecy [nor a revelatory vision]. As I have been saying, God ultimately controls and uses everything providentially… . The fact that He uses an idea in my mind to achieve some good purpose doesn’t make the idea itself inspired.
So where does that leave me? Well, I praise God that, in His perfect providence, He is drawing Muslims to saving faith in Jesus Christ. At times, the circumstances in which these individuals hear the gospel and are converted may sound extraordinary to us. Certainly, the miracle of regeneration is always extraordinary! But for reasons that come from the study of Scripture, I do not believe anyone today is genuinely experiencing supernatural visions or revelatory dreams.
Those interested in thinking more about this topic should check out Fred Butler’s helpful blog post on this topic
What would you say to a close and dear brother or sister in the faith, whom you know to have a real relationship with Christ and proven devotion to the local church, who has privately mentioned that they regularly pray in tongues? Do I have good reason to be alarmed? What Scriptures could I use as a basis to address this claim?
I empathize with people who have these kinds of questions, because this is where theology meets real life—at the point where it impacts relationships with family members and friends. On the one hand, we want to be faithful to the truth of God’s Word. That means we need to lovingly confront error and point people to the Scriptures. On the other hand, we want to do so with gentleness and patience (cf. 2 Tim. 2:25), doing our best to preserve the relationship without compromising what we know to be true.
If it were my friend, I would seek to graciously begin a discussion with him on that issue. In fact, I golf periodically with a Pentecostal pastor from central California. We are friends and this topic has been a point of ongoing conversation between us. Our interchanges are always amicable and respectful, even as we talk frankly about things.
Asking questions is a great way to start that kind of conversation. The goal would be to have an open dialogue about the issue, prayerfully bringing everything back to the Word of God (Acts 17:11). The Spirit of God honors the study of His Word, so that is where the discussion needs to be centered. I would also direct my friend to additional resources that are likewise focused on explaining the biblical text, so that he could read or listen to them on his own time.
In terms of potential dangers, I do believe that modern tongues is an unsafe spiritual practice. True worship takes place in spirit and truth (John 4:24), meaning it involves both the emotions and the mind. By contrast, a worship practice that empties the mind or consists of vain repetitions (Matt. 6:7) has more in common with pagan religion than true worship. The fact that modern glossolalia parallels pagan religious rites should serve as a major warning of the dangers inherent in this unbiblical practice.
In terms of what Scriptures to use, nothing is better than an in-depth study of the relevant chapters in Acts and 1 Corinthians. Good biblical commentaries and other exegetical tools will help you navigate those passages. Though it is not a full-fledged commentary, the Strange Fire book spends considerable time looking at the gift of tongues from those texts. Other resources like Thomas Edgar’s Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit or Sam Waldron’s To Be Continued? are also very helpful.
A lot of the interpretative issues in Acts and 1 Corinthians 12–14 become clear by simply applying the basic rules of hermeneutics. For example, one of the most fundamental principles of Bible interpretation is that Scripture interprets Scripture, and that the clearer passage ought to be used to interpret the less clear passage. Regarding tongues, Acts 2 is explicit that the gift of tongues produced real human languages. When we allow the clearer passage of Acts 2 to govern our interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12–14, we can make a strong case that the tongues of 1 Corinthians were also real human languages. That simple observation undermines the modern charismatic practice of vocalizing irrational speech.
One final note, charismatics often respond to cessationists by pointing to 1 Corinthians 14:39, insisting that anyone who forbids the practice of charismatic glossolalia today is violating Paul’s injunction there. But the apostle’s command has nothing to do with the modern counterfeit experience. At a time when the authentic gift of miraculously speaking foreign languages was still in operation, of course believers were not to forbid its use.
But that is not the gift of tongues being practiced in today’s charismatic movement. And because incoherent babble is not the true gift of tongues, to dissuade someone from doing it is not a violation of Paul’s command. Rather, it’s the loving thing to do in the interest of promoting the true work of the Spirit through His Word.
Hypothetically speaking, if tomorrow every continuationist began to strictly follow the guidelines for the use of spiritual gifts set forth in 1 Corinthians, so they used these gifts considerately, with decency and order, how would your attitude change? To put it another way, how much of your opposition is based on the fact that many of these folks are behaving in a way that is contemptuous no matter what you believe about the miraculous gifts.
My initial response to this question is that, if charismatics started following the guidelines of 1 Corinthians 12–14 they would no longer be able to practice the modern versions of the gifts at all. And I’m not saying that facetiously. The biblical guidelines necessitate that the genuine gifts are being exercised, and I’m convinced they are not.
But I think I understand the intent of your question, so I’ll broaden my response to what I think you are really asking. If modern tongues speakers and prophets followed the biblical guidelines for orderly worship, it would certainly improve the situation dramatically. Something as simple as applying 1 Corinthians 14:26-34 [Note: a typo previously said 14:34] would have an immediate and widespread effect throughout most of the charismatic world.
I am thankful, by the way, for denominations that try to take those biblical guidelines seriously. From what I know of it, Sovereign Grace seems to be one such organization. I don’t agree with their continuationism, but I recognize that they are making an effort to employ Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians.
Having said that, there is one important stipulation in 1 Corinthians 12–14 that I think is universally missed by the charismatic movement. Spiritual gifts were given to the church in order to edify others not to edify yourself. Paul makes that point repeatedly throughout his epistle to the Corinthian congregation (1 Cor. 12:7–10; 13:1–7; 14:12, 26). Thus, any use of the gifts that primarily intends to produce self-edification is a misuse of that gift.
Immediately, someone will object by pointing to 1 Corinthians 14:4, when Paul wrote, “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.” But that verse does not validate self-edification as a legitimate end in itself. If it did, it would run contrary to Paul’s instruction throughout the entirety of chapters 12–14. In fact, Paul is making exactly the opposite point. He is demonstrating the superiority of prophecy over tongues, because prophecy edified other people immediately without first needing to be interpreted. That is why the apostle insisted on the translation of the foreign languages that were spoken, so that the gift of tongues could fulfill its purpose of edifying others.
The modern idea of using tongues primarily for self-edification runs contrary to the entire spirit of Paul’s instruction. There is simply no Scriptural warrant for that kind of selfish exercise of a spiritual gift. It goes against the way in which the biblical gift of tongues was to be utilized and regulated within the worship services during the first century.
And so, while I think the church would be helped by a movement-wide commitment to practice the contemporary charismatic gifts according to the guidelines in Scripture, it would not ultimately be enough to solve the problem. We would still run up against the fact that the modern versions of the miraculous gifts are not the same as the New Testament reality. So, while it would be a step in the right direction, to stop there would be nothing more than a half-measure.
The Strange Fire conference focused primarily on the worst examples of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements. While the charlatans rightfully need to be exposed and rebuked, there are also many godly Christians who feel like they have been unjustly tarnished with an overly broad generalization. Do you think there would be value in a conference that would interact not with the worst, but the best of charismatic leaders (such as D.A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, and John Piper)? Would you be willing to organize or participate in such an event?
First, I want to clearly state that I take no joy in being perceived as unloving or in hurting the feelings of fellow believers. My heart is deeply burdened by the errors and excesses that I have spoken out against in Strange Fire. I do not issue these criticisms flippantly. I would also direct readers to the first part of this interview, where I interact with the idea that I have made an overly broad generalization.
But for those who want to get angry at me, I would humbly suggest that such anger is misplaced. In the days following the conference, I came across an article written by a Pentecostal pastor entitled, “A Pentecostal in (General) Support of the Strange Fire Conference.” When I read his article I was thrilled, because his reaction is representative of the kind of response I was hoping the conference would evoke. He wrote this:
I recognize the value of unity, but a unity not grounded in and centered on the truth is merely a superficial unity. If we Pentecostals want John MacArthur to make distinctions when he calls out the Charismatic movement for its abuses, then maybe we should be the first ones making distinctions and calling out heresy and excess where we find it. …
We Pentecostals and Charismatics needed to be offended. I’m afraid it may be the only thing that will make us think critically and Biblically about ourselves as a movement. And for this offense I want to thank John MacArthur and the participants in the Strange Fire Conference. The most hurtful thing about that conference is not the broad generalizations, sweeping condemnations, or lack of distinctions. For me as a Pentecostal the most hurtful thing about the Strange Fire Conference is my knowledge that far too many of the criticisms are true.
Though he doesn’t agree with my cessationism, he understands what we were trying to accomplish through the Strange Fire conference and book. I would recommend his article to all of my charismatic friends (and critics).
Regarding those godly Christians to whom you refer in the question, perhaps the best response I can give is by citing a section out of chapter 12 of Strange Fire:
I want to emphasize, from the outset, that I regard as brothers in Christ and friends in the ministry all who are faithful fellow workmen in the Word and the gospel, even if they give a place of legitimacy to the charismatic experience. I have good friends among them who label themselves as ‘reformed charismatics’ or ‘evangelical continuationists.’
The Charismatic Movement is teeming with false teachers and spiritual charlatans of the worst kind, as can be aptly illustrated by turning the channel to TBN (or any of several smaller charismatic television networks). Certainly I do not view my continuationist friends in the same light as those spiritual mountebanks and blatant frauds. In this chapter, I’m writing to Christian leaders who have proven their commitment to Christ and His Word over the years. Their allegiance to the authority of Scripture and the fundamentals of the gospel has been consistent and influential—and it is on that basis that we share rich fellowship in the truth.
I am thankful for the extensive contributions they have made to the truth and life of the church. I have personally benefited, along with my congregation, from books written by continuationist authors—including systematic theologies, biblical commentaries, historical biographies, devotional works, and treatises defending fundamental doctrines such as substitutionary atonement, biblical inerrancy, and the God-given roles for men and women. …
Thus, while I am thankful we are together for the gospel, I am equally convinced that the unity we share in the core of the gospel must not preclude us from addressing other extended gospel issues; rather, it should motivate us to sharpen one another for the sake of biblical accuracy. Love for the truth, without any lack of personal charity, is what motivates me to write a book like this (pp. 231–32).
I could cite additional paragraphs from the book that convey that same sentiment. It is a sincere articulation of my respect and appreciation for those men. The reason I wrote chapter 12 is because I really do hope those men will join with me in confronting the abuses and excesses of the broader movement. I don’t want to distance myself from them. But I’m hoping they will further distance themselves from the corrupt theology that pervades the larger charismatic world.
Regarding the need for another conference, people are welcome to have any kind of conference they want. Ultimately, however, these issues are not going to be resolved in a conference format where opposing sides are debated over the course of just a few days. They are only going to be resolved through the serious and diligent study of God’s Word.
Rather than initiating another conference, I am more interested in sparking a movement committed to reclaiming the honor of the Holy Spirit. And I would be glad to stand with these men in that effort, for the glory of Christ and the good of His church.
I sincerely hope they’ll join me.