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.