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October 19, 2013

The Strange Fire conference closed with a final address from John MacArthur. In this address he responds to seven accusations brought against the conference, follows with eight appeals to his continuationist friends, and concludes by walking through 1 and 2 Timothy, highlighting the need to stand firm in guarding divine revelation against false doctrine.

Before addressing the accusations against the conference, MacArthur charged attendees to carefully read their copy of Strange Fire and to measure it against the Word of God. He is convinced that this book, with its well-documented research and extensive footnotes, will withstand careful scrutiny. He reminds us that this book and conference is intended for the Church. He has no expectation for either one to be helpful to non-believers, which he suspects makes up much of the charismatic movement.

MacArthur then shared from his heart responses to seven accusations against the conference. These accusations have arisen from the Internet. It is interesting to note that we live in a time where we are able to give more people access to information simultaneously like never before, which then puts us quickly under scrutiny as never before.

Seven Accusations

Here are the seven accusations, along with brief responses.

  1. They are accused of being unloving. MacArthur responds that the most loving thing for someone to do is to tell the truth. That is how love acts. It would be unloving to leave people in darkness and error. Paul spoke in Acts how he was moved to tears knowing that perverse men would lead people astray. Titus 1:4 directs pastors to fulfill their duty to point out error and give biblical arguments against false teaching. This is how to care for the sheep and protect them.
  2. They are accused of being divisive. MacArthur agrees. Truth is divisive by nature. Jesus came to bring a sword. Truth, by its very nature, is separated by error. It is more important to be divided by truth than united by error.
  3. This issue is not clear in the Bible. Candidly, MacArthur responds that if the issue is unclear as some claim, it is unclear under the influence of false teachers. This issue was clear to the Apostles, early Church Fathers, Reformers, and Puritans. It was clearly delineated by the creeds and confessions. More modern heroes of the faith such as Warfield, Spurgeon, Boice, Sproul and others have taken their stand. Is it now unclear because of Swaggart, Baker, and Copeland? The true historic stream of sound doctrine has made this issue clear.
  4. This issue is only true of the extreme lunatic fringe side of the movement. MacArthur believes that this statement is patently untrue. There is error in this movement all the way through it. 90% of the movement believe in the prosperity gospel. 24 to 25 million of these people deny the Trinity. 100 million in the movement are Roman Catholic. This is not characteristic of the fringe. This is the movement and it grows at a rapid rate.
  5. They are attacking a movement that has given us rich music. MacArthur disagrees with this opinion. He is convinced that the contemporary style of music in the charismatic movement is the entry point of false doctrine into our churches. A church rooted in historical doctrine and hymns will be reluctant to embrace this music. This movement has diminished music by taking it out of the area of the mind and reduces it to feelings of the flesh.
  6. They are attacking brothers. MacArthur wishes he could affirm this. From his vantage point, this is a movement made up largely of non-Christians that lacks accountability. No one polices this movement. Every faithfully reformed elder, pastor, scholar and teacher of the word should bear the responsibility of policing this movement. People accuse MacArthur of being fixated on this issue, yet in 45 years of ministry he has only held one 3-day conference on this matter. Rather he has devoted his time to preaching the New Testament verse by verse and exalting Christ.
  7. Finally, MacArthur does not care about offending people. He admits that he holds the truth with kindness and love. He does care about peoples’ feelings. He does care about offending them. Just not nearly as much as he cares about not offending God.

October 18, 2013

The first session of the final day at the Strange Fire conference brought Conrad Mbewe back to the pulpit. Phil Johnson introduced him by sharing how others have called him the Spurgeon of Africa. Today he brought message entitled, “Are We Preachers or Witch Doctors?”

Though an odd question, it is pertinent to him because there has been a clear shift in how “evangelicals” relate to pastoral ministry. Mbewe’s aim is to give a broad sweeping picture of the landscape of African “evangelicalism.” Throughout this message his caveat is to put “evangelicalism” in quote and end-quote, because it does not represent biblical and faithful Christianity. There will be those in Africa who do not fit within the picture Mbewe portrays, but what he shares today is the trend and it is a dismal trend.

2 Timothy is the last epistle Paul writes because he will soon end his labor and depart from the world. This is not the end of the Christian Church. This exhortation is Paul’s parting gift to Timothy, much like Christ’s high priestly prayer is a departing gift to the Church.

First, this exhortation in 2 Timothy 3.16-4.5 illuminates how Scripture is a sufficient tool to accomplish all the work the man of God is to do. He is adequately equipped by the Word of God. Second, this is a charge to Timothy, a hair raising charge, evoking God the Father and the Son to preach the Word. Third, once an audience is found, even if it has stuffed ears, Timothy is to do all he can to ensure that the Word is preached.

Mbewe then contrasts Paul’s exhortation in 2 Timothy with the present picture in Zambia. He shares two newspaper clippings from July concerning evangelical preachers. In the first, a clergyman impregnated 10 women before his wife came forward about the scandal. She came forward after witnessing the scourge on the children in this church and the presence of the witchcraft taking place. In the second clipping two clergy men took two women into the mountains and sexually assaulted them. They first visited their home and took prayer requests and then led them into the mountain.

October 18, 2013

The final session on day two of the Strange Fire conference was led by Steven Lawson who spoke on “The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura.” This was another historical message meant to demonstrate how our forebears were committed to the doctrine of Scripture alone.

Tonight the focus of our study will be another historical theology overview of a critical issue that ties in wonderfully with this entire conference.

It’s the subject of the Puritan commitment to Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura (Latin for “Scripture alone”) served as the foundation for the four other solas of the Reformation: sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (by faith alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). These five all fit together as one statement of truth, one declaration of the true saving gosepl of Jesus Christ. Sola scriptura is the foundation upon which everything rests, everything we believe, embrace, and hold dear.

Rome said “We accept Scripture, but also Church tradition, ecclesiastical hierarchies, etc.” But the Reformers said “No, it’s sola scriptura. If anything else is added to the foundation of the church, the foundation will be split and unable to hold the rest of the doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Upon the foundation of sola scripture are three massive pillars which frame and uphold the gospel in its most basic formulation—by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. And when this foundation and these pillars are in place, the crown can be erected across which is written soli Deo gloria.

After the Reformers, the next giants of faith were the Puritans. These came around the time when Queen Elizabeth began to reign. Few movements in church history have ever been more Bible centered than was the Puritan movement.

I want to consider their view of sola Scriptura under 3 headings:

  1. Defined by the Westminster Divines
  2. Diluted by the Quakers
  3. Defended by John Owen

Defined by the Westminster Divines

What are the distinguishing marks out of the Bible itself regarding sola scriptura?

First, it would have to begin with the inspiration of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). Every chapter, verse, and book in the canon is breathed out by God. The authors recorded exactly what God wanted them to write. Matthew 4:4 says every word of Scripture comes out of the mouth of God. Hebrews 4:12 says this book is alive. It has the life of God within it. In John 6:63 Jesus says the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

October 17, 2013

Today Tom Pennington spoke at the Strange Fire conference and provided a case for cessationism. He offered seven biblical arguments for the cessation of the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. Here is a summary of his session.

The label “Cessationism” is negative, but the real problem is that it has been easily caricatured as believing that the Spirit has ceased his work. But the fact is that we who are cessationists believe the Holy Spirit has continued his work. Nothing eternal happens in a person apart from the Holy Spirit. Temporal things can happen, but nothing eternal. We only believe the Spirit has ceased in one function: the miraculous gifts, such as tongues, prophecy, and healing.

Charismatics’ chief arguments for believing the gifts have continued are:

  1. The New Testament doesn’t say they have ceased. But then again, it doesn’t say that they won’t either.
  2. 1 Corinthians 13:10 - they say this means that only when Christ returns will the partial gifts of tongues and prophecies cease. This implies that the gifts continue. But this is an uncertain interpretation.
  3. The New Testament speaks only of the church age, and so, they argue, the gifts that began the church age should continue throughout it. They say we artificially divide it between apostolic and post-apostolic eras. But they do this, too, by not believing that the apostolic office still continues.
  4. 500 million professing Christians who claim charismatic experiences can’t all be wrong. But if we accept this, then logically we should accept the miracles attested to by one billion Catholics in the world. The truth is that 500 million + people can be wrong.

Cessationism does not mean that God no longer does anything miraculous. As a pastor I see miracles often. Every time a spiritually dead person comes to faith is a miraculous work of grace. Every time a person is healed solely in answer to the prayers of God’s people totally in contradiction to the medical science predictions, it is a divine miracle. If God so chose, he could allow someone to speak today in a language they didn’t previously know.

Cessationism means the Spirit no longer gives believers miraculous spiritual gifts as a normative Christian experience as it was for the apostles.

Why do we believe this?

Here are 7 biblical arguments for Cessationism:

1) The unique role of miracles. There were only 3 primary periods in which God worked miracles through unique men. The first was with Moses; the second was during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha; the third was with Christ and his apostles.

October 17, 2013

The second day of the Strange Fire conference began with John MacArthur preaching a message titled “Testing the Spirits.” It was based on 1 John 4: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…”

There are many places in the New Testament where we are told to test all things and this is critical because Satan and his demons exist and because they operate a kingdom of lies that dominates the world. Satan has been allowed to run loose in this world and he and his agents are disguised as angels of light. We should not be surprised that Satan operates 99% of the time in false religion, in lies and deception. He is not the one behind the corruption in sinful society—the flesh takes care of that. He is behind the false systems of belief that pervade this world.

MacArthur said that many Christians get spiritual warfare all wrong and turned briefly to 2 Corinthians 10:3ff where we see that the weapons of our warfare are not human and that we cannot rely on anything concocted by man. Our weapons must be divinely powerful. Why? Because we must be engaged in the destruction of fortresses. The picture here is that human weapons are no match for a huge and impregnable fortress. We are assaulting formidable edifices and cannot use pea-shooters. These fortresses are speculations, ideas, psychologies, and religions. Spiritual warfare is not about running off demons, but battling for the mind.

Why? Because the world is imprisoned in belief systems and worldly people are fortified in them. These belief systems become their prisons and end up being their tombs. The architect of it all is Satan, the arch-deceiver. These fortresses are further defined as “every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God.” This refers to every great insight or noble idea, everything raised up as an ideology against the knowledge of God.

What is our responsibility as Christians? It is to smash these ideologies, to crush these fortifications, and to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Once again, we need to remember that we are engaged in a battle for how people think.

October 17, 2013

The first day of the Strange Fire conference has come and gone and the second is just about to begin. To this point it has certainly lived up to its billing as an event that will deal frankly with concerns related to the charismatic movement. I want to offer just a couple of brief reflections.

The format has been very deliberate and rather interesting. John MacArthur began with a series of direct statements about charismatic theology and was followed by Joni Eareckson Tada who provided a testimony of how God has chosen not to heal her paralysis and chronic pain. R.C. Sproul brought a theological perspective to Pentecost, Steve Lawson brought a historical perspective from John Calvin, and Conrad Mbewe showed how charismatic theology in its worst form has come to dominate African Christianity.

Here is a one-sentence summary of each of the addresses so far:

  • John MacArthur: Charismatic theology is offensive to God and any good that has come out of the movement has come despite, not because of, that theology. (read a summary)
  • Joni Eareckson Tada: I thank God that he did not answer my prayers for healing because it has shown me the deeper healing he means to do in my life. (read a summary)
  • R.C. Sproul: Charismatic theology downplays the uniqueness and long-lasting significance of Pentecost. (read a summary)
  • Steve Lawson: If you are a Reformed charismatic, you need to go to John Calvin, the father of Reformed theology, to see that he would not sanction it. (read a summary)
  • Conrad Mbewe: Charismatic theology is producing chaos and innumerable false converts all over Africa. (read a summary)

Judging by comments and by social media buzz, the event is being closely followed by many who hold to charismatic theology, and especially those who also hold to Reformed theology. Some are expressing sorrow at what they see as harsh and unfair treatment while others are expressing either patience or gratitude. Many are confused and are hoping for clearer definitions and positive affirmations that will better express and defend the cessationist position.

Until the day of the event, and really until the end of MacArthur’s opening address, I was unsure of whether or not I would give a lot of attention to the event. But I am glad I chose to blog about it as it really does seem to be making a big splash in the Evangelical world and especially among the Reformed crowd that tends to read this site. Like you, I am very interested to know what will come today and tomorrow.

What remains to be seen, and what may take quite a long time to see, is whether this event will call Christians to work to find greater agreement on the issue of the miraculous gifts, or whether it will polarize the camps even further. It is fast becoming my prayer that one way or another the Lord will see fit to use this event to bring greater maturity and greater unity to his church.

October 17, 2013

Conrab Mbewe is a man who wears many hats and who fulfills many different responsibilities, but above all else he is a preacher of God’s Word. MacArthur introduced him by explaining that he wished to have Mbewe at the event because the charismatic movement has done devastating damage in Africa and he wanted an insider’s perspective. Mbewe titled his message “The African Import of Charismatic Chaos.” Here are some brief notes.

Conrad Mbewe

Mbewe decided to provide a brief overview of the charismatic movement in Africa. It is a movement he has observed for over thirty years and one that is of great concern to him. This is not something he has learned about by reading books, but something he comes across literally every day. He warned that some of what he would say would be somewhat foreign to a Western mindset, but he felt it necessary to speak from his African background.

He went to John 17:17 and said the charismatic chaos we see would never have been the case if this verse had been taken seriously. This verse comes near the end of Christ’s ministry, on the eve of his crucifixion. He is seeking to convince his disciples concerning how they ought to live in his absence, and his great desire is for God to be glorified. In the time between Jesus’ ascension and his return, God’s Word is to remain serving and sanctifying his people. This is what Jesus desires, yet the African charismatic movement has come about because of a failure to hold to the centrality and sufficiency of Scripture.

The charismatic movement has flooded the African continent south of the Sahara Desert where it has become the most visible form of “Evangelicalism.” The phrase “born again” is equated to that form of Christianity. Its spread has largely come through the use of crusades, radio, television and free literature. Most of this literature has been shipped from the United States and it contains the kind of heresy that has become a common diet in the health and wealth movement.

October 16, 2013

John MacArthur opened the conference with broad statements about the purpose of the conference and what he perceives as the main challenges of the charismatic movement. Joni Eareckson Tada offered her unique testimony and this was followed by R.C. Sproul’s theological perspective. And now added to the mix is Steve Lawson and his perspective from church history.

Steve Lawson

With the recent resurgence of Calvinism there has been a strange merging of historic, biblical Calvinism with charismatic experiences and worship styles. It has pulled in an entire generation of young, restless, reformed people who believe in miracles, healings, words of knowledge, prophecies, tongues, and so on. They see no reason in the New Testament for why these gifts of the Spirit have ended since the first century.

This merging has gone virtually unaddressed within the reformed community. I believe there is no one better to address these charismatic Calvinists than Calvin himself.

Calvin faced a charismatic crisis of his own in his own day. I want to look at how he addressed them. As the leading reformer in that day, whatever faced the church faced John Calvin. He had the dominant voice and people looked to him to address issues.

The Anabaptists were a collection of subgroups which had elements of an inner word and inner witness of the Holy Spirit. They began to seek ecstatic visions and prophetic manifestations and miracles, etc.

Then there were the Libertines who were one of the subgroups under the Anabaptists. They were antinomians. They abused Christian liberty and proved themselves to be, most likely, unconverted. Calvin called them a sect one hundred times more dangerous than the Roman Catholic church itself. They were lead by fleshly impulses and believed the Holy Spirit was adding new revelation to the Bible. They set aside the Scripture and wanted to follow the inner impulses that they thought were the Spirit. They lived in open licentiousness. They wanted an easy moral path without having to fight sin or temptation.

October 16, 2013

For the third session at Strange Fire, John MacArthur introduced his good friend R.C. Sproul. Because of issues with his health, Sproul was unable to travel to California, so instead he sent along a video message. And his task was to speak about Pentecost.

R.C. Sproul

He began by saying, “I want to look specifically today at the redemptive-historical significance of Pentecost.” We’re aware that the modern Pentecostal movement began at Azusa Street and that it occurred outside of the mainline denotations until the middle of the 20th Century. Then it moved into Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, etc. circles. Initially when it came into these various denominations there were several attempts to assimilate the theology into their creedal foundations. At the same time, Pentecostals were gathering their beliefs into a creed, which became Neo-Pentecostal theology.

One of the most significant aspects of this theology is the idea that it is normal or even normative for people to have the baptism of the Holy Spirit after their conversion. It is admitted that some people can have conversion or regeneration simultaneously with their baptism by the Holy Spirit, but in the main there is a time difference between original conversion and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is this particular point I want to address today.

The fundamental weakness of Neo-Pentecostal theology is that it understands the original Pentecost differently than the apostles, and that it considers this Pentecost too lowly. The significance of the baptism of the Holy Spirit has to do principally with the Holy Spirit empowering Christians for ministry. When Jesus promised the Holy Spirit he was promising power and strength.

October 16, 2013

John MacArthur opened the Strange Fire conference, and then, for the second session introduced Joni Eareckson Tada as a friend and former member of his church. She was at the conference to share her testimony of living as a quadriplegic who has prayed for, but not received, a miraculous healing. As MacArthur said in his closing comments, if anyone has the faith to be healed, it must be her. In a sweet and spontaneous moment, Joni called MacArthur to the stage and, hand-in-hand, the two sang a couple of stanzas of “O Worship the King” together. I have been to a lot of different conferences, but that will now rank as one of my all-time favorite moments.

Joni Eareckson Tada

Joni began by reading John 5, the story of Jesus at the pool of Bethesda healing a man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years. She followed it with her story of going to see Kathryn Kuhlman, hoping that she would be healed and rise from her wheelchair. But Kuhlman did not heal her, and Joni wondered who this God was who would deny her what she was sure she needed. A bitter spirit began to take hold of her. If she couldn’t be healed, she wanted to be left alone in her despair.

When she did turn to the Bible, she had a special interest in healing, but soon saw that physical healing was not Jesus’ main interest; he was far more concerned with spiritual health. She realized then that her interest in Jesus had been more for what he might do to heal her body than for how she might serve him. That is when she began searching for a deeper healing and once she understood that healing, the Lord taught her that her disability was a means through which God was causing her to grow in holiness.

She went on to speak of the chronic pain that lasted for many years and the stage three cancer that followed it and expressed how she has learned to be grateful for the suffering because of the way it keeps her longing for Christ. The suffering that results from sin in the world, God now uses to get rid of sin. There is nothing sweeter than knowing the joy of the Lord Jesus in the midst of suffering and all the while she holds on to the hope and the confidence, that in heaven, the big deal won’t be getting a new body that works, but a glorified heart that no longer twists truth, becomes anxious, manipulates others, and all these other manifestations of sin.

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