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Strange Fire Conference: John MacArthur Tests the Spirits

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.

All throughout the Old and New Testaments we are warned about false prophets. We are warned to ensure we continue to be faithful to the truth. A key component of fighting this war is testing the spirits. We cannot go blithely along accepting whatever people aver or avow. We need to test and 1 John 4 gives us the tools to do that.

When the Great Awakening broke out, there was much debate about what was and what was not a true work of the Spirit. Jonathan Edwards went to 1 John 4 and MacArthur closely followed Edwards’ The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. (Note: Time did not permit him to get too far into this; the Strange Fire book contains a much more detailed examination.)

We are all responsible to assess anything and everything that is claimed to be a work of the Holy Spirit. These are timeless tests for all movements, all preaching, and all preachers. What is truly of the Holy Spirit will conform to these marks.

The context for this passage is the work of the Spirit (see 3:24). While the working of the Holy Spirit is invisible, the manifestations of his work are visible. We know Christ abides in us because the Spirit he has given is manifested in us. What is the Spirit doing in us? MacArthur provided a long list. The Spirit creates a desire for repentance, a hatred of sin, a belief in the gospel, a love for Christ, a desire to be a slave of Christ, a delight in Scripture, a longing for obedience, joy in trials, love of other believers, desire for fellowship, illumination of Scripture, a heart of praise, worship as a way of life, increasing Christ-likeness and much more besides.

But there are other spirits and it is noteworthy that in a sudden and unexpected shift from the glories of 3:24, the Holy Spirit brings words to John’s mind that move from the glorious reality of the true work of the Spirit to the deadly dangers of unholy spirits that are not from God. But we should not be surprised because we have always been warned that Satanic deception is with us. It is always at work. God has always warned his people and called them to vigilance and discernment. This war against the truth rages all the time.

It is a telling irony to MacArthur that if you criticize the charismatic movement and endeavor to be vigilant, and if you endeavor to hold them to Scripture while exposing error, they will condemn you as the sinner. Suddenly you are the one who is standing in the way of Christ’s prayer for unity. In order for this movement to succeed, they have to turn discernment into a transgression against Christ and his high priestly prayer. For the charismatic movement to survive, it must attack truth warriors and turn them into enemies of the Holy Spirit. The reason is simple: if sound doctrine rules, charismatic theology does not survive.

He turned back to 1 John 4 where we are told, Beloved, do not believe every spirit (which means every person). Why? Because many false prophets have gone out into the world. The simple fact that the charismatic movement does not want examination ought to convince you of its error. If this was a true work of the Spirit, they would be inviting all the scrutiny they could get. They would want the affirmation and authentication.

So what are the tests that Edwards drew out of 1 John 4?

Test One: The true work of the Holy Spirit exalts the Lord Jesus Christ (see verse 2). The first test is Christological. Any Spirit that confesses Christ is from God; any spirit that does not confess Christ is not from God. It’s that simple. False religions and heretical cults all have an aberrant Christology.

His major critique of the charismatic movement is that it focuses undue attention on the Holy Spirit and does so at the expense of Christ. Any true preacher will be Christ-dominated and present him in an accurate and exalting way. It is a matter of sound theology and also a matter of preeminence. Where you see any deficiency in the nature and preeminence of Christ, this is not the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s ministry is always to point you to Jesus Christ. Anyone who pollutes the gospel or distracts from the Son to the Spirit is not operating in the Spirit.

A true work of the Spirit exalts the true Christ.

The devil would never want men to have more honorable thoughts of Christ and for that reason loves to draw attention away from Christ to a false image of the Holy Spirit. And all the while he pretends to draw attention to Jesus. A true work of the Spirit exalts the true Christ. If the charismatic movement was a movement of the Spirit, it would be Christ-dominated and everyone in the movement would be bowing the knee to the true Christ in belief of the true gospel.

According to leading charismatics, a distinctiveness of the charismatic movement is the preeminence of the Holy Spirit. They have a passion to experience the Spirit’s presence and power. But if the Spirit is the person sought, his work has been rejected. In this movement Christ is obscured, Scripture is depreciated, and a preoccupation with experience is elevated.

Show me a person obsessed with the Holy Spirit and I’ll show you a person not filled by the Spirit.

The charismatic movement fails this test of exalting Christ above all. MacArthur said, Show me a person obsessed with the Holy Spirit and I’ll show you a person not filled by the Spirit. Show me a person obsessed with Jesus Christ and I’ll show you a Spirit-filled person.

Through the rest of the time allotted to him, MacArthur displayed and illustrated some of the worst of the charismatic movement, largely focusing on successful and influential leaders like Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar. All the while he meant to show that so much of the silliness, the heresy and the misrepresentation of the gospel stems from diminishing Jesus Christ in favor of the Holy Spirit.

We know that the Spirit would never devalue the gospel, so wherever the gospel is devalued, we know the Spirit is not in it. He highlighted a few gospel misrepresentations: the synergy between charismatics and Roman Catholic charismatics (If a movement can embrace Catholicism, it is not a movement of the Holy Spirit), Oneness Pentecostalism (if you don’t have the true God, you don’t have the true Spirit) and the health and wealth gospel (the prosperity gospel has no interest in the biblical gospel). If we were to add up the people connected to just these three heretical groups, we would have a majority within the charismatic movement.

Unfortunately he ran out of time long before he could give fair attention to Edwards’ other tests. However, he mentioned that his book (which every conference participant will receive) contains all of this in much greater detail.

And he concluded like this: When it comes to charismatic theology and manifestations of the Spirit’s work, we do not need to speculate; we have the tests and simply need to apply them.

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