I am always intrigued by current trends in the Evangelical world, and especially in this Reformed corner of the Evangelical world. When something comes along that seems as if it will make a significant impact, I like to take note. For that reason I have been tracking with what John MacArthur is attempting through his Strange Fire conference and book. That conference kicked off just a short time ago and I listened with interest (via livestream) to the opening keynote because it was here that MacArthur would give his rationale for the event and it was here that he would set its tone.
Before I share my notes, let me say just one thing that stood out to me as the conference began. It is inevitable that at some point John MacArthur will be the subject of a biography (beyond the existing biography written by Iain Murray). Today he is beginning something that will, I think, appear in that biography. We will know better as the conference unfolds what impact it will make in his life and ministry and in the wider Christian world.
There are 4,000 people in attendance at the Strange Fire conference and many thousands more who are watching the live-stream in English, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Arabic, Italian, French, Russian and Mandarin. Here is what they heard in the opening address.
John MacArthur’s Opening Keynote
As we address the contemporary Charismatic movement, we are addressing a subject that has been a concern of MacArthur’s for many years and decades. Back in the early days of his ministry he saw the early beginnings of the movement and was deeply concerned. He has addressed it many times since then, first in a series 40 years ago, and later in the book Charismatic Chaos.
When people ask MacArthur for his view on the biggest issue in the church, he always says it is the lack of discernment since, sadly, a great number of those who profess Christianity are lacking in discernment. The purpose of this conference is to be like the Bereans by looking at the work of the Holy Spirit through the lens of Scripture. He hopes to address it lovingly and compassionately, but in a straightforward way.
What is the scope of the issue? There are half a billion professed charismatics on the planet. He pointed out that we feel great freedom to confront Mormons and Mormonism, though there are merely 14 million of them. Yet we hesitate to address 500 million charismatics.
He turned to Leviticus 10 to explain the name of the conference and the heart behind it, showing true and false worship from Leviticus 9 and 10. The highest duty and greatest privilege of humanity is to worship God and this is always the Christian’s priority. The most serious activity anyone will ever do is worship. When professed Christians come together and say it is for the purpose of worshipping God, they have pronounced upon themselves a seriousness and urgency. Sadly, too much worship today has become trivialized.
The sons of Aaron had been given special privilege and were in line for the high priesthood. They seemed so godly and so secure, and yet God consumed them because they offered strange fire, worshipping in a way he did not sanction. What may have seemed like a minor matter was actually a serious and significant sin. This shows that the most serious crimes against God occur in corrupt worship.
The charismatic movement continually dishonors God in its false forms of worship. It dishonors the Father and Son, but most specifically, the Holy Spirit. Many things are attributed to the Holy Spirit that actually dishonor him. In many places in the charismatic movement they are attributing to the Holy Spirit works that have actually been generated by Satan. Again and again MacArthur stressed the great danger for those who worship God flippantly. It is a tragic and agonizing irony that those who claim to be most devoted to the Holy Spirit are following patterns that blaspheme his name.
He paused to state that he is not discrediting everyone in the movement. He knows there are charismatics who desire to worship God in a true way. Yet the movement itself has brought nothing that enriches true worship. It has made no contribution to biblical clarity, biblical interpretation or sound doctrine. The church had all of these things long before the charismatic movement happened. A Christian today can go back and read the apostles, the Reformers and the Puritans and find richness, understanding and clarity; the charismatics have not added anything but chaos, confusion, misrepresentation and misunderstanding. People have been saved in charismatic churches, but nothing coming from that movement has been the reason they were saved. Nothing within the movement has strengthened the gospel or preserved truth and sound doctrine. It has only produced distortion, confusion and error.
(Note: I am adding a clarifying note (3:57 PM EST). I do not take MacArthur to mean “nothing good has ever come out of the charismatic movement” but “nothing good has come out of the charismatic movement that is attributable to charismatic theology.”)
Yet, though he is grateful for those who do know the truth and are faithful to it, the vast majority are in the dark. His fear is that across the world vast numbers of people in the movement are lost, chasing carnal desires and false gospels. This movement’s appearance of success does not come from its connection to the kingdom of light but the kingdom of darkness.
And despite this, Evangelicalism has thrown open its arms and welcomed this Trojan Horse, allowing an idol in the city of God. This idol has fast taken over.
MacArthur then contrasted Reformed theology with the charismatic movement and said that Reformed theology is not a haven for false teachers. It is not where false teachers reside or where greedy deceivers and liars end up. You won’t go to an association of Reformed churches and find false miracles, visions, prophecies, anointings and other supposed miraculous manifestations of the Spirit. Once experience, emotion and intuition become the definition of what is true, all hell breaks loose.
Tracking closely with John Owen, MacArthur showed what Scripture says about the work of the Holy Spirit and compared that to some of the more bizarre manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the charismatic movement.
He went to Hebrews 10 and the warning there about trampling the Son of God. Over the past couple of decades there have been organizations dedicated to defending the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have also defended the Father against the attacks of Open Theism. But this passage also promises punishment for those who insult the Spirit of grace. We know there will be a hotter hell for those who spurn Christ, but the same punishment is there for those who insult the Holy Spirit. This means we should be terrified to insult the Holy Spirit and vigorous in defending him.
In what seemed to be a brief aside, he called for the restoration of the true worship of the Holy Spirit in the church and said that it is zeal for God’s honor that consumes him here. As he sees and hears this false worship, he feels God’s own pain and wonders why the church won’t rise up to defend the Holy Spirit as it has done with the Father and the Son.
MacArthur concluded by saying we can see in Christ a picture of the perfect work of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit has committed to do in us what he did in Christ. The Spirit was the constant companion of Jesus; Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, matured by the Spirit, anointed by the Spirit at his baptism, sustained by the Spirit in his temptation, empowered by the Spirit for ministry, filled with the Spirit so he walked in perfect obedience while displaying the Spirit’s fruit, perfected by obedience wrought in the Spirit’s power, raised by the power of the Spirit, and even in his post-resurrection ministry was in the power of the Spirit. The Spirit is to us as he was to Christ. If you want to know how he works in us, look at Jesus. Ultimately, the work of the Holy Spirit is to take corrupted image bearers and to restore in them the likeness of Jesus Christ.
He ended with this challenge: “I will start believing that the truth prevails in the charismatic movement when I see the leaders looking more like Jesus Christ and I see that they really are partakers of the divine nature.”
Next up is Joni Eareckson-Tada with a testimony and, following her, R.C. Sproul.
Please note that in these notes I am giving my understanding and my recollection of what MacArthur said. You will gain a far more accurate picture by watching the video yourself.
I am going to leave the comments open here. Please behave. As always, I will turn them off at or near the 100th comment.