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Strange Fire Conference: Steve Lawson

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.

These were the things Calvin faced in his day. So the charismatic chaos we see now, in our day, is nothing new. It was prevalent in Calvin’s day, as it has been in other eras as well. So Calvin was not silent about it.

Many of today’s reformed leaders who are open to charismatic teaching and experiences would do well to take heed to what Calvin says about it.

In Calvin’s commentary on Matthew 10:1, he states that the office of apostleship was a temporary office. The apostles were the foundation of the church, and you only lay a foundation only once. They were given miracles to authenticate their authority as messengers of the revelation of God in Christ.

In the 1536 edition of his Institutes—his first edition, at the beginning of his ministry—Calvin wrote that miracles were given to attest to the truthfulness and uniqueness of the revelation of the apostles. And once that revelation was attested to and codified in the New Testament, the miracles ceased. They were no longer necessary. What is necessary is the preaching of the now-written word. In his commentary of Mark 16:17 he indicates this same understanding.

Calvin would say to reformed leaders today who are dabbling in charismatic teaching and practice that they are playing with Pandora’s box. They are opening a door Satan easily uses to lead people astray.

In his commentary on Acts 14:3 he says the true use of miracles was to give witness to the gospel. The written word of God and the Spirit of God can never be separated. Whatever the Spirit is doing in the world is always done in connection with what has been written in the word of God. The Holy Spirit who is the author and teacher of the word of God works in perfect partnership with the very word he has authored. What God confirmed in the book of Acts is sufficient for all people at all times and in all places. The gospel does not need to be re-validated.

Concerning tongues, Calvin states clearly in his commentary on Acts 10:44 that he believes the gift of tongues ceased in the first century. In his commentary on Isaiah 30:1, he states that the word and the Spirit of God are connected, “in opposition to the fanatics, who aim at oracles and hidden revelations without the word.”

In his commentary on Acts 21:9 Calvin states his understanding of first century prophecy. He says it should last for but a short time, “lest the faithful should always wait for some farther thing, or lest that curious wits might have occasion given to seek or invent some new thing every now and then.” He states that God took away new revelation in order to testify that the end of revelation was present in Christ. The fullness of what God wants us to know has now been given to us. The faith once for all delivered to the saints.

In his commentary on Romans 12:6 he states what he understands prophecy to be after the first century: the understanding and clear communication of what has already been revealed. He says the same in his commentary of Hebrews 1:1-2. The word God gave in Christ was the final conclusion. Believing in further revelation implies that the revelation in Christ wasn’t enough.

Institutes 1.9.3 – Word and Spirit belong inseparably together. If you take anything away from Calvin, take this. “For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines; and that we may in turn embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely, in the Word.”

Institutes 2.15.2 – “This, however, remains certain: the perfect doctrine he has brought has made an end to all prophecies. All those, then, who, not content with the gospel, patch it with something extraneous to it, detract from Christ’s authority.”

The point has been established. I refer you to his treatise against the Anabaptists and his treatise against the Libertines. Why couldn’t he leave the Libertines or Anabaptists alone? Calvin responded, “Even a dog barks when his master is assaulted.” He had to say something to defend the truth of Christ and the welfare of the church.

His critique of the charismatic abuses of his day is that they are foolish, vain, and false. They substitute truth for delusions. They are silly. They separate the mutual bond of the Spirit and the Word. They arouse God’s wrath and lead people to follow their own imaginations.

A charismatic Calvinist is, to Calvin, an oxymoron. It can’t exist.

I want to end this in a very simple way. What would Calvin say to this present generation? The answer is what he said to his own generation:

1) The exclusivity of biblical authority. There is only one stream of revelation or there are two streams. Catholics wanted two streams on one side, the charismatics wanted two streams on the other side. And Calvin said No, there is only one stream of revelation after the first century, the written word of God. Sola Scriptura.

2) The priority of biblical preaching. Calvin understood that when you look to more than one stream of revelation, you diminish the pulpit. Having one stream—the word of God—necessitates biblical preaching. Having other streams only downplays and marginalizes biblical preaching.

3) The unity of Spirit and Word. Calvin was convinced that only one stream of revelation joins together the Spirit and the Word in their tightest bond. Two streams drives a wedge between the two. The Spirit is at work only where the written word of God is being preached, shared, taught, read, etc.

Calvin towers over church history as the most substantial theologian who has been given to the church. We would do well to hear from him.

I will let him have the final word. “Let the pastors boldly dare all things by the word of God… Let them constrain all the power, glory, and excellence of the world to give place to and to obey the divine majesty of this word. Let them enjoin everyone by it, from the highest to the lowest. Let them edify the body of Christ. Let them devastate Satan’s reign. Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious. Let them bind and loose thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the word of God” (Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians).

If we are to see a new reformation in this day, continue to expand its borders and have greater influence in the church and the world, we must be committed exclusively to the written word of God.

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