Reviewed by Don Johnson
MacArthur, John. Strange Fire. Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson Books, 2013.
The Charismatic movement occupies a significant position in the modern church. Some say that there are as many as half a billion charismatics in the world. John MacArthur recently led a conference at his church and published a book on the subject, both conference and book were called “Strange Fire” after the biblical story of Nadab and Abihu, two priests of God who were divinely executed for offering strange fire to the Lord. The thesis of the book is that the Charismatic movement bears little resemblance to biblical Christianity and, as such, offers a brand of worship that is a new kind of ‘strange fire’ being offered to the Lord.
An ironic sub-theme of the book is that the movement that emphasizes the gifts of the Spirit has no connection to the true Spirit of God who is said to deliver them.
The ‘Holy Spirit’ found in the vast majority of charismatic teaching and practice bears no resemblance to the true Spirit of God as revealed in Scripture.
The book, Strange Fire, is organized into three parts, “Confronting a Counterfeit Revival,” “Exposing the Counterfeit Gifts,” and “Rediscovering the Spirit’s True Work.” The first part exposes the fraudulent history of the charismatic movement and its many, many excesses. The excesses are sometimes almost beyond belief, but every allegation is carefully documented (although the book does commit the sin of end-notes!). The second part lays out a biblical case for cessation on each of four gifts, apostles, prophets (and prophecy), tongues and miraculous healing powers. The case in each of these chapters is nothing short of convincing unless one dismisses the Bible as an authority. The last part teaches a biblical doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s role in salvation, sanctification and Scripture inspiration and illumination. Given John MacArthur’s well-known commitment to Calvinism, it is not surprising that he does touch on points where non-Calvinists would disagree in the chapter on the Spirit and salvation, but in the main the teaching is thorough on each of these points and helpful to all believers, regardless of soteriological positions. The last chapter is “An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends.” The letter makes some excellent points, issues a stern call for a new approach by these believers, but could be sterner.
Part One: Confronting a Counterfeit Revival
The first part of the book is intended to give an overview of the charismatic movement as it appears on the contemporary scene as well as to trace the roots of the movement to put the many modern excesses into an historical context. Chapter 1 is called “Mocking the Spirit” – it introduces the excesses, greed, and bizarre behaviour of many Charismatics. It acknowledges that “more moderate charismatics” attempt to distance themselves from these excesses, as if the excesses are fringe elements. However, Dr. MacArthur notes, “Thanks to the global reach and incessant proselytizing of religious television and charismatic mass media, the extreme has now become mainstream.” The reality is that the moderates are on the fringe of the movement, not the other way around. However, the growth of charismatism has affected the entire church, not just the Pentecostal denominations. Dr. MacArthur credits this “rapid expansion” with “the popularity of the prosperity gospel.” How has the “blatant heresy” of the prosperity gospel gained such traction?
But how has such blatant heresy managed to not only survive but flourish in charismatic circles? The answer points to a critical and systemic defect within charismatic theology — a flaw that accounts for just about every theological aberration or abnormality that makes its home within the Charismatic Movement. It is this: Pentecostals and charismatics elevate religious experience over biblical truth. Though many of them pay lip service to the authority of God’s Word, in practice they deny it.
Chapter 2, “A New Work of the Spirit?” covers the historical background of the movement. The movement looks back to two events that launched Pentecostalism in 1901, the ministry of Charles Fox Parham at a small Bible school in Kansas and the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906, the ministry of William J. Seymour, a student of Parham’s. At Parham’s school in 1901, a young woman named Agnes Ozman is said to have been the first to speak in tongues, with others quickly following. The enthusiasts claimed to be speaking foreign languages, several of the languages specifically named in newspaper reports of the happenings. The excitement faded as missionary efforts of the enthusiasts met with disappointment — “As these and other missionaries returned in disappointment and failure, Pentecostals were compelled to rethink their original view of speaking in tongues.” The chapter closes with a look at the Great Awakening and Jonathan Edwards’ evaluation. According to Edwards, a true work of God in revival can be tested by the Word of God and discerned to be genuine or fraudulent.
Chapter’s 3 and 4, “Testing the Spirits (Part 1)” and “Testing the Spirits (Part 2),” then, involve using Edwards’ tests of a true work of God to examine whether the Charismatic movement is indeed such a work. The first test: Does it exalt the true Christ? This can be seen in two ways: a true work of the Spirit points people to Christ. “Sadly, it is at this point that so many in the Charismatic Movement actually have gone astray. They think they are exalting the Spirit by making His gifts and blessings the focal point. In reality the opposite is true. To truly honor the Spirit, the attention must be on Christ.” Secondly, a true work of the Spirit affirms the truth about Christ. “When the Holy Spirit draws our attention to the Lord Jesus Christ, He always presents the Savior in a way that is biblically accurate. Visions of Jesus dressed as a fireman or nine hundred feet tall somehow seem to miss the accuracy test. Even worse, “some charismatic teachers openly espouse gross Christological heresies.” In closing chapter 3, Dr. MacArthur asks this question: “Can a movement that distracts people’s attention away from Christ while simultaneously embracing false forms of the gospel be attributed to the Holy Spirit?”
The second test: does it oppose worldliness? In this section, scandal after scandal occurring among charismatic leaders are listed. While admitting that scandals afflict even legitimate ministries from time to time, the fact is that these scandals are regular features of charismatic church life. “The irony is inescapable: the movement that claims to be most in tune with the Holy Spirit is simultaneously the least concerned about personal holiness and purity at a level where Scripture sets the highest standard — the qualifications for those who preach and teach.”
The third test: does it point people to the Scriptures? Since God speaks to charismatic leaders and people, the Bible is dismissed by many in the movement. One leader calls the sufficiency of the Scripture a “demonic doctrine.” “The shocking implication in many charismatic circles is that a serious study of God’s Word limits or thwarts the work of the Spirit.” The fourth test: does it elevate the truth? “When a spiritual movement is known for defending sound theology, denouncing false teaching, and detesting superficial unity — these are strong indications that it is a genuine work of the Holy Spirit.” Is truth a mark of the Charismatic movement? Sadly, no. From the beginning of the movement, the whole system has been structured on a lie. First was the lie of speaking in foreign tongues. Rather than confess error, these were quickly relabeled as a “heavenly language.” Fraud and deception are the hallmarks of charismatism.
Finally, the fifth test: does it produce love for God and others? One aspect of this test is the kind of worship a faith produces. Dr. MacArthur says, “A true work of the Spirit produces a love for God that expresses itself in sober-minded adoration and praise. That is the definition of biblical worship. … But too many seem to think we’re not truly worshipping until the human intellect is somehow disengaged. I’ve heard charismatic preachers urging people to suspend their rational faculties because the Spirit supposedly can’t work if we’re doing too much thinking.” Some of the abuses cited in this section are the so-called Laughing Revival, or the phenomena of people barking like dogs or acting drunk in worship services, among others.
In concluding chapter 4, Dr. MacArthur asks what we are to make of all this data. “The answer seems self-evident. In many cases, the Charismatic Movement is dominated by false teachers who are actively advocating a false gospel.” The solution for such is simple: turn away. But, he goes on to say, “I do believe there are sincere people within the Charismatic Movement who, in spite of the systemic corruption and confusion, have come to understand the necessary truths of the gospel…. Yet, they remain confused about the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the nature of spiritual giftedness. As a result, they are playing with strange fire.” “In the same way a child should avoid matches, believers ought to stay away from the strange fire of unacceptable charismatic worship and practice.”
Part Two: Exposing the Counterfeit Gifts
The second section, as we noted before, lays out a case for cessation of four key New Testament gifts. They are apostles, prophets (and prophecy), tongues and miraculous healing powers. We’ll briefly summarize the main point of each chapter.
“Apostles Among Us?” is the title of chapter 5. If the supernatural gifts continue to this day, then the gift of apostle must also. Accordingly, some charismatics claim the gift/title of apostle today. C. Peter Wagner established a group called the “International Coalition of Apostles” where new apostles could join and pay a mere $69 per month as membership dues. The fees for 2012 apparently were adjusted somewhat, depending on location and a husband/wife apostolic team could join up for a reduced rate for two. Dr. MacArthur offers a devastating critique of this foolishness, lays out the biblical teaching concerning apostleship, demonstrates conclusively that apostleship has ceased, and closes with this:
In the end, despite the protests of continuationists, there is no escaping the fact that one of the most significant features described in 1 Corinthians 12 (namely, apostleship) is no longer active in the church today. It ceased. To acknowledge that point is to acknowledge the foundational premise on which cessationism is based.
Next, in chapter 6, comes “The Folly of Fallible Prophets.” The chapter title says it all. The current teaching among charismatics, largely emboldened theologically by the teaching of Wayne Grudem, is that prophets need not be 100% accurate in contradistinction to the prophets of Bible times. Again, Dr. MacArthur thoroughly refutes this foolish position. He exhorts at the beginning of the chapter, “Faithful Christians desperately need to wake up and speak out against the free flow of false prophecies that has come into the church in the wake of the Charismatic Movement.” In the closing pages of the chapter, he says, “But the prophets of the Charismatic Movement are not true prophets. So what does that make them?” What, indeed!
Chapter 7 is called “Twisting Tongues.” Dr. MacArthur shows the folly that is called “tongues” for what it is, then demonstrates thoroughly and biblically that modern “tongues” has nothing to do with the biblical gift. He declares, concerning the Corinthian abuses, “It was wrong then, and still is, to selfishly seek any spiritual gift when we’ve been told that spiritual gifts are sovereignly chosen and distributed by the Holy Spirit. It is especially wrong to crave a gift we don’t have out of self-serving or prideful motives.” Absolutely right! (We could wonder about evangelical leaders who testify that they pray to God asking Him give them “this toy.”) Dr. MacArthur offers this conclusion:
By contrast [with biblical tongues], the modern charismatic version consists of nonmiraculous, nonsensical gibberish that cannot be translated. It is a learned behavior that does not correspond to any form of authentic language. Rather than being a tool to edify the church, contemporary charismatics use the fabrication as a private “prayer language” for the purpose of self-gratification. Though they justify their practice because it makes them feel closer to God, there is no biblical warrant for such unintelligible babble. It is a false spiritual high with no sanctifying value. The fact that modern glossolalia parallels pagan religious rites should serve as a dire warning of the spiritual dangers that can be introduced by this unbiblical practice.
The eighth chapter is “Fake Healings and False Hopes.” Again Dr. MacArthur demonstrates the current fraudulent practices of faith “healers” and the unbiblical nature of what they are doing. The reality about at-will miraculous healing is this: “The miracle-working ministries of Christ and the apostles were unique. … Such biblical-quality healing miracles are not being performed today.”
Part Three: Rediscovering the Spirit’s True Work
Our review is already long, so I’ll not spend a lot of time on the first three chapters of this section. They are: “The Holy Spirit and Salvation,” “The Spirit and Sanctification,” and “The Spirit and the Scriptures.” These chapters are largely a summary of orthodox Pneumatology (the doctrine of the Spirit). In this section there are a few statements peculiar to a Calvinist viewpoint, but as I said earlier, non-Calvinists will find very little to object to in these treatments. While not a thorough theology of the Spirit, these chapters are thorough enough to provide quick reference material on the topics covered.
The last chapter of the book is called “An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends.” Dr. MacArthur defines these friends as “faithful fellow workmen in the Word and the gospel, even if they give a place of legitimacy to the charismatic experience. I have good friends among them who label themselves as ‘reformed charismatics’ or ‘evangelical continuationists.’” To these men, he offers some pretty stiff rebukes including this: “continuationists insist on using biblical terminology to describe contemporary charismatic practices that do not match the biblical reality. … For any evangelical pastor or church leader to apply biblical terminology to that which does not match the biblical practice is not merely confusing; it is potentially dangerous teaching for which that person is culpable.” And here is another: “Why would anyone not label the immoral Paul Cain a false prophet when he gives false prophecies? Crediting the Holy Spirit for words that could be from demons through the mouth of a false prophet is a serious misjudgment that highlights the dangerous game continuationists are forced to play.” All in all, the chapter is a fairly strong chapter, but it could be stronger for reasons I’ll highlight below.
Before we get to evaluation, two more things need to be highlighted. The book has an appendix of quotations from church leaders through history as they spoke to the issues of ongoing revelation and allegedly continuing spiritual gifts. These statements show an ongoing witness of orthodox teachers through the ages who faithfully stood against the abuse of the doctrine of the Spirit by fanatical enthusiasts and/or heretics.
The book closes with these words:
My prayer is that my continuationist friends (and all who are willing to join this cause) would see the dangers in charismatic theology, that they would boldly reject that which the Bible condemns as error, and that together we would apply the mandate of Jude 23, rescuing souls from the strange fire of false spirituality.
What are we to make of this offering? My first reaction is a hearty recommendation to any believer who has interest in the subject. The book is written in a very accessible style. The average layman should have no trouble grasping the concepts and making applications to the church environs that surround us. (In addition to the book, I would recommend listening to the audio of the “Strange Fire” conference, available at the conference website.) You will profit from the reading in the following ways:
1. Gain an understanding of the vital issues at stake in the charismatic controversy. These issues are not a trivial matter simply of a variant interpretation but often involve orthodoxy versus heresy.
2. Gain an understanding of the truth of cessationism. The fact is that even the charismatics acknowledge the New Testament gifts have ceased, they are substituting fraudulent and inferior gifts in their place.
3. Gain a clearer understanding of the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit, an area of theology often neglected on one hand and abused, confused, and distorted on the other.
4. Become aware of a serious problem in the professing church and a realization that many professing believers are confused by false doctrine that could endanger their eternal salvation. This material will help you understand how to counsel, disciple and evangelize people caught up in a very pernicious error.
Are there weaknesses in the book? To be sure nothing humans do can claim perfection. While the connections between the “milder” forms of charismatism and the virulent frauds perpetrated by the most extreme are visible in the material, a closer connection could have been drawn. For example, the current justification of errant prophets among all charismatics seems to be directly connected to Wayne Grudem’s work on the subject. All variants of charismatism — the more conservative evangelical strains and the wild extremist strains — rely heavily on Grudem’s work. The fact is, Grudem’s views on the subject are as abominable as the extremists. One could have wished for a clearer connection being made between the extremists and the “moderates.”
And that bring us to the open letter. The rebukes in the letter are strong, but where does the letter leave us? What should be done about men like Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Bob Kauflin, and others who are not named in the book? These men perpetuate and defend the very errors labeled heretical in some places. They promote and defend false prophets. What should be done about that and about them? We could have wished for stronger directions here, or at least a stronger call to these men, perhaps naming names, and calling on them to repent and come out of their error.
Nevertheless, the book is helpful and a needed voice in our day. I heartily recommend it.
Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.
- Strange Fire, xii. [↩]
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- Strange Fire, 16, emphasis original. [↩]
- Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited, 90-91, quoted in Strange Fire, 23. [↩]
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