The well-worn book still sits in my collection of frequently used study aids, complete with a coffee stain from where I spilled my dark roast all over the top. But even java spoilage hasn’t made me put away John MacArthur’s Bible Handbook. That’s because, for the most part, I find it a handy tool—even with its obvious disdain for Charismatics and Pentecostals of the world, of which I am one.
For many years, MacArthur has been known for his strong Cessationist views. That is, he believes that many of the sign gifts (charismata) from the early church ended with the apostles (for example, divine healing, speaking in tongues, and others). But his animosity toward Charismatics reached new heights at the Strange Fire conference that kicked off October 16, 2013.
Blogger Tim Challies provided live coverage of the event and described MacArthur’s opening keynote. According to MacArthur
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.
There’s an implicit attack here that is quite serious. Jesus said that all sins could be forgiven except for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31). In fact, MacArthur named the conference in such a way as to compare Charismatics with Nadab and Abihu, two sons of Aaron who were consumed with fire because they dishonored God (Leviticus 10). His wording suggests that 500 million Christians worldwide (a fourth of all Christians) are guilty of the unpardonable sin.
Further, MacArthur claims
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.
But such a statement amounts to a very “selective” reading of history and ignores many Charismatics and Pentecostals who have strived to make the gospel clear. Just one contemporary example would be John Piper, who could hardly be called out for confusing the gospel. Charismatic pastor Adrian Warnock responded on his blog with more such examples:
Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology has been a landmark work. For the first time making complex theology accessible and understandable to ordinary folks. It is incredibly popular for very good reason, and has definitely contributed to biblical understanding across many branches of the church. Grudem is clearly a charismatic by any definition.
Sadly, MacArthur seems to be using the worst abuses on the fringe to impugn sincere Charismatic and Pentecostal worshippers. Ed Stetzer rightly called out the pastor for this problem in a Twitter post:
It shows a lack of integrity when one paints a whole group by its extremes. Christians should always do better.
Worse, though, MacArthur seems dedicated to a campaign against Charismatics and Pentecostals, to paint us as those who are “trampling on the Son of God” (see Hebrews 10) and dishonoring God with our worship. But one wonders if the pastor truly knows what happens in most Charismatic and Pentecostal churches. Rather than worshipping flippantly, we come before God with the same awe, fear, and joy that David had (2 Samuel 6:14). We praise like Jesus with joy through the Holy Spirit (Luke 10:21). We share the gospel with Spirit-empowered boldness (Acts 4:31). And we love God’s Word with a passion (Psalm 138:2).
I’ll still keep reading my John MacArthur books because I love the guy and his scholarship—no matter what his thoughts are for me.
What are your thoughts on the Strange Fire conference?