On Strange Fire, Part One

Some of you would be aware that American pastor John MacArthur has been holding a three-day “Strange Fire” conference which is a criticism of the charismatic movement. Next month a book by the same title will be released. For those not in the know theologically speaking, much of the controversy centres on continuationism and cessationism.

That is, do the miraculous gifts of the early church continue today, or did they cease with the early church? Obviously those in the Pentecostal and charismatic movements believe they do continue, while many, especially those in the Reformed camp, think they have ceased.

Now it is not my purpose here to weigh into that particular controversy. Can I say that I am fully aware of the arguments pro and con from both sides, and I have been involved in both camps over many years. And plenty of resources can be mentioned here for both sides. Those pushing the cessationist line of course might appeal to the classic 1918 text by B.B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles, or MacArthur’s 1992 volume, Charismatic Crisis.

Careful and scholarly continuationism defences would include those made by folks like John Piper, Michael L Brown and Wayne Grudem. For example, see Grudem’s 1988 volume, The Gift of Prophecy, or Craig Keener’s 1996 work, 3 Questions about the Holy Spirit.

Books featuring various positions on this debate include Are the Miraculous Gifts for Today?, edited by Grudem (Zondervan, 1996). This of course is just a fraction of what is available on these contentious, controversial and often emotive topics.

These issues have long been the stuff of debate, and will certainly continue to be so. So this conference is just a continuation (no pun intended) of this long-standing discussion. Plenty of debate has already gone into all this. See just a few thoughtful columns here, from varying positions:

Confession time

Of course I suppose before I go any further I must display my own hand here on these matters. Those who know me or have read some of my stuff can probably figure this out by now. But let me very briefly discuss my take on all this. The truth is, I have shifted on these matters over the years.

As a new and feisty Christian I was dead set against the charismatic movement in all its forms. I was certain that speaking in tongues and all the rest was of the devil, and as a hard-core pre-mil, pre-trib dispensationalist, I thought I had all the theological warrant I needed for my stance.

I recall having a friendly debate with my buddy Joe at a mid-west Bible college around 37 years ago now. I was happily citing Warfield and others as I made my case, while Joe replied, “Yes, but we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”.

Well, over the years I have obviously moved in his direction. I have come to see that I was throwing out the baby. Sure, there are heaps of unhealthy excesses here, aberrant and cultish practices and activities, and often plenty of just plain heretical teachings thrown into the mix.

But I believe the Holy Spirit is real, is active, and seeks to be very much a part of our lives today. So yes I now believe the miraculous gifts are still for today, and that we must be open to what the Spirit has for us. But again, as anyone who knows me even a little understands, I still will fight tooth and nail against any unbiblical and anti-biblical extremes or excesses that may accompany the work of the Spirit.

For example, it is the Pentecostal and charismatic world that tends to be the biggest promoter of clearly aberrant if not cult-like and heretical teachings such as the Word of Faith movement, the Name It and Claim It gospel, the Positive Confession movement, the Health and Wealth gospel, and so on.

I have written plenty on this elsewhere. See here for over 35 articles on these topics: https://billmuehlenberg.com/category/theology/the-health-and-wealth-gospel/

Indeed, my stalled PhD thesis was on this very issue, and the 186,000 words I have there may one day be turned into a book – if not a finished PhD as well! So I continue to hammer away at any sloppy thinking, false teaching, and unbiblical behaviours when I find them.

But again, we must preserve the baby as we toss out the bathwater. Of course folks like MacArthur will seek to argue that the baby itself in this case is just as bad as the bathwater. Indeed, they would argue that the reason we have excesses and errors here is because the fundamental premise (that the gifts are still for today) is flawed entirely.

So let me speak a bit more about the man at this point. I quite like John MacArthur and have enjoyed much of his ministry over the years. I have many of his books (ten to be exact) and always look forward to anything new that he has on offer. Thus next month when his Strange Fire volume comes out I will grab that as well, and may even do a review of it.

Although I like much of what he says and writes, that does not mean I go along with everything he says. Indeed, in some areas I have quite strong disagreements with him. Consider his 2000 volume, Why Government Can’t Save You. In it he basically said Christians are wasting their time with political and social involvement, and should just stick to preaching the gospel.

Well, as those who know me can expect, I fundamentally disagree with him on that. The gospel demands our social and political involvement. We are commanded to be salt and light, and that does not just mean getting souls into heaven. But I did a review of that book here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2001/11/28/a-review-of-why-government-can%E2%80%99t-save-you-by-john-macarthur/

But as I say I generally like the guy and what he has to say. Another review of one of his books can be found here:

And I especially love the two volumes he has written defending Lordship salvation from the hyper-grace folks. See my two-part article on this here:

Image of Authentic Fire: A Response to John MacArthur's Strange Fire
Authentic Fire: A Response to John MacArthur's Strange Fire by Michael L. Brown (Author) Amazon logo

And the funny thing is, one of the biggest – yet most gracious – opponents of the Strange Fire conference and book is a top biblical scholar who has also written extensively against the error of the hyper grace teachers. Michael Brown takes the same hard line defending the biblical notion of Lordship salvation. Indeed, he will have a new book on this out in a few months.

So, I like MacArthur for the most part, but I think on this issue he is indeed chucking the baby out as he gets rid of the bath water. As I say, this article is not meant to be an exhaustive, or even a cursory discussion of these matters. And I already fear the possible hard core comments which will come in here from friend and foe alike.

Thus it is not my purpose here to get into a major war over these issues. I have been on both sides of the fence over the years, and I am quite aware of the various arguments and counter-arguments being used. However I wish to look a bit more closely at the conference and this topic, so please go to Part Two of this article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/10/18/on-strange-fire-part-two/


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14 Replies to “On Strange Fire, Part One”

  1. It is written: I am the LORD, I change not. If he did it then, He can do it now. That said, the excesses of which you mentioned must be taken into effect. People barking like dogs, babbling unintelligible syllables, saying “Thus says the LORD ” and then making some totally asinine prophecy that not only doesn’t come true, but makes the Church look like a flaming pack of idiots, claiming a word of knowledge and so forth and so on, does absolutely nothing to advance the cause of Christ in our world.
    Ed Sumner

  2. Hi, my close friend, newly widowed, newly saved, had her toddler contract Meningococcal Disease. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital she cried out to God to save her son as she could not take more grief. He was healed miraculously. The proof is in the blood work. The blood work from the GP shows the disease. The blood work taken at the hospital showed he didn’t. He is a miracle and the RCH could not explain it. Myself, God has chosen the slow, non-miraculous way to heal me, after He promised to do so. I had to change diet and lifestyle. Why? Because I needed to know what was causing my disease. Prevention is better than cure. Both deserve God to be given the glory. He gets to choose the method, not us. He is LORD of this also.

    Sharon Stay, Brisbane

  3. I was a little bit disappointed to see Michael Brown endorse a Hugh Ross book:

    I feel that much of what Ross would have us believe on key Scriptures is mostly bathwater.

    Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean Brown is wrong on the charismatic/cessationist debate. Just that he is fallible. But then again, so am I.

    Cameron Spink

  4. Cameron, it’s true that Michael Brown has had Hugh Ross on his “Line of Fire” radio show, but he has also had Jonathan Sarfati on a couple of times too, most recently for a two hour show earlier this month. So it would seem he is making a genuine effort to present both sides of the age of the earth issue.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  5. Fair enough. Though I don’t think an “impartial” position is helpful on that topic. In contrast to the Scriptural evidence available on the age of the earth the evidence available in the charismatic/cessationist divide is convoluted. It would be safer to be agnostic on that issue and have the appropriate leaning on the age of the earth.
    Nevertheless that is off-topic and incidentally not where I differ most from Dr Brown. Regardless he has proved himself to be an excellent apologist against the secular push and his opinion on any matter should not be overlooked.

    Cameron Spink

  6. One of the issues which separated Edward Irving, the Scottish ‘proto-Pentecostal’ and others of Dispensationalist eschatology was the question of whether or not there ought to be a latter-day Pentecost-style outpouring of the Spirit before the return of Christ, or whether the original Day of Pentecost outpouring was sufficient of itself.

    Those who disagreed with Irving’s longing for a second Day of Pentecost outpouring of signs and wonders, tended to believe revival lay not in signs and wonders per se, but in a radical recovery of the simplicity of the practices and doctrines which distinguished the First-Century church from the subsequent generations of Christendom with their accretions of extra-biblical traditions and practices.

    On balance, I personally feel Cessationism does run a very real risk of seeking to prescribe for the Holy Spirit what gifts He may or may not impart today… That said, “sign gifts” have been attractive to both carnal and spiritual people since the beginning of the Church for very diverse reasons: Simon the Sorcerer in Acts even wanted to buy the gift of laying on of hands for imparting the Spirit; the church at Corinth saw glossolalia as a phenomenon akin to that practised by Pythia, the priestess of Apollo at Delphi.

    John Wigg

  7. MacArthur has been ‘off the wall’ doctrinally speaking for a long time and on very simple theological subjects that just shouldn’t be up for argument.

    I think the guy has done some great things for the body of Christ in the past, but his efforts would be better focused on solely fighting the hyper grace movement and just respectfully disagree and hold to his private unscriptural views on healing et cetera.

    It goes to show that when you have personal feelings or experiences on a subject it can interfere with you wanting to just accept the simple reading of Scripture. Put me in a room with anyone on this subject and they end up making personal comments and inferences against me when they are put to shame. Its a sad day that he has declared war on so many God fearing Christians, God be judge.

    Dorian Ballard

  8. “It’s by grace you have been saved through faith” Eph 2: 8

    If we believe this scripture then we must believe the gifts come through the same grace and by faith.

    Michael Mercier

  9. I have been wondering if people like to shut the lid on subjects like the gifts of the spirit being for today because it becomes easier to keep under control that way. As someone earlier pointed out, the issue of spiritual gifts appeal to both the spiritual and the carnal and that is hard to tease out sometimes and because it opens the door to the spiritual relmn that by its very nature goes beyond our ken both ways it is easier just to believe that “that was for then and now we have the bible .” etc.
    I prefere to take the risk and believe that whatever is in the Word of God is for today, for I did’t hear Jesus putting a time frame on it when he said that “greater works than i will be done by those who believe” John 14 God took u a risk when he came mankind free will, I believe a far greater risk than we take when we simply take Him at His word.
    A life without risk might be safe and preditable, but dull, boring and certainly not “to the full” as Jesus promised.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  10. The question that has to be asked is what did all the people who received healing and deliverance from God get?

    The other question is that if healing and deliverance is counterfeit, why are people so happy and switched on to Jesus as a result.

    I can’t imagine satan sanctioning that in any shape or form.

    Roger Marks

  11. The gifts are there because He said in Mathew 10:17 and 8. that He gave them power over unclean spirits to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease. In verse 7 it says preach and say the kingdom of God is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Since all these things are still done here and there across the earth where the gospel is preached in its simplicity and lovingly, and people simply believe and obey and receive, the manifest power of Jesus is observed. How this can ever be done without the gifts is impossible. I have seen sufficient healings and miracles to strive to learn more, and seek more, and to thank Jesus more in gratitude for Jesus who shed his blood for me. The essence of the gospel is, that Jesus shed his blood and if we believe, the blood of Jesus has washed away all your our sin right now, then you have the promise of eternal life – right now!!!
    Davinia Harvey

  12. I’m yet to see even a single scriptural argument against the gifts being for today that can’t be shot full of holes in very little time.

    Mario Del Giudice

  13. I’ve yet to come across a Cessationist who doesn’t ultimately tie it back to a personal experiential position. In other words, either fear of it, or pride in a fundamental theological position (as in the Apostle Paul before he was converted) or “once bitten twice shy”.

    For me it is a simple equation. Spend time on a frontline OS mission and watch the Holy Spirit at work. Miracles happen and spiritual gifts are exercised regularly and daily in the propagation of the gospel all around the world. The fact that Westerners don’t see it or experience it, or at the other extreme are too busy praying for *signs and wonders* instead of preaching the gospel and disciplining others, is more the cause for concern and a barometer of where Western Christianity is.

    I learnt about spiritual gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit very simply. We read it in the bible, and prayed for it, and it happened – on the spot. My family came out of a O.T. type cult that didn’t even talk about the Holy Spirit in the present tense, into a home group (my family and another family were kicked out of the Worldwide Church of God for asking too many “difficult” questions about their teachings and asking them to explain their position given NT scriptures). So weekly, we prayed for God to show us himself through the bible and set about reading and studying together. And we discovered Paul’s teachings on the spiritual gifts, and his entreatment to earnestly desire them. So we did. And God answered swiftly and decidedly. It was really freaky for me at 15 – but it was real, as real as it could get. No smoke or mirrors, no pastors praying over me for this or that. All of sudden two families experienced speaking in tongues, and words of knowledge, and healing.

    The simple divination of what spirit is at work is this – does it lead people to Christ and salvation/sanctification? Does it result in repentance, prayer and holiness. …Or does it result in people being drawn away into fringe doctrines, prideful “look at me things” or book/DVD sales? But then you could say that about of lot of different areas in Christianity, including many pushed by more mainstream orthodox denominations. No matter which denominations, and no where you look, just as Paul covered in his letters and Revelations covers, there is error in most of Christian practice and it requires us all to get knowledge and ask for discernment in ALL things.

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