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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On Strange Fire, Part Two

Oct 18, 2013

In Part One of this article I began discussing John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference being held in southern California. I offered there some background to the various debates, including the cessationist/continuationist debate. I also laid out where I stand – roughly – on these matters, and offered a bit of my own journey on these debates.

Here I wish to further speak to this conference, and offer some general observations and comments. Let me begin by telling you a bit more about where I am coming from. My concern is to present biblical truth on such matters, and strive for the biblical balance – avoiding extremes on all sides. I seek to do this in my regular ministry.

For example, I do speak, teach and preach all over the Christian world. I often am invited to Pentecostal and charismatic churches, conferences and schools, and often to the more traditional sort. As I do so I feel it is important to seek for biblical balance. Extremes of any kind can be unhelpful, so when I speak at various places, I seek to look at both strengths and weaknesses of the group, and offer some biblical balance if possible.

Thus when I speak at charismatic venues for example, I will commend them on their Spirit-filled lives and their zeal and passion. But I will gently remind them that they need to get their act together when it comes to using their brains for the glory of God, and their need to treat theology and doctrine much more seriously.

And when I go to, say, a Presbyterian function, I will praise them for their strong doctrinal and theological stances, but seek to encourage them to get a bit of life and some Holy Ghost empowerment! Some of these places can be a bit lifeless – almost like a graveyard to be honest! So they often are in need of some Holy Spirit energising and renewing.

My aim, both here and elsewhere, is to offer biblical balance when it seems it is going missing and unhealthy and unbiblical extremes are being pushed in various ways and places. I take the same approach here. Of course that means hard-core proponents of either camp will likely be unhappy with me, and may well seek to blast me big time in the comments section below.

To those folks all I can say is please cut me a little slack here. I am not offering a full-fledged defence of my position. Indeed, I am not even seeking to argue the biblical case either way in this article. Other lengthy articles would be needed to properly set out my position on these matters, so perhaps save your heavy artillery until I pen some of those pieces.

But I want to finish here with some of those words of biblical balance. And when I find that another person has very nicely done something similar, I think it foolish to reinvent the wheel. If another has nicely expressed my thoughts here, then I am happy to just quote slabs of what they have written.

So that is how I will conclude. Pastor Shane Idleman has just written “Strange Fire (Day 1): A Plea For the Middle”. I am not sure if he attended the conference or just watched the live stream of it. But since I am nowhere near California, and really don’t have time to watch the three-day event online, I am happy to run with those who have.

Let me offer much of what Idleman said in his incisive and helpful article: “I thoroughly enjoyed day one of the Strange Fire conference…Dr. MacArthur and R.C. Sproul have been forerunners of solid Christian teaching in our generation. My article is not to critique, but to plead—plead for the middle ground in regard to the power of the Holy Spirit….

“I’m concerned that all who believe in the gifts of the Spirit are often thrown into the same camp as charlatans and false teachers, when this is simply not the case. I, like many Christians, tend to be ‘safely’ conservative when considering the power of the Holy Spirit. Believing that the Scriptures support the miraculous work of the Spirit today does not mean that we agree with the majority of the Charismatic Movement. I’m open but cautious.

“We need sound doctrine and the power of the Holy Spirit. It is possible to be ‘Bible taught,’ but not ‘Spirit led’—straight as a gun barrel theologically, but just as empty. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:6). Don’t get me wrong, theological and expositional teachings are essential to Christian living, but how often are theology students encouraged to fast and pray as well as study?

“How often are they taught brokenness and repentance in addition to translating the Greek language? How often are they taught the surrendered life? We can sometimes be more concerned about a Master’s Degree than a degree from the Master.

“I knew a pastor who instructed his worship leader to remove most of the songs that mentioned the Holy Spirit. How sad…in his zeal to avoid charismatic excesses, he actually quenched and grieved the Spirit. A.W. Tozer insightfully said, ‘If the Lord’s people were only half as eager to be filled with the Spirit as they are to prove that they cannot be filled, the church would be crowded out.’ I sincerely believe that the greatest need in the church today is to confess our sins, obey the Word, and to be filled with the Spirit.

“Christians can embrace one of two extremes concerning the word ‘revival.’ At one extreme are those who embrace pure emotionalism and hysteria—‘if it’s odd it’s God’—all weird behavior is excused. The other extreme lacks a living, vibrant spiritual life. The church feels dead, cold, and lifeless. Talk of reviving the things of God (revival) is either dismissed or ridiculed. Both extremes can hinder the work of the Holy Spirit and genuine Christian growth….

“My hope is that pastor MacArthur and others would see the heart and passion of those seeking the middle ground. We cannot paint with a broad brush everyone who believes in the miraculous as charlatans, false teachers, and non-intellectuals (led away and astray by every wind of doctrine).

“People like myself, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Francis Chan, and the late D. Martyn Jones cannot simply dismiss the truly miraculous works of God that happen daily, nor can we minimize the incredible power of God to radically change lives through the power of the Spirit. Nor should we be thrown into the same camp as TBN Charismatics. This is a desperate plea for unity: unity on the essentials, but understanding and compassion on the non-essentials.

“We don’t seek to minimize the need for discernment. A discerning person considers supernatural experiences in light of God’s Word, nature, and character. They ask, ‘Is there genuine fruit? Does the experience align with God’s Word? Is the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5 present: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?’ A true, genuine experience with the Holy Spirit will produce godly fruit and obedience to God. It seeks to promote those things that are pure and/or righteous.”

Idleman then addresses many of the extremes, the pure emotionalism and hysteria, and the obviously unbiblical things that can and do happen. “Please understand, it’s not my intention to paint experience-oriented movements with a broad brush—God wants us to experience Him. The presence and the power of the Holy Spirit can provoke overwhelming feelings, and rightly so. When truth penetrates the heart, excitement, passion, and enthusiasm often follow. These emotions can be good and God-given. My goal is not to limit the gifts, power, and presence of the Spirit, but to seek balance and discernment. God often requires obedience whether we feel it or not.

“One of the reasons why people embrace unbiblical experiences is because they are not in the Word seeking balance, confirmation, and discernment. Simply stated, if we are not in the Word, the Word will not be in us. We can easily be deceived. Searching for spiritual fullfilment isn’t wrong, but where we search can be. Spiritual hunger is good, yet we can be so hungry spiritually that we’ll consume anything.

“Eagerness to consume can lead to ‘experience’ oriented movements with no Scriptural basis, especially when we begin to look to experiences to validate truth. The ‘signs and wonders’ gospel is not the real gospel, nor is the ‘prosperity gospel’ the real gospel. God may prosper us, and miracles do happen, but these are secondary—Christ is primary.”

As I say, genuine biblical balance is what we need here. Extremes at either end of this debate can be quite unhelpful and divisive – and quite unbiblical as well. And as I say, if I have ruffled feathers from those of either camp, and you are ready to come at me with both barrels blazing, I beseech you brethren: cut me and others some slack and show some Christian grace. If all you want to do is attack others here without a shred of Christian love and grace, then your comments will be headed straight for the bin.

We all need to think carefully, prayerfully and biblically about these important matters. On these sorts of issues none of us have all the final and complete truth. We can in fact learn from each other, even if we respectfully disagree in many areas. A bit of Christian humility and love will go a long way here as we debate these very crucial issues. Bless you as you read and digest this, and consider your own response – whether here or otherwise.

Part One of this article is found here: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2013/10/18/on-strange-fire-part-one/

westsidechristianfellowship.org/articles/10-16-2013-strange-fire-day-1-plea-for-the-middle-pastor-shane-idleman/

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14 Responses to On Strange Fire, Part Two

  • I’ve gone to both charismatic & Pentecostal churches.

    With Pentecostal churches there is the potential to either be spiritual OR hyper-emotional.

    With cessationalist churches there is the potential to either be spiritual OR hyper-intellectual.

    It’s not about one type of church being filled with the Spirit & the other not- I believe we are all filled with the Holy Spirit when we become believers. We just express it in different ways.

    But both types of Churches have the potential to work in the flesh instead of the Spirit- and that’s regardless of whether they are more “exuberant worship” focused or “careful didactic study of the Word” focused.

    Amanda Fairweather

  • Thank you Bill for expressing some true wisdom on Cessationism/Contuationism. Because I too see the need for balance on the issue, I regularly attend 2 fellowships to cover both positions and admire the strengths of each. I long for the day when we can let go of our entrenched positions. I am right, am I not, in my belief that such matters are theologically peripheral?
    Paul Reid
    Berwick (Aust)

  • I am with you all the way Bill, having had a very real conversion in a more traditional evangelical bible believing church where conversions were expected and prayed and believed for and teaching was also paramount. But also as a young person questioning why I was not seeing the evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in healing and miracles and I was told that some things were not for now but ceased in the apostles life-time. Conversion I believe is the greatest miracle, and I saw evidence of that when my fiercely defensive unbelieving parents were miraculously born again. However it still worried me that for all the bible teaching and believing God’s Word I was given so many scriptures were ignored. Later I experienced the sad ‘splitting’ of churches in the 60’s and 70’s over the Charismatic Renewal movement and my husband and I were very skeptical at the time but also caught up in it and yet left behind at the same time. After many years of our Denomination being taken over by more and more liberal thinkers and sermons that spent more time explaining away any faith you could put in God’s word we felt really drained, not that we went along with this liberal thinking but felt we were always flowing against the tide, hitting our heads against a brick wall, especially as we led the Bible Study groups and all the children’s work. Eventually God led us out of that denomination (and I don’t say that lightly, it was a very real leading of the Spirit as we had always believed we should be the ‘salt and light’ wherever we were and had the ‘bloom where you are planted’ attitude and we were ‘faithful’ people.) A long story but we were very soon drawn to a Charismatic Bible College, (although not given the blessing of our new charismatic Pastor who felt we weren’t ready for it!! )We received the most inspirational, faith renewing, Bible teaching and we will always thank the Lord for it. It opened us up to the Holy Spirit in a new way and yet one that was familiar as we had both had a close walk with the Lord since our childhood conversions. We recognised a lot of the Holy Spirit’s work already in our lives. My husband was soon given the gift of speaking in tongues but I never received that although I sought it and was even told by others to ‘fake it till you make it’ – not my cup of tea nor fitting my honest faith. I was thrilled to see real enthusiasm for the Lord such as I hadn’t seen in my church experience for a long time. I was not one for outward expression but loved to see others express themselves in dance etc when you could see it was a real expression of their love and devotion. I found myself free to raise my arms as I had often lifted my heart to the Lord but was not impressed to be told that it was essential to my faith to speak in tongues and raise my hands. In fact the saddest thing in church to me is to hear the preacher run down other churches from the pulpit. I have been told in a charismatic service to lift our act because we looked “like a bunch of Methodists” but have been told in traditional churches that Pentecostals were “hanging from the chandeliers”. We do nothing for the kingdom of God by such remarks from the pulpit and I have heard it too many times. These days I have dropped all denominational tags and call myself a Christian and long to see the Body of Christ built up with no divisions – differences yes, but authentic- acknowledging and loving each other in a way that honours our wonderful Lord and Saviour. He is worthy of no less from those who own His Name.
    PS I still don’t have all the answers re healings and miracles but I have seen them and experienced them.

    Lesley Kadwell

  • I was welcomed into the body of Christ within the bounds of the Presbyterian church, and I have a great deal of fondness towards it. There I developed an insatiable hunger for scripture and a deep appreciation and love for theologically rich hymns; I was an elder for some time also. Early on, I most certainly was a cessationist and thought those who spoke in tongues to be very, very weird people indeed – possessed, even. I held this view not because of what I read in scripture, but because I was taught it by the ministers in our church.

    Then I moved out of the Presbyterian church and into some charismatic circles. My, what a bizarre lot! Speaking in tongues; stories of miraculous healings; words from the Lord; visions; … the whole gambit.

    And it freaked me out.

    I am most certainly not a charismatic, nor will ever be. But neither am I now a cessationist and I’m working on weeding out the last vestiges of any legalism I’ve picked up along the way. I no longer attend a Presbyterian church and go to charismatic churches from time to time. I am richer for the experience. More open minded, yet retain my cautiousness. I believe God is most certainly teaching me new things that I would not have learnt if I remained in my comfortable Presbyterian circles.

    Thank you for this article. I know that when I next meet with my charismatic friends there is likely to be some mention of MacArthur’s conference – whom I also hold in high regard – so I’m now a little more prepared for when that happens.

    Keep up the great work, Bill.

    Mathew Hamilton, Melbourne.

  • I’m not so concerned that the miraculous claims are strange, but rather are they true. All this debate would be easily resolved if the claims of miraculous healing were proved real by proper investigation and scientific evidence. If they are rare but genuine praise the Lord! I have no time for all the fluff and bluster overkill anymore and I don’t have to put my faith in it. My faith is in Christ.

    Anthony McGregor

  • In my experience, the pentecostal churches of recent times seem to have lost the zeal to seek the gifts and workings of the holy spirit in the name of being “seeker sensitive”. To have the cutting edge, we need the outpouring of the holy spirit with visible signs, wonders and gifts in action, the fruit of the spirit and good solid teaching.

    Historically, moves of God have often been accompanied by signs and wonders which are outside our comfort zone and outside the established church – eg the day of Pentecost, the Asuza St revival.

    So I say let us seek God in all his fullness.

    Gary Morgan

  • Thank you Bill for your “sweet reasonableness”. Over the years of my Christian journey I’ve experienced a lot of what you’ve talked about today. I’m a musician and was saved in a time when minor keys were “not of God” and if you kept smoking cigarettes for more than 14 days after you got saved, well, there might be a “slight” chance that you’ll be accepted into heaven (by the grace of God and by the skin of your teeth)! So, that “wind of doctrine” actually made me smoke more!Go figure. As far as smoking goes, It wont stop you going to heaven, you’ll just get there a little bit quicker.Or, smoking wont send you to hell, you’ll just smell like you’ve been there. lol. We were very well meaning and loved Jesus, which is the main point. So, I spent 15 years complicating things (bible college, ministry training, etc.,) and the next 15 years trying to simplify things (I bet you’ve heard that a few times) and, at the end of the day I’ve come down to one answer, or, a name to be specific-JESUS-. The very person who saved me in the first place. He called me by name, in my hiding place, when I was “lost, scared, tired and lonely”, He knocked on the door of my heart and I opened that door for Him to come and sup with me, to live His life in me, through me, for me. “It’s no longer I that live but Christ who lives in me”. I can honestly say that through my life, I’ve had levels of success, fame, fortune, prestige and notoriety. Multiply that by a million and it doesn’t even come close to “one drop of that living water that Jesus freely gives to those who thirst”. A crumb from the Masters table. I thank God that I have a brother like you, Bill, Who can speak for me and the body of Christ concerning these controversial and political/moral issues. It has to be said. There’s no two ways about it.
    Yours truly, one grateful, appreciative, and very thankful brother in Christ, Damian Utano

  • Many thanks Damian.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The argument of Cessationism vs Continuationism is simple at its core. That is, ‘have the gifts of the Spirit ceased, or do they continue’? On that, the Scriptures are unmistakeable, they continue.

    From there, we need to give a new name to the discussion and differences of opinion. For instance, some say God moves entirely sovereignly while others say we have been given His power and a green light to use it at our will. On another side some say God gives believers sickness while others say He doesn’t. These are just some of the examples which need a new heading, they shouldn’t be under Cessationism vs Continuationism imo.

    Dorian Ballard

  • Thanks Bill, as a pentecostal, I consider this to be a very balanced piece.

    John Bennett

  • Love your Article Bill.

    Speaking as, I now call myself a ‘Reformed Pentecostal’ (in the sense of rejecting the hype, prosperity and self-centredness of the Pentecostal/Charismatics) if the church majors on the minors, we will do the work of the enemy for him.
    How desperately we need to focus not on various differences but on on responsibility to be ‘holy even as He is holy’ –
    to focus on Christ; on being daily ‘poor in spirit’; to daily ‘carry our cross’; to please our Father.

    Neil Baulch

  • Thank you Bill for forging a biblical root between the two camps. I believe both have biblical truth to offer and if each could accept that biblical truth f the other and let go of their own error, we could form a circle around the thrown of God in worship and glad rejoicing.
    I remember my surprise when reading Revelation 2, the letter to the church in Ephesus who had all the truth bit right, exposing false prophets etc, but forgot their first love. Love and truth must hold hands and not split up into “love camps” and “truth camps”. How dare we shut out what God wants in. It is only evil and hate that must go, whatever is truly loving must stay and so must whatever is loving truth.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • As I sit and wait for a different sort of fire, with car packed, it occurs to me that sometimes cessationists are accused of not only thinking some gifts or signs have ceased, but somehow think that God is less powerful now, or has lost interest, or some other such absurd error. That of course would not be the way most think.

    I believe that God can and sometimes does act in what we call miraculous ways- and by that I mean genuine miracles, not things that can be explained by unusual things that sometimes happen in medical matters for example. I don’t remember ever hearing in my lifetime of demonstrable examples of the more “spectacular” types of miracles that Jesus did with people’s bodies or with wine. Perhaps someone can correct that for me.

    Where I think some believers go wrong on the opposite side to cessationism is that they forget that we walk by faith and not by sight.

    David Morrison

  • Thanks Bill. I’ve been going to a pentecostal church the last few weeks (after a lengthy church hiatus and a firm grounding in baptism) and experience for the first time someone speaking in tongues. I’m still processing the event, and it’s hard to know how to explain it to my very surprised children, but i’m happy to keep an open mind about this. Your article has been especially helpful. Thanks again. {oops sorry Bill – i commented this under the wrong article – typical woman with too many tabs open on my computer} 🙂

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