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: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/10/18/on-strange-fire-part-one/