Strange Fire – A Call to Respond – John MacArthur
For those who were unable to view the free live stream of the Strange Fire Conference here at Grace Community Church, I thought I would do my best to provide a written summary of the various sessions as they unfold (Session One; Session Two; Session Three; Session Four,Session Five, Session Six, Breakout Session 1, (Session One; Session Two; Session Three;Session Four, Session Five, Session Six, Breakout Session 1, Q&A 1, Session Eight, Session 9,Breakout Session 2, Q&A 2). It provides us with a helpful opportunity to interact with what is actually being said at the conference. Having said that, the following was transcribed in haste, and so please forgive any typos. I pray it’s a benefit to you.
This conference is first and foremost to help the church. I don’t have any illusions about nonbelievers understanding what we’re talking about. And we’ve said that there are many nonbelievers in this movement. I don’t expect them to understand the truth, to desire it, to have a hunger for it, or to search it out. That’s not what unbelievers do unless they’re being prompted by the Holy Spirit.
But we do want to help the church. We’ve been speaking to the people who believe he Bible is the Word of God and believe God has revealed Himself clearly and consistently and without contradiction. This is for the true church, so that they can discern and be protected from error, and be a source of truth for others outside the church. We’ve been talking to God’s people.
Attacks on the Conference
In the response to this conference in the last number of hours and days, there have been some attacks back. And we’ve been unable to escape them because they show up on the Internet. I want to address those. I want to talk to you from my heart tonight.
The first thing that became obvious was that we were being accused of being unloving. But I would suggest to you that the most loving thing anyone could ever do would be to tell someone the truth. That is how love acts. It is unloving to leave people in darkness and error. We speak the truth in love. And it’s not just talking about the attitude or the tone of voice with which we speak it. To speak the truth in itself is an act of love, to deliver people from error.
In Acts 20 you remember Paul met with the Ephesian elders and he said, I haven’t ceased for three years to warn you with tears, knowing that both from the outside and the inside perverse deceptive men will rise up to lead you astray. In fact, to be a pastor or elder in the church, you have the duty according to Titus 1:9 of being able to point out error. This is how you care for the sheep, how you protect them.
We have also been accused of being divisive. I would agree with that. Truth by its very nature is divisive. It’s why Jesus said I came to bring a sword, to divide people, families. Truth by its very nature is separated from error. And it is far more important to be divided by the truth than united by error. I understand that truth is divisive. I wrote The Gospel According to Jesus, and a leader took me to lunch and said I divided the body of Christ. I asked if what I wrote was true. That’s the only question I have. Of course the truth divides. It immediately separates error and reality.
A third criticism has come: that the issue is not clear in the Bible. And that a conference like this, and disagreement from some well-known folks and even well-known Bible scholars, demonstrates that the Scripture is not clear on this issue. In response, I want to say that if the issue is unclear, as some are claiming, it has only become unclear under the influence of false teachers. It was clear to the Apostles. It was clear to the early church fathers. It was clear to the Reformers. It was clear to the Puritans. It is clearly delineated in creeds like the Westminster Confession. It is has been clear to erudite, noble, Reformed theologians who have been quoted, like B. B. Warfield. It was clear to Spurgeon. It was clear to Jim Boice, to R. C. Sproul. Has it now become unclear because of Aimee Semple McPherson, Catherine Coolman, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Kenneth Copeland? That’s a ludicrous idea. In the true and historic stream of sound doctrine this issue has always been crystal clear.
Another accusation has been that we are talking about something that is only true of the extreme lunatic fringe of the movement. That is patently not true. There is error in this movement that sweeps through the entire movement. As heard today in the Q&A, 90% in the Pentecostal movement take ownership of the prosperity gospel. 24 million of them deny the Trinity. 100 million are Roman Catholics. Do the math. This is not some fringe. This is the movement. And it is growing at a rapid rate.
Others have said, “You’re attacking the movement that has given us such rich worship. This music that has come from the Charismatic movement is enriching the worship of the church.” Well I would beg to differ with that. I’m convinced that the contemporary style of charismatic music is the entry point for Charismatic theology into churches. If you buy the music, the theology follows. Because all of a sudden you’re listening to the same songs/artists, experiencing the same emotions. The church may be non-Charismatic, but all the style is exactly the same. That’s the entry point. Show me a church that has a strong doctrinal statement, and I’ll show you a church reluctant to embrace even the music. Show me a church that loves great hymns and theology put to music, I’ll show you a church reluctant to embrace the charismatic movement. And because the music doesn’t come in, the theology doesn’t either. That’s the seductive entry point.
I’m not talking about specific things, because there is contemporary music that’s beautiful and we can and should sing that. But when it its uncritical and not about the mind, but about the flesh, when it’s not about truth understood but emotion felt, it induces the same kind of feelings that are consistent with the Charismatic movement and opens the door. If we’re all singing the same music, how can we divide each other? I think the Charismatic movement has significantly diminished worship. It’s taken out of the arena of truth, out of the mind, and reduced it to feelings of the flesh.
There are others who criticized by saying, “You’re attacking brothers.” I wish I could affirm that. We’ve said this one way or another this week: this is a movement made up largely of non-Christians.
A few years ago I was doing an interview with NBC, and there was as huge scandal in the evangelical world and the reporter asked, “Why do you let this stuff happen? Who polices your movement?” He couldn’t process the fact that evangelicalism was this free-for-all that didn’t have to answer to any authority or any centrality. And I said, “Well, really nobody polices the movement.” And that’s sad. Who should police the movement? Every faithful pastor, elder, theologian, preacher and teacher of the Word of God. If Reformed leaders who know the truth and know the Gospel and know the word of God don’t police this movement, the spiritual terrorists will dominate. It’s like Islam. We keep hearing , “Wow, the terrorists are the small minority on the lunatic fringe.” Then why don’t Muslims come forward en masse and reject the terrorists? They don’t.
I think there’s a heavy burden that lays on the back of all men who know the world of God to rise up and denounce this movement. But you don’t hear that.
So people say, “Oh, MacArthur, he’s fixated on this. He’s always haranguing on the Charismatics.” Well if you’re a part of Grace Church you’d know better than that. We’ve preached through the entire New Testament. I don’t think we’re fixated on this thing. I’ve been here since 1969 and this is the first conference we’ve had on the Charismatic movement. There are other things that have occupied us, like the exaltation of Jesus Christ and everything else in the Word of God.
I hope I hold the truth with kindness and love, but when I open the Word of God it must speak. And to be honest with you, I do care about the feelings of people. I do care about offending them. But not nearly as much as I care about offending God.
There is a stream of sound teaching, sound doctrine, sound theology, that runs all the way back to the Apostles. It runs through Athanasius and Augustine, through Luther and Calvin, the great Reformation and Reformers, and the Puritans, and everything seems so clear to them. Through the Westminster divines and the pathway of Spurgeon and David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and S. Lewis Johnson, and Jim Boice, and to R. C. Sproul. That’s the stream of sound doctrine. The heroes of this generation are people in that stream. We know who they are. You’ve been hearing about them this week. We go back to John Rogers, and the 288 Marian martyrs. Those are our heroes.
But you have to understand, this other stream of evangelicalism goes back to about 1966, when the hippies came out of San Francisco, joined Calvary Chapel, and we had the launch of an informal, barefoot, beach, drug-induced kind of young people that told the church how we should act. Hymns went out. Suits went out. For the first time in the history of the church, the conduct of the church was conformed in a subculture that was formed on LSD in San Francisco and migrated to Southern California.
That launches the self-focused church that winds up in the seeker-friendly church, that splinters in the Vineyard movement, which develops into the charismatic stream. I don’t go back to Lonnie Frisbee, who led the Jesus movement and died of AIDS as a homosexual. That’s not my stream. But that’s the stream that has produced the culturally-bound, seeker-driven church movement. And while there are good and bad and better and worse elements of it, that’s where it comes from. We are very different.
An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends
If you say you’re on this side, and you are on this side, then you have a responsibility to be faithful to this marvelous history. If anybody’s going to police this movement it has to be the people here. This concerns me so much that if you haven’t seen it already, I wrote a 12thchapter in the book. The title is, “An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends.” Who are my Continuationist friends? People who my friends—real friends of mine whom I respect, who’ve made great contributions to the church, who’ve taught me, ministered alongside me, with whom I’ve prayed sometimes for hours and hours, with whom I’ve spoken and talked, hammered out convictions. But they call themselves Continuationists because they want to give place to the Charismatic movement. I want to suggest that they’re not helping. We need them to help police the movement.
In that final chapter I give eight important statements as to why they must help us.
Gives an illusion of legitimacy to the broader Charismatic movement
If you say you’re a Continuationist, you give credence to the Charismatic movement. You may want to tweak that, but when you give any credibility to the movement the whole movement gets respect, because of who they are.
And then you have this young generation of Young, Restless, and Reformed people coming along and attaching to their heroes who are open to this charismatic movement and affirming the continuation of the sign gifts, and so they follow their heroes, and either embrace that idea of continuation or are open to that idea, which is essentially one in the same. When notable Continuationist scholars give credence to charismatic interpretations or fail to directly condemn unbiblical charismatic practices, they provide theological cover for a movement that is deadly dangerous.
Degrades the miraculous nature of the true gifts that God bestowed upon the first century church
We know God was giving revelation during the time of Christ and the Apostles. And the gifts, signs and miracles were to validate those were proclaiming and writing that revelation. [Reads Hebrews 2:3]
Now, that text is meaningless if the signs and wonders and miracles and tongues and prophecy and healing belong to everybody’s experience today. It’s meaningless. It isn’t any sign of anything. When they use the terminology of NT gifts but define them to mean something else, they depreciate the remarkable nature of the real thing. Reformed Continuationism aids this misrepresentation.
Severely limits the ability of its advocates to confront others who fall into Charismatic confusion
What are they going to say? In the book you’ll read some of the most bizarre kinds of experiences of the most bizarre Charismatics. Things that should be wholesale denounced. And we keep waiting for the denunciation to come from the Continuationists you would think would know better. But it doesn’t come.
They have given up the high ground, and they can’t speak because they allow for it. So by what criteria do they then discredit the claims?
Opens the gates to further confusion and error
They say there’s prophecy today but it can be wrong. There’s tongues but it’s not languages. There’s healing but it’s not like the healing of Christ and the Apostles. It invites the Christian to interpret anything as from God. Gibberish, impressions, notions, ideas that float into the head. It removes the authoritative objective standard for questioning the legitimacy of anyone’s claim to revelation.
By allowing for any of it end up allowing for all of it, because they don’t have any criteria to decide what is and isn’t accurate. The very idea that Christians should expect extra-biblical revelation from God, mystical experiences, words of prophecy, just creates a theological train wreck. When you get beyond the Word of God you can’t contain the error.
Tacitly Denies the Doctrine of Sola Scriptura
I don’t need to camp on that because Steve made an unforgettable case for that last night.
None of my Reformed Continuationist friends would deny the closing of the canon, the 66 books, the authority, sufficiency of Scripture. Yet they default on the very thing they deny because they teach believers to expect extra-biblical revelation. There’s so many ways that can be abused.
And the people who abuse it most are those in positions of power.
Opens the door to mindless ecstasy of Charismatic expression
They’ll admit that tongues is not a language today, so what is it? If the prophecy today is like the biblical because it’s fallible, if tongues aren’t the tongues of the New Testament because it’s not languages, if the healings aren’t like the New Testament healings, they’re notcontinuationists. They’re closet cessationists. They’ve said it’s not what it was. So they’ve simply accepted a counterfeit. You can’t be proud about that. That’s not a noble posture, to accept a counterfeit. And it’s a counterfeit by their own admission.
Affirms the same basic premise that undergirds the fraudulent ministry of Charismatic faith healers
If you say the gift of healing is still around, without experimental or biblical evidence, then you have just validated healers. Who would want to do that? Are they not the lowest of the low? The worst of the worst? They don’t go to hospitals. They prey on the most desperate, the most severely ill, the most hopeless, the most destitute. Very often the poorest. Telling them lies and getting rich.
Who would want to do anything to aid and abet them?
Dishonors the Holy Spirit by distracting people from His true ministry, enticing them with counterfeits
Is it not enough to have the indwelling spirit and the fullness of the Spirit? To have the gift of the Spirit? To have the fruit of the Spirit? All the promises of the Spirit? Do I need to come to God, “Give me more and give me that other thing. I want that”? What kind of deficiency are you accusing the Spirit of?
The Continuationist position sends stumbling blocks into the path of sanctification. For two reasons: one it makes people think they don’t have what they need, and two it makes people think there’s something they need to chase. It’s really sad. A lot more can be said about that, and it’s in the book.
It’s Time to Respond
But I’m convinced that the broader charismatic movement has opened the door to more theological error than any other theological aberration in this day. Liberalism, psychology, ecumenism, pragmatism, mysticism, are all bad. Nothing is as bad as Charismaticism because of its extensive impact. And once that kind of experientialism gets a foothold, there’s no brand of heresy that won’t ride it into the church.
Charismatic theology becomes the strange fire of our generation and we have no business flirting with it at any level.
This is the time for the true church to respond. We claim allegiance to the Reformers, then we ought to conduct ourselves with the same level of courage. Don’t call yourself a Charismatic Calvinist. John Calvin would reject that. He did reject that. You’ll have to drop the Calvinist part.
I’m concerned because I think these good, godly friends could make a massive difference in what this young generation and next generation believes about this movement, that they take a stand where they need to take a stand.
1 Timothy 6
You might think I’m done but I’m not. I want you to open your Bible to the last chapter of 1 Timothy. There’s one another thing I need to say. If I did not take this stand, and if these other man did not take the stand they’re taking with me, we would be unfaithful to our pastoral calling. This isn’t a pet peeve of mine. This isn’t a personal issue with me. This is a discharge of my duty as a pastor. And I will be held accountable before God for the discharge of this responsibility.
As Paul winds down his life as Conrad was saying to us earlier, he writes to Timothy. He’s passing the baton, the mantle. He reminds Timothy in 1 Timothy 6 that it’s been a fight—the good fight, he calls it—of faith. It’s been a battle. And then he tells Timothy of verse 20 of chapter 6: “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you.” What’ she talking about? Guard the treasure. What’s the treasure? Divine revelation. “Guard what has been deposited into your mind: Divine truth.” “And avoid worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith.”
That’s a final signoff to his first epistle to Timothy as he passes the baton. This is a foundational responsibility of the man of God: to be a guardian of the treasure. To protect the treasure in his time, and to pass it on for subsequent times.
Paul’s very concerned about Timothy. So after writing to Titus, he writes a final letter to Timothy. Verse 6 of chapter 1: “Kindle afresh the gift of God which was in you through the laying on of hands.” Timothy was intimidated, it was pushing him into silence. Verse 7: not a spirit of cowardice, but of power, love and self discipline. This is a scary time for Paul because the baton will pass to Timothy and Timothy is looking weak.
He’s saying don’t be afraid to proclaim the truth. Don’t be a coward. Don’t be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord. Are you kidding? After all those years with Paul, after seeing all the triumph of Paul’s ministry and becoming ashamed of the testimony of the Lord and being identified with Paul? Apparently. This is a fearful time in Paul’s life, and he’s fearful for Timothy.
How serious is it? Verse 13: Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us the treasure which has been entrusted to you.” I get it today. There are all kinds of people whose stock and trade is their communication ability. Cool, glib, clever; captivating audiences. But the instruction from Paul to Timothy is about retaining sound words and guarding the truth as a treasure. Ministry is a guardianship. We not only proclaim the truth, we protect the truth.
Paul’s heart’s really broken at the end of his life. Verse 15: they all turned away from me. He was alone. Everybody had abandoned him. The price was too high. He’s at the end of this life: Please Timothy. I’ve given you the treasure. Guard the treasure. Retain the sound words.”
Chapter 2: same cry: Be strong in the grace. The things you’ve heard from me, entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Four generations.
It grieves me all the time to see these quasi-churches that identify themselves from being isolated from anything in the past. “Not your grandfather’s church.” “No organ.” “Come as you are.” Anything to create some kind of image that is completely isolated from anybody’s experience of a church. Paul says I gave you the truth, you give it to the next generation and you give it to the next. It’s not about creativity.
Suffer hardship like a good soldier. Don’t entangle yourself in the affairs of everyday life. This is the ultimate word for any young minister, from the Apostle who’s about to put his head on the block. And the next generation is going to be in the hands of Timothy.
I think about that when I look at the character and style of many of these men who are pastors. What will the next generation be like if what they receive is in their hands? What must Timothy do? [Reads 2 Tim 2:14-15.] Retain sound doctrine, guard the treasure, handle the truth accurately. That’s the mandate. Avoid worldly empty chatter. It leads people away from the truth.
Then in verse 20: [Reads 2 Tim 2:20]. Every house in ancient times had these kind of vessels. It didn’t have the advantage of plumbing to take the waste in or out. So they had vessels of gold and silver, for honorable things. Serve the food on it. Vessels of wood and earthenware were for dishonorable things. You took at the garbage, the waste. What do you want to be? You want to be a privy pot, as it was called? Or do you want to be a golden platter?
If you cleanse yourself form the influence of unbiblical things, you’ll be a useful vessel. [Reads 2 Tim 2:22-23].
[Reads 2 Tim 3:15-4:3]. Do you get the tone of all of this? From the time that I was a young man, when my father gave me the first bible I began to preach out of, he wrote, “Dear Johnny, preach the Word.” And he passed the mantle to me. It didn’t take me long to find out that the command to preach the word had a context. And it’s what we just looked like. It meant to guard the treasure that had been entrusted to me.
Paul closes out his life, really, by reminding Timothy he fought the good fight, finished the course, kept the faith—the body of truth that constitutes the Christian faith. It hasn’t been easy for him. All who in Asia forsake him. Demas has deserted him. Only Luke is with him. Imagine, everything that he had done, and he’s all alone, and it’s only Luke, and he asks for Mark. Nobody stood with him; everybody deserted him. [Reads 2 Tim 4:17-18.]
I’m surrounded by wonderful people. I’m so blessed. I can’t say with Paul everyone has forsaken me. But I think any of us who take stands on issues like this know what it is to be falsely accused and vilified and assaulted. And at the end of the day we’ll have to say the Lord strengthened me. The Lord will strengthen you, and will reward you for your faithfulness.
What a heartfelt letter. Do you wonder how Timothy responded? The answer comes at the end of Hebrews. [Reads Hebrews 13:23.] Timothy has been released. From where? Prison. Timothy was in prison. Timothy had let his gift go silent to avoid that. He was a coward when Paul wrote 2 Timothy. He got that letter. I think it gripped his heart. I think he became bold and he went to prison. But he was released. Just a small word. I’m glad it’s there. Paul’s letter changed the course of Timothy’s life.
And may it do the same for you, for all of us. May we guard the treasure, retain sound words, study to show ourselves approved unto God, workmen needing not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word, and, having rightly divided the word, to preach the Word.
And if no one stands with us: so be it. The Lord will strengthen us.