John MacArthur Answers His Critics
John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference has come and gone and the book will be shipping next week. Whatever you felt about the conference, there is little doubt that a lot of work and a lot of discussion remain as we, the church, consider the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the aftermath of the event, and with the book on its way, I think we all have questions we’d like to ask Dr. MacArthur. A week ago I asked for your questions and sent them through to him. Here are his answers to the first batch of questions. I anticipate adding a second part soon.
Tim: What was the purpose of such a controversial conference like Strange Fire? Why did you choose not to invite one of the best of the reformed continuationists to speak at your event and to defend his position? Wouldn’t that have strengthened the cessationist arguments while also showing an earnest desire for unity?
MacArthur: Let me begin by thanking you, Tim, for the opportunity to respond to these important questions about the Strange Fire conference and book. I would also like to thank your readers for their willingness to post these questions.The goal of the Strange Fire Conference was to sound a trumpet blast in the midst of an evangelical world that has largely grown ambivalent about this vital issue. Sometimes you need to take a strong stand in order to get people’s attention and we wanted the conference to make that kind of definitive statement. Because the honor of the Holy Spirit is at stake, we were convinced that we could not remain silent.
Our decision not to host a debate at the Strange Fire Conference was intentional. Debates are rarely effective in truly helping people think carefully through the issues, since they can easily be reduced to sound bites and talking points. By contrast, a clear understanding of biblical truth comes from a faithful study of the Scriptures. Our hope is that the conference sparked a renewed desire for that kind diligent study on this important issue.
I also expect continuationists to respond in writing to the things I have written in the book. I welcome that kind of interchange. It allows people to think carefully, over a prolonged period of time, about the arguments on both sides of the issue. It has always been through the written word that theological disputes like this have been grappled with in church history. That requires the kind of devotion and effort that brings serious discussion to the fore. I have taken those pains in Strange Fire, and would hope that others would interact on that same level.
Tim: There are some matters the Bible makes absolutely clear (e.g. You must trust in Christ alone for your salvation) and some things that continue to perplex us so that even genuine, Bible-loving Christians can disagree on them (e.g. baptism and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit). Why does God allow questions like these to remain unclear to us? Why are you taking such a strong stand on what is really just a secondary issue?
MacArthur: These questions remind me of an article Thabiti Anyabwile wrote during the Strange Fire Conference, in which he explained why this issue is so important. He wrote, “First, we have to admit that there’s a correct and an incorrect position on this issue. Somebody is right and somebody is wrong… . Second, we have to admit that how we view this issue substantially impacts the nature of the Christian life. It matters. It’s not an inconsequential idea. Someone worships God appropriately, someone doesn’t… . Third, we have to admit that this issue practically impacts Christian worship and fellowship. It’s not only a private matter, but a corporate one as well.”
I agree with all of that. This is an issue of critical importance because it affects our view of God as well as our understanding of how to live out the Christian life, both individually and corporately.
I don’t think, however, that this issue is unclear in Scripture. The fact that Christians disagree on what the Bible teaches does not mean that there is a lack of clarity in Scripture, but rather in Christians. The Word of God is our authoritative rule for faith and practice—meaning that it is perfectly sufficient for teaching sound doctrine and governing right living. Certainly, an orthodox pneumatology fits under that umbrella.
On the one hand, I would agree that this is a second-level doctrinal issue—meaning that someone can be either a continuationist or a cessationist and still be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. I have always maintained that position, and I reiterated that point several times during the conference. I have good friends who consider themselves continuationists, and I am confident that these men are fellow brothers in Christ. But that doesn’t excuse the seriousness of the error. In fact, I would appeal to my continuationist brethren to reconsider their views in light of what Scripture teaches.
On the other hand, I am firmly convinced that this secondary issue has the very real potential to taint a person’s understanding of the gospel itself. In such cases, it becomes a primary issue. For example, charismatic theology does corrupt the gospel when it expresses itself in the form of the prosperity gospel. Moreover, the global charismatic movement happily shelters other heretical movements—such as Catholic Charismatics and Oneness Pentecostals. Taken together, the number of charismatics who hold to a false form of the gospel (whether it is a gospel of health and wealth or a gospel of works righteousness) number in the hundreds of millions, which means they actually represent the majority of the global charismatic movement. That is why we took such a strong stand both at the conference and in the book.
Tim: You noted that you see this issue clearly resolved in Scripture. Can you explain, briefly, the biblical case for cessationism?
MacArthur: The full answer to this question would require a lengthy response; and I spend several chapters in the book making the case. But since you asked me to be brief, I’ll do my best to stay concise. I find it helpful to shape the case for cessationism around three questions: What?, When?, and Why?.
First, what were the miraculous and revelatory gifts (like apostleship, prophecy, tongues, and healing) according to the Word of God? Scripture gives us a clear description. But when we compare that biblical description with the modern charismatic movement, we find that the latter falls far short. Though charismatics use biblical terminology to describe their contemporary experiences, nothing about the modern charismatic gifts matches the biblical reality.
For example, God’s Word explicitly says that true prophets must adhere to a standard of 100% accuracy (Deut. 18:20–22) and nothing in the New Testament exempts them from that standard. The book of Acts depicts the gift of tongues as producing real human languages (Acts 2:9–11), and nothing in 1 Corinthians redefines tongues as irrational babble. And the New Testament further describes the miraculous healings of Jesus and the Apostles (including the healing of organic diseases like paralysis, blindness, and leprosy) as being immediate, complete, and undeniable (cf. Mark 1:42; 10:52; etc.). These, and many other Scripture passages, demonstrate the truly extraordinary quality of the biblical gifts.
But here is the point. The modern gifts of the charismatic movement simply do not match up to their biblical counterparts. Modern prophecy is fallible and full of errors. Modern tongues consists of unintelligible speech that does not conform to any human language. Modern healings do not compare to the miracles performed by Jesus and the Apostles.
Amazingly, leading continuationists readily acknowledge this fact. Wayne Grudem, for example, agrees that apostleship has ceased. He further argues for a modern version of prophecy that is fallible and frequently characterized by mistakes. Sam Storms has a whole article attempting to justify the idea that modern tongues do not have to be real human languages. And in a recent interview, John Piper acknowledges that there was something unique and unrepeatable about the healing miracles of Christ.
Based on those admissions, I would challenge them to consider in what sense they should even be called ‘continuationists,’ because they essentially acknowledge that the biblical gifts have not continued. And if these aren’t the biblical gifts we’re talking about, what are they, and what Scriptural evidence is there for their operation in the church?
So, I don’t deny that charismatics have lots of experiences. But I do deny the notion that those experiences match what the Bible describes as the miraculous and revelatory gifts of the New Testament. The modern experiences don’t even come close. There is nothing extraordinary about fallible prophecy, irrational tongues, or failed healings. While I recognize that sometimes God providentially chooses to heal people through answered prayer, those occurrences are not at all the same thing as the New Testament gift of healing.
Second, when did the gifts cease? One important passage that helps answer that question is Ephesians 2:20, which explains that apostles and New Testament prophets were the “foundation” upon which the church was being built. Before the canon of Scripture was complete, that foundation was still being laid through the apostles and prophets, and through the miraculous and revelatory gifts that accompanied and authenticated their ministries. But once the foundation was laid, those offices and gifts passed away. To follow Paul’s metaphor, the foundation is not something that is rebuilt at every phase of construction. It is laid only once.
Many reformed continuationists (including Wayne Grudem) readily acknowledge that apostleship has ceased. So even they admit that one of the most significant elements listed in both 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 has passed away. So, at that level at least, they are cessationists.
Finally, we must look to the purpose of the gifts—why they were given. The New Testament explains that they functioned to authenticate God’s messengers, while the canon of Scripture—and thus the fullness of God’s revelation—was still incomplete. Jesus Himself was “attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs” (Acts 2:22). Paul referred to “the signs of a true apostle” (2 Cor. 12:12). The author of Hebrews spoke of the Gospel being attested by God “both with signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will” (Heb. 2:4).
After the apostolic age passed, with the foundation of the church laid and the canon of Scripture closed, such attestation was no longer required. The sufficiency of Scripture and the fullness of God’s completed revelation in His written Word is so glorious that it no longer needs miraculous confirmation. As Peter explains, the prophetic word is even more sure than the most extraordinary of eye-witness experiences (2 Pet 1:16–21). In the all-sufficient Scriptures, God’s truth is self-attesting and self-evident through the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 4:12).
Now, I realize there are disputes over some of those passages. But that is the very discussion I want to spark in the evangelical community. Let’s dig into the Scriptures and deal with the biblical and theological issues. I should add that we address these and other passages in much greater depth in the Strange Fire book. Not that anyone would want to count, but the Scripture index includes nearly 450 biblical references.
Tim: You acknowledge, of course, that many godly, respected theologians are continuationists. How would you explain the continuationist theology of faithful men like John Piper, D.A. Carson, and Wayne Grudem if the cessationist position is so clearly taught in the Bible?
MacArthur: First, let me reiterate how much I do appreciate those men. As I explain in the book, I am truly grateful for the extensive contributions they have made to the truth and life of the church. I have personally benefited from my interactions with each of them, and from the many helpful books they have authored. I love these men as coworkers in the ministry of the gospel, and I thank the Lord for giving them as gifts to the church in this generation.
As I noted at the conference, I believe their openness to modern charismatic gifts is an anomaly. Obviously, I cannot read minds nor do I desire to judge motives. But I do wonder if perhaps their positions are evidence of either the influence of personal relationships with charismatic friends and family members, or the pervasive impact charismatic theology has had on the wider culture.
Wayne Grudem, as I mentioned earlier, openly acknowledges that there are no apostles in the church today. John Piper says that he does not speak in tongues. And I’m fairly confident that D. A. Carson does not personally practice any of the charismatic gifts. In that sense, then, I think they may be more cessationist (in terms of their personal practice) than their published positions would suggest.
My major concern is that their openness to the issue unwittingly gives the whole movement an aura of theological credibility that it does not deserve. That is why I titled the last chapter of Strange Fire, “An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends.” I want to appeal to them, on the basis of their theological acumen and exegetical expertise, to reexamine the issue. At the very least, I hope they will join with us in drawing a clear line in the sand and condemning the aberrations and excesses of the broader charismatic movement.
Tim: You have been clear that charismatic theology damages Christ’s name and the gospel. Excluding the obviously and patently unbiblical, extreme charismatics such as Benny Hinn, what is the damage that may be done as a result of reformed, continuationist preaching and practice?
MacArthur: This is a question we directly address in chapter 12 of the book—identifying eight dangerous ramifications of holding to a continuationist position. I can’t go into detail on all eight of those concerns here, but perhaps I can briefly highlight two of them.
First, I am concerned that reformed continuationists provide theological cover for the broader movement—including those who are not nearly as careful as they are. Once you legitimize fallible prophecy, irrational tongues, and failed healings (as if those are true expressions of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit), you open Pandora’s Box to all sorts of theological error and disaster. In using biblical terminology to describe something other than the biblical phenomena, continuationists unwittingly provide cover for charlatans and deceivers who use their arguments to propagate falsehood and justify abuses.
Let me give one quick example of that. I remember meeting with a charismatic prophet in my office several years ago—a man who has since been publicly discredited as a drunken, immoral fraud. But at the time, he was considered one of the foremost of the Kansas City Prophets. And he had come, along with another continuationist leader, in order to convince me that he was a true prophet. It was a strange meeting. His behavior was extremely bizarre. But the other leader defended him, insisting that this was how he acted when he was under the power of the Spirit.
So we asked this other continuationist leader why he believed this man to be a true prophet when he acted so strangely, and when so many of his so-called revelations were wrong and full of errors. I’ll never forget his response. He simply appealed to Wayne Grudem’s work on prophecy as his defense.
Examples like that illustrate the problem. Albeit unintentionally, reformed continuationists are providing a defense for people far less-noble or ethical than they are. In that sense, they are holding the gates open for the Trojan horse of aberrant theology and spiritual abuse that runs rampant in the broader charismatic world.
Second, on a related note, I am deeply concerned with the notion of ongoing revelation in the church today. Though my continuationist friends would never intentionally attack the sufficiency of Scripture, I believe their acceptance of modern prophecy actually undermines the sufficiency of Scripture in profoundly destructive ways.
As I write in Strange Fire, “The continuationist view actually defaults on the sole sufficiency of Scripture at the most practical levels—because it teaches believers to look for additional revelation from God outside the Bible. As a result, people are conditioned to expect impressions and words from God beyond what is recorded on the pages of Scripture. By using terms like prophecy, revelation, or a word from the Lord, the continuationist position has the real potential to harm people by binding their consciences to an erroneous message or manipulating them to make unwise decisions (because they think God is directing them to do so). Though continuationists insist that congregational prophecy is not authoritative (at least, not at the corporate level), it is not difficult to imagine countless ways it might be abused by unscrupulous church leaders” (pp. 242–3).
By definition, then, and contrary to 2 Timothy 3:16–17, Scripture alone cannot be said to make the man of God complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. Some other extrabiblical revelation or experience is made necessary. That kind of theology is downright dangerous.
Tim: In his review of your book, Thomas Schreiner says that you painted with too broad a brush and failed to acknowledge some of the good qualities of the reformed continuationist movement. He says, “The clarion call of warning should be modified with clearer and more forthright admissions that many charismatics adhere to the gospel and are faithful to God’s Word.” How would you respond?
MacArthur: First, I’d like to thank Tom for his willingness to review the book. I have great respect for his work as a careful exegete and biblical commentator. Second, I was encouraged to see where he has landed on the issue. I hope more will follow his example—being willing to rethink their continuationist leanings and come to a cessationist conclusion in light of the biblical evidence.
Regarding his concerns about the broad brush, I would respectfully disagree. Certainly, I would affirm that there are charismatics who adhere to the true gospel, and I acknowledge that point in the book. Here are a couple examples:
Page 81 – “I do believe there are sincere people within the Charismatic Movement who, in spite of the systemic corruption and confusion, have come to understand the necessary truths of the gospel. They embrace substitutionary atonement, the true nature of Christ, the Trinitarian nature of God, biblical repentance, and the unique authority of the Bible. They recognize that salvation is not about health and wealth, and they genuinely desire to be rescued from sin, spiritual death, and everlasting hell.”
Page 231 – “I want to emphasize, from the outset, that I regard as brothers in Christ and friends in the ministry all who are faithful fellow workmen in the Word and the gospel, even if they give a place of legitimacy to the charismatic experience. I have good friends among them who label themselves as ‘reformed charismatics’ or ‘evangelical continuationists.’”
So of course I would agree that there are true believers within the charismatic movement. But that does not negate the seriousness of the corruption. The charismatic quest for extrabiblical revelation, subjective impressions, ecstatic experiences, and so on, represents a massive danger to the church. Error is still error, even if there are true believers who embrace and espouse it. And when the error threatens the church in such significant ways, it needs to be called out and directly confronted.
After the conference, there were some who accused me of saying that nothing good has ever come from those who are part of the charismatic movement. But that is not what I said, nor is it what I believe. Regarding those who are genuine believers, I would readily acknowledge the positive contributions that various charismatic pastors, authors, and laypeople have made within the larger church. However, I’m convinced that those contributions have been made in spite of their heterodox pneumatology, not because of it.
Finally, I think those who accuse me of using too broad of a brush are being naïve about the actual composition of the global charismatic movement. We briefly mentioned this earlier, but it is worth reiterating. The fact of the matter is that the majority of charismatics around the world (including both classic Pentecostals and neo-Pentecostals) embrace the prosperity gospel. John T. Allen, in his book The Future Church (Doubleday 2009) explains how pervasive the prosperity gospel really is:
“Perhaps the most controversial element of the Pentecostal outlook is the so-called ‘prosperity gospel,’ meaning the belief that God will reward those with sufficient faith with both material prosperity and physical health. Some analysts distinguish between ‘neo-Pentecostal,’ which they see as focused on the prosperity gospel, and classic Pentecostalism, oriented toward the gifts of the Spirit such as healings and tongues. Yet the Pew Forum data suggests that the prosperity gospel is actually a defining feature of all Pentecostalism; majorities of Pentecostals exceeding 90 percent in most countries hold to these beliefs” (pp. 382–83).
That is a frightening statement, and it reveals just how pervasive the false gospel of health and wealth is within the global charismatic movement. But the data from surveys and studies back up those numbers.
Now that may be shocking to many, especially in North America (and also in the UK). People have responded to the conference by saying that I need to turn off TBN and get out more. They say that they personally know many charismatics who affirm sola fide and the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, and who deny the excesses and heresies of prosperity theology. In point of fact, I know those kinds of people too. Some of them are my dear friends. But the makeup of the movement is not determined by any single individual’s personal experience—unless he or she has personal knowledge of more than a half billion people. In the book, the argument is made by documenting the relevant statistical data. And the numbers paint a very different picture than that imagined by most American evangelicals.
On a global level, the majority of charismatics are being seduced by the false gospel of prosperity theology. Add to that the fact that the charismatic movement includes 120 million Catholic Charismatics and another 24 million Oneness Pentecostals, and you begin to realize just how widespread the problem is.
I’m deeply concerned that most American evangelicals are blissfully ignorant of what is actually happening across the globe. The reality is that the gospel being proclaimed and believed by the majority of charismatics around the world is not the biblical gospel. That was why I wanted Conrad Mbewe to speak at the Strange Fire Conference—because he sees what the charismatic movement is actually doing in places like the African church.
So, coming back to your question, I understand that some reviewers will find my tone too harsh and my brush too broad. But I think the problem is a whole lot bigger than anyone realizes. And it breaks my heart to think that hundreds of millions of souls are being caught up into a movement where they are being seduced by false forms of the gospel.
That is why I wanted to sound such a strong warning. And I’m willing to be accused of broad-brushing in order to get that message out.
(Interview to be continued.)