Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review: Strange Fire, by John MacArthur

Strange Fire (release date, 12 November 2013) is an important book for Christians who long to be faithful to biblical teaching. It will be controversial as Dr. MacArthur takes a very confrontational stance on the charismatic movement. MacArthur is a strident cessationist, believing that the spiritual gifts commonly referred to as "sign gifts" (healing, miracles, prophecy, tongues, and interpretation of tongues) and the office of Apostle ceased to exist at the end of the Apostolic Age (roughly the end of the first century AD). He also issues a stern warning about the so-called "Prosperity Gospel" — the belief that those who are truly saved and who have enough faith will experience financial prosperity and physical health He calls out prominent charismatics and accuses them of fraudulent teaching about and use of these spiritual gifts and their teaching on "blessings" (the prosperity gospel), going so far as to say that they are completely unbiblical and are from Satan rather than God's Spirit. A few times, he references a Pew study that concluded that in some countries, 90% of all Pentecostals believe the same as these prominent figures.

MacArthur paints with a very broad brush, splattering paint everywhere. He challenges the teaching of several non-pentecostal evangelicals and calls them to move to a cessationist position on these spiritual gifts — John Piper, Henry Blackaby, and others.

In spite of the fact that I think MacArthur is too broad in his condemnations, this is a good book. It is written in 3 parts, each part having 4 chapters:

Part 1: Confronting a Counterfeit Revival
Ch 1 Mocking the Spirit
Ch 2 A New Work of the Spirit?
Ch 3 Testing the Spirits (Part 1)
Ch 4 Testing the Spirits (Part 2)
Part 2: Exposing the Counterfeit Gifts
Ch 5 Apostles Among Us?
Ch 6 The Folly of Fallible Prophets
Ch 7 Twisting Tongues
Ch 8 Fake Healings and False Hopes
Part 3: Rediscovering the Spirit's True Work
Ch 9 The Holy Spirit and Salvation
Ch 10 The Spirit and Sanctification
Ch 11 The Spirit and the Scriptures
Ch 12 An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends

He concludes the book with an Appendix tracing cessationist thought from the 4th century forward.

Best Chapters: In Chapters 3 and 4, MacArthur uses 1 John 4:1-8 to give a biblical method of testing the validity of any claim to the working of God's Spirit. This is excellent exegesis which builds on an exposition of Jonathan Edwards as he evaluated the Great Awakening of the 18th century. The appropriate questions to ask are:
1. Does the work exalt the true Christ?
2. Does it oppose worldliness?
3. Does it point people to the Scriptures?
4. Does it elevate the truth?
5. Does it produce love for God and others?

Any supposed movement of the Holy Spirit that does not do all of those, is not a movement of God's Spirit and is, therefore, false.

Key Quotes:

Introduction: The “Holy Spirit” found in the vast majority of charismatic teaching and practice bears no resemblance to the true Spirit of God as revealed in Scripture. The real Holy Spirit is not an electrifying current of ecstatic energy, a mind-numbing babbler of irrational speech, or a cosmic genie who indiscriminately grants self-centered wishes for health and wealth. The true Spirit of God does not cause His people to bark like dogs or laugh like hyenas; He does not knock them backward to the ground in an unconscious stupor; He does not incite them to worship in chaotic and uncontrollable ways; and He certainly does not accomplish His kingdom work through false prophets, fake healers, and fraudulent televangelists. By inventing a Holy Spirit of idolatrous imaginations, the modern Charismatic Movement offers strange fire that has done incalculable harm to the body of Christ. Claiming to focus on the third member of the Trinity, it has in fact profaned His name and denigrated His true work.

Charismatic theology has turned the evangelical church into a cesspool of error and a breeding ground for false teachers. It has warped genuine worship through unbridled emotionalism, polluted prayer with private gibberish, contaminated true spirituality with unbiblical mysticism, and corrupted faith by turning it into a creative force for speaking worldly desires into existence. By elevating the authority of experience over the authority of Scripture, the Charismatic Movement has destroyed the church’s immune system–uncritically granting free access to every imaginable form of heretical teaching and practice.

Chapter 1: Some might argue, however, that such heretical elements represent only the lunatic fringe of an otherwise orthodox movement. More moderate charismatics like to portray the prosperity preachers, faith healers, and televangelists as safely isolated on the extreme edge of the charismatic camp. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Thanks to the global reach and incessant proselytizing of religious television and charismatic mass media, the extreme has now become mainstream. For most of the watching world, flamboyant false teachers–with heresies as ridiculous as their hairdos–constitute the public face of Christianity.

Chapter 2: Edwards argued with his usually lucid logic that intense physical phenomena such as “tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, agonies of body or the failing of bodily strength” did not prove anything one way or the other about the legitimacy of a revival.

Chapter 4: A comparison of Ephesians 5:18 with Colossians 3:16 demonstrates that the command to “be filled with the Spirit” is parallel to the command to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” since they both produce the same results (cf. Eph. 5:18–6:9; Col. 3:16–4:1)...It is not possible for God’s Word to dwell in believers unless they are filled with the Spirit; and conversely, Christians can’t be filled with the Spirit without the Word of Christ dwelling

Chapter 6: ...if someone declaring himself a prophet proclaims any supposed “revelation from God” that turns out to be inaccurate or untrue, he must be summarily rejected as a spokesman for God.

Chapter 10: being “slain in the Spirit” is a modern charismatic invention. The practice is mentioned nowhere in the Bible; it is completely without scriptural warrant. The modern phenomenon has become such a common and popular spectacle that the average charismatic today takes it for granted, assuming it must have some kind of clear biblical or historical pedigree. But not only is this phenomenon completely absent from the biblical record of the early church; it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Holy Spirit.

...for those who wonder if they are truly being filled with the Holy Spirit, the proper question is not, “Have I had an ecstatic experience?” Rather, it is, “Am I becoming more and more like Jesus?”

Chapter 11: ...the Reformation was the inevitable and explosive consequence of the Word of God crashing like a massive tidal wave against the thin barricades of man-made tradition and hypocritical religion.

Recommendation: MacArthur's defense of cessationism is compelling and has caused me to rethink my own position as a non-charismatic continuationist — though I'm probably more accurately labeled a functional cessationist.

There is much truth in this book in spite of the confrontational tone. It is worth reading by both charismatics and non-charismatics. MacArthur's exposition of Scripture should be taken seriously.

UPDATE: John Piper has responded to inquiries about MacArthur's comments related to his views as a continuationist. Frankly, I think both oversimplified the issues, particularly of prophecy, but this is a good counter to MacArthur's comments about Piper: Piper Addresses Strange Fire and Charismatic Chaos.

(DISCLAIMER: I received this book, Kindle edition, free for pre-publication review from the publisher's Booksneeze blogger's review program. I received no other compensation except for continued participation in the program and have been free to write the review that I think the book deserves.)
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