Nadab and Abihu, priests honored and respected more than anyone except Moses and Aaron, offered strange fire before the Lord. Leviticus 10 relates that whatever they did that made the fire unacceptable, they did not worship God the way God commanded. So He destroyed them. Worship of God is the most serious activity anyone can do.
In his book, Strange Fire, John MacArthur proposes that the worship being offered by those in the Charismatic movement is strange fire because it is not worship of God the way God has commanded. Part 1 discusses discernment and the history of the Charismatic movement, Part 2 exposes counterfeit leaders, and Part 3 teaches the work of the Holy Spirit in both unbelievers and believers.
The “Broad Brush” Accusation
It has been said that the book focuses too much on the extremes in Charismatic circles worldwide, which tends to paint doctrinally conservative continuationists onto the same wall. A common accusation is that MacArthur “paints with too broad a brush.” Surely opponents ought to be able to put forth more substantial objections than complaining about the width of the brush! Besides, if the surface is as broad as a barn, painting requires a broad brush. Then you go back with a smaller brush for the detail work.
The first part of this book does abound with examples of the extremes to which counterfeits have taken charismaticism. That illustrates the principle that once you step into the subjective, there is no boundary. Between Jack Charismatic’s prophecy and Joe Continuationist’s message from God through an impression, the difference is not in kind, but in degree. Both are obtained subjectively. Still, MacArthur agrees that some who hold a continuationist position are more doctrinally conservative and reject the excesses of charismaticism, and he appreciates and respects them. The last chapter is written especially to those who hold that view.
Discerning Truth and Error
How do we discern the truth or falsity of the plethora of phenomena that are being attributed to the Holy Spirit and touted as essential for worship? The phenomena include behaviors like unintelligible speech, barking, nonsensical laughter, being “slain in the Spirit,” and supposed healings. Many people claim to hear from God; Charismatic leaders extend that practice to outrageous false prophecies. How can we know what is from God and what is not?
This question tracks directly to the core issue, the doctrine of sola Scriptura, the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Charismatics and continuationists accept subjective experience as authoritative and self-validating. Cessationists propose that Scripture’s authority must supersede that of experience.
Regarding those who profess to continue working the miraculous, MacArthur consults the apostle John, who explains how to distinguish truth from error. Leaders will teach doctrines from one of two sources, either the Holy Spirit or the spirit of this world. First John 3:24 mentions the “Spirit He has given us” and then 4:1 urges all Christians to “Test the spirits…” In other words, evaluate the doctrine being taught so as to know whether your teacher is teaching truth from God or is a false teacher. Evaluate how?
Based on 1 John 4:1-8, MacArthur lists five objective tools to evaluate the source of a teacher’s doctrine. He credits Jonathan Edwards as the source of these observations. On the “paint brush” theme, we might call it a set of solvents, or perhaps a set of lenses for examining the image that a teacher is painting for you to see. For brevity, I elaborate on just the first three.
1. Does the message, person, or work exalt the true Christ? (1 John 4:2-3).
The work of the Holy Spirit is to exalt Christ (John 14:26; 16:14), but Charismatics exalt the Holy Spirit.
2. Does the message, person, or work oppose worldliness? (1 John 4:4-5)
The prosperity gospel promotes worldliness by encouraging people to pursue health and wealth. Prosperity gospel preachers grow lavishly rich by gifts from followers and are known for scandals.
3. Does the message, person, or work point people to the Scriptures? (1 John 4:6)
Those led by the Spirit will submit to the teaching of the apostles, which is recorded in what we call the New Testament. That makes sense. Since the Holy Spirit inspired the written Word, the Holy Spirit is the author (2 Peter 1:20-21). Therefore, He would want His followers to read and heed what He authored, not to cast it aside and demand to hear from Him another way.
In 2 Peter 1:16-19, Peter elevates Scripture as more authoritative than experience. At the Transfiguration, Peter had an unparalleled experience. Yet Peter himself says that “the prophetic word” (Scripture) is “more sure” (the word order in the Greek). Experience is subjective and our interpretations of experiences are fallible. Only the Word is reliable and infallible.
4. Does the message, person, or work elevate the truth? (1 John 4:6b)
5. Does the message, person, or work produce love for God and others? (1 John 4:7-8)
Apostles, Fallible Prophets, Tongues-speaking
In Part 2, the chapter on apostles lists the requirements for being an apostle. Since it is impossible that anyone today could fulfill those requirements, the gift of apostleship has ceased. If one gift has ceased, others can also.
A major new development in recent years is the claim that modern prophets can speak fallible prophecies yet still be legitimate prophets of God. There is no biblical basis for this deceptive notion. Deuteronomy 18 says that if prophets speak fallible prophecy then they are false prophets.
Another chapter deals with tongues, what biblical tongues are, and what their purpose was. As for healing, New Testament healings were immediate, completely successful, undeniable and, like tongues, had a special purpose. No faith healer since the apostles has ever been able to compete with that standard.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
I found Part 3 of the book to be instructive and uplifting as it teaches the true work of the Spirit in salvation, in sanctification, and through His Word (three chapters). In salvation, the Spirit convicts unbelievers of sin, regenerates the hearts of unbelievers He has chosen, grants them repentance and faith, indwells the believer, and much more. The Spirit is at work every day for the salvation of people around the world.
In sanctification, the Holy Spirit conforms believers to the image of Christ. It is not unintelligible babbling or falling on the floor that is evidence of the Spirit’s work, but Christlikeness. To be filled with the Spirit is to be in submission to the Holy Spirit’s Word, the Bible. As the believer turns from sin and puts on love, patience, gentleness and the like, the Holy Spirit gives him the power to obey. In this way, He is personally at work in the believer’s life on a moment by moment basis.
In both salvation and sanctification, the Spirit’s tool is His Word. MacArthur explains the inspiration of Scripture by the Spirit and the illumination of Scripture by the Spirit. If we would walk by the power of the Spirit, we cannot do so without the Word of God.
The last chapter is an open letter to MacArthur’s continuationist friends. There, he lists eight reasons why the continuationist position is dangerous to Christians. The appendix lists quotes of church leaders from A.D. 344 to 1981 giving evidence that the sign gifts ceased after the days of the apostles.
Source of Authority the Core Issue
One’s source of authority is the foundational question that Christians will answer by their position on whether miraculous and revelatory spiritual gifts continue today or whether they have ceased. In other words, the doctrine of sola Scriptura is at stake.
MacArthur proposes that Scripture is authoritative and sufficient. There is no need for continuing miraculous and revelatory spiritual gifts, and the Scripture teaches that they have ceased. If we want to learn how God is at work in our lives and the world, if we want to know what is right and wrong, if we want to know what decision to make in a situation, then we need to rely on Scripture and not subjective phenomena.
God has given His completed Word. He Himself says that therein is all that we need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:1-3), including the commands and principles necessary for decision-making and relational problem-solving. MacArthur cites 2 Timothy 3:16-17 where Scripture claims for itself sufficiency for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, that the man of God may be completely equipped for every good work and asks what more is needed. Since God’s Word is sufficient and authoritative, we do not need continuing miracles and prophecies, nor even to seek hearing from Him in any other way subjective way like impressions and nudges.
MacArthur’s cessationist position does not argue that God is not at work in the world today. On the contrary, the cessationist position states only that the miraculous and revelatory gifts have ceased. Otherwise, God is active maintaining His creation and active providentially in every detail of our lives right down to the hairs of our heads. He speaks today every time we read His Word. Jesus prayed that the Father would “sanctify them in Thy truth; Thy Word is truth” (John 17:17). That means that God accomplishes a believer’s sanctification by means of His Word, not by means of the miraculous. His Word is powerful, able to distinguish a person’s heart intentions and convict him so that he turns to obey God (Heb. 4:12). He is active in the lives of His children through the power of the Holy Spirit, illumining their understanding of and faith in His Word and giving them the power to obey moment by moment.