Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit and John MacArthur’s #StrangeFire Conference

John-MacArthurMaybe you haven’t heard of John MacArthur. He hosted a conference recently called Strange Fire in which he accused charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity of “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit,” the only unforgivable sin according to Jesus in Mark 3:29. It’s a pretty tremendous accusation to make against half a billion Christians. This has caused quite a stir in the evangelical blogosphere with responses from Adrian Warnock, Trevin Wax, Tim Challies, Michael Brown, Brandan Robertson, and others. So how does Jesus use the phrase “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” and it is it compatible with MacArthur’s accusations?

Evangelicals have a tremendously awkward time wrestling with the concept of an unforgivable sin. It goes against our core doctrine of justification by faith, that anybody no matter what they’ve done can be saved if they accept Jesus as their Lord and savior. For this reason, many evangelicals try to define blasphemy of the Holy Spirit as whatever the opposite of justification by faith is. For example, a site called Rapture Ready (yes, there really is a non-satirical Christian website called Rapture Ready) has this definition:

Those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit are those who consciously and perhaps repeatedly reject Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and are not even be concerned about it.

This is what you have to say if you start with your doctrine and then twist scripture around to fit it (which plenty of “Biblical,” rapture-ready Christians do all the time). But when we look at the context of the passage where Jesus uses the phrase, something different is clearly going on. Here is Mark 3:19-30:

Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

What did the scribes do to trigger this response from Jesus? They accused Him of engaging in demonic activity because He was performing supernatural deeds they couldn’t understand or account for with their religious doctrine. Jesus did His miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by consorting with demons. Verse 30 makes it clear that he was responding to their accusation that he “had an unclean spirit,” not that they rejected him as messiah or any of the other speculative meanings that evangelicals try to superimpose on this text. So the definition of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in this text is pretty straightforward: falsely attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to demonic activity.

So borrowing from Adrian Warnock’s blog, here’s what John MacArthur said about charismatics and Pentecostals at Strange Fire:

“Why don’t evangelical leaders speak against this movement?  Why is their such silence? Look When somebody attacks the person of Christ the Evangelical world rises up and says “no, no, no!”  . . . the Holy Spirit has been under massive assault for decades and decades, and I’ve been asking the question ‘where are the people rising up in protest against the abuse and the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?‘”

Warnock also shares a previous sermon from MacArthur which elaborates on MacArthur’s understanding of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit:

How do they do it? By attributing to the Holy Spirit words that He didn’t say, deeds that He didn’t do, and experiences that He didn’t produce, attributing to the Holy Spirit that which is not the work of the Holy Spirit. Endless human experiences, emotional experiences, bizarre experiences and demonic experiences are said to come from the Holy Spirit…visions, revelations, voices from heaven, messages from the Spirit through transcendental means, dreams, speaking in tongues, prophecies, out of body experiences, trips to heaven, anointings, miracles. All false, all lies, all deceptions attributed falsely to the Holy Spirit…

The problem with the way MacArthur defines blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is that it’s not the way Jesus used the phrase. Jesus wasn’t talking about people falsely claiming that the Holy Spirit was at work when it was really demons. He was talking about the opposite: falsely claiming that demons were at work when it was the Holy Spirit. Now why would this be an unforgivable sin?

I see a clue in Jesus’ statement in verse 24: “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” This statement is not only true about the kingdom of Satan; it’s also true about the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom would not stand if God allowed Christians to misrepresent and denigrate the Holy Spirit’s work in other Christians just because the Spirit used a different set of Bible verses, doctrines, and life experiences to draw them to Christ. It would split into thousands of different denominations, each of which thought that every other one is not only wrong but on its way to hell. (Oh wait, that’s kind of what happened, isn’t it?)

I do agree that there are some Pentecostal preachers out there who are making indefensibly crazy and wildly un-Biblical claims (e.g. Rafael Cruz’s dominionist theology). But it’s astonishing to me that any Christian would have the self-certainty to accuse an entire branch of the Christian tree of blasphemy. And part of the damning evidence MacArthur gives for charismatic Christianity’s apostasy is its ecumenism with Roman Catholicism:

We know the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin, righteousness, of judgment, to bear historical witness to the Gospel, to empower those who preach its saving message. The Holy Spirit is faithful to the Gospel and would never misrepresent the Gospel. So wherever the devaluing of Gospel truth is visible, we know that’s not the work of the Holy Spirit. And let me be blunt: Any movement that can fully embrace Roman Catholicism is not a movement of the Holy Spirit, because that’s a false gospel.

Wow. I guess a Methodist pastor who attends a weekly Catholic mass because of the charismatic experiences he’s had there is doubly damned. Behind John MacArthur’s condemnation of multiple branches of Christianity is a very high view of Satan’s power:

Satan is behind the corrupt religion, the false systems of belief… The world is imprisoned in false belief systems. They are fortified there, in the sense that they are impregnable in their ideologies. Those fortifications become their prisons and end up as their tombs. And the architect of all of them is Satan himself. He is the father of lies, the ultimate deceiver, the angel of light that purveys his great work through false belief systems.

I don’t disagree that there are many entrenched ideologies in our world that imprison Christians, laissez-faire capitalism and American exceptionalism being the main examples in our country. But I think the difference between John MacArthur and me is that I have as high a view of the Holy Spirit’s sovereignty as he has of Satan’s. I don’t think that God is watching helplessly as Satan steals billions of Christians from His flock for having different doctrine than John MacArthur. God promises us in Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened for you.” I believe that people who seek God with sincere hearts will find Him even if their relationship is filtered through different doctrinal lenses.

There are certainly some doctrines that create a greater obstacle to finding God than others, but God isn’t waiting to start a relationship with us until after we’ve read all of John MacArthur’s books and know exactly what to believe. There are millions of doctrinally confused Christians who trust in Jesus and are being used and shaped by the Holy Spirit in spite of whatever heresies they espouse. It is the posture of trust which is our justification, not the correctness of our doctrine. And incidentally, people who are obsessed with the latter raise questions about whether they really have been justified by Christ.

Yes, it’s true that there are false prophets and quirky beliefs in all corners of Christianity. And of course it’s appropriate to call out false prophecy when it happens, but that can be done without condemning an entire movement. The Holy Spirit always has to work in imperfect contexts to bring people to God, even moving in the thick, granite hearts of hard-core cessationist Calvinists like MacArthur.

I don’t know why some charismatics claim to have strange visions and paranormal encounters with the Holy Spirit. I don’t know why Catholics throughout history have claimed to encounter apparitions of the Virgin Mary that resulted in a unique place for her within Catholic liturgy. But I can’t say for certain that the Holy Spirit hasn’t been at work in those circumstances, so I’m not going to make presumptuous condemnations against personal testimonies that I cannot verify one way or another. I won’t even say confidently that the Holy Spirit is absent from John MacArthur despite however egregiously he seems to blaspheme the Spirit’s work. Jesus often spoke in hyperbole. Hopefully that’s what he was doing in Mark 3:29. Because if he wasn’t, then there are more than a few schismatic accusers within the church who will soon find themselves in a strange lake of fire.

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