Strange Fire: Every biblical argument refuted

Strange Fire: Every biblical argument refuted October 23, 2013

Today I realised I was at a crossroads. I could either decide I have said enough in my post Strange Fire, a Charismatic Response among others, and walk away from the current controversy, or I could determine to address it more thoroughly. There is always, as R.C. Sproul Jr points out, a tension between truth and unity. The Bible does tell us to stay away from divisive people (Titus 3:10), and it may well come to that at some point. But, I have always had such a lot of respect for John MacArthur and Phil Johnson that I do not believe I am there yet. Also, I am concerned not just for them, but for the people that they are influencing, and for my charismatic brothers and sisters who, like me, probably feel like they have taken a few punches for Jesus this past week.

There are two main prongs of disagreement. Firstly, and in some ways, it seems to have come to the fore almost to the exclusion of the second, is the argument over experience. What I mean by this is that we charismatics say we have certain spiritual experiences, that our churches are a certain way, that we do social action, that our leaders love the gospel. MacArthur on the other hand argues that such experiences are invalid, some of human origin, and many are demonic. He argues that our churches are almost all hopelessly compromised with “Word of Faith” teaching, that there are so many examples of extreme behaviours that more rational charismatics are themselves the fringe of the movement, that most charismatics are not even saved, and that we have done no good for the world in terms of theology, worship, or community benefit.

I believe that MacArthur has been incredibly broad-stroked in his condemnation of people I love. To be clear I believe that not just the reformed charismatics, but also many if not the majority of those who would not see themselves as calvinist, are Jesus-loving, gospel-loving, brothers and sisters in Christ. I see, however that arguing about these realities is going to be very difficult, and so for now I will leave that to others, but am open to link to such material from elsewhere.

I know what kind of church family I am a part of. I also know that there is much good in other charismatic and pentecostal churches. Of course there are many abuses, but I refuse to get drawn in to either defend the indefensible, or to determine somehow which charismatics are “Kosher” and which are beyond the pale. This is in part because there are many cases where at times youthful exuberance has led to foolishness, but where I would not want to reject the naive charismatic as a charlatan or unbeliever. I am sure it is not my role to be a global policeman for the charismatic movement. But I am also sure that others must try and demonstrate the remarkable good this movement is doing. Michael L Brown made a brilliant open invitation to Phil Johnson and by extension to John MacArthur to go and see the many charismatic hospitals he has contact with in India.

There is something culturally imperialistic about claiming that the church outside of the West is hopelessly compromised. I am thrilled that in a few weeks I will get to meet Eddy Leo, a reformed charismatic who leads a large church in Indonesia, and has spoken in all kinds of charismatic contexts all over Asia and Latin America. He’s written a number of books but, to date none of these are available in English, and he is not well known in the West. He is a long-term friend of Bob Roberts, and a recent friend of Terry Virgo. If you can make it to London on 23rd November, you will be reassured that God is doing all kinds of good work around the world that we know nothing about! Please do consider joining us. You can order your ticket at It might even be worth a Transatlantic flight if you are eager to have your eyes opened in such a way.  I promise to arrange some time to meet personally with anybody who does take a flight to the event, if you would like that! But, don’t worry if that is too big an ask for you, since as always after the event the videos will be made available free online.

But there is another aspect to our disagreement with MacArthur and others that surely to a Bible-loving Christian should be more important than disagreeing about comments that weren’t nuanced like they should have been, and over whether the majority of the charismatic movement is extreme or not. We have fundamental differences about what the Bible says. Today then I want to launch a series that I have audaciously titled:  “Every biblical argument refuted.”

What I want to accomplish is really simple.  Thanks to the publisher I have been given a copy of Strange Fire, the book.  I will go through the book, pull out every single biblical argument they make, and demolish it here. Now, clearly I am not so naive as to think that on reading this series every convinced cessationist will become a charismatic, though I pray some may.  But what I want to demonstrate is that the arguments they use are capable of being refuted. That is, we charismatics are not merely charismatic because it feels right to us, but because we believe the Bible teaches us we should be.

I want my cessationist friends to sit up, take notice, and realise that they are very wrong to dismiss us as theologically weak, and with no ground to stand on.  I want them to truly see us as brothers and sisters. I want them to appreciate that we believe what we do for good biblical reason. And I want them to offer us the same respect as they offer those they disagree with over matters such as water baptism, eschatology, church government, etc.  Christians need to understand that there are others who have come to the Bible and gone away with different conclusions on these matters. Having an opinion is not wrong. Slandering someone else because they have a different opinion to yourself is very wrong.

There are of course many that have gone before in this regard, and I refer you to the writings of people such as Gordon Fee, John Piper, Terry Virgo, Dave Devenish, Wayne Grudem, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Jack Hayford, Sam Storms, and others for much better and more detailed defences of the points I will be making.  The writings of these people are so much a part of me that I am sure there will be nothing original in what I say. I won’t be referencing them in most cases, however, as I simply will not remember where I got certain ideas from. Meanwhile, my friend Frank Viola in his response to Strange Fire has been posting arguments he wrote in his 20s against MacArthur’s cessationism.

You may be surprised to learn that even having read only some of MacArthur’s book, I do not think this task will be very hard. The arguments I have seen so far are in my view very flimsy indeed, and so it will not take much to knock them down. I will not be writing a whole theological treatise.  Nor will I discuss every possible counter-argument.  Rather, the rules of the engagement are simple.  I will look for every biblical argument cited in the book, and list at least one counter-argument that shows we do not have to simply accept what MacArthur says.  The comments sections will remain open, and all I ask is that people remain civilised and on-topic  for each post.

There has already been a lot of introduction, so today I will only target the first biblical argument we come to, and it is one that was emphasised a lot in the publicity to the conference.

Argument: Charismatic Worship is strange fire

MacArthur begins with the case of Nadab and Abihu, who’s story is told in Exodus 24:9-11, Num 11:16-24, Leviticus 10:1-3. They offered strange fire to God and were consumed by him for profaning his holiness, worshipping in a way God had not desired.  They used their own fire, rather than God’s.  MacArthur also cites Hebrews 10:31, Matthew 12:24, Acts 5:11, and Acts 8:20 to support the idea that it is dangerous to approach God irreverently.  Charismatic worship is, according to MacArthur to be identified with such strange fire and is idolatry:

Here’s the point: we can’t make God into any form we would like. We can- not mold Him into our own image, according to our own specifications and imaginations. Yet that is what many Pentecostals and charismatics have done. They have created their own golden-calf version of the Holy Spirit. They have thrown their theology into the fires of human experience and worshipped the false spirit that came out—parading themselves before it with bizarre antics and unrestrained behavior. As a movement, they have persistently ignored the truth about the Holy Spirit and with reckless license set up an idol spirit in the house of God, blaspheming the third member of the Trinity in His own name.  (John MacArthur, Strange Fire)

Counter argument: Biblical worship is much closer to charismatic worship than cessationist

MacArthur’s accusations are truly outrageous. He claims that charismatics as a group are committing idolatry and blasphemy. And he wonders why we find him so offensive? But the truth is that he is making a massive leap which is totally unsubstantiated. This passage does not tell us HOW we are to worship God, rather, how we are to approach him.

Interestingly the verses seem to say that the problem was that they did not rely on the fire (think strength and anointing) that God provides. If we are to worship God using the power he supplies, rather than some human substitute, that sounds much more like a charismatic approach. Charismatics want God to help us worship, and we want to obey biblical commands about how we should do so. Cessationists come with their own ideas of how we are meant to worship God, based much more on their traditions than what God says. Of course, as Sam Storms points out both sides can learn from each other on the subject of worship.

Biblical worship includes dancing, shouting, making a loud noise, falling on one’s face, not to mention all the gifts of the spirit which I am sure we will get back to later. In fact, it is very possible to argue that the cessationist style of worship is the unbiblical alien intrusion into what God originally intended.

All this passage teaches us is that we should come into God’s presence reverently and worship him in the way HE commanded us.

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