As the smoke continues to clear from the Strange Fire Conference, the internet has continued to blaze with various responses from digital evangelicalism. There have been many helpful responses, including Clint’s and Eric’s right here at The Cripplegate, as well as exceptional reflections from Tim Challies, Tim Raymond, and Fred Butler, outside the gate. You don’t want to miss Grace To You’s “Where do we go from here?” post over at their place. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point our readers back to the work that has been done on this issue here at The Cripplegate, well in advance of this conference. That’s especially the case because I continue to see objections being made that have long been answered. The post on What Cessationism Is Not is probably the most beneficial for many critics at the moment.
There have also been numerous responses from the Charismatic side of the aisle. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of their responses has produced way more heat than light (though there have been some notable exceptions, which has been encouraging; it’s nice to know that there are some who have understood the purpose of the conference). Rather than engaging the substance and the merits of the biblical arguments offered in the conference, they’ve sought to isolate what were admittedly strong statements from the conference, literally taking them out of their context, and to sensationalize them by interpreting them in the worst possible way. For all the criticisms of how the conference painted with too broad a brush, they’ve picked up a few broad brushes of their own, as the substance of the biblical argumentation is being ignored while the entire conference is dismissed as unloving and divisive.
This is how they’ve chosen to advance the narrative of the conference. And it’s an ingenious strategy, because it shields people from having to deal honestly with the substance of the theological arguments that were presented. Unfortunately, the result of that less-than-accurate narrative has been that several myths about the Strange Fire Conference have been floating and flourishing around the interwebs. I thought I’d take a post to address just a few of them.
Myth One: John MacArthur Believes that Charismatics Have Committed the Unpardonable Sin
The first myth that I want to dispel is that John MacArthur believes that all Charismatics have committed the unpardonable sin. Now, before the conference, I might have been able to sympathize with those who were wondering about this. But if those complaining about this issue really took the time to listen to the presentations at the conference, they would see that such an accusation amounts to nothing but a myth.
For a while MacArthur has been explaining that he sees the goings-on of what has characterized so-called Charismatic “worship” as nothing less than a blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. A sentence from the forthcoming book reads, “To attribute works of the flesh or works of the devil to the Holy Spirit actually denigrates the Spirit of God rather than exalting Him, and that is obviously a kind of blasphemy.” To suggest that it is the Holy Spirit of God who causes people to fall down, roll around on the ground in a frenzy, babble on in gibberish, and even grunt and wail and scream and chant in ways that mirror pagan religious ceremonies—all of that is to fail to treat the Holy Spirit with the reverence He deserves, makes light of Him and His ministry, and is therefore a blasphemy.
Of course, Jesus speaks of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit as the only sin that would never be forgiven (Matt 12:31). And so when people hear MacArthur suggesting that Charismatics are blaspheming the Spirit, their reaction is to say that he is saying—not only that they’re not saved—but that they can never be saved. Michael Brown wrote: “So Pastor MacArthur, in writing and obviously with much forethought, is accusing hundreds of millions of believers of blaspheming the Spirit, thereby pronouncing them to be sinners damned to hell, since blasphemy of the Spirit is an unforgivable sin.”
However, in his first breakout session at the conference, Phil Johnson addressed this issue directly. He says:
That, of course, is not what John MacArthur says, and it’s not what we believe. Matthew 12:31 says, “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” The definite article there is significant. We don’t believe that every careless, ignorant, or accidental sin against the third member of the Trinity is automatically unforgivable. Jesus was responding to one specific kind of blasphemy so deliberate and hard-hearted that no one would ever repent from it anyway. Notice what our Lord actually says: “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people”—except this one very specific sin. That’s a lavish promise of full pardon and cleansing to anyone and everyone who repents. The singular exception is just one category of hard-hearted haters of Christ.
So MacArthur distinguishes between (a) the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, which we see from the Pharisees in Matthew 12, and which is alone unforgiveable; and (b) blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in general, which, though a grievous and serious sin, is nevertheless forgivable.
Therefore, those in the blogosphere who are accusing MacArthur of having said that Charismatics have committed the unpardonable sin and cannot be won to repentance are simply misrepresenting him, not having paid due attention to what has been said on the subject. They are perpetuating a myth.
Myth Two: John MacArthur Believes All Charismatics are Unsaved
Another myth being perpetuated is that MacArthur has asserted that everyone who associates themselves with Charismatic theology is, by necessity of that association, unsaved. In an article fraught with a staggering number of misrepresentations, J. Lee Grady accuses MacArthur of “declar[ing] in no uncertain terms that anyone who embraces any form of charismatic or Pentecostal theology does not worship the true God.”
But this is simply false. No speaker throughout the entire conference has insisted that everyone who associates themselves with Charismatic theology is necessarily unsaved. Now certainly the claim was made that many—and perhaps even the majority—of those who identify themselves as Charismatic or Pentecostal worldwide are not true believers. Such a fact seems inescapable in light of the data that were cited both in the book and during the conference. For example:
“In the Two-Thirds World of Asia, Africa, and Latin America—where the Charismatic Movement is growing at an unprecedented rate—experts estimate well over half of Pentecostal and charismatic adherents hold to the prosperity gospel” (MacArthur, Strange Fire, 14).
“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” (John T. Allen, The Future Church, 382–83; citing this).
“Over 90 percent of Pentecostals and Charismatics in Nigeria, South Africa, India, and the Philippines believe that ‘God will grant material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith’” (Paul Alexander, Signs and Wonders, 63–64).
Aside from this, the conference also labored to show that there are over 100 million Charismatics who self-identify as Roman Catholics, those who not only deny but anathematize the cardinal salvation doctrine of justification by faith alone (cf. The Council of Trent, Canon XXIV). And even further, another 24 to 25 million Pentecostals include those who self-identify as Oneness Pentecostals, modalists who deny the historic, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity—i.e., that God has eternally existed as one Being in three co-equal, consubstantial, co-eternal Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Given all this, it is not at all inaccurate to speak of great numbers in the Charismatic movement as being devoid of a saving knowledge of Christ. If indeed the Charismatic movement reaches to the staggering number of 500 million adherents worldwide, and if 25 to 30 percent of them either deny sola fide or an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, and if well over half in the Two-Thirds world espouse prosperity/Word-Faith theology, it cannot be a controversial statement to speak of the movement as largely made up of non-Christians.
Sure, that offends our North American sensibilities, because the classic Pentecostals and conservative continuationists that we know don’t fit the above labels. But what Western evangelicalism needs to recognize is that the John Pipers, Wayne Grudems, Sam Storms, D. A. Carsons, and Gordon Fees of evangelicalism are not the mainstream of the Charismatic movement. No matter how limited our experience of worldwide Charismaticism may be, we cannot ignore the facts that these dear brothers are the minority of this movement.
Nevertheless, there were clear instances in this conference in which MacArthur and the other speakers explicitly affirmed some of these very men as brothers. MacArthur addresses such men as his “continuationist friends,” saying, “[These are] people who are my friends—real friends of mine whom I respect, who’ve made great contributions to the church, who’ve taught me, ministered alongside me, with whom I’ve prayed sometimes for hours and hours, with whom I’ve spoken and talked, hammered out convictions.” Later in that message, he calls these men his “good, godly friends [who] could make a massive difference in what this young generation and next generation believes about this movement.”
In another session, after speaking of Wayne Grudem and John Piper as brothers in the Lord, MacArthur went on to say this about Piper:
I do know the great body of work that John Piper has done is true to the faith. John is a friend not only whom I admire but whom I love. I don’t know why on this front he has that open idea, but it’s not an advocacy position for the movement and he would join us in decrying the excesses of that movement for sure, and even the theology of it. […] I have no fear that John would ever tamper with anything that is essential to the Christian faith, starting from theology proper all the way through to the return of Christ. He’s going to be faithful to the word as he understands it.
Therefore, while no one would back away from the statement that even the majority of the Charismatic movement worldwide consists of unbelievers who need to be evangelized, such statements do not at all mean that MacArthur or the other speakers at the conference believe that good men like Grudem and Piper are outside of orthodoxy, or that no one espousing any form of Charismatic theology are true believers. To insist otherwise is to perpetuate a myth and to grossly misrepresent what was said during the conference.
Myth Three: John MacArthur Believes that Absolutely Nothing Good Has Come Out of the Charismatic Movement
This final myth (i.e., the final myth that I’ll address; unfortunately not the final myth that is floating around through the internet) has specific reference to MacArthur’s comments in the opening session at Strange Fire. In response to this session, Adrian Warnock accuses MacArthur of “wholeheartedly reject[ing]” (a) great worship songs like “In Christ Alone,” (b) outstanding theological labors as are represented in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, (c) and the blessed preaching of John Piper.
But such an accusation is entirely baseless, and seems to willfully ignore what MacArthur actually said in that session. Here’s the relevant portion:
Am I discrediting everyone in the movement? No. I think there are people to desire to worship God in a true way. … But the movement itself offers nothing to enrich true worship. The Charismatic movement as such has made no contribution to biblical clarity, interpretation, or sound doctrine. … Do some in the movement believe the truth? Yes. Do some hold to sound theology on some issues? Yes. But none of those true understandings have come to them through that movement. The true understandings have always been there in the long line of preachers and teachers that God has used to keep the church and truth on track. The movement adds nothing to that. It detracts and confuses. It’s not a source for any advancement of our understanding of Scripture or sound doctrine.
It’s plain that MacArthur has not claimed that absolutely nothing good exists throughout the entire Charismatic movement. Rather, he is saying that the good that does exist—which would include the fact that he believes that people have been truly saved through the evangelistic efforts of the movement, among other things like Grudem’s Systematic Theology and Piper’s preaching—all that good that has come from the movement has come in spite of it, and not because of it. He goes on to say just that just a bit later:
Have people truly been saved in Charismatic churches? Yes. But nothing coming from that movement has been the reason they were saved. … Yes, there are people in the movement who know and love the truth, have an orthodox Gospel, but are heterodox on the Holy Spirit. Not all of them are heretics. But I say again the contribution of truth from the people in the movement doesn’t come from the movement, but in spite of it.
So, the point is not that there can be no good found within any circle that is remotely associated with Charismatic theology. Rather, the point is that Charismatic theology as such has not been responsible for the good within the movement. The good has come in spite of Charismatic theology, and not because of it. That is worlds apart from claiming that nothing good at all exists in the movement. To insist otherwise would be to perpetuate a myth.
An Appeal to My Continuationist Friends
So with that in mind, I’d like to make an appeal to my Charismatic and Continuationist friends. Gentlemen, if you want to be taken seriously by cessationists in your response to the Strange Fire Conference—and more than that: if you want to do your due diligence in “preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” would you please cease perpetuating these and other myths about John MacArthur and the Strange Fire Conference?
I know things were said that were very strong. I can even fully understand why some would think our critique too strong—especially our Reformed and conservative evangelical charismatic brethren. They are our allies on many fronts, and perhaps they expected that we would totally exempt them from our negative appraisal of charismatic doctrine. I know that by declining to treat the issues that way, we hurt some feelings. We take no pleasure in that. Indeed, I can empathize with my charismatic friends’ disappointment. I wish we could be completely affirming. But we are compelled by conscience and Scripture not to minimize errors that we believe are very serious and are built into the continuationist perspective. We want to focus on that issue, and not matters of style or personalities. Would you do your part in advancing an honest narrative by tackling the substance of the biblical argumentation set forth at the Strange Fire Conference, rather than sensationalizing out-of-context sound bites and seeking to poison the well?
Let’s put the myths to rest.