So, word is getting around about the Strange Fire Conference. On October 16 to 18, over 4,000 people from all 50 states and 20+ countries will be traveling to Southern California to hear from a world class array of preachers and speakers (including John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, Steve Lawson, Conrad Mbewe, our own Nate Busenitz, and others) on the history and theology of the Charismatic movement, along with the true biblical teaching concerning the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. As you can tell from the title (cf. Leviticus 10:1–3) as well as from an excellent assortment of teaser videos, the conference plans to be critical of the aberrations of Charismatic doctrine and practice.
And as you can imagine, there’s been a little bit of a buzz about this already in the blogosphere. Aside from drawing the ire of the “Holy Ghost Bartender,” MacArthur’s commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture, to the biblical definitions and employment of spiritual gifts, and to the orderliness and reverence of a worship service has brought criticism from one Michael Brown. In a Charisma News article, Brown levels several critiques about MacArthur’s position on the miraculous gifts and their abuse in Charismatic theology. Now, I don’t plan on offering a detailed response to each of the points he makes. Actually, Lyndon Unger has done that quite well on two different occasions (see here and here). You should read Lyndon’s posts.
Instead, what I want to do is highlight one particular argument that Brown made and simply make the observation that the most popular of the Five Uninvited Guests has made an appearance. Toward the end of his article, Brown writes,
In reality, more people have been saved—wonderfully saved—as a result of the Pentecostal-charismatic movement worldwide than through any other movement in church history (to the tune of perhaps a half-billion souls)…
Now, sadly, the first response I have to that statement is to question the legitimacy of the statistic. In particular, given that so much of the Charismatic movement is fraught with deception, aberrant theology, a watered-down gospel, and in many quarters even heresy, one has to wonder precisely what many of these people are getting “wonderfully saved” from, what they’re getting “saved” to, and by what means. In a movement known to promise emotional highs, ecstatic experiences, miraculous healings, grandiose displays of signs and wonders, and an abundance of material prosperity, the Jesus of Scripture can hardly be seen as anything more than a ticket to bigger and better things—a stone that we can step on to get at what we truly treasure: money, entertainment, and teaching that makes much of ourselves. Even if there are 500 million people associated with Charismatic and Pentecostal churches worldwide, one has to wonder, with the true Gospel and the true Christ so horribly obscured and distorted, how many of those professing believers are truly saved in the first place.
But leaving that aside, Brown is basically making the pragmatic argument. He reasons that if God has used Pentecostalism and Charismaticism to save “perhaps a half-billion souls,” well then it must be OK and beyond the reach of legitimate criticism. It can’t be strange fire, because God wouldn’t use strange fire to save so many people. But, just as I had written in that post almost two years ago, the argument that “God is using it, so it must be OK and worthy to be imitated,” is biblically baseless, logically vacuous, and deserves to be rejected out of hand.
The reason that this is such a bad argument is that God uses everything to accomplish all His good pleasure (Ps 33:10–11; Isa 46:9–10; Rom 8:28; Eph 1:11). In His infinite mercy, God declares that nothing is off-limits for Him to use as an instrument in bringing about His wise and most holy ends. To be sure, this should cause us to rejoice that God can use sinful human beings like you and me to accomplish His will. And it should humble us greatly. But it should not be a reason given as evidence for God’s stamp of approval.
For example, God used the sinful intentions of Joseph’s brothers to preserve a remnant of His people in the earth (Gen 45:5–7; 50:20). Is their wickedness to be excused because God used it? There is no question that God used Balaam’s donkey to accomplish His will (Num 22:21–35). But I hope I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a bad idea to sit at the feet of donkeys for biblical instruction. God used Assyria to bring His wrath against Israel (Isa 10:5–15). But in the same sentence in which He prophesies of Assyria’s involvement in accomplishing His will, Yahweh pronounces a curse upon them for their wickedness. God obviously does not approve of Assyria despite the fact that He was using them. Further, God used the people’s wicked, faithless demand for a human king (1Sam 8:5, 7, 19–20; 10:19) to establish the monarchy in Israel from which Messiah would come. No King Jesus without King Saul. Should we excuse Israel’s faithless disobedience because God used it?
Additional examples abound throughout Scripture, yet none is more convincing than the murder of the Son of God. There can be absolutely no question that God used the wicked desires of Annas and Caiaphas, the cowardice of Pilate, the treachery of Judas, and the bloodthirsty godlessness of the Romans to accomplish the crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 2:22–23; 4:27–28). Not only did God use these men for His own ends; He used them to achieve the greatest act of love that will ever be accomplished: the salvation of innumerable souls from eternal damnation. “Billions of souls” have been “saved—wonderfully saved”—as a result of these evil men’s actions. Yet which of them gets a pass because God used them? Which of them is beyond the reach of legitimate criticism as a result of their being instrumental in the salvation of everyone who will ever be saved? Which of their sins would it be OK for us to imitate on the grounds that God used them for His own good purposes?
See, our infinitely wise God uses everything—from the most wicked of sins to Balaam’s jackass—to accomplish His perfect will. Therefore, whether heretical preachers, carnal methods, or aberrant theology, the argument that God uses something has nothing to do with whether it is legitimate for His people to emulate or approve. That God has sovereignly ordained certain events does not automatically mean that they’re not unwise or even sinful on the part of men, who are responsible even in view of God’s sovereignty. The test of the legitimacy of a movement, or a ministry, or a theology, is not whether it’s yielding the kind of results we think indicate success. It is whether it is faithful to our sole infallible authority for faith and practice: the Scripture.
Beware of the pragmatic argument. And beware of strange fire.