July 19, 2013

Strange Fire and the Pragmatic Argument

by Mike Riccardi

Strange FireSo, 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)…

Saved from WhatNow, 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). DonkeyBut 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.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Andrew

    what is meant by ‘charismatic movement’ here? thx for this post.

    • Those that teach that the miraculous sign gifts should still be used in the church today, and that Christians (if they have enough faith) can heal the sick at will, speak in foreign languages they have never learned, get audible prophecy from God, and have the gift of apostleship to this very moment.

      • don’t forget “speak in unintelligible languages,” as well.

  • It’s a bill of goods Mike! Actually, the whole numerical argument never made any sense to me. In fact, if the continuationists are really dedicated to the Scripture, it surprises me that they would even use it since I think it argues AGAINST their position. Not for it, considering Jesus’ startling claim in Matt. 7. In fact, I don’t think Jesus’ could have provided a stronger warning to the modern continuationist movement. “Many will say to Me, ‘Lord, have we not prophecied in Your Name? And in Your name done many miracles?’ And I will say to them, ‘Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.'” I think Jesus’ statement there proves that there can be great movements masked under the false pretense that they are Believers. And their nature would have to be deceiving as well, hence the wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s those among us that look like Christians that are to be discerned. The wolf that doesn’t disguise himself is much less danger since he’s so easily identifiable.

    One last point. You mentioned that “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 in practice: the Scripture.” I couldn’t agree more, but the problem with the continuationist movement is that there is a serious lack of integrity in the study of Scripture. All the miraculous gifts they claim to continue have been redefined from their biblical usage, and distorted to suite their modern agenda. So, tongues is not a real human language (as it was in the NT), prophecy is not authoritative (as it was in the NT), and healing is not a miraculous unquestionable event (as it was in the NT).

  • Kevin Peterson

    Is there going to be live-streaming of the event? Even for a small fee?
    This is so needed…

    • I’m not sure, actually. I think they’re still ironing out the details. I know that at the very least the audio and video will be available shortly afterward. You can sign up to be made aware of audio and video as soon as they’re ready by filling out the form at this link.


      Grateful for your interest, Kevin.

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  • elainebitt

    Thanks for your post Mike!

    I also like what MacArthur said this past Sunday at the Q&A, as he was talking about the pragmatic argument brought up by Brown. He said by the same logic [numbers] Islam must be from God, or Hinduism.

    • Steve

      Do you have a link for the Q&A? Thanks much!

      • elainebitt

        It’s not up yet. There were two and this coming Sunday it will be part 3. I think they will be offering the cds with the Q&As as a free mailing order. So… if you haven’t joined gty’s mailing list yet, now it would be a good time to do so.

        Mailing List:

        GCC Live Stream: (the Q&A will be at their 6pm service – Pacific time)

        • Steve

          Thanks again.

          • elainebitt

            You’re very welcome Steve!

    • True. And essentially, it is the same argument used in Acts 5 by Gamaliel, a teacher of the law in regard to the Apostles (who were doing actual signs and wonders at the time).

      We must be careful. I’ve heard this passage taught as if it was a truism because it worked out and found in the Bible.

  • Lyndon Unger

    Thanks for the link Mike!

    I was somewhat entertained when Brown defended the pragmatic argument in his responses to me.

    If the amount of people “saved” (and that’s highly questionable in multiple ways in the first place) means that there cannot possibly anything wrong with Charismatic theology/practice…

    …then McDonald’s serves the healthiest food on the planet!

    (But wait! Why stop with the pragmatic argument when there are other logical fallacies we can haphazardly apply!)

    Roughly 290 billion McDonalds burgers sold by July 2013 / 500 million charismatics = 580 burgers sold for ever person reached by the charismatic movement!

    I think that I’ve just mathematically established that McDonalds is 580x better for you than charismatic theology! Hooray!

    (There’s probably a word-study fallacy I could manufacture to explain why so many charismatic leaders’ wives have “biggie size” hair…or how the “golden arches” are way better than “gold teeth”…or how Kenneth Copeland’s/Benny Hinn’s/Joyce Meyer’s/Rodney Howard Browne’s PhD in Theology from Life Christian University has less academic credibility than a degree from Hamburger U [in case you have never heard of it, check out this course catalog – http://www.lcus.edu/_downloads/lcu_online/lcu_online_catalog_en.pdf – It’s the only school I know off where the undergrad classes ARE the grad and postgrad classes…to get doctoral credit for a 100 level class you simply double the length of the mandatory 6 page paper and do extra reading…like 200-300 pages extra…and there’s no biblical languages needed at all for any degree. NONE! All that extra work that other schools ask for in an MDiv, ThM or PhD is totally unnecessary!]).

    • That’s crazy! According to that program, TMS M.Div. students (by credit hours) could walk away with almost 3 master’s degrees, OR 2 master’s degrees and 2-3 Ph.D.’s, OR 1 master’s degree and 6 Ph.D’s… and I think that’s being pretty conservative. How are they accredited?

  • Jason Woelm


    Thank you for this excellent post! As a former Pentecostal/Charismatic who was led out of the movement thanks to the Spirit working in me to surrender to the complete authority and sufficiency of Scripture, I can’t even begin to tell you how spot on you are when it comes how Pentecostals and Charismatics alike argue from (shoddy) experience and pragmatism. Numbers like 500 million converts have been floating around for years now! I can remember hearing Pentecostal historian Vinson Synan throwing that number out at a conference over a decade ago, and he’s not the only one. What really gets unbelievable is when the movement claims conversion rates that would exceed the world’s population! You’re right to question their numbers; the more conservative ones within their fold do.

    One element that you didn’t mention in your post that I think deserves some attention is the fact that Michael Brown was the main apologist for the Brownsville “Revival” that occurred in Pensacola, FL from 1995 to about the turn of the century. All of the extremes that you could possibly name in a Charismatic meeting occurred (any YouTube or Google search will reveal all of its aberrant behaviors), and Brown was sure to defend each and every one with hermeneutical gymnastics and Scripture-twisting. As a teen completely caught up in the movement, I know at the time he convinced me. Thankfully, the LORD was merciful to me! So he definitely has some skin in the game of attempting to dismiss MacArthur’s and other godly cessationists’ position.

    Finally, as one who was turned by sola Scriptura, I rejoice with what Dr. MacArthur and other cessationists are doing in trying to defend the biblical view of the Spirit and spiritual gifts, but I am concerned that they are not going far enough. Yes, there are many Pentecostals and Charismatics who are indeed genuinely converted, but they are, from the most common member to the Ph.D. teaching in one of their learning institutions, lingering in continual immaturity due to their embracing of an aberrant sanctification model and an erroneous pneumatology. It is not enough to encourage godly Pentecostals and Charismatics to reject the heretical in their fold (Word of Faith and prosperity wolves) and to balance their extremists. We must lovingly persuade them to reexamine all of their distinctives, what they hold so dear and close to their hearts, no matter what the cost. It may cost them dearly, but the reward will be unmatched–they will learn the more excellent way.


    • elainebitt

      “[…] lingering in continual immaturity due to their embracing of an aberrant sanctification model and an erroneous pneumatology.”

      Jason, I think you make a great point about their sanctification model.

      I think holding to charismatic/pentecostal belief does the exact opposite of when one holds to the biblical teaching of the doctrines of grace. I was once in the pentescostal (unsaved) circles. I could not understand why I was suffering so much, why God wouldn’t tell me what to do so I could obey and make the suffering go away, etc. Having the wrong sanctification model leads to a wrong understanding of God, His holiness, and His purpose with the plan of salvation.

      Thank you for your comment!

  • Today, Conrad Mbewe, who will be at the Strange Fire Conference, wrote a blog post addressing the reason for the success of the Charismatic movement in Africa. He provides some excellent insight as from one who is on the front lines of this issue.

    This should give pause to those who would argue for the legitimacy of a theology based upon the number of its adherents.

  • Tricia

    I’ve come into this discussion late, as I was just reading the post about Mark Driscoll’s anti-cessationist comments from two years ago. I agree with much of the arguments against the charismatic camp, and certainly don’t consider myself in the same league with Pentecostals, although I’m not a cessationist when spiritual gifts are practiced under control as prescribed in 1 Corinthians. My question is if cessationists deny that healing miracles take place today, what about the numerous reports from all over the world, particularly in spiritually dark places where the Gospel has not been preached, where miracles and healings, and other manifestations of the Holy Spirit such as dreams and visions, are happening?

    • Hi Tricia. Thanks for your comment.

      The first thing I would say is that cessationists don’t deny that God works miracles (e. g., regeneration, the greatest miracle, daily) or even that He heals by means of His (sometimes extraordinary) providence. I think you would benefit from this post, as it is careful to respect definitions, both of biblical categories and of theological positions.

      I’d also recommend checking out this post, especially the Why I’m not a Charismatic post, to explain what cessationists see as the biblical definitions of the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and healing. If you understand where we’re coming from there, I think you’ll find that the reports from far-away lands don’t actually fit the biblical definitions of the miraculous gifts.


      Hope that’s helpful to you.

    • Sorry. Forgot that first link. It’s: http://thecripplegate.com/what-cessationism-is-not

    • elainebitt

      Tricia, here are some helpful links, adding to the one Mike shared:

      “What Cessationism Is Not”, Nathan Busenitz

      If you search The Cripplegate for the word “cessationism” you will find more relevant material.

      “Cessationism, “The Gifts of Healings”, and Divine Healing”, Richard Mayhue
      “[…] the Bible teaches that God can sovereignly choose to heal whomever and whenever, but it will not be a frequent occurrence nor will it be done through human healers […].”

      “Now That’s the Spirit”, Nathan Busenitz

      Hope it’s helpful.


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