What would God say about those who blatantly misrepresent His Holy Spirit? Who exchange true worship for chaotic fits of mindless ecstasy? Who replace the biblical gospel with vain illusions of health and wealth? Who claim to prophesy in His name yet speak errors; and who sell false hope to desperate people for millions of dollars?
This is the opening book description of John MacArthur’s new book Strange Fire, which is a topic similar to the one he wrote a couple of decades earlier in a book called Charismatic Chaos. However, Strange Fire is not merely a rehash of the earlier one or an updated edition for a newer generation of audience. This book seems to be more of a theology proper on the Holy Spirit this time around (pneumatology), which takes into account right and wrong theology regarding the works of third member of the Trinity. The book concentrates specifically on the ministry of the Holy Spirit in two main ways: 1). How the Holy Spirit is mispresented in sectors of Christianity today, and 2). What the true ministry of the Holy Spirit is according to Scripture. Though undoubtedly a touchy and controversial subject matter, Strange Fire is a much welcomed addition into the current line of Christian literature. It appropriately challenges and even encourages one (whether they be all out charismatics or conservative continuationists) to reflect on whether or not what we see in the charismatic circles today is truly the revival of 1st century miraculous sign gifts or counterfeit versions of them. The answer to this question has major implications for ministry. Even if it does not affect the area of salvation, a wrong understanding of apostolic sign gifts can surely affect sanctification, since such worship would be neglecting to worship God in truth (Jn 4:24). In essence, it would be offering up strange fire onto the Holy Spirit. So regardless of what people in the charismatic camp believe, this is not as light of an issue as may think.
In presenting the topic, MacArthur divides the book into three main sections. The first section, Confronting a Counterfeit Revival, introduces the problem at hand: the movement that claims to be the restoration of 1st century apostolic sign gifts and the force behind a sort of a “Third Great Awakening” and a New Reformation. The author surveys the history of the modern Charismatic Movement, from the establishment of Modern Pentecostalism by Charles Parham in 1901 to its current popularity amongst both conservative evangelicals and, most notably, people within the Word of Faith, prosperity, and Catholic sects, demonstrating that such a charismatic “revival” is most notably a recent phenomenon that has no real major presence or acceptance throughout church history. When charismatic groups did spring up, it was usually labeled as heresy because of the group’s adherence to false theology, questionable moral integrity, and practice of sign gifts that did not match the biblical descriptions, such as with the Montanist group in 2 century A.D.
Section Two, Exposing the Counterfeit Gifts, is a chapter-by-chapter analysis of each individual sign gifts (tongues, apostleship, miracles, prophets, healing), in which MacArthur exegetes and exposits from Scripture what those sign gifts looked like in action in the 1st century A.D., what impact it had on its recipients, what were the moral integrity of these Christians who possessed these gifts, what its functions were and were not, and how modern versions of these “manifestations” hardly resemble these apostolic sign gifts.
In Section 3, MacArthur drives it home by examining the real thing, or the timelessly tested, and biblically documented, ministry of the Holy Spirit. This includes the Spirit of God’s ministry in terms of bringing unbelievers to salvation in Christ, sanctifying them in practical holiness, and illuminating them to understanding Scripture and abiding in them. In other words, the Holy Spirit’s ministry is humble and quiet, but nevertheless powerful, effective, and life transforming. His ministry is never to point people to Himself or to glorify Himself, but always to point people to Christ, the gospel, and the sufficiency of Scripture. The book ends with a chapter titled An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends, which is MacArthur’s candid recognition that he does not consider all believers who adhere to be like Benny Hinn or Kenneth Coplin in terms of false teaching and corrupt character. This chapter is also an encouragement for continuationists to practice discernment and to take heed to the message of the entire book, especially given the fact that since the sign gifts being practiced now may actually be counterfeit and not the actual sign gifts from the 1st century (as explored in Section 2). If this is the case, then continuationists are not actually “continuationists,” but closet cessationists who defend a counterfeit form of signs that the mainstream Charismatic Movement thrives on, and are receiving endorsement from the conservative evangelical world. Can the Spirit of Holiness and Truth really be behind such a movement? That is the central challenge of the book.
Overall, Strange Fire is a very well written, well researched, and well documented book, as can be seen by its over 100 footnotes and references, many of them coming directly from Pentecostal/Charismatic publications. Though it is polemic, Strange Fire is nevertheless a fascinating study on the nature of the Charismatic Movement and even on Pneumatology (study of the Holy Spirit). The book has great strengths I personally would like to commend. The first one is the inclusion of Chapters 3 and 4, or Testing the Spirits Part 1 and 2, which is based on the Great Awakening preacher Jonathan Edward’s model on how to tell whether a revival is truly a work of the Holy Spirit or not. It is based on 1 John 4:2-8, in which Jonathan Edward’s used the Bible passage to analyze the Great Awakening of his time in order to determine whether or not it was the work of God, or merely just an emotional ecstasy (with no real substance) from the people. With this same model, MacArthur analyzes the modern, mainstream Charismatic Movement, which, for the most part, does not match up to the test of 1 John 4:2-8, indicating that the Spirit of God is not at work in such a movement.
Section 2 was also an indispensable section that will prove to be quite mind boggling to those with open ears and hearts to listen. This section answers the question: Are the modern sign gifts the same ones that were practiced during the apostolic age, or are they sad (and at times scary) imitations of them? The author, using sound exegesis and exposition of various OT and NT texts, shows that sign gifts being practiced now are indeed counterfeit, and bear little, if any, resemblance to the truly miraculous nature of the deeds done by the apostles during the 1st century. This section is important to consider, not only for the all out charismatic, but for the continuationist (Reformed evangelical) who truly believes that the sign gifts right now are the same ones that were practiced during the apostolic days. Because if they are not, then this should cause continuationists to consider whether they should continue to support charismatics and to “seek” after such gifts themselves. Another great strength of this book is Section 3, which is the area that talks about the ministry of the Holy Spirit in every believer’s life. This is a gem section in the entire book, one that no reader should overlook, since it covers basic theology, the gospel, and truths about Christianity cherished especially since the 16th century Reformation. No study of a counterfeit should ever be complete unless the real thing is studied and brought to light, which MacArthur does here in Strange Fire and reminds us as Christians why we cherish the gospel and how we have all we need for life and godliness in Scripture alone (sola scriptura).
As well written and well structured as the book is, there is one area, or topic, that MacArthur could have touched upon that would have tremendously bolstered his argument and helped readers with a particular concern concerning the issue of miracles and the supernatural. Though God does not raise up apostles and prophets to perform wonders and miracles anymore, does that mean that God has ceased doing miracles and signs altogether throughout history since the 1st century AD? When miracles and signs occur (e.g. the healing of a cancer patient through the prayers of a church; a Muslim receiving a dream of Jesus’ identity in a Middle Eastern country and being led to a Christian missionary to hear the gospel preached to him like Cornelius; angels who rescue a man from a burning building?), do these things happen because people have “gifts” to bring these things about, or is it because God answers prayers and works in His sovereign purposes (independent of any human “gifting”) to accomplish His salvific and glorious purposes for redemptive history? What is the Holy Spirit’s ministry in God’s sovereign purpose miracles/signs in the world? I think if MacArthur were to explain the differences between these two concepts, to provide biblical exposition, and to even provide fascinating stories from current or historical events, this would: 1). Remove the misconception of cessationism as being a dry and lifeless “naturalist” position, and 2). Give the conservative continuationist a viable option to fall back on instead of jumping on the charismatic bandwagon since that seems to be the only possible explanation for the miraculous things we see all around us.
In conclusion, Strange Fire is a great book. It is probably going to be one of this decade’s most discussed, if not most important Christian books since it confronts an issue that is almost as momentous in worldwide scale as Luther’s confrontation of the Catholic Church back in the 16th century (if MacArthur’s analysis of the issue is as true as he says it is). Though the presentation seems valid to me, I know that this book will not win over all the crowds, no matter how much statistics, historical data, and biblical references may be in favor of the author’s argument. At this point, this seems like a book that people will judge based more on emotional preferences and adherence to past traditions rather than honest examination of Scripture, church history, and the fruits of the movement that is going on right now (Note: I came from a denomination that had charismatic inclinations, so I was in no ways biased toward cessationism before coming across MacArthur’s teaching).
I sense that conservative charismatics will say that Strange Fire unfairly groups all Charismatics into one lump group (although I don’t know how they could possibly say this since there are multiple references in Strange Fire that shows how John respects people like John Piper and Wayne Grudem (continuationist Reformed Christians), which is most evident in the whole final chapter!). Skeptics’ reasoning for the validity of sign gifts in our day and age would be something like this, “The Holy Spirit cannot be blessing the Benny Hinn tongue speaking and prophesying since he teaches false doctrine and is immoral, but the Spirit is surely blessing our tongue speaking and prophesying since we hold to orthodox Reformed teaching and live righteously.”
However, this does not appear to be the entire point of the lesson in the book. This is like saying, “The Holy Spirit cannot be blessing the Catholics’ infant baptism because they teach false doctrines of salvation and the priests are so corrupt, but the Spirit is surely blessing Presbyterian infant baptism because they hold to orthodox Reformed teaching and the people are living by grace, and this Protestant group represent a large number. Therefore, infant baptism has merit.” The theologian would rightly argue: Morality, religious affiliation, and population is not the issue here, because infant baptism has no biblical warrant to begin with! It is an undocumented form of baptism, and the fact that the practice originated from an apostate religion (Catholicism) only serves to show that it is the fruit of a false, unbiblical movement. The same can be said with the modern version of the sign gifts and the Charismatic Movement, which is what Section 2 of Strange Fire is about and why MacArthur encourages continuationists in the Reformed camp to consider this so that they may abandon such practices and start worshiping God in not just spirit, but in truth.
Whatever one may think of this subject or the author, this book does deserve a read and should be on every pastor’s book shelf. It is bold, prophetic, and dare I say, balsy, but probably the most commendable work on the modern movement. As MacArthur stated during the last session at the Strange Fire Conference, “Of course I care about offending people. But as I much as I care about offending people, I care more about offending God.”
Note: A complimentary copy was provided for me by Booksneeze.com. I was not obligated to give a good review, but only my honest opinion.