Nadab and Abihu, the Old Testament miscreants who offered unacceptable worship to the Lord paid the ultimate price for their diabolical deed – death. The “strange fire” they offered led to their untimely deaths: “The crux of their sin,” writes John MacArthur, “was approaching God in a careless, self-willed, inappropriate manner, without the reverence He deserved. They did not treat Him as holy or exalt His name before the people.” MacArthur offers an identical warning that is directed at the heart of the charismatic movement – a movement that is filled with “spiritual swindlers, con men, crooks, and charlatans.”
Many readers will be tempted to cast aside the arguments that MacArthur wields in his latest book, Strange Fire – a work that maintains the Holy Spirit is offended by counterfeit worship. His critique of the charismatic movement may come across as severe and insensitive. His comments may offend. But jumping to a judgmental conclusion would be a mistake. For the greatest offense in the universe involves creatures who approach God in an unworthy manner or offers “worship” that He deems unacceptable. Cain, Nadab, Abihu, Uzzah, Ananias and Sapphira remind us that God will not trifle with man-centered “worship.”
Part 1: Confronting a Counterfeit Revival
MacArthur argues that charismatics “often seem to reduce the Spirit of God to a force or a feeling.” The author notes how many charismatics are locked into a health and wealth gospel which is in the final analysis no gospel at all. But the heart of the problem is that “Pentecostals and charismatics elevate religious experience over biblical truth.” MacArthur maintains, “If Scripture alone were truly their final authority, charismatic Christians would never tolerate patently unbiblical practices – like mumbling in nonsensical prayer languages, uttering fallible prophecies, worshipping in disorderly ways, or being knocked senseless by the supposed power of the Holy Spirit.”
The origins are the charismatic movement are explored in a fascinating biographical account of Charles Parham – founder of the Apostolic Faith Movement. Parham’s was discredited by his ungodly character and false teaching. As a result the movement as a whole was subject to suspicion from the start.
The remainder of part one is a theological tour de force that guides readers through a thought process that equips them to exercise biblical discernment by testing the spirits, in keeping with 1 John 4:2-8. Believers should ask five questions to test every proposition or movement:
1. Does the work exalt the true Christ?
2. Does it oppose worldliness?
3. Does it point people to the Scriptures?
4. Does it elevate the truth?
5. Does it produce love for God and others?
The questions noted above are prompted by Jonathan Edwards’ fine work on this biblical passage. MacArthur not only helps readers develop biblical discernment; he includes numerous examples of charismatics who have abandoned the truth of God’s Word and as a result ignored the prompts of the Holy Spirit.
Part 2: Exposing the Counterfeit Gifts
In part two, the author cites concrete examples of a movement that has moved from bad to worse. While some leaders like C. Peter Wagner affirm the beginning of the Apostolic Age, MacArthur rightly argues that the canon is closed: “Hence, the writing so the New Testament constitute the only true apostolic authority in the church today.” The author argues strenuously that the office of apostle was unique to the first century church, an office that faded away and no longer necessary with the closing of the canon.
False prophets are addressed and rightly labeled as “dry well wells, fruitless trees, raging waves, wandering stars, brute beasts, hideous stains, vomit-eating dogs, mud-loving pigs, and ravenous wolves.” Readers offended by such language need only turn to Scripture where each title is assigned to false teachers. The author helps readers identify false prophets with three defining benchmarks:
1. Anyone who leads people into false doctrine and heresy.
2. Anyone who lives in unrestrained lust and unrepentant sin.
3. Anyone who proclaims any supposed “revelation from God” that turns out to be inaccurate or untrue.
MacArthur helps readers determine whether the modern version of tongues is equivalent with the original biblical gift. After presenting a lengthy argument, the author concludes, “It is a false spiritual high with no sanctifying value. The fact that modern glossolalia parallels pagan religious rites should serve as a dire warning of the spiritual dangers that can be introduced by this unbiblical practice.”
Finally, two so-called faith healers are examined: Oral Roberts and Benny Hinn in what proves to be one of the most interesting chapters in the book. The conclusions are clear and decisive.
Part 3: Rediscovering the Spirit’s True Work
Part three includes a robust treatment of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The author uncovers the Spirit’s role in salvation, sanctification, and the Word of God. The biblical contrast with the previous two sections could not be clearer. Charismatics are encouraged to carefully read this section and contrast MacArthur’s treatment with what currently resides in the modern Pentecostal sanctuary.
The charismatic movement is carefully evaluated through the lens of Scripture in Strange Fire. The critique is forthright and charitable. But the criticism is not for the faint at heart. Readers should approach Strange Fire with a biblically informed worldview and be prepared to make necessary adjustments.
“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). We must worship God in the way that he prescribes. To move outside the boundaries of Scripture or invent man-made models is tantamount to idolatry.
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