I received a copy of this book from the publisher to review and I was excited to dive into it. I had never read much of John MacArthur, but had heard lots of good things about him, so I thought this would be a great place to start. The book discusses the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the Charismatic movement, and the prosperity gospel. Definitely a heavier topic that a lot of the books that I often read and review, but I was excited for the change. Jeremy said that it seemed right up my alley because it discussed history and theology which are two of my favorite things. I loved how much history was in the book and how well researched the topic was. The author discusses what the Holy Spirit does and doesn't do and the dangers of twisting our thinking on probably the most misunderstood part of the Trinity. Though I always knew that I did not agree with the charismatic movement and the prosperity gospel the book was eye opening to what the dangers of the movement are and how it can distort the true Gospel. Though the authors viewpoints are strong, I feel he handled the material very well and also addressed those who are unsure of what the Holy Spirit's role is today. I have been thinking alot recently about what "illumination" is and how God speaks to us as believers through His Word, and I loved this quote. "To be filled with the Spirit, then, is to yield our hearts to the authority of Christ, allowing His Word to dominate our attitudes and actions, His thoughts become the object of our meditation, His standards become our highest pursuit, and His will becomes our greatest desire. As we submit to God's truth, the Spirit leads us to live in a way that honors the Lord." So powerful.
To say that controversy surrounds the charismatic movement and moreover their theology would be a massive understatement. If you listen to leaders and pastors in the evangelical world, one of the most asked questions is to define a stance that stems from the validation or condemnation of the more popular spiritual gifts of healing and speaking in tongues. In his book Strange Fire, author and Pastor John MacArthur makes his stance clear on this debate through a methodical grasp on the modern charismatic movement.
As the book unfolds MacArthur chooses the story of Nadab and Abihu out of Leviticus 10 to introduce his case for a call of accountability in the church today. Nadab and Abihu were consumed by fire because they lit the altar of the Lord with fire that was not from God, hence the idea of strange fire. In mishandling God's direct command to them by using means other than what God had provided to them, their careless and reckless manner of approaching God in worship was dangerous. He then explains how the abuse and mishandle of the church today when it comes to the Holy Spirit is not that far removed from this Old Testament story. He insists that it has, "obvious implications for the church in our time."
The book is broken down into three major sections. In the first section he deconstructs the false doctrines and practices of the charismatic movement when it comes to the Holy Spirit insisting they mock the Holy Spirit and claim the power of the Holy Spirit within unbiblical contexts. MacArthur builds his case from scripture and provides examples of what he calls fraudulent acts and likes some of the leaders inside of the charismatic movement to con men. MacArthur also walks through Jonathan Edwards approach to handling of the works of the Holy Spirit which I found fascinating.
"More moderate charismatics like to portray the prosperity preachers, faith healers, and televangelists as safely isolated on the extreme edge of the charismatic camp. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Thanks to the global reach and incessant proselytizing of religious television and charismatic mass media, the extreme has now become mainstream." Chapter 1 - Mocking the Spirit (p. 13)
In the second section of this book MacArthur a cessationist, extends his belief that the Holy Spirit works differently now than it did in the New Testament. He talks about how apostleship and specific gifts of the Holy Spirit ended with the canonization of scripture. Again, MacArthur speaks to those who twist scripture and perform fake healing as needing to be held accountable.
"If someone declaring himself a prophet proclaims any supposed "revelation from God" that turns out to be inaccurate or untrue, he must be summarily rejected as a spokesman for God." Chapter 6 - The Folly and Fallible Prophets (p. 108)
In the third and last section MacArthur walks through the ways the Holy Spirit does work in the christian life. He state the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation, sanctification, and in the scriptures. He ends the books with an open letter to his "continuationist friends" pleading with them to take a fresh look at the Word of God and rethink their stance.
All in all, I found this book encouraging although I think it deals a little too much with broad strokes against the charismatic movement. I would tend to agree with much of what MacArthur says, which ends up being quite a compelling case. My true concern is that his stance doesn't allow much room for the move of the Holy Spirit in some contexts in the world today. For instance, I think God is powerful enough that He could and does use at times extraordinary means to carry out the message of the gospel on the front lines in remote areas where missionaries are preaching the gospel. I think there has to be a balance within that contexts that MacArthur doesn't seem willing to concede.
MacArthur begins his book with the story of Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10). They were consumed by God because "they used something other than the fire God Himself had ignited." (xii) That may not seem like such a big deal in our era of casual worship, MacArthur notes, but God's response to their careless, self-willed manner of approaching Him was deadly.
This should be a wake up call to the church, MacArthur says. Unbiblical worship or turning the Holy Spirit into a spectacle is a serious affront to God. It is time for the evangelical church to take a stand and recover a proper focus on the person and work of the Holy Spirit, MacArthur urges.
MacArthur comes down hard on current Charismatic leaders, calling them "spiritual swindlers, con men, crooks, and charlatans." (xv) He says they are claiming that the works of the devil are those of the Holy Spirit. He follows the example of Jonathan Edwards in framing questions to ask about spiritual experience. He concludes that many in the Charismatic Movement are promoting a false gospel.
MacArthur is a cessationist and he argues that apostles, prophecy, etc., were all unique to the early church. God does still speak today, MacArthur says, and the Holy Spirit still moves our hearts, but only through the Word of God.
MacArthur also explores the Holy Spirit's true work. Knowing the authentic is how we know to identify the counterfeit. He covers the Spirit's work in salvation, sanctification, and Scripture. His final chapter is a letter to his reformed charismatic and conservative evangelical friends who are continuationists on what he believes are the dangers of that view.
MacArthur certainly has given the Christian community a wake up call. He gives lots of evidence of the craziness in the Charismatic Movement. His section on the true work of the Holy Spirit includes an excellent section on sanctification.
I have two reservations about the book. This first is MacArthur's "in your face" style of writing. He pulls no punches by calling charismatics horrible names. The Bible says it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4), not name calling.
Also, I wonder how necessary MacArthur's book is. Hanegraaff's book on the subject was updated in 2009. Looking at MacArthur's footnotes, much of the charismatic craziness he points out is from a decade ago or even longer.
I requested and received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Note: A complimentary copy from the Strange Fire Conference was provided for review. This book was reviewed by Steve Cha, author of the hit book, Hollywood Mission: Possible.
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.
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 (and will undoubtedly stir up many hornet's nests), Strange Fire is nevertheless a fascinating study on the nature of the Charismatic Movement and an orthodox theology proper even on Pneumatology (study of the Holy Spirit). The book has great strengths I personally would like to commend. The first one is the helpful chapter titled A New Work of the Spirit?, which reveals how the modern Pentecostal movement started with Charles Parham in 1901 (which even documents how the modern "tongues" speaking began) and blew up with Dennis Bennett and his Van Nuys movement. Another 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 worshipping 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."