The Aftermath: Frenetic Utterances
For the most part, I stayed away from saying much about John MacArthur’s Strange Fire Conference. There was so much noise in the aftermath and so little of it was helpful. Paul actually has something to say about this kind of frenetic utterance. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1).
I’ve seen so many misunderstandings, personal attacks, and bad exegesis from Christians on both sides--that grieves me. I’m not going to directly weigh in on the conference, but I will make some brief observations surrounding the issue at hand and conclude with an encouragement towards mutual understanding and a return to the word of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
The Spirit Gives the Gifts and He’s Not Afraid to Use Them
First, we must not allow cessationism to become deism. Mark Driscoll levied this charge against cessationists at the Resurgence Conference a few years back. That charge was much too broad. As Kevin DeYoung reminds us, the Westminster Divines and Puritans were cessationism of some sort but left “permeable boundaries.” However, that’s not to say that some cessationists aren’t deistic in the way they flesh this out--especially those not tied to a confession with some theological balance and history.
Without getting into all the exegetical arguments, I do believe that the miraculous gifts have ceased as gifts directly to individuals. The biblical norm from Genesis to Revelation seems to be the Spirit gifting an individual with a particular gift to serve the church for the length of their ministry. That doesn’t seem to be going on now. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t sovereignly provide insight, wisdom, or the like on an occasion. As always the rule for testing these things is the sure and steadfast revelation of Jesus Christ by the Father inspired by the Spirit. These kind of one off’s would account for things like Spurgeon’s impressions, John Knox’s prophecy, Doug Wilson’s story, or this anecdote from Nate Claiborne.
Second, we mustn’t discount the complexity of the human brain. Some are passing things off as prophetic or words of knowledge that are probably more physical and natural than they know. We see things and process them. Our brain stores them away cataloging things that we might not readily understand. We pick up emotions, micro-expressions, body language, patterns of speech and make snap decisions every day of our life. We shouldn’t discount these gut feelings but also shouldn’t spiritualize them.
Third, we shouldn’t exchange freedom for bondage. God has freed us from sin and taken us captive to Jesus Christ. We are bound to Jesus Christ in the way all servants are bound to their masters. We must obey him. When he speaks, we follow. What he says, we do. Where he doesn’t speak we are free to act within his revealed will. Why do want to go back into bondage?
Many people I know who seek these prophetic insights or words of wisdom are paralyzed without them. They will not make tough or even mundane decisions without have that tingly feeling from God telling them to proceed through “the open door.” We are fascinated with the secret and sovereign will of God. God ordains all things according to his good pleasures, but we know only a sliver of His purpose--what he’s revealed in Scripture. And isn’t that hard enough for us to follow without chasing our tail trying to understand things that we couldn’t handle even if we knew them? Finding God’s will is simple. Previously, I outlined five things you can do to find God’s will:
- Read Scripture and Pray;
- Seek Counsel;
- Weigh the Wise and Unwise;
- Make a Choice; and
- Rejoice in Your Freedom in Jesus Christ.
A Strange Fire in My Belly
I place very little weight on subjective impressions. Let me end with a brief story. As many of you already know (OK probably all of you know because I’ve posted about it, tweeted about it, and have advertisements about it on my blog), I wrote a book A Household Gospel. During this process, I completed a lot of research. I read other authors who independently publish; I researched small publishing houses that come alongside independent authors; and I also researched literary agents. I saw two reoccurring currents in this research.
First, a huge percentage of Christian authors advertise, share, and tell others that God told them to write their book. Second, publishers and literary agents hear this schtick all the time and it makes no difference in their decision to support the book project. Can you imagine the gall? God telling the authors to write these books and the publishers and agents are ignoring God’s clear direction? There must be wires crossed somewhere, right?
This is a classic example of placing too much emphasis on subject impressions. Let me explain how this might look in my experience. I felt a strong urge to write a book on this topic. Family and friends encouraged me to put pen to paper. Trusted outside counselors also encouraged me to write on this topic. On a few occasions, I was asked “out of the blue“ to contribute an article on this topic at another blog. All of this adds up, right? God must be telling me to write this book, right? Wrong. I had the freedom to write or not to write A Household Gospel.
I had a conversations with a family member about this very topic. They were telling me God told them to do something. They just knew it. I asked how. They said they felt it in their gut. I responded half tongue-in-cheek and half seriously, “How do you know that’s not the Taco Bell you ate last night?” Strange fire in my belly indeed. I do listen to my gut, but sometimes I don’t. I don’t bind myself to anything but the revealed word of God.
I hope all of this strange fire creates a few things. First, I hope it encourages us to flesh out in the real world what our theology looks like. I think we might find we are closer than we think in some regards. A lot of times the terms are different, but the daily practice is the same. That’s not to say the terms aren’t important. They are and you can see that when the mentalists, charlatans, and money changers start rolling in with a strange fire in their bellies.
Second, I hope it encourages us to return to the Word of God. What does God says? Not look at my experience whether that’s an experience of charismatic utterance or the lack there of. That’s not our final authority. I’ve heard this on both sides. The Charasmatic says, “Personally, all the charasmatics I know love God. I’ve seen miracles and heard tongues.” The Cessationist says, “Show me proof. Let’s verify that miracle, eh?” (It’s ironic that many times in the New Testament those seeking proof were Pharisees). I’m not taking either of those to the bank. Sorry. I’m sticking with God’s infallible Word.
Third, I hope it encourages us to examine the way we interact with each other. It’s grieved my heart to see brothers in Jesus Christ sniping at each other. Lay aside the personal attacks and let’s force our shovels deep into the hard clay of the Word of God. Offering and receiving criticism is difficult. All those who believe in Jesus Christ are one with Christ. We have been baptized into one body and Spirit (Eph. 4). Christ isn’t divided. We should be very careful when criticizing that we aren’t accusing another Man’s servant (Rom. 14). That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take part in polemics, dialogues, debates, and defending the faith. Helpful criticism takes wisdom rooted in Scripture and a robust understanding of how the gospel changes everything. Personal attacks don’t. They’re easy and cheap and beneath a servant of God.
Fourth, we shouldn’t sweep aside the abuses as unimportant. They impact real people. People who may be our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. If you haven’t you should read my friend Evan Welcher’s post “Strange Fire.” His wife is fighting cancer for the second time. They’ve had multiple prophets and healers offer their “services.” Don’t be so hard-hearted, proud, and set in the trenches that you are unwilling to fight for your brothers and sisters who are being swindled and taken advantage by the mentalists, charlatans, and money changers within the Charasmatic movement. When we spiritualize subjective impressions, guts feelings, and “open doors,” it’s much easier for these wolves to come in and ravish the flock. That should concern every one. That’s not a small thing. Dare we offer one of God’s little lambs as a sacrifice to Satan?