Reviews

Review: “Strange Fire”

I spend a lot of time reading blogs. Kinda comes with the territory when you write for one. A while ago, The Gospel Coalition did a series of posts about people who changed their views on a number of issues – Sam Storms did a piece on why he abandoned premillennialism (lots of comments on that one – after all, who wants to be a dispensationalist in our enlightened age, right?), Gavin Ortlund, Liam Goligher and Sean Michael Lucas all chimed in on baptism (a discussion which is definitely worth having) – but the one article I hoped someone who write was one on the gifts – either from a continuationist perspective (namely the belief that the sign gifts are available today for the Church) or a cessationist perspective (the belief that the sign gifts passed with the passing of the apostles and their associates) – but alas nothing.

That for me sums up the nature of the discussion in professing evangelical circles when it comes to the issue of the work of the Spirit today. No one seems willing to have the tough discussions on this issue – it’s not that it cannot be done, there just seems to be little desire for it. As an ex-Pentecostal myself, I think on both sides, we need some robust discussion about the ministry of the Spirit today (thankfully I’m not alone in that assessment – Burk Parsons, editor for Ligonier Ministries’ Tabletalk magazine and co-pastor with R.C. Sproul at St Andrew’s Chapel in Florida, asked for the same in a message he gave at TGC’s conference earlier this year.)

Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Thomas Nelson: 2013)
Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Thomas Nelson: 2013)

Part of that robust discussion is going to have to deal with the issue of the charismata. But alas, you see little written on it and the little that is often comes from a non-committal position on the issue which sounds nice and conciliatory but doesn’t answer the questions. I sincerely believe John MacArthur’s latest work, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship, might just get the discussion going with some gusto at long last.

Strengths

In terms of the strengths of the book, there are several I found as I read it (most of it being on a flight back to London from Los Angeles):

Clarity: One thing I’ve come to love about reading anything from John MacArthur (and I’ve read a good dozen in the last few years) is that you never have to ponder what it is he is getting at. Pinpoint clarity – even if you disagree with him – has been a hallmark of his ministry and he brings that focused mind to this work. At several points, he’ll make a point for several sentences and then, with one line, will open up his point so clearly you’ll go, “Yup, I saw that coming.”

Brevity: Combined with that ability to be clear is an ability to get to the point quickly. I fear that part of the reasons that a lot of defenses of cessationism haven’t gotten the mass hearing they should have (like Thomas Edgar’s excellent Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit or Victor Budgen’s The Charismatics and the Word of God) is because they are frankly quite difficult to follow at point. MacArthur’s ability to be concise really comes through here and proves to be rather helpful

Theological and Biblical Focus: More important, the book is saturated with proper quotation from Scripture and incisive theological content. This isn’t some book-length rant which hasn’t been thought through but a careful, theologically-grounded treatment of the issues (albeit not all of them), grounded in the exposition of the Scriptures. I found myself pulling out my tablet and summarizing many of the arguments made in the talks in Evernote for future use.

The final third of the book – devoted to a positive presentation of the  ministry of the Spirit – was well worth the price of the book as a whole. A full-length treatment would prove invaluable if done someday.

Things That Could Have Been Better

I purposefully don’t call them weaknesses because these are somewhat subjective and open to discussion.

A Clearer Target: A common complaint throughout the conference (which I was present for) and in the time following it has been that MacArthur swept with too broad a brush and that reformed continuationists were swept along in the process. Now I don’t think that’s a fair argument to make but I do appreciate why one would come to that conclusion. In the book, it is not until chapter 12 that a distinction is made between the Charismatic Movement in toto and reformed continuationists – if I may be blunt, that’s a little long to leave it. Were I writing the book (and this is not intended as a slight on Dr MacArthur), I would have made that point every chance I got. With an issue this charged, I would take any and every opportunity in my discourse to diffuse that charge so that we can have the discussion without someone walking out because they had their feelings hurt.

More Time on the Positive Ministry of the Spirit: I loved chapters nine through eleven which dealt with the true work of the Spirit and would commend them to everyone but I couldn’t help but wonder where the chapters on the baptism and filling of the Spirit, what the Spirit-filled life actually looks like or even the differences between the Spirit’s ministry in the Old and New Testaments – since in my experience of discussing these issues, a lot of misunderstandings stems from not understanding these issues in their proper Biblical detail.

A Recommendation Before You Go and Buy A Copy

To those who haven’t read Dr MacArthur’s 1993 work Charismatic ChaosI want to make a bold suggestion: go and read that before you read Strange Fire. Having read both, I think the arguments in Charismatic Chaos are much more substantive and argued out plus it addresses many of the questions Strange Fire doesn’t address like:

  • What is the nature of the Baptism of the Spirit?
  • What does true spirituality look like?
  • What was happening in the NT?

What Strange Fire does so well is to deal with many of the modern problems that have arisen like the “fallible prophecy” hypothesis of Wayne Grudem or the errors of the New Apostolic Reformation using the same broad base of arguments set forth in Charismatic Chaos. But for an in-depth treatment, I probably wouldn’t start here.

My Final Verdict

While I enjoyed reading it, it wasn’t as mammoth a defense of the cessationist position as I thought it would be. I still think Charismatic Chaos did that in ’93. However, in fairness to it, I don’t think it was intended to do that in the first place. This seems to be a “this is the state of play – what do we then say?” kind of work – and that it does well.

I loved the book for what it did and would gladly recommend it for those who always agree on the issue but would like a couple of silver bullets for those long, drawn-out conversations that tend to happen with folks who disagree as well as getting someone caught up to think about what they are involved in and whether what they are involved is indeed glorifying to God. After all, isn’t that all that matters in the end?

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