The Strange Fire Conference: Spiritual Discernment According to Calvinism


Feb 1 2014
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In October 2013, John MacArthur and Grace Community Church hosted a conference to address what he and the other speakers believe are major errors in the teachings and practices of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements. The conference introduction states: “Strange Fire, part of Grace to You’s Truth Matters conference series, evaluates the doctrines, claims, and practices of the modern charismatic movement, and affirms the true Person and ministry of the Holy Spirit.” Seventeen messages were presented and two Q&A sessions offered. Besides MacArthur, the speakers were R. C. Sproul, Steve Lawson, Conrad Mbewe, Tom Pennington, Phil Johnson, Nathan Busenitz, Justin Peters, Todd Friel, and Joni Eareckson Tada.

Prior to listening to all 19 of the presentations and carefully reviewing the transcripts of each talk, I hoped that the conference would add to the voices of discernment that have been addressing the false teachers of the Word/Faith, Healing and Prosperity, and the Signs and Wonders movements. It’s a huge problem worldwide and continues to grow. Nothing the speakers said was new to me or to the ministry of The Berean Call, but it was good to hear these issues addressed before an audience who wasn’t necessarily aware of the mostly Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) and Charisma cast of characters.

Nearly three decades ago, I had the privilege of helping Dave Hunt with The Seduction of Christianity . That was a book in which we were heavily critical of the Word/Faith movement, Prosperity gospel, and Signs and Wonders teachings, which at the time made up most of what aired on so-called Christian television. Seduction was published in 1985. Dave’s 1987 follow-up book Beyond Seduction further explained the scriptural errors of the false teachers. Similar books by other authors followed: A Different Gospel , 1988, by D. R. McConnell; The Agony of Deceit , 1990, Michael Horton, (Editor); Charisma vs. Charismania , 1992, by Chuck Smith; Charismatic Chaos , 1992, by John MacArthur; Christianity in Crisis , 1993, by Hank Hanegraaff.

Seduction also motivated many of the apologetics ministries that focused on cults to address the cultic beliefs and practices that were influencing growing numbers of Charismatic, Pentecostal, and evangelical churches. TBC has also continued to address such issues through our newsletter and website. The Internet has also given access to apologetics groups and individuals on websites, blogs, and via Facebook and Twitter, as many defend the faith. Sadly, in spite of all that “contending for the faith,” the number of false teachers, false teachings, and practices, along with their followers, continues to swell.

As I began listening to the Strange Fire Conference (SFC) presentations, it seemed odd to me that there was no reference to some of the long-established discernment ministries such as Personal Freedom Outreach, Herescope, Christian Witness Ministries, Midwest Christian Outreach, Watchman Fellowship, and many others that have addressed the conference’s topic for years and no doubt supplied a good deal of the research for the content that was presented there. At this point, something very disturbing became clear. The primary thrust of the conference subject matter was cessationism (the belief that some of the gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased for the church after the apostles died) and was presented by Calvinists and for Calvinists; this was the modus operandi of the entire program. Reformed theology and Calvinism were set up as the screen through which the doctrines were evaluated.

Under the banner of sola scriptura (“the Bible alone”), the speakers claimed to have the antidote for restraining the exponential growth of false spiritual teachings: “Rightly dividing the Word of Truth,” God’s Word. No argument there. In fact, the good that came out of the conference took place when the Bible was, at times, “rightly divided.” Too often, however, the speakers deviated from the Scriptures to support the doctrines and practices of men. That was not good. Many of them turned to theological systems such as Calvinism and Reformed theology. They leaned on fallible Calvinist icons as guardians of truth and were overtly biased against those outside the Reformed camp. The most damaging aspect was the confusion caused by the support of Calvinist cessationism. That’s a double whammy error in my view: Calvinism “proving” cessationism.

In view of the stated objective of the conference, a launching platform for MacArthur’s latest book Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship , we agree that millions of professing and even true Christians have been duped by false teachers and spiritual con artists who prey upon those who are ignorant of what the Word of God teaches.

Even a cursory glance at the activities surrounding the spiritual charlatans in the movement should reveal enough to ward off anyone with common sense. The conference speakers had no shortage of outrageous examples of what transpires in the name of the Holy Spirit—things that are laughable to non-Christians and grievously blasphemous to true believers. Over the decades, many have addressed the erroneous teachings and the deceitful purveyors of what could be characterized as spiritual debauchery in a circus atmosphere, but very few have been rescued from the delusion in comparison to those who have been swept into it. The chief reason, as was correctly communicated by some in the conference, is the preference in Christendom for subjective and experiential spirituality over a diligence in studying and obeying the objective Word of God, which is sola scriptura in actual practice.

Why are Christians so easily drawn into false teaching? Perhaps they have an affinity for the temporal things of the world rather than the eternal; a desire for being spoon-fed the Scriptures rather than undertaking a disciplined reading of the Bible for themselves, and certainly the seductive power of the Adversary in drawing Christians away from God’s Word comes into play. In short, it’s a combination of “the world, the flesh, and the devil” (1 John:2:15-17; Galatians:5:17; 1 Peter:5:8-9) in these days of increasing apostasy. Had the conference addressed those issues strictly from the Bible, there would have been much to agree with, but that was far from the case.

To begin with, the speakers reflected an “ us and them ” mentality. “Us” were all those in the Calvinist/Reformed cessationist camp. “Them” consisted of anyone who rejects the Calvinist/Reformed cessationist teaching (with the exception, of the Charismatic Calvinists, who at least are among the elect). Others were almost always marginalized by being indiscriminately thrown in with the obvious false leaders of the Signs and Wonders movement.

By direct teaching and/or implication, all the speakers adhered to the view that Calvinistic cessationism is the teaching of the Bible and is therefore the silver bullet for killing off the false doctrines and practices of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. John MacArthur declared, “…read the Reformers, and read the Puritans, and follow the flow of the truth through history…. You’re not going to go to an association of Reformed churches, those who believe the doctrines of the Reformation that take us back to the doctrines of the New Testament, and find false miracles….” (All conference quotes are available at: www.gty.org/resources/sermon-series/325)

Steve Lawson said, “Those of us who are Reformed in our theology are enormously grateful for the revival of Reformed Theology that has swept through the body of Christ over these last years…. In fact, Dr. MacArthur has said, ‘If you’re not reformed right now, you are basically irrelevant.’” Lawson strengthened that statement, adding “If you’re not reformed, you’re wrong.”

African pastor Conrad Mbewe sees Reformation theology as the hope for his continent, which has been ravaged by the biblically distorted Signs and Wonders and Prosperity teachings: “I’m glad to say there is a growing Reformed Movement on the continent. But it’s still very much a trickle and we need to pray and do everything we can to get Christianity back to the Bible [through Calvinism].” The Bible, yes, Calvinism, no.

A litany of Calvinist icons were paraded before the audience to support the idea that Reformation theology is not only foundationally biblical, but it is also clearly cessationist. None of the speakers made mention of some of the renowned men of the faith who were clearly non-cessationists such as John Wesley, D. L. Moody, H. A. Ironside, A. J, Gordon, George Müller, Andrew Murray, and A. W. Tozer, to name but a few.

Nevertheless, after presenting John Calvin’s cessationist position, MacArthur says, “This is a time for the people who now stand on the shoulders of the Reformers in every area of their theology to be faithful to Reformation theology to its full rich intent. If we claim allegiance to the Reformers, then we ought to conduct ourselves with the same level of courage. Don’t call yourself a Charismatic Calvinist. John Calvin would reject that. John Calvin did reject that. You’ll have to drop the Calvinist part.”

Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion at age 26, only two years after leaving the Catholic Church. That ought to give one pause, but it doesn’t seem to prevent Calvinists from voicing their overwhelming praise of him for his knowledge and insights of the Bible. Philip Schaff is quoted by Lawson: “Calvin was an exegetical genius of the first order. His commentaries are unsurpassed for originality, depth, perspicuity, soundness, and permanent value. Calvin was the king of the commentators.”

Former Westminster Seminary president John Murray is also quoted regarding Calvin’s proficiency: “Calvin was the exegete...of the Reformation and in the first rank of biblical exegetes of all time.” Lawson declares, “I do believe that Calvin towers over church history as the most substantial theologian that has been given to the church, its most powerful influence, and we would do well to hear from our older brother.”

Of course, they are referring to John Calvin, aka “the Protestant pope of Geneva.” Geneva, at that time, was a city of about 20,000 in which Calvin instigated the torturous persecution of hundreds, including more than 50 executions of residents, many of whom were drowned for simply disagreeing with his “biblical” doctrine of infant baptism (see Dave Hunt’s What Love Is This? ). Calvin, “the [church’s] most substantial theologian” and foremost “exegete,” interpreted Luke:14:23 to support his cruel and often lethal manner of “compelling.” (See this issue’s Q&A)

The SFC speakers also highly esteemed Augustine (Roman Catholicism’s doctor of its major dogmas), John Chrysostom (who taught prayers for the dead), Martin Luther (who taught infant baptism, baptismal regeneration, and wrote a vicious anti-Semitic tract), Jonathan Edwards (who taught that God is the author of sin and evil), B. B. Warfield (who taught theistic evolution and honored Darwin as “…one before whom we gladly doff our hats in true and admiring reverence”), as well as contemporary Reformed theologians J. I. Packer (a signer of Evangelicals and Catholics Together) and R. C. Sproul (who teaches partial preterism).

Obviously, these Reformed models and their heroes are not superheroes of the faith except in the minds of the SFC speakers and the audience. They got some things right, but they also had some very significant doctrinal problems. My point is that no matter what position one takes on a doctrinal issue, sola scriptura —not the views of fallible men (1 Corinthians:1:12-13), no matter what side they take—is the determiner of doctrinal truth.

Although the contributions to Christianity of Calvinism and Reformation theology were declared throughout the SFC as bastions of biblical truth compared to the abuses that have been fostered by non-Calvinist non-cessationists, none of the speakers mentioned that we can credit the Reformers and their inspirers and followers for many erroneous beliefs. These include amillennialism, post millennialism, Theistic Evolution, Replacement Theology (which leads to anti-Semitism), pedobaptism, preterism, Christian Reconstructionism, Theonomy, and Lordship Salvation, all of which are unbiblical. Nevertheless, Lawson states, “If we are to see a new Reformation in this day, if we are to see this resurgence of reformed truth that has now begun in these last decades continue to expand...we must be exclusively committed to the written Word of God.” To the former, no; to the latter, absolutely.

The SFC must be recognized in terms of its promotion of Calvinist cessationism as the antidote that will remedy all the ignorance and abuses of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. That is at best a “biblical” placebo that will do little to stop the current plague of the Word/Faith, Healing, Prosperity, and Signs and Wonders false teachings and practices. For all of its continuous claims of sola scriptura , Reformed theology denies that sola in doctrine and practice. Its advocates, past and present, got some things right and others dreadfully wrong. Sola scriptura is indeed the authority for every true believer, but it must be the full counsel of God .

The key address regarding cessationism was delivered by Tom Pennington. He began by noting that non-cessationists point out that the New Testament nowhere directly states that the miraculous gifts will cease during the church age. His reply was that the New Testament doesn’t directly say they will continue either. He continued with seven arguments as to why the miraculous gifts disappeared at the end of Apostolic age. We appreciate his diligence in searching the Scriptures in order to come to the position he has. That’s what we all need to do. We have done this as well, but our understanding from the Scriptures is that the gifts of the Spirit (and of Christ—Ephesians:4:7-12) did not cease with the passing of the Apostles. The Apostle Paul wrote quite a bit in his letters to the Corinthians addressing  the subject of the gifts (given for the edification and building up of the church). What would be the point of his rather lengthy teachings if the gifts and the edification received from them were soon to cease?

Obviously, cessationism and non-cessationism cannot both be correct. Unlike the gospel and other essentials of the faith that are objectively clear, the gifts of the Spirit are not essential for salvation and are more difficult to discern. Conclusions about them are developed in a more subjective process. Although what we believe about the gifts is not essential , it doesn’t mean that our belief is unimportant. The gifts are given for the edification, strengthening, and enabling of the body of Christ—His church. A wrong belief regarding the gifts of the Spirit will hinder the church’s edification and fruitfulness. Scripture tells us that “the just shall live by [the] faith” (Habakkuk:2:4; Romans:1:17; Galatians:3:11; Hebrews:10:38). Influential writers with opposing views may present their arguments and convince others, but in the end, we are all personally accountable for rightly dividing the Word of Truth (2 Timothy:2:15) in determining what we believe and why we believe it. That must be both our declaration and our practice of sola scriptura .

For a further critique of the Strange Fire Conference, see our Q&A section.  TBC