Pastor John MacArthur has never been one to pull punches when addressing the charismatic movement. In fact, his book Charismatic Chaos has long been considered one of the hallmarks of his ministry, addressing many of the negative and confusing effects the charismatic movement has had on Evangelicalism. But the problem hasn’t gone away, and, if anything, has grown exponentially. That’s why you might have noticed a recent new buzz about the issue as a result of the new Strange Fire Conference coming to Southern California in October. But is all the buzz necessary? Is it really as crippling as MacArthur makes it out to be? I would argue that it is. In fact, acceptance of charismaticism has become the norm, but with its acceptance, I would argue that personal experience has usurped the authority of Scripture. How can this possibly be healthy for the church? It isn’t.
But since there will no doubt be much discussion in the coming months up to and after the Strange Fire Conference, I thought it would be helpful for me to identify some of the reasons why I reject the practice of the miraculous sign gifts.
- I believe the Holy Spirit fills the believer upon faith in Jesus Christ. While many continuationist (or “charismatic”) churches, though notably not all, believe the miraculous sign gifts are a sign of a “second filling” experience (the belief that the believer receives the Holy Spirit sometime subsequent to salvation), this is clearly not what Scripture teaches on Spirit baptism. While these churches argue that passages such as Galatians 5:16, 25 and Ephesians 5:18 support their view since they state to “walk by the Spirit,” and “be filled with the Spirit,” the verbs in the Greek language clearly indicate that the believer’s relationship with the Holy Spirit already exists! This means that these verses are actually referring to the continual growth of the believer, which is consistent with the doctrine of sanctification. Furthermore, Jesus said in John 7:38-39 that it is the one who believes who will be filled with the Spirit. There is no other state described after belief that must be achieved to receive the Spirit.
- I believe the gift of prophecy must be without error. Continuationists (including Wayne Grudem and D.A. Carson), believe that prophecy (and tongues) can be erroneous. They claim that while the revelation made known to them from God was infallible, it was the interpretation of the prophet that was in error if the prophecy is found to be wrong. Nowhere in Scripture is prophecy of any kind presented in this way. Instead, prophets were held to the highest of standards in both the OT and NT. In the OT, the penalty for a false prophecy was death (Deut.18:20-22). The standard of authenticity was the detailed foretelling of a future event that would come true. In the NT, false prophets were not tolerated either and the apostles continually warned the churches against them since they would come as wolves in sheep’s clothing, and they are doomed for destruction (2 Pet. 2:1-22). If God would take false prophecy so serious in the Scriptures, it is completely illogical that He would permit such rampant confusion in the church today brought by false prophecies.
- I believe the gift of tongues to be a spoken human language. While continuationist churches argue that the gift of tongues can be unintelligible angelic or spiritual language, nowhere in Scripture is this gift defined that way. There is no biblical argument to support this sort of “gift.” In the NT, speaking in tongues is clearly defined as speaking in real human languages, unknown to the speaker, that was only intelligible either to foreigners who spoke that language or to an interpreter (Acts 2:1-13). Additionally, Paul established very strict guidelines for which the gift of tongues was to be practiced in the church in 1 Corinthians 12-14. First, not everyone would have the gift of tongues (1 Cor. 12:4-7, 27-31), second, love is to be practiced above the miraculous gifts (13:1-13), third, tongues are to be a sign to unbelievers rather than to believers (14:20-25), fourth, only two or the people should speak in tongues in a single service (14:27), fifth, tongues speakers must remain silent if there are no interpreters present (14:28), and sixth, only one is to speak at a time (14:29-33). All of these guidelines must be met, but it is very uncommon for charismatic churches to keep more than one or two of these guidelines, let alone all of them.
- I do NOT believe that God can no longer do the miraculous. In consistency with cessationism, while I believe that the miraculous sign gifts have ceased, I readily affirm that God can and does still perform miracles as He chooses. While these miracles would, in what they accomplish, be more consistent with the gift of healings in the first century church, being undeniable, complete, and immediate, they would still not be considered as “gifts” to the church. Additionally, answers to prayer for the sick are also distinct from the NT description of the gift of healings. Any claim that such occurrences that this gift, or any other of the miraculous sign gifts continue in the church today, must do so on the basis that they redefine biblical terminology.
- I do not believe that church history affirms continuationism. Some continuationists argue that there have been occurrences of the miraculous sign gifts all throughout church history. However, a careful evaluation of church history will prove this to be untrue. In fact, with the exception of certain heretical groups such as the Montanists, prominent Christian men of the faith such as Chrysostom (344-407),
Augustine (354-430), Luther (1483-1546), Calvin (1509-1564), Owen (1616-1683), Watson (1620-1686), Henry (1662-1714), Edwards (1703-1758), and countless others, clearly believed that the miraculous sign gifts have ceased. Furthermore, most references to the supposed continuation of the miraculous sign gifts in church history refer to the Montanists, who were heretics anyway. I would only hope that the charismatic movement, if it is truly Evangelical, would not want to be associated with them.
- I do not believe that cessationism is dependent on the “perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10. Many continuationists argue that the cessationist view on the miraculous sign gifts stands or falls based on the interpretation that the “perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 refers to the closing of the Canon. However, this is not true. In fact, many well-known cessationists maintain that the “perfect” refers to the eternal state. This is the preferred view since glorified believers will no longer have the need for prophecy and knowledge, and the curse will be abolished (Rev. 22:3-4). However, others also maintain that the “perfect” refers to the second coming of Christ and the Rapture. This is less likely, however, since the gifts of prophecy and knowledge are said to continue after the Rapture, during the Tribulation and the Millennial Kingdom (cf. Acts 2:17-21; Rev. 11:3-6).
Addressing the charismatic movement at large is quite a project, but hopefully the above will be helpful in thinking through some of the key issues related to Scripture and how we should understand the miraculous sign gifts. One thing is certain – this is an issue that demands much attention in our churches, and it isn’t going away anytime soon.