Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship, John MacArthur. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2013. Hardcover, 352 pages, $22.99 USD.
Although this is a great read, I hummed and hawed about writing a review. After all, I reasoned, I don’t know too many people who would be susceptible to the types of errors exposed in this book. I thought that most of the people I know, inside my church and elsewhere, are discerning enough to realize that the teachings exposed in this book are gospel-denying and soul-threatening. But some friends demurred. Some friends insisted that I write this review because they know people who are being lured by these sorts of teachings. Moreover, it could very well be that I’m over-estimating the level of discernment around me.
What sorts of false teachings are being addressed in this book? The basic thrust of Strange Fire is to address the error known as continuationism. Reformed believers are cessationists – this means that we believe that the apostolic gifts (including speaking in tongues) ceased at the end or shortly after the end of the apostolic era. Continuationism, on the other hand, maintains that these gifts continue. We should expect to see miracles, including healings and speaking in tongues in our present day. This is the view held by Pentecostals and charismatics – as well as by a few others. A false teaching that often goes hand in hand with this is the so-called Prosperity Gospel. This is the teaching that the good news is that Jesus wants to bless you with health and wealth. Popular proponents of these false teachings include Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, and Joyce Meyer. This book deftly exposes these teachings as false and does so with the Word of God.
John MacArthur is a well-known preacher and writer. He has been the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California since 1969. This is not his first book on the topic. Back in the early 1990s, he wrote Charismatic Chaos. Unfortunately, since then, the popularity of these teachings has grown significantly. In the early 1990s, these views were widely considered to be on the fringe of American Christianity. This was not only because of the positions taken on spiritual gifts, but also because of other doctrinal issues, especially unorthodox views of the Trinity. In the early 1990s, you could not typically find books by men like Creflo Dollar or T. D. Jakes in your average vanilla Christian bookstore. Today, they’re everywhere and nobody seems to care. That does make Strange Fire an even more important book for our day.
The basic argument of the book is simple: continuationism is an assault on the sufficiency of the Word of God. MacArthur doesn’t just say it, he shows it. He gives numerous examples of how continuationists are turning people away from the Scriptures as the only authoritative source of divine revelation. He explains how the Bible itself speaks of its own sufficiency. Not only should we not expect charismatic gifts, we do not need them, because the Holy Spirit has given us something far better: the written Word of God.
As he prosecutes his case, MacArthur helpfully deals with a number of side issues. What about using spiritual gifts just for your own spiritual edification? He tackles that in chapter 4. What about the popular book by Sarah Young, Jesus Calling? She says that she received these devotional messages straight from Jesus. She wanted more than the Bible and “Jesus” gave it to her. MacArthur deals with Young in chapter 6. And then what about some of the “New Calvinists” who hold to continuationist views? There are men like Mark Driscoll, D. A. Carson, and John Piper who fall into that category. MacArthur respectfully addresses them in chapter 12, “An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends.”
I appreciated this book especially because of the author’s commitment to a high view of Scripture. I applaud his boldness in applying Scripture to this contentious issue and also, most importantly, showing us how the gospel is at stake with this. He has been attacked and maligned for his stand, but from a Reformed point of view, we can do nothing but encourage him to continue standing fast on this issue. Yes, MacArthur has his own theological blind-spots. I wish he were Reformed in his views of baptism and eschatology, for instance. However, I didn’t detect any of those blind-spots in this book. So, until some more consistent and confessionally Reformed author comes with something better, this is the book that I will be recommending to everyone on this issue.