Why I Am Still Surprised by the Power of the Spirit | Book Review

Twenty-seven years ago, Jack Deere published Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, the story of how and why he stopped being a cessationist and started practicing a charismatic form of spirituality. Why I Am Still Surprised by the Power of the Spirit significantly revises and updates its predecessor. The revisions and updates make Still Surprised a substantially new book.

Surprised included 14 chapters, an epilogue, and three appendices. Still Surprised includes 26 chapters and five appendices. Entire chapters have been revised, deleted, and/or replaced. Deere explicitly divided the old book into three parts—roughly, his testimony, his critique of cessationism, and his advice about the practice of spiritual gifts. The new book largely follows this same organizational structure. Deere’s combination of memoir, critique of cessationism, biblical exposition, and seasoned advice about using spiritual gifts is written clearly and engagingly, reads smoothly, and made me think, even when I disagreed with it.

Cessationists—that is, people who believe certain “supernatural” spiritual gifts ceased after the apostles’ death—often argue that Pentecostals and charismatics put experience before Scripture. Deere’s conversion from cessationist to charismatic reversed that argument. “My thinking had not changed because I had seen a miracle or heard God speak to me in some sort of supernatural way. … This shift in my thinking was the result of a patient, exhaustive, intense study of the healings and miracles recorded in the Scriptures” (25).

In fact, Deere reverses the cessationist argument. “There is one basic reason why otherwise Bible-believing Christians do not believe in the miraculous gifts of the Spirit today. It is this: they have not seen them” (48). The lack of experience, rather than sound biblical argument, is wellspring of cessationism. Even so, throughout the book, Deere engages cessationists’ arguments, pointing out to the contrary that the Bible consistently and persistently teaches believers to expect and experience spiritual gifts.

Having shared his testimony and refuted cessationism, Deere goes on to offer advice about how to use the spiritual gifts, especially healing. Readers within the Pentecostal, charismatic, and Third Wave traditions will notice Deere weighing in on some of the intramural debates within our communities, such as the nature of and evidence for being filled with the Holy Spirit, whether certain gifts are resident within the believer, whether Christians can be demonized, and the nature of apostolic ministry.

As a classical Pentecostal, I didn’t agree with every jot and tittle of his biblical exposition or seasoned advice. The book is well worth reading, regardless of these disagreements. Deere is a trusted charismatic teacher and practitioner, and much of his advice is just good sense, avoiding the extremes of cessationist nonuse as well as hyper-charismatic abuse.

One final comment: Among Pentecostals, especially Pentecostal academics, there is an anxiety about evangelical influence on Pentecostalism. I understand that concern and agree with it in parts. Why I’m Still Surprised by the Power of the Holy Spirit serves as a standing reminder that influence goes both ways. When the Pentecostal revival began, cessationists held the commanding heights of evangelical institutions. Today, that is no longer the case, and those cessationists who still exist concede that Pentecostals and charismatics have contributed to the revival of Christianity in this century.

Book Reviewed

Jack Deere, Why I Am Still Surprised by the Power of the Spirit: Discovering How God Speaks and Heals Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

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The Miracle Lady | Book Review

Readers of a certain age remember Kathryn Kuhlman (1907–1976). She was “the miracle lady,” whose catchphrase, “I believe in miracles because I believe in God,” inspired millions to seek faith in Jesus Christ and the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements even described her as the “world’s most widely known female evangelist.”

Younger readers are likely unfamiliar with Kuhlman, however. Her miracle services, radio ministry, and syndicated television show, though well attended and widely consumed in her day, lost influence after her death. This decline was not unexpected. The ministries of charismatic leaders rarely outlive them, especially when, as in Kuhlman’s case, their estates are diverted away from ministry maintenance toward personal gain by unscrupulous heirs.

And yet, Kathryn Kuhlman should be better known because she played a crucial role in what biographer Amy Collier Artman calls “the gentrification of charismatic Christianity.” Until the middle of the 20th century, classical Pentecostalism was the primary bearer of “Spirit-filled Christianity.” Starting on the wrong side of the tracks, socially and ecclesiastically speaking, classical Pentecostalism had increasingly moved toward respectability by mid-century, as symbolized by the Assemblies of God joining the National Association of Evangelicals as a founding member in the early 1940s. (Today, it is the NAE’s largest denominational member.)

It was charismatic Christianity that accelerated the popularity of Spirit-filled beliefs and practices in the second half of the century, however. “Kuhlman was a leader in the transformation of charismatic Christianity from a suspect form of religion to a respectable form of religiosity that was accepted and even celebrated by mainstream Christianity and culture by the end of the twentieth century.” The Miracle Ladytells the story of how this happened, focusing especially on Kuhlman’s skillful use of talk-show television.

Rather than broadcasting her spiritually charged miracle services themselves, Kuhlman invited people who had been saved, healed and filled with the Spirit to share their own testimonies, first on Your Faith and Minein the 1950s, then on I Believe in Miraclesin the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. These television shows presented normal looking, intelligent people calmly telling others what God had done for them. Out were the pyrotechnics of the Pentecostal revival service. In were normal folk talking normally about the supernatural. Artman says that Kuhlman and charismatic Christianity “came of age” together. The same could be said of them and television. Kuhlman was an early adopter of the talk-show format, which was perfectly suited for introducing otherwise cautious viewers to charismatic Christianity.

By the same token, Kuhlman in her day made it clear that she was not a “faith healer,” an appellation she shunned. Unlike Word-of-Faith evangelists, she did not believe healing was dependent on the character of one’s faith, or that faith would inoculate a person from suffering. Additionally, she did not use her television show to make continuous appeals for money, despite the high costs of production. (In this respect, she needs to be distinguished from televangelists such as Benny Hinn, who despite implicitly claiming Kuhlman’s “mantle,” never actually met or worked with her.)

Artman also discusses how Kuhlman navigated the tensions of being a woman leader in a theologically and morally conservative movement. Kuhlman adopted a rhetoric of “negation,” often stating that she wasn’t God’s “first choice,” but no man had been willing to step up and do the work, so she volunteered. “Take nothing and use it,” she often said.

Artman contrasts this rhetoric of negation with Adele Carmichael’s rhetoric of “affirmation.” She recounts a 1974 interview Kuhlman conducted with Carmichael on the set of I Believe in Miracles. (Carmichael, five years Kuhlman’s senior, lived until 2003, dying on her way to teach Sunday school at 101 years of age. She continues to hold the record as one of the Assemblies of God’s longest-serving ministers, having been first credentialed in 1918.) In that episode, Kuhlman remarked to Carmichael, “It was not the easiest thing in the world to be a woman preacher. How did you master it?” Carmichael responded, “I had a wonderful husband who was 100 percent for women preachers. As I study the Word, I believe God needs women, has a place for their ministry.” In fact, she went on, “Many times I’ve prayed thanks that God gave you your ministry and not a man,” Kuhlman demurred, saying “I always thought I was second or third choice.” But Carmichael boldly declared: “I think you were his first choice.”

Even today, unfortunately, Spirit-filled women continue to navigate the difficult waters of leadership, sometimes justifying their ministries through negation rhetoric like Kuhlman’s. Carmichael’s affirmation rhetoric offers a better way forward, it seems to me.

The Miracle Ladyis not a who-did-what-when type of biography. If you’re looking for a more traditional biography, I’d recommend Wayne Warner’s excellent Kathryn Kuhlman: The Woman Behind the Miracles. The strength of Artman’s The Miracle Ladyis that it uses Kuhlman’s life as a lens through which to view a crucial period and a key mover in the transformation of charismatic Christianity. A 2008 Barna study estimated that 80 million Americans self-identified as either “Pentecostal” or “charismatic.” This happened, at least in part, because of the efforts of Kathryn Kuhlman to mainstream Spirit-filled Christianity and broaden its appeal. For that, Kuhlman deserves to be remembered.

Book Reviewed
Amy Collier Artman, The Miracle Lady: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Transformation of Charismatic Christianity(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).

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P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Understanding Sexual Abuse | Book Review

“In our society today, it is estimated that up to one in four girls and one in six boys experience sexual abuse in childhood. Experts also estimate that as many as half of the incidents are not reported. Millions of people, both children and adults, face each day with this hidden, complex pain.”

Tim Hein opens Understanding Sexual Abuse with this astounding and depressing statistic. It’s one that pastors and church leaders need to think about. Although we’d like to claim that sexual abuse happens out there (the world), not in here (the church), we all know that’s false. Sexually abused children and adult survivors of sexual abuse fill our pews, join our small groups and lead our teams. The question, then, is how well we minister to them in their pain.

This is not a book about “how to prevent abuse or how to deal with perpetrators.” Hein wrote this book out of his personal experience of childhood sexual abuse in order to help pastors and other church leaders “support survivors of sexual abuse.” He shares his story of abuse, without going into unnecessary and potentially triggering details, to help readers understand how a child experiences abuse, how it shapes his or her perspective on life, and what kinds of needs it leaves the child with.

Hein skillfully weaves together his personal story with psychological insights about the emotional toll abuse takes on child victims. As a Christian minister, however, he also brings biblical and theological resources to bear. He shows that the biblical narrative emphasizes justice for the abused, not just forgiveness for the perpetrator. He raises the question of theodicy, i.e., “Where is God when evil happens?” He shows how the Bible offers practical guidance for making sense of and lamenting our pain.

Most importantly, Hein shows that recovery is possible, though it may be a long process. “Wherever we are on our journeys of life,” Hein concludes, “including the journeys of recovery and healing, we can make choices about the paths ahead. We can choose life, and go on doing so, because Jesus, the author of life has come.”

Understanding Sexual Abuse is a short, but realistic book. Realistic not only about the pain of sexual abuse, but about the hope for healing. Given how widespread the problem of sexual abuse is, pastors and other church leaders will benefit from reading it and knowing how to serve the victims in their congregations.

Book Reviewed
Tim Hein, Understanding Sexual Abuse: A Guide for Ministry Leaders and Survivors (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018).

P.S. Cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission..

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

The Case for Miracles | Book Review

On Pentecost Sunday evening, 1981, a young woman walked down the aisle of Wheaton Wesleyan Church in Wheaton, Illinois. Church attendance wasn’t uncommon in that city, which housed the headquarters of many evangelical institutions, including Wheaton College. And yet, this young woman’s steps elicited gasps from those in attendance.

Why? Because Barbara — that was the young woman’s name — had been diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis 16 years earlier. She hadn’t been able to walk for seven years. Indeed, at that point, the progression of her illness was so severe that she was in hospice care at her home, with a life expectancy of six months.

What accounted for the change? A prayer request for Barbara had been communicated to Moody Bible Institute’s radio program. Over 450 people wrote letters to her church, indicating they were praying for her. As Barbara’s aunt read some of those letters to her at her bedside, Barbara heard a man’s voice say, “My child, get up and walk.” And she did. She’s been free of MS ever since and now lives with her husband, a pastor, in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Lee Strobel recounts Barbara’s story in his new book, The Case for Miracles. Strobel was the award-winning legal editor of The Chicago Tribune and an atheist before coming to Christ in the early 1980s. Since then, he has written The Case for Christ and other books investigating evidence for the truth claims of Christianity.

Christianity is an inherently supernatural religion. Among its supernatural truth claims are the existence of God, the creation of the world, the inspiration of the Bible, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and Christ’s resurrection from the dead, among many other miracles. In the modern world, under the influence of science, many have come to doubt the reality of the supernatural.

To understand their doubts, Strobel interviews Michael Shermer, a well-known atheist and editor of Skeptic magazine. Shermer agrees with the critique of miracles outlined by the Scottish philosopher David Hume in his essay, “On Miracles.” Hume defined a miracle as a violation of the law of nature. He believed that claims of miracles come from uneducated persons in less advanced societies, people and places unaware of how the world works. And he argued that, in any case, it was more likely that there was a natural explanation for an event than a supernatural one. Shermer considers this the best argument against the miraculous.

Barbara’s case provides evidence that Hume was wrong. Here was a modern person, treated by doctors at the Mayo Clinic no less, whose instantaneous healing was documented by her doctors in two separately published books. And that healing took place in the context of a spiritual experience. Those facts indicate that naturalistic explanations — remission, psychosomatic cure, placebo effect, etc. — are insufficient empirically.

And Barbara’s case is not the only one Strobel cites. Strobel interviews Craig Keener for further evidence in favor of miracles. Keener was an atheist who became a Christian. He is a well-known New Testament scholar and author of the two-volume book, Miracles. While writing a commentary on the Book of Acts, Keener realized that too many scholars believe Acts is unreliable historically because it contains accounts of miracles. Keener decided that if he could provide evidence that miracles happen today, it would buttress the historicity of Acts. He provides documentations for hundreds of modern miracles, including Barbara’s.

Strobel goes on to interview other scholars about Christianity’s supernatural truth claims: Candy Guenther Brown on the efficacy of prayer and Michael Strauss on the Big Bang and the fine-tuning of the universe, for example. And he summarizes the case for the resurrection of Jesus through an interview with atheist-turned-Christian J. Warner Wallace, a cold-case homicide detective.

Of course, miracles don’t always happen. They’re exceptions to the laws of nature, not the way that nature ordinarily works, after all. Strobel interviews Christian philosopher Douglas Groothuis (pronounced GROTE-hice) to understand how Christians can remain faithful in the absence of miracles. Groothuis’ wife, Rebecca, a scholar in her own right, was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, which has slowly robbed her of her ability to speak and to think. It’s been agonizing to watch, but Groothuis’ faith has helped him. “I’m hanging by a thread,” he says. “But, fortunately, the thread is knit by God.”

Whether through their presence (Barbara’s case) or through their absence (Rebecca’s case), miracles are signposts pointing to God. On the one hand, if readers approach miracle claims with an open mind — i.e., one that doesn’t rule out miracles because of a dogmatic naturalistic worldview — they might come to believe that there’s more to nature than meets even the scientifically trained eye. On the other hand, if they realize that this-worldly suffering poses unavoidable questions of meaning and significance, they might come to believe that they need more out of this life than this life can offer.

Either way, that “more” is God. If you’ve never thought about the case for miracles or the importance of finding meaning in life, I encourage you to read The Case for Miracles and reach your own verdict.

Book Reviewed
Lee Strobel, The Case for Miracles: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for the Supernatural (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018).

P.S. I wrote this article for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.P.S. In my article, “When the Healing Doesn’t Come,” I wrestle with the problem of miracles that don’t happen, based on my own experience with chronic illness.

Review of ‘The Life of Faith’ by Cornelia Nuzum

The-Life-of-FaithCornelia Nuzum, The Life of Faith (Springfield, MO: My Healthy Church, 2014). Paperback | Kindle

[Author’s note: I wrote the Foreword to a forthcoming new printing of The Life of Faith, which I’m posting here as a review.]

The Life of Faith by Cornelia Nuzum is worth reading for historical and spiritual reasons.

As a matter of history, it reflects the emphasis on faith that characterized the first generation of Pentecostals. That faith confidently proclaimed that the believer was heir to the promises God had fulfilled through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Those promises touched on all aspects of life: salvation, sanctification, spiritual empowerment for mission, and healing. Quoting Galatians 3:13, Nuzum writes: “‘Christ hath redeemed us from the curse,’ all of it, not some, nor even much of it, but all of it.” This confident faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, Healer, Spirit-Baptizer, and soon-coming King continues to characterize Pentecostalism today, and it partly explains the rapid and extensive growth of Pentecostalism throughout the world.

As a matter of spirituality, The Life of Faith offers a standing rebuke to the shallowness and nominalism in Christian practice. Or perhaps, to put it positively, I should say that it encourages us to go deeper in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Nuzum writes:

My tongue cannot express the greatness of mydeliverance, but my heart goes out to my great Deliverer in adoration, worship, praise, loyalty, and thanksgiving. Who would not desire to be fully yielded to such an almighty, gracious loving One? My desire is to be one with Jesus in all things. How far we come short of this! How sweet are the words, “Conformed to the image of Christ.” Oh, to so live that we may not hinder God, but let Him do this for each one of us.

Some may read this little book and question its emphasis on healing. I understand their questions. As a person with a chronic illness, I struggle with why Christ has not healed me yet, despite my faith. But when I read Nuzum’s words, I am reminded that the most important thing is to be conformed to the image of Christ. Oh, that you and I may so live that we do not hinder God from conforming us to His Son!

That is the true and lasting life of faith.


P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘Strange Fire’ by John MacArthur

strange_fire_tn_large John MacArthur, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2013). Hardback / Kindle

In 2014, the Assemblies of God completes its 100th year of ministry. From humble beginnings in Hot Springs, Ark., our Fellowship has grown to encompass over 66 million believers in 252 countries, territories, and provinces.[1] Faithful saints have planted and watered gospel seeds during these years, but God has made them grow (1 Corinthians 3:6).

The AG is part of the Charismatic Movement, which now numbers over 500 million persons worldwide.[2] That movement has shifted the center of Christianity from the global North to the global South, from the developed world to the majority world. Arguably, its growth makes it one of the greatest revivals in the history of Christianity, as well as one of the most significant people movements of the modern era. And for that, praise God!

John MacArthur offers a very different — and almost entirely negative — assessment of the Charismatic Movement in his new book, Strange Fire:

Charismatics now number more than half a billion worldwide. Yet the gospel that is driving those surging numbers is not the true gospel, and the spirit behind them is not the Holy Spirit. What we are seeing is in reality the explosive growth of a false church, as dangerous as any cult or heresy that has ever assaulted Christianity. The Charismatic Movement was a farce and a scam from the outset; it has not changed into something good.[3]

He concedes that there are “sincere people” within the movement who “understand the necessary truths of the gospel” despite its “systemic corruption and confusion.” Nevertheless, he contends that continued exposure to “the false teaching and counterfeit spirituality of the Charismatic Movement” places them and others in “eternal jeopardy.”[4]

These are serious charges to level against any Christian, let alone an entire movement of Christians. As a Pentecostal and an ordained Assemblies of God minister, I am tempted to ignore them because they are both ill-founded[5] and intemperately made.[6] Indeed, I cannot recommend MacArthur’s book either as a constructive critique of the Charismatic Movement or as a good representative of cessationist theology.[7] Nevertheless, the publication of Strange Fire requires a Pentecostal response, not merely to correct the record but also to advance the cause of Christian unity.

Where We Agree and Disagree

Regarding Christian unity, there are several points where Pentecostal readers can agree with MacArthur.

In Part 1, he articulates five tests of authentic revival from a reading of 1 John 4:1–8, informed by Jonathan Edwards’ “Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God”[8]:

1. Does the work exalt the true Christ?

2. Does it oppose worldliness?

3. Does it point people to the Scriptures?

4. Does it elevate the truth?

5. Does it produce love for God and others?

As Pentecostals, we wholeheartedly endorse these tests. However, whereas we believe that the Charismatic Movement, on the whole, passes them, MacArthur believes it fails them.

In Part 2, MacArthur argues that contemporary spiritual gifts do not operate the way the Bible says they should, so they are inauthentic. As Pentecostals, we agree that some individuals within the Charismatic Movement practice the gifts in violation of biblical order. However, we disagree that contemporary spiritual gifts, per se, are inauthentic.

In Part 3, MacArthur turns from critiquing the Charismatic Movement to outlining the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of salvation, sanctification, and the inspiration and illumination of Scripture. As Pentecostals, we affirm the basic thrust of his pneumatology. However, we note that he has downplayed a major theme of biblical pneumatology — namely, that the Holy Spirit empowers believers for service.[9]

These points of agreement demonstrate that our faith as Christians is significantly and substantially the same as John MacArthur’s. Unfortunately, he has chosen to interpret the much smaller points of disagreements as matters of orthodoxy. On the whole, then, he situates the Charismatic Movement outside the camp, describing it as a “false church,” “cult,” and “heresy” that is “assault[ing] Christianity.” Indeed, he calls for “a collective war against the pervasive abuses on the Spirit of God.”[10]

How does MacArthur arrive at this outrageous and offensive conclusion? First, he portrays the Charismatic Movement as rife with heresy and immorality. This is the burden of Part 1, subtitled, “Confronting a Counterfeit Revival.” Second, based on his exegesis of Scripture, he argues that contemporary manifestations of the spiritual gifts of apostleship, prophecy, tongues, and healing do not match biblical criteria. Consequently, he says they are inauthentic. This is the burden of Part 2, subtitled, “Exposing the Counterfeit Gifts.”

A careful examination of the evidence will demonstrate that MacArthur is wrong on both counts.

Portrait of the Charismatic Movement

First, MacArthur portrays the Charismatic Movement as rife with heresy and immorality. Consider these representative quotations:

Heresy: “What we are seeing is in reality the explosive growth of a false church, as dangerous as any cult or heresy that has ever assaulted Christianity.”[11]

Immorality: “The halls of Pentecostal and charismatic history are paved with scandal.”[12]

Any large movement — especially one with over 500 million adherents — will contain problematic elements. However, MacArthur argues that the Charismatic Movement consists of these problematic elements, arising from its “bad doctrine.” After describing a variety of scandals involving well-known charismatic leaders, MacArthur writes: “Scandals such as these permeate charismatic history. Trace them to their source and you will discover that they are rooted in bad doctrine. Put simply, moral and spiritual failures such as we have chronicled in this chapter are the inevitable consequence of rotten pneumatology — false teaching about the Holy Spirit.”[13]

The basic problem with MacArthur’s description of the Charismatic Movement is what scientists refer to as selection bias — that is, “[a]n error in choosing the individuals or groups to take part in a study.”[14] He has profiled charismatic leaders who teach aberrant doctrines or have committed moral failures and then puts them forward as representative of the Charismatic Movement as a whole. This is like describing the moral lives of American presidents by studying only the ones who cheated on their wives. Select a different group, and you’ll get a different picture. (Contrast the charismatics mentioned in Strange Fire with the Assemblies of God adherents profiled in Gary B. McGee’s People of the Spirit, and you’ll see what I mean.[15]) Because MacArthur’s description of charismatics suffers from selection bias, it cannot be taken seriously as a representative description.

MacArthur is aware of a report on charismatic beliefs and practices that is representative of the movement. Titled Spirit and Power, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published the report in 2006.[16] MacArthur cites both it and studies based on it to prove that “prosperity theology” is a characteristic belief of the Charismatic Movement.[17] (More on that later.) Unfortunately, he fails to inform readers of Strange Fire about the report’s broader conclusions regarding the Charismatic Movement’s orthodoxy, morality, piety, evangelistic intensity, and social engagement.

Consider these representative quotations from the report:

Orthodoxy: “renewalists [i.e., Pentecostals and charismatics] also stand out for the intensity of their belief in traditional Christian doctrines and practices.”[18] This is evident, for example, in their view of the Bible. “[M]ajorities of non-renewalist Christians believe that the Bible is the word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word; but this view is even more common among pentecostals [sic] than among non-renewalist Christians.”[19]

Morality: “pentecostals [sic] often stand out for their traditional views on a wide range of social and moral issues, from homosexuality to extramarital sex to alcohol consumption.”[20]

Piety: “renewalists also tend to engage in more traditional Christian practices at somewhat higher rates than do non-renewalists” — i.e., practices such as church attendance, private prayer, and frequent Bible reading.[21]

Evangelistic intensity: “Majorities of pentecostals [sic] in all 10 countries believe that Christians have a duty to convert people to Christianity.”[22] Interestingly, “the duty to spread the gospel tends to be felt more strongly by renewalists than by non-renewalists.”[23] Why? Because of “the widespread belief among pentecostals [sic] that faith in Jesus Christ represents the exclusive path to eternal salvation”; even here, Pentecostals “stand out for the intensity of their belief.”[24]

Social engagement: “strong majorities of both pentecostals [sic] and charismatics believe that if enough people were brought to Christ, social ills would take care of themselves…. However, renewalists also see it as their duty to work for justice for the poor.”[25]

Does a movement that matches Pew’s description sound like a “false church” to you? Would a “false church” of “renewalist Christians” be “more intense” about their orthodox doctrine, conservative morality, warm piety, evangelistic intensity, and social engagement than “non-renewalist Christians”? Of course not! But if not, then charismatic belief and practice cannot be the “inevitable consequence” of “rotten pneumatology,” as MacArthur claims. If a movement is characterized by orthodoxy (right believing) and orthopraxy (right living), then the Holy Spirit is genuinely at work in its midst — and this according to MacArthur’s own five tests of authentic revival.

What about prosperity theology, however? Doesn’t its prevalence among charismatics prove that “the extreme has become mainstream”?[26] Indeed, doesn’t it offer an alternative explanation for the growth of the Charismatic Movement? According to MacArthur, yes. He writes: “In reality, the rapid expansion of charismatic theology is primarily due to the popularity of the prosperity gospel. It is not the convicting work of the Holy Spirit that is drawing converts, but the allure of material possessions and the hope of physical healing.”[27]

Set aside the false disjunction in MacArthur’s last sentence. After all, why can’t the church grow because of both the convicting work of the Holy Spirit and the hope for God’s healing and material provision? Jesus didn’t criticize the crowds who came to Him for healing (Luke 4:38–44), after all, so why should we today?

Instead, focus on the ambiguity of the term prosperity gospel. MacArthur wants readers to associate that term with the Word of Faith Movement. If the prosperity gospel is prevalent among charismatics, if it is identical to Word of Faith theology, and if that theology is heretical, then the Charismatic Movement is shot through with heresy.

I hold no brief for the Word of Faith Movement, and I share many of MacArthur’s concerns with its theological errors. (I’m not sure they always rise to the level of heresy, however.)[28] Nonetheless, a careful reading of the evidence from Spirit and Power suggests a more sympathetic interpretation of the prosperity gospel than MacArthur allows.

Pew did not ask interviewees whether they agreed with Word of Faith theology, after all. They asked interviewees to what extent they agreed with the following two statements:

  • “God will grant material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith.”
  • “God will grant health and relief from sickness to believers who have enough faith.”[29]

Obviously, Word of Faith adherents will agree with these statements. But so might people who have read and taken to heart the Bible’s robust promises of God’s provision for and healing of believers in passages such as Matthew 6:25–34 and James 5:13–16. If, on the basis of such passages, you agree to some extent with Pew’s statements, you wind up on John MacArthur’s naughty list. On the other hand, if you disagree to some extent with these biblical promises, don’t you show yourself to be a person of “little faith”? My point here is not to defend Word of Faith theology but simply to demonstrate that the route to prosperity theology does not necessarily pass through Word of Faith teaching.

Moreover, the meaning of the word prosperity varies depending on context. One of the authorities MacArthur cites against prosperity theology is Signs and Wonders by Paul Alexander.[30] Just as MacArthur passed over exculpatory information about charismatics in Spirit and Power, so also he passes over exculpatory information in Signs and Wonders. Relating a disagreement he had with a Nigerian Pentecostal named Lawrence Nwankwo concerning whether God wants Christians to prosper — Alexander argued no, Nwankwo argued yes — Alexander writes: “I was arguing against overabundance, hoarding, greed, exorbitance, and consumerism — and for enough for a healthy life. I argued for a simple existence. He was arguing against starvation, poverty, sickness, and hopelessness — and for enough for a healthy life. He argued against subsistence and for a simple life. I was looking up at the mountain of money and trying to bring the wealthy down; he was looking down into the valley of despair and trying to bring the poor up.”[31]

Once he realized that the word prosperity meant having “enough for a healthy life,” Alexander realized that he agreed with Nwankwo. God wants people to prosper in that way. MacArthur wants readers to assume that prosperity means the greed of North American televangelists, who already have more than enough. Why not assume instead that Pew’s interviewees hold Nwankwo’s understanding of prosperity? Given that most of them come from poor countries, that would seem the more reasonable — and less uncharitable — assumption.

Indeed, when you consider that the prosperity gospel is not identical to Word of Faith theology and that the meaning of prosperity varies by context, it becomes easier to make sense of a point Pew raises but MacArthur ignores: Prosperity theology is prevalent among non-charismatic Christians too. “In all countries,” according to Spirit and Power, “majorities of all Christians believe that God will grant good health and relief from sickness to believers who have enough faith…. Many Christians around the world also believe that God will grant material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith, though this belief is somewhat less common, and held less intensely, than belief in God granting good health.”[32]

In summary, contrary to MacArthur’s description of it, the Charismatic Movement is not rife with heresy and immorality. A representative sample of charismatic belief and practice shows it to be orthodox, moral, pious, intensely evangelistic, and socially engaged. And while Word of Faith theology is indeed troublesome and demands a response, there is a better and more sympathetic way to understand the Charismatic Movement’s prosperity theology than MacArthur allows.

Exegesis of Scripture

Second, based on his exegesis of Scripture, MacArthur argues that contemporary manifestations of the spiritual gifts of apostleship, prophecy, tongues, and healing do not match biblical criteria. He says they are inauthentic, rising from some source other than the Holy Spirit. Based on those assumptions, he concludes continuationism is most likely false, and cessationism is likely true.

(Continuationism is “the claim that all the miracles and spiritual gifts described in Acts and 1 Corinthians are still available to Christians today, that prophetic gifts and signs and wonders were not unique to the apostolic era, and that there is no reason to believe one or more of these phenomena has ceased.”[33] Cessationism is the opposite claim.)

Pentecostals and charismatics may find themselves nodding in agreement with certain aspects of MacArthur’s argument. For example, I am sympathetic with MacArthur’s critiques of C. Peter Wagner’s views on apostleship, the notion of “fallible prophecy,” and Benny Hinn’s healing ministry. I don’t think these positions are representative of the Charismatic Movement. I also don’t believe arguments against them should count as arguments against the Movement as a whole.

Let’s take a closer look at MacArthur’s arguments regarding apostleship, prophecy, tongues, and healing.


MacArthur argues that, by definition, continuationists must believe that the spiritual gift of apostleship (1 Corinthians 12:28,29; Ephesians 4:11) is still available to Christians today.[34] As he reads it, the New Testament articulates three criteria of apostleship:

1. An apostle had to be a physical eyewitness of the resurrected Christ.

2. An apostle had to be personally appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. An apostle had to be able to authenticate his apostolic appointment with miraculous signs.[35]

MacArthur concludes: “These qualifications alone conclusively demonstrate that there are no apostles in the church today,” since no contemporary has seen Jesus personally, been commissioned for ministry by him personally, or has performed the number and variety of miracles that were performed by the New Testament apostles.[36]

Furthermore, he argues, Paul claimed to be the last apostle (1 Corinthians 15:8,9), so none came after him.[37] The apostles were “revelatory agents of God,” so unless we are willing to reopen the biblical canon, apostles do not continue to receive revelations today.[38] And Paul described the apostles as the “foundation” of the church (Ephesians 2:19,20) in a passage that “means nothing if it doesn’t decisively limit apostleship to the earliest stages of church history. After all, a foundation is not something that can be rebuilt during every phase of construction. The foundation is unique, and it is always laid first, with the rest of the structure firmly resting above it.”[39]

Taken individually and collectively, MacArthur thinks these lines of reasoning are fatal to contemporary manifestations of apostleship specifically and to continuationism generally. “To acknowledge [that apostleship has ceased] is to acknowledge the foundational premise on which cessationism is based. If apostleship ceased, it demonstrates that not everything that characterized the New Testament church still characterizes the church today.”[40]

Interestingly, in its position paper, “Apostles and Prophets,”[41] the Assemblies of God follows a similar line of argument to MacArthur’s and reaches a similar conclusion: “Since the New Testament does not provide guidance for the appointment of future apostles, such contemporary offices are not essential to the health and growth of the church, nor its apostolic nature.”[42]

Given that the Assemblies of God is the largest denomination within the Charismatic Movement — accounting for approximately one-eighth of the whole — the similarity of its reasoning and conclusion to MacArthur’s suggest that at least some charismatics adhere to a more qualified definition of continuationism than MacArthur lets on. Indeed, he admits that C. Peter Wagner’s New Apostolic Reformation “borrowed the apostolic emphasis of Latter Rain theology and incorporated it into his Third Wave teachings,” which means it’s not characteristic of either classical Pentecostalism or the charismatic revival in the mainline churches.[43] If that’s the case, however, then the cessation of the apostolic office is not fatal to continuationism, which some Pentecostals and charismatics define differently than MacArthur.[44]

Additionally, MacArthur’s criteria of apostleship need to be challenged. MacArthur seems to limit apostleship to “the Twelve and Paul.”[45] This overlooks crucial differences between the Twelve and Paul. The Twelve, but not Paul, were eyewitnesses of Christ “the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21,22). The Twelve, but not Paul, are the foundations of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:14). MacArthur’s concept of apostleship overlooks the fact that the New Testament applies the term apostolos (“apostle”) to a wider group of people than the Twelve and Paul, including Barnabas (Acts 14:4,14); James and others, distinct from the Twelve (1 Corinthians 15:7); Silas and Timothy (1 Thessalonians 2:6, cf. 1:1); and possibly Apollos (1 Corinthians 4:9, cf. v. 6). The New Testament does not say whether Barnabas, Silas, and Timothy were physical eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ. It does say, however, that prophets (rather than Jesus personally) appointed Barnabas and Timothy for ministry (Acts 13:2,3; 1 Timothy 1:18; 4:14). In his conflict with the false apostles at Corinth (2 Corinthians 11–12), Paul didn’t make use of either criterion 1 or 2, even though these would have been probative. (Indeed, if apostleship were limited to the Twelve and Paul, why didn’t Paul simply point out that the false apostles were neither the Twelve nor Paul?)

Finally, MacArthur’s concept of apostleship excludes at least two things that Paul considered fundamental: to “preach the gospel where Christ was not known” (Romans 15:14–22; cf. Acts 9:15,16; 22:21; 25:15–23) and suffering (2 Corinthians 11:16–33; cf. 1 Corinthians 4:9–13), which seem to be conjoined in Paul’s mind. Recognizing the connection between apostleship and preaching the gospel, the Assemblies of God’s position paper concludes that while the apostolic office may have ceased, the apostolic function has not.[46]

One final point: Though MacArthur makes much of the “foundation” argument in Ephesians 2:20, I’m not sure it’s as conclusive as he thinks. For one thing, he is asking that passage a question that it was not designed to answer. His question is, “Has the gift of apostleship ceased?” The question that passage was designed to answer is, “How are Gentiles saved and incorporated into the people of God?” The only passage in the New Testament that explicitly asks when the spiritual gifts will cease is 1 Corinthians 13:8–13, and its answer is “when completeness comes,” i.e., the Eschaton. For another thing, and this cannot be stressed enough, “foundation” is a metaphor, and metaphors should not be pressed too far. If pressed too far, we would have to conclude that Paul could not be part of the church’s apostolic foundation because he described himself as a “wise builder” who laid that foundation in 1 Corinthians 3:10. Obviously, the builder cannot also be the foundation. And doesn’t Revelation 21:14 describe the foundation of the New Jerusalem, which is the Church, in terms of “the twelve apostles of the Lamb”? Obviously, Paul was not a member of the Twelve.


Regarding contemporary manifestations of prophecy, MacArthur argues that the Bible lists three criteria for identifying false prophets:

1. Any self-proclaimed prophet who leads people into false doctrine and heresy is a false prophet.

2. Any self-proclaimed prophet who lives in unrestrained lust and unrepentant sin shows himself to be a false prophet.

3. If someone declaring himself a prophet proclaims any supposed “revelation from God” that turns out to be inaccurate or untrue, he must be summarily rejected as a spokesman for God.[47]

With these three criteria in mind, MacArthur argues that “charismatics have made presumptuous prophecy a hallmark of their movement.”[48] As proof of this, he cites “the various heresies that are tolerated and even promoted within charismatic ranks” (criterion 1), as well as “the numerous scandals that continually plague the lives of the most visible and recognized charismatic leaders” (criterion 2), that he describes in Part 1 of the book.[49]

I’ve already demonstrated that MacArthur’s description of the Charismatic Movement suffers from selection bias and is therefore unrepresentative, so we can agree with his critique of some charismatic leaders’ theological errors and moral failures without thinking that they are representative of the whole.

Unfortunately, this selection bias also plagues his discussion of “inaccurate predictions” (criterion 3). Why should we assume that the inaccurate predictions of Mike Bickle, Bob Jones, Benny Hinn, and Rick Joyner — the examples MacArthur cites by name — are representative of charismatic prophecy?[50] Why should we agree with his statement, “From its inception by Charles Fox Parham to its most ubiquitous modern representative in Benny Hinn, the entire movement is nothing more than a sham religion run by counterfeit ministers”?[51]

The entire movement? Nothing more? Overbroad statements like this betray MacArthur’s weak grasp of the history of the Charismatic Movement, even as they reveal a well-honed skill at libeling an entire class of Christians.

At the end of the day, however, inaccuracy isn’t MacArthur’s real concern. “Not all who believe God speaks to them make prophetic pronouncements as outlandish as those broadcast by charismatic televangelists or the Kansas City Prophets,” he writes. “But they still believe God gives them extrabiblical messages — either through an audible voice, a vision, a voice in their heads, or simply an internal impression. In most cases, their ‘prophecies’ are comparatively trivial. But the difference between them and Benny Hinn’s predictions is a difference only of scale, not of substance.”[52]

His real concern, then, is the very possibility of “extrabiblical revelation.” He writes: “modern evangelicalism’s infatuation with extrabiblical revelation is … a return to medieval superstition and a departure from our fundamental conviction that the Bible is our sole, supreme, and sufficient authority for all of life. It represents a wholesale abandonment of the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura.”[53]

Others will have to determine whether MacArthur has interpreted the Reformation correctly. What needs to be pointed out is the simple fact that the Bible itself, on a number of occasions, reports that people prophesied without reporting what they prophesied. Where are the extrabiblical revelations of Israel’s 72 elders (Numbers 11:22–30); Saul, the “procession of prophets” surrounding Samuel, and “Saul’s men” (1 Samuel 10:5–7,9–11; 19:18–24); “the company [or sons] of the prophets” (2 Kings 9:1–13); the prophets who went down from Jerusalem to Antioch (Acts 11:27–30); the Antioch prophets Simeon, Lucius, and Manaen (Acts 13:1–3); Philip’s “four unmarried daughters” (Acts 21:9); or the Roman and Corinthian congregational prophets (Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:28,29)?

Moreover, doesn’t the ministry of Jesus Christ itself point to the existence of extrabiblical revelation? Jesus Christ is “the Word [become] flesh” (John 1:14). Regarding His deeds, the Gospel says, “he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son does also” (5:19). Regarding words, Jesus said, “whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say” (12:50). And yet, John tells us, Jesus “did many other things as well” that are not recorded in the Gospels. Indeed, they are too numerous to put into books: “I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (21:25). Isn’t this the very definition of extrabiblical revelation?

The point is this: MacArthur demonstrates an (ironically) extrabiblical wariness toward extrabiblical revelation. His argument seems to be at odds with the Bible itself. This problem flows from his misidentification of canon and prophecy. The entire canon is prophetic (2 Timothy 3:16,17; 2 Peter 1:20,21), but not every prophecy is canonical, as I just illustrated. Scripture is the kanon (literally, “measuring rod” or “rule”) against which all alleged prophecies must be evaluated, but it is not the sum total of all that God has said, is saying, or will say. Therefore, it is appropriate to “eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy” (1 Corinthians 14:1).


Regarding speaking in tongues, MacArthur argues that tongues-speech in the New Testament always involved speaking a human language, whereas tongues-speech today never involves speaking a human language. Therefore, contemporary tongues-speech is “gibberish” that has nothing to do with the New Testament spiritual gift. [54]

There are good reasons to doubt both prongs of MacArthur’s argument. Anecdotal evidence indicates that at least some contemporary tongues-speech involves human languages. For example, Global Witness to Pentecost by Jordan Daniel May compiles 88 testimonies from reputable sources where one person spoke in a tongue that a second person recognized as a human language.[55] Admittedly, such occurrences are rare. Nevertheless, if they happen, then what MacArthur himself considers biblical tongues-speech continues today.

More importantly, there are several reasons to question whether the New Testament teaches that tongues-speech is always a human language. According to MacArthur, “the only detailed description of the true gift of tongues in Scripture is found in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost — a text that clearly identifies this gift as the supernatural ability to speak genuine, meaningful, translatable languages” (Acts 2:4,6–11).[56] This statement is false. Acts 2 is not “the only detailed description of the true gift of tongues.” If anything, 1 Corinthians 12–14 contains an even more detailed description of tongues. Acts 2 is simply the only description that contains the detail that the tongues-speech of Pentecost involved human languages. A different understanding of tongues-speech emerges through a close reading of 1 Corinthians 12–14.

First, whereas Acts 2:6–11 assumes that tongues-speech is naturally intelligible to hearers, 1 Corinthians 12–14 assumes that it is naturally unintelligible to them. Paul writes, “anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit” (14:2). And, “when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying?” (14:16). And, “if … everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (14:23).

Second, whereas Acts 2:6–11 assumes that the interpretation of tongues is a natural process in which a native speaker understands his or her own language, 1 Corinthians 12–14 assumes that it is a supernatural gift. “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good … to still another the interpretation of tongues” (12:7–10). “For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say” (14:13).

Third, in 1 Corinthians 14:6,10–12, Paul analogizes uninterpreted tongues-speech (glossais) to an uninterpreted foreign language (phonon/phones). As Gordon Fee points out, Paul’s “use of earthly languages as a analogy in 14:10–12 implies that it is not a known earthly language, since a thing is not usually identical with that to which it is analogous.”[57] Unless there is a difference between tongues-speech and human language here, Paul’s comparison is tautologous rather than analogous.

Fourth, Paul’s reference to “the tongues … of angels” (1 Corinthians 13:1) may indicate that he and/or the Corinthians believed that tongues-speech could be angelic, rather than human, in nature. The Testament of Job, a roughly contemporaneous Jewish document, similarly refers to humans speaking angelic languages through the power of the Holy Spirit. This indicates that the notion of angelic languages was not unknown in Paul’s time.[58]

If these lines of reasoning are correct, then the fact that the majority of contemporary tongues-speech is not a human language does not count against its biblical authenticity.

One more point: MacArthur derides the use of a “private ‘prayer language’ ” as a form of “self-gratification.”[59] Given that tongues-speech is a gift of the Spirit, it would be more accurate to say that the Spirit is edifying the individual who speaks an uninterpreted tongue, rather than that the individual is edifying him- or herself. Granting that interpreted tongues-speech is more beneficial to the congregation as a whole, the question remains why individual edification is wrong. If it is right to edify others, how can it be wrong to be edified oneself?

MacArthur would answer that “Paul would never extol prayers that bypass the mind.”[60] But that is arguable. Paul states that uninterpreted tongues-speech “edifies” the speaker (1 Corinthians 14:4). Further, he states, “my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful” (14:14). Taken together, this seems to imply that Paul recognizes such a thing as a spiritual but nonrational form of edification.

MacArthur also cites Paul’s instruction that public tongues-speakers ask God to be able to interpret their tongues-speech (1 Corinthians 14:13,14).[61] But this is a rule for public tongues-speech. MacArthur wrongly applies this rule to private tongues-speech without noting Paul’s explicit, public-oriented reasoning. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul gives no rule whatsoever about private tongues-speech.


In chapter 8, “Fake Healings and False Hopes,” MacArthur argues: “Faith healers like [Benny] Hinn claim to be able to replicate the healings of the apostolic age. In reality, their shenanigans have none of the characteristics of the actual New Testament gift of healing.”[62] While conceding that “the Lord still answers prayer and works in providential ways to heal people according to His will,” he nonetheless concludes, “there is no evidence that miraculous healings are occurring today as they did during the apostolic age.”[63] More bluntly: “The apostolic gift of healing has ceased.”[64]

Several points are in order by way of response. First, Pentecostal and charismatic readers can agree with elements of MacArthur’s critique of Hinn without thinking that Hinn’s ministry is characteristic of the broader Charismatic Movement. Once again, the problem of the representativeness of MacArthur’s argument rears its head.

Second, obviously, we agree with MacArthur that the Lord still heals people according to His will. The difference between us, I would venture, is that we believe this happens more often than does MacArthur.

Third, the statement that “the apostolic gift of healing has ceased” is ambiguous. If by that phrase MacArthur means the apostles’ gift of healing, then he may be correct, especially if the apostolic office — as opposed to apostolic function — has ceased. But Paul does not list the apostles’ gift of healing in his list of spiritual gifts. He talks more broadly about “gifts of healing,” where the focus moves from the one performing the healing to the one receiving the healing. In that sense, apostolic gifts of healing — i.e., the gifts of which the apostle Paul spoke — have not ceased at all.


In this review, I have made — and I hope sufficiently documented — three claims:

1. Pentecostal and charismatic readers of Strange Fire will agree with John MacArthur on numerous points of doctrine and several critiques of the Charismatic Movement.

2. MacArthur’s description of the Charismatic Movement suffers from selection bias, resulting in a portrait of the movement that is unrepresentative of the whole. A representative portrait shows that charismatics are orthodox, moral, pious, evangelistically intense, and socially engaged.

3. MacArthur’s critique of the contemporary spiritual gifts of apostleship, prophecy, tongues, and healing contains some valid points. But the figures he cites as representative of charismatic opinion are not. His definition of continuationism does not track with how many charismatics understand their own continuationist hermeneutic, and his biblical criteria for the gifts are not as definitive as he seems to think they are.

That being the case, I think a revision of MacArthur’s indictment of the Charismatic Movement, which I quoted at the outset of this essay, is warranted:

Charismatics now number more than half a billion worldwide. The gospel that is driving those surging numbers is the good news that Jesus Christ is the world’s Savior, Healer, Baptizer in the Holy Spirit, and soon-coming King. What we are seeing is in reality the explosive growth of a church that self-consciously patterns itself along New Testament lines, as vibrant as — if not more so than — any revival in the history of Christianity. The Charismatic Movement was an outpouring of the Spirit of Jesus Christ from the outset; it has not changed into something bad since.

This alternate description of the Charismatic Movement doesn’t mean that it is perfect or beyond criticism. Even the Church in the apostolic era had plenty of bad actors, theological errors, and moral failures. But it does mean that, on the whole, the Charismatic Movement is of God.

Rather than cutting down the Charismatic Movement, root and branch, John MacArthur should have written Strange Fire to help charismatic Christians prune the errant and spiritually unfruitful branches from their otherwise orthodox and moral root. Instead, he confused branch with root and consigned both to the flames.

“Love for the truth, without any lack of personal charity, is what motivates me to write a book like this,” MacArthur writes.[65]

What a strange “truth” that falsely describes Pentecostals and charismatics! What a strange “love” that fails to see one’s brothers and sisters in the faith as coworkers in gospel ministry!

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

[1] Assemblies of God, “Statistics of the Assemblies of God (USA).” Accessed online at http://agchurches.org/Sitefiles/Default/RSS/AG.org TOP/AG Statistical Reports/2012/Online Stats 2012.pdf.

[2] I am using the terms charismatic and Charismatic Movement in this review as John MacArthur does, to refer to “the entirety of the classical Pentecostal, Charismatic Renewal, and Third Wave Movements”; John MacArthur, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2013), 263n2.

[3] Ibid, xvii.

[4] Ibid, 81–82, passim. On pages 231–232, MacArthur sharply distinguishes between the Charismatic Movement and “reformed charismatics” or “evangelical continuationists.” The former is “teeming with false teachers and spiritual charlatans of the worst kind,” while the latter consist of “Christian leaders who have proven their commitment to Christ and His Word over the years.” He says he wrote chapter 12, “An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends,” to warn them about charismatics, believing that “the continuationist position exposes the evangelical church to continuous danger from the charismatic mutation.” Given that MacArthur lumps classical Pentecostalism, the Charismatic Renewal Movement, and the Third Wave Movement together under the rubric of “Charismatic Movement” (263n2), the logical conclusion is that MacArthur does not consider charismatics to be his “brothers in Christ and friends in the ministry” (231). As a classical Pentecostal and Assemblies of God minister, I find this conclusion unsettling. The Assemblies of God is a founding member of the National Association of Evangelicals, and other classical Pentecostal denominations are also members in good standing. MacArthur’s remarks thus seem to betray sectarian tendencies. If, on the other hand, he believes that classical Pentecostals are Christian siblings and ministry partners, he should state that clearly and upfront, rather than making an ambiguous statement in the book’s final chapter.

[5] The major methodological problem with Strange Fire is that it paints an unrepresentative portrait of the Charismatic Movement. Other problems include ad hominem arguments, tendentious use of sources, the fallacy of composition (attributing errors of this or that charismatic to charismatics generally), and a reductionist historiography of the Charismatic Movement. Regarding the last point: MacArthur traces the entire history of the Charismatic Movement to Charles Parham. By discrediting him, MacArthur thinks he has discredited it: “The ‘new Pentecost’ of the Charismatic Movement could not have been more different [than the original Pentecost]. It grew out of the deficient soteriology of the Holiness Movement; it was marked by inconsistent eyewitness testimony; it produced counterfeit religious experience; and it was initiated by a disreputable spiritual leader. Such factors call its legitimacy into serious question” (28). MacArthur seems unaware that there are Pentecostal denominations, such as the Church of God, that trace their origins to events preceding Parham. Moreover, he ignores Allan Anderson’s warning about ignoring the multiple, multinational, and multicultural origins of Pentecostalism, outlined in An Introduction to Pentecostalism: Global Charismatic Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 166–183. Given that MacArthur cites Anderson’s book several times (41, 266n17, 267n32, 268n46, 269n51, 271n63, 276n60, 283n41, 284n57, 285n63), his refusal to heed Anderson’s warning is inexcusable.

[6] Consider these bombastic statements from the Introduction of Strange Fire: “To claim He is the one who empowers self-willed, whimsical, and unbiblical worship is to treat God with contempt. That’s why the many irreverent antics and twisted doctrines brought into the church by the contemporary Charismatic Movement are equal to (or even worse than) the strange fire of Nadab and Abihu. They are an affront to the Holy Spirit, and therefore to God Himself—grounds for severe judgment (cf. Heb. 10:31)” (xi). “The ‘Holy Spirit’ found in the vast majority of charismatic teaching and practice bears no resemblance to the true Spirit of God as revealed in Scripture” (xii). “By inventing a Holy Spirit of idolatrous imaginations, the modern Charismatic Movement offers strange fire that has done incalculable harm to the body of Christ” (xiii). “In Jesus’ day, the religious leaders of Israel blasphemously attributed the work of the Spirit to Satan (Matt. 12:24). The modern Charismatic Movement does the inverse, attributing the work of the devil to the Holy Spirit” (xiii). “They have become like the Israelites of Exodus 32” (xiv), that is, idol worshipers. “In spite of their gross theological error, charismatics demand acceptance within mainstream evangelicalism” (xiv). “The results of that charismatic takeover [of evangelicalism] have been devastating. In recent history, no other movement has done more to damage the cause of the gospel, to distort the truth, and to smother the articulation of sound doctrine. Charismatic theology has turned the evangelical church into a cesspool of error and a breeding ground for false teachers” (xv). “Like a deadly virus, it [i.e., charismatic theology] gains access into the church by maintaining a superficial connection to certain characteristics of biblical Christianity, but in the end it always corrupts and distorts sound teaching. The resulting degradation, like a doctrinal version of Frankenstein’s monster, is a hideous hybrid of heresy, ecstasy, and blasphemy awkwardly dressed in the tattered remnants of evangelical language. It calls itself ‘Christian,’ but in reality it is a sham—a counterfeit form of spirituality that continually morphs as it spirals erratically from one error to the next” (xvi).

[7] For a good example of how cessationists, Pentecostals, and charismatics can debate one another without calling into question the other’s Christianity, see Richard B. Gaffin, Robert L. Saucy, C. Samuel Storms, and Douglas A. Oss, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today: Four Views, ed. Wayne A. Grudem (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996).

[8] MacArthur, Strange Fire, 39; cf. Jonathan Edwards, “The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God,” in Jonathan Edwards on Revival (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1965), 75–147.

[9] Downplayed, not denied. While a classical Pentecostal would emphasize the empowerment of the believer by the Holy Spirit, MacArthur emphasizes that—in the words of a subtitle in the chapter on Scripture—“The Spirit Empowers the Scriptures,” Strange Fire, 226–228. The shift in emphasis from the empowerment of a person to the empowerment of the Bible seems to me to betray MacArthur’s wariness toward extrabiblical revelation.

[10] Ibid, xvii.

[11] Ibid, xvii.

[12] Ibid, 60. One of MacArthur’s sources is a Wikipedia article, “List of Scandals Involving American Evangelical Christians” (6, cf. 264n4). MacArthur concedes: “A Wikipedia entry may not be authoritative in its use of doctrinal labels, but it serves as an accurate barometer of public perception” (6). He fails to ask whether the “public perception” is itself accurate, which renders his use of Wikipedia moot.

[13] Ibid, 65.

[14] National Cancer Institute, NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms, s.v. “selection bias.” Accessed online at http://www.cancer.gov/dictionary?CdrID=44087.

[15] Gary B. McGee, People of the Spirit: The Assemblies of God (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 2004).

[16] The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Spirit and Power: A 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals (Washington DC: The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2006). Accessed online at http://www.pewforum.org/2006/10/05/spirit-and-power/.

[17] MacArthur, Strange Fire, 14, 52, 58–59, 268n44, 285n62. The additional studies cited are John L. Allen, The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 2009), 382–383. and Paul Alexander, Signs and Wonders: Why Pentecostalism Is the World’s Fastest Growing Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), pp. 63–64.

[18] Pew Forum, Spirit and Power, 6.

[19] Ibid, 6.

[20] Ibid, 8.

[21] Ibid, 20.

[22] Ibid, 29.

[23] Ibid, 29.

[24] Ibid, 29

[25] Ibid, 31.

[26] MacArthur, Strange Fire, 13.

[27] Ibid, 14.

[28] See General Presbytery of the Assemblies of God, The Believer and Positive Confession (August 19, 1980). Accessed online at http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/Position_Papers/pp_downloads/pp_4183_confession.pdf.

[29] Pew Forum, Spirit and Power, 30.

[30] Paul Alexander, Signs and Wonders: Why Pentecostalism Is the World’s Fastest Growing Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).

[31] Ibid, 66.

[32] Pew Forum, Spirit and Power, 30,31.

[33] MacArthur, Strange Fire, 96.

[34] Ibid, 91.

[35] Ibid, 92.

[36] Ibid, 92.

[37] Ibid, 93–94.

[38] Ibid, 94–96.

[39] Ibid, 96.

[40] Ibid, 103.

[41] General Presbytery of the Assemblies of God, Apostles and Prophets (August 6, 2001). Accessed online at http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/Position_Papers/pp_downloads/pp_4195_apostles_prophets.pdf.

[42] Assemblies of God, Apostles and Prophets, 10.

[43] MacArthur, Strange Fire, 90.

[44] E.g., “Pentecostal churches believe they are apostolic because (1) they teach what the apostles taught, and (2) they share in the power of the apostles through the baptism in and fullness of the Holy Spirit, who empowers their lives and ministries. They believe what matters is not a contemporary apostolic office but apostolic doctrine and power.” Assemblies of God, Apostles and Prophets, 1–2.

[45] E.g., MacArthur, Strange Fire, 94,99.

[46] E.g., “The function of apostle occurs whenever the church of Jesus Christ is being established among theunevangelized”; also, “Thus, within the Assemblies of God, persons are not recognized by the title of apostle or prophet. However,many within the church exercise the ministry function of apostles and prophets. Apostolic functions usuallyoccur within the context of breaking new ground in unevangelized areas or among unreached people.” Assemblies of God, Apostles and Prophets, 10,11.

[47] MacArthur, Strange Fire, 106–108, passim. Emphasis in original.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid, 109.

[50] Ibid, 109–113.

[51] Ibid, 113.

[52] Ibid, 113–114.

[53] Ibid, 116.

[54] “Today, nonlinguistic, irrational gibberish remains the de facto explanation for charismatic babble”; and “the glossolalia practiced by today’s charismatics is a counterfeit that by every measure falls short of the gift of tongues described in the New Testament.” Ibid, 136,137

[55] Jordan Daniel May, Witness to Pentecost: The Testimony of ‘Other Tongues’ (Cleveland, TN: Cherohala Press, 2013). For other examples, see Del Tarr, The Foolishness of God: A Linguist Looks at the Mystery of Tongues (Springfield, MO: The Access Group, 2010), 401–403; and Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, Vol. 1, Introduction and 1:1–2:47 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 829nn419–420.

[56] MacArthur, Strange Fire, 138.

[57] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 598.

[58] So Fee, First Corinthians, 630, building on R. P. Spittler, “Testament of Job: A New Translation and Introduction,” in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume 1, Apolcalyptic Literature and Testaments (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 835, 865–866.

[59] MacArthur, Strange Fire, 154.

[60] Ibid, 150.

[61] Ibid, 150.

[62] Ibid, 162.

[63] Ibid, 176.

[64] Ibid, 176.

[65] Ibid, 232.

Review of ‘Miracle Work’ by Jordan Seng [Updated]

Miracle Work Jordan Seng, Miracle Work: A Down-to-Earth Guide to Supernatural Ministries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2013). $17.00, 224 pages.

Miracle Work by Jordan Seng is, as the subtitle explains, “a down-to-earth guide to supernatural ministries”: healing, deliverance, prophecy, intercession, and Spirit-baptism. Written in an engaging, folksy style, the book combines personal anecdote, biblical teaching, and practical, experience-based guidance. It is one of the most interesting books I have read this year, for several reasons:

First, Jordan Seng is not the guy you’d expect to write this kind of book. He is a graduate of Stanford University with a PhD in political theory from the University of Chicago who served for a time as a National Security Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In his infamous essay, “On Miracles,” David Hume argued that reports of miracles arose among chiefly “ignorant and barbarous nations,” or were received by “civilized people” from “ignorant and barbarous ancestors.” Clearly, Hume never imagined the possibility of a miracle-working PhD, which simply shows the limits of his imagination and the extent of his prejudices.

Second, Seng is neither a member of the word-of-faith movement nor an advocate of the prosperity gospel. By the same token, he is not a proponent of classical Pentecostalism, with its doctrines of healing in the Atonement and tongues as initial physical evidence. In other words, he doesn’t fit the public stereotype of a “faith healer,” nor can he be easily fitted into ready-made theological grooves. He is the pastor of Bluewater Mission in Honolulu, Hawaii, which is affiliated with Vineyard Churches, and thus shares some of that movement’s emphases. Nonetheless, he ministers across a wide variety of denominations. (His publisher, InterVarsity Press, is a mainstream evangelical book house.)

Third, whereas faith healers emphasize the importance of faith in the person seeking healing, Seng emphasizes the importance of power in the person performing the healing. Indeed, the heart of the book is a chapter entitled, “The Power Equation,” where Seng lays out his understanding of how supernatural power flows through a person and results in supernatural ministry: Authority + Gifting + Faith + Consecration = Power. “[T]he amount of authority [determined by obedience to Jesus], gifting, faith and consecration you develop will combine to determine, in large part, the amount of supernatural power you have for ministry.” This shift of emphasis has important pastoral consequences: A person who does not experience healing should not be faulted for lack of faith, which is the implication of word-of-faith theology.

Fourth, whereas prosperity evangelists are often captive to the American dream, which emphasizes a life of health, wealth, and peace, Seng argues that supernatural ministry “radicalizes” Christians. “If you accept that you can do even the supernatural things that Jesus and his followers did in the Gospel stories, then you’ve pulled a linchpin: If you can do Jesus’ miracles, then you can live Jesus’ lifestyle across the board. In this way, supernatural ministry reinforces kingdom living. The supernatural begets the radical.” A major theme of the book is that “supernatural ministry will do a lot to make you a supernatural person” [emphasis in the original], and—I would add—vice versa. Rather than seeking health, wealth, and peace, supernatural people should do hard things: “Believers should be attracted to impossible situations like frat boys to beer. We should be drawn to every warzone, disaster area, cancer ward, violent ghetto, impoverished people or unreached group. Wherever the world has no solution, the believers should rush in. Why? Because God makes all things possible.”

Fifth, at the end of the day, the point of supernatural ministry is to draw us closer to Jesus. In the book’s final chapter, Seng shares his personal story. It includes the instability of his birth family, his wife’s seven miscarriages, long stretches of depression, academic frustration, and feelings of personal unworthiness. At a critical juncture, he has a vision of Jesus who comes to him and says, “Good job. I love you.” Reflecting on this, Seng writes: “I have lots of provocative stories about supernatural ministry, but the supernatural experiences that have shaped me most are the simple, intimate ones—the personal interactions in which I’ve gotten to feel, for a short while, the manifest presence of God there for me.”

Despite my interest in this book, even enthusiasm about it, I would like to note three reservations. The first is from the perspective of a classical Pentecostal. Whereas we believe that tongues is the initial physical evidence of Spirit-baptism, Seng argues that it is an evidence—the most common, perhaps, but not “necessary” evidence. The second is from the perspective of an evangelical. I worry that Seng overemphasizes the necessity of prophetic utterance. I don’t deny that such utterances happen, but I’m not sure small groups need to put members in the “mushpot” and prophesy over them on a regular basis. I’m worried, in other words, that giving prophetic advice might crowd out seeking guidance from biblical teaching. Does God have a unique word for everyone in every situation? That’s the impression Seng gives me, but I’m not sure that’s true. The third is from the perspective of an unhealed person. Seng writes, “in the kingdom of God, healing is the default position.” As a classical Pentecostal, who believes that healing is provided for in the atonement, I resonate with this statement. But as a sufferer, I also recognize that there are elements of timing (healing in this age or the age to come?), divine purpose (“my grace is sufficient”), and mystery that complicate expectations of healing here and now. (UPDATE: It might be helpful to read Miracle Work and Dying Out Loud in tandem, for they capture the two sides of the coin. Miracle Work talks about divine power to heal, while Dying Out Loud limns the divine purposes of sickness and death. See my review of Dying Out Loud here.)

Despite my reservations, I recommend reading Miracle Work. It is an interesting, faith-building book. If Jesus and his followers did supernatural ministry, why can’t we?

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

An Interruption to an Interruption (Mark 5:21-43)

Mark 5.21–43 tells the interconnected stories of two miracles: (1) the healing of a woman with a twelve-year-long hemorrhage and (2) the resurrection of Jairus’ little daughter.

What do these miracles teach us about Jesus?

First, and very obviously, they teach us that Jesus has the power to heal. Jesus has power over sickness and death, as the stories of the woman and the young girl make clear. Furthermore, Jesus has power over the natural and supernatural realms, as seen by his calming of the storm (Mark 4.35–41) and exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (5.1–20).

Second, Jesus’ power to heal is holistic. Pay close attention to the story of the woman with the twelve-year-long hemorrhage. According to Mark, in addition to her illness, she “had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse.” Her problem had physical, emotional, and financial dimensions. It also had spiritual and social dimensions, however. What Mark does not state explicitly, but what the careful reader knows, is that this woman was ritually “unclean” according to the Law, and she rendered unclean anyone she touched (Lev. 15.25–33). How long had she felt ashamed of her condition? How long had she been unable to experience human touch? We do not know. What we do know is that when Jesus healed her physical illness, he also healed her emotions, ended the medical draining of her finances, restored her to spiritual “cleanness,” and reconnected her to normal human society. “Go in peace,” he said, “and be freed from your suffering.”

Third, Jesus’ power to heal reverses the flow of contamination. When someone is sick, we fear catching the disease. According to the Law of Moses, when someone is ritually unclean, anyone who touches that person becomes unclean as well. In the two stories we’re considering today, both the woman with the twelve-year-long hemorrhage and the dead girl were ritually unclean (Lev. 15.25–33; Num. 19.11, 14). When the woman pushed her way through the crowd to touch Jesus, she rendered unclean everyone she touched, but not Jesus. Nor did Jesus become unclean when he took Jairus’ little daughter “by the hand.” Why? Because Jesus decontaminates whatever he touches, physically and spiritually. I think Jesus’ example of physically touching people is a marvelous model for us to follow. When people are sick—of AIDS, for example—we should not feel afraid to touch them, for this is what Jesus would do if he was in our place.

Finally, Jesus makes his power to heal available at all times. My dad likes to say that Mark 5.21–43 is the story of an interruption of an interruption. Jesus was teaching the crowd when Jairus interrupted him with news of his little daughter’s parlous condition. Jesus was on his way to Jairus’ house when the hemorrhaging woman interrupted his journey and touched him. Time management techniques have taught us that every activity needs to find its appointed day and hour. Jesus never made appointments, or rather, he never let his appointments interrupt an opportunity to help people. Neither should we.

The first step in healing is simply being available to others so that God can use you as his agent of bring wholeness to others.

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