Review: Strange Fire

John MacArthur, Thomas Nelson, 2013, 352 pages, 4 of 5 stars

As one author put it: the Prosperity Gospel is Christianity’s version of professional wrestling–you know it’s fake but it nonetheless has entertainment value.

As a missionary in Africa, I value this book because the errors it addresses are deeply embedded among our people. The slogan “What I confess, I possess” was first coined in the early 20th century by a white American Baptist but is repeated thousands of times over in innumerable 21st century African churches.

Think of Strange Fire (2013) as the sequel to Charismatic Chaos (1992). Same topics but tighter arguments and updated names. A conference with the same name launched the book. Heavy praise and criticism followed. In typical fashion, MacArthur goes right for the jugular. He rebukes dozens of authors and preachers (e.g. Hinn, Copeland, Osteen) in nearly 600 footnotes. He tackles nearly every key passage from the opposing side, and—contra media allegations—does not address just the extreme cases. He pinpoints the errors of orthodox men he would call friends, like John Piper, Don Carson, and Wayne Grudem.

Like Nadab and Abihu who had taken strange fire from a place other than the fire of God, many modern charismatics are promoting a similar kind of counterfeit worship. The thesis: “It is a sad twist of irony that those who claim to be most focused on the Holy Spirit are in actuality the ones doing the most to abuse…Him” (xiii). That is, those who are supposedly most in tune with the Spirit are the least concerned about personal holiness.

The purpose of MacArthur’s work is to show how the modern Charismatic Movement often attributes the work of the devil to the Holy Spirit. MacArthur states that no other movement in recent history has done more damage to the gospel than the Charismatic Movement. Whereas this movement presents the Spirit as chaotic, flashy, and flamboyant, Scripture presents His primary role as exalting Someone else—Jesus Christ.

Overview and Strengths

In Part One, MacArthur uses as a guideline Jonathan Edwards’ fivefold test from his sermon “The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Holy Spirit of God” to answer the question: does the modern Charismatic Movement represent a true work of the Holy Spirit? Part Two seeks to expose the counterfeit gifts, such as apostles (5), prophets (6), tongues (7), and healing (8). Part Three addresses what the Spirit’s true work looks like.

The greatest strength of Strange Fire is that MacArthur names names.

  1. Benny Hinn — bizarre antics like the “Holy Ghost Hokey Pokey”, “Smokin’ the Ghost”, “a Holy Ghost machine gun” and “a Holy Ghost enema.”
  2. Todd Bentley — was told by God to go up to a crippled woman and “kick her in the face—with your biker boot!” (7). Prior to his gross moral failure, Bentley was hailed by charismatic leaders like Peter Wagner.
  3. Kenneth Copeland — “You have a right to make commands in the name of Jesus.”
  4. Fred Price: “If you have to say ‘Thy will be done’… you’re calling God a fool.”
  5. Paul Crouch: “I am a little god. Critics be gone!” (11).
  6. Myles Monroe: “God cannot do anything in the earth without a human’s permission!” (11)
  7. Charles Parham — it is ironic that the Father of the Apostolic Faith Movement–which is huge in Africa–was actually a racist who believed whites were the true chosen people and even preached that the Flood was a result of intermarriage between whites and blacks.
  8. Creflo Dollar — he questions Jesus’ deity in his sermon “Jesus’ Growth into Sonship.” “If Jesus came as God, then why did God have to anoint Him? Jesus came as a man” (282).
  9. Jack Deere: “The doctrine [of the sufficiency of Scripture] is demonic.” (69)

I had only a couple minor scruples with the book. Perhaps MacArthur could have made a clearer distinction between valid prophecy (forthtelling) and invalid prophecy (foretelling). I also wish he had addressed the meaning of 1 Corinthians 11:5, a common proof text for modern-day prophets.

Conclusion

MacArthur asserts that false teachers who are actively advocating a false gospel dominate the Charismatic Movement. While many believe this language is too strong, my experience in rural Africa has confirmed this to be true.

Excerpts:

  1. “To the degree that we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we will be targeted on, focused on, the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Dan Phillips (45)
  2. “The genuine evidence of the Holy Spirit’s influence in a person’s life is not material prosperity, mindless emotionalism, or supposed miracles. Rather, it is sanctification: the believer’s growth in spiritual maturity, practical holiness, and Christ-likeness.” (56)
  3. The Prosperity Gospel promises “unregenerate sinners the things their hearts already desire, and then baptizes those carnal lusts in Christian language as if they represent the good news of Jesus Christ.” (58)
  4. “Like any effective false system, charismatic theology incorporates enough of the truth to gain credibility. But in mixing the truth with deadly deceptions, it has concocted a cocktail of corruption and doctrinal poison—a lethal fabrication—with hearts and souls at stake.” (113)
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