Book Reviews -- Reviewing Titles from John F. MacArthur
|Copyright © 2003, 2004 - All rights retained by author|
|Reviews Written by: C. W. Booth|
Faith misplaced is Reckless Faith. John MacArthur takes us for a whirlwind ride through the myriad cultures of "faith" that regularly pass for, and replace, faith in God. Underlying each new unmasking of imitation faith, MacArthur demonstrates how the church could have and should have been discerning enough to compare the pretender to the genuine faith. Core to this ability to expose reckless faith is the zeal for God’s Word which the church must nurture, the knowledge of the Scriptures which the church must learn, and the will of the believer to stand apart and against false dogmas which pass for doctrine in the world.
"First Thessalonians 5:21 is written to the entire church: ‘Examine everything carefully’." (MacArthur, page 71)
Analysis of the Book
This is a very interesting and readable book. Aimed primarily at the church congregation the book is not crowded with debates over Greek verb tenses and applications of Sharp’s Rule. That is not to say the book is unscholarly or of little academic value. Quite the contrary, the principles of the book are grounded in the very practical, and very biblical, call to discernment.
For anyone who has ever been intimidated by the haughty attitude of a Greek scholar or brushed aside by a seminary student during a discussion about the Scriptures, this book is a tremendous encouragement. MacArthur demonstrates from the first that the Scriptures, and the understanding of the plain speech of the Word, is for every believer. One example MacArthur uses is the Pharisee, turning the popular misconception about the Pharisee on its head.
"[The Pharisee’s] problem was not a lack of zeal. It was not that they were short on enthusiasm, emotionally flat, or slothful about religious observances. The issue was that the zeal they displayed was rote tradition, ‘not in accordance with knowledge.’ They were not sufficiently discerning, and therefore their faith itself was deficient. … What [Jesus] continually chided them for was their ignorance of the Scriptures." (page 33, emphasis in original)
"Real love for God is inseparable from love of the truth. The heart that genuinely loves God will be inclined to truth (see 2 Thess. 2:10; 2 John 6). And true theological correctness is found only in an accurate understanding of Scripture (1 Tim. 6:3-4; Titus 1:9). Those determined to cast sound theology aside must also abandon Scripture (2 Tim. 4:2-3). … One simply cannot esteem Scripture highly yet scorn sound doctrine. One cannot love God and remain indifferent to His truth. Scripture is how He makes Himself known. So a sound understanding of Scripture is essential to a true knowledge of God. … the Pharisees were in no sense guilty of an undue emphasis on theological orthodoxy. If anything, their problem was the opposite. They weren’t careful enough in seeking to understand the Scriptures. … Tradition, not theology, was their downfall. If they had stuck to Scripture and built their theology on that alone, they would not have fallen into error." (page 161, emphasis in original)
Early in the book MacArthur sets up the definition of discernment. He carefully articulates that truth is an absolute, contrary to the musings of pop post-modern philosophy. Then he targets how it is the failure to interpret the Scriptures properly, and of most importance, keeping verses in context, that has helped lead the way into reckless faith.
"I cringe when I hear a [person] wrench a verse out of context and impose on it a meaning that is totally unwarranted--or even contradictory to the intended sense of the text. Unfortunately, the standard has sunk so low today that even well-known Christian leaders can twist and contort Scripture beyond recognition, and yet no one seems to notice." (page 57)
MacArthur also shows a keen insight into the need for maturity (true growth) among all the people of God’s church.
"Churches are therefore filled with baby Christians--people who are spiritual infants. This is a fitting description, because the characteristic that is most descriptive of an infant is selfishness. Babies are completely self-centered. … They are aware of only their own needs and desires." (page 63)
From here the author leads the reader through the essential elements of Christian growth and then into the building blocks and development process of accruing discernment. Underlying it all is a dependence of the doctrines of Sola Scriptura (the infallibility of prophetically delivered Scripture and the sufficiency of that revealed Word for everything necessary to come to faith and holiness) and Sola Fide (by faith alone, through grace, we are saved). MacArthur applies these truths to the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) agreement as a practical object lesson on how to implement discernment. MacArthur even quotes the Council of Trent ("If anyone says that by faith alone the sinner is justified…let him be anathema" Trent, sess.6, canon 9) to illustrate how to apply biblical doctrine for the purpose of discernment.Perhaps in one of his most penetrating insights, MacArthur explains the mechanism and process of emotion with regard to the practice of discernment. He places experience, and the emotional responses of experience, into their proper context emphasizing that feelings are always to be subservient to truth as emotions are merely the response to truth, not the proof of it. Emotions motivate us to take action on the truths that provoked the emotions.
This book, more so than many I have read, talks to the church member as one would address a true heir of God’s Kingdom and a co-owner of the obligations and privileges of knowing and following God’s Word. It is very readable, filled with the proper use of Scripture, and calls attention to the distractions of "rabbit trails" that present themselves on the path to faith and righteousness. John MacArthur has provided a good resource and a worthy call to the church in this book. Pursue wisdom, seek understanding, and shun faith that is "reckless".
Cessationist in orientation, Charismatic Chaos is wide-ranging in scope, touching on most all groups and doctrines which embrace the modern use of tongues, prophecy, signs and wonders, miracles, and faith healing. The primary objective of this book seems to be three-fold:
A final, but lesser, objective of the book appears to be that of warning the charismatic community that prolonged focus on adopting new revelations, practicing tongues in church services, and granting permission for splinter groups of the charismatic movement (for example the Word Faith churches) to continue unchallenged and unabated will lead to the downfall of many Christian churches. In short, there is a decidedly "cautionary" tone to the book.
Analysis of the Book
It was with much personal anticipation that I decided to read this book. On the one hand I have long been interested in the doctrines and theology behind the sign gifts, wondering why so few contemporary churches were granted such manifestations and whether everyone else was missing out on the greater gifts of the Holy Spirit simply because of the church they attended--I welcomed an in depth systematic Scriptural dialogue on the subject. On the other hand this book has been cited by so very many individuals as being controversial, unloving, and littered with errors-of-fact as to make it unusable for purposes of serious study on the subject.
Certainly, the man who authored the book, Dr. John MacArthur, is a highly respected Christian author and pastor. It would be inappropriate to attempt to judge his "true motivation" for publishing such a book. Therefore, the work must stand on its own merits, or fall if it lacks sufficient credibility.
This book does have certain weaknesses. It is filled with sweeping and blunt statements, sometimes of the type that fellow Christians may find unnecessarily inflammatory. Some examples of such statements might be:
Comments such as these, I believe, have led to the largest part of the criticisms of the book.
Another weakness of the book is the general lack of depth in discussing certain of the Scriptures used to implicate the sign gifts as having ceased. Little detailed or technical discussion is offered regarding Ephesians 2 (apostles and prophets are the foundation of the church) and 1 Corinthians 13 (gifts of knowledge, prophecy, and tongues will cease when the perfect comes). The translation and interpretation of these two crucial passages dominates entire works by other writers who hold one position or another, however, this book only gives the passages a glance. In fact, no attempt is made to interpret what "the perfect" is in 1 Corinthians 13:8.
A common criticism I have heard about, and was prepared to find, was that Dr. MacArthur mixes up mainstream charismatic theology and practice with that of the Word Faith movement. I was surprised to find this is an unjustified accusation. MacArthur is quick to point out that Word Faith is, in his opinion, an aberrant offshoot of the charismatic movement. Of course, that Word Faith teachers embrace the charismatic movement cannot be denied. MacArthur’s primary concern in discussing the Word Faith movement is his self-expressed fear that acceptance of anyone who claims to have charismatic gifting is becoming automatic, and that where the Word Faith theology is unorthodox it is not being aggressively and publicly denounced by charismatic leaders.
Dr. MacArthur has always been an advocate for discernment. That he challenges the notion that a public debate of public doctrine would somehow violate Christian unity is a matter well stated and documented in his introduction, especially paragraph one on page 15. He properly notes where the Scriptures record such similar public debate and even where individual letters mention aberrant brethren by name with "scorching condemnation."
God’s Word is Self-Authenticating
Another strength of the book is that it defends the fact that the Word of God has power independent of man’s notions. He does an admirable job debunking the concept "that the Bible becomes God’s Word only when it speaks to you."
"But God’s Word is God’s Word whether someone experiences its power or not. The Bible doesn’t depend on the experiences of its readers to become the inspired Word of God. Paul said the Bible was able in and of itself to give Timothy ‘the wisdom that leads to salvation’ (2 Tim. 3:15). It did not need Timothy’s experience to validate it." (page 46)
Prophecy is Verbal Revelation
At the heart and soul of the entire controversy over whether charismatic-style gifts are still in operation today is the question of prophecy and revelation. That many misunderstand revelation and prophecy as being "impressions", "feelings", and indistinct "mental images" is touched on in the book. Dr. MacArthur correctly demonstrates that true prophecy is verbally revealed visions that carry the authority of being the very words of God. "How could some of God’s words be less authoritative than others?" (page 65)
Sadly, I must take exception with Dr. MacArthur on his definition of "New Testament prophet". He redefines a prophet as only "a preacher, not a source of ongoing revelation…he proclaims already revealed truth; he is not generally a conduit for new revelation." (page 81) Dr. MacArthur fails to supply meaningful Scripture to demonstrate that the New Testament, or church-age, prophet was only a preacher and teacher and not a recipient of new revelation. Certainly, the abundance of New Testament passages that discuss prophecy indicate that the prophet (such as Agabus, Paul, Judas and Silas, etc.) was a man who received revelation of the type described in Deuteronomy 18. For this reason it says that when a prophet receives a revelation, even during a church service, he must wait until his appointed time in the order of service before standing and speaking (1 Corinthians 14:29-33).
Word Faith Theology
The harshest words in the book are reserved for those who identify with "the Third Wave" movement. Consider this passage from the book.
"…Third wave groups have opened their arms to some of the worst errors and most troublesome extremists from those earlier [Pentecostal and charismatic] movements. … Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa (with whom Wimber was once associated), told one researcher he believes ‘John Wimber has absorbed every aberrant teaching developed by the Pentecostals into his teaching.’ Surely that assessment is not far from the truth." (page 157)
Whether one is inclined to take offense at the strong terminology, the book is replete with examples of teachings which few Christians would find fully acceptable. This includes the very concept that effectual evangelism requires the use of miracles to draw men to salvation. As MacArthur properly states, even Jesus commented that men who do not believe the Word itself will not be persuaded to believe by miracles, not even the raising of the dead (Luke 16:31).
Intellectual Desire is Spiritual
Another area of discourse that Dr. MacArthur chooses to engage in is the notion that the intellectual pursuit of God’s Word is somehow a barrier to experiencing God’s power. He spends quite a few pages explaining the suppositions behind the error and then defending the biblical mandate to know the Word as any man might be expected to know the field in which he has become an expert craftsman. Experience does not obviate Bible study, but Bible study may disallow certain experiences or practices.
Pentecost Not a Normative Event
What was normative for the early church? Was the Pentecostal experience the apostles had the normal experience of receiving the Holy Spirit? They had tongues of flame fall on them while a wind sounded throughout the room. Then they went into the streets and preached to the collective Jewish representatives of far-flung nations in the languages of these gathered people, languages which the apostles had never learned.
That day 3,000 people converted to Christ. That day 3,000 people received the Holy Spirit in the street, but they did not speak in languages they had not learned. So the question must remain, which is more normative, becoming saved and receiving the Spirit and not speaking in unlearned languages, or, becoming saved and receiving the Spirit and speaking in unlearned languages? In fact, we know that almost no (if indeed there are any documented examples at all) modern believer has ever been recorded to have spoken in a new human language which he never previously learned immediately after becoming saved. What is the true "norm" for new converts? On the day of Pentecost, only a few who received the Spirit that day spoke in tongues, the vast majority who received the Spirit did not. While not expressly discussed by MacArthur, I was led to recall that not even Jesus spoke in tongues when He was baptized with water in the river and then received the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. What is normative?
Ecstatic Utterances (glossolalia) and Unlearned Human Languages (xenoglossia)
Pages 277 through 280 are an excellent discussion of the difference between ecstatic utterances (glossolalia) and speaking in human languages which the speaker has never learned (xenoglossia). MacArthur does a particularly excellent exploration of whether the tongues used by the church at Corinth were understandable languages or incomprehensible sounds to any human in any nation. He then explains that this is why Paul mandated that all tongue-speakers prearrange to have a translator (not merely a general interpreter, but an actual translator) present before speaking. For everything spoken in a church service is to be understandable so as to be verbally edifying. For all gifts used in the church service are to be used to instruct, encourage, reprove, correct; all gifts are to be verbally edifying.
As MacArthur explains the situation, the use of tongues by the Corinthians during the church service became a problem because those speaking were using unearthly "languages". But only understandable speech is useful for edification during public worship. Therefore, all of Paul’s instructions were focused on directing the Corinthians away from unintelligible speech toward using commonly understood and distinct vocal patterns. The only exception is if a person were to bring a translator with them (the word "interpret" used by the KJV is less precise than the word "translate", Gk. hermeneia). If a person speaks in tongues, the translator gives a word-for-word common-language explanation, not a general explanation of why the person spoke, but a word-for-word translation. In the privacy of one’s prayer closet, no such translator is required. However, in the worship meeting "The church meets for the edification of the body, not self-gratification or personal experience-seeking." (page283)
Walk in the Spirit, Be Filled with the Spirit
A high point of the book is MacArthur’s discussion of walking in the Spirit, which is Chapter 11 of the book. His further discussion of being filled with the Spirit is worthy of being read by anyone who is seriously interested in studying and applying this concept.
"After Paul gave his contrasting command, ‘Be filled with the Spirit,’ he spent the next several paragraphs of his letter explaining what being filled is all about. There is no mention of getting high with wild, ecstatic religious experiences [or being slain in the spirit]. Instead, being filled involves submitting to one another, loving one another, obeying one another, seeking the best for one another. When Paul said, ‘Be filled with the Spirit,’ he used terms that speak of being continuously filled." (page 314)
This is a good work that discusses many sweeping aspects of the modern spiritual gifts movement. Regrettably, it’s seriousness is diminished in part due to the obvious emotion and passion that is written into it. Some charismatic believers may take affront at the blunt wording used by MacArthur to deny the legitimacy of the modern use of some of the gifts: tongues, prophecy, miracles, and healing. Also, some of the more meaty exegetical analysis of whether the sign gifts have ceased are simply not explored.
While I would have preferred that MacArthur not redefine "prophet" to mean a gifted teacher of the Word (a definition not gleaned from Scripture), overall, MacArthur gives a stirring explanation that the canon is closed and that a modern revelatory gift would necessitate the reopening of the canon.
MacArthur’s theme that one’s personal experience neither validates Scripture nor is the basis for interpreting Scripture is well presented throughout the book. The Word is self-validating, self-authenticating, and carries with it the power God imbues it with regardless of whether we accept it or reject it. Our adoption or rejection of the Word does not make it the Word of God, for it is that already. We must come to the point where we are willing to be sufficiently controlled by the Spirit that we desire and pursue the study and understanding of the Word with all the dedication that God’s own words deserve.
Strange Fire: Fire introduced from an illegitimate "foreign" source; fire that is "adulterous" when merged with pure fire; fire that is "profane" because its inception was non-sacred in origin.
Using various lexicons I pulled together the above definitions of "strange fire." "Strange Fire" serves as both the title of a recent John MacArthur book and the description given in the Bible to the impure fire placed onto the altar by two careless priests, Nadab and Abihu.
MacArthur's purpose in co-opting this phrase was to call sober attention to the thesis of his book which is that the Pentecostal and Charismatic practices of delivering modern prophecy, appointing contemporary apostles, conducting dubious unverifiable healings, uttering public tongues, and teaching the health-wealth-prosperity "gospel" are so offensive to God as to comprise careless and false worship. Such practices when attributed to the Holy Spirit, MacArthur argues, amount to placing Strange Fire before God and demanding He bless the unholy sacrifice.
Some decades ago MacArthur wrote and published Charismatic Chaos. That book appears to serve as the model for this more contemporary update. What has changed between the two manuscripts is that the fledging doctrinal aberrations which were the subjects warned about in the first book have now become mainstream practices and errors throughout much of the Christian church.
Stated another way, what MacArthur feared would happen if no one heeded his clarion call has actually transpired. Now, what used to be minority fringe practices and doctrines occupy the center of majority Christianity. What was once known as Fundamental Christianity (i.e. conservative, Protestant, Five Solas, Reformed, cessationist, substitutionary atonement preaching, error-free Bible adherents) has been moved to the margins of the faith.
Today the dominant church culture, as MacArthur depicts it, is a blending of Pentecostal and Charismatic ordinances and mystical dogma. The average church service will begin to become more and more comprised of continuationist congregations practicing public non-translatable tongues, declarations of error-filled prophetic and mystic pronouncements ("the Lord told me..." and "I have sensed a word from the Lord..." and “The Lord showed us the choice to make...”). Consequently worship will more readily pursue ecstatic emotional experiences than give attention to exegetically based expositional Bible teaching and preaching.
Moreover, content of sermons will become ever increasingly consumed with questionable advice on how to attain pleasure, wealth, good health, and financial riches. Appeals to the "will of the Lord" will be ever less evident during prayers being replaced by demands for blessings. Prayers will also become notably consumed with appeals to “Hear a word from the Lord,” instead of appeals for wisdom and the integrity to study out the meaning of the Word that has already been given in the form of the Bible.
Perhaps the worst potential outcome will be the widespread rejection of the doctrine that the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is both error-free and is the sole basis for defining: holiness, the practices of a godly life, and the knowledge of God. As the Bible is seen as both flawed and antiquated, then mystical revelations and sensed prophetic utterances will be seen as essential to guide the individual Christian and the local church.
Finally, the next wave of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movements, as MacArthur sees it, is the recently formulated New Apostolic Reformation Movement. This movement seeks to raise up new apostles under which to organize the disparate continuationist churches. These new apostles will be needed to bring doctrinal stability into the inherent instability that ongoing prophecy and continuing new revelations inevitably breed.
Layout of the Book
Well organized, the book lays out MacArthur's back story (his previous call for discernment on this matter), the excesses that have become mainstream practices and doctrines of much of (though not all) the more recent Pentecostal-Charismatic movements, a proper explanation of what once used to be Fundamentalist-Cessationist doctrines regarding the Bible, the spiritual gifts, and the role and the nature of the Holy Spirit.
Lastly, in the form of an open letter, the author issues a call to all “moderate” continuationist scholars and teachers to embrace and endorse without reservation the doctrine of an inerrant New Testament and to simultaneously reject the doctrine of error-laden modern prophecy. MacArthur reminds today's pastors that if we lose the doctrine of an inerrant Bible we lose the doctrine of sola Scrptura and will find ourselves at the mercy of fallible and capricious self-proclaimed prophets.
Analysis of the Book
It is safe to assume that a large number of continuationists will be unable to get past MacArthur's blunt denunciation of a sweeping number of the most popular Health-Wealth-and-Prosperity preachers. MacArthur is unrelenting in referring to certain past and present men, such as Oral Roberts and Benny Hinn, as false teachers, evil men motivated by greed, and who preach a false gospel.
Perhaps more offensive to some will be how the author calls attention to the vast majority of disabled and critically ill persons who attend the well orchestrated healing meetings without ever being healed and who very often are turned away from the stage by staff members thus preventing them from getting close to the healer. And even though many sick people are not healed at these gatherings, large offerings are still collected and kept by the staff. MacArthur applies language to these preachers similar to that used by Jesus and the Apostles when they too referred to false teachers and charlatans.
In fact MacArthur may have been more readily received by the average church member if he had talked sweetly and generously about the healers who do not heal but who also get rich in the process. His viewpoint is that we are long passed the time to pander to the fake who will not and cannot document or validate their alleged miracles. Calling them gentle names lends them the credibility they crave, as opposed to labeling them in the way that the New Testament does which brings attention to their darker misdeeds and their unsound doctrine.
Among the best elements of the book are the exceptional, if not overly short, exegetical analyses he performs on the tongues of Acts, the biblical gift and office of the Twelve Apostles, and a biblical review of the nature and role of the Holy Spirit in converting unbelievers and empowering cessationist believers. MacArthur's doctrine and writings on these matters can easily be regarded as pristine and very nearly impeccable, if one is familiar with and already favorably inclined toward historical and orthodox theology. The material is likely only to be persuasive to those who are as yet uninformed and untrained in either the historical faith or continuationist dogma.
As MacArthur explained using the New Testament as his text, apostleship was a one-time-in-history office, like that of Messiah. Nonetheless, he overlooked discussing a critical element which I refer to as the first qualification of Peter’s Test of Apostleship. Acts 1:21-24 is a record of Peter articulating the qualifications of a true apostle. The first qualification in Peter’s Test, which MacArthur fails to discuss, is that the “candidate apostle” must have been trained in doctrine and theology by Jesus Himself for three years and not by any other human; that ensured the apostle studied only perfect and unassailable doctrine. Oddly, MacArthur concentrated on the other two qualifications from Peter’s Test: having witnessed the resurrection with the apostle’s own eyes and having been commissioned by Jesus in the flesh.
It must be granted by any reviewer that this book logically and carefully leads the reader to the inevitable conclusion that the traditional faith is undermined and threatened by continuationist dogma and practices. Perhaps MacArthur's most glaring mistake was to assume that merely publishing a book, no matter how logically it is organized or sound its doctrine, will galvanize a ground swell of his peers to abandon their well-entrenched continuationist beliefs. Sadly, I feel MacArthur was naive in how he approached the matter of this call to discernment.
Recent published knee-jerk reactions by Charismatic leaders such as John Piper and Wayne Grudem illustrate that they have begun taking public stances more deeply opposed to traditional cessationist doctrine with the strong hint they will further distance themselves from MacArthur and other non-Charismatics, though we should hope this does not happen. Grudem seems most intent to prove the New Testament prophets recorded error into the Bible and Piper seems interested in defending the so-called Health-Wealth-and-Prosperity “gospel” as it aligns well with his trademarked Christian Hedonism philosophy.
Conclusion and Recommendation
Assuming the reader is not put off too strongly by the blunt labels assigned by MacArthur to the false teachers and fake healers of our day, then the book is an excellent study in where the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements have come from and where they seem to be taking the church. As a whole the book is a sobering reminder that while Fundamentalist cessationist theology was once the majority view of the mainstream church it has been superseded by the New Apostolic Reformation movement under the continuationist Charismatic umbrella.
At the heart of the present theological gap in contemporary Christianity is whether the New Testament is truly error-free and whether fallible modern prophets are delivering trustworthy revelations from God for the contemporary church. More importantly is the practical matter of whether the apostolic office has truly been recreated by the Holy Spirit and whether this opens the door for the “new apostles” to present new doctrines, modifications to old doctrines (like updates to the doctrine of salvation by grace), and to what degree they will control the staffing of local churches with pastors per the authority that Paul wielded via Timothy and Titus.
MacArthur’s succinct biblical overview of the spiritual gifts, the role of the Holy Spirit, and the inerrancy of genuine prophecy is a must-read for any new believer and any Christian beginning to explore the traditional doctrines of the faith. Believers who are already steeped in the Charismatic culture will likely be unable to internalize the material after they encounter the labels assigned by the author to some of their recent spiritual heroes. That is not to say MacArthur is wrong, improper, or inaccurate in his use of these phrases, for Jesus also used them, but many will become divorced from the reality of the situation when they are forced to see such noted figures in the harsh light of this exposure.
Overall this is a useful and welcomed book. It performs a service so distasteful and personally costly that few have been willing to step up to the challenge. Regrettably, the call it puts out will be perceived as being equally costly to those who must choose to repent or at least to change from the mystical continuationist school to the cessationist school of worship. Given the early reactions of some continuationist-Charismatic leaders it seems that the author may be increasingly asked to stand alone in defense of the historical doctrines of our great faith; may God grant him and us the will and strength to do so.