The Challies Chronicles: John MacArthur Tests the Spirits

john-macarthurThe second day of the Strange Fire conference began with John MacArthur preaching a message titled “Testing the Spirits.” It was based on 1 John 4: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…”

-Pastor Tim Challies
“Strange Fire Conference: John MacArthur Tests the Spirits,” October 17, 2013

This is a continuation of my Challies Chronicles series, reviewing the live blogging of Pastor Tim Challies on John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference. Based on a conversation I had last week with my Pastor and what I wrote in a previous blog post, I’ll try to exercise more restraint or at least be a little more even-handed in my responses to this topic.

As far as the above-quoted statement goes, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen more than few people in church (not necessarily the one I go to now) attribute their emotional states to an influence of the Holy Spirit. Typically, if a person is facing a tough decision and they pray about it, and then, when they consider one of their options and they experience “a peace” about it, they say that was confirmation from the Spirit that it’s the right decision.

Well, maybe.

And maybe the person just feels at peace with the decision they’d prefer to make, not whether or not it is in the will of God. After all, who says God is in the business of always making us feel good or giving us our heart’s desire constantly. From my experience, God tends to guide people into areas of challenge and difficulty, not on board the gravy train to Heaven.

But let’s see what else Pastor Challies has to say about this presentation by MacArthur.

There are many places in the New Testament where we are told to test all things and this is critical because Satan and his demons exist and because they operate a kingdom of lies that dominates the world. Satan has been allowed to run loose in this world and he and his agents are disguised as angels of light. We should not be surprised that Satan operates 99% of the time in false religion, in lies and deception. He is not the one behind the corruption in sinful society—the flesh takes care of that. He is behind the false systems of belief that pervade this world.

MacArthur said that many Christians get spiritual warfare all wrong and turned briefly to 2 Corinthians 10:3ff where we see that the weapons of our warfare are not human and that we cannot rely on anything concocted by man. Our weapons must be divinely powerful. Why? Because we must be engaged in the destruction of fortresses. The picture here is that human weapons are no match for a huge and impregnable fortress. We are assaulting formidable edifices and cannot use pea-shooters. These fortresses are speculations, ideas, psychologies, and religions. Spiritual warfare is not about running off demons, but battling for the mind.

I have to admit that I am confused about to what extent MacArthur believes the Spirit of God intervenes in our world? How much of what goes on around us can we attribute to God vs. other influences, most of all being human influences, including our personal, internal states?

Calvin and Hobbes discuss evil

MacArthur seems to imbue evil spirits with a great deal of power on the surface, but then he says, “These fortresses are speculations, ideas, psychologies, and religions. Spiritual warfare is not about running off demons, but battling for the mind.”

So really then, “spiritual warfare” isn’t actually battling in a supernatural realm, but dealing with our own thoughts and feelings as well as the stuff that goes on around us in the world every day like cults, new age philosophies, and other institutions. OK, I get that you can’t trust politicians or Scientology. Of course, since he mentioned it, MacArthur’s track record dealing with psychology is pretty sketchy from my point of view.

He is also an advocate of Nouthetic Counseling, which stresses the Bible as a sufficient tool for counseling people with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. MacArthur does not reject all forms of psychological theories and techniques, though he considers some psychology and psychiatry as contrary to the Bible.

MacArthur has argued that “True psychology (i.e. “the study of the soul”) can be done only by Christians, since only Christians have the resources for understanding and transforming the soul. The secular discipline of psychology is based on godless assumptions and evolutionary foundations and is capable of dealing with people only superficially and only on the temporal level… Psychology is no more a science than the atheistic evolutionary theory upon which it is based. Like theistic evolution, Christian psychology is an attempt to harmonize two inherently contradictory systems of thought. Modern psychology and the Bible cannot be blended without serious compromise to or utter abandonment of the principle of Scripture’s sufficiency….

Wikipedia on MacArthur

By the way, that point of view of mine comes from a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, and fifteen years of post-graduate practice, so it’s not like I don’t have a basis for my opinion. I don’t think counseling psychological disorders absolutely requires that the therapist be a Christian or that the counseling techniques be strictly based on the Bible.

CounselingSure, MacArthur isn’t specifically referencing Nouthetic counseling but since he brought the topic up, I think the it becomes relevant to the current discussion.

But I do believe that people more often than not, create their own problems. They don’t need to look to a supernatural cause right away. When any of us have some sort of difficulty in our lives, the first person we should consider is the one we see in the bathroom mirror every morning.

The architect of it all is Satan, the arch-deceiver.

On the other hand, MacArthur is saying that all of these human caused problems have a supernatural source.

And his solution?

What is our responsibility as Christians? It is to smash these ideologies, to crush these fortifications, and to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Once again, we need to remember that we are engaged in a battle for how people think. (emph. mine)

Sorry. Got caught up in the martial language there for a minute.

I’m OK with “obedience to Christ,” but I’m a little worried about “a battle for how people think.” Who is supposed to control my thinking, the Jesus of the Bible, or a particular movement in Christianity? I would prefer the former and turn myself over to God than to man, but that may not mean I’ll always agree with MacArthur or others like him on everything. If I don’t, would he think I was being influenced by Satan? I don’t know. I’ve recently called myself a Christian who studies Messianic Judaism, so I imagine he’d have an opinion on that.

When the Great Awakening broke out, there was much debate about what was and what was not a true work of the Spirit. Jonathan Edwards went to 1 John 4 and MacArthur closely followed Edwards’ The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God…

We are all responsible to assess anything and everything that is claimed to be a work of the Holy Spirit. These are timeless tests for all movements, all preaching, and all preachers. What is truly of the Holy Spirit will conform to these marks.

MacArthur lost me at the Great Awakening. My primary orientation when trying to understand God is the Bible. I’ve recently been chastised by a good friend for not knowing Christian history, but how much authority should I insert into particular events in the history of Christianity vs. the Bible in trying to understand the work of the Holy Spirit?

This is one of those times when my not being a “typical Christian” doesn’t work out so well.

The context for this passage is the work of the Spirit (see 3:24). While the working of the Holy Spirit is invisible, the manifestations of his work are visible. We know Christ abides in us because the Spirit he has given is manifested in us. What is the Spirit doing in us? MacArthur provided a long list. The Spirit creates a desire for repentance, a hatred of sin, a belief in the gospel, a love for Christ, a desire to be a slave of Christ, a delight in Scripture, a longing for obedience, joy in trials, love of other believers, desire for fellowship, illumination of Scripture, a heart of praise, worship as a way of life, increasing Christ-likeness and much more besides.

I’m reassured a bit since MacArthur does believe that the Holy Spirit does have an influence and a tangible impact on our day-to-day lives, prompting us to repentance, inspiring love of Messiah, supporting us in our trials, and so forth.

His major critique of the charismatic movement is that it focuses undue attention on the Holy Spirit and does so at the expense of Christ. Any true preacher will be Christ-dominated and present him in an accurate and exalting way. It is a matter of sound theology and also a matter of preeminence. Where you see any deficiency in the nature and preeminence of Christ, this is not the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s ministry is always to point you to Jesus Christ. Anyone who pollutes the gospel or distracts from the Son to the Spirit is not operating in the Spirit.

The devil would never want men to have more honorable thoughts of Christ and for that reason loves to draw attention away from Christ to a false image of the Holy Spirit. And all the while he pretends to draw attention to Jesus. A true work of the Spirit exalts the true Christ. If the charismatic movement was a movement of the Spirit, it would be Christ-dominated and everyone in the movement would be bowing the knee to the true Christ in belief of the true gospel.

According to leading charismatics, a distinctiveness of the charismatic movement is the preeminence of the Holy Spirit. They have a passion to experience the Spirit’s presence and power. But if the Spirit is the person sought, his work has been rejected. In this movement Christ is obscured, Scripture is depreciated, and a preoccupation with experience is elevated.

Off balanceSorry for the numerous and lengthy quotes, but there’s a lot going on here. I know time and again, I’ve been told to focus on Jesus, only Jesus. I can see that if, as a believer, I want the Holy Spirit to do this dramatic thing or that dramatic thing, or some other dramatic thing, that I’m probably caught up in a religion of sensation and that I’m way off-balance. I get that.

But when told to only, only, only focus on Jesus, I wonder where did God the Father run off to? I mean, MacArthur and a lot of other Christians talk about the Holy Spirit, and they talk lots and lots about Jesus, but where is God? I know. In a trinitarian view, all of them are God, but if that’s true, doesn’t focusing on any one aspect of the trinity make us unbalanced? If it’s possible to focus too much on the Spirit, is it also possible to focus too much on the Son?

I almost never, ever hear anything spoken among Christians about God the Father or, as He would be expressed in the Tanakh (older Jewish scriptures known in Christianity as the “Old Testament”), Hashem. But Jesus talked about Him all the time.

Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.”

John 5:19 (NASB)

In that day you will not question Me about anything. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you.

John 16:23 (NASB)

Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You…”

John 17:1 (NASB)

I’m saying all this not to be a theological pain in the neck, but to point out that Jesus always re-directed the attention of his disciples to the Father.

The charismatic movement fails this test of exalting Christ above all. MacArthur said, Show me a person obsessed with the Holy Spirit and I’ll show you a person not filled by the Spirit. Show me a person obsessed with Jesus Christ and I’ll show you a Spirit-filled person.

I learned in the Bible to always pray to God in the name of the Messiah. Am I wrong? Am I supposed to pray to Jesus? Am I supposed to be “obsessed” with Jesus so I can “prove” that I’m filled with the Spirit? MacArthur said to “exalt Jesus above all.” I can’t believe he means to exalt the Son over the Father, does he?

Coffee and BibleI agree we need to be mindful of anything we consider a supernatural experience or a “movement of the Spirit.” I’m not much of a spiritualist and I’m certainly not a mystic (although the writings of the mystics make wonderful metaphors). I like reading and I like studying. I think I’m “wired” to go in that direction. But I’m also wired to pay attention to what I read, which most certainly includes the Bible.

I know MacArthur is trying to make a point and the scope of his presentation, his conference, and his book probably don’t allow for answering more broad-based questions, but inadvertently, he brought this subject up so now I think he should have to deal with it.

The Bible doesn’t elevate Jesus above God the Father just as it doesn’t elevate the Spirit above the Father. MacArthur says that overindulging in the Spirit of God to the detriment of everything else God is leads to error, and I completely believe it. But how does MacArthur avoid the same problem when he demands that we should obsess on Jesus to the exclusion of God the Father?

3 thoughts on “The Challies Chronicles: John MacArthur Tests the Spirits”

  1. I dunno … it seems to me that I’m seeing a lot of reflections in this discussion of Eastern light force vs. dark force mysticism and worldview (Star Wars theology, anyone?). Someone seems to have elevated an angel created by HaShem into an almost equivalent “anti-G-d”. And even the forces of light seem divided into competitive parts, where one is virtually ignored and unbalanced attention is paid to one or the other of the remaining two. It all sounds very foreign to me. On the other hand, MacArthur may be focusing on an important consideration that the only way in which supernatural forces can actually be touched or combatted is on the battleground where they are effective, which is the human soul or psyche. Anything else is merely magic, superstition, and imagination.

  2. I think the world of Christian Evangelicalism and fundamentalism is very different from yours, PL. I’m still trying to figure it out, as you probably can tell from the blog post above.

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