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The Challies Chronicles: MacArthur’s Strange Fire Keynote

elephant-in-the-living-roomIt’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? We can’t all be right and we can’t both be right. Sooner or later we have to have a discussion about charismatic (continuationist) theology and whether or not the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit remain in operation in the church today (or, if you prefer, about cessationist theology and whether or not the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased in the church today). We have wanted to make sure New Calvinism is large enough for both, that it will not fracture along this particular line, and this has delayed the conversation. But at some point we just have to talk about it.

John MacArthur is forcing the issue with a book and a conference titled Strange Fire. The conference is still several weeks away and the book will not be widely available until a few weeks after that. However, I recently received an advance copy of the book and have read it a couple of times now. I want to begin a conversation today, and my purpose is really to get an idea of how people feel about the whole issue.

Tim Challies
“John MacArthur and Strange Fire” (September 26, 2013)

I want to be fair. I imagine that there are some of you out there who don’t believe me, who find me terrifically unfair because I don’t agree with you, but I really do want to be fair. That’s why I’m posting this.

Not to long ago, I aimed more than a little criticism at MacArthur, Strange Fire, and the battle to control the Christian mind on my blog. My Pastor felt I wasn’t giving MacArthur the benefit of the doubt or looking at the positive aspects of his conference. He recommended Pastor Tim Challies and his blog as a good counterpoint to MacArthur’s critics.

If found out that Challies had a lot to say about Strange Fire. As far as I can tell, I quoted from his first blog post on the topic, before the conference even took place. It helps to address this Pastor’s impressions of Strange Fire in a chronological order. I guess he attended the conference and live blogged the different speakers.

I won’t attempt to blog on everything Challies wrote, but I do want to try to get a representative sample, just to get the flavor of what was said. Of course (please forgive me), I don’t expect Challis to be entirely objective (who is?) so part of my analysis will be of Challies as well as of the conference and the presenters who offer their own “fire,” so to speak.

For me, the issue isn’t who is right and who is wrong, but whether or not MacArthur was “playing fair” for the sake of edification and education. Was he being fair or could there have been other motivations? It’s possible the “Challies chronicles” will reveal this, but I don’t know for sure.

Challies’s pre-conference intro to Strange Fire won’t reveal much except at the very end. After Challies wrote his missive, MacArthur reviewed it and asked him to append one brief statement:

Tempting as it might be for my Reformed continuationist friends to read the last chapter first, that would be a mistake. The points in that chapter might seem arbitrary to someone who has not read the preceding material. Those early chapters trace the roots of charismatic teaching; they show the biblical rationale for cessationist conviction; and they demonstrate why aberrant doctrines and practices are not minor, occasional anomalies but the inevitable fruits of charismatic presuppositions. Anyone predisposed to disagree anyway would probably find it easy to be dismissive if they skipped to the end first. The final chapter is simply the logical conclusion to the arguments set forth in all the others.

I suppose that’s also a matter of being fair to MacArthur.

John MacArthur’s Opening Keynote

john-macarthurIn reading Strange Fire Conference: John MacArthur’s Opening Address, I found out I was wrong. Challies did not attend, but listened via Strange Fire site. Unlike Challies, I don’t have time to listen to hours and hours of audio recordings, so I hope he took good notes.

When people ask MacArthur for his view on the biggest issue in the church, he always says it is the lack of discernment since, sadly, a great number of those who profess Christianity are lacking in discernment. The purpose of this conference is to be like the Bereans by looking at the work of the Holy Spirit through the lens of Scripture. He hopes to address it lovingly and compassionately, but in a straightforward way.

I can relate to that. I try to do a lot of studying and judiciously read the Bible. The interesting thing is that, even among people who all have the same intellectual and study emphasis, conclusions about what the Bible says vary, sometimes dramatically. And yet all parties say the same thing MacArthur said in his keynote. The desire to be like Bereans, using the Bible as a lens (then what lens do we use to look at the Bible?), addressing differences lovingly and compassionately…and in a straightforward way.

Why do the results of such words and intentions turn out badly so much of the time?

What is the scope of the issue? There are half a billion professed charismatics on the planet. He pointed out that we feel great freedom to confront Mormons and Mormonism, though there are merely 14 million of them. Yet we hesitate to address 500 million charismatics.

I live in Idaho and I used to live in Nevada. Both states have a large Mormon population. Even after I became a believer, I never felt drawn to confront every Mormon in my environment, which would be quite a lot. Is that what’s required?

He turned to Leviticus 10 to explain the name of the conference and the heart behind it, showing true and false worship from Leviticus 9 and 10.

The sons of Aaron had been given special privilege and were in line for the high priesthood. They seemed so godly and so secure, and yet God consumed them because they offered strange fire, worshipping in a way he did not sanction. What may have seemed like a minor matter was actually a serious and significant sin. This shows that the most serious crimes against God occur in corrupt worship.

I have to say that one thing about MacArthur that bothers me is that he seems so sure of conclusions he can’t possibly be that sure about. Look at his commentary on the sons of Aaron. Christian theologians have been trying to figure out exactly what happened with Nadab and Abihu (yes, they do have names) for ages, and Jewish sages have been studying the incident of these two sons of Aaron (he had four in all) a lot longer, but no one is sure what they did or didn’t do or what the “strange fire” was that resulted in such a dramatic and fatal response from God.

The fire they offered has been translated as “unauthorized,” “wrong kind of,” “strange,” and “unholy.” Most translations follow-up with something like, “which He had not commanded them,” indicating that whatever they did in making their offering, it was not what God asked of them…or maybe it was that they weren’t supposed to make any sort of approach at all right then. Maybe the problem was their timing was bad.

The Lord also said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; and let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, ‘Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.

Exodus 19:10-12 (NASB)

nadab-abihu-fireThe long and the short of it is, “don’t get too close.”

I say all of this because MacArthur carefully chose the name of his conference and his book. In assessing intent, the symbolism involved and how it’s used can be revealing.

He paused to state that he is not discrediting everyone in the movement. He knows there are charismatics who desire to worship God in a true way. Yet the movement itself has brought nothing that enriches true worship.

That’s an important point. Naturally, discrediting anyone’s preferred method of worship is likely to elicit a harsh or hurt response, but that’s still preferable to naming names, so to speak.

In many places in the charismatic movement they are attributing to the Holy Spirit works that have actually been generated by Satan.

Invoking such a sentiment should be done with care because it’s only one small step from a statement such as that, to one saying anyone who is a charismatic is Satanic and even may be worshiping Satan. No, of course I don’t think MacArthur said that, but when addressing such an emotionally loaded topic, you have to pay attention, not only to what you are saying, but to how you know people will interpret (or misinterpret) your words.

I had to establish a comments policy on my blog recently in order to contain some otherwise negative statements being made. As part of my policy, I issued the following statement:

In Jewish religious tradition, Leviticus 25:17 which states “You will not wrong one another,” is interpreted as wronging someone in speech. This includes any statement that will embarrass, insult, or deceive a person or cause that person emotional pain and distress. Even statements believed to be true and factual but that cause another harm are considered wrongful speech.

You can’t hide behind, “but I’m only telling the truth” if you know that what you’re saying will directly result in injuring people. Something to keep in mind, although in both Judaism and Christianity, this mitzvah is not strictly observed for the sake of “truth.”

In the middle of recording the Keynote, Challies inserted his own commentary:

(Note: I am adding a clarifying note (3:57 PM EST). I do not take MacArthur to mean “nothing good has ever come out of the charismatic movement” but “nothing good has come out of the charismatic movement that is attributable to charismatic theology.”)

I found this part illuminating:

And despite this, Evangelicalism has thrown open its arms and welcomed this Trojan Horse, allowing an idol in the city of God. This idol has fast taken over.

MacArthur then contrasted Reformed theology with the charismatic movement and said that Reformed theology is not a haven for false teachers. It is not where false teachers reside or where greedy deceivers and liars end up.

charismatic-prayerCharismatics, Evangelicals, and Reforms all compared and contrasted in one fell swoop, with Reformed theology coming out on top. But then, anyone holding a conference is going to present their own point of view as advantageous, so I can hardly hold that against MacArthur. Although, being objective and outside of the Reformed theology framework, I wonder how MacArthur can know in absolute terms that there are no “false teachers” within his entire movement, right down to the last man? Also, what’s the difference between a “false teacher” and an erroneous one? Does he believe Reformed theology contains no teachers capable of making a mistake?

Once experience, emotion and intuition become the definition of what is true, all hell breaks loose.

In what seemed to be a brief aside, he called for the restoration of the true worship of the Holy Spirit in the church and said that it is zeal for God’s honor that consumes him here. As he sees and hears this false worship, he feels God’s own pain and wonders why the church won’t rise up to defend the Holy Spirit as it has done with the Father and the Son.

I was selected for jury duty in a drunk driving case many years ago. Part of the instructions the judge gave to the jury was to evaluate just the facts of the case without any emotional bias. And then both the prosecuting and defense attorneys did everything in their power to manipulate the emotions of the jury.

I put those two statements together in the quote just above (they don’t occur contiguously in the article) because I got the same feeling reading them as I did when I was on jury duty. Emotion can’t define truth (and I generally agree with this statement) but here, MacArthur seems to say, ” let me make an emotional appeal promoting my viewpoint by feeling ‘God’s own pain’ (I was also somewhat reminded of one of Bill Clinton’s iconic and often parodied statements) in order to evoke an emotional response from my audience.”

I’m sorry. I really didn’t intend to be this snarky and cynical when I started writing my blog post, but as I’m reading through the Challies report on MacArthur’s keynote, I’m “live blogging” my responses, which include emotional responses. I’ll try to end on an up note.

MacArthur concluded by saying we can see in Christ a picture of the perfect work of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit has committed to do in us what he did in Christ. The Spirit was the constant companion of Jesus; Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, matured by the Spirit, anointed by the Spirit at his baptism, sustained by the Spirit in his temptation, empowered by the Spirit for ministry, filled with the Spirit so he walked in perfect obedience while displaying the Spirit’s fruit, perfected by obedience wrought in the Spirit’s power, raised by the power of the Spirit, and even in his post-resurrection ministry was in the power of the Spirit. The Spirit is to us as he was to Christ. If you want to know how he works in us, look at Jesus. Ultimately, the work of the Holy Spirit is to take corrupted image bearers and to restore in them the likeness of Jesus Christ.

He ended with this challenge: “I will start believing that the truth prevails in the charismatic movement when I see the leaders looking more like Jesus Christ and I see that they really are partakers of the divine nature.”

tim_challiesKeep in mind that I’m receiving my impressions from a blogger who, as far as I can tell, should see the world in general and Christianity in particular in roughly the same way as MacArthur, so I’d expect his rendition of his experience to be positive and supportive of MacArthur.

At the same time, I keep wondering that if I found it necessary to challenge the Charismatic movement as a matter of principle and truth, and to try to prevent millions and millions of people from being swayed by what I thought was a harmful and error-filled theology, what approach would I take?

The next blog post in this series is The Challies Chronicles: John MacArthur and Joni Eareckson Tada.

Apostasy, Pentecostalism, and Other Things That Go “Bump” in the Night

Witch huntApostasy is not new or shocking to me; years ago, my younger brother Aaron gave up faith in Yeshua and converted to Orthodox Judaism. My cousin Anthony went from Christianity to Messianic Judaism to atheism. A family friend, Alice, got involved in Karaite Judaism and lost faith in Messiah. There was a time in my own life where I considered agnosticism.

I grok doubt and sympathize with people going through it.

And in my 10 years writing this blog, I’ve seen several other Messianic bloggers lose faith…

-Judah Gabriel Himango
“The 3 signs of apostasy, and how to deal with doubt in your life”
Kineti L’Tziyon

And despite this, Evangelicalism has thrown open its arms and welcomed this Trojan Horse, allowing an idol in the city of God. This idol has fast taken over.

MacArthur then contrasted Reformed theology with the charismatic movement and said that Reformed theology is not a haven for false teachers. It is not where false teachers reside or where greedy deceivers and liars end up.

-Pastor John MacArthur
as quoted by Tim Challies

I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to enter into this conversation. I see some good points made by these men, but I wonder if it’s really worth the cost.

Let me explain.

As you probably know, I’ve already expressed some criticism of Pastor John MacArthur and his recent Strange Fire conference, which strongly addressed problems with the Pentecostal church and the Charismatic movement in Christianity. I’m planning on using the record of the conference presentations on the blog of Pastor and well-known Christian blogger Tim Challies to do a more detailed (and hopefully fair) examination of MacArthur, his information, and most importantly his intentions, in holding his conference and publicly “calling out” the Charismatic movement and its followers.

However, well-known Messianic/Hebrew Roots blogger Judah Himango seemed to mirror MacArthur in drawing attention to another six ton elephant in the room, apostasy from Christianity (or in this case, the Messianic Jewish and/or Hebrew Roots movement, which could be considered a form of Christianity).

Pentecostalism and Messianic Judaism/Hebrew Roots are different in that the Pentecostal church has hundreds of millions of followers worldwide, while Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots are (so far) rather minimally attended (I don’t have any specific figures on the population of either group). Other than that though, from a traditional, fundamentalist Christian viewpoint, both movements can be considered the same “strange fire,” that is, both are outside of what might be considered acceptable and “normative” Christianity relative to how Reformed theologians such as MacArthur might see them.

I’m not going to address the actual content presented by MacArthur and Himango. Both have a good deal to say about their relative subjects and in sampling both, they also have a great deal of good information to present, information that should be considered, information that is very likely useful and beneficial.

But at what cost?

In order for both of these gentlemen to do what they’ve done, make public significant difficulties among specific movements and specific individuals, they have to objectify those movements and particularly the individuals involved. To one degree or another, they have to set aside any concern for how the subjects of their criticism will be impacted by what they are saying and publishing.

After the Strange Fire conference (or actually even before it), there was a power surge of criticism against MacArthur for being insensitive, for being hurtful, for being damaging to millions upon millions of fellow Christian brothers of sisters. Being right was more important than how MacArthur’s being right would injure all these people, many, perhaps most of whom, sincerely believe they are serving God and following Christ.

Judah Gabriel HimangoTo read Himango’s blog post on apostasy, as well as another Messianic blogger’s kudos to Himango, you’d think that this young man wrote the most beneficial religious commentary in the past century.

I won’t deny that Himango had a number of good points and I don’t doubt his intensions are sincere, but in order to make them, he had to…no, let me change that, he chose to name names. He started with his family and moved on to others, some that I am familiar with and at least one who I’ve known quite well.

Did Himango or anyone else ask them if they wanted to be “outed” like this?

When you have been a member of the Christian faith and you leave, that usually provokes a lot of strong feelings in those believers you’ve left behind. Those strong feelings are almost never pleasant, and it’s never pleasant to be on the receiving end when they are expressed.

I recently had to create a comments policy on my blog in order to contain some otherwise negative statements being made. As part of my policy, I issued the following statement:

In Jewish religious tradition, Leviticus 25:17 which states “You will not wrong one another,” is interpreted as wronging someone in speech. This includes any statement that will embarrass, insult, or deceive a person or cause that person emotional pain and distress. Even statements believed to be true and factual but that cause another harm are considered wrongful speech.

Of course, there’s a problem. Sometimes it really is the right thing to discuss problems in the faith, difficult issues, and even “difficult people,” so how to you balance that against the principle of harmful speech, and avoid damaging any other human being by what you say, even if what you’re saying is factual and truthful?

I wish I knew. I only know that in order for good people to hurt other good people, you have to do something to your “target” in your head. You have to objectify them. You have to make them, in some way, less than human. Otherwise, if you have even the tiniest bit of compassion and pity in your soul, you couldn’t bear to put someone you love or once loved through pain and torture by putting them in the spotlight and pointing a harsh finger at them, even if you think you’re doing it for the right reasons.

So how do you do it?

I’m going to present a couple of really extreme examples.

Look at how we convinced American military personal to kill Nazis and Japanese during World War II. Look at how we convinced the American public to support a World War, condone the bombing of millions, endure severe shortages of goods and services so they could be diverted to the war effort. How did we do it? By making Germans and Japanese less than human. That’s also how we herded masses of Japanese living in America into prison camps, men, women, and children, even as the Nazis were herding millions of Jews and other “undesirables” into prison camps, men, women, and children.

World War 2 posterHow have we aborted untold millions of unborn children in our nation since 1973? How have we made abortion a wildly successful financial effort? How have we sold abortion as “women’s reproductive services” to an entire nation, and completely ignored the fact that the only difference between a fetus being aborted and an unborn baby who is already loved by mother and father is that one is unwanted and the other is wanted?

By turning an unborn human being into a “fetus,” a “thing.” Yes, the term “fetus” is technically accurate, but shifting the emotional context from baby to thing is what’s required to eliminate a thing. Then it’s not killing a baby. Then we can live with ourselves and get to sleep at night…most of us.

That’s also how to kill an enemy in war. To one degree or another, it’s how you attack another human being in speech, a person who was created just as much in the image of God as you were. By “objectifying” them.

I told you these were extreme examples. Imagine though, that we can still do others some measure of harm, even when we’re not being “extreme.”

If we remember that someone who worships God in a Pentecostal church is a person, just like we are, someone who is a parent, a child, someone who goes to work, who goes to the movies, someone who loves, cries, becomes afraid, is capable of compassion, just like we are, then it’s not quite as easy to say that everything they experience in their worship of God is really a product of the Adversary and grieves the heart of God.

Maybe all that is true, but it’s how we say it and with what intent that makes the difference.

We can also “out” and disdain people, human beings just like us, if we don’t think of them as people just like us but rather as “apostates.” An apostate is a special class of being who has done the unthinkable, he has, in the context of my message as well as Himango’s blog post, rejected Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Or in more Judaic terms, rejected Yeshua HaHashiach, the Son of David, King of Yisra’el.

Regardless of how apostasy within the Church affects you, can you say that because a person leaves the faith, all bets are off and you can treat them anyway you want?

Maybe. After all, the Master said this:

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Matthew 18:15-17 (NASB)

If someone continually refuses to repent of their sin, Jesus says they are to be treated as a Gentile and a tax collector,” not really desirable companions in that place and time. But notice that Jesus began by saying “show him his fault in private” and continues with “if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”

Talk to him in private avoids embarrassing him unnecessarily. Your goal is to win your brother, and in this context, the converse must be true. It must be possible to “lose” your brother, with the understanding that on some level, this person is still your brother, though you may have to ask him to be removed from the community of faith until he repents.

When MacArthur accused Charismatic people of offering “strange fire” to God, he was massively criticized on the web. There was and is a lot of debate about whether MacArthur was right in his message and right in his method. I don’t really need to speak of MacArthur or defend Charismatics, since that’s already been done in abundance. But in our little corner of the Messianic and Hebrew Roots blogosphere, who takes a hard look at the methods by which some writers are addressing those who have left our ranks, either to become atheists or to pursue more traditional (non-believing) Judaism as converts or people who are halachically Jewish?

nadab-abihu-fireI’m not defending leaving the faith, but is the only response to that act to revile and assault those who have? I have very personal reasons for not dragging Jewish non-believers through the mud, but I won’t “name names” or specifics on my blog so I can avoid creating “targets.” Can’t we instead respond to this tragedy with compassion, mercy, and even pity? Can’t we leave the door to friendship open? Is there no room for Christians and Jews to associate and even be friends, or does that constitute a “yoking” problem?

What is God’s point of view on all this? I can only infer it from the Bible. Certainly, God has been capable of more than a little wrath. MacArthur’s invocation of “strange fire” is a prime example of that, relative to Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu and their horrible, fiery end.

But God is also a God of compassion, mercy, pity, and love.

The thirteen attributes of God are captured for us in the following:

Merciful God, merciful God, powerful God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and Who cleanses.

Exodus 34:6-7

The Master’s own compassion for an unrepentant Jerusalem is the echo of Moshe’s encounter with Hashem:

Yerushalayim, Yerushalayim, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How many times I have desired to gather your sons like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling! Listen: your house will be abandoned for you, desolate. For I say to you, from now on you will not see me until you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Hashem!”

Matthew 23:37-39 (DHE Gospels)

Compassion, even in the face of a very hard truth.

In his blog post, Himango says that Heresy hunting is a problem. What about Apostate hunting? We don’t burn “witches” anymore, we just embarrass them on the Internet. I must say that Himango was rather measured and even considerate in his write up, in spite of the fact that he listed names and biographies for those on his “apostate list,” but the person who started the ball rolling, so to speak, was much less merciful, and all the more harsh, and in fact, betrayed a personal trust based on friendship in “exposing” another person’s very difficult choice to leave the body of Yeshua.

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:19-21

Jesus showed pity and regret to Jerusalem and even asked the Father to forgive his executioners (Luke 23:34). Paul quotes the Torah in imploring the Romans (and us) to not respond to hurt with revenge, but to only show compassion, charity, and mercy.

13 Attributes of MercyAre we to answer someone else’s “strange fire” by incinerating them in speech or in writing, or can we emulate, Jesus, Paul, and God, by being “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness?”

Is the fault in any problem always in someone else? Is it never in who we are and what we do, even in the name of Christ?

A final note. I’m less than pond scum algae to men like John MacArthur, so I doubt he’ll ever be aware of my existence, let alone my blog, but Judah Himango and I have exchanged a number of comments over the past few years, so I don’t doubt that when he finds out I wrote this (and to be fair, I’ll let him know before I click the “Publish” button), he’ll have something to say about it, probably something not very complementary. Unfortunately, you can’t write something like this without becoming a target.

Again, I don’t doubt that Judah had good intensions in writing his blog post and he did make many good points. I believe he sincerely wants to support and encourage people, especially those associated with the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements, in staying the course and continuing in the faith.

But there’s a price to be paid, a cost to be exacted from those people we put under our microscope. Is it worth it?

I didn’t want to write this. But I had to write it.

Burning on the Strange Pyre

strange-pyreWhen I first read MacArthur, I was enamored. I was young, and my no means spiritually mature; to me, MacArthur appeared to give real direction. His warnings fell on ready ears. Discernment—I was young, and naïve, but I was smart enough to know that I needed discernment. And MacArthur’s work was designed to capitalize on this knowledge. He and other teachers like him have helped to raise a generation of conservative Christians who, practicing what they believe to be “discernment,” have insulated themselves from being influenced by—well, you name it. Anti-megachurch, anti-charismatic, anti-seeker-friendly, anti-topical-sermons, anti-emergent-church, anti-Arminian, anti-dynamic-translations, anti-Rob-Bell, anti-Harry-Potter, anti-anti-anti. A generation of anti-s.

And yes, of course, anti-Messianic. It’s new, it’s weird, it’s different, it’s not what we grew up with, and it doesn’t square with the doctrines on which we have built our on theological superstructure. If Messianic Judaism is right, we’re wrong, and how could we be wrong?

So when I read Messianic Jewish teacher Michael Brown’s appeal to John MacArthur to cease and desist his campaign against the Pentecostal/charismatic movement, my first thought was, “Of course—if MacArthur doesn’t come to his senses, we’re next.”

-Pastor Jacob Fronczak
“Strange Fire & The Gifts of the Spirit”
FFOZ Blogs

Note: It’s Wednesday evening and I just came from my weekly meeting with my Pastor. He gave me his perspective and understanding of the Strange Fire conference which was significantly different than what I’ve been reading in the blogosphere recently. I wrote this blog post a few days ago, and will likely revisit the topic in the near future for the sake of being fair. In the meantime, this is my initial response to the information I previously received and more importantly, my impression of how the different elements in the body of Christ have been treating each other.

I was only marginally aware of the Strange Fire conference before today (as I write this) and only because I previously had some small encounter with the thoughts and writing of John MacArthur, both through my Pastor and in Sunday school. I’ve struggled with MacArthur before and I doubt I’ll ever become his biggest fan.

Then last Sunday, as he was introducing his sermon, my Pastor, from the pulpit, mentioned MacArthur, the “Strange Fire” conference (which got my attention), and how he generally commended it.

My blood ran cold for a second, but then I got lost in a flurry of note-taking as Pastor launched into his sermon, and I didn’t look back. Religious conferences come and go, and I thought MacArthur’s would simply fade into the background noise and finally degrade into static.

But then I read Jacob Fronczak’s commentary on the MacArthur conference. It’s not that I’m writing this as yet another critic of MacArthur or “Strange Fire.” Fronczak, Michael Brown, and many other people far more worthy than I and closer to the issues involved have already done that (I should say at this point that while I’m not particularly attracted to Pentecostalism, I don’t feel I have to lead a “holy crusade” against them, either).

But when Jacob wrote, “Of course—if MacArthur doesn’t come to his senses, we’re next,” it struck a chord.

Oh, some background first.

This is where the phrase “strange fire” comes from:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.

Leviticus 10:1-2 (NASB)

Christian and Jewish scholars and theologians have been debating for centuries as to exactly why Nadab and Abihu were killed and what the “strange fire” was that they attempted to offer before the Lord. No one really knows for sure, although I don’t doubt there are a few people out there who are certain they do. In the realm of religion, there are always those people out there who think they have all the answers set in concrete on matters so complex or mysterious, that it is reasonably unlikely or even impossible for them to be that sure.

michael-brownNext stop, John MacArthur writes another book. This one is called Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship. According to Amazon, it isn’t available for purchase until November 12th, so I suppose the conference anticipates the book’s publication (I could be cynical and suggest that part of MacArthur’s motivation for the conference was to drum up mass market interest to sell more copies of his book, since controversy sells like proverbial hotcakes, but I digress, since only God knows the heart).

And then we come to Michael Brown’s final attempt to appeal to MacArthur prior to the actual conference.

I received an advanced review copy from the publisher; all quotes here are from the Introduction and should be checked against the final text of the book.

In fact, he claims that leaders of the movement are “Satan’s false teachers, marching to the beat of their own illicit desires, gladly propagate his errors. They are spiritual swindlers, con men, crooks, and charlatans.”

This is divisive and destructive language based on misinformation and exaggeration, as Pastor MacArthur attributes the extreme errors of a tiny minority to countless hundreds of thousands of godly leaders worldwide.

I have worked side by side with some of these fine men and women myself, precious saints who have risked their lives for the name of Jesus, giving themselves sacrificially to touch a hurting and dying world with the gospel, literally shedding their blood rather than compromising their testimonies, yet an internationally recognized pastor calls many of them “Satan’s false teachers . . . spiritual swindlers, con men, crooks, and charlatans.”

May the Lord forgive him for these rash words.

MacArthur didn’t take the expressed concerns of Brown or any of his other critics lying down:

“In response to this conference, there have been some attacks, and we’ve been unable to escape them,” MacArthur said to the more than 3,000 attendees at the conference Friday night. “I just want to address those, because I do think that it’s important to answer the criticisms that have come.”

-Reporter Melissa Barnhart
quoting John MacArthur in the article
“John MacArthur Responds to Critics Who Believe His Strange Fire Conference Is Divisive, Unloving”

I suppose I could make a case for the pot calling the kettle black since one good “attack” deserves another, but again, that would be unfair. To continue:

“This is for the true church, so that they can discern; so that they can be protected from error; and so that they can be a source of truth for others outside the church,” he said, adding that his book, “Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit With Counterfeit Worship,” can withstand the most intense scrutiny, when measured against the word of God in the Bible.

Judge NotThis is similar to the rationale behind why we have laws requiring that people in cars must wear seat belts and people riding bicycles must wear helmets…the authority is acting for our own protection.

In his blog post for First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), Jacob Fronczak commented on this point:

The stated reason is always that it is for the good of the faith. MacArthur’s crusade against Pentecostalism claims to be based on reasoning similar, if not identical, to this: “After years of prayer, fasting, and serious searching of the Scriptures, undertaken due to a genuine concern for the purity of the Christian faith, we have been led by the Holy Spirit to the sobering conclusion that everything you think the Holy Spirit is doing in your life is actually the work of the devil.”

I don’t think we attack each other because we are insecure. John MacArthur is very secure in his beliefs. Nor do I think we attack each other out of genuine hate or malice. I think we attack each other because we enjoy it. We like to fight, and we like to win. We like to make ourselves look good at someone else’s expense. We like to be right, and we like it even better when someone else has to be wrong.

I think this is probably what the Bible calls pride. The unwillingness to admit that we could be wrong and someone else could be right. The unwillingness to give an inch for the sake of another person, even another believer.

“purity of the Christian faith?” Oh my! I can’t even begin to tell you how I’m viewing this statement.

Let me stop here for a moment. Like I said before, I’m not really “going after” MacArthur or his “Strange Fire” book or conference. Unlike Brown, I didn’t receive an advance copy of the book, and I have no idea what actually happened at the conference, so I have no basis upon which to say anything like “John MacArthur is wrong about such and thus.”

But I do have a concern. Under the guise of “revealing truth” and “protecting believers from error,” it becomes acceptable and even desirable to “go after” other religious groups, other denominations within the Christian Church (big “C”), other individuals associated with the denominations brought “under the gun.” It becomes acceptable and even desirable to take the failings of some individuals associated the denomination “under the gun” and to generalize those specific incidents to the entire denomination, painting everyone belonging to that group with an exceptionally broad brush.

rev-john-macarthurIf someone like “little ol’ me” writes a blog post that is critical of an individual, a group, a denomination, or an entire religion, maybe a dozen people at best will pay attention and respond one way or another…and that’s on a good day. When someone like John MacArthur writes a book and holds a conference, lots and lots of people, Christians and just about anyone else interested in what the Church (big “C”) is up to, will pay attention.

It’s a foregone conclusion that MacArthur has no doubts whatsoever that he’s right in an absolute sense. The quote of his words above tells us that he believes his viewpoint is completely backed up in scripture. Never mind that scripture has more than one possible interpretation and even more than one highly likely interpretation, hence the (seemingly) millions of variations on Christianity we see in the world today.

When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.

-Martin Niemöller
found at Wikiquote

Before you become too upset, no, I’m not comparing John MacArthur to a Nazi. Relax. I am drawing this parallel because some of the darkest moments in the history of Christianity have been when we’ve “gone after” others who were not like us. The Church may not employ brute violence, torture, maiming, and murder as its tools anymore, but we must now ask ourselves when does “expressing truth” become slander? When does “correcting error” become a lack of love for a fellow disciple of Christ? When do we commit cruelty while hiding beneath the thin veneer of kindness?

In my past experience with the “Hebrew Roots” movement, I met more than a few people who left the Church (big “C”) due to real or perceived injustices of other Christians against them. Some of these people had nothing good to say about Christians, Christianity, and their general church experience. They called the Church “Babylon.” They called the Church “apostate.” They called the Church “heretical.” They said they were telling “the truth.” They said they were trying to “correct error.”

They simply weren’t internationally famous Pastors and authors who could publish books backed up scrupulously by scripture, and the hold large conferences to draw attention to their opinions…fortunately.

Jacob Fronczak and for all I know, Michael Brown have their opinions about why John MacArthur is doing something like this (besides the reasons MacArthur himself gives). I have no idea. I could guess, but that guess would be based on very little information, so I’ll refrain.

Heart-on-FireJohn MacArthur, for all the press he’s currently getting (this will pass in a moment…the media and the public are fickle) is just one man and he has just one opinion. Lots of lots of “famous Christians” have stirred the pot over the years, upset a lot of people, and then faded into the woodwork (I can’t remember the last time James Dobson incited any significant upset in the media).

But the impression all this leaves me with is that some of the different members of the body of Christ have a hunger to eat the other members alive.

Although I attend a church that is part of normative Christianity, my personal beliefs are hardly “normatively Christian.” Anyone who has read more than one or two of my blog posts can figure that out. I know that as an individual, I’m insignificant and fall well below anyone’s radar, especially someone as famous as John MacArthur (thankfully).

But has it occurred to any of these firebrand Christian leaders out there that God is watching? Don’t they imagine that God has His own viewpoint on any of these matters of controversy? Do they think that Jesus Christ will personally approve of them and all their activities when the moment of judgment comes? Do they believe that their interpretation of scripture is so ironclad that their is no room for them to be wrong?

MacArthur was quoted as saying:

“The broader Charismatic movement has opened the door to more theological error than any other doctrinal aberration in this modern day,” MacArthur added, noting that in chapter 12 of his book, he has written an open letter to his continuationist friends.

“…more theological error than any other doctrinal aberration in this modern day.”

Wow. That’s quite a statement. I have an opinion, too. I believe that when the Messiah returns he’s going to be a lot more Jewish than John MacArthur or anyone like him can possibly imagine. I believe the thing we call “the Church” now, that distinguishes itself from any stream of Judaism, will become a lot more like what it was in the days of James, Peter, and Paul. I believe it will be the faith of the Israelites, the Jewish people, and that Gentiles are allowed to join that Jewish stream without becoming Jews. I think a lot of Christians, on the day they come to that realization, will feel pretty humiliated and will need to seek repentance for any “cursing” they may have aimed at Israel, the Jewish people, Judaism, and the idea that “Jesus Christ” will probably want to be called “Yeshua HaMoshiach.”

(The Christianization of Acts 15 is only one small example of how the Church can experience itself as “right” and yet might still be wrong).

broken_spiritAnd I believe that all those people, including the really famous Christians, who were all so sure of themselves, who believed that scripture, as interpreted through all the traditions and presuppositions they held onto as “truth,” totally backed them up, will be shocked out of their socks.

I hope and pray on that day that I’ll at least be prepared to be shocked out of my socks and kneel before my Master in humility and brokenness. I think though, that kneeling and humility and brokenness will be more difficult for some believers to achieve than others. I hope John MacArthur won’t be one of them. I hope all of us, no matter who we are or in what stream of Christianity or other religious expression that points us to Messiah, Son of David we exist, will be ready to receive him on that day.

But we won’t be ready as long as the primary expression of our faith in Jesus Christ is to go on the latest “error” hunt. I even wonder if it might be better to be one of the hunted rather than the hunter? Is it better to ignite someone with your strange fire or to burn on the pyre of someone else’s judgment?

Be bold in what you stand for and careful what you fall for.

-Ruth Boorstin

You may be interested in a blog post written by Boaz Michael called Shaping the Way Spiritual Gifts are Expressed to view the journey of Rabbi Carl Kinbar from a Charismatic Conference to Messianic Judaism, and to see how spiritual gifts have been a meaningful and active force in Rabbi Kinbar’s life.




When Will Being A Christian Be Enough?

onfire.jpgStrange Fire by John MacArthur is basically an attack on anything and everything related to the charismatic movement and the various movements descended from it, as if the whole of it were composed of one monolithic set of doctrines and practices that all of us espouse. It invalidates anything that smacks of the supernatural or of emotion freely expressed in God’s presence.

-R Loren Sandford
“Real Holy Spirit Fire Out”

For Thursday’s “morning meditation,” I’m going to publish my own commentary on John MacArthur’s recent Strange Fire conference in Sun Valley, California, or rather, the implications of such activities when one member of the body of Christ apparently attacks another. It’s like my liver wants to eat my pancreas because my liver doesn’t think my pancreas is an authentic member of my body.

Hey! Don’t I have anything to say about it? After all, I need all those organs inside of me so I can stay alive and healthy. Doesn’t my liver have enough to do processing all of the toxic junk that enters my body through the environment (including what I eat) without going after all the other stuff inside my body that keeps me alive?

But enough about MacArthur, Strange Fire, and all that…at least in detail. What I want to know is why being “a Christian” isn’t enough?

Recently I became aware of the buzz surrounding a new book, soon to be released, by a prominent cessationist who has been around for a long time.

Reading MacArthur, you’d think all charismatics espouse prosperity teaching. We do not. You’d think we are all Word of Faith adherents when, in fact, they constitute a small minority and promote a doctrine many of us oppose.


Oh yuk! More divisions and doctrines.

Before now, I’d never heard of the debate between Cessationism vs. Continuationism. I have heard of Prosperity Theology (and am not impressed), but I had to look up Word of Faith to figure out what all that’s supposed to mean.

I’ve written before about how different religious streams are basically Systems human beings use as an interface between themselves and the Bible as well as between themselves and God. We use this sort of interface, like the Graphical User Interface (GUI) of your computer, to help us talk to and understand what otherwise would be inaccessible to us. You use the GUI of your computer to interact with the computer’s software and hardware. You use your religious systems to interact with the Bible and with God.

But as anyone who has used a computer can tell you, the interface isn’t a perfect environment and it has inherit limitations. So does any religious system, even yours.

christian-devotionI’ve talked with my Pastor before about the various Christian denominations and why he’s attracted in a certain denominational direction. Obviously, I lean in my own direction, though it’s far from the fundamentalist world of my Pastor. I’ve also lamented as to whether or not I’ll make a good Christian, but what I’m really saying is that I wonder if I’ll ever make a good and true “demominationalist.”

I know, you probably think of my “denomination” as “Messianic Judaism,” but that has a few problems (I’m going to write on related topics pretty soon), not the least of which is whether or not a Gentile Christian can practice Messianic Judaism or any other Judaism. With apologizes to Toby Janicki and his classic introduction of himself on the FFOZ TV show A Promise of What is to Come, I have my doubts.

On the other hand, Toby could be right, at least in the sense of the future, Messianic Kingdom. My Pastor tells me that “the Church” was formed in Acts 2 and although it started as a completely Jewish religious entity, with the addition of Gentiles and finally, when Gentiles became the “majority stockholders,” so to speak, it became separate from the rest of Israel and developed into its own “thing.”

I disagree.

The Jewish religious stream of “the Way” in the first century CE was the culmination of everything that came before it in Jewish and Biblical history, the apex of a dream, where Gentiles could join a Jewish religious stream in a way that resulted in reconciliation and justification before God without the Gentiles having to convert to Judaism or take on the Torah in the manner of Jewish people. In that sense, “the Church” wasn’t a new thing but it did a new thing…allowing the Gentiles in as equal members without necessarily equal Torah responsibilities.

It’s not that way now, thanks to all kinds of terrible things that happened in the decades and centuries to follow the destruction of Herod’s Temple, but I firmly believe it will be that way again for all of us when Messiah returns. There will be one, valid, thriving, religious stream that has evolved from Abraham, from Sinai, from the life of Messiah, that was always Jewish and will again be Jewish that we, the people from the nations who are called by His Name, are allowed to join, in a manner defined by Jewish authorities with the approval of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15) and commanded by Messiah (Matthew 28:19-20).

But it won’t look much or anything like “the Church” looks like right now.

prophetic_return1Fundamentalism, Charismatics, Word of Faith, Prosperity Theology, Calvinism, yada, yada, yada, will all be swept away from the lived experience of any approved believer and disciple of the Jewish Messiah when he establishes his throne in Jerusalem.

I can imagine there will be Christians and Jews who will resist the Kingship of Messiah in those days. I can imagine there will be a lot of people who will have great difficulty surrendering their pet theologies, doctrines, and dogmas, all of which have been invented in the last two-thousand years, and most of which have been invented only in the past several centuries (or even decades).

It will be enough to be a disciple of the Master. Put in “church-friendly” language, it will be enough to be a Christian.

Religious Jews practice Judaism by definition. In those days (and maybe as a foreshadowing, even today), Gentiles who are disciples and worshipers of the Jewish Messiah King will also “practice Messianic Judaism” in the manner defined for us by Messiah.

And it will be enough.

So try not to become too attached to all of that stuff we argue about now in the blogosphere, on websites, at conferences, in books we write and publish, stuff preached from the pulpit, discussed at the bema, taught in Sunday school, yada, yada, yada.

Learn to accept the idea that someday you may have to let go of most or all of your much-vaunted doctrines and dogmas, because being a disciple of Messiah as he desires us to be will be enough.

It will be enough.


The Bible is Water

underwater“I’m not a MacArthurite.”

-Pastor Randy

That’s a relief. I was afraid I was going to offend him with my opinions or my opinionated attitude as I entered our conversation last night. Pastor Randy and I normally meet on Wednesday evenings at the church, and the place is usually packed with people involved in various functions. Circumstances worked out so we met on Monday night this week and the place was deserted (it’s the following Sunday as you read this). Thunderstorms were rolling over the valley, so thick, black clouds were looming across the sky accompanied by high winds and startling flashes of lightning. The perfect backdrop to discuss a controversial subject.

(Oh, you might want to read Part 1 and Part 2 of my previous blog post John MacArthur and Struggling with Biblical Sufficiency to get a context for what I’m saying today.)

Actually, it worked out much better than that. Also, having recently written Judging Outside the Box put me in a more even frame of mind, and I didn’t feel quite so quick to pronounce judgment on a man who has been a Pastor for forty years and who I know almost nothing about.

Pastor Randy did study at Master’s College but through a distance program since he lived in Israel at the time. He didn’t have a lot of contact with MacArthur, so it seems he could evaluate his teachings from a different perspective. Pastor has run into some “MacArthurites” who go, “MacArthur said this” and “MacArthur said that,” but after all, MacArthur is MacArthur, not God.

But that’s true of any man. MacArthur has a passion for studying the Bible and encouraging others to do likewise, and I admire that a great deal. I agree with MacArthur and Pastor Randy that many Christian churches have set the Bible aside and embraced multimedia entertainment programs to keep the “faithful” in the pews. Fluff and style have replaced substance. More’s the pity.

But one thing Pastor did say about MacArthur is that he is pretty much “black and white.” There are no colors in his universe and especially in his understanding of the Bible. His language is binary and there are only two characters, zero and one, off and on.

But then there’s this:

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Hebrews 4:12 (NASB)

The writer is essentially saying Scripture is unique and there is no spiritual weapon for the believer that is superior to it. The Word of God penetrates the inner being and nature of a person. How? Because it is living and powerful, sharper than any other spiritual tool and able to go deeper and cut cleaner and truer than any other resource to which someone might turn. When utilized effectively and properly, Scripture reveals the deepest thoughts and intentions of the human heart.

-John MacArthur
“Chapter 1: Embracing the Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture”
Think Biblically!: Recovering a Christian Worldview (ed. John MacArthur)

MacArthur has a tendency to construct ideas and phrases in almost martial terms, but I prefer to think of God as a teacher, “a bringer of light, wisdom, and understanding,” to quote actor Ian McKellen in his first go around playing Erik Lehnsheer over a decade ago.

Being invited into God’s “classroom,” so to speak, is like entering a pool of water that has infinite depth. And yet, the deeper you swim, the more you can see, the colors are more varied and more vibrant, and what prevents us from immersing even further isn’t the pressure but the intensity. A frail human being can only encounter so much of the mind of an infinitely complex God.

skyIn spite of MacArthur’s vast experience and the great volumes of materials he’s created, in spite of his many sermons (he’s just completed his goal of preaching through the entire New Testament verse by verse, from the beginning of Matthew to the end of Revelation), and indeed, in spite of his love of the Bible, which rivals the love of the most devout and observant Jewish person for Torah, there still are no colors in his pool, no shimmering schools of rainbow fish darting across its depths.

And yet, how can this be, when MacArthur in his chapter repeatedly references Psalm 19 and David’s own love of the Torah of God?

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

Psalm 19:7-11 (ESV)

I agree with MacArthur that the Bible is the written foundation, the Word of God upon which we stand. I agree with David that the Torah of God is perfect, reviving the soul, making the simple one wise, rejoicing the heart, enlightening the eyes, and much sweeter than any other taste or experience. Not to say that Christians must imitate Jewish religious and identity behaviors because that would be missing the point (although most people who believe Christians and Jews must observe the Torah in an identical manner do miss the point that, in all the important ways, we already do). Performing the mitzvot isn’t something we do because it is written on a list, and we don’t honor the Torah above Messiah or worship a scroll before God.

But when Christians say they want to be “Christ-like,” what does that mean? What does MacArthur expect when he drives Christians back to reading and studying their Bible? Like Paul it’s unlikely that he expects to turn Gentiles into Jews, and like James and the Elders, it’s unlikely he will “command” the church to wear tzitzit and lay tefillin, for even if we did, these would be only superficial signs of the deeper matters of Torah, and what we are still failing to do.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

Matthew 25:34-36

Is the Bible sufficient for teaching us how to live a basic life of righteousness, holiness, and compassion? Oh yes. The lessons aren’t that tough and in fact, it’s one of the easier teachings the Bible has to offer. Yes, there are complexities we encounter as we insert the expectations of God into our twenty-first century world and I’m not saying all of our moral and ethical decisions are “no brainers,” but how difficult is it to understand that we are to feed the hungry, visit the sick, and comfort the grieving as a response to loving the Bible and loving God?

How difficult is it to understand that by feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and comforting the grieving, we are learning how to love the Bible and to love God? Love and compassion are warm colors painted across the canvas of our lives by God. Sometimes we are the painter when we perform tzedakah, and sometimes we are the canvas when we allow God to tinge and hue our souls so that we will be emblazoned and illuminated.

The Bible is alive, almost as if it has an independent personality. Pastor Randy believes the Torah is alive and he is hardly a self-described mystic. But how else can we explain it?

Torah is not about getting to the truth.

When you are immersed in Torah, even while pondering the question, even while struggling to make sense of it all, you are at truth already.

Torah is about being truth.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Being, Not Getting”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

alizarin-crimsonLord kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven
Wear my love like heaven
Color sky havana lake
Color sky rose carmethene
Alizarian crimson

-lyrics from Wear Your Love Like Heaven (1967)
written by Donovan

To what shall we compare loving the Bible? Loving the Bible is like immersing in a pool of havana lake, like being encompassed overhead by an overarching rose carmethene sky…like being embraced in the richness of a shroud of alizain crimson.

Wear God’s love like heaven. Immerse in truth. Live truth. Be truth.

139 days.


John MacArthur and Struggling with Biblical Sufficiency, Part 2

doveThis is a continuation of yesterday’s “meditation” on John MacArthur and “Chapter 1: Embracing the Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture” from his book Think Biblically: Recovering a Christian Worldview. If you haven’t done so already, read Part 1 before continuing here.

In addressing Luke 16:27-31, MacArthur says:

The rich man’s perspective is the same view of many today who always seem to demand some kind of supernatural affirmation of spiritual truth. They imagine that the straightforward statements of Scripture and the power of the Gospel alone are not sufficient. But the Lord, through the words of the parable, argued otherwise and said that even though He Himself would rise from the dead, miracles are not necessary for the Gospel to do its work in changing lives. Why? Because the Word of God through the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit is powerful enough — it is all-sufficient in what it teaches about redemption and sanctification.

-MacArthur, pg 27

To the degree that the Bible records numerous miracles of God (Moses, the Reed Sea, millions of Israelites walk on dry land but the pursuing Egyptians drown under thousands of tons of water…that sort of thing), apparently they have their uses, but I do agree that miracles alone will not insure faith. If they did, then millions of Israelites wouldn’t have struggled in their trust of God and been condemned to die in the desert after a forty year walk.

Setting that aside, I still have a hard time figuring out what MacArthur believes about the Holy Spirit. Most Christians I talk to pray to God that the Spirit will give them wisdom and understanding in their studies of Scripture, but it almost sounds like MacArthur believes that once the Spirit was done inspiring the Bible’s writers, it split the scene, leaving the book behind and saying, “This is all you need…see you in the next life.”

I know that’s a little harsh and MacArthur, as a self-proclaimed Evangelical, probably does believe in a supernatural God and that there are certain supernatural mysteries we don’t understand right now. But in focusing on the sufficiency of the Bible, I kept getting the feeling that MacArthur was leaving the actual influence of God in our lives out of the equation. I got the feeling from MacArthur that the power of God’s Spirit was only found in the pages of the Bible. If that’s so, why pray? Just read.

I personally don’t think that anyone comes to God without His direct intervention in our experiences. I believe this is true of me. I don’t believe that some human being thumping a Bible and quoting its eloquent words convinced me to become a Christian. I know from my own story that a series of extremely unlikely events occurred over six to twelve months that finally convinced me God was involved in my life.

I had resisted the Word and Will of God for forty years and He finally convinced me…but I didn’t start actually reading the Bible until I was already going to church, and I promise you that I had no idea what I was reading for the first several years. In many ways, I’m still wrestling with God and struggling with the Bible. MacArthur makes it seem as if the Bible were as easy to comprehend and absorb as the latest best-selling fiction novel on the market. For me, the Bible is like living within a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous statement about Russia). It contains many wondrous things of God, but they are only revealed during the journey of a lifetime.

MacArthur spends the second half of his chapter supporting the sufficiency of the Bible from the point of view of the Torah and the Prophets. He presents a pretty good illustration of Jewish devotion to Torah. I was amazed because everything I know about him (which admittedly, isn’t that much) tells me that as a dispensationalist, he believes the Torah “goes away” after Jesus and is no longer “sufficient” for the Jewish believer.

In quoting the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9), MacArthur says:

That was a simple way to summarize the myriad commands God had given Moses. But the law of God — His revealed Word — was and is the one resource for life and godliness. Everywhere they went, the children of God were always to meditate on and apply the words of the living God. Those words were to occupy their attention as a source and centerpiece of everything. For His people, that is still God’s design for life.

ibid, pg 28

simhat-torahMacArthur uses the past and present tense about the sufficiency of Torah twice in the previous paragraph, but I’m not sure he realizes the implications. He’s trying to transfer how he sees the Israelites of the past being devoted to Torah across history to the modern-day Christians and the Bible without explaining that normative Protestant Christianity generally dismisses the vast majority of the Torah.

On page 29, MacArthur says “the law” is the Hebrew word “Torah” (yeah, I know), “which basically means divine teaching (emph. mine). In quoting Psalm 19:7 (“The law of the Lord is perfect”), he says that “perfect” can also mean “whole,” “complete,” or “sufficient.” He actually quotes from Psalm 19:7-9 which is part of the Shabbat liturgy in most synagogues, and those words are amazingly beautiful to me.

For pages and pages and pages, MacArthur cites a stream of examples from Judaism about the perfection of Torah, that it is “reviving,” “restoring,” “transforming,” “converting,” and “refreshing.” He speaks of Torah “making the simple one, wise.” He speaks of David praising the “precepts,” meaning divine principles, statutes, and guidelines.” At one point (Pg 31), he states:

The result of applying Scripture’s principles, obeying its precepts, and walking in its pathways is true joy — “rejoicing the heart.”

I wonder if he realized that from a Jewish point of view, it is the performance of the mitzvot, the commandments such as charity, hospitality, and compassion, that “rejoices the heart?” What MacArthur is praising isn’t just the sufficiency of the Bible, but the Jewish worldview (not Christian worldview) of the sufficiency of the Torah, the mitzvot and, for a Jew, the traditions.

He also said:

If those who claim to follow Christ today were as excited about scriptural precepts as they are about the materialism of this world, the character of the church would be wholly different, and our testimony to the world would be consistent and potent.

Actually, I agree with him, but I’d have changed that sentence to say:

If those who claim to follow Christ today were as excited about scriptural precepts as religious Jews are excited about the Torah and the mitzvot, the character of the church would be wholly different, and our testimony to the world would be consistent and potent.

There were a bunch of other “nitpicky” things I noted about MacArthur’s chapter, but what impressed me the most (as you can probably tell) was how “Jewish” he seems to feel, at least sometimes, about the Bible. I think he’s right that anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian needs to be constantly reading and studying the Bible.

I’ve just started reading John W. Mauck’s book Paul On Trial: The Book Of Acts As A Defense Of Christianity, and Donald A. Hagner in the Foreword says in part:

Just as ministry is the work of the people and not the clergy (who are to equip the saints for ministry according to Eph. 4:11-12), so to the Bible is the book of all the people of God, not the domain of biblical scholars only. Indeed the writings that make up the Bible are meant to be studied by every Christian. The Word of God was written, after all, not to scholars but to the people of God in communities of faith.

I agree and find Professor Hagner’s statement to be wonderfully affirming and empowering. In a number of ways, I agree with MacArthur, but I think he overstates the matter of Biblical sufficiency to the point of being dogmatic and inflexible. It’s as if he leaves no room for discussion and basically says, “It’s my way or the highway.”

I seriously doubt that Moses and Paul had an identical worldview of the Word of God because the world around each of these men was very different. How Torah was understood and applied was based on who each of these men were and what they were trying to accomplish in accordance with their mission from God.

MacArthur, in championing the sufficiency of the Bible, failed to mention needing to understand the original languages of the Bible and especially needing to understand the original contexts, cultures, experiences, and lifetimes of each of the Bible’s authors in order to get a more accurate picture of what they, and God, were trying to say. He failed to mention that how we understand the Bible begins at the level of translation and that the same words and phrases of Scripture can be translated differently, even very differently by different people depending on their biases and worldviews. This is particularly true when comparing Evangelical Christianity and any of the streams of modern, normative Judaism and most pointedly, Messianic Judaism.

bible_read_meI think MacArthur is right though in that many churches have, for the most part, set the Bible aside as irrelevant or archaic and thus unable to reach the people who are trying to reach God in the twenty-first century. Although I seriously doubt MacArthur intended to give this impression, I think that the mass exodus from “the church” isn’t because it thumps too hard on the Bible but because “the church” all but ignores the Bible. I think this is why at least some Gentile Christians have been transitioning into the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements, since both of these movements emphasize the study of and devotion to the Bible and specifically Torah.

If the church could learn one thing from the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements, it is the continual reading and studying of the Bible, including reading the Bible as part of worship.

I’m not ready to take every book I’ve ever read except for the Bible, and toss them all into a giant campfire. I don’t think other sources of information are useless. If I want to learn something about a web-based technical support product or how online merchants can fight fraud, I’m not going to find the answers just by reading the Bible (OK, those are pretty far out examples and probably MacArthur wouldn’t expect to find them in the Bible, either, but I’m trying to make a point).

The Bible is the single most important and influential document ever written and the world would not know God without it, but we can learn a great deal by reading and studying other material as well. Learning more in the fields of history and archeology relative to Biblical times greatly enhances what we understand about the Bible itself. I disagree that we must throw all this other “stuff” under a bus in order to rightly state that we are seeking an encounter with God and pursuing a life of righteousness.

I also disagree that the Bible is a simple book. I will spend the rest of my life studying the Word of God, and I don’t expect, at the end of my days, to be hardly anymore enlightened about its mysteries than I am right now. May God grant me the wisdom and understanding to see Him and His will for me somewhere in the pages of His Word.

139 days.