Four years ago this week, John MacArthur and the other speakers at the Strange Fire conference delivered a comprehensive critique of the charismatic church, exposing the blasphemous abuses of the Holy Spirit and God’s Word that pervade the movement. The response to the conference was overwhelming, but many of those errors still dominate charismatic doctrine and practice. Our goal is to fan the flames of this important discussion by continuing to call for discernment and discipline in charismatic circles. –GTY Staff
One of the defenses charismatics most often deploy in the face of criticism is the lingering threat of “the unpardonable sin.” They warn critics of the grave danger of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, and defend their own lack of discernment as an effort to avoid committing the deadly offense themselves.
But is that how we should understand Christ’s warning about the “blasphemy against the Spirit [which] shall not be forgiven” (Matthew 12:31)? Did Christ condemn anyone who challenges a so-called work of the Holy Spirit? Did He outlaw discernment when it comes to claims of supernatural signs and wonders?
Of course not. In his book Charismatic Chaos, John MacArthur explains how this misunderstanding of the unpardonable sin has deep roots in charismatic circles.
What is the sin against the Holy Spirit? Charles and Frances Hunter, a well-known charismatic husband-and-wife ministry team, have written several books and speak constantly on behalf of the charismatic experience.
While the Hunters are not scholars or theologians, they communicate readily with the average person; and their influence is widely felt wherever they give their interpretations of Scripture. In the introduction to their book Why Should “I” Speak in Tongues? The Hunters liken anyone who questions tongues or other aspects of the charismatic movement to the Pharisees who criticized Jesus and attributed His work to Satan.  Charles and Frances Hunter, Why Should “I” Speak in Tongues? (Houston: Hunter Ministries, 1976), np. The Hunters also imply that critics of the charismatic movement may be perilously close to committing the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  Why Should “I” Speak in Tongues?, 7-8. Are the Hunters correct? Does a challenge to charismatic doctrine equal blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? When someone denies that tongues are for today, or that the baptism of the Spirit is a post-salvation experience, has that person committed an unforgivable sin?  John MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 97.
Countless charismatic leaders like the Hunters have made similar accusations, including some who responded to John MacArthur’s book Strange Fire. In an article titled “Dear Dr. MacArthur,” R.T. Kendall wrote, “First, if your book purports the danger of offending the Holy Spirit with counterfeit worship, I fear you are in greater danger of offending the Holy Spirit by attributing His work to Satan.”
To be perfectly clear, I am not for a second claiming that Pastor MacArthur is blaspheming the Spirit (God forbid!), but in the New Testament, blasphemy of the Spirit is knowingly attributing the works of the Spirit to Satan (Mark 3:23-30), and I am far more concerned about denying the true fire than I am about putting out every aberrant charismatic brush fire.
Brown’s statement embodies the near-superstitious attitude many charismatics have when it comes to so-called works of the Spirit, as though any doubts whatsoever constitute the unpardonable sin. But that mindset cannot be what Christ intended—not when Scripture instructs believers to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1), and to imitate the noble Bereans, who “received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
Clearly, God wants His people to be discerning, especially when it comes to those who claim to speak on His behalf. In a sense, that was Christ’s point in His confrontation with the Pharisees in Matthew 12:22-32.
The passage begins with Jesus healing a demon-possessed man who was also blind and mute (Matthew 12:22). Verse 23 tells us, “All the crowds were amazed, and were saying, ‘This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?’” The people rightly understood that this miraculous power could only belong to the Messiah. In order to dissuade the crowd from that notion—which posed a direct threat to their own authority—the Pharisees circulated the blasphemous accusation that “This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 12:24).
John MacArthur explains the depraved depth of the Pharisees’ claim:
Beelzebub, the lord of the flies, was a Philistine deity. He was believed to be the prince of evil spirits, and his name became another term for Satan; what the Pharisees were saying was that Jesus cast out demons through the power of Satan.  Charismatic Chaos, 97.
While the Pharisees lacked the courage to make their wicked accusation to the Lord’s face, Scripture tells us He knew their thoughts (Matthew 12:25). He rebuked the Pharisees publicly, exposing the absurdity of their claim.
Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? (Matthew 12:25-26)
In simple terms, Christ showed just how ridiculous it would be for Satan to work against himself. He reduced the accusation to its nonsensical essence, and revealed the foolishness and perversion of the Pharisees’ hearts. As John MacArthur explains, “The Pharisees had such hatred for Christ that their logic was twisted. Instead of being rational, they were being ridiculous.”  Charismatic Chaos, 98. These men were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of Israel, and they were intentionally deceiving the people about obvious and undeniable displays of Christ’s divine power.
Having exposed the true nature of the Pharisees’ deceptive accusation and the hatred that consumed their hearts, Christ went on to condemn in the strongest possible terms their rejection of the Spirit’s work through Him.
Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12:31-32)
In his commentary on this passage, John MacArthur explains the nature and scope of Christ’s condemnation.
Jesus first stated that “any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men.” Although blasphemy is a form of sin, in this passage and context the two are treated separately-with blasphemy representing the most extreme form of sin. Sin here represents the full gamut of immoral and ungodly thoughts and actions, whereas blasphemy represents conscious denouncing and rejection of God. Blasphemy is defiant irreverence, the uniquely terrible sin of intentionally and openly speaking evil against holy God or defaming or mocking Him (cf. Mark 2:7). The Old Testament penalty for such blasphemy was death by stoning (Leviticus 24:16). In the last days blasphemy will be an outstanding characteristic of those who rebelliously and insolently oppose God (Revelation 13:5–6; 16:9; 17:3). . . .
But “the blasphemy against the Spirit” was something more serious and irremediable. It not only reflected unbelief, but determined unbelief-the refusal, after having seen all the evidence necessary to complete understanding, even to consider believing in Christ. This was blasphemy against Jesus in His deity, against the Spirit of God who uniquely indwelt and empowered Him. It reflected determined rejection of Jesus as the Messiah against every evidence and argument. It reflected seeing the truth incarnate and then knowingly rejecting Him and condemning Him. It demonstrated an absolute and permanent refusal to believe, which resulted in loss of opportunity ever to “be forgiven . . . either in this age, or in the age to come.”  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 8-15 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), 311-312.
That’s an important distinction, and a far cry from the threat leaders in the charismatic movement wield to dash discernment and sow gullibility in their congregations. Through the twisting of Christ’s words, charismatics have frightened their followers into never questioning their claims or measuring their teaching against Scripture, deceiving them with the notion that doubting supernatural claims is the unpardonable sin. Meanwhile they continue to blaspheme the Holy Spirit by crediting Him with their parlor tricks and incoherent ramblings.
God’s people must not stand for this abuse of His Word. We need to speak out against anyone who would falsely use the threat of eternal damnation to silence their critics and stifle the discernment of their followers.
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