PHIL: Hi, I’m Phil Johnson, Executive Director of Grace to You, and I am in the studio today with John MacArthur. John, I wanted to talk to you about the charismatic movement. It’s been four years since the Strange Fire Conference, and we thought it would be good to have a little retrospective and follow-up.
JOHN: Yeah, I’m confident that that will continue to be an issue. It does not go away. In fact, it seems that it morphs into an even more extreme version as time goes on.
The thing that is so sad to me, Phil, is the people who proclaim themselves as teachers and representatives of God are unwilling to do even what the Bereans did, and that is to compare the things they say with the Scripture in an honest way. And that, to me, is evidence that there’s no righteous intent behind this. This is part of the adversary’s strategy.
PHIL: And that pretty much sums up the challenge we made at the Strange Fire Conference and you make in the book. And I don’t know; I would assume your experience is like mine. For four years, literally everywhere I have gone I meet people who say, “I was a charismatic, but either the book or the conference Strange Fire led me out of that. And thank you for that.” I’m sure you run into as many people as I do.
JOHN: It’s constant. Yeah, I’ve been back east at a conference not long ago. It happens to me almost every Sunday at Grace Church somebody comes and says, “I came out of the charismatic movement because of the book Strange Fire, or because of the Strange Fire Conference.” And I actually believe, Phil – and, you know, I mean this is just kind of a broad statement to say. But I believe that Christians will find their way out sooner rather than later. I think it’s a great place for non-Christians to belong.
I think a true believer with a real hunger for the Word of God, and a genuine love for God, and a believer that is under the influence of the Holy Spirit has to be led out of, certainly, the abhorrent aspects of that movement. You can’t be a Spirit-filled, Spirit-led true believer, and be at home with the outrageous misrepresentations of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit that exists in that movement.
PHIL: You’ve been concerned about the charismatic movement for a long time. I think the first book I ever read by John MacArthur was The Charismatics. I read it in 1979. I think the book was published at the end of ’78, and somebody gave me a copy of it, and I read it, and I thought it was one of the best books I’d ever read; and it answered tons of questions that I had about the charismatic movement. You wrote – actually, we expanded that book a couple of – maybe a decade-and-a-half later, around 1992. Charismatic Chaos includes everything that original book had and more. And then you did Strange Fire.
JOHN: Yeah. You know, going back, I had problems with the charismatic movement as a student. I was relentless about adherence to Scripture; I felt everything had to be measured against the Word of God. And I saw even in the early forms of Pentecostalism, I saw some serious issues. It was Arminian in its theology. It put salvation in the hands of the sinner. It had a weak view of human depravity. It had a weak view of salvation, because you could be saved and be lost, and be saved and be lost; and it was the kind of theological milieu in which more error could easily rise. And then there was the Charles Finney thing and all of the excesses there.
So from the early years of my exposure to the Pentecostal movement, I had serious questions about that movement and about where it was going to go. Too much power given to experience, personal experience. And then when – you have to remember this – then the charismatic movement started, it started about five miles from Grace Community Church.
JOHN: Not the Pentecostal movement, but the charismatic movement. It jumped out of Pentecostalism into mainline denominations. It was Dennis Bennett who was a rector at an Episcopalian church not far from Grace Community Church, and the Pentecostal movement had gone mainstream, and then it began to go from there. So I was right here at the epicenter of all of that. And, of course, then it attached itself to Southern California where you had Aimee Semple McPherson and the Foursquare gospel, and that was the biggest form of Pentecostalism here. But I was there at the beginning, and I had serious questions from the very outset because of my view of Scripture and my view of interpreting Scripture, and how critical that was. And when I decided to write the book The Charismatics everybody was on my side. Everybody was on my side.
PHIL: I remember that.
JOHN: You may have been at Moody at the time –
PHIL: I was.
JOHN: because Moody Monthly was a big magazine, and it was probably as popular a Christian magazine as was around in the country, and they said, “We want to serialize that book in the magazine.” And they weren’t even the publisher of the book. And out came a copy of Moody Monthly with The Charismatics as the cover of the book right on the front of the magazine, and they serialized the entire book in Moody Monthly. And it was like, “Of course we’re going to do this, because this is wrong, this is not biblical, and we all know that.” Evangelicalism, fundamental Christianity took a collectively strong stand against that charismatic movement. They saw it as nothing more than an aberration, a threatening aberration of the old Pentecostalism which they had already rejected.
Well, it wasn’t long after that that I remember Moody Network, radio network, telling us we had to take messages preached against the charismatic movement off Grace to You or they wouldn’t put them on the air. Well, nothing had happened to the Bible, nothing had happened to sound doctrine. But what was happening in the evangelical world was the charismatic movement was making massive inroads and developing such popularity that Christina media was afraid to offend their constituency.
PHIL: Yeah. And it happened with such speed it left your head spinning.
JOHN: I know.
PHIL: Was there a specific event that prompted you to write that book in the ’70? In fact, you preached a series from which that book was drawn, and it was unusual for you, because as I recall, I wasn’t here at the time, but I think that was a topical series. And you usually went verse-by-verse through a book at a time. You did go verse-by-verse through sections of Corinthians, 1 Corinthians, as part of that series. But the broader series was a topical series that you decided to do. What prompted you to do that?
JOHN: Let me go way back when I was a kid. You’ll remember the name Marjoe Gortner.
PHIL: Yes, right.
JOHN: Marjoe was a boy preacher.
JOHN: Marjoe, you’d see him on TV; and this is way back. He was a boy preacher, a Pentecostal boy preacher. Then he grew up and he became a young man, and he became a really clever conman. I’m still a student at the time. Marjoe Gortner’s holding these big meetings, these charismatic meetings, healing people supposedly, doing all the shtick that charismatics do. And then a video comes out, and it shows him sitting on a bed in a motel throwing dollars in the air. He’s just becoming filthy rich at the hands of all these people who are being bilked. At the time, my dad went on the news, and my dad was interviewed on some television news program about what he thought of Marjoe Gortner, and it was an expose of a guy who was a train wreck. I mean his life was a total train wreck.
Then there was A. A. Allen, another one of those same kind of guys. And then there came that ubiquitous Oral Roberts who was absolutely everywhere all the time; and I watched the same things going on there. And I think it was the Oral Roberts phenomena that finally brought me to the point; and there were others. But it was really the power of Oral Roberts to begin to reach into mainstream evangelicalism with his deceptive teaching. There was a book that somebody wrote that told the truth about Oral Roberts, how he would write a book, and then he would have his ministry buy the books and pay him massive royalties, and then give the books away. I mean there was just scandalous things going on all around.
I don’t know what the ultimate trigger was. But Oral Roberts sort of, I guess maybe because of his dominance on television, took this thing to a level that I hadn’t seen before. It all seemed scammy up to that point.
PHIL: Yeah. In fact, I lived in Tulsa in those years. Oral Roberts University was in my backyard. My best friend through junior high and high school was the son of a fairly well-known Pentecostal faith healer, and they all had ties in Tulsa. That’s where Kenneth Hagin was, Kenneth Copeland studied there, and so Tulsa was the charismatic capital of the world. And in that decade early in the ‘70s, I think, or it may have been even late in the ‘60s, Oral Roberts left the Pentecostal church and joined the local Methodist church, Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa, specifically with the agenda of trying to bring this Pentecostal practice into mainstream denominations.
JOHN: You know, I don’t know that I would have written a book against Pentecostalism, because it was already defined. We all knew that it was not scriptural, it was not biblical. It was an aberrant form of Christianity. But once it jumped into mainstream and you started having mainline denominations accepting this movement, that’s when I saw it as a threat. And, again, I guess I thought Oral Roberts was making huge inroads.
But it wasn’t just him, it was the fact that there were other pastors and church leaders being open to this. It seemed to be no longer clear to people where the biblical definitions of spiritual life were. I mean there was this floating idea of spirituality, and they claimed to hear from God; and the Lord spoke to them, and told them this, and gave them this supernatural power to do all these things. And I knew behind-the-scenes this was all lies and deception. But I think when it jumped into the mainline denominations is when I realized, for whatever reason, I feel like I needed to protect the church – you know that about me. I said, “I’ve got to write something.”
PHIL: It’s intriguing, isn’t it, that when Pentecostal theology made that leap, it went to the liberal denominations first. Episcopalianism, Dennis Bennett. United Methodism, which was already liberal when Oral Roberts joined there. That’s, in a way, surprising; but in a way, not, because these were spiritually dead churches and –
JOHN: Yeah. It even went into Catholicism.
JOHN: There were Catholic charismatics very early on in that movement. Yeah, that was fertile soil, unconverted people in I guess you could say false forms of Christianity: dead, liberal denominations, Roman Catholic Church, unconverted people looking for an experience that would make them think they had a real connection with God, when in truth, they didn’t.
I’ve always said that, you know. The charismatic movement is not faith, it is doubt looking for proof. They’re people living in doubt. I think they’re deeply fearful in many cases, deeply worried, deeply traumatized by their spiritual condition, and they don’t know what it is to have the love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control that comes as a fruit of the Spirit. And they’re reaching out for something external to validate themselves spiritually so they know they’re okay.
And then you have now, of course, a whole generation who just wants an experience. And now charismatic movement now has basically morphed into music. It’s just a mesmerizing hypnotic, sensual music event, if you look at it in the God TV format, in the youth-oriented format. It always was driven at giving people a false spiritual experience, and that becomes important to people who are worried about their condition before God.
PHIL: Now does it surprise you that these days now there are many charismatics who are reformed charismatics? They hold to a fundamentally reformed soteriology. They’re people who understand the gospel, and would in many cases be on the same page as us theologically, except when it comes to the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
JOHN: No. I would say they’re not charismatics, they’re reformed noncessationists. If you’re reformed, you are not a charismatic. Charismatic is a label that belongs to an aberration. There are reformed people who don’t find a convincing argument for chapter and verse that says the Holy Spirit is no longer giving certain spiritual gifts. Okay, I can understand that. I can understand if somebody says, “Look, show me the verse where it says that tongues stopped once and for all, and it doesn’t go on anymore. Show me a verse where it says there’ll never be another miracle, there’ll never be another healing.” And when you make a case biblically and you make a case historically for the cessation of these things, they may say, “I don’t necessarily see that.”
I fully understand a reformed person who is a faithful student of Scripture having a problem coming to the conclusion that all miracles and gifts have ceased. That is a completely different issue than the charismatic movement where you have a wrong understanding of God, a wrong understanding of Christ, a wrong understanding of the Holy Spirit, a warped understanding of revelation, divine revelation where you have revelation being given all the time in addition to Scripture, a wrong understanding of who’s a prophet and who’s not, a wrong understanding of who’s an apostle, a wrong understanding of sanctification, a wrong understanding of biblical interpretation. That charismatic movement is all over the place on those things.
But there are people that I know and people that I have respect for who don’t want to say that the sign gifts have ceased, even though I think the argument is very valid; and that’s the argument that we make in the book Strange Fire. We made it in Charismatic Chaos. We made it in The Charismatics. We can make it again and again, any commentary on the New Testament. First Corinthians, the book of Acts, you’re going to find those same arguments for the cessation for the spiritual gifts that were miraculous: the signs of an apostle. But I can understand somebody not wanting to shut that door for whatever reasons. That is a completely different category of people than those people who buy into the theology of Kenneth Copeland, or Benny Hinn, or any of the others, the Crouches, whoever it is.
There was a tape that I heard the other day of Costi Hinn being interviewed. He’s related to Benny Hinn, his nephew; worked with him for a long time. And the interviewer asked him, “Why do they do this? Why does Benny Hinn do this? Why does Paula White do this? Why do all these charismatic leaders and teachers do this?” And he said, “Three things: power, money, and the darkness.” I was stunned by the fact that he said that: the darkness.
I believe that movement is a movement of the darkness. I think there are people who have not yet been delivered from the kingdom of darkness. It is a movement of the darkness, not the light. But there are people, again, who are in the light, and who have been delivered from the darkness. They’re in the light, they see the truth, they believe the truth, they believe the gospel, they believe the Scripture. But they choose to hold onto the fact that God may still be doing certain things that He did in apostolic times, and they don’t want to shut that door.
At the same time having said that, I don’t know anybody in reformed theology who would say, “I’m a noncessationist, so I’m having a healing meeting. I’m going to heal a bunch of people.” Or who would say, “I’m reformed. I don’t believe in the cessation of the gifts, so I’m getting divine revelation, and I’m going to be writing down the divine revelation that I get.”
I think what it comes out to is they want to leave room for it, but they’ve never experienced it. They don’t want to shut it down. But at the same time, all that Benny Hinn is claiming, and all that these other people are claiming, none of them are claiming that.
PHIL: Yet, although they do come close at times, to be fair. And it’s a helpful distinction you make, because I think the number one criticism I heard in the wake of the Strange Fire Conference was you all paint with a broad brush, you know, and you’re making a distinction now between a reformed noncessationist and charismatics.
On the other hand, it’s the reformed noncessationists who have really shifted the focus of charismatic teaching away from the gift of tongues, which was the big thing in old Pentecostalism. Now it’s the gift of prophecy. And the way the gift of prophecy is used and abused is troublesome, is it not, even among our reformed friends.
JOHN: It is very troublesome. But they play fast and loose with the reality of that –
JOHN: because they say it’s a prophecy, but it could be wrong.
JOHN: Could be wrong; could be right. All they’ve done, all they’ve done – now here’s the difference. A charismatic would say, “The Lord told me this, blah-blah-blah-blah. God told me this. God told me this.”
The noncessationist who believes in the gift of prophecy would say, “You know, I had this strong sense of a message that I needed to say to somebody, and I think that it could be prophecy.” I think they’ve just kicked the fences open a little bit and made more room for – and that’s been the argument that I’ve made.
Look, you can’t – if you’re going to say that you received a prophecy like a prophet in the Bible, then you’ve got an absolutely divine word. Now if you tell me that you get prophecies, but, you know, they’re all over the place, and maybe they’re true, and maybe they’re not, you’d better find another name for that, because, you know, that might be what you ate last night.
JOHN: That’s not prophecy.
PHIL: Yeah. We used to call it intuition or something.
PHIL: Yeah. But there isn’t really a hard line between the two sides of the movement; and that’s part of the problem here that some of the better, sounder charismatics –
JOHN: Okay. Well, you nailed it right there, Phil. There has to be a hard line. I mean that’s so well said. I want that hard line. That’s what the charismatic movement has to have. You have to put a wall between sound biblical theology and the charismatic movement. There has to be a hard line there. The charismatic movement is a completely separate thing.
Again, going back to what I said earlier. The problem is, if you are reformed, and you’re sound in your theology, and you want to allow in some amorphous kind of undefinable way for some of the charismatics experiences, you have let, you have let the bad stuff leak under your wall, because there’s no connection between the two. I think we need a very hard line. I think, look, the entire mess of the evangelical church, the total chaos of the evangelical church is a product of the charismatic movement. The whole mess is a product of the charismatic movement. And it comes down to this – and I’m talking about the contemporary problem. Obviously, liberalism was a problem in the past generation.
JOHN: And we fought that battle and came up with the solution in the inerrancy of Scripture; and that was a great, triumphant time in history. Really liberalism did massive damage, but the true evangelical church rose up against it and fought back, started in the fundamentals in the early 1900s and follow all the way through to the Chicago Council on Biblical Inerrancy, and we fought that battle. The charismatic movement came along and didn’t want to talk about doctrine, didn’t want to argue with doctrine, they just wanted to flood the evangelical world with experience, all kinds of experience in feeling, in emotion, and, “Let’s love everybody,” and it skirted all the doctrinal issues, and it was dependent on uneducated people, untrained people, people who lacked precision; and it was dependent on everybody embracing somebody’s experience, and it just kept going from there and going from there. And it reaches bizarre forms like The Shack, you know, where you have God being, you know, a southern Black woman, and the writings that where Jesus speaks in the first-person, and Jesus Calls, and all of that. But all of that mess basically morphed into a kind of contemporary Christianity that is just all over, all over everywhere.
Look, if you don’t say you’re reformed to me and you say you’re a Christian, I have no idea what you are. It’s not like it used to be: you’re either reformed, or maybe you’re Arminian. If you’re not reformed, what are you? What combination of things are you? So I think the damage that has been done by the charismatic movement has been absolutely pervasive throughout evangelicalism. And at the end of the day, it moves the Bible out. It basically eliminates the Bible. It replaces the Bible with experience, intimidation about loving everybody, and being embracing, and sort of spiritually, politically correct. It pushes the Bible to the perimeter.
Here’s the difference. In the Liberal Era, the liberals said, “The Bible is not true.” I don’t think a charismatic’s going to say that. By saying the Bible is not true, the liberals destroyed the denominations. They put that in the seminaries; they trained men who didn’t believe the Bible was true; they went in and destroyed the churches.
The charismatic movement says, “The Bible is true, but so is this, and so is that, and so is my experience. And I can hear God telling me what this means,” and it has the same destructive influence on the church. I think liberal churches were emptied of people by bad theology. The irony is charismatic churches are filled with people by the presence of bad theology.
The devil has figured out a way to make error attractive, and it primarily goes along the lines of moving people musically. You notice they all have music; usually even while they’re preaching there’s organs playing. But, yeah, the liberal movement emptied the church; the charismatic movement has filled false churches with unconverted people looking for some kind of emotional experience.
PHIL: Now the typical charismatic would say – would point to the fact that so many charismatic churches are large and full, and the charismatic movement is spreading, even in formerly unevangelized parts of the world. They would point to that and say, “That’s proof that God has blessed that movement.”
JOHN: Yeah, like Islam.
JOHN: Because Islam spread over the earth, that’s proof that God is blessing Islam. I don’t think so. No, the devil is the god of this world. He’s the prince of the power of the air, and he’s the spirit that works in the children of disobedience, and he’s the ruler of the present age and present world. The spread of the charismatic movement is simply an indication that there will always be religion. Man will always come up with religion; and Satan will always counterfeit it, and he’ll counterfeit it as cleverly as he can. And the most clever counterfeit, at least the most clever form of false Christianity in the current picture is the charismatic movement.
Think back a little bit, Phil. Before the charismatic movement really reached the levels that it has now in these big mega churches, psychology between liberalism it seems like – in just looking back glancing – between the liberal assault and the charismatic assault, there were a few years there where we had this psychology thing going on. And psychology sort of trumped the Bible, and trumped the Holy Spirit; and pastors were saying things like, “Well, you know, the Holy Spirit can do His work, but not until you’ve seen a counselor and had proper psychological help.” Psychology tried to intrude.
I think sometimes the devil is experimenting. That didn’t work. Psychology didn’t work in the church, because it didn’t work outside the church; it doesn’t work anywhere. But the devil, in this case, has found something that works, and it works; it’s ubiquitous. It works all over the planet; it works everywhere. You look at Africa: massive, massive congregations of people. And, you know, every time you turn around, you pick up a newspaper and find out whoever’s running the deal, just absconded with a bunch of money; or he’s been going to bed with all these wives. I mean it’s a horrendous thing.
But the success of Satan’s fake religious enterprise, or the success of counterfeit Christianity today in the charismatic movement I haven’t seen before. I’ve seen – his work of liberalism destroys the church and empties them. The psychology thing didn’t fly. This, this has worked very successfully. All over the planet, you can gather people.
PHIL: And it’s amazing, amazing too. I mean you and I have seen this in our lifetime. I became a Christian in 1971, and the charismatic movement was still quite new. I think your book The Charismatics was the first written critique of the charismatic movement that I had ever read.
There was a lot of stuff, or a few important books critiquing old-style Pentecostalism. But you’re right, and it’s something you said earlier intrigued me. You didn’t need to write a book on that; it was so obviously different from evangelical Christianity, that old Pentecostalism really was regarded almost as a cult or quasi cult.
JOHN: Yeah. People did write books on speaking in tongues –
JOHN: because they were trying to show the truth about that. Or might write a book on, “Does the Bible promise healing?” But, yeah, my book in my remembrance was the first time that anybody wrote a book on the charismatic movement, calling into question their view of Scripture. That was the whole point of that book. They’ve got Revelation. This is not tolerable; and “anything’s added to this book shall be added to him the plagues that are written it.” That’s how Revelation ends.
So, yeah, I think it was, eventually for me, it was the attack on Scripture that the charismatic movement was making, and still makes. And they make it constantly. I just die when I hear a charismatic preacher on TV. Just totally misrepresents Scripture. Take the Scripture and use it as a pretext for something he wants to say that has nothing to do with the true interpretation of the text.
And maybe it’s the fear in my own heart that I would misrepresent the Word of God. That’s a sacred stewardship for me, as you know; it is for you too. I don’t want to ever say, “God said,” when He didn’t. But to just take the Bible and make it say whatever you want it to say to manipulate people to get what you want out of it, that’s what Satan does.
PHIL: Right. Yeah. And, you know, one of the most amazing things about the growth of the charismatic movement over the years is it seems each wave of phenomena is a little bit more bizarre than the previous. Have you noticed that? I mean it was the laughing revival.
JOHN: Oh, sure.
PHIL: And then, you know, it’s gold coming from the ceiling, and then grave-sucking. And it’s just like every new charismatic fad has to be more bizarre than the previous ones; and yet that doesn’t seem to be a turnoff to anybody. People who have, up to this point, stayed away from the charismatic movement suddenly go running after the latest bizarre phenomena. How do you explain that?
JOHN: Wasn’t it P. T. Barnum who said, “There’s a sucker born every minute”?
PHIL: It was, yes.
JOHN: And they continue to be born and grow up, chasing that wild experience. It’s just part of fallen human nature. You know, that’s where I see such a distinction. When someone has a hunger to know God, when the Holy Spirit regenerates someone, when the Lord is at work at someone, He’s convicting them of sin and righteousness and judgment, write John. When does that happen in a charismatic nuthouse? Who’s being convicted of sin and righteousness and judgment?
JOHN: And where is some clear presentation of the gospel? I’ve been listening just for the critique sake of it, to some charismatic preachers, some of sort of the second-line ones, not the well-known ones that we all know, but some of these that parade across TV; and every single one of them speaks in the first-person, and it’s all autobiographical, “And I went here, and I went there. And the Lord told me this, and the Lord told me that. And then I said this, and then I went here, and the Lord showed me this.”
It is the utter nonsense that people spin out of their own imagination. And I ask myself, “Who wants this? Why would I go to that?” If I’m going to go to hear somebody talk about a personal experience, maybe I would like to hear an experience that’s really dramatic and exciting or funny. But just to hear somebody drone on about himself; what is the attraction? And my response is this: it’s certainly not going to be an audience full of people who are under the conviction of the Holy Spirit regarding sin and righteousness and judgment.
JOHN: When God begins to work in a heart, when the Spirit does His convicting work, that place is no satisfaction. That is a collection of people who have certain fears, anxieties; who maybe want some connection with God; who, more than that, want some connection with other people. I think the charismatic movement can be explained sociologically far more than theologically. It’s not about theology; it’s not even about conversion. It’s not about salvation; it’s not about redemption. It’s about belonging; it’s about having fun; it’s about feeling good. And that’s what the movement has basically found. You know, go back to Pentecostalism and you had hell fire and damnation preachers in Pentecostalism. You don’t have those now. Joel Osteen, to be really honest, Joel Osteen sounds like what I would think Satan would want to sound like in today’s generation.
PHIL: Yeah. Sin, righteousness, and judgment are practically forbidden words in that context.
JOHN: No. You can’t use those words.
JOHN: This is perfect. This is how you collect a whole bunch of people who are under the illusion that they’re coming near to God when they’re not. Yeah, that’s the perfect ploy: don’t talk about sin, don’t talk about judgment, don’t talk about righteousness, don’t talk about the cross in any detail, don’t talk about hell. That is a complete indication that there is no work of the Holy Spirit in that place.
PHIL: Right, and the phenomena –
JOHN: Could some people be Christians there? Yes. Christians can be sucked in on that, right? Paul says to the Galatians, “I can’t believe that you so soon are tolerating a false gospel. My concern is you’ve got Christian people upholding these people. How can you do that? How can you tolerate that false gospel? You know better as a Christian. But Christians can get to a point where they tolerate a false gospel. I’ve been saying that a little bit.
What’s the problem with that? Okay. Why is the church in the world? The church is in the world to proclaim the gospel. If you were saved by the true gospel, and you know you were, and you start to tolerate a false gospel, or you get wide in your tolerances, you’re going to give concessions to the Roman Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox, and, you know, maybe the Mormons, and the charismatics; and, you know, “They’re all Christians. We want to accept them all,” you’re useless to the kingdom of God, because you have just bought into lies. And you’re affirming something that the Bible says is anathema, a false gospel. And so churches that are in the world for the purpose of evangelism have so embraced false gospels along with true gospels that they’re basically useless, that people have – they don’t have the precision to know what the true gospel is.
PHIL: That’s a really strong point the more I think of it, because Jesus was very specific in the Upper Room Discourse that the Holy Spirit would convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. That’s the message of the Holy Spirit; and it’s missing from the majority of the charismatic movement.
On the other side, Paul says the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, including self-control – you look at the phenomena that have garnered the most attention over the past three decades in the charismatic movement, and the one thing they all have in common is an utter lack of self-control: the uncontrolled laughter, being slain in the Spirit, all the phenomena. How do you explain people’s fascination with that?
JOHN: Well, I mean, you know, there used to be freak shows at the circus. I mean people like freaky, weird behavior – witness television.
I think, again, Phil, there is this sense of God built into humanity, and this sense that “I need to find a spiritual path. And if I can find a spiritual path that’s novel and fun, and makes me feel good, and I belong, and there are people like me there, and I might find a boyfriend or a girlfriend or some friendships, I think it’s sociological. I think it’s emotional. I think people need connections; they need emotional connections.
You know, the first Sunday I was ever at Grace Church I preached “How to Play Church.”
PHIL: Matthew 7.
JOHN: Yeah. February 9, 1969. And I went to Matthew 7, and I said, “Who are these people? Many will say unto Me, ‘Lord, Lord, you know, we did this in Your name, and did that in Your name.’ And I’ll hear from the Lord, ‘Depart from Me, I never knew you, you workers of iniquity.’”
It always has struck me that the broad road, which says heaven but goes to hell, is full of people. It’s a broad gate, and it’s a broad road. And I think maybe, maybe as much as ever in America and other parts of the world, that broad road is filled by the charismatic movement.
PHIL: Now back to something you mentioned: the charismatic attack on Scripture. To hear that expression might surprise some of our listeners. But I would say that probably the main aspect of charismatic doctrine that is problematic is just that, that it undermines the sufficiency and uniqueness and authority of Scripture.
JOHN: It absolutely does. And that’s why when I wrote the original book in The Charismatics, the first chapters in that book were on that issue. That was my concern. It was a weak view of Scripture, and aberrant view of Scripture; and I might add hastily, that where you have a weak view or an aberrant view of Scripture, you have no particular interest in hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. If you have a weak view of the Bible, if you think the Bible is kind of a fluid document – and, you know, there were people who were literally storing up the revelations they were getting from God, and they had people wrote about having stacks and stacks of revelations from God that they’ve put alongside their Bibles; that’s nothing new. The Catholic Church has done it, the Orthodox Church has done it, the cults have all done it. They have additional revelation.
Where you have a loose view of Scripture, you have no particular interest in hermeneutics, which is the principles of interpretation. So even if you have the Bible, you don’t really care about any kind of precise interpretation. So it’s, you know, close your eyes, and stick your finger on a page, and find a verse, you know, and let God tell you what it means approach. So even the charismatics who would say, “We believe the Bible is the Word of God,” have such a loose view of revelation that it’s so flexible, that it’s flexible even in its interpretation; and that is just deadly, because now the Bible means whatever you want it to mean.
PHIL: Yeah. In fact, I think one of the most important things I ever learned from you early on is that the first, most important question about any given biblical text is, “What does this mean?” That’s the first thing you have to ask. That’s not a concern in the charismatic movement.
JOHN: No. No. Well, you never heard a charismatic preacher get up and take a verse and say, “Here are several possibilities; let’s dig into this text and see what the text really means.” Let me give you something that I said the other day.
I was talking to some people about The Master’s University and The Master’s Seminary, and they were asking me – this is the ninetieth year of The Master’s University, ninety years: “How is it that The Master’s University’s still so solidly committed to the Word of God and hasn’t wavered, while other schools have?” And I said, “Apart from our view of Scripture, the absolute inerrancy and authority of Scripture, there’s one doctrine that is most important to me.”
And I even asked a group of men on the board at the school. I said, “I want you to go to lunch.” We were having a board meeting. “There’s one doctrine that is critical to me. Apart from the authority of Scripture, we all affirm that. What one doctrine do you think is the most important? Go to lunch, talk about it, and come back.”
So they came back. I said, “What’s your answer?” Nobody knew. And I said, “Here’s the answer: creation, creation, because Genesis 1 and 2 says, ‘God created the universe in six days.’ It’s not ambiguous, it’s what it says. If you don’t believe that, then I can’t trust you with anything in the Bible.”
What has held this institution for ninety years is even when science has mast its greatest assault on the Bible, even when science has written reams and reams and incalculable amounts of literature proclaiming evolution, even when the entire science world has held up evolution, we don’t budge. That’s the anchor. It’s that that holds us. We take the Word at face value.
And, you know, the lights went on for those guys. I said, “Look, if you’re a faculty member, and you’re coming here, and you’re going to say, ‘I believe the gospel,; I believe in Jesus Christ, I believe in the Trinity and all that; and I’m going to teach English, or chemistry, or, you know, business marking, so something,’ I’m going to ask you this question: ‘Do you believe in six-day creation as indicated in Genesis 1 and 2?’ If you say, ‘Well, you know, I don’t know if I’m sure about that,’ bye; next. I can’t trust you with anything else in Scripture.”
So I think it’s where the Scripture has been assaulted the most that you find out who the people are who stand true. And that just doesn’t happen in a charismatic movement. There’s just not that level of commitment and precision; and, therefore, anything and everything is up for grabs.
I don’t know that I’ve ever actually heard a sensible, thorough explanation of the doctrine of regeneration, or the doctrine of imputation from a charismatic. Now I know there are noncessationist reform people who get that; that’s why I want to make a difference in those categories.
PHIL: Right. Now I know you well enough to know the answer to this question. But let’s put it on the record. You would take this same approach that you take with creation to any of the miracles described in Scripture. You believe that what Scripture says is literally true. And when Scripture says, “Jonah was eaten by a fish,” for example, that literally happened. Right?
JOHN: Yes, that’s what the Bible says. I don’t question the Bible.
PHIL: So your problem with the charismatic movement is not that you don’t believe God can do miracles.
JOHN: God can do whatever He wants. I say, you know, why are people so caught up in miracles? Providence is a bigger miracle than a miracle.
JOHN: And in providence, God doesn’t suspend natural law, He just coordinates all the zillions of independent acts by people, and makes them all come out perfectly to accomplish His purpose.
PHIL: Right. So He’s ultimately sovereign over everything that happens
JOHN: Well, yeah. It’s one thing to say, you know, “God could stop nature and do something.” But how in the world can God allow all these contingencies and have it all end up in His perfect will?
PHIL: Yeah, yeah.
JOHN: So is God capable of that? Sure. Can God do what He wants to do? Yes. But has God chosen throughout redemptive history to interrupt the course of normal historical life, constantly doing miracles? The answer is no. There are only a few times in the Old Testament when there were brief seasons of God doing miracles, and there was only that explosive Apostolic Age. And when God is doing miracles, they’re visible, certainly in the case of Christ and the apostles.
But the bigger question is not, “Can God do miracles?” Of course, He can do anything He wants. And by the way, most miracles in the Bible – people might not think about this – most miracles in the Bible, and certainly the most massive miracles in the Bible were judgments. If you want to start seeing miracles, start in Genesis 6 when He drowned the entire world. You talk about a miracle. There was nothing natural about the flood. It was supernatural, miraculous work. If you want more miracles in the Old Testament, you’ll find most of them were judgment miracles. Drowning Pharaoh’s army, there’s a miracle.
You don’t see God doing willy-nilly healings of everybody throughout redemptive history as recorded in Scripture. So I would never want to limit God. But God will be true to His revelation and to the patterns that He has chosen in the past. And miracles fit a certain time period to validate prophets and apostles and the person of Jesus Christ.
Now, you don’t need a miracle to validate a prophet, you don’t need a miracle to validate an apostle; you measure everything against the Scripture. And I’ve asked this question so many times: “If God was doing miracles, would He give that power to false prophets?”
If God was giving miracle power, would He give it to Benny Hinn who’s a false prophet? Would He give it to Paula White who’s a woman false prophet? If God was giving miraculous power, it would be to validate a true prophet. So find the most faithful teacher of Scripture, the soundest theologian alive in any generation, and you would expect him to have the miracle power; not heretics and oddballs.
PHIL: Now you do believe that God intervenes at times. I know, for example, you pray for the sick. Right?
JOHN: I do pray for the sick. I was just in the hospital a couple nights ago praying, holding the hand of my friend who is deeply ill. I’ve never seen a miracle. I’ve been in a lot of hospitals; I’ve seen some wonderful things happen. I’ve never seen somebody without a leg all of a sudden get one. I’ve never seen somebody without an eye get an eye. I’ve never seen someone who was blind from birth all of a sudden open up their eyelids and two new eyes were there. People don’t come back from the dead. Nobody that I’ve ever heard of walked out of a casket.
But what are you talking about when you say miracles? I’ve seen the Lord heal somebody who maybe had cancer or something like that. I don’t know the extent of that miracle. You know, they say that when we die, if we live to, you know, kind of a normal age, and we die; if an autopsy were done on us, we’d probably have cancer somewhere. We’d have something, you know, wrong somewhere.
We’re not going to reverse the curse, right? So we don’t always know what we have. So I don’t know, you know. If you say, “If you pray for someone, the Lord can do some wonderful things to heal them.” At the same time, I encourage people that I’m praying for to get to the best doctor they can, because there’s no promises. And we want to take advantage of the goodness of the Lord, that He’s provided common grace and things for us.
But, you know, really, to see someone, for example, who was born with muscular dystrophy or some severe birth defect all of a sudden be miraculously transformed out of that, no. This is not normal; God doesn’t do these things. Does He allow through the normal bodily means; the body is an amazing mechanism, and nutrition, and some medication, the things that scientists have learned? Does He prolong life, and does He restore people that are ill? Yes, He does. But, again, I don’t know. I don’t know that I could say that there is something so dramatic in a split second that the only explanation of this was, “That guy had no legs five minutes ago, and now he’s got two legs.”
PHIL: Right. And you’re touching on something that I think is a very important point you make in pretty much every book you’ve ever written on the charismatic issue, that definitions are crucial. We tend to throw the word “miracle” around carelessly, when what Scripture describes as a wonder is something that is undeniably a breech of natural laws and the intervention of God to make something happen. And that’s what you’re saying. And what’s amazing about that is, if you look at the New Testament gifts and compare them with today’s charismatic gifts, even many charismatics will admit, it’s not the same thing.
JOHN: No. Look, can you imagine what would happen if I – let’s just take me as an example. If the Lord said, “Okay, John, I’m going to give you the gift of healing,” and I could heal; I could actually heal people –
PHIL: At will.
JOHN: Yeah. Oh, yeah. It would have to be apostolic, okay.
JOHN: Or like Christ. I could heal people. I would automatically have so much authority. Can you imagine if I just healed somebody, if I just gave somebody a leg, if I gave somebody who had no eyes eyes, if I gave somebody who couldn’t hear hearing, if I gave people new limbs, new organs – and this nowadays it could all be, you know, MRI’d and you’d know what was going on – can you imagine how much power I would have? You know, I could say the sky is green, and people would fall down and kiss my feet. That’s not necessary. God doesn’t have to call attention to me. You don’t need to listen to me, you can listen to ten thousand others if they’re using the Bible. You don’t need me. I can live, I can die, I can lose my voice, I can lose my mind and nothing changes.
On the other hand, if there is no New Testament, and there are these guys going around calling themselves apostles and saying they’re telling the truth about everything, why do I believe them? Why would I want to believe them? “Why are you any different than any other teacher? They’re all over the streets? Why you?” “Oh, you do what? You heal sick people, and it’s visible and I can see it.”
There was a time in redemptive history when God had to reveal His truth through a man, and that’s when He validated those men. Now men are not any longer needing to be validated. What needs to be validated is the message that a man gives by the Word of God, which is the ultimate point of validation. You don’t need a man to do miracles. This is not the age of miracles.
By the way, we have no promise of that anyway. “In this world, you shall have tribulation.” We expect that. We all die. I always realize, and I think maybe some people forget this, that all the faith healers are dying. They’re all in the process of dying.
PHIL: Yeah. When I was living in Tulsa, there was a week when both Oral Roberts and Kathryn Kuhlman were hospitalized in the same hospital just down the hall from each other. And, of course, that generated a lot of jokes they could go down the hall and heal one another; but they didn’t.
JOHN: Well, and now they’re all – they’re dead.
JOHN: And what would God be saying? If God gave Benny Hinn – back to the point I made earlier. If God gave Benny Hinn the power of healing, what would he be saying? He would be saying, “This is My man. This is My man. My man’s Benny. You need to listen to Benny.” Are you kidding me? He’s a heretic. You can’t do that.
But on the other hand, if God were to say, “I’m going to give John MacArthur the power of healing,” why would He say that? I don’t need that, because I’m not the authority anyway. The Bible is the authority. So it serves no purpose once Scripture is complete; and that’s the argument for cessationism.
PHIL: Let me ask you a couple of – we have just a few minutes left, so let me ask you some of the questions that come to us frequently on our blog posts, and here and there from listeners. I know these are things people wonder about. What do you make of these stories that we frequently hear nowadays about people in Muslim lands who become Christians because they had some sort of revelatory-style dream?
JOHN: I have heard of those. I’ve heard some accounts of those. I have no way to explain any of that. I don’t know whether they actually had a dream. I don’t know whether the dream they had actually was faithful to the gospel. I don’t know whether it was reported faithfully, or how many people it went through.
But I do know this: faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ. “How shall a man hear unless someone is sent? And how can he believe Paul’s argument in Romans 10: “Whoever calls on the Lord will be saved. But how will they call on Him whom they’ve not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” – and, you know, that’s – “Blessed are the feet of those that publish the good news!”
I don’t want to say that God can’t make up a dream that has some impact on somebody’s emotions. But that is not how God has declared that He will proclaim the gospel. “How will they hear unless someone is sent?” Maybe somebody who heard the gospel, understood the gospel from a preacher and had some kind of a dream that maybe created fear in their minds, or – I don’t know.
PHIL: I think it would be good too, to admonish people not to believe those things easily, because –
JOHN: Well, you can’t believe them, because you don’t know who’s said them, or what they were talking about.
PHIL: They typically have the earmarks of urban legends –
PHIL: And the sound of being exaggerated, which kind of leads me to my next question. Craig Keener wrote a two-volume work called Miracles, which is regarded by some as an apologetic for modern miracles, and he raises the question, “Why is it that we are so quick to receive and accept and believe the eyewitness testimonies of the resurrection that are recorded in Scripture, and yet we’re slow to accept and often automatically reject eyewitness testimonies about modern-day miracles?” What would your answer to that be?
JOHN: That is a very strange question. The difference is I have a divine authority on the eyewitness account of the resurrection. I don’t know who’s telling me about the other things. There’s no divine authority in somebody telling me a story about a miracle. How could you even make that connection? Why would we believe the eyewitnesses of the resurrection? Because God, the Holy Spirit, has recorded their testimony.
PHIL: Yeah. I think the question itself reflect exactly the low view of Scripture.
JOHN: Yeah. It’s a silly question. It says we’re supposed to accept the same authenticity of some guy today who tells me a miracle happened as I am the apostles of the New Testament, who’s testimony is validated by the Spirit of God in Scripture? Again, you’re right. If you’re asking that question, you indicate you don’t get the picture.
PHIL: Yeah, and it does seem to come always back to the authority of Scripture, and the preeminence of Scripture.
JOHN: Yeah. And, Phil, that is why, again, when I started the book on The Charismatics, the first section in the book was about the view of Scripture; and I hadn’t ever seen anybody deal with that. Why doesn’t somebody deal with the fact that these people are having all of these revelations? And this is beyond Scripture, and they seem to have no interest in rightly interpreting Scripture, and they’re viewing Christian experience, a Christian life from their own experiential side rather than from a biblical side.
You know, people would say, “Well, maybe that’s your personality.” It’s not my personality at all; it has to do with the authority of Scripture. So the charismatic movement, like everything else, has to be evaluated by Scripture. And it doesn’t take very long to find out that they do not take Scripture as seriously as they must. And that’s why they get away with so much error.
PHIL: Thanks, John. Our time is gone; and I have more questions to ask you. We’ll have to come and do this again.
JOHN: Okay. I’m happy to help.
JOHN: Thanks, Phil.
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