I thoroughly enjoyed day one of the Strange Fire conference…Dr. MacArthur and R.C. Sproul have been forerunners of solid Christian teaching in our generation. My article is not to critique, but to plead—plead for the middle ground in regard to the power of the Holy Spirit. “The true saints of God, who have clear heads, and pure, warm hearts, have in all generations had to walk between the two extremes of cold formality on the one side, and wild, ranting fanaticism on the other. Dead formality and the false fire of fanaticism are both Satan’s counterfeits, and he does not care into which extreme the soul plunges… (George D. Watson).
I’m concerned that all who believe in the gifts of the Spirit are often thrown into the same camp as charlatans and false teachers, when this is simply not the case. I, like many Christians, tend to be “safely” conservative when considering the power of the Holy Spirit. Believing that the Scriptures support the miraculous work of the Spirit today does not mean that we agree with the majority of the Charismatic Movement. I’m open but cautious. We need sound doctrine and the power of the Holy Spirit. It is possible to be “Bible taught,” but not “Spirit led”—straight as a gun barrel theologically, but just as empty. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:6). Don’t get me wrong, theological and expositional teachings are essential to Christian living, but how often are theology students encouraged to fast and pray as well as study? How often are they taught brokenness and repentance in addition to translating the Greek language? How often are they taught the surrendered life? We can sometimes be more concerned about a Master’s Degree than a degree from the Master.
I knew a pastor who instructed his worship leader to remove most of the songs that mentioned the Holy Spirit. How sad…in his zeal to avoid charismatic excesses, he actually quenched and grieved the Spirit. A.W. Tozer insightfully said, “If the Lord’s people were only half as eager to be filled with the Spirit as they are to prove that they cannot be filled, the church would be crowded out.” I sincerely believe that the greatest need in the church today is to confess our sins, obey the Word, and to be filled with the Spirit.
Christians can embrace one of two extremes concerning the word “revival.” At one extreme are those who embrace pure emotionalism and hysteria—“if it’s odd it’s God”—all weird behavior is excused. The other extreme lacks a living, vibrant spiritual life. The church feels dead, cold, and lifeless. Talk of reviving the things of God (revival) is either dismissed or ridiculed. Both extremes can hinder the work of the Holy Spirit and genuine Christian growth. I will primarily address the first extreme where I have viewed videos of people supposedly “getting high,” “toking,” and “drunk” on the Holy Ghost. This is not the same as being filled with the Spirit of God (cf. Ephesians 5:18). I’ve attended conferences where questionable things have occurred, and I have seen video footage of people being led around like dogs on a leash and acting like animals. Yes, I’m serious…bizarre and grossly unbiblical manifestations are not reflective of one filled with the Spirit. Those truly filled with the Spirit seek to reflect the personality and nature of God.
When questioned about extremes in this type of odd behavior, there are no answers that find support in Scripture. Common responses are, “I know it seems bizarre, but…” Or, “I know it’s weird, but…” Or, “You’re quenching and grieving the Spirit by not being open.” These are not biblically sound responses for such bizarre manifestations. The Holy Spirit is not quenched when we honor God’s Word and “test the spirits, whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1). He is quenched and grieved when we do not test and discern—when we allow the Holy Spirit to be misrepresented. The apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 2:15, said that we are to judge, or discern, all things.
My hope is that pastor MacArthur and others would see the heart and passion of those seeking the middle ground. We cannot paint with a broad brush everyone who believes in the miraculous as charlatans, false teachers, and non-intellectuals (led away and astray by every wind of doctrine).
People like myself, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Francis Chan, and the late D. Martyn Jones cannot simply dismiss the truly miraculous works of God that happen daily, nor can we minimize the incredible power of God to radically change lives through the power of the Spirit. Nor should we be thrown into the same camp as TBN Charismatics. This is a desperate plea for unity: unity on the essentials, but understanding and compassion on the non-essentials.
We don’t seek to minimize the need for discernment. A discerning person considers supernatural experiences in light of God’s Word, nature, and character. They ask, “Is there genuine fruit? Does the experience align with God’s Word? Is the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5 present: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?” A true, genuine experience with the Holy Spirit will produce godly fruit and obedience to God. It seeks to promote those things that are pure and/or righteous. A word of caution here: even those in the New Age movement experience powerful feelings of love and euphoria, but it doesn’t draw them closer to Christ or lead to repentance or surrender to the true God. “We should not interpret Scripture in the light of our experiences, but rather, interpret our experiences in the penetrating light of Scripture” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones). Feelings can be good and God-given; however, we cannot forget the prophet Jeremiah’s words, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (17:9). Profoundly moving experiences do stir emotions, and they may “feel” right; however, emotions are primarily a vehicle for expression, not a gauge for Truth.
Sadly, some of the disturbing behavior mentioned earlier has been excused, and some of the leaders of these movements are rarely challenged. They can divorce their spouses and remain in leadership using1 Chronicles 16:22 as a proof text, “Do not touch My anointed ones, and do My prophets no harm.” This is an abuse of grace at the highest level and a twisting of Scripture. Here we are in complete harmony with Cessationists. In our zeal to defend the Holy Spirit, we sometimes run the risk of defending wrong behavior.
Although some well-intentioned Christians are anxious to hear from God, many seek signs and wonders rather than seeking the Lord. We can become unstable, confused, and deceived when spirituality hinges only on signs, wonders, and manifestations. Instead, seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and everything else will fall in place (cf. Matthew 6:33).
Please understand it’s not my intention to paint experience-oriented movements with a broad brush—God wants us to experience Him. The presence and the power of the Holy Spirit can provoke overwhelming feelings, and rightly so. When truth penetrates the heart, excitement, passion, and enthusiasm often follow. These emotions can be good and God-given. My goal is not to limit the gifts, power, and presence of the Spirit, but to seek balance and discernment. God often requires obedience whether we feel it or not.
One of the reasons why people embrace unbiblical experiences is because they are not in the Word seeking balance, confirmation, and discernment. Simply stated, if we are not in the Word, the Word will not be in us. We can easily be deceived. Searching for spiritual fulfillment isn’t wrong, but where we search can be. Spiritual hunger is good, yet we can be so hungry spiritually that we’ll consume anything. Eagerness to consume can lead to “experience” oriented movements with no Scriptural basis, especially when we begin to look to experiences to validate truth. The “signs and wonders” gospel is not the real gospel, nor is the “prosperity gospel” the real gospel. God may prosper us, and miracles do happen, but these are secondary—Christ is primary.
As a student of revivals, I understand that being “controversial” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Again, revivals are not predictable, and odd things do happen. As I read the Journals of George Whitefield, the Welsh Revivals, and the firsthand accounts of the First Great Awakening in America, I found that Pastor Jonathan Edward’s words were true. He observed that a work of the Holy Spirit would be evident: 1) it would elevate the truth, 2) exalt Christ, 3) oppose Satan, 4) point people to the Scriptures, and 5) result in love for God and others. Genuine revivals focus on preaching the totality of God’s Word, calling out sin, and correcting err—holiness is sought, not hysteria. The result is genuine fruit, not ungodly fanaticism.
Some suggest that today’s battle is not so much against liberals in the church, but against those who are “not open” to new prophecies and visions—those who “religiously hold to the written Word alone.” This statement concerns me because it can be used to promote anything done in the name of the Lord such as prophecies, visions, and words from the Lord. Jesus warns, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). There will be false teachers within the church. We are encouraged to pray for wisdom and discernment. “Words from the Lord” cannot supersede the Bible, but rather, confirm it. “Prophecy involves not authoritative Bible teaching, and not speaking words of God which are equal to Scripture, but rather reporting something which God spontaneously brings to mind” (Wayne Grudem). We hold religiously to the written Word because it is our guide…to test what is being said: “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32). The speaker should be careful since his words must be under, or subject to, God’s Word.
In closing, I appreciate the words on R.C. Sproul, “I am grateful for the real revival in interest in the Person and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church that this movement has spawned. However, I am very concerned about the false doctrine it has brought in its wake.” I couldn’t agree more. Let us find common ground: God’s Word is the foundation on which all truth stands (cf. I Timothy 3:15).
Shane Idleman, is the founder and lead pastor of Westside Christian Fellowship in Lancaster, Ca. He currently resides in Southern California with his wife and kids. More can be found at www.wcfav.org.