John MacArthur’s recent Strange Fire seminar defending cessationism against continuationism (whether or not the Holy Spirit’s miraculous gifts were only authenticating signs for Bible times and have ceased, or they continue in the present day) has brought a flurry of internet discussion. I’m sure it’s brought many to consider carefully what they believe about this issue. Some people agreed with him before the seminar started and probably still agree with him; some probably changed their minds to agree with him; but I think that most of those who had already come to disagree with him are not likely to be swayed by his seminar, especially since they probably did not attend it.
I haven't firmly planted myself on either side, but I'm tilted. For a few years, our family attended a cessationist church that so closely followed MacArthur’s model (naming many of its ministries the same names, and designing their bulletins identically) that the pastor even plagiarized MacArthur’s sermons every Sunday. It’s the only clearly cessationist church that I have attended, and with that being my only exposure, the nature of that church is part of the reason I’m skeptical about the cessationist stance. Thanks to that pastor's plagiarism, I have heard MacArthur’s arguments over a series of many, many weeks where the cessationist case was fully presented. A few issues cause my skepticism: 1) Once a church dismisses any work of the Holy Spirit as not being for today and camps on that issue, it is very tricky to maintain throughout the congregation that though the miraculous gifts [may have] ceased, all other works of the Holy Spirit should be vibrant and welcome. When I brought my discovery that the pastor was plagiarizing to his attention, first he vehemently denied it, lying to me that indeed he was not plagiarizing, and when I proved to him that I knew that he was, he yelled at me that it did not matter, it was okay for him to do so. Somewhere in that conversation, he actually said that he was not capable of writing a decent sermon and was plagiarizing in order to give the congregation the best material available. At that admission, by resorting to plagiarism, he dismissed the possibility that the Holy Spirit could have worked very well through his weakness. If he didn't know that the plagiarism was wrong, he wouldn't have denied it to begin with. 2) In that church, and in the recent on-line debates regarding the Strange Fire seminar, cessationists went so far as to dismiss the probability that continuationists were even saved. This is an assertion I don’t remember ever hearing from continuationists toward cessationists, and the audacity and pomposity of that assumption is divisive and disheartening. 3) Being convinced that continuationists are not saved, the cessationist church we attended refused to work together with such churches, disdainfully calling the practice ecumenicalism. The stifling nature of their fruit inclines me to believe that cessationism might be false. It might just be that it was a poorly run church, failing to embrace the other works of the Holy Spirit in all His fullness, but I can’t help but suspect there is a foundational flaw in their theology.
In the church we now attend, one of the first things our pastor did for my wrestling with this issue was to lend me a couple of books by Jack Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit: Discovering How God Speaks and Heals Today and Surprised by the Voice of God: How God Speaks Today Through Prophecies, Dreams, and Visions. I have read articles online that blast Deere’s teachings, but after reading the books, I found them thorough and for the most part credible and realistic (and where they don't seem to be, I wonder whether the problem is with the accounts written, or with me...our God continually does amazing things at which scoffers scoff!), and the Scripture references were aptly presented to state Deere’s case. I came to think that if the gifts were not for today at all, they might not have been so clearly and thoroughly presented in the Scriptures, or there would have been clear and unmistakable instruction about when they would be in operation and when they would not. For example, 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 are clearly about the gifts, and to cessationists they would only pertain to Bible times; however right in the center of them is 1 Corinthians 13, the Love chapter, which both cessationists and continuationists accept enthusiastically! How is it that it would go from something that does not pertain to us, to something that pertains to all of us, and right back to something that does not? Maybe He does intend this very thing for some reason...but so much is written in the Scriptures as if to instruct us regarding His gifts for use for the duration of our time here. As Derek Rishmawy of the Gospel Coalition put it, "abuse does not take away use." Just because a doctrine has been badly abused, that abuse doesn't render the doctrine itself dangerous. What I have seen here in the U.S. is a grievous misrepresentation of His work that has provoked this disunity and distress. I am no educated theologian, a disability of which I'm painfully aware...still, I think the Love chapter pertains in some way to the expression of the Spirit's gifting since it is right there in the middle of those two chapters around it, maybe describing His love expressed through gifts manifested among His people throughout time. Wouldn't that make sense?
On the other hand, I understand why the miraculous gifts are an issue MacArthur feels compelled to address, though I think he’s basically preaching to his choir. I doubt that the people at whom he’s most directly leveling his charges are listening, or that they care whether they’re approved by MacArthur or not, and why. It’s not hard to see that the gifts are abused and misunderstood in a great many enthusiastic and emotional churches, often churches that misread the Scriptures in not just the gifts but in many other aspects, such as what the Bible says about giving and suffering and obedience and grace and salvation. Unfortunately I think many of these messed-up takes on theology have originated in the United States, and where they appear overseas, it’s usually an unfortunate spread from our shores to theirs. But so many missionaries around the world have long testified to the miraculous nature of the work of the Spirit, it makes me think that what most Americans see is a warped rendition; the reality is generally found in other countries where the Spirit’s work is less hindered by human preconceptions and more welcomed by the extreme need for miraculous intervention.
My confusion and grief over the division between these two distinct beliefs increases the more that I read what others write. There are people I respect in both camps, and I think we all have a hard time seeing things from any perspective but our own. While we take our stances, we need to continue loving and honoring those who believe these other doctrines, and accept their faith as long as they live for the glory of God and hold to the orthodox basics: Who Jesus is; why He came; how He came; what He did; what He’s doing; where He is; why we need Him to save us, from what, to what; where we’re going…I know there are some details that need filling in here, a few clear basics that must be adhered to and the rest being secondary. The Bible says so simply “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Not, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and this doctrine and that doctrine and the one over there, and go to only this church, only use this Bible version, and you will be saved.” The gospel is understandable and within reach of the simple and the young; but our human nature is to complicate it to make it only apply to us and all who completely agree with us. As long as the Jesus we trust for salvation and live to obey is the Jesus of the Bible...don't we belong to Him? While we are called to understand all that we can of the Scriptures that God has given us, I do believe that salvation is truly that simple, and accepting that fact is much more conducive to God-glorifying unity among those who call themselves Christians!
I don't think that any one human has a monopoly on the truth. Seems that there’s a Spirit somewhere Who could be called upon to help straighten out the mess, give us wisdom and reunite the estranged and divided masses of believers.