Tag Archives: Phil Johnson

It’s Time to Get the Gospel Right (Pt 2- What is the Gospel?)

This is a follow-up to my last post.  Thanks to those who commented.   I agree with the comment by “savedbygrace” on that post– the gospel we preach defines us.  This is precisely why I think it is so important we get it right.  Of course as imperfect beings, we do not and will not have perfect theology this side of heaven.  Nevertheless we must strive to improve our understanding, and moreover, I think God expects us to preach and teach an accurate gospel in the essentials.

So, is the gospel an invitation to a “charismatic” life characterized by the super-spiritual– constantly receiving direct revelations from God on what we are to do, say and pursue; being able to “see in the Spirit”; the ability to do all the same miracles Jesus did that we may convince people to believe; prophesying that which we claim is from God (but may not be 100% accurate)?  I don’t think so.

Granted, Christianity is indeed a supernatural life and the Holy Spirit indwells us, and we are called to be filled with the Spirit today (see John 3:3; 1 Peter 1:3, 23; Eph 5:8).  But this does not require that we have all of the above sorts of manifestations.  God is free to give such things if He chooses, but I don’t think in this day He is normally giving such gifts. Rather, we have been equipped by God’s Word and by His Spirit to live the Christian life we are called to live (2 Tim 3:16-17; 1 Cor 12:4-31).  Thus I think the chief mistakes in the larger charismatic movement are: 1) to pretend that miracles are happening all the time when in fact they are not; 2) to downgrade the gift of prophecy to hit-or-miss pronouncements characterized by inaccuracy; and 3) to promise healing based on a supposed provision of the atonement that guarantees it (see my article, Sickness, Healing and the Christian, Pt 2 (Biblical Analysis).)

A reformed, and I think biblical response to the charismatic portrait of the Christian life demonstrates practical differences in the two approaches:

  1. We pray to God for all our needs (Phil 3:6) and may even ask Him to do miracles, which He may or may not do as He wills. We rejoice if and when God does miracles in our midst, but of course, do not and cannot demand them. We define miracles as that which is extra-ordinary (as in the healing a of a man born blind, for example). God’s providential care for us as He answers prayer doesn’t necessarily constitute a miracle, which by definition is a special and rare occurrence.  Moreover we argue that the miracles of Jesus’ day were signs authenticating the message of Jesus and His apostles (Matt 12:28, 2 Cor 12:12) and that that season of miracles apparently has passed.
  2. We preach and teach the Word of God as accurately as possible (2 Peter 4:1-2), knowing it alone is God’s inspired revelation to us (unlike charismatic prophecy, we don’t need to guess what percentage of the prophecy comes from God and what part is human error).  We trust therefore that God’s Word is sufficient to provide the guidance and instruction we need to properly live a Christian life and to teach and make disciples (2 Peter 1:3, 2 Tim 3:16-17). We define prophecy as Scripture does– the very words of God spoken through the mouth of people (2 Peter 1:21).  So we hold all prophecy to the high standard of Scripture in terms of its accuracy– if it does not come to pass– it’s false prophecy and the person who has spoken it is falsely speaking for God (Deut 13:1-5; Deut 18:20-22).
  3. As we obey God and live for Him we ask that He would heal the sick, and we can lay hands on the sick, as the Word prescribes (James 5: 14-18).  But we leave the answer to these prayers to God– if He heals, we rejoice in that, and if He does not heal, we trust that God knows best (2 Cor 12:8-10). We don’t claim God has healed if in fact He has not healed, and we don’t charge folks with not having enough faith if their prayer for healing is answered in the negative.  We  don’t claim to know that all sickness is caused by sin or by the devil, but trust that ultimately God in His sovereignty rules over this and all areas of our lives.

Thus far we have been addressing what the gospel is not. I have claimed it is not an invitation to a supercharged, mystical life full of continuous miraculous manifestations.  So then, what is the gospel and what is the normal Christian life?

The gospel is that Jesus Christ– Son of God and God in the flesh– came to Earth, lived among us, was crucified on a cross for sins and was raised again by the authority and power of God after three days in the grave (1 Cor 3:3-5; John 1:9-18, 34; 1 John 5:11-12, John 10:18) .  The person who puts their faith in Christ is forgiven all their sins, because God poured out His full wrath and anger at sin upon Jesus as He hung on the cross, and by raising Him from the dead, God validated Jesus’ claims to be God, in fulfillment of the many ancient prophecies that predicted a Messiah would come that would do all the things Jesus did (Romans 4:23; Romans 5:9).  The life Jesus lived– a perfect, selfless life– satisfies God’s requirement of holiness– and Jesus’ record of sinless obedience is transferred to the one who has faith in Him (2 Cor 5:21). So our sins of commission and of omission are both fully taken care of and removed by the cross and the obedience of Christ, and we are thus reconciled to God, adopted as His children, and called to a new life of fellowship with Him and with brothers and sisters who have likewise been called (Romans 5:10; Col 1:22; John 1:12; 1 John 1:3).  Much more could be said, but these are the essentials.

So what does this Christian life look like?  Well, outwardly it is a very normal life, in many respects.  The Christian doesn’t necessarily look any different than before, but inwardly, a miracle of new life has been wrought in his/her heart, one which plants a desire to love God and to be obedient to Him (Ezekiel 36:26; 2 Cor 5:17).  We are drawn to the Bible (1 Peter 2:2), which by the Spirit we recognize as the true Word of God to His children (1 Cor 2:12-13).  This new life implanted within has a supernatural quality, in that we have new desires that prod us and help us to transcend our old selfish tendencies.  But the Christian need not manifest anything outwardly spectacular.  I think that biblically the Bible doesn’t teach that Christians need special experiences like being “slain in the Spirit”, speaking in tongues, the so-called “baptism in the Spirit” that is subsequent to salvation, in order to be fruitful.  Yes, we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) but this seems to be an ongoing process that involves many non-flashy activities– reading and meditating on God’s Word, obeying God’s Word, etc.  Ultimately, people will know we are Christians, not because of our exciting supernatural manifestations, but rather, by the fruit we bear in love towards God and others (see John 13:33-35; 1 Cor 13).

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22-24, ESV)

For further thought:

Providence by J. I. Packer

God’s Providence over all (PDF) by B.B. Warfield

The Sufficiency of Scripture Part 1 and Part 2 by Gary Gilley

The Gifts of Miracles & Healings Today?  by Fred Zaspel

Divine Providence, or What About Miracles? by S. Lewis Johnson

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It’s Time to Get the Gospel Right

The recent conference by John MacArthur, “Strange Fire” has generated a lot of controversy.  It stirs up an ongoing and often heated debate among evangelical Christians on “cessationism vs continuationism”: did miraculous gifts such as tongues, miracles and prophecy “cease” some time after the establishment of the early church and with the canonization of Scripture?  Or are those gifts continuing in operation, and to be sought after and put into practice today?  Unfortunately lack of clarity about terms such as cessationism, continuationism and charismaticism creates confusion as people debate these issues.  Online debates I have been part of often suffer from the lack of clarity.  Since there are varied positions within cessationism and charismaticism, to call oneself a “cessationist” or “continuationist” or a “charismatic” isn’t enough and usually requires further clarification.  Exactly what kind of “cessationist” or “charismatic” are you?   Lisa Robinson has a post right now that addresses this topic, “What is a Cessationist?…or Why I think We Need Another Term“, and I think her post is a helpful conversation opener on this.

Yet I think that what underlies the need for clarity of these terms is something even more fundamental and urgent to our mission as Christians: what is the gospel?  In other words, it seems the believer needs to figure out if charismatics are right or cessationists correct, because these very different positions have such a great impact on our mission of making disciples, and also lead to very practical differences in following Christ.  I encountered a Facebook post about continuationist Mark Driscoll showing up at the John MacArthur conference.  I noticed that several people sympathetic to the continuationist position in their comments on the post were bashing cessationism and Reformed theology with statements I felt were very derogatory as well as inaccurate characterizations of it.  Now perhaps many in the charismatic community who know of the Strange Fire conference feel the same way– that the conference unfairly caricatures the charismatic position.  One of the commenters on the post made this statement:

I am just learning about all of this and still reading. but it sounds to me like two “camps” with different ideas of how the holy spirit should look. they spend all their energy and time on defending “their” way instead of using that time and energy on preaching the gospel to a dying world. seems like they are missing the whole point.

I think the commenter makes a salient point, one that I can sympathize with.  It’s true that believers can be too focused on internal squabbles and get distracted from their main task, which as we know is to preach the gospel and make disciples.  But while we must not pick a fight on every little matter, there are matters too important to our mission to not get right.  In my mind there is no more important issue than getting the gospel right.  What exactly did Christ accomplish for us on the cross?  What should the Christian life look like? Is the believer still a sinner, or a saint who sins?  Must we have all these answers precisely correct before we go out and make disciples? I am not going to attempt in the brief post to answer all of these questions (but perhaps I’ll address them in future posts).

Yet I do believe it is part of the task of preaching the gospel message to be able to give accurate and Scriptural answers to these basic, critically important questions.  How can we preach a saving message if the gospel we preach is not real or true or accurate?  The Church is even charged with correcting false teachers/teaching.  How can we do so if we don’t know what the true gospel is?  We’re in the midst of a raging spiritual battle in which the forces of darkness are quite happy if the message we preach is a distortion that leads people away from the true and living God, all the while deceiving them into thinking that Christ is being truly preached.  We have been warned by Christ Himself that false Christs will come (Matt 24:24), and that in the last day many who thought they were working in the name of Jesus will find that Jesus rejects not only their works but them as well (Matt 7:21-23).  This is a very sobering warning.  Time is short, and there are eternal stakes involved if we allow ourselves to be deceived.

In my opinion the popular charismatic message has got things very wrong. It declares that all the miraculous gifts that were part of the early church continue today in the same exact manner as in the early church and are even crucial to the life and mission of the church.  Every believer should be a miracle worker, a prophet, a tongues speaker and a healer, or at least be ardently seeking these available gifts.  The Strange Fire conference looks at the phenomena happening in much of the charismatic world under the lens of Scripture, and finds it unbiblical.  The miracles they claim are happening cannot be verified, the prophecies proclaimed are usually wrong, the tongues are not practiced in accordance with Scriptural guidelines and don’t appear to be real languages, but only gibberish.  Accordingly Phil Johnson charges, it commits “the sin of attributing to the Holy Spirit words He has not spoken and things He has not done.”  Now John MacArthur and Phil Johnson are well aware that there are charismatics who are well-studied, who teach an orthodox view of Scripture, who are not at all guilty of the excesses often found in the movement.  In fact there are even well-known “Reformed Continuationists” like John Piper, Wayne Grudem and others that they esteem very highly for their ministries of the Word.  Nevertheless, these reformed continuationist leaders who are aware of the “strange” phenomena seem very reluctant and reticent about criticizing these aberrant practices.  Over at the Cripplegate blog, Mike Ricardi has posted Phil Johnson’s outstanding message, Strange Fire – Is There a Baby in the Bathwater? and I think Phil really hits the nail on the head when he writes:

But there’s this carefully cultivated, non-committal spirit of indecision that permeates most of the Reformed charismatic and “open-but-cautious” segments of the evangelical community. It is a deliberate agnosticism with regard to discerning spirits.

So the extremists and the charlatans can make any claim or pull any stunt they like with near impunity. The handful of Charismatics who have the most influence in conservative evangelical circles have basically settled into a comfortable indifference. (Remember the line I quoted from Michael Brown earlier? “Why [should] Pentecostal and charismatic pastors renounce extremes in their movement?”) Supposedly “cautious” continuationists watch the procession of charismatic horseplay. They are curious, intrigued, generally nonplussed, but they refuse to make any judgment until after the wheels come totally off the latest bandwagon.

It someone looks into the turbid swamp of charismatic sludge, and thinks that attitude of non-judgmental passivity is the baby, forget it. That kind of smug, deliberate indecision has more in common with double-mindedness than with faith. There are times when staking out a middle position is simply the wrong thing to do. And it is never more wrong than when thousands of people are going around claiming to speak for God but prophesying falsely.

It is time to get the gospel right.  We have been blessed and equipped to complete our mission with the authority and power of the Word of God, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).”  Why then do we need to seek after sensational experiences, prophecies, miracles, tongues, especially if, when we stop kidding ourselves and admit the truth, we can see that the things we are seeking after are not authentic?  How does inaccurate, hit-or-miss prophecy help anyone?  How does if further the cause of Christ to claim that healing and miracles are happening when in fact they are not happening?

Does what I am saying deny the power of God?  No, because I am not saying that God will not answer prayer for healing, even in miraculous fashion, nor am I saying that God may not visit us with extraordinary things whenever He wants.  But my charge is not to seek after the extraordinary but to humbly live for Christ.  I seek His power not that I may have ecstatic experiences or by miracle doing prove to an unbelieving world that the God I worship is real, but that I may live faithfully and honor Him in the way I speak and act and live.  The gospel itself is the power of God, and it accomplishes the miracle of raising the dead to life, and we have the privilege of being part of that.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16)

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Surprised by the Gullibility of the Charismatic

I just finished re-reading an article, Should Type-R Charismatics Get a Free Pass? that Phil Johnson posted a few years  ago at Pyromaniacs, a stylish blog that consistently (and sometimes with sarcasm and great humor) offers sharp biblical critique of charismaticism.  A few days ago, I posted here at Reforming Christianity my own brief reflection on charismaticism, titled The Subjectivity of Charismaticism.  Responding to a commenter on that article,  I asked:

Could it not be that the underlying principle that God speaks today via unverifiable personal revelations is faulty and leads into many errors?

Mr. Johnson’s excellent article ably tackles this question, asserting that:

The belief that extrabiblical revelation is normative does indeed “regularly and systematically breed willful gullibility, not discernment.

He demonstrates this by pointing out that even the most theologically, biblically sound charismatics (“Type R”, i.e., Reformed charismatics, such as Wayne Grudem or blogger Adrian Warnock), seem unwilling to connect the excesses and errors of the movement with its underlying principles.  Jack Deere’s book, “Surprised by the Power of the Spirit” extolled Paul Cain, a man once regarded by many as a highly gifted prophet and miracle-worker.   The book features an enthusiastic endorsement by Wayne Grudem, and in the book Deere credits Paul Cain as having changed the course of his life.  But as Phil Johnson’s article points out, Paul Cain’s track record of accuracy in prophetic announcements was abysmal, and Cain’s ministry would later be discredited, as he confessed long-standing alcoholism and homosexuality.  Johnson even tells about the time he, Lance Quinn and John MacArthur met with Jack Deere and Paul Cain (at Deere’s request). Cain appeared to be drunk!  Even with this knowledge about Paul Cain coming to light, brought to the attention of Mr. Grudem by Phil Johnson, Grudem stood by his endorsement of Jack Deere’s book.

I have observed among charismatics precisely this lack of discernment that Phil Johnson is talking about.  Despite the fact that charismatics like Paul Cain or Todd Bentley are demonstrably ridiculous and utterly unbiblical in their practices, the more responsible, biblically oriented in the movement typically are loath to acknowledge or admit the errors. Instead they rationalize them, arguing that we ought not to “throw out the baby with the bath water”.  In other  words, don’t dismiss all charismatic gifts because of the excesses and mishandling by the few.  This principle is true enough, but as Johnson points out, saner, more biblical charismatics actually represent a “fairly small minority of the worldwide charismatic community.”  Most of the movement is characterized by the excessive and the unbiblical!

A few years ago I wrote quite a bit about Todd Bentley on my previous blog, Jordan’s View, in an article titled Sickness, Healing and the Christian, Pt 1(Dangerous Deceptions). For a brief period in 2008 Bentley was a rising star in charismatic circles, the central figure in the so-called Lakeland, Florida “revival” that was being broadcast internationally, night after night, on the network GodTV.  Bentley was described as highly anointed, personally holy, a man deeply gifted in miracles and the prophetic.  It turns out that during the time of the revival meetings Bentley had been dealing with serious marital problems; these would eventually lead to his suddenly dropping out of the revival. A short time therafter all of the marital issues surfaced; Bentley divorced his first wife, and married someone from his ministry team.  Bentley’s marital problems were known to many who were endorsing him, yet Bentley was allowed to carry on. Even after his divorce and a brief period of being marginalized, it seems many in the charismatic community have welcomed him back with open arms, and he has been rushed back into public ministry. So what am I saying here? It’s not that one can’t be in ministry and have sin in one’s life. In that case, no one would qualify for ministry. But Bentley was one for whom it was claimed that his closeness with God and his personal holiness was the source of the supernatural powers flowing through him and his ministry. So it does tremendous damage to the credibility of Christianity and to the honor of Christ when someone is claiming to heal and speak in the power of God, yet is carrying on in this way.

Today I looked up Adrian Warnock’s coverage of Todd Bentley, recalling that at the time he’d posted many articles on his blog on Bentley.  Despite the fact that Warnock thoroughly covered the Todd Bentley story from beginning to inglorious end, I couldn’t find any posts in which Mr. Warnock himself took Bentley to task for his failure to live up to biblical standards in ministry, or in private.  Unfortunately, this lack of calling out such shenanigans and condemning them is all too typical.

Now I really do sympathize with the charismatic desire to see great miracles happening in our day. Who would’nt like to see healings, and revival sparked by the Spirit?  Yet we must not allow the desire for such things to cloud our judgment and remove our discernment.  If the sinful, unbiblical antics of a Paul Cain or Todd Bentley can escape the severe disapprobation and condemnation they deserve, it demonstrates that biblical discernment has entirely gone out the window among most charismatics, even among those who ought to know and do better.

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Filed under Charismaticism, Discernment, Theology