Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit and John MacArthur’s #StrangeFire Conference

John-MacArthurMaybe you haven’t heard of John MacArthur. He hosted a conference recently called Strange Fire in which he accused charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity of “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit,” the only unforgivable sin according to Jesus in Mark 3:29. It’s a pretty tremendous accusation to make against half a billion Christians. This has caused quite a stir in the evangelical blogosphere with responses from Adrian Warnock, Trevin Wax, Tim Challies, Michael Brown, Brandan Robertson, and others. So how does Jesus use the phrase “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” and it is it compatible with MacArthur’s accusations?

Evangelicals have a tremendously awkward time wrestling with the concept of an unforgivable sin. It goes against our core doctrine of justification by faith, that anybody no matter what they’ve done can be saved if they accept Jesus as their Lord and savior. For this reason, many evangelicals try to define blasphemy of the Holy Spirit as whatever the opposite of justification by faith is. For example, a site called Rapture Ready (yes, there really is a non-satirical Christian website called Rapture Ready) has this definition:

Those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit are those who consciously and perhaps repeatedly reject Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and are not even be concerned about it.

This is what you have to say if you start with your doctrine and then twist scripture around to fit it (which plenty of “Biblical,” rapture-ready Christians do all the time). But when we look at the context of the passage where Jesus uses the phrase, something different is clearly going on. Here is Mark 3:19-30:

Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

What did the scribes do to trigger this response from Jesus? They accused Him of engaging in demonic activity because He was performing supernatural deeds they couldn’t understand or account for with their religious doctrine. Jesus did His miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by consorting with demons. Verse 30 makes it clear that he was responding to their accusation that he “had an unclean spirit,” not that they rejected him as messiah or any of the other speculative meanings that evangelicals try to superimpose on this text. So the definition of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in this text is pretty straightforward: falsely attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to demonic activity.

So borrowing from Adrian Warnock’s blog, here’s what John MacArthur said about charismatics and Pentecostals at Strange Fire:

“Why don’t evangelical leaders speak against this movement?  Why is their such silence? Look When somebody attacks the person of Christ the Evangelical world rises up and says “no, no, no!”  . . . the Holy Spirit has been under massive assault for decades and decades, and I’ve been asking the question ‘where are the people rising up in protest against the abuse and the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?‘”

Warnock also shares a previous sermon from MacArthur which elaborates on MacArthur’s understanding of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit:

How do they do it? By attributing to the Holy Spirit words that He didn’t say, deeds that He didn’t do, and experiences that He didn’t produce, attributing to the Holy Spirit that which is not the work of the Holy Spirit. Endless human experiences, emotional experiences, bizarre experiences and demonic experiences are said to come from the Holy Spirit…visions, revelations, voices from heaven, messages from the Spirit through transcendental means, dreams, speaking in tongues, prophecies, out of body experiences, trips to heaven, anointings, miracles. All false, all lies, all deceptions attributed falsely to the Holy Spirit…

The problem with the way MacArthur defines blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is that it’s not the way Jesus used the phrase. Jesus wasn’t talking about people falsely claiming that the Holy Spirit was at work when it was really demons. He was talking about the opposite: falsely claiming that demons were at work when it was the Holy Spirit. Now why would this be an unforgivable sin?

I see a clue in Jesus’ statement in verse 24: “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” This statement is not only true about the kingdom of Satan; it’s also true about the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom would not stand if God allowed Christians to misrepresent and denigrate the Holy Spirit’s work in other Christians just because the Spirit used a different set of Bible verses, doctrines, and life experiences to draw them to Christ. It would split into thousands of different denominations, each of which thought that every other one is not only wrong but on its way to hell. (Oh wait, that’s kind of what happened, isn’t it?)

I do agree that there are some Pentecostal preachers out there who are making indefensibly crazy and wildly un-Biblical claims (e.g. Rafael Cruz’s dominionist theology). But it’s astonishing to me that any Christian would have the self-certainty to accuse an entire branch of the Christian tree of blasphemy. And part of the damning evidence MacArthur gives for charismatic Christianity’s apostasy is its ecumenism with Roman Catholicism:

We know the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin, righteousness, of judgment, to bear historical witness to the Gospel, to empower those who preach its saving message. The Holy Spirit is faithful to the Gospel and would never misrepresent the Gospel. So wherever the devaluing of Gospel truth is visible, we know that’s not the work of the Holy Spirit. And let me be blunt: Any movement that can fully embrace Roman Catholicism is not a movement of the Holy Spirit, because that’s a false gospel.

Wow. I guess a Methodist pastor who attends a weekly Catholic mass because of the charismatic experiences he’s had there is doubly damned. Behind John MacArthur’s condemnation of multiple branches of Christianity is a very high view of Satan’s power:

Satan is behind the corrupt religion, the false systems of belief… The world is imprisoned in false belief systems. They are fortified there, in the sense that they are impregnable in their ideologies. Those fortifications become their prisons and end up as their tombs. And the architect of all of them is Satan himself. He is the father of lies, the ultimate deceiver, the angel of light that purveys his great work through false belief systems.

I don’t disagree that there are many entrenched ideologies in our world that imprison Christians, laissez-faire capitalism and American exceptionalism being the main examples in our country. But I think the difference between John MacArthur and me is that I have as high a view of the Holy Spirit’s sovereignty as he has of Satan’s. I don’t think that God is watching helplessly as Satan steals billions of Christians from His flock for having different doctrine than John MacArthur. God promises us in Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened for you.” I believe that people who seek God with sincere hearts will find Him even if their relationship is filtered through different doctrinal lenses.

There are certainly some doctrines that create a greater obstacle to finding God than others, but God isn’t waiting to start a relationship with us until after we’ve read all of John MacArthur’s books and know exactly what to believe. There are millions of doctrinally confused Christians who trust in Jesus and are being used and shaped by the Holy Spirit in spite of whatever heresies they espouse. It is the posture of trust which is our justification, not the correctness of our doctrine. And incidentally, people who are obsessed with the latter raise questions about whether they really have been justified by Christ.

Yes, it’s true that there are false prophets and quirky beliefs in all corners of Christianity. And of course it’s appropriate to call out false prophecy when it happens, but that can be done without condemning an entire movement. The Holy Spirit always has to work in imperfect contexts to bring people to God, even moving in the thick, granite hearts of hard-core cessationist Calvinists like MacArthur.

I don’t know why some charismatics claim to have strange visions and paranormal encounters with the Holy Spirit. I don’t know why Catholics throughout history have claimed to encounter apparitions of the Virgin Mary that resulted in a unique place for her within Catholic liturgy. But I can’t say for certain that the Holy Spirit hasn’t been at work in those circumstances, so I’m not going to make presumptuous condemnations against personal testimonies that I cannot verify one way or another. I won’t even say confidently that the Holy Spirit is absent from John MacArthur despite however egregiously he seems to blaspheme the Spirit’s work. Jesus often spoke in hyperbole. Hopefully that’s what he was doing in Mark 3:29. Because if he wasn’t, then there are more than a few schismatic accusers within the church who will soon find themselves in a strange lake of fire.

28 thoughts on “Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit and John MacArthur’s #StrangeFire Conference

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  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Morgan. Good stuff.

    One of the unfortunate things (at least from my perspective) is the lack of accountability and repentance for “high up” pastors like John MacArthur. I think his community and elders are doing a disservice by not calling him to account.

    People will make mistakes, but ones ability to acknowledge it, is what makes for active, thriving, flourishing, relationships to continue.

    Thanks again.

    -de

    • That’s one of the disadvantages of independent megachurches. You aren’t covenanted into any accountability. Of course, our Methodist denomination supposedly has a covenant but there’s not a whole lot of accountability for us either.

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  4. Thank you for you post. I understand and appreciate its overall point. Me being silly me, I got focused on one statement:

    “There are millions of doctrinally confused Christians who trust in Jesus and are being used and shaped by the Holy Spirit in spite of whatever heresies they espouse. It is the posture of trust which is our justification, not the correctness of our doctrine. And incidentally, people who are obsessed with the latter raise questions about whether they really have been justified by Christ.”

    Would you indulge me in a not-so-small tangent?

    I work with youth middle and high school students who wrestle with justification and eternal security quite a bit, so when I see these ideas, I want to flesh them out a bit. Do you believe there is any belief or heresy that prevents salvation? I know Lutherans who say that confessing the Nicene Creed and being baptised is the minimum for “getting in”. I know Pentecostals who say that you have to trust in Jesus and truly love him. And be free of any habitual sins of course meaning that all gays and alcoholics (and politicians ha!) are doomed. I’ve even known other PCs who have told me that I am not saved because I have not spoken in tongues! *sigh*

    Where do you see salvation being drawn and what do you say to the person who asks, “How do I know I am saved?”

    Sorry, I know this is bigger than a comment. Thanks for any feedback!

    • What I believe is that being trapped in self-justification is hell (i.e. the posture of Adam in which I cannot admit my own mistakes but blame others for my flaws and hate the light of God because it exposes my evil, cf John 3:19-21). If we are trapped in the need to be right and be our own gods, standing in the presence of God will be eternal conscious torment. To trust that Christ has justified me despite my sins and given me the freedom to be wrong is to embrace God’s judgment as loving sanctification rather than hating it as wrathful condemnation. People can accept Christ’s justification without realizing that’s what they’re doing. Likewise people can justify themselves through a doctrinal works-righteousness and believe all the right things supposedly but forfeit their salvation by ultimately trusting their correctness instead of Christ’s atonement. That’s the best I can do at this point.

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  6. I quit paying attention to what is going on in Evangelicaldom many years ago, about the same time that I began to encounter Jesus at 07:00 a.m. Mass. Your explanation of the passage is excellent, highly informative and challenging. Excellent post, Morgan.

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  8. I’m a charismatic. That said, when I read MacArthur’s words,
    “Endless human experiences, emotional experiences, bizarre experiences and demonic experiences are said to come from the Holy Spirit…visions, revelations, voices from heaven, messages from the Spirit through transcendental means, dreams, speaking in tongues, prophecies, out of body experiences, trips to heaven, anointings, miracles….” I have an uncomfortable sense of resonating with what he is saying.

    I guess for me I kind of skip over the doctrinal correctness or incorrectness of this being labeled “blasphemy of the Spirit” and just consider the fact that – the man has a point. That is, that the Spirit is being given credit for all sorts of things the Spirit doesn’t want credit for.

    I believe in experiences, emotions, visions, revelations, voices, messages, dreams, tongues, prophecies, etc. But I also know that in wanting people to feel safe to spread their wings in the Spirit and try things (and I certainly think this is a good desire) along with the charismatic fear of “blaspheming the Spirit” if we should say something is not of the Spirit when it turns out to really be of the Spirit, that too often we have erred on the side of just accepting everything no matter how weird or fake it might be.

    This gives occasion for guys like MacArthur to either be justifiably upset at what we’re doing to God’s Spirit’s image, or to use what we’re doing as a launch pad for a cessationist agenda (take your pick which it is in his case.)

    I want nothing more for us as the body of Christ to be experiences the full gamut of what we can have in Christ, by the Spirit. I’m all for words and tongues and prophesies, etc. But somewhere along the line we also have to stop encouraging a culture that is more focused on the next supernatural thing rather than knowing Christ and the supernatural stuff being something that grows out of that and leads us deeper into Him and His heart for God and others. Anyway….

    • I definitely agree with you. I think you can express concerns about bizarre behavior that has no spiritual fruit and doesn’t make people any more Christlike without condemning a whole movement out of hand on account of this behavior. We are always part spirit and part flesh in whatever we experience. I think it is as egregious to claim the Holy Spirit’s anointing falsely as it is to deny the Spirit’s presence falsely.

  9. Love, LOVE, love everything you said! I struggled with this teaching in the late 80s through early 90s listening to him on the radio getting ready for school/work. Much of his perspectives did challenge me to grow in Christ, this one always left me gasping for air. My heart aches for those who accept this millstone within their framework.

  10. Jesus came to give us life, and that abundantly. Exploring and desiring more of the Spirit is part of the abundant life. To grab a worn phrase from the Army, I think the Spirit is telling us “be all that you can be.” Sorry if it was trite.

  11. John MacArthur is THE angry preacher. He is a modern day Gnostic who thinks his “revelation” is the precise KNOWLEDGE one needs for salvation and that NO one else has access without his unique insights. That is the reason he has written dozens of books as someone else noted. Because he, John MacArthur, thinks he is the life, the truth and the way, and so his word needs to be “out there”.

  12. I always appreciate your blog, Morgan, but I really am appreciating it today as I find myself having a hard time balancing my emotional connection to this issue. (Cue the flashbacks of sitting next to my beloved Vineyard friend through MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos sermon series in 1991, our freshman year at his college.) It is difficult for me at times, even at 40, to be the liberal, mystic, pragmatic, ecumenical, social gospel-focused, Jesus lover I know I’m called to be when I know the disapproval of my alma mater (and those I love still attached to it) is just hovering under the surface on Facebook and Twitter and wherever my connections to MacArthur are watching. Truthfully though, I broke free privately a long time ago, breaking free publicly is a slow and painful process as my Twitter feed yesterday proved. Thank you so much for this. It explains so much that was wrong with the Strange Fire conference so very, very well. (And you get bonus points for disproving their premise by expositing Scripture–well played.)

    • Thanks for the encouragement. I’m glad you got out. I pray that God gives you strength in your journey to the place that He has called you.

  13. Jon MacAurther may have a point but about how we as a culture tend to falsely attribute things to the Spirit however his approach will just turn people off. He just comes off as an angry preacher on a soapbox. Rather than pin it on pentecostals or charismatics why not just point out the specific incidences you have an issue with? Because with that broad brush he used he probably just did the very thing he is preaching against.

    • That’s what I’m saying. There is a lot of heresy out there in charismatic land, but it should be engaged on a case by case basis, not through a sweeping condemnation.

  14. A good thought-provoking post, Morgan. I particularly appreciate your point that denominationalism can lead us to denigrate every other denomination or doctrinal difference. I’m guilty as charged.

    I grew up in a cessationist church and attended a cessationist seminary. But cessationism has a hard sell: to say that what was normative in the New Testament is no longer valid because there is a lot of silence in the last 2,000 years of church history about speaking in tongues, prophecy, etc. (this ignores dozens of works by Christian mystics, and also ignores the fact that most folks were illiterate during these centuries).

    Probably the best mediating position I’ve read is “Empowered Evangelicals” by Rich Nathan. I started the book as more-or-less a cessationist. After looking at the biblical arguments and the experience of millions of brothers and sisters in Christ, I could no longer hold to cessationism. I may not speak in tongues or prophesy, but the New Testament says that these are gifts given to certain members of the Body. Why is this something to fear?

    You are so right: God is not waiting for folks to read all of John MacArthur’s books in order to save them. I get nervous when I see a Christian pastor with dozens of books to his credit. It just gives me the willies. Really? Dozens of books? Is everything you say truly worth writing a book about? Is the Bible really so complicated and unclear that it takes a meteoric pastor like you to untangle all of it for the dumb masses? So much for Jesus’ claim that even children can believe his message. *End of rant*

    • Yeah before I strangely stumbled into speaking in tongues myself, I really thought it was just some kind of fake performance that people were putting on. I grew up Baptist and Baptists are really big on authenticity in worship which means that holding your hands up in the air or doing things that seem like they call attention to yourself are regarded with suspicion. I suspect there are many who do it falsely. I don’t know how to explain what it is that I do. I don’t think it has a revelatory purpose; it hasn’t yet happened in a public worship space. It’s rather what comes out when I am praying emphatically and words fail to capture what I’m saying. That’s the best I can understand it.

    • Uh no. It is an example of wacko Pentecostal theology independent of partisanship. To say that some people are called to be kings and others to be priests is bad exegesis of Revelation 1:5.

      • Morgan – I totally agree with the priest/prophet/king designation for positions of authority in the church. Driscoll has been pushing that among others and it just doesn’t work within the leadership of the church. I hope that doesn’t get assumed to church-speak and instead is left in the rubbish. Great post btw.

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