If you’re a Christian and you have a pulse, then you’ve heard about the latest dust up between conservative Christianity and the modern Charismatic movement. In his most recent book, Strange Fire, noted cessationist John MacArthur accuses charismatics of everything from doctrinal heresy to just being plain weird. He often cites the worst cases and passes them off as the normative charismatic experience.
To be fair, I do think some of the excesses and abuses in the book warrant correction today. I must also say that I agree with some of what MacArthur and his surrogates teach about the Holy Spirit.
For instance, it’s true that God wants our worship to be doctrinally sound (1 Tim. 1:3), intelligible (1 Cor 14:19) and orderly (1 Cor 14:27). We need to be reminded that the Spirit brings conviction of sin (Jn 16:8) and transforms our character (1 Cor 13:1-7). MacArthur’s emphases on these vital aspects of the Spirit aren’t wrong.
But as I read I wondered, “How is it that such a biblically educated believer can so blatantly and effortlessly screen out the supernatural content of Scripture?”
At worst, MacArthur just morphs Christianity into a mere doctrinal system—a checklist of sacred beliefs. At best, he portrays the Spirit as that silent member of the Trinity who is busy with the discreet work of inner transformation.
He doesn’t speak to us.
He doesn’t lead us.
And he has no interest in setting hearts, hands, and lips ablaze with his presence. At least, not today anyway.
The Legacy of Radical Cessationism
Here’s the problem with all this. Over a century of mere doctrinal inculcation has left us with a generation of “believers” who don’t even believe in the doctrine of the Spirit anymore. It’s counterintuitive, I know. But just consider this…
- The Barna Group found that only 25 percent of American Christians believe in the existence of the Holy Spirit.1
- Barna also found that younger generations were less likely to believe in and engage with the Spirit.2 These statistics are alarming when one considers the mass exodus of 18-34 year-olds from the church.
In effect, we have barred would-be worshipers from the fullness of the Spirit’s experience while insisting that they learn the Apostles’ Creed. But the Holy Spirit is not merely a doctrine we learn about. He’s not a dove on a stained glass window. And he’s not the “silent member” of the Godhead. He is God himself—the God who has “invaded our lives with transforming presence.”3
A diminished view of the Spirit’s work is dangerous for several reasons…
First, minimizing the Spirit compromises biblical truth—The Spirit is instrumental in our personal rebirth and renewal (Jn 3:3, 5-8). He fills us as we gather and worship (Eph 5:19). He also empowers us to meet our obligations through Spirit gifts (Rom 12; 1 Cor 12). The same power of the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is available to the believer (Eph 1:19, 20). The Christian faith is a lot of things, but it is nothing without the Spirit. We may engrave His name in the bedrock of our historic creeds, but without His presence we are not of Christ at all.
Second, minimizing the Spirit will jettison our mandate—Christianity is not a nice family religion. It is a living, active, and missional enterprise. If we make the mistake of treating the Spirit as nothing more than a theological abstraction, an amorphous concept, or the “silent partner” of the Trinity, we will utterly fail to disciple the nations and the next generation. This is why Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promise—God’s empowering presence (Acts 1:4–8). Take the Holy Spirit away from the Church, and all we’re left with is a grace-deficient, family-based cult. Christianity doesn’t work when the Spirit is ignored, marginalized, or sidelined in favor of our Spirit-less ingenuity.
We’re losing our culture to darkness. And Christianity cannot be seen as a credible option in a culture where it is reduced to a mere historic curiosity, devoid of wind and fire—absent the Spirit of life.
1. Most American Christians Do Not Believe That Satan or the Holy Spirit Exist,” barna.org, http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/260-most-american-christians-do-not-believe-that-satan-or-the-holy-spirit-exis? (accessed August 25, 2010). Barna notes that an additional 9 percent disagreed “somewhat” that the Spirit was only a symbol of the Christian faith. This leaves only a solid 25 percent who firmly believe in the Spirit as a Person.
2. “How Different Generations View and Engage with Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity,” barna.org, http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/360-how-different-generations-view-and-engage-with-charismatic-and-pentecostal-christianity?q=different+generations+view+engage (accessed August 25, 2010). Barna noted that most believers labeled themselves “charismatic” yet resisted the notion that the Spirit does miraculous things in our day-to-day lives.
3. Craig Keener, Gift and Giver (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 18.