John McArthur is a well known critic of what is known as the Charismatic movement, which, by his reckoning, also includes many Pentecostals, and, he thinks, needs sorting out – by a Reformed Theology teacher, of course!
In this sermon, ‘Is God Still Revealing the Truth?’, he claims that the main problem with the Charismatic movement is twofold. Here’s what he says.
“Now we have been looking for the last number of weeks on Sunday night at the Charismatic Movement from a biblical perspective. And while the questions that we have posed and answered have been many already, there are just a few things that need to be said, and they happen to be very foundational realities.
I think when most people look at the Charismatic Movement, think about the Movement, they look at the phenomena that goes on. They talk about tongues, and they talk about miracles, and signs and wonders so-called, supposedly. People talk about the kind of behaviour they see on television or experience in person if they’ve been to a Charismatic service or environment. But there are some underlying theological presuppositions that send the Movement on the wrong course from the very outset. The reason the behaviour is out of control is because the foundations are non-existent. That is to say biblical foundations are non-existent. What substitutes for a biblical foundation are some serious errors that need to be addressed and you can’t understand the Movement is the way it is and features the behaviours that it has until you understand what has gone wrong at the very beginning.
Last week we talked about the first very foundational reality that must be considered in any assessment of the Charismatic Movement, and that is their source for truth. And rather than draw truth out of the Word of God, they look for truth in their experiences. Their experiences, their feelings, their emotions become the source of truth. And that leads to utter chaos.
And there is a second very foundational subject that I want to address tonight and that is around the question, Does God still give revelation? This is less, as I said last week, like a sermon and more like a lecture, but the information is very, very important. Does God still give revelation? Is God still revealing truth from heaven? Is God still speaking? Or on the other hand, has God ceased speaking when the Scripture was complete?
The historic view has always been that the Scripture is the Word of God. It has a beginning and it has an end and when the book of Revelation was completed, and the writings of John at the end of the first century, the canon was complete and God has not revealed His Word since that time. It doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit doesn’t direct and lead, it doesn’t mean God isn’t operating in history, He is. Everything happens within His providential power and purpose is. But the question is, Is God still giving revelation? Or do we have all the revelation He has intended for us in the Old Testament and the New Testament?
Now the answer of the Charismatic Movement is absolutely, God is still giving revelation. To make a simple analogy, as the Old Testament is incomplete without the New Testament, so the New Testament for Charismatics is incomplete without the subsequent revelation as the New Testament completes the Old Testament, so the continuing revelation completes the New Testament.”
Then he goes on to give illustrations, some of which do, indeed, as he claims, contain unbiblical content, but many of which are prophetic utterances or predictions, which McArthur assumes to be new Biblical revelation of the same standard as, say, Paul, Peter, James or John in their Epistles, which is nonsense.
For the purpose of this article I will not argue with McArthur’s assessment of the validity of some of the predictions, but focus on his claims. He has used the most extreme errors he could find to illustrate his prognosis, but there are a great many more instances of Biblical New Testament prophecy which are far less controversial, but, because of their authenticity, slip by the critics because they are uninteresting to their indignant minds.
But let’s look at his two primary claims, which he states to be ‘foundational realities’.
The first, he says, is the ‘phenomena that goes on’. This, he states, is represented in ‘tongues, miracles, signs and wonders, so-called’. He also highlights the ‘behaviour they see on television’, or ‘experience’ in Charismatic services.
I’ve been around Charismatic and Pentecostal circles for over 20 years and I have to say that these things are not the most prominent issues being discussed or presented in the average meeting by the average believer. In fact, the church I attend at present, in the three years or so I have been involved in their meetings, rarely focus on these issues, unless there is specific teaching on them.
That is not to say they deny speaking in tongues, the reality of miracles, signs or wonders, but that they are not continually talking about them, rather, the conversation and teaching is about the greatness of God, the importance of Christ to our lives, and around how to deal with everyday life in the home, in relationships, in the workplace, and life in general, just as you’d expect in a Christian environment. We also discuss the best ways to be good representatives of Christ and his gospel.
Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues.
Yes, we speak in tongues, and this is an aid to our prayer and worship life, but we are not sitting around talking about it all the time, because it is like breathing to us, and as natural, in a spiritual way, as life itself. We mostly take it for granted, so why discuss it unless we are explaining it to a new believer or someone who asks about it?
McArthur’s worldview when it comes to Charismatics is actually framed by his prejudice towards the way in which Charismatics understand the Word of God.
He thinks they are always going on about ‘tongues and healing’ as one Anglican vicar I heard in discussion with a Uniting Church minster and Catholic priest, as they criticised the new Charismatic church in town. It is endemic of those who are cessationists to talk about those who preach the full gospel to criticise them for believing that God still moves through the Spirit as he did in the foundational days of the Church. But why claim that God has changed, or his grace, or his gifts? It is we who must change, not God.
Then he adds to this the idea that all of the Charismatic thrust is ‘experiential’. He says the foundations are non-existent.
This is a serious charge indeed.
Again, having been involved with Charismatic and Pentecostal churches for several years, including at a Pastoral and leadership level, I can say that this is a disgraceful slur on Charismatics and totally unfounded. In fact, you are likely to hear scripture passage after scripture passage expounded upon in most Charismatic churches. There are some which are less reliant on this kind of exegesis but I have not been involved with them, nor is that my style. The Word of God is foundational to everything we do or think.
Of course we enjoy the Presence of God in our lives and meetings, but that is not all we seek. We seek God Himself. Why wouldn’t God’s Presence be experienced in the Church? Why wouldn’t God confirm the Word preached with signs? Is God dead, now, as atheists claim? Or is God the same God He always has been?
But notice I say He confirms the Word preached. He is there with us all the time once we are saved, and even before we are saved, so what happens when we are saved? Is He suddenly gone? And if He is with us all as believers where is He when we gather in our meetings? Is God now powerless, or still Omniscient, Omnipotent and Omnipresent?
Men like Wesley and Whitfield did not believe they had preached properly if the Holy Spirit did not arrive to touch the lives of the hearers during their meetings. God is alive!
But the Holy Spirit works with the Word. The Word of God, as presented in the canon of Scripture, is central to all we believe and do.
What McArthur has done is watch TV Evangelists, who are not always representative of what goes on the churches, and assumed that they are the vanguard of what takes place in Charismatic churches. McArthur claims the Word is not preached. This is ridiculous, and he should repent of his misrepresentation of the truth. I would not attend a church which relied on experience alone and ignored the Word of God.
What he means is that the Reformed message he preaches is not ministered. That is a very important factor here, along with his premise that the gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit have ended. He is essentially a cessationist. This frames his doctrine, of course, and tints his worldview of Charismatic ministry. But to say that the Charismatics are not conversant with the Word of God via the Scriptures is ludicrous. Many Charismatics came out of, and even remain in, mainline denominations with a strong emphasis on the Word.
Normally I use a large amount of Scripture in messages, but I was once in a Charismatic church in Indonesia preaching a message which was littered with Scriptural references throughout, but I had not begun the message, as I usually do, with a specific scripture, and had really started with an introduction which led to the substance of what I was preaching. I started to end the message, but the Pastor came to the podium and asked that I please read a Scripture verse from an open Bible before ending as the people expected that. It was the only time I had ever ministered that way and felt it was the leading of the Spirit, quoting verbatim from memory verse after verse to qualify the message, yet they would not let me go until I had read from the Bible.
Charismatics are very strong on foundational truths. They know the value of getting the basic doctrines into the hearts of new believers. The Alpha course isn’t everyone’s flavour of the month, but it is an example of the first teaching that all believers are encouraged to go through as soon as they are born again and baptised in water. These are very definite values in all Charismatic churches and ministries.
Following on from this are the study and discussion groups which create community and build the Word into people’s lives. They are also encouraged to undertake further advanced studies.
McArthur is very wrong to mislead his congregation, and those who follow his website and books, with his claims that there are no foundational truths sown into the lives of new believers and mature Christians alike in Charismatic churches. He is being elitist and condescending.
The second claim he makes is that Charismatics attempt to add to the canon through revelation. So, on the one hand, he says they do not know the canon, and on the other he says they add to the canon.
This is basic error on his part, and a flawed understanding of what Charismatics and Pentecostals understand when they speak of revelation.
They are not saying that they have a new understanding or new teaching from God which is not already present or represented in the canon. They rely on the Holy Spirit and the accuracy of the Scriptures to verify everything that is preached or taught in their meetings. Whilst there are renegades in every organisation and church group, this is consistent for most.
Revelation is the uncovering of hidden things. It is not a new doctrine, but a better understanding of established doctrine.
McArthur’s is a shabby understanding of what really takes place.
The Bible itself, in Corinthians, speaks of the believers gathering in churches and some having a tongue, an interpretation, a prophetic utterance or a revelation.
This doesn’t mean they have a new doctrine to add to the canon. It means they have a new grasp of what the Bible has already said. The Holy Spirit has opened up the truth to them which exists in the canon, but is something they did not grasp previously, which they now want to tell the church to help others who may be in the same situation.
How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.
None of us knows everything. We can read some passages of scripture and not understand everything that the Lord is saying, but, through continual reading and prayer, and putting together from other passages and hearing from teachers and minsters, we gradually learn things we did not know before. The Word is revealed to us as it never has been before. The eyes of our understanding are opened to grasp the truths being revealed.
This is what is meant by revelation. It is not new to God, obviously, or to the Holy Spirit, or, crucially, to the Word, or the canon of Scripture, but it is a new understanding to us. Paul prays that the eyes of our understanding will be opened to grasp all truth.
Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints.
McArthur actually believes that ministers and, therefore, their flocks, are trying to get new Scriptures from God, as if the canon isn’t complete.
This is ridiculous, and I don’t know a single Charismatic or Pentecostal minster who believes this or claims it. What they do is say they have a revelation which is an unfolding of Scripture to them, not a new concept or doctrine from God.
McArthur’s claim makes him look arrogant enough to think that he can actually understand everything there is to understand about the existing canon and never needs the Holy Spirit to reveal, or open his understanding, to something he may have read countless times, but never saw in a certain light before. That would be foolish thinking. We are always learning from the Holy Spirit as He unfolds the Word to us.
Opening our understanding
There is so much to learn from the scriptures that we don’t yet understand. It’s not that God is teaching us new things in the way of revealing thinks that have never been known by anyone before, as with Paul, when he gave him revelations, but that the Holy Spirit is opening our understanding to what is already there, but which we have not yet understood.
There is excess in every movement, and some of the more prominent ones revealed by McArthur I would agree with in essence, but not in the interpretation he has of Charismatic understanding of revelation.
But Paul himself says that, in the church setting, it better to minister by revelation, knowledge and teaching than to speak in tongues to people, who would not be able to understand him without an interpretation. He is not negating speaking in tongues, but setting the order, including bringing revelation, not of something completely new from God, but of a better understanding of what already is known.
I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification. But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching?
1 Corinthians 14:5-6
So the biblical understanding of revelation is not something which is new in the sense of being an unknown doctrine from God, but of unfolding for others, especially novices, what is already given through the canon of Scripture. It can be by teaching, by knowledge, by prophecy or by revelation, and is all valid.
McArthur says, ‘To make a simple analogy, as the Old Testament is incomplete without the New Testament, so the New Testament for Charismatics is incomplete without the subsequent revelation as the New Testament completes the Old Testament, so the continuing revelation completes the New Testament.’
This is patently wrong and misleading. As I have shown, this is not the Charismatic understanding of revelation. It is McArthur’s critical attempt at characterising Charismatics in the wrong light.
Very few Bible believing Charismatic or Pentecostal Christians teach or are taught that a simple prophecy, or a word of knowledge, or a word of wisdom, or a tongue with an interpretation, or any similar utterance given in the local church setting by the Holy Spirit through a believer is anything like a ‘continued revelation’. This is wrong, and misrepresentative, not only of Charismatic and Pentecostal understanding of the Word, but of the Holy Spirit and His work in and through the Church.
The notion of a ‘continued revelation’ is entirely a fabrication of McArthur’s and nothing whatsoever to do with the Biblical understanding Paul gives in Corinthians.
In fact, the problem is with McArthur and his peers who are cessationists, who deny that the Holy Spirit is the same as He was in the day of Pentecost, and falsely claim He has stopped doing what He has always done through His people in His Church.
The Spirit is always revealing the truth to us
The Holy Spirit is the same today as He ever was, doing what He has always done through His people.
Charismatics are by no means perfect, nor do they have it all together, but preaching error about them, as McArthur does, from the pulpit, falls well short of Christian virtue.
His problem is that he is so legalistic about the Word he misses the truth that Jesus sent the Spirit to help us understand who He is and what He told us in the Word. McArthur makes law out of what should be liberty.
As Paul said, the letter kills but the Spirit gives life. The Spirit unlocks the Word for us and shows us how it is relevant to our lives and how to live in the Word. He doesn’t replace the Word, or add to the Word. He confirms the Word.
Is God still revealing the Truth today? Of course He is. He is the Spirit of Truth. The Word is Truth. He is the Spirit of the Word. He is the Spirit of Christ the Word. Jesus said we would receive the Spirit of Truth in our lives as the Helper.
The canon is complete, but the Spirit is more than the canon. God exalts His Word even above His name, but the Holy Spirit unlocks it for us. The entry of God’s Word brings light, and the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth.
He is God amongst us revealing truth. There is nothing new to be said. No new revelation to add to the canon. But there are things we hear from the Spirit, such as a word of knowledge, which are relevant to our lives in a personal, intimate way because He cares, He guides, He helps, He leads, speaking to our present and into our future, which are not detailed in the Scripture, but which the Spirit knows of us, to help us and lead us without compromising the Word.
The Spirit confirms what the Word has revealed in Christ and through the Apostles and Prophets. If we think we know everything and understand everything we are deluding ourselves. We need the Holy Spirit to show us the Word and help us live it in everyday life.