John MacArthur is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, as well as an author, conference speaker, president of The Master’s College and Seminary, and featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry.
In 1969, after graduating from Talbot Theological Seminary, John came to Grace Community Church. The emphasis of his pulpit ministry is the careful study and verse-by-verse exposition of the Bible, with special attention devoted to the historical and grammatical background behind each passage. Under John’s leadership, Grace Community Church's two morning worship services fill the 3,500-seat auditorium to capacity. Several thousand members participate every week in dozens of fellowship groups and training programs, most led by lay leaders and each dedicated to equipping members for ministry on local, national, and international levels.
John and his wife, Patricia, live in Southern California and have four adult children: Matt, Marcy, Mark, and Melinda. They also enjoy the enthusiastic company of their fifteen grandchildren.
John is type of author that evokes emotion in the reader. Some try to avoid his books and others can't stop reading them. His prayer would be that emotion would drive one to a specific place - the foot of the cross. Or, simply put, the Gospel of Jesus.
In his new book, Strange Fire, John lays out a call for the Church to repent of it's "casual" approach to worship. After reading Strange Fire, one can understand that worship is a serious matter. God is to be enjoyed for sure, but in the direction that He gives.
In our recent conversation, I asked Dr. MacArthur about his new book and what I found is a man still living under conviction. While in his mid 70's, there is a fire that burns in this man. Strange it is not. For it's a passion for the glory of God.
John, I am curious, when you set out to write a book, who do you write your books for? Are you writing for a particular group of people? Are you writing for your church? Or are you just writing for the evangelical community altogether?
John M.: Yeah, primarily, I'm writing for the broader evangelical community; in particular, the pastors and leaders and influencers. When I write a book, particularly a political or issue-oriented book, I do that for the benefit of the church: to make a truth clear to the church, to warn the church. So the audience is typically the broader evangelical community with a focus on those in leadership to help them understand the issues and the impact that they're having on the church.
John: So, would you say that you're writing in response to something that's happening in church culture, or are you kind of thinking, "Hey, maybe this is what could be happening in church culture, so it needs to be addressed…"?
John M.: You know more often than not, John, I react. I look at my books, or many of them anyway, as kind of a correction, a clarification, some discernment applied to an issue in the church that the church needs to be aware of. That might be more frequently my motivation but not exclusively. There are times when I think the church just needs clarity on a doctrine or an issue, and so I’ll write more from a positive affirmation side. That would be the lesser of the common motive, though, as usually I'm looking at the church feeling concerned about the direction, the lack of understanding or the church's exposure to something that is dangerous--something the church needs to understand more clearly to fulfill its ministry. So, I'm usually coming off of something that I think needs clarity or needs correction.
John: Before we jump into your new book, "Strange Fire," I'm curious, John, have you ever written anything that you wish you would not have written? Have you ever changed a viewpoint on something that you would have liked to go back and refute?
John M.: I would say no. I've never written anything that I would like to get back. I think the Lord really prepared me through my training and upbringing with a sound framework of theology so I kind of have the borders pretty much in mind for the truth and sound doctrine. Obviously, I've understood things in a clearer way. There are certain verses I would interpret differently now. There are some details maybe in handling the word of God that I might express differently. There's been a lot of refinement and a lot more clarification, but there's really nothing through the years that I would say would reach the level of "I wish I'd never written that."
John: So, you have a new book coming out called, "Strange Fire.” I am curious, is this a follow-up to "Charismatic Chaos"?
John M.: It is definitely in the same category and the same genre. It is addressing the charismatic movement, but it isn't that book. It isn't like that book, "Charismatic Chaos," which by the way is still in print--I just received the final word on the publication of that book in Chinese. So that book has been consistently in print since it first came out. But it addresses the same movement; only it addresses that movement in its current form. The "Charismatic Chaos" book is ... I don't know how many years old, but it's 15 years old or more, and the movement has morphed and changed and gained momentum on a global level. So while the same issue is addressed, which is the charismatic movement, this is a completely independent book that has nothing to do with the prior book. This one addresses the movement in a way that is consistent with its present form and, of course, since the time that I wrote that book, the prosperity gospel has just gone like a wildfire and so that's an element, and there are other elements as well that have changed.
John: "Charismatic Chaos" was and is a fantastic book, and I have recommended it many times to many of my friends and I'm sure you have seen many comments by people who are being challenged by it. So hopefully we will see the same thing with "Strange Fire" as well.
John M.: I will say this John, the book through the years has had an amazing ministry in helping people come out of that movement, and I would say that is the manifest impact of that book, letters upon letters, tens of thousands of them through the years coming to our ministry, the people in multiple languages reading that book, and coming out of that movement. This book is directed more at the leaders of that movement, the purveyors of that system, false miracles, false prosperity gospel, misrepresentation of gifts and all of that kind of stuff. This book really goes at the leadership and exposes the movement at that level, as well as its aberrations on a popular level. So, I'm praying that it will be an indictment whereas the "Charismatic Chaos" book was not so much an indictment of the leadership, but that it will also at the same help people to come out of that movement to the truth.
John: You start "Strange Fire" with a story, the fantastic story of Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron. They are both priests, as you know, part of Israel. They, as you clearly point out, understood the teachings of God, were highly regarded, etc., and then the unbelievable happened, they went within this context of worship for them to present a, in a sense, sacrifice to God, and they did it in a wrong manner. God responded by sending fire and consumed both of them, both of these brothers. My question John is, do you think to some extent, the greater evangelical community, or at least maybe the charismatic community is in danger of doing the same thing?
John M.: I think the charismatic community does the same thing. I think it offers strange fire, that's the point I make. In the ninth chapter in that same context, an offering was given to God appropriately and rightly, and God burned up the offering, and immediately after that, the offering was made inappropriately and God burned up the offers, and what that does tell us is that God feels very strongly, even judgmentally, against false worship. That is, worship which dishonors him; and I think the charismatic movement is filled with that.
Now, I understand, we're not living in Old Testament times. God doesn't open up the ground and swallow up false prophets. God doesn't send a bear out of the woods to shred young men who mock a prophet. Obviously, God doesn't bring judgment the way he brought judgment in the Old Testament era; but he has the same attitude, and while judgment may not come in a temporal way, it will come, because God feels exactly the same about unacceptable worship. In fact, if you go back to the Ten Commandments, the first commandment and the second commandment are about no other God and how we come to God, how we approach God. The Old Testament is clear that we are to fear God and that we are to worship Him in a way that is consistent with His decree and His will and His commands.
So, I just think--and it's a sad thing--that these charismatic churches and charismatic groups are full of people who do not understand that they can't play fast and loose with this kind of supposed worship. They can't say the Holy Spirit is doing something He's not doing, or saying something He's not saying. They can't ascribe to God fake miracles or fake revelations and make up things and say that God said them and the Holy Spirit said them.
This is the most serious kind of conduct, negatively speaking, that any human being can commit. It is to blaspheme God, it’s an affront to God. I say in the introduction of the book that Jesus said the leaders of Israel had attributed the works of the Holy Spirit to Satan, and I draw a parallel, kind of an inverse parallel, that the modern charismatic movement attributes the works of Satan to the Holy Spirit. There are so many things that are obviously not of God at all that are being attributed to the Holy Spirit. This is very, very serious, and that's why the book doesn't hold back because the seriousness of dishonoring approaches to God demands a serious confrontation.
John: So my mind goes in a couple of different directions here and there based on what you just said. Is God adhering to His forbearance then, as He approaches the Christian community, the charismatic community?
John M.: Well, first of all, yeah, we have to understand that God is always forbearing, and He doesn't give us what we deserve when we deserve it. We are all alive because of His grace, and God by nature as Savior, even temporally, He withholds his judgment, He is merciful, He is gracious. I think many of these people aren't Christians, they're false teachers, false prophets, charlatans and frauds, and many of the people that follow them are nonbelievers who are deceived and duped, and certainly the Lord withholds judgment on them. Obviously, their judgment is the judgment of eternal condemnation when it does come.
But even among believers, you know, there are many sins that believers can commit and do commit, and there are many unfaithful believers who don't have the ground open up and swallow them or who aren't struck down by God, although that can happen because we know from the New Testament, there is a sin of the death and there can be a sin in the life of the believer that will cause the Lord to take him home.
But I think that's correct; I think God is patient even toward his own, and that's one of the functions of pastors. Paul, you remember, said to the church in Acts 20, "I have not ceased for three years to warn you with tears and to warn you that of your own selves perverse men will rise up, will lead you astray and from the outside wolves will come in with deceptive teaching." Paul writes his letters to churches and continually talks about error, and he said to the Galatians, "Having begun in the Spirit, are you perfected in the flesh? Please don't fall into legalism." All of those epistles have warning sections. Thessalonians, you know, warns about misunderstanding the second coming and believing lies. That's just part of ministry.
So, we would say that while the Lord is forbearing with His own people who truly belong to him, it is the role and duty of pastors and leaders of the church to expose the false teachers, to expose the false doctrine and to preach sound doctrine. In fact, you shouldn't even be a leader in the church unless you are capable of exposing error. According to Paul's standards for leadership, 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, you have to be able to recognize error, expose it for error, and teach sound doctrine. That's part of being a leader in the church. It's not necessarily popular in this kind of environment where everybody calls for tolerance and acceptance. And nobody has screamed louder for that than the charismatics, because they have to have that in order to succeed. They have gotten what they wanted, but it's true that the Lord is patient, especially with His church. But that raises the importance of those who are leading His church to speak the truth and warn the people.
John: In the book, you suggest a few questions to help test the authenticity of true works of the Spirit. You ask the readers to ask five questions. One, does it exalt the true Christ? Two, does it oppose worldliness? Three, does it point people to Scripture? Four, does it elevate the truth? And five, does it produce love for God and for others?
Now, when I am reading those questions, my thought is, to some extent, we could have a pastor or a leader within the charismatic movement, being asked those questions on one side and John MacArthur being asked those questions on one side and both of them and looking at the acts of what's happening in the charismatic movement would answer those questions in the affirmative. Does it exalt the true Christ? They would answer yes. Does it oppose worldliness? They would say yes. How does someone within a Christian community approach then these two conflicting viewpoints and say, "Well, wait a second here, you both can't be right. I hear someone on TV telling me that what they're doing is truly of God, and yet I have MacArthur on one side telling me no, what they're doing is not of God, it's of the devil." How do we reconcile that, John?
John M.: Those five questions basically came from Jonathan Edwards, and he was using those five things to evaluate the legitimacy or illegitimacy of certain things that were happening in the great awakening, and in every case it all depends on how you define the terms. If I ask the question, "Does it honor Christ?" the guy can say, "Of course, it honors Christ." A Mormon can say Mormonism honors Christ, A Jehovah's Witness can say Jehovah's Witness ministers honor Christ, but that begs a definition of Christ. Who is Christ? And what does honor Christ? That is the compelling issue.
For example, when Kenneth Copeland says that Jesus on the cross became a sinner, died and went to hell, and was punished for three days, that's heresy. He may ask somebody, do charismatics honor Christ? Does Kenneth Copeland honor Christ? Sure, off the top of their head, they would say, “Yes,” but when you look more deeply, to say that Christ became a sinner and went to hell to pay for sin for three days and then God raised him, that does not honor Christ.
So, all those questions then have to be defined. The terms in all those questions have to be defined. Before you can answer the question, "Does it honor Christ?" you have to show who Christ is, what Christ has done, and what the Bible says honors Christ, and then see if based upon the biblical definition of honoring Christ, they are honoring Christ; so in every case, a superficial answer, we expect that. We expect them to say, "Oh yeah, this demonstrates love for God, this demonstrates love for others." But upon closer examination, when you compare how the Bible defines those terms and what the charismatics do, it is not hard to answer the question.
John: So, context defines the meaning here.
John M.: Context and definition is everything. Sure, you could say to a Muslim, "Do you love God?" and he could say, "Yes," but he better talk about who you're talking about, what God you’re talking about and what you mean by love. So yeah, all those words beg for explanation, and in the book, those questions have a very carefully laid out biblical context in which they have to be answered.
John: Yeah, they do, they do.
John, the question was asked once of a TV preacher, "Why do amazing miracles like people being raise from the dead, blind eyes being opened, lame people walking again happen with greater frequency in places like Africa, and not here in the U.S.? So now I'm asking you John, would you agree with that statement, and then how would you answer that question?
John M.: I would answer it by saying who said that and based on what evidence? I have absolutely never seen any legitimate evidence of anything like that going on anywhere in the world. People being raised from the dead claims, sure. People have made the claim that that has happened, that they have seen that happen, but there is literally no evidence, no genuine evidence for things like that. You have near-death situations where people come near to death and maybe are revived, we would all understand that, but nobody goes to a funeral and raises somebody out of the casket after they have been embalmed.
So, you know, those kinds of claims are basically meaningless. They’re as meaningless as all of these claims about people going to heaven and seeing Jesus and seeing the Holy Spirit as a blue fog and Jesus riding a rainbow horse. That's why Paul said to the Corinthians, "I was caught up to the third heaven," but it's not profitable to talk about that, because it's not verifiable. They love the unverifiable. They love to make claims that no one can ever substantiate. People have done vast studies trying to track down the supposed miracles of well-known healers and all the evidence has come in through the years that there's just nothing there.
John: What do you hope happens? I mean you kind of answered this at the beginning, but what do you hope happens as this book launches, as it goes out into the Christian community? Just what do you hope the response is going to be?
John M.: First, I hope that those people who are sitting in these environments and know something is wrong but have been intimidated, that they have open minds and know this isn't right. That they know they're dying of cancer, they've got heart disease, they're going through a divorce, they're struggling with sin, they're not getting rich, and they're questioning why the guy at the top of the Ponzi scheme pile has a jet and two Mercedes and they can barely exist—or even can't exist. I hope those people who are full of anxiety and doubt will find reason to run and reason to flee the error and see and expose it for what it is.
Secondly, I hope people will understand the danger of the influences that they're under. When Jesus was denouncing the Pharisees, he said they produce sons of hell. It’s an amazing indictment of those that the populous of Israel felt was representative of God, and what Jesus said is they don't produce sons of heaven, they produce sons of hell. I think it was more on Jesus' mind at the end of his ministry, in the final discussion he had before the cross with the disciples and the populous of Jerusalem that they flee from false teachers because they have such deadly influence. So, I hope people will see the corruption. If you start with Charles Parham from whom the movement came and see that he was arrested for sodomy and you just progress through the scandals of the movement, I hope it exposes the corruption that's at the top of the movement.
The third thing that I would hope and pray for is that the movement would receive such a blow that it finds it difficult to recruit. And that's asking a lot because it's a big wide world and most of the Christian world doesn't even know I exist, but I would love to have this book slow down the growth and then obviously I would hope that even those that are fully convinced in the movement and fully convinced leaders in the movement, God might see fit to rescue them from it.
John: We're going to jump off of topic of the book here. The tagline for "Grace to You" is Unleashing God's truth, One Verse at a Time. You have been a proponent for expository preaching, obviously for a long time. I'm curious, do you believe that's the only way to proclaim Scripture?
John M.: Well, I believe initially the only way to proclaim anything from the Scripture is to interpret it correctly. So let's just say that however the sermon comes out, whether it's a theological sermon, or a sort of exhortational sermon, or an exposition of a given passage, or whether you're dealing with a biblical theme, the end product of what you preach has to come from rightly dividing the word of God. So, it's not that every sermon has to be a sort of word-by-word, verse-by-verse exposition, certainly as tight and as defined maybe as I would do it, but when you say this is what Scripture teaches, you can't truly say that unless you've rightly divided the truth.
So, even when I preach, say, a message on a theological theme, a biblical theme, a doctrine of Scripture or give an overview, the message at the end of the day has to reflect the Scripture rightly interpreted. So, in that sense, all preaching has to be expositional. Sound theology is the product of accurate exposition. I prefer Bible exposition. I think it's the right way to preach because it's the only way that covers everything, and I don't think God simply gave us big ideas. I think He gave us truth down to the very smallest phrases and words, and if you're going to get the full richness of Scripture, that's the way you're going to get it.
John: Do you think to some extent by avoiding expository preaching, it has allowed growth for the charismatic movement? I mean, do you think that's why to some extent everything that "Strange Fire," the reason why you wrote that book is because of the fact that expository preaching has not been held in high regard?
John M.: If expository preaching dominated the church, and if that expository preaching was accurate interpretation of Scripture, the movement couldn't survive. That's absolutely correct. All false doctrine survives in an environment of ignorance or tolerance, and in evangelicalism in our day, you have a lot of ignorance, a lot of people who just think about church growth and whatever, and not about the truth in its detail. And you certainly have the personal kind of movement in Christianity, which conveys the idea, “What does the Bible mean to me?” and whatever I think it means and feel it means, and whatever the Lord shows me it means, that's what it means.
So you not only have no exposition of Scripture based upon a scientific pattern, but you don't even have Hermeneutics, you don't even have rules for interpretation. If the Lord shows you what this means intuitively, like a pain in your stomach or a notion that pops into your head, now you've got an alien approach to Scripture. So, whether you have the Bible interpreted intuitively or interpreted personally or not interpreted at all, of course then anything and everything flourishes.
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