A Charismatic Evangelical’s Reflection on the Strange Fire Conference – One Year later

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the Strange Fire Conference. This was an event that came from the heart of a veteran pastor who- I truly believe- cares deeply for the maturity and well being of the Church of Christ and wants to guard it from wolves who would try to sneak in and destroy it. He brought together a group of like minded theologians and pastors, who love God and love His Word, to address some very real, and serious, concerns he was seeing in the church worldwide. But sadly, what could have been a powerful few days of calling Evangelical Christians together, in Gospel centered unity, to address the excesses, errors, and- in some cases- false teachings of the more extreme wing of the charismatic church, instead became a divisive platform for “calling out” all- or nearly all- charismatic Christians as heretics, as being on the road to heresy, or, at the very least, being under the influence of heretical teaching.

One year later I am still grieved by much of this conference, by the choice of tone and rhetoric used throughout it by my brothers in Christ, and by some of the straw man arguments that were put forth in an effort to discredit charismatic beliefs and individuals. I am saddened by the fact that when someone, like myself, speaks of being offended by nature of this conference, I am informed that the truth is often, if not always divisive. This is, of course true, however it is a logical fallacy to assume that just because something is divisive, it therefore must be true.

However, I am also sad because, in a very real way, this conference had to happen (albeit, I think it could have happened differently). It was brought on by, and addressed, some dangerous trends- even false teachings and abuses- that are found in the more extreme wing of Charismatic Christianity (Prosperity Gospel, Name it and Claim it, Radical Inclusivism, etc.). There are teachers and ministries that are accepted- or at least not openly opposed- in charismatic circles that do not preach Biblical Christianity and that push beyond the boundaries of historic orthodoxy. As a Charismatic, I will be the first to confess that we need to stand up against these excesses, errors, and false teachings and teachers. However, I cannot be convinced that the best way to do this is by throwing the whole movement (with the exception of two or three friends) under the bus. Many charismatic believers hold to the very same confessions, creeds, and doctrines as their cessationalist brothers and sisters, but with a different Scriptural interpretation of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the church. To- essentially- posit that a Charismatic understanding of the Holy Spirit’s activity in the church today puts Christians on the slippery slope towards heresy is a bridge too far (In short; Charismatic Evangelicals believe that the Bible, being itself the final authoritative and inerrant Word of God to His church, teaches that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit continue, that God still speaks today through other means than- but never in opposition to, or at cross purposes with- Scripture, and that there is a decidedly experiential side to the faith, or, to put it another way, we can, and should want to, experience God’s presence and activity today, both corporately and personally).

But, I think what breaks my heart the most, is that I agree with much of the critique that was offered at this conference one year ago and share many of their concerns. I see the same problems, the same errors, the same false teaching and sin (need I even mention my deep disagreement with those that teach Open Theism, Oneness theology of the Godhead, or a Trinity of Trinities?!?!). I would like nothing more then to partner with Christ centered men and women, like those that put on the Strange Fire Conference, to address these errors- and, in some cases, outright deceptions- and to, if at all possible, draw wandering believers back to the Scriptures and to help lead unbelievers, who may be caught in a web of false teaching, to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, because of the manner in which the proponents of the Strange Fire Conference, and its aftermath, have seemingly dismissed all charismatics, I find myself in a defensive crouch against them- against my brothers and sisters in Christ. This should not be so! I look at my cessationalist brothers and sisters knowing that we share a passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for the sufficiency of Scripture, and the for the church, I am just not always sure that they see me the same way, and- to be perfectly honest- that is wearisome and disheartening.

That being said, I still have hope. I believe that the church of Christ- those of us who have been called out of sin and death, saved by the grace of God, through faith in the finished work of the Son, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit- can walk arm-in-arm as brothers and sisters. I believe this because, as much as truth divides, it is also a banner under which people of shared conviction can gather- and there is no greater conviction then that which is brought by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe the church can come together under this Gospel banner because, Jesus Himself prayed that we would be, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:20-23).

In similar vain, the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’ (In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:1-16).

I have confidence that as we, the church, pursue the Christ, pursue His truth- as handed down to us in the Scriptures- the Holy Spirit will be faithful to draw us together in love and unity. “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18-22).

-Soli Deo Gloria

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No Other Gospel: Thoughts on Galatians 1:6-7

Epistle_to_Galatians_IlluminatadIn Galatians 1, verses 6 and 7, Paul, with great economy of language, begins to address what had occasioned the writing of this letter to the churches in Galatia. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- not that there is another one….” It is hard to know if Paul is more “astonished” that they are buying into this “different gospel” in the first place, or how “quickly” it happened, although it is probably safe to assume some combination of both. Sufficed to say, this church, that Paul had so recently planted, had begun to let go of the gospel he delivered to them and take hold “another one,” a false one, a non-gospel which- as he will begin to address in the coming chapters- would only serve to steal their freedom in Christ and return them to bondage. Perhaps only months earlier, these same Galatians were joyfully receiving the good news of Jesus Christ, taking hold of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, but now they were beginning to lay hold of a “different gospel,”

How did this sudden shift happen? Paul goes on to give an answer as to the cause, “there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” It would seem that within months of Paul leaving Galatia, others had slipped in, desiring to twist the gospel. A little later, when Paul recounts his second visit to the Jerusalem Church, he speaks of “false brothers… who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery- to them we did not yield… so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Gal 2:4-6).

It’s a pretty safe bet that the crowd that showed up after Paul in Galatia- spreading a false word- were of the same ilk as those he had to address, with the Apostles, in Jerusalem. It is likely that these “false brothers” did not deny the gospel that Paul preached to the Galatians, but rather labeled it incomplete. Sure, they might say, grace though Faith in Christ is good, but that’s not enough, that just gets you started. You also have to be circumcised, adhere to the Mosaic dietary laws, take part in the festivals and feasts of Israel, etc. Essentially, they taught that believing in Jesus- and His work on the Cross- was a good start, but if you really want ‘in,’ you must become Jewish- you had to join the physical family of Abraham and keep all the laws of Moses. To the Galatian churches, which were mostly comprised of Gentile Greeks, who had come to faith through the ministry of Paul, this teaching probably rang true(ish). After all, Jesus was Jewish, Christianity was founded on the ancient religion of Judaism, the Apostolic Church was located in Jerusalem, wouldn’t it make sense that in order to follow Christ- to truly belong to Him- they too would have to become Jewish?

However, Paul saw that there was more at stake here than just whether Gentiles believers had to take part in Jewish religious practices in order to be Christian. He saw, in this distortion of the gospel, an attempt to undo what Christ had done. Jesus came to free his people from the bondage of sin and death, but these teachers sought to enslave them again. Jesus came to fulfill the law of Moses and reveal God the Father to His people, but these false brothers sought to reestablish the law and obscure the face of the Father. As Charles Haddon Spurgeon so aptly wrote, “Human wisdom delights to trim and arrange the doctrines of the cross into a system more artificial and more congenial with the depraved tastes of fallen nature; instead, however, of improving the gospel carnal wisdom pollutes it, until it becomes another gospel, and not the truth of God at all.”

How did these false teacher distort the gospel? By saying that the finished work of Christ on your behalf, on its own, is inadequate, that you must also add to it works of the Law, or religious practices, or righteousness of your own. Again, Spurgeon spoke truly when he wrote, “There is an inherent blasphemy in seeking to add to what Christ Jesus in His dying moments declared to be finished, or to improve that in which the Lord Jehovah finds perfect satisfaction.” At the end of the day, this different gospel, that the Galatians were beginning to buy into, stood in stark contrast- even antithesis- to the true gospel of Jesus Christ, which- as Paul would later write to the Ephesian believers- proclaimed that, “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Paul will spend the rest of this letter reminding the churches in Galatia that nothing may be added to, or taken away from, this gospel, without losing it entirely!

No Other Gospel: Thoughts on Galatians 1:1-5

When it comes to unpacking the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and applying to our lives, the epistle to the Galatians may very well contain the most potent six chapters in all of Holy Scripture.

Paul.Galatians

From the beginning to end of this letter, Paul calls the Galatian believers to turn from any- and all- ‘non-gospels’ that have crept in masquerading as the truth, and to hold fast to the one true Gospel of Jesus Christ that he- and the other Apostles- faithfully delivered to them.

In the opening verses of chapter one Paul basically introduces, and summarizes, his entire letter. He begins, in verses 1 & 2, by reminding the Galatians, in no uncertain terms, who he is, “an apostle- not from man nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead.” Why does Paul, start off his letter so abruptly and forcefully? The answer lies only few verses later, when Paul expresses his shock and dismay that this church that he had started, and very recently spent time with, had already begun to believe “a different gospel.” It seems other teachers had come in, shortly after Paul left, and began to lead the people away from the Gospel that he had proclaimed to them and by which they had come to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

However, before engaging these other teachers and their “different gospel,” Paul reminds his readers of the one true Gospel, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, Who gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to Whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Gal 1:3-5). This is the Gospel in a Pauline nutshell; by grace, we now have peace with God, because Jesus Christ- by the will of the Father- gave Himself for our sins, delivering us- saving us- from the darkness of this fallen world, so that through faith in Him we have life, to the glory God alone forever and ever! As Timothy Keller, in his book, ‘Galatians for You,’ writes, “The Gospel is the A to Z of the Christian life. It is not only the way to enter the kingdom; it is the way to live as part of the kingdom. It is the way Christ transforms people, churches, and communities,”

Even in his opening remarks, Paul wants to make it clear that salvation belongs to God alone, there are no alternate routes by which we may come to Him, but through Christ, and His sacrifice on our behalf, accomplishing what never could. To any who wish to add something to this great Gospel, he says, “This work is of God, from beginning to end! God alone conceived of it, God alone enacted it, and God alone applies it to the lives of His people, and to that end, God alone gets the glory!” Commenting on these verses, Martin Luther wrote, “These words are like so many thunderclaps of protest from heaven against every kind and type of self-merit. Underscore these words, for they are full or comfort for sore consciences.”

Is Christ Divided?

Nearly two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul asked a rhetorical question to the church he had planted in the city of Corinth, “Is Christ divided?” Of course, the answer to him was obvious- just as he hoped it would be to the Corinthian believers- “No.” However, if history has shown us anything, it is that the answer to this question has been far from obvious to many believers down through the centuries…. Zwingli and Luther Case and point, October 1st-4th, 1529 AD, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, the great instigators of the Protestant Reformation, met to see if they could work out their differences regarding the one article of faith about which they disagreed (the nature of the Lord’s Supper). It did not end well. They agreed on justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone and they agreed on the authority of Scripture (all told, they agreed on 14 of 15 articles of the faith). But, on the nature of the Lord’s Supper, on the presence of Christ at the communion table, they could not see eye to eye, though they both rejected the Catholic teaching of Transubstantiation (that the bread and wine turn into body and blood of Jesus Christ during the Mass). Both men- passionate for Christ and his gospel- could not reconcile this point with one another. In conclusion, Martin Luther was reported to have said, “We are not of the same spirit.” How sad that, in hindsight, we can say- with near certainty- “yes, yes you were of the same spirit, but in your fervor for ‘truth’ you were both blinded to ‘the Truth’.” They were both so caught up in the nuance of the Lord’s table that they missed the significance of it! The communion table reminds us all that we are imperfect and sinful creatures, in constant need of a perfect and holy Savior. It points us back to what Christ did for us on the Cross, while at the same time reminding us of the great supper yet to come, when we will all sit down together with Christ in eternity to celebrate His great and glorious work of salvation. Communion should have brought these two men together in their shared heart for the gospel (John 17:17-26), but instead their own zeal drove them apart. How different might the landscape of Protestantism (which, ever since, has been prone to division) be today had these two men been able to come together, 485 years ago, in gospel centered unity? Unfortunately, we will never know, but we can learn from them. How many debates that are raging within the Evangelical church today are reminiscent of Luther and Zwingli? Before we draw swords on one another, Cessationalist vs. Charismatic, Baptist vs. Pentecostal, Calvinist vs. Arminian, we would to do well to remember the Professor of Wittenberg and the Pastor of Zurich. Let’s ask ourselves, are we fighting over essentials (the person and work of Christ, the authority and sufficiency of Holy Scripture, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, etc.) or are we expending most of our energy waging intramural debates (about the use of hymns vs. contemporary songs in worship on Sunday mornings, the cognitive vs. experiential nature of Christianity, the exact nature of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing ministry in the life of the believer and the church, etc.). If the former, then by all means let us continue to, “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). However, if we find ourselves majoring on the latter, let’s heed the words of the Apostle Paul, which he wrote to the church in Corinth, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10).