Be convinced and be careful: a final thought on Strange Fire

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I love simple, black-and-white situations, the kind that you either answer with a firm “yes” or “no.” While thankfully there are a lot of situations that are black-and-white, there are a great many issues that aren’t as clear as I’d like. These aren’t just matters of what TV show you may or may not watch; those are easy enough. When it comes to theological issues, that’s where it gets really messy.

Strange Fire has come and gone. If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably read Tim Challies’ and the Cripplegate’s transcripts of the messages, so you have a good sense of what what said. And understandably, it’s an issue that’s got a lot of people worked up. There are roughly 500 million professing Christians who are part of the “charismatic movement,” so when you say things like these people blaspheme the Holy Spirit, that’s a BIG deal.

You can argue (and I think fairly) that MacArthur went too broad in his polemic. You can also argue (with some degree of accuracy) that many of these people who profess faith in Jesus do not possess faith in the biblical Jesus. But wherever you land on the issue, this is serious business.

But should it be divisive?

Yes and no.

When Paul wrote to the Romans, who were dealing with the issue of whether or not to be concerned about a particular day as holy or what foods to eat, he said that each should be fully convinced in his own mind (Rom. 14:5). Be fully convinced—have convictions!—and carry on in obedience to the Lord. For the one who doubts is condemned by what he eats (23), not because the food is evil, but because they’re going against their conscience.

So what does that have to do with continuationism vs. cessationism? Everything. Not because I’m trying to relegate this to a position of lesser importance, but because we need to start with the basics:

What are your convictions on this issue? Have you searched the Scriptures or gone along with your church’s culture and tradition?

On any subject Scripture teaches, we must avoid agnosticism; the Scriptures teach on the issue of spiritual gifts, and we are obligated to know what God says on this point.

But that doesn’t mean there’s a “thou shalt no longer have access to this gift” clearly laid out.

The subject is actually a fair bit messier than we’d like it to be. As a result, you will inevitably come to a different conclusion than someone else. And if you’re really ambitious, you’ll want to read some good books on the subject too, to see some of the perspectives and arguments. But the goal is simple: be fully convinced that what you believe is what Scripture teaches.

But it’s not just a matter of being convinced of what the Scriptures teach; we also have to learn how to engage well. Paul’s concern in writing this was about unity within the Church. He didn’t want one person’s freedom to become a stumbling block for another (he also didn’t want people running around flaunting their freedom in Christ as though they were somehow superior). Those who are “free” are called to sacrifice their freedom in love.

And this is the greatest issue here, and the part we get so wrong. Confidence in our position is not sinful; it is not arrogant to believe your position is correct. Were that the case, Jesus would have been the most arrogant man to ever walk the earth. But when we look to Jude’s epistle, we’re reminded that our confidence, our orthodoxy is meant to lead to a particular sort of posture.

And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. (Jude 22-23)

Notice the key word: Mercy. Jude, in his context, is speaking of the fundamentals of the faith—his readers were being drawn away by false teachers who knew neither God nor the Scriptures. They were in danger of abandoning the gospel. It’s no wonder Jude says to show mercy with fear!

The details are different in this fight, but Jude’s principles still apply: engage in a spirit of love and mercy. Engage like the other person matters to you.

Love is the chief concern—it’s the way we’re to be known in the world, according to Jesus. Not a schmaltzy, ethereal feeling, but the kind that goes to work for the good of others. We don’t sacrifice doctrinal fidelity for the sake of getting along. We are not called to be anodyne. But if we have not love we are nothing. Our convictions don’t matter one lick if we wield them as hammers.

This is why the way we frame our arguments is so important. We debate in such a way that the opposing side can’t say (even if they disagree) that we don’t care. Engage like the other person matters to you.

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