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Strange Fire Book Review (Chapter Seven)

Chapter seven is the one chapter that most Pentecostals and godly charismatics would find to be the chapter they disagree with MacArthur the most on.  In this chapter, MacArthur examines speaking in tongues.  He begins by pointing to the ridiculous Facebook post by charismatic Juanita Bynum that was supposedly written in tongues.  MacArthur concludes that such gibberish is the typical “language” that charismatics are speaking.  It is most certainly not biblical tongues or a foreign tongue that people are speaking in when claiming to be speaking in tongues.  MacArthur points out that modern linguistic researchers have long concluded that speaking in tongues is not speaking in a known foreign tongue nor does it even sound like a true language.  MacArthur also points out that skeptics of Christianity have used glossolalia as proof against Christianity since the “language” is not a known language but gibberish.  MacArthur also quotes various charismatics who admit that their “prayer language” sounds like gibberish to them.

MacArthur believes that speaking in tongues today is “deceptive and dangerous, offering a pretense of genuine spirituality” (p. 136).  Further, MacArthur believes that the charismatic emphasis on glossolalia has produced nothing in their lives.  Holiness is not produced by speaking in tongues.  He believes that the modern gift of tongues is “a counterfeit that by every measure falls short of the gift of tongues described in the New Testament” (p. 137).  He points out that even unsaved people and pagans have had experiences of speaking in tongues.  Hindus, for example, claim to speak in tongues.

MacArthur goes on to teach on what he believes the Bible teaches about the gift of tongues and about glossolalia (pp. 140-154).  In short, MacArthur believes that this sign gift has ceased since its purpose was to make known the gospel in a foreign tongue.  He believes that 1 Corinthians 14:40 actually forbids modern tongues rather than endorsing it.  He concludes that both the New Testament and Church History itself show that the gift of tongues is not for us today.

By far, speaking in tongues is the most controversial aspect of the modern Pentecostal movement.  Even among Pentecostals it is debated.  Most Pentecostal churches have historically held that speaking in tongues was the “initial, physical evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit.”  I know of many Pentecostals both as members and as pastors who now reject that teaching.  In many ways, speaking in tongues has grown cold in the charismatic movement.  This is not to say that it is not there but I would say that speaking in tongues is not the issue of the movement these days.  That, of course, is just one man’s opinion.

That said, I did take exception with MacArthur in this chapter.  For one, he writes that the purpose of speaking in tongues is for the proclamation of the gospel.  Yet when we read Acts or 1 Corinthians 12-14, we find nothing to suggest that.  The only reference we have toward this view is Acts 2 where the Apostles spoke in tongues and the people understood them (Acts 2:8).  But Acts 2:11 tells us what they heard and it was not the gospel but rather they heard “the mighty deeds of God” (NASB).  The gospel was preached in Acts 2:14-39.  The Bible does not say that Peter, at this point, was speaking in tongues to preach to the Jews.

In Acts 10:44-48 we read of another example of tongues but again nothing is said that they were preaching the gospel.  In fact, Luke records that they were “speaking with tongues and exalting God” (Acts 10:46 NASB).  Since the gospel had been preached to them in Acts 10:34-43, this example of tongues would not fit with MacArthur’s notion that tongues was for preaching the gospel.

Lastly, we have Acts 19:6 where the disciples of John the Baptist are baptized into Christ.  Paul lays hands on them and they speak in tongues and prophesy.  Again, the view that speaking in tongues was for the gospel does not fit well into this verse.

1 Corinthians 12-14 also does not fit the idea that speaking in tongues is for the gospel.  No where in these three chapters does Paul say that speaking in tongues is for the gospel.  In fact, in 1 Corinthians 14:2 he says that the one who speaks in tongues does not speak to men but to God.  How can that be preaching the gospel?  To God?  In 1 Corinthians 14:6-12 Paul speaks about clarity and edification toward the church.  Dr. David Lim, in his masterpiece work Spiritual Gifts: A Fresh Look, states that Paul gives five “if-then” propositions in 1 Corinthian 14:6-12.  Lim concludes that Paul was emphasizing the need for communication in the understood language for without clarity the result would be confusion.  The point of spiritual gifts is edification of the church (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

I highly recommend Dr. Lim’s work and commentary on 1 Corinthians 12-14 as a reply to MacArthur.

The notion that speaking in tongues must be for gospel preaching is simply not a view that I find in the New Testament.  I remember going on a missions trip when I was a young believer and I wanted God to give me this gift but of course I didn’t receive it.  MacArthur takes Mark 16:17 and concludes that speaking in tongues must be for the gospel message.

In regard to a private prayer language, in the New Testament tongues are primarily directed to God.  Whether praise (Acts 2:11), mysteries (1 Corinthians 14:2), prayer (1 Corinthians 14:15), or thanksgiving (1 Corinthians 14:16-17).  Dr. Lim writes about tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:

Paul shows the relative effectiveness of tongues in four areas: They excel in worship, in functioning as a sign, and in body ministry with guidelines (1 Corinthians 14:26-28), faltering only in the area of teaching.

So can one pray in tongues?  Is there a biblical notion of a prayer language?  Pentecostals point to 1 Corinthians 14:2, 4, 13-19.  In 1 Corinthians 14:17 Paul commends the Corinthians and says they are giving thanks well enough (NASB).  F.F. Bruce, in his commentary on Romans, suggests that Romans 8:26-27, while not mentioning speaking in tongues, perhaps has tongues praying in mind.  While others would disagree (and I see nothing in Romans 8:26-27 to suggest this view), it is well worth noting that Bruce was a top scholar who was not Pentecostal but did not negate this view.

Others point to Ephesians 6:18 and Jude 20 as two more passages that perhaps show that one can pray in tongues (in the Spirit).  I believe this is not found in those texts.  To make speaking in tongues as “praying in the Spirit” is stretching these texts.

Interestingly, Adam Clarke wrote that the “unknown tongues” (an unfortunate translation of the KJV) was perhaps the old Hebrew that had been lost on the Jews during the time of the Apostles but the Holy Spirit gave them understanding of this “unknown tongue” again so that they could teach properly the things of the Lord.  Clarke also suggested in his commentary that the unknown tongue of Hebrew was the focus of 1 Corinthians 14.  He suggests that some thought they were spiritual by speaking in a language that the Gentiles clearly did not understand but what was the point?  Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:18, tells the Corinthians that he too is skilled in languages (Hebrew, Syriac, Greek, and Latin) but he wanted the church to be edified so he did not focus on those languages nor should the Corinthians who were speaking in this “unknown tongue” of Hebrew.

In conclusion, I disagree with both MacArthur and Clarke here.  Both are looking for something that is not there.  I am no where the scholar these men are but even a cursory reading of Acts or 1 Corinthians 12-14 does not suggest that tongues is for evangelism or speaking in Hebrew.  Clarke has no basis for this view in my estimation.

I commend the work of David Lim and also would suggest reading Jack Hayford work on speaking in tongues.  While Lim’s is more scholarly than Hayford’s work, both are worth reading about this subject even if you oppose tongues speaking.  I remain neutral on this issue.  My point is not to side with the Pentecostals here or against them.  I believe this subject should be debated.

Yet let me state one point before I end.  I have known many people who thought (as MacArthur suggests) that speaking in tongues made them spiritual.  They would come together with the saints and speak in tongues but their lives were full of sin during the week.  This led some to conclude they were okay because they were speaking in tongues.  Tongues is not holiness (as MacArthur rightfully points out).  Tongues does not mean you are saved.  Tongues does not mean that you are closer to God.  1 Peter 1:15-16 tells us to be holy in all our conduct.  Ephesians 4:29-30 tells us that no unwholesome word is to proceed from our mouths but only such a word as is good for edification (NASB).  Just because you speak in tongues proves nothing.  It does not prove you are saved or full of the Spirit.  To be full of the Spirit is to walk in the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-21; cf. Galatians 5:16-17).  To claim to be Spirit-filled but to abide in sin shows you need to repent and go back to the Lord Jesus for forgiveness of your sins (1 John 2:3-6; 3:4-10).  I don’t care what experience you claim you have, if you are abiding in sin you are not living the Spirit-filled life (Romans 8:9-17).  To be Spirit-filled is to Spirit-controlled.

3 Responses

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  1. “I am no where the scholar these men are…”

    MacArthur may be a “scholar” – but he certainly is not a biblical scholar as proven by his experience-based arguments against the continuation of Spiritual gifts.

    Even when he refers to scripture when making his claims (such as the tongues were for evangelism claim) a simple reading of what scripture DOES say about tongues quickly undermines what he says..

    It is long past time for people to stop idolising such “scholars”.


    03/02/2014 at 7:32 PM

  2. […] After my review of chapter seven of John MacArthur’s book, Strange Fire, I wanted to post titles I would suggest for further study on the issue of speaking in tongues.  I will post books that are both for and against speaking in tongues. […]

  3. This all seems like a major regurgitation of Charismatic Chaos which itself is a regurgitation of The Charismatics. MacArthur likes to take a stab against Pentecostals/Charismatics every 10 to 15 years or so. Growing up Pentecostal and having experienced all of its nuances I can see his points but a lot of times he seems to be just ranting and most of what he says is based on emotion and experience; the very same thing he accuses the Charismatics of doing.

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