In October 2013, influential Reformed Baptist pastor John MacArthur organized the “Strange Fire” conference, dedicated to opposing the errors of Pentecostalism. The title is an allusion to Leviticus 10:1 which describes Aaron’s sons offering unauthorized worship (“strange fire” in the King James translation) to the Lord.
Pentecostalism has had a short but colorful history since emerging at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Birthed at the so-called Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, the Pentecostal movement began teaching that the Lord was initiating a “second Pentecost” which, like the Pentecost described in Acts 2, involves the Holy Spirit falling on believers in Christ with power and spiritual gifts. The new Pentecostal movement began teaching that Christians could now be “filled with the Spirit,” (also called “baptized with the Holy Ghost”), enabling them to speak in tongues, perform miraculous healings, or receive prophetic words directly from God. Christians who did not give evidence of having received any of these gifts were urged to ask God to give them this “second blessing,” and some Pentecostal denominations even began teaching that those who do not speak in tongues are not really saved.
Although some Pentecostals remain faithful to Biblical teaching, the Pentecostal movement overall amounts to a new form of Christianity, based on the belief that the true believer in Christ will have a personal experience of the presence of God and will be able to exercise power through the gifts brought by the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism teaches that baptism in the Holy Spirit gives the individual Christian special power to live the Christian life and be a witness for Jesus. But the actual result of Pentecostal teaching is usually, at best, to distract the believer from the real Christian life of the forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith in Christ by encouraging him to run after spiritual gimmicks and fads. And at worst, Pentecostalism snares naive Christians in heresy, that is, false teaching that separates the believer from his Savior.
Then, in 1964, came the Charismatic movement. Previously, Christians in non-Pentecostal churches who came to have Pentecostal beliefs would leave their former churches to join an openly-Pentecostal denomination such as the Assemblies of God. But when Dennis Bennett, senior pastor of an Episcopal church in Van Nuys, California, began speaking openly of his Pentecostal beliefs, he triggered a movement of Pentecostalism within other Protestant, and later even Catholic, churches. This new movement of Pentecostalism was dubbed the “charismatic revival,” after the Greek word charismata, meaning “gifts.” Although “charismatic” is the word used most often nowadays to describe this type of Christianity, this essay will stick to the original term, and refer to Pentecostalism.
Pentecostalism has been troubled by extrabiblical tomfoolery ever since its inception. Since it emphasizes the believer having an experience of the presence of God or of Holy Ghost power, Pentecostalism has a strong tendency to attract heretics and charlatans. After all, if someone has been filled with the Holy Spirit and has received the gift of prophecy, then he can receive words directly from God. And if these words contradict the Bible, and if they teach new ideas, they cannot be error and heresy, because they came from God himself, didn’t they? In this way, the Pentecostal heretic or huckster feels himself justified in his false belief. It’s a sad fact that Pentecostalism, despite containing many sincere followers of Jesus, is notorious for its toleration of heretics and charlatans. Thus the Strange Fire Conference, dedicated to opposing the errors of Pentecostalism.
Surprisingly, MacArthur drew flak from some who might be expected to support him. Steve Hays from the influential theological blog Triablogue, for example, was critical of the “MacArthurites” and their position of strict cessationism, the view that the miraculous “sign gifts” evident in the New Testament (healing, raising the dead, and so on) were intended solely to authenticate the message of the Apostles, and consequently when the last Apostle died, these miracles ceased. But proving strict cessationism from Scripture is difficult, as proving a universal negative generally is, and it is also easy to drift from theological cessationism (no more sign miracles, miracles intended to authenticate Apostolic teaching) to strict cessationism (no miracles, period.)
But cessationism is mostly a red herring. Since proving a universal negative is notoriously difficult, it is relatively easy for the partisan of Pentecostalism to pick holes in an argument for cessationism. Believing that he has defeated his opponent’s argument, the Pentecostal then falsely believes himself to have been vindicated, and continues in his erroneous ways. We need a better way to point out the errors of Pentecostalism.
The fundamental problem with Pentecostalism, in fact, is not a matter of precise theological definition. It’s simply this: Pentecostals, as Pentecostals, generally desire an experience of Holy Ghost power more than they desire to build the faith that saves them by learning the Word of God (the Bible) and receiving the sacraments. To be sure, many Pentecostals are faithful to the Word of God. But many are not. Pentecostalism, at best, encourages the Christian to take his eyes off his Savior by distracting him with questionable promises of Spiritual power and exciting personal religious experiences. And that’s at best. At worst, Pentecostalism descends into out-and-out falsehoods.
We say as Pentecostals because many Pentecostal leaders do teach the gospel of Jesus Christ: forgiveness of our sins through repentance and faith in Christ. Pentecostalism generally does affirm the gospel. But what’s distinctive about the movement is the twin promise to the believer that he can have spiritual power and that he can have a personal experience of the presence of God.
The typical Pentecostal leader teaches that repentance and faith in Christ is not enough for the full Christian life. He teaches that the believer needs a “second blessing,” generally referred to as being “filled with the Spirit” or the Holy Spirit “falling on” the believer. According to Pentecostalism, this event imparts spiritual gifts to the believer, the most popular of which are prophecy (the alleged ability to receive new messages from God), healing (the alleged ability to cause the sick to become well) and speaking in tongues (the ability to speak an allegedly “spiritual language” that sounds like gibberish to everyone else.)
Temporarily leaving aside the question of whether there really is a second blessing which imparts supernatural power to the believer, consider how appealing this doctrine can be. Who wouldn’t want the abilities to hear from God himself or to cause sick people to get well? And many people thrill at the thought of directly experiencing the person and presence of God Himself.
So when Pentecostal leaders promise this sort of spiritual excitement they have to deliver, don’t they? If they can’t deliver the goods, they’ll lose their market share to the preacher down the street who can. In this way, Pentecostal doctrine leads naturally (although, to be fair, not always), to spiritual fraud and charlatanism. If Pentecostalism promises believers that they can speak in tongues, that they can be healed miraculously, and that they can receive words from God, Pentecostal leaders cannot just stand by and hope that the Holy Spirit will decide to show up in power. They have little choice but to take concrete steps to give their audience the spectacle that they’re expecting. Thus the widespread charlatanism for which Pentecostalism is notorious.
Sometimes the charlatanism is relatively mild, consisting of nothing more than creating a worship atmosphere of spiritual excitement in which the parishioners raise their hands, sway to the music, and speak aloud spontaneous praises. In such an atmosphere, it’s easy for a worshipper to believe that the Holy Spirit Himself has arrived. But although it’s mild, this is a type of charlatanism. Scripture describes the primary work of the Holy Spirit to be bringing people to faith in Christ through the accurate teaching of the Word of God, but the typical Pentecostal service does not teach Biblical doctrine accurately. And why would the Holy Spirit sanctify such an assembly?
And there is often charlatanism of a more deliberate type, as when the preacher begins declaring that God has given him a message to deliver to the people, or when he uses stage-magic tactics to give the impression that he is healing the sick. Stage-magic tactics are obviously dishonest, but claiming to receive words from God is usually dishonest too. These “messages” often contradict biblical teaching, and why would God contradict himself? And even if the message concerns more worldly and mundane matters, there is no reason to think that God is giving messages to a teacher who distorts His word.
Pentecostalism also promotes deception in the believer’s personal Christian walk. Consider, for example, how Pentecostals have perfected techniques of psychological manipulation to get people to “speak in tongues.” First, the believer is constantly told that he should desire to be filled with the Spirit, and that he may not be a real Christian until he receives this “second blessing.” Next, he is surrounded—at a worship service, for example—by others speaking in tongues. With his inhibitions lowered, he is then encouraged to “prime the pump” by deliberately mouthing nonsense syllables and calling on the Spirit to do His thing. It’s no surprise, then, that these tactics often produce an ecstatic emotional release that feels like “surrendering to God” and speaking in tongues. But this phenomenon does not require the Holy Spirit. It has no Scriptural warrant, and is easily explained in psychological terms.
At the very least, then, much of Pentecostalism takes its eyes off the Savior. Instead of honoring the words of the Apostles in the New Testament, which teach that the Christian life is one of daily repentance from sin and building faith in Christ by learning Scripture and receiving the sacraments, much of Pentecostalism is constantly running after the promise of Spirit-given power and thrilling religious experiences.
But it gets worse. In order to justify its promises of power, Pentecostalism often descends below charlatanism into out-and-out false teaching, that is, heresy. Consider, for example, the Word-of-Faith movement, which teaches (among other things) that Christians are “little gods” who can speak things into existence (just like the real God) simply by uttering faith-filled words. Although this movement has not taken over all of Pentecostalism, most Pentecostals participate in at least some its false teachings.
The Word-of-Faith (hereafter WOF) heresy is most commonly known for its promise that God wants all Christians to be healthy and wealthy, and it’s easy to dismiss this teaching as nothing more than a contemptible marketing technique. It is a marketing technique, but it’s only the tip of a very large iceberg of bizarre and highly heretical teachings. The basic thrust of WOF teachings is to demote God and promote man. WOF teaches that God lost dominion over the earth when Adam and Eve sinned. (Dominion was regained, at least theoretically, when Jesus died on the Cross.). It teaches that God cannot act in the world until the Christian gives him permission by coming to God in prayer. It teaches that Jesus was just a man, but one who excelled at using his “words of faith.” It teaches that “faith” is a cosmic force, pre-existing God, which both God and man can manipulate in order to achieve their purposes. It teaches that Jesus died “spiritually” on the Cross, and subsequently went to Hell, where he was “born again.” And, perhaps most notoriously, it teaches that men are “little gods.”
These bizarre teachings are, in a sense, the natural consequences of a religion which, while it originates within Christianity, places its emphasis on the power of the believer rather than on the power of God. WOF teachings are simply taking this Pentecostal premise to its logical conclusion.
Although statistics are sometimes misleading, Pentecostalism appears to be the fastest-growing and the second-largest (after Roman Catholicism) version of Christianity. But what gospel message is it teaching? The general loss of authority brought on by the liberal revolution means that pastors can no longer rely on their parishioners to respect their position or their teaching. Since liberalism has largely undermined the authority of pastors (and all other authorities), they must usually teach what parishioners want to hear, if they are to maintain a large congregation. With its emphasis on the exciting promise of Holy Ghost power for the believer, Pentecostalism seems perfectly suited to the new religious environment, as it tends to downplay what the church should be emphasizing: the proclamation of the gospel message of the forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith in Christ. Repentance and faith are difficult and mundane. The promise of spectacular miracles and personal spiritual power draws a bigger crowd. And even those Pentecostals who are relatively orthodox tend to shy away from criticizing the quacks, for fear of offending God by “quenching the Spirit.”
And Pentecostalism’s desire for miracles does not just result in human charlatanism. Remember also that Satan’s team is capable of misleading “if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24) with supernatural signs and wonders of its own. According to the testimony of pastor and theologian Bob Dewaay, Satan has his own “protection racket,” in which demons torment a person but then withdraw when the victim, or an exorcist, recites certain words or performs certain actions. In this way, the victim may then come to trust in his performance of religious (or pseudo-religious) rituals, rather trusting in Jesus Christ, to save him. And since those who do not trust Christ to save them go to Hell, Satan’s purposes are served.
The practitioners of this type of exorcism / spiritual healing have an elaborate doctrine of demonic possession. In their view, demons can allegedly gain the legal right to torment a person if the victim accidentally or purposely says certain words or performs certain actions. And once Satan’s team has gained this right, even God Almighty is required to honor their legal right until such time as the victim or a professional exorcist determines the correct incantation required to nullify the demon’s right to possess his victim.
The doctrine that demonic possession is governed by a law code even more fundamental than God’s sovereignty is not found in the Bible. This secret (literally, “occult”) knowledge was allegedly obtained by exorcists from the demons themselves. But why should we trust the word of a malevolent spirit? In truth, God is sovereign, and if any Christian is being tormented by a demon, we can know that God is permitting it for reasons known only to Him.
This, then, is the error of Pentecostalism. When the New Testament explicitly describes what being a Christian is all about, it does not say that we are to seek experiences of Holy Ghost power. Holy Ghost power does manifest itself from time to time, but the Bible says we are to build our faith through word and sacrament, live productive lives, and love our family, friends and neighbors.
For a more in-depth discussion (but still relatively brief) of the errors of Pentecostalism, the number one go-to guy is probably Justin Peters. See his lecture series A Call for Discernment. See also this page, which contains several useful videos from the 2015 Bible Conference in Globe, AZ, featuring Peters and another excellent teacher, Phil Johnson.
Having said all that, though, we must acknowledge that there is at least one good feature of Pentecostalism, namely its commitment to a supernatural worldview. In order to deliver on its promise of supernatural, Holy Ghost power for the benefit of the believer, Pentecostalism has to believe in the supernatural worldview of the Bible. The type of Enlightenment-style naturalistic skepticism that has so devastated the mainline Protestant churches (and has also done serious harm to Catholicism) can gain no foothold within Pentecostalism. For that, at least, we should be grateful.