Saturday, May 07, 2011

John MacArthur asks "Have we forgotten the Holy Spirit?"

I was very challenged by a recent tweet of John Macarthur - where he asked; "Have we forgotten the Holy Spirit"? He went on to make the point that a decade or more ago all we ever heard about was talk of the Holy Spirit - even though much was debate and discussion. And now? Now he suggested that once again the Holy Spirit has sadly become the "forgotten member of the Trinity".

I was profoundly challenged by this. As we grew up in Dunstable and observed the church steadily making it's way from it's reformed/charismatic balance to staunchly cessationist - John Macarthur and his book; "Charismatic Chaos" was a book often quoted (and one I profoundly resented). It's only recently I have come to appreciate MacArthur's wider ministry! But my impression growing up was that Macarthur was most definitely not a man "pro" the Holy Spirit in action! So for him to say this - what's going on? I think he is right in many ways:

1. Baptism in the Holy Spirit: The traditional charismatic debates such as the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit have all but quietened. Many reformed/charismatics have striven to "not speak about this" for the sake of unity. Interestingly enough even men who strongly defend the Biblical position of the baptism of the Spirit as a distinct, definite experience such as Terry Virgo are not permitted back into the "evangelical camp"! Movements such as Newfrontiers that traditionally accept this position seem to rarely teach on it (apart from the occasional seminar at a conference) because it is seen perhaps as an established truth. I would guess that Alpha courses would be the place where this is still taught.

2. Charismatic Gifts: Most evangelicals tend to hold the "open but cautious" position that they accept the gifts of the Holy Spirit have not ceased - as cessationists such as Macarthur strongly teach. But such evangelicals would not actively seek and pursue such gifts for use and enjoyment in the church setting. For example I recently attended Grace Church in Bristol - part of the SGM group of churches. Their leader C J Mahaney has progressively taken a similar route to my former pastor Stanley Jebb - quietening on teaching on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, emphasizing indwelling sin and the Cross more than the Presence of the Holy Spirit and most recently the removal of the term "apostolic". I was a member of Grace Church in Bristol for 2 years and rarely saw use of the charismatic gifts (occasionally prophecy and never tongues or the word of knowledge). However I was really encouraged to hear the senior pastor preach strongly and encourage seeing these gifts still!

Again what seems to me as an observer is that both positions have polarized somewhat. The cessationists are consistent and never see what they don't believe or expect. The "continuationists" (or the "open but cautious") group would teach now and then that the gifts are expected but without active hope and faith may not see regular manifestations of the Spirit (other than the occasional "spontaneous" Scripture reading!). And the charismatic groups may not teach regularly because it has become the "norm".

3. Revival: - when people such as Mark Heath and I were growing up in Dunstable, it was regular practice to pray passionately for revival. My greatest teacher in prayer was our pastor Dr Stanley Jebb - he was an awesome example of intercession. I will never forget him exhorting us to pray "as though oxygen was limited". Even though the Charismatic Movement was perhaps declining in freshness - there was enough expectation of the Presence of the Spirit to go on longing for more. Then when the Toronto Blessing arrived in the 1990's, Brownsville and later Lakeland and now the Bay of the Holy Spirit Revival - all these "times of refreshing" have led to a refreshing of hope for a greater outpouring of the Spirit.

Or have they? Terry Virgo spoke often of how prayer and expectation for revival was key in his growing up. Has hope declined somewhat? Are we not so sure that God is preparing to move? Hence our prayer and intercession has also waned?

So what are we to make of John Macarthur's challenge? Good it may be that debates/disagreements have quietened down. Good it may be that men such as Rob Rufus, John Piper and Mark Driscoll are bringing discussion of the gospel back to the fore - but surely any true gospel should automatically see an increased manifest Presence of the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit really is "forgotten" as Macarthur suggests - then that gospel surely is missing a vital Person.

Stanley Jebb was speaking at the "Life in the Spirit" conference in 1987 on "Reformed Doctrine and Charismatic Experience". It was an outstanding talk and in my opinion a template that could have saved many churches from charismatic excess and error and, if applied, could have saved other more cautious churches from throwing out charismatic life. But in particular he said this;

"It is my conviction that sound biblical doctrine plus the life and power of the Holy Spirit could be well nigh unstoppable. In a sense reformed doctrine is the fuel - and the Holy Spirit is the fire and we need to have the doctrine and see it set on fire by the power of the Holy Spirit".

We need so much more. I always think the Word of God lays down the standard of Spirit-life we should be seeing in churches. For example; can any church claim they see this?

An unbeliever entering a church and hearing all prophesying - is convicted and repents, worshipping God? - (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).

A prophet interrupting another prophet because he has a word to bring, the first sitting down and deferring to him? - (1 Corinthians 14:30).

At the end of a church prayer meeting, the whole place was shaken (physically) and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit? - (Acts 4:31).

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