“Strange Fire” by John MacArthur: A Book Review

by Randy Corn

 John MacArthur is a pastor, a nationally-syndicated radio speaker, and educator. However, he may well leave his most lasting mark as a writer.  Many have benefited from his New Testament commentary series, and have also been instructed by his books on many contemporary issues of concern to evangelicals, like the Lordship-Salvation debate. His willingness to engage issues debated by the church had led the California pastor to write Charismatic Chaos in 1992, a book which dealt with what he then saw as the essential differences between Charismatics and non-charismatic evangelicals. In Strange Fire (Thomas Nelson, 2013) he revisits the subject, showing some of how the intervening history has allowed a further deviation from biblical worship.

The subtitle of this book is “the danger of offending the Holy Spirit with counterfeit worship.” This theme is developed across twelve chapters which are evenly divided into three parts: Part 1 – Confronting a Counterfeit Revival; Part 2 – Exposing the Counterfeit Gifts; and finally, Part 3 – Rediscovering the Spirit’s True Work.

As one might expect, MacArthur begins with the story of Nadab and Abihu and the “strange fire” they offered in an act of worship at the tabernacle in Leviticus 10. In commenting on this incident he writes, “The crux of their sin was approaching God in a careless, self-willed, inappropriate manner, without the reverence He deserved.”[1]  It is the author’s contention those who believe the “sign gifts” of the New Testament are still active today have actually done with such gifts. Never one to mince words, MacArthur says of this movement, “It has warped genuine worship through unbridled emotionalism, polluted prayer with private gibberish, contaminated true spirituality with unbiblical mysticism, and corrupted faith by turning it into a creative force for speaking worldly desires into existence.”[2]

When I picked this book up, I thought it might be an attack on the extremes of the Charismatic movement, but it is much broader than that. Essentially MacArthur lumps together all the Pentecostals, neo-Pentecostals, and charismatics.  This broad-brush approach had me a bit concerned at times.  It just seems too harsh to class the sincere and godly men I have known in the Assemblies of God with Joel Osteen. I know that many of my friends in the Pentecostal church are far more biblical than that. I suppose MacArthur would say they aren’t biblical enough.

That objection being stated, I have to say it was interesting to read about both the history and the extremes of this movement.  It is alarming, but at the same time I do think it creating a distance between biblical Christianity and whatever it is that the Charismatics are producing. I have to think that sooner or later their brand of religion will collapse. Of course, I wonder if evangelicals were saying that about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when they were becoming well-established in Utah and evangelical leaders realized that it would not simply go away. Even so, it is important to be aware of what is going on in the name of God.  Some of it clearly is “strange fire.”

This is the kind of book that a lot of people will be talking about. Some will read it for that reason, but it should also be read because it is presenting some important information and adds to ones comprehension of the ecclesiastical terrain.


[1] John MacArthur, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 1 (ebook edition).

[2] Ibid., 2.

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