by Tony Reinke
One month ago, John MacArthur hosted a conference titled “Strange Fire.” The conference opposed the so-called “prosperity gospel” and with it the excesses of “charismania.” But somewhere along the way all things charismatic and continuationist got swept up into the conference conversation, too, igniting a strange online conflagration of its own.
The conversation prompted a variety of questions from listeners of the Ask Pastor John podcast. Before boarding a flight for the Middle East, John Piper agreed to field a few of the questions, particularly:
- If you’re a continuationist (believing the supernatural gifts of the Spirit continue still today), why doesn’t this show up more often in your ministry?
- Why do you not seem persuaded enough to advocate that others pursue the gifts of tongues and prophecy today?
- How do you define contemporary prophecy?
- Are there charismatic abuses that need to be addressed?
Open, Cautious, or Advocate?
At the conference, Piper was characterized as open to the gifts but not advocating for them or encouraging others to pursue the gifts themselves. This is a misunderstanding, says Piper. “I advocate obedience to 1 Corinthians 12:31, ‘earnestly desire the higher gifts.’ And I advocate obedience to 1 Corinthians 14:1, ‘earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you might prophesy.’ And I advocate obedience to 1 Corinthians 14:39, ‘earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.’ I want Christians today to obey those texts.”
And Piper seeks to obey those texts himself. “I pray for the gift of prophecy almost as often as I pray for anything, before I stand up to speak.” This prayer for prophecy is a desire to preach under an anointing, in order to “say things agreeable to the Scriptures, and subject to the Scripture, that are not in my manuscript or in my head as I walk into the pulpit, nor thought of ahead of time, which would come to my mind, which would pierce in an extraordinary way, so that 1 Corinthians 14:24–25 happens.”
But has Piper advocated for gifts like prophecy enough over his decades of pastoring and writing? “My effort to prioritize may be imperfect, but my answer is that I try to live up to what I see in the text and advocate for it as I see it in relation to all the other things that I preach on.”
A sampling from his ministry shows Piper’s consistency both in his definition of prophecy and in his encouragement that others pursue the gift (see resources from 1981, 1990, 1991, 2004, and 2013).
What Is Prophecy Today?
Piper’s view on prophecy raises another question. If MacArthur believes the gift of prophecy has ceased, what exegetical proofs would Piper argue to the contrary?
Four crucial texts came to Piper’s mind. First, 1 Corinthians 14:29 seems to indicate New Testament prophecy endures in the church age, but not as a prophecy that’s on the same level of authority as Scripture. It’s fundamentally a different type of prophecy.
Second, 1 Thessalonians 5:20–21 makes the same point. This passage indicates that the discernment of prophesy in the local church takes on a different shape. “You are not choosing between people here [false prophet/true prophet], it seems to me, like in 1 John 4:1. Rather, you are choosing between what they say [true prophecy/false prophecy], which you would not do if they spoke with infallible, inerrant Scripture-quality authority.”
“The issue here is that some in the church are despising not the prophets, but the prophecies. Now why would that be? Probably because they are sometimes whacko. Despise is a very strong word. Paul says, ‘don’t despise.’ So somebody in the church at Thessalonica is saying, ‘Look. You told us that prophecy is a gift from God. Frankly, we do not like what we are hearing, because it is stupid. It is weird. They are saying things that are off the wall.’ And so they tend to despise them. And Paul seems to be trying to keep the people from throwing the baby of true prophecies out with the bathwater of weird ones.”
Third, 1 Corinthians 11:4–5 encourages prophecies from women in the church. Said Piper, “I don’t see how women prophesying in the assembly fits with an infallible Scripture-level authority when Paul forbids that kind of authority to be exercised over men by women in the church in 1 Timothy 2:12. So the fact that women are encouraged to do this, and yet women are told not to exercise authority over men, says to me that we have got something going on here besides what is Scripture-level authority.”
The fourth text, 1 Corinthians 13:8–10, is “a pretty clear argument, I think, that the gift of prophecy and tongues will continue until Jesus comes back. And it seems to me that the reason they pass away, it says, is precisely because they are imperfect; they are not Scripture-level authority. Verse nine says we prophesy ek meros (Greek for ‘in part’), just like a little child trying to reason and think and talk. And when he grows up and becomes a man in the age to come, he won’t need that kind of help anymore.”
These few texts don’t settle all the issues, but they do combine to establish a legitimate exegetical basis for an ongoing gift of prophecy, distinguished from Scripture-level authoritative prophecy, a unique channel of prophecy to be discerned and then embraced in the healthy local church.
Looking more broadly at the Church today, Piper was eager to address charismatic abuses and excesses (charismania). “But,” he began, “we really need to keep in mind that every charismatic abuse has its mirror image in non-charismatic abuses. Nothing I am going to say is unique to charismatics. In some of these cases, the non-charismatic church is more guilty than the charismatic.”
He addressed four abuses in particular: doctrine, emotion, discernment, and finance.
“There are many doctrinal abuses in the charismatic church where experience is elevated above doctrine, and doctrine is made minimally important. I think that is a huge defect in many charismatic churches. The fear is this: if you try to study the Bible with a view to assembling a coherent view of doctrine, you are going to quench the Spirit, and you won’t have as much vitality in your heart, because the mind and the heart are at odds with each other. That is a mistake, I think, and it is an abuse of experience to make it the enemy of — or the alternative to — doctrine.”
He shared a firsthand example. “I have been in prophetic meetings with charismatic groups where the Bible was treated like the priming of the pump for phenomena. So what you really want in this room is some fireworks: you want somebody to fall down, or somebody to laugh, or somebody to tremble, or somebody to raise their hands, or somebody to hear a word of extraordinary prophecy like, the man in the red shirt is going to Argentina next week, and nobody could know that, but the prophet. You want all that stuff to happen. And so what do you do with the Bible? You use it like pouring water into a pump. And everybody knows you don’t care about the text, you don’t care about this sermon; you are using the sermon to get us ready for the fireworks at the end. Wherever I saw that happening, I knew we were in trouble. I knew that no matter what kind of fireworks were coming they were going to be skewed and misused because the speaker, the one in charge, was not God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated.”
Second, Piper addressed emotional abuses.
True prophecy is displayed not in emotional madness, but in orderliness (1 Corinthians 14:29). “If you are a true prophet, if you have got the Holy Spirit, if you are real, . . . you can sit down and wait your turn. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is patience, and kindness, and meekness, and thankfulness, and self-control. So sit down Mr. Prophet and wait your turn.
“And I think there are a lot of people who don’t think that way. They don’t think that biblically informed principles of good behavior can trump the ecstasies of a person who is, say, speaking in tongues or prophesying,” he said. “Application of the Word governs life in the church, not the emotional sway of some strong person in the moment.”
Both these doctrinal and emotional abuses can be flipped around.
“Think of all the doctrinal errors in the history of the Church. Those weren’t charismatics, by and large. Think of all the dying mainline churches today with all their moral and doctrinal aberrations. These aren’t charismatics. And think of the emotional deadness in thousands of non-charismatic evangelical and mainline churches. Those are deadly emotional abuses. And we just need to remember that if we target the charismatic church because of things that are happening there doctrinally and emotionally, let’s remember the mirror images which are equally deadly, that are happening among non-charismatic churches as well.”
To reiterate this second point, Piper said, “There are emotional abuses in the non-charismatic church, namely the absence of emotion, which is probably more deadly than the excesses.”
Another abuse is a failure to differentiate genuine prophecies from hollow ones. This helps explain why Paul says, “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything, hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:20–21).
“That is very strong language,” commented Piper. “And I think it is because some of those folks were claiming to speak for God, and it resulted in foolishness. They weren’t speaking for God. And it resulted in an emotional pushback in the church. The church said, ‘We don’t want that.’ And Paul was trying to rescue prophecy from a broad brush sweeping it away entirely by saying, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. Discern what is good here and discern what is bad here. Don’t throw it all away. Make distinctions in the various claims to hold it fast.’”
Again, Piper shared from experience. “I have been prophesied over numerous times, and two of them were just whacko. It was so hard in those [early ministry] days to take prophecy seriously. I resonated with the folks who were starting to ‘despise prophecies.’
“A lawyer one time prophesied over me when my wife was pregnant and said: ‘Your fourth child is going to be a girl, and your wife is going to die in childbirth.’ And that lawyer with tears told me that she was sorry she had to tell me that. So I went home and I got down on my knees and I said, ‘Lord, I am trying to do what you said here in 1 Thessalonians 5:20–21. And frankly, I despise what that woman just said.’ It proved out that my fourth child was a son, and I knew as soon as he came out that that prophecy was not true, and so I stopped having any misgivings about my wife’s life. She is still with me now thirty years later. That’s the sort of thing that makes you despise prophecy.”
This failure to discern prophecies within charismatic churches tempts others to simply dismiss all prophecies outright.
Finally, there are financial abuses. The key text here is 1 Timothy 6:5. Some false teachers within the charismatic movement “imagine that godliness is a means of gain.”
“So it is possible to have a teaching gift or a healing gift, some kind of a remarkable gift that is so popular you make millions of dollars. And you start feeling entitled to all the lavish clothes, lavish cars, lavish houses, lavish jets, and lavish hotel accommodations, turning godliness into a means of gain, and justifying it by the fact that you are so gifted and so many people are benefiting from what you say. To whom Paul would say: ‘But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction’ (1 Timothy 6:9).
“My alternative is to preach ‘Christian Hedonism’ that says: pursue contentment in God, not in things. ‘But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content’ (1 Timothy 6:6–8).”
But this abuse, too, can be flipped. “We tend to think of charismatics when we think of people abusing finances in this way. All you have to do is listen to the Twittersphere to know that is not the case. There are just as many non-charismatic leaders who are using their status as an effective spiritual leader to make a lot of money, and accumulate a lot of money, and look like they have a lot of money. And I want to say that there are a lot of simple, honest, humble charismatic pastors living on modest salaries who are less guilty than many non-charismatics when it comes to financial abuses.”
Not on a Warpath
On each point, it is surely misguided to single out charismatics, says Piper. “Charismatic doctrinal abuses, emotional abuses, discernment abuses, financial abuses, all have their mirror image in non-charismatic churches.” Of charismatics and non-charismatics alike, “we all stand under the word of God and we all need repentance.”
But those charismatic abuses remain. So how are these excesses best policed? How are Christians today protected from the abuses of the charismatic church? Is it through attack-centered books and conferences?
“I don’t go on a warpath against charismatics. I go on a crusade to spread truth. I am spreading gospel-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, Calvinistic truth everywhere, and I am going to push it into the face of every charismatic I can find, because what I believe, if they embrace the biblical system of doctrine that is really there, it will bring all of their experiences into the right orbit around the sun of this truth.”