John MacArthur and hearing the voice of God

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]uch ado has been made in recent days about California pastor John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference. Michael Patton, a MacArthur fan, offers a critique of the conference, the book, and MacArthur’s attitude toward Charismatics, so I will not.

John MacArthur Strange FireAs a young pastor the first person to whom I ran for books and commentaries was John MacArthur. His radio program, “Grace to You,” was like a soothing balm amid many local church programs that filled the airwaves in the Atlanta area. In those days you could catch J. Vernon McGee, Chuck Swindoll, Charles Stanley, and sometimes evangelist Maze Jackson. The others were fine, but I really enjoyed listening to MacArthur.

In or around 1989-1990, as a young pastor I went with some friends to a regional Shepherd’s Conference in Conyers, Georgia. I was 26 or 27 and totally enthralled by the gathering. Hearing MacArthur in person was like heaven.

I do not remember whether the entire conference was on the subject of the charismatic movement (this was just a few years before the release of his book Charismatic Chaos), but it certainly came up in one Q&A session. The specific question had to do with hearing God speak. MacArthur said emphatically, “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard God speak to me.”

It was an odd confession, to say the least.

Fast forward to around the year 2002. I and another pastor from our church attended the Shepherd’s Conference at MacArthur’s Grace Church in California. Jerry Vines was one of the conference speakers. It did not appear those California folks had ever been exposed to preaching with a deep south flavor. The pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Mark Dever, was another speaker that year.

The book Wild at Heart was dominating book sales in the U.S. so naturally one breakout session was dedicated to all the things the church leadership felt was wrong with it.

During a general session Q&A MacArthur was fielding questions from the floor and again made a comment that he did not know whether or not God had ever spoken to him.

At that point of my ministry I still respected MacArthur but had moved from the worship phase. (Yes, dear reader, many pastors fall prey to worshiping theological heroes just as surely as your middle schooler has sports or entertainment figure’s posters plastered to the wall in their rooms. It is just as spiritually disorienting.) It was time to evaluate a man who had been a pastor, theologian, author and leader in a certain tribe of American Christianity yet, after all those years, could not be sure whether God had ever spoken to him.

Whatever he was selling the product, for me at least, had lost its luster. The appeal has never returned.

I do not intend a long excursus on the theology of John MacArthur nor on hearing the voice of God, but I cannot spare a lot of time for a man such as MacArthur who admittedly does not hear it. In light of his recent actions I suggest he should listen more intently.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

  • Anne White

    I believe you did not understand what MacArthur was saying. He was contrasting what many say when they state “The Lord told me this” inferring that they had heard an audible voice in their spirit. I believe that MacArthur meant that sola Scriptura quickened by the indwelling Spirit is God speaking to him and his calling is to tell what God has written.

    • martyduren

      Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.

      I understood what MacArthur was saying in both cases. It was clear.

  • Dave Miller

    Marty understands and accurately represents MacArthur’s rather extreme views on this subject.

  • Steve Spurlin

    Hi, Marty. I understand your history for I, too, would have called myself a MacArthurite (my term of endearment) at one time. I can’t say I worshiped him, but I did basically agree with him on every issue. My break with him came on a few different theological issues.

    Your post is interesting and touches on an issue that I’ve been dealing with in the church I serve. One thing that I noticed missing from your post was the biblical evidence that refutes MacArthur and supports your view. (BTW, for full disclosure I am a cessationist who believes that God definitely does speak to His people both corporately and individually, but that message is limited to the completed canon of Scripture.) Would you mind taking a moment and offering a biblical defense of your view that would also serve as a refutation of MacArthur’s?

    I look forward to reading. Thanks.

    • martyduren

      Hi Steve-
      Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.

      For clarity, it is pretty clear MacArthur was not referring to an audible voice else I think he would “know” even if it was a still, small voice. He was referring to what some might call “impressions” or “promptings.”

      If I need to classify myself on the cessationist-continualist continuum (sorry ;^) I would be far to the cessationist side as it relates to miraculous gifts being active in every local church. I understand 1 Cor 12-14 to be filled with more rebuke and correction than instruction and exhortation. Nevertheless, Paul does say “do not forbid,” thus doing so, as MacArthur does, is unbiblical. Therefore, I evaluate the use of said gifts based on Paul’s correction. The vast majority of the time I find them lacking.

      I do not, on the other hand, think the Bible equates the spiritual gift of prophecy with God speaking to His people.

      I believe God speaks to His people through the Holy Spirit. Most of the time this is via what you and I would call “illumination” of the text. However, Jesus did not seem to limit “My sheep hear my voice” to the inspired text when He could easily have done so.

      If I understand one of your statements correctly I would disagree with it in this way: “believes that God definitely does speak to His people both corporately and individually, but that message is limited to the completed canon of Scripture.” I would say “that message is subject to the completed canon.”

      This is the difference as I see it (assuming I understand you correctly): anytime God speaks it must originate with scripture vs anything attributed to God speaking must comport with scripture. This is what I understand Paul to mean by “the spirit of the prophets are subject to the prophets.”

      For instance, the Bible tells us to pray always. There have been times in the past I have awoken out of a deep sleep with a strong sense that I need to pray for a specific person. The Bible did not wake me up with a burden to pray for X. However, praying for X is in agreement with what the Bible says. The Holy Spirit woke me up and spoke the specifics.

      Another example is that I am to be a witness. This is clearly biblical. However, when I am a in a check-out line with everything on my mind except Jesus, then have “Ask the check-out person if you can pray for them/tell them about Me/tell them Jesus loves them” comes into my mind from the clear blue. The Holy Spirit spoke the specifics.

      I could tell you numerous times in my life that people I either did not know or barely knew addressed specific issues about which I was praying and about which they could not have known other than God speaking to them. Or the time I walked onto a construction site as a young believer when a painter I had never seen before or since said, “Are you a Christian? The Holy Spirit told me you are a Christian.”

      None of these things are in scripture, but they certainly are subject to it. If you do not see these types of instances as God speaking, I would very much like to hear how you interpret them.


      • Steve Spurlin

        Marty, thank you for your gracious response. I see much that you and I would agree on. Without doubt I know that it is the Spirit who enlightens us to the meaning of Scripture and also gives the wisdom to apply Scripture to the circumstances of life.

        I tend to turn to Proverbs 3:5-6 and believe that if I am aiming my life toward the goal of obedience to the word, and thus to God Himself, it is He who will guide me into doing things that reflect the obedience that He desires. Then He will make my life successful in His sight by guiding me to do works for Him. As Paul taught, “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will (desire) and to work (produce) for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

  • Bill Smith Jr

    I appeal to the sovereignty of God to speak to whomever He wills at anytime. I like the reference of Proverbs 3:5-6. Sometimes God’s directions are clearly understood in words. (Strong impressions/thoughts) On the opposite side, not to dramatic but, demons also inject ideas into our minds. Those under the influence of alcohol and/or certain drugs have little resistance to obeying these external (supposed internal) impulses. I might add that thus doesn’t excuse any behavior. We who are submitted to God’s authority have the power to resist and reject evil impressions as our own ideas. We all struggle with this flesh as apostle Paul describes in Romans 7. A great book on the topic of spiritual warfare is from a respected pastor named, Jim Logan. It’s called “Reclaiming Surrendered Ground.”

    By the way, I’m Baptist, I like John MacArthur, and I believe that the cannon of scripture is complete and closed. Everything in our lives must be guided by the illumination of the revelation, God’s written word. Even Christ when He was lead of the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil, He submitted Himself to the WRITTEN word of God. John 8:29 reveals that Jesus NEVER went rogue. He didn’t go looking for trouble (demons under every rock) on a personal crusade of self promotion. I don’t read of the apostles going rogue either. Paul had a demon possessed woman follow him and Silas many days before he cast the devil out of her.

    Back to God speaking, I appreciate your testimony, Marty. It reminds me of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. God is God and we need Him every day. Check out that book on Amazon. Be sure to read the reviews. God bless.