X Close Menu

Worship in Spirit and Truth (a three-part response to Strange Fire)


[In view of the recent Strange Fire conference in California and the numerous critical comments made about so-called “charismatic worship,” I want to spend some time articulating several truths about the nature of worship in Spirit and in Truth. This, therefore, is the first of three articles on this subject.]

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-24).

People either start or stop attending certain churches for a variety of reasons. For some, it is the preaching of the Word or the absence of it that determines their decision. For others, it is the availability of parking or the children’s ministry or friendliness of the people that governs where they ultimately land. Believe it or not, it’s the brand of coffee they serve in their Café!

But in the past 30 or so years, the one factor that has probably been the decisive factor more than any other is the style of worship that a church displays.

The sad fact is that the church in the west has been ripped apart in many instances over such debates as:

Should our worship be long or short?

Should our worship be formal or free?

Should our worship use acoustic guitars or a Baldwin piano?

Should we use hymns or contemporary songs?

Should we have praise teams or robed choirs?

Should our worship be characterized more by the fear of God or the enjoyment of God?

And the list of choices could go on seemingly without end. Often times, though, the divide is along the lines of Word and Spirit. Word-oriented churches that are often cessationist in their theology take one particular approach, while Spirit-oriented churches that practice spiritual gifts take yet another approach.

What both groups share in common is their conviction that worship must be theocentric: it is concerned with glorifying God. Where they differ is on the ways and means. Cessationists believe God is most glorified when biblical truths about him are accurately and passionately proclaimed in song, liturgy, and recitation of Scripture. The focus of worship is to understand God and to represent him faithfully in corporate declaration. Worship is thus primarily didactic and theological and their greatest fear is emotionalism.

Charismatics or Continuationists, on the other hand, believe God is most glorified not only when he is accurately portrayed in song but when he is experienced in personal encounter. Charismatic worship does not downplay understanding God but insists that he is truly honored when he is enjoyed. Worship is thus not only theological but also emotional and relational in nature and their greatest fear is intellectualism.

Admittedly this is perhaps a bit too tidy. Cessationists would no doubt agree that God is to be enjoyed, but they see this as primarily a cognitive experience. Charismatics contend for a more holistic enjoyment. God is not merely to be grasped with the mind but felt in the depths of one’s soul. The mind is expanded but the affections are also stirred (and the body may well move!).

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this difference is the way both groups think of God’s presence in times of corporate praise. Think of it this way. When you gather in corporate assembly with God’s people, whether on a Sunday morning or in a small group during the week, what are your expectations with regard to God? Do you view God’s presence as a theological doctrine to be extolled and explained or do you think of it as a tangible reality to be felt. Those hymns that are more traditional in their focus stress divine transcendence. God is “out there,” beyond us, above us, and we sing about him. The songs you hear in a more charismatic setting stress divine immanence. God is “down here,” very near us, close to us, and we sing to him.

It follows from this that cessationists tend to fear excessive familiarity with God. They’re concerned lest we get too chummy with God. Charismatics, on the other hand, tend to fear relational distance. They want nothing to do with an impersonal religion that relegates God to a remote and deistic heaven. Their longing is for the “nearness and now-ness” of God.

The spiritual atmosphere cessationists cultivate is characterized more by fear and reverence when compared to the charismatic desire for joy and love. Again, the former prizes form, the latter freedom. A cessationist service is somewhat controlled, both in terms of what is regarded as acceptable physical posture and the length of time devoted to corporate singing. Charismatic worship is emotionally free and physically expressive, with the characteristic lifting of hands and dancing.

There is a humble solemnity in most cessationist services versus the exuberant celebration among charismatics. This invariably elicits criticism from both sides. The cessationist is offended by what appears to be an overly casual, if not presumptuous, approach to God. Is not our God a consuming fire, holy and righteous? The charismatic sees in cessationist worship an excessively formal, if not lifeless, approach to God, if they dare approach him at all. And without denying that God is holy, the charismatic is emboldened by what he believes is God’s own passionate longing for relational intimacy.

To be continued . . .


Dwayne, you began your argument by suggesting charismatics are unable to stand on scripture to defend their views. Interestingly enough you then proceeded to make declarations without the use of scripture to back them up. Is there one scripture in particular that you can point to that would command us to structure worship with such rigidity and no room for the spirit to operate? Even better, is there a good blanket endorsement of cessationism you can point out also? Because that seems to be the approach you are taking to this topic.

Dwayne, you began your argument by suggesting charismatics are unable to stand on scripture to defend their views. Interestingly enough you then proceeded to make declarations without the use of scripture to back them up. Is there one scripture in particular that you can point to that would command us to structure worship with such rigidity and no room for the spirit to operate? Is there a good blanket endorsement of cessationism you can point out also?

Hi Sam,

What a wonderful surprise and joy to read your response to "Strange Fire". It seems like as the days go by, your list of who you are grows! My son, Judah would be glad you included baseball as one of your loves. As usual your response has little to do with tearing down, and much to do with understanding and the genuine desire to build the Body of Christ. You have always been a blessing. Thank you.

I have a different view than many here, and am thankful for men like John MacArthur. I certainly don't agree with everything he says or how he says it, but frankly, I wish J.I. Packer was more direct in his criticisms/rebukes. The Church needs men like MacArthur, just not too many. Charismatics point to the language of the NT to justify their position, how is MacArthur's approach any different than the admonitions by Peter or Paul.

Personally, I am an millennialist, baptist, and cessationist. I love Sam's book on millennialism; best out there in my opinion. Yet he makes some strong statements against the dispensationalism, but separates the warnings about the dangers of that doctrine from the intentions of some of its proponents. Allowing for style, I don't think MacArthur's indictment of the Charismatic movement is any stronger than Sam's rejection of dispensationalism. Both in my opinion have had a destructive influence on the Church. But I would be careful about saying something is "not of God." Ultimately, even when allowed/caused for the discipline of his people, all things ultimately occur by God's providence. I could say the same for the doctrine of infant baptism, although most of my favorite authors are paedobaptists. What MacArthur means when he says that the Charismatic movement is "not of God" is that it is not Biblical. I think Sam said the same thing about dispensationalism, and I would say the same think about paedobaptism.

Perhaps the best person to model in this whole affair is R.C. Sproul. He certainly could be offended by MacArthur's repudiation of the non-premillenial position, but R.C. continues to maintain fellowship and preaches right along side him.

Dwayne, I'm glad you asked! Paul says in 1 Cor. 12.7 that spiritual gifts are given to the church "for the common good," which all commentators acknowledge means that they are given to edify everyone in the body. He then proceeds in vv. 8-10 to mention 9 of those gifts given "for the common good," for edification, and lo and behold, one of them is tongues! And in 1 Cor. 14.5 Paul clearly says that if tongues are interpreted they serve to "build up" the church just as prophecy does. I'm curious, by the way, why you quoted v. 4 to support your view, jumped over to v. 6, and then conveniently failed to cite v. 5 that refutes your point. Curious indeed! As for v. 6, he's clearly talking about "uninterpreted" tongues in the corporate assembly. The whole point of chapter 14 is to insist on interpretation if tongues are used publicly precisely so that everyone else in the church can be edified! The same applies to vv. 17-19. And why would Paul urge the one who prays in a tongue to also pray that he might interpret if not so that the tongues speech can be edifying for others (v. 13)? And again, vv. 22-23 are talking about the useless nature of uninterpreted tongues in the corporate assembly. When interpreted the tongues function quite well to edify. And if all that doesn't convince you, how would you handle v. 26? There Paul gives instructions on how all are to prepare for the corporate assembly, and lo and behold, there it is again, "when you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation." So Paul clearly encouraged the use of interpreted tongues in the assembly. And why would he do that? He tells us in the second half of v. 26 - "Let all things be done for building up!" I think if you will stop reading 1 Cor. 14 selectively, conveniently ignoring verses that clearly encourage the use of tongues for edification and the building up of all believers, you can see the blessing that this God-given gift brings to the body of Christ. Yes, it is a "God-given" gift. In other words, if according to your view tongues neither edifies nor brings glory to God, why in the world would God himself have come up with the idea of tongues and granted it to his people and then given explicit instruction on how it was to be used in the church, and then top it off by saying, "do not forbid speaking in tongues" (v. 39)? Blessings!

1 Cor 14:17-19 For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified. 18 I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; 19 however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.
I Cor 14:6 But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?

1 Cor 14:22-23 So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe. Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?
1 Cor 14:4 One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.

Based on these verses, how does the use of the gift of tongues edify the church and bring glory to God?

How about a Presence to be worshiped but not always felt? The questions raises a false dichotomy.

A few thoughts initially upon reading this post. Accuracy in understanding the gospel is vital to coming to a knowledge of the Truth. God is sovereign and will separate the chaff from the wheat. Satan will disguise himself as an angel of light.

On a personal experienced level I have seen evil surround people and affect the way they feel and act.

God has provided scripture that we may become like the Bereans and study it in order to verify or repudiate the endless variations seen in the gospels of men.

May God help us to sharpen our irons and to see clearly His Truth, that we may be set free from bondage to evil presently known or unknown to us. May we not allow His Word to be corruptly misrepresented. May we strive to help one another to understand God's Word whereby we are precisely guided in the Truth and not guided by our emotional state of being. May we desire nothing short of growing as the Body of Christ, in love. May we fully grasp that as revealed to us in Scripture, until all parts of the Body are functioning properly we will not grow in love.
I thank God for His Word and pray with all my spirit, with all my emotion and purpose and cognitive understanding, that His Word will not take second seat to seeking signs. I pray the teaching, the doctrine, of salvation by faith according to the grace of our Lord will be garnered cognitively, thus becoming our experience. I pray in thankfulness in recognition and trust in God's power and glory, not my own. In Jesus' name do I pray for better cognitive recognition of your Truth father, resting in the fact that this arrives where You see fit to provide, and above all that all of your people, the elect, shall not be led astray by the passions of men and lusts of the flesh, such as the desire to feel a buzz in order to then act as opposed to understanding by your supernatural intervention. May we not boast in things like being taken up into the third heaven, rather to boast and trust in your sovereignty Father. Amen

This article was excellent. I have found that talking with cessationists (especially leading up to and following the SF conference) tends to become a game of talking past each other. Getting to our foundational fears and desires in our approach to God is extremely helpful to this discussion. Looking forward to what follows!

Thank you very much Sam for addressing this issue. I admit this entire strange fire conference has been very painful to watch. I love and respect pastor John and I have to say that I am extremely disappointed with his entire approach. I go to a charismatic church in New York City and none of the things that Pastor John highlighted is true of all charismatic. Churches. We have to remember that Christ is building his church and he paid a price for his bride in spite of our shortcomings. Of course they are abuses in the charismatic churches but the same thing can be said about churches in the Calvinist tradition. I admit I am afraid of emotionalism without an engagement of the mind but why can't' we have both. ? We are called to love God with all of our being including our emotions. I think the mode of worship is irrelevant. God made us with different personalities and we are going to drawn to different modes of worship. Some of us are more emotional than others but we are welcomed at the throne of a God through Christ. I think sometimes we think that because we prefer something then it means we are right. I pray that God turns this whole episode into something for the body of Christ and that we move towards greater humility. There can be unity in diversity.

Dwayne, I generally appreciate your comments, but this one is unworthy of you. It is precisely this sort of attitude that has led so many to distance themselves from MacArthur. And to accuse Michael Patton of believing and writing what he does in order to raise money is slanderous. I hope you will apologize to him.

Thank you for sharing this. If any of you are interested in getting a deeper understanding, you should pick up his book Convergence; Confessions of a Charismatic Calvinist.
God Bless

I appreciate the article because it is something that I face coming from a Pentecostal background that has overemphasized emotional response without connecting intellectual understanding. Because of that I tend to be more concerned with God being understood than being felt and experienced. I've experienced the presence of God, but until a few years ago when I read "Love Your God with All Your Mind" by Moreland I didn't understand the importance of knowing God with all my mind.

I am currently serving as a youth pastor and although I have experienced and know the presence of God I wonder if my fear of emotionalism has hindered students from experience the presence of God in their lives.

Thank you for provoking thought. . . and desire to experience God.

It would be interesting to see the size of your church without the loud music and charismata. One thing about emotions is that they are fickle and you gotta keep feeding them to keep them on a high plane. Some choose to use the Scriptures and prayer for their spiritual strength and this seems to me a much better way. The focus is to be on the Savior, not the Spirit. The Spirit always points to the Savior. In my opinion, the Charismatics have it the other way around. I thought Michael Patton's response without reading the book or viewing the conference streaming was a little over the top but name-calling and anger is always used by those who can't stand on scripture for their viewpoints. I'm sure he would love to silence John MacArthur and thus (he thinks) increase his audience and source of revenue. He, like his friends, the Charismatics, seems to thrive on asking for money but it has been that way since Jim and Tammie Faye. By the way, the worship services at our church are not lifeless and include raising of hands and clapping and a sincere love of the Savior that I've never seen in Charismatic "jam sessions". While you mention controlled worship in "cessationist" worship, be sure to mention the control exercised in your church of the Charismatic gifts. Might be interesting to get rid of your musical instuments for a month or two, sing the old or new hymns and see what reactions you get. You can always tell the focus of the "new praise" songs by the number of times the word "I" is included in the lyrics. The old songs focus on God but that seems to mean to you that He is way out there somewhere and unknowable. To me, those songs exalt Him. It is all about God, not about us.

Hello Sam,
Sorry that I am asking here but I wanted to ask, what good books can I read that will help me focus more on the excellency of Christ, I was reading your "The Personal Narrative of Jonathan Edwards - Part XI" and I get the sense of what I need, a greater focus on Christ, and I thought what books will help me better grow in my love of Him.


I am praying for you, and for the body of Christ, as God is at work uniting us for such a time as this.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments for this post have been disabled.