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on 20 November 2013
I spend a lot of time reading blogs. Kinda comes with the territory when you write for one. A while ago, The Gospel Coalition did a series of posts about people who changed their views on a number of issues - Sam Storms did a piece on why he abandoned premillennialism (lots of comments on that one - after all, who wants to be a dispensationalist in our enlightened age, right?), Gavin Ortlund, Liam Goligher and Sean Michael Lucas all chimed in on baptism (a discussion which is definitely worth having) - but the one article I hoped someone who write was one on the gifts - either from a continuationist perspective (namely the belief that the sign gifts are available today for the Church) or a cessationist perspective (the belief that the sign gifts passed with the passing of the apostles and their associates) - but alas nothing.

That for me sums up the nature of the discussion in professing evangelical circles when it comes to the issue of the work of the Spirit today. No one seems willing to have the tough discussions on this issue - it's not that it cannot be done, there just seems to be little desire for it. As an ex-Pentecostal myself, I think on both sides, we need some robust discussion about the ministry of the Spirit today (thankfully I'm not alone in that assessment - Burk Parsons, editor for Ligonier Ministries' Tabletalk magazine and co-pastor with R.C. Sproul at St Andrew's Chapel in Florida, asked for the same in a message he gave at TGC's conference earlier this year.)

Part of that robust discussion is going to have to deal with the issue of the charismata. But alas, you see little written on it and the little that is often comes from a non-committal position on the issue which sounds nice and conciliatory but doesn't answer the questions. I sincerely believe John MacArthur's latest work, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship, might just get the discussion going with some gusto at long last.

Strengths

In terms of the strengths of the book, there are several I found as I read it (most of it being on a flight back to London from Los Angeles):

Clarity: One thing I've come to love about reading anything from John MacArthur (and I've read a good dozen in the last few years) is that you never have to ponder what it is he is getting at. Pinpoint clarity - even if you disagree with him - has been a hallmark of his ministry and he brings that focused mind to this work. At several points, he'll make a point for several sentences and then, with one line, will open up his point so clearly you'll go, "Yup, I saw that coming."

Brevity: Combined with that ability to be clear is an ability to get to the point quickly. I fear that part of the reasons that a lot of defenses of cessationism haven't gotten the mass hearing they should have (like Thomas Edgar's excellent Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit or Victor Budgen's CHARISMATICS AND THE WORD OF GOD: Biblical and Historic Perspective on the Charismatic Movement) is because they are frankly quite difficult to follow at points. MacArthur's ability to be concise really comes through here and proves to be rather helpful

Theological and Biblical Focus: More important, the book is saturated with proper quotation from Scripture and incisive theological content. This isn't some book-length rant which hasn't been thought through but a careful, theologically-grounded treatment of the issues (albeit not all of them), grounded in the exposition of the Scriptures. I found myself pulling out my tablet and summarizing many of the arguments made in the talks in Evernote for future use.

The final third of the book - devoted to a positive presentation of the ministry of the Spirit - was well worth the price of the book as a whole. A full-length treatment would prove invaluable if done someday.

Things That Could Have Been Better

I purposefully don't call them weaknesses because these are somewhat subjective and open to discussion.

A Clearer Target: A common complaint throughout the conference (which I was present for) and in the time following it has been that MacArthur swept with too broad a brush and that reformed continuationists were swept along in the process. Now I don't think that's a fair argument to make but I do appreciate why one would come to that conclusion. In the book, it is not until chapter 12 that a distinction is made between the Charismatic Movement in toto and reformed continuationists - if I may be blunt, that's a little long to leave it. Were I writing the book (and this is not intended as a slight on Dr MacArthur), I would have made that point every chance I got. With an issue this charged, I would take any and every opportunity in my discourse to diffuse that charge so that we can have the discussion without someone walking out because they had their feelings hurt.

More Time on the Positive Ministry of the Spirit: I loved chapters nine through eleven which dealt with the true work of the Spirit and would commend them to everyone but I couldn't help but wonder where the chapters on the baptism and filling of the Spirit, what the Spirit-filled life actually looks like or even the differences between the Spirit's ministry in the Old and New Testaments - since in my experience of discussing these issues, a lot of misunderstandings stems from not understanding these issues in their proper Biblical detail.

A Recommendation Before You Go and Buy A Copy

To those who haven't read Dr MacArthur's 1993 work Charismatic Chaos, I want to make a bold suggestion: go and read that before you read Strange Fire. Having read both, I think the arguments in Charismatic Chaos are much more substantive and argued out plus it addresses many of the questions Strange Fire doesn't address like:

What is the nature of the Baptism of the Spirit?
What does true spirituality look like?
What was happening in the NT?

What Strange Fire does so well is to deal with many of the modern problems that have arisen like the "fallible prophecy" hypothesis of Wayne Grudem or the errors of the New Apostolic Reformation using the same broad base of arguments set forth in Charismatic Chaos. But for an in-depth treatment, I probably wouldn't start here.

My Final Verdict

While I enjoyed reading it, it wasn't as mammoth a defense of the cessationist position as I thought it would be. I still think Charismatic Chaos did that in '93. However, in fairness to it, I don't think it was intended to do that in the first place. This seems to be a "this is the state of play - what do we then say?" kind of work - and that it does well.

I loved the book for what it did and would gladly recommend it for those who always agree on the issue but would like a couple of silver bullets for those long, drawn-out conversations that tend to happen with folks who disagree as well as getting someone caught up to think about what they are involved in and whether what they are involved is indeed glorifying to God. After all, isn't that all that matters in the end?
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on 2 January 2014
I have an extensive library of Christian books and I would say that, having read strangefire, this is the most significant extra-biblical book in the last decade.
- it is superbly written and balanced.
- plenty of biblical reference and all quotes and historical refs are also detailed in the notes. this is not blind assertion nor opinion but researched and backed up.
- the author is one of the best expositors of our time and his clout is well earned. a visit to gty.org will see how generous and theologically sound his teaching is.
- while the book is an exposure of the charismatic movement it is also a beautifully written treatise on the work of the Holy Spirit.
I would say this is a vital book for any minister or layperson to read and understand.
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on 21 February 2014
Spot on MacArthur, time someone with backbone spoke out against the total and utter chaos that permeates this movement. That would be bad enough but its like a virus spreading from one denomination to the next. They took over my local Anglican church, and if you want a real surprise, just pop along to holy trinity Brompton in London, I had the unfortunate experience to be taken there by a friend, unfortunately I am not a pogo stick or a dog ,cat, or any of the other animals satan was exhibiting via those poor poor, people who were simply deceived. this book sums up what I experienced that evening. Every bible believing Christian should read this book, further I tried to by this book from my local Christian book shop two weeks before Christmas and I am still waiting for it, Dec 12th 2013 - 21 Feb 2014. then it struck me just about every book in that shop was of a charismatic nature or penned by a charismatic author, and what I mean by charismatic is the type of person you read of in this book. I know many charismatics, who claim we are not like that book and that may be so, but such people are happy to criticise such books as this one but unable to speak out against the utter unbiblical nature of what goes on in their name. This book makes this very clear. Buy it for a charismatic friend, hand a copy to the leadership of the local church who are caught up in this movement. Stand firm the church is under attack.

The book is an easy read, well not if you are part of this movement of course.It's informative with plenty of examples, nicely annunciated with bible references, but shocking in that we have allowed the church to get to such a state of unbiblicalness. I want 10 copies of this book to give to churches just in a 5 mile radius of my home, any book seller what to offer me a discount out there.
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on 1 July 2015
After the Pharisees credited Jesus' power to cast out demon to Beelsebul, the prince of demons, Jesus said, among other things, "Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come." (Matthew 12:31-32)

This is serious - the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. I have read this and always wondered. I suppose I have never quite made the connection until I read Strange Fire, which unfolds in front of me the dire widespread consequences of defaming the Spirit by crediting works that are not His to His name.

In my early church-going days, there were murmurs about Toronto Blessing in the background. It was hailed as "revival" that the church leaders would like to bring into the church. I never quite understood what the hype was about. If there was any attempt to bring it into the church, I was not receptive to the movement, and I eventually left that church due to relocation.

More recently I was made aware of the popularity of the Prosperity Gospel. I knew instinctively that it was not the real gospel, and it was not real faith as it was based on self-love rather than cultivating the authentic religious affections of everything of God. Along the way, I met a person who got baptised at a charismatic church and she thought that she was a Christian. But actually she talked only about the Holy Spirit but did not know Christ. In fact she rejected Him. But then she thought she was a Christian, she lived in a false sense of security, so that she wouldn't hear the true gospel. That was sad, and I shuddered at a Christ-less gospel. About a decade ago, a very close friend of mine declared to me that she became a Christian. I was happy for her. But then she started prophesing on me, claiming that she had a gift of prophecy with visions and dreams. She told me her prophecy about me. This was a burden, no doubt (just as the book has pointed out). Eventually it did not fulfil, of course. By then, no one recalled it. Coming to here and now, I have friends who go to the local Vineyard Church. I looked up their website and thought perhaps I would try that church out one day. But so far, I have never been. Now I ask, "What kind of church is it when it won't state what it believes?" Does it ring an alarm bell?

So yes, the landscape of church is very confusing for ordinary people and sincere seekers. We could be very easily drawn to the friendliness and the "experience". Vast number and vibrancy also draw. Strange Fire therefore is very helpful in tracing the development of the Movement. I find that section informative, and tremendously helpful for me to put my encounters into context and in turn for my comprehension of what's going. MacArthur writes many pages to describe the Movement painstakingly referencing every single source - the end notes run on for 50 pages of the book. I thought it must have been rather frustrating and tiresome to spend so much time reading up something one knew as untrue and unedifying. Yet out of his love and concern and passion for the truth and for the lost, he does his research with diligence.

Yet this does not stop it from being controversial! There is no doubt that MacArthur is very critical of the Movement. The book has been criticised as broad brush. The question is what is mainstream and what is the fringe. Given the references that are provided in the book, I don't think anyone can dispute what has been described in the book as untrue (or we would have heard of some lawsuits); the question remaining is whether the account is representative. This is subject to personal opinion. For me, what is described in the book is clear and substantial enough to discern the dubious characters of the Movement. In this sense, it has served its purpose as when I see those things, I will remember I have been warned. For those who are in the charismatic movement and would wish to distinguish themselves from what is described in the book and defend themselves, they can do so by all means. But for me, I am a simpleton and like simple rules. I personally won't go into the murky waters and wish to create a pure stream from it for myself. I don't trust that I have that capability.

The third section of the book gives an account of the work of the Holy Spirit to contrast the counterfeit. This is solid and sound in biblical truths. There are simple rules to test the Spirit. A few principles stand out for me. The work of the Spirit always points to Christ and the Truth - a Christ-less gospel is not His work. "The Bible is the Holy Spirit's book! It is the instrument He uses to convict unbelievers of sin, righteousness, and judgement. ...Thus, to reject the Scriptures is to rebuff the Spirit. To ignore, disdain, twist, or disobey the Word of God is to dishonour the One who inspired, illuminates, and empowers it." (p.229) And we judge if someone is Spirit-filled by his fruit as the work of the Spirit is our Christ-likeness.

The more controversial subject but core to this debate is the one of cessationist versus continuationist. MacArthur is of the former and points out the dangers and inconsistency of the latter. I think I have been convinced by MacArthur. Some spiritual gifts (those of the apostles and prophets) were necessary for a time - the foundational time of the church. Now we have the bible (the canon of the Scripture is close) and these gifts are unnecessary. If one believes in the sufficiency of the Scripture, expecting and waiting for new revelations is distracting us in our walk with Christ, and often it is out of the wrong motives. I agree that it opens the floodgate to errors and heresies, leading to confusion. The concept of inaccurate prophecy is troubling for me. It is incompatible with God's characters and God's Word.

I can see the charms of the Charismatic Movement because it appeals to our fleshy desires and the stress on experience removes the demand of diligence and hard work required to study the Bible. To some, studying and reading the Bile may be a barrier - it took me many years to pick up the bible in my own quiet time, but everyone is capable of experience and feelings. But the sadness is that a false gospel does not save as it has no power; and it tends to prey on the desperate, needy and the vulnerable. To give them false hope is simply cruel.
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on 17 December 2014
I agree with a huge amount of what MacArthur says in this book, but...

MacArthur seems to lump all charismatics together, as if there were such a thing as a charismatic spirit which infects all charismatics albeit to different degrees, and which is of the devil. I may be exaggerating slightly - he doesn't actually say this, but since his sole focus is the more extreme end, he can easily give this impression. He has some figures that indicate that the extreme end is numerically vast compared to the less extreme, but he doesn't have a way of addressing the less extreme. He just seems to lack gentleness when it would be appropriate.

The truth is clearly that charismatic churches include a huge range of both doctrine and practice, from the out-and-out heretical to a position which is literally indistinguishable from the reformed. Not all charismatics are the enemy: and certainly not the Enemy!

Essentially he has an over-simplified, entrenched, partisan opinion.

So although there is scholarly opinion behind his own cessationist views, he does not really deal - enough - at the scholarly level, and therefore he fails also to recognize that there is respectable scholarly weight also behind contrary views. That seems to me to be the essence of what scholarship is, and the benefit it brings the church.

To put it in a nutshell, when I recognize that there is strong scholarly opinion behind contrary views, it should give me respect for those views (even though it may not shift my own). Just because someone believes something completely different from what I believe doesn't mean his view is nonsense, and I should be extremely careful of reacting in an indignant or partisan spirit. There are differing, valid (even if not always equally valid) ways of reading a text. Things are not always as slam-dunk as we like to think they are.

That, to me, is what is really exciting! It means I should be able to engage with my brothers and sisters honestly over issues we disagree about without either of us losing our temper or feeling threatened - we recognize that we all have respectable views.
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on 23 November 2013
So, having blogged fairly extensively at the time of MacArthur's Strange Fire Conference, I've finally got round to reading and finishing the book. Since I have written quite a bit about the Strange Fire Conference, this will just be a brief overview.

Strange Fire is confrontational, controversial and constitutive, MacArthur's tone is polemical, but his motivation is pastoral. As I have said elsewhere, I have been involved with the Pentecostal and charismatic movement for most of my Christian life and even when I was actively committed to the main presuppositions of the movement, I would have agreed with many of MacArthur's observations.

Many charismatics perceive MacArthur as being divisive, unspiritual and even heretical. However, in my view, these responses really miss the heart of the issue. In the book, MacArthur says:

In recent history, no other movement has done more to damage the cause of the gospel, to distort the truth, and to smother the articulation of sound doctrine. Charismatic theology has turned the evangelical church into a cesspool of error and a breeding ground for false teachers. 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. By elevating the authority of experience over the authority of Scripture, the Charismatic Movement has destroyed the church’s immune system—uncritically granting free access to every imaginable form of heretical teaching and practice. Put bluntly, charismatic theology has made no contribution to true biblical theology or interpretation; rather, it represents a deviant mutation of the truth. Like a deadly virus, it gains access into the church by maintaining a superficial connection to certain characteristics of biblical Christianity, but in the end it always corrupts and distorts sound teaching. The resulting degradation, like a doctrinal version of Frankenstein’s monster, is a hideous hybrid of heresy, ecstasy, and blasphemy awkwardly dressed in the tattered remnants of evangelical language.

That is some statement. But we need to pause and think about it. We need to ask, is it true? If it's true, how true is it? Is it the whole truth? And so on.

Of course, this is not how the charismatic church is usually described. It is usually described as the fastest growing segment of the Christian church; the most active in evangelism; it has been hailed as a vehicle of church unity because the common charismatic experience has united Christians from every denomination in Christendom and it is reputed to have revolutionised worship.

Which perspective is true?

There is truth in both statements. The movement is growing, the movement is active in mission, the movement has pioneered the way in worship and the movement has caused individuals to experience a new vibrancy in their faith. So, how do we reconcile the two perspectives?

J.I. Packer, a supporter of the charismatic movement, once made the following statement. When I first read it, I was actively involved in an independent charismatic church. Here is what he said:

Christian history has seen many movements of experience-orientated reaction against theology’s supposedly barren intellectualism. These movements have thought they could get on without serious theological study, and have discouraged their adherents from engaging in it. In the short term, while living on theological capital brought in from outside by their founders, they have often channelled spiritual life in an impressive way, but with the passage of time they have again and again lapsed into old errors and forms of imbalance and stuntedness which, for lack of theological resources, they are unable effectively to correct, and which prompt the rest of the church to stand back from them.

Packer's statement can easily be applied to the charismatic movement, and it also sheds light on just how a movement can be zealous and growing yet at the same time erroneous and unhealthy. MacArthur highlights these issues effectively, so I'll point out some of the statements in his book which I thought were significant critiques.

MacArthur's critiques of the charismatic movement

"The Charismatic Movement claims to exalt the third member of the Trinity. Truth be told, it has turned Him into a sideshow."

"Pentecostals and charismatics elevate religious experience over biblical truth."

"Novel doctrines, ostentatious self-promotion, and claims of fresh revelation from God (all quite common characteristics of the Charismatic Movement) are the particular signs of a false teacher."

MacArthur's criteria for discerning whether or not something is a true work of the Holy Spirit:

"(1) Does the work exalt the true Christ? (2) Does it oppose worldliness? (3) Does it point people to the Scriptures? (4) Does it elevate the truth? (5) Does it produce love for God and others?"

"A true work of the Spirit shines the spotlight on the Savior, pointing to Him in an accurate, exalting, and preeminent manner. False teachers, by contrast, diminish and distort the truth about Him."

"In contrast to false prophets, those who are truly empowered by the Holy Spirit place the primary emphasis on the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ."

"Show me a person obsessed with the Holy Spirit and His gifts (real or imagined), and I will show you a person not filled with the Holy Spirit. Show me a person focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ—never tiring of learning about Him, thinking about Him, boasting of Him, speaking about and for and to Him, thrilled and entranced with His perfections and beauty, finding ways to serve and exalt Him, tirelessly exploring ways to spend and be spent for Him, growing in character to be more and more like Him—and I will show you a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit. We should learn what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit. We should teach what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit. We should seek to live lives full of the biblically defined ministry of the Holy Spirit.

"Any ministry or message that does not present Jesus Christ in a biblically accurate way is not a true work of the Spirit."

One of the accusations that has been levelled against MacArthur's Strange Fire, is the claim that he condemns all charismatics as apostates who are doomed to hell. This is not true. MacArthur says:

I do believe there are sincere people within the Charismatic Movement who, in spite of the systemic corruption and confusion, have come to understand the necessary truths of the gospel. They embrace substitutionary atonement, the true nature of Christ, the trinitarian nature of God, biblical repentance, and the unique authority of the Bible. They recognize that salvation is not about health and wealth, and they genuinely desire to be rescued from sin, spiritual death, and everlasting hell. Yet, they remain confused about the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the nature of spiritual giftedness. As a result, they are playing with strange fire. By continually exposing themselves to the false teaching and counterfeit spirituality of the Charismatic Movement, they have placed themselves (and anyone under their spiritual care) in eternal jeopardy. For true believers, the Charismatic Movement represents a massive stumbling block to true spiritual growth, ministry, and usefulness. Its errant teachings regarding the Holy Spirit and the Spirit-inspired Scriptures perpetuate immaturity, spiritual weakness, and an unending struggle with sin. A parallel exists between those Christians who are trapped in the modern Charismatic Movement and the true believers who were part of the Corinthian church in the first century.

Many charismatic and continuations believers think that MacArthur is writing off any and every spiritual experience they have ever known. This makes it impossible for charismatic believers to take on board what MacArthur is saying. However, I think the problem is that MacArthur's position is being slightly clouded through his over-statements. MacArthur does not reject all experience, he is just seeking to correct an experience driven movement. One of the ways he does that is to re-categorise spiritual experience. MacArthur observes:

Thus, any personal impression or fleeting fancy might be labeled “the gift of prophecy,” speaking in gibberish is called “the gift of tongues,” every remarkable providence is labeled a “miracle,” and every positive answer to prayers for healing is seen as proof that someone has the gift of healing. All of that poses a major problem, because it is not how the New Testament describes those gifts. For any evangelical pastor or church leader to apply biblical terminology to that which does not match the biblical practice is not merely confusing; it is potentially dangerous teaching for which that person is culpable.

This is a majorly important point, yet it's one that is almost lost in the midst of overwhelming rebuke.

Here is truth, God's leading through intuition, healing as a result of prayer, and amazing circumstances that are clearly God at work, are not unique to charismatics. They are experienced by Christians everywhere. Moreover, assigning them the wrong "category" is actually harmful as it leads to false expectations, exaggeration and error. God does stuff, but this is not the same as elevating these precious and personal experiences to the level of apostolic revelation, miracles and gifting.

This, I think, is where the confusion comes in and where many charismatics get off on the wrong direction. They can have genuine experiences, but these experiences are given the wrong theological category, consequently doctrines are developed which end up doing more harm than good. If I have one critique of MacArthur's Strange Fire, it is simply this, he could have emphasised this more. To do so would have helped bridge gaps with genuine charismatics who have had genuine spiritual experiences. In other words, it is possible that people have had valid experiences, but they have understood those experiences through the wrong theological lenses. Consequently, God's guidance through personal impression is elevated to the status of prophecy -- this is disastrous and it is one of the main reasons why there is so much false prophecy within the charismatic church. It also explains why sometimes personal impressions are incredibly spot-on -- quite simply it was what has historically been defined as a 'remarkable providence', in other words, God bringing about his plans in an unusual manner. However, the very fact it is remarkable is a clue that we should not expect it is the norm

So, one year on, having benefited from the conference and eventually getting round to reading the book, I would say that the message of Strange Fire is essential. MacArthur has, at personal cost, raised his voice at a time when the Word of the Lord needs to be heard. (originally posted here: http://jjcaldwell.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/strange-fire-book-review-year-after.html
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on 5 January 2015
John MacArthur gives the reader, the origins of some of the erroneous and deceptive teachings, that have crept in to the Church. I read this book with an open mind. I was in the Pentecostal Church for a number of years.

Personally I feel John MacArthur, writes compassionately but with clarity and most often backed up by scripture.
This book helped me greatly to understand how easy one can be deceived, just because everyone else is participating in something, doesn't always make it right!
A book I would definitely recommend.
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on 7 April 2014
I have yet to read Section 3 and I hope to look at it soon but so far this book has been of great benefit to me with respect to my own ministry.

MacArthur gives clear concise answers to why he is convinced of the dangers found within most charismatic circles.

While I am not a charismatic, nor a cessationist, There are many key points that I can safely agree with MacArthur on with a clear conscience, namely the abuses in the charismatic movement which need to be repudiated and of course bring people into a sound theology grounded in scripture. Not to mention he boldly and unwaveringly stands against Word Faith Teachers, Kansas City Prophets and others like them who have led the Body of Christ astray.

This book I thoroughly and highly recommend to others if you want to get solid reasons why we need to stand against blasphemy against the Holy Spirit when it arises.
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on 22 April 2016
MacArthur accuses vehemently one group of churches. He has not taken the plank out of his own eye. He throws the baby out with the dirty bath water and takes scripture out of context, uses arguements from silence, and twists Bible verses to support his view. After I have used this book for my studies on Apostles I will burn it. MacArthur thinks the church will be unified and glorified after writing this. Shameful
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on 17 September 2015
Obviously this book will offend those who claim things which are not from scripture. John uses a variety of evidence from scripture to support everything he says with a variety of case studies to develop on the point he is making. It was a joy to read and I no longer label myself as a Pentacostal Christian but as one with no denomination.
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