“Please don’t come to me. Please don’t come to me. Please don’t come to me.” These were my thoughts as “Prophet James” was making his way around during chapel service one morning at my undergraduate Bible school in 1997. He was invited by the school, which was a “Third Wave” charismatic college. Every student in the entire school (as far as I know) spoke in tongues. Well, every student except one: me. In fact, when I enrolled, I had no idea what to expect. I just saw the ad in Christianity Today, realized that the college was in my hometown, and thought it would serve me well to bridge the gap between the time my wife graduated from college and my trek to Dallas Theological Seminary. I had a few hours left for college. Why not? Had I known the background was so charismatic, I am sure I never would have enrolled.
From student to student, he made his way around the chapel. He would place his hands on their head and begin to speak forth their life to them. They received his every word with tears rolling down their cheeks. Admonishments and encouragements, revelations of their deepest thoughts, and instructions for moving forward; from the student’s perspective, these were the words of God. From my perspective, they were, at best, the visions of a charlatan. At worst, they were the utterances of Beelzebub. Either way, I did not want him coming near me. So I hid and, thankfully, ended up escaping what I believed to be perverting madness. Phew.
From Christian to Anti-Charismatic
I grew up in a non-charismatic, Dallas Theological Seminary grad-led church. The church I was attending at the time had just gone through a difficult split due to the charismatics gifts issue. I stayed on the side that said “nay” to the gifts. All my life, my exposure to the Charismatic movement was defined by abuse, disillusionment, scandal, and anti-intellectualism. When I really started following the Lord in the early nineties, my newfound commitment to Him was facilitated by theology and apologetics. I began to realize that the faith my mother nurtured in me was not just true, but really true. I hated the indignities Christianity had suffered, especially with all the scandals of the eighties. Christianity had received a bad rap and the culprits, in my estimation, were all Charismatics who knew neither what they believed nor why they believed it. The largest church in my area was charismatic and had plenty of hats thrown in this ring of scandal. Wayne, my best friend went to this church. When I was young and would sleep over at his house on Saturday night, we both dreaded what we were in for the next Sunday morning. He did not follow in his mother’s charismatic footsteps. When at church, both of us would look across at each other in what can only be described as amused fear (you know, the type that makes you gawk and laugh at the same time) as people danced up and down the isles, carrying banners for the Lord and, yes, speaking in tongues. The anxiety produced those Sunday mornings resulted from a fear of the unknown, and an unspoken pressure to take part in that unknown.
My experience did not stop there. Growing up, I went to many charismatic services and events. Sometimes, people were going into convulsions on the ground during worship service. Other times, they would be doing something that can only be described as barking. One time, while eating pizza with a group of charismatics, we had a girl pray against the “demons of fat grams.” Seriously! Sometimes people would get knocked out as they were “slain in the Spirit.” Satan was behind every door, and healing was always only one faith step away. At a singles event, I went to in the mid-nineties, there was a charismatic guy in our small group who was constantly having “words from the Lord” which made no sense. I never wanted to be in his group. One time he was getting a word from the Lord and interrupted our otherwise fruitful discussion to let us know. We all stopped and waited for him to share the full complement of the transmission. “The Lord is telling us we need to stop . . . to stop . . .” Then he paused for a long time with his eyes closed. Finally, he opened his eyes and said, “I lost it. Let’s get back to the study.” Lost it? Lost it? I thought. Lost the word from the Lord? Get it back! The casual way in which they seemed to get a word from the Lord was incredibly contemptuous. What was the Old Testament penalty for a “lost word from the Lord?” I did not know, but I assumed it was serious. All in all my exposure to the charismatic movement growing up was bizarre, irreverent, incongruous, and distracting. I was definitely anti-charismatic.
By the time I got to my Bible college, I was well-schooled in all the anti-charismatic polemics Christianity had to offer. John MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos was both a Bible and a tract. I was an evangelist for Christ first and second a forewarner of the dangers of the charismatic movement. It is not as though I thought all Charismatics were not true believers, but I was convinced that they were under serious (probably satanic) deception.
From Anti-Charismatic to Sober Cessationist
It may surprise you to know that things changed a great deal while I was at that charismatic Bible college. While the chapel services always scared me quite a bit (as such events still do), it was not the “liturgy of charismatic chaos” that changed my mind, it was the people. You see, I had to sit next to these “bizarre” people during class. I had to listen to them ask questions of the professors. I had to see them learn Greek, New Testament, and systematic theology. I had to do projects with them. I had to be on their debate teams. Believe it or not, they even elected me Student Council President! And you know what? They were kind, gracious, loving, passionate, and totally committed to the Lord. They were not always, as I had led myself to believe, emotional basket cases looking for their next experience. They desired to love and serve the same Lord Jesus Christ that I did. In fact, one guy I sat next to every day was about as good and committed a Christian as I had ever known. I became good friends with him, so much so that eventually, the fact that he spoke in tongues did not even enter my mind when we talked. It got lost in our fellowship around Christ. When I thought about this, it confused me and left me scratching my theological head. Maybe I was missing something.
The next curve ball sent me over the edge. Our textbook for systematic theology class was Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. For those of you who don’t know, Wayne Grudem is a theology professor at Phoenix Seminary. Grudem holds a BA from Harvard University, an MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. He also served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1999. I had never been exposed to Grudem before. I figured my charismatic undergraduate school would either dig deep in the barrel to find a charismatic systematic theology textbook or just concede and use a non-charismatic text, knowing that there is no such thing as a good charismatic systematic theologian. Grudem’s text quickly became my favorite book. What a great storehouse of theological treasure it was! At every turn, he argued irenically and persuasively. He wrote clearly, held his Evangelical ground with resolve, and thought rationally. However, as it turned out, Grudem was Charismatic! No. It can’t be! I thought to myself. How could this theological erudite be Charismatic? And if that was not enough, he was a Calvinist! A charismatic Calvinist? At that time in my life I was beginning to strongly embrace Calvinism. I found Calvinists, and the system of biblical interpretation they represented, to be well-grounded, biblical, and satisfying. What attracted me to Calvinism’s ethos was that more than any other system is that it let God be God and did not seek to elevate man and his needs to the center of the Divine program. However, this was not the view I had of the charismatic movement. To me, charismatics were all about me . . . my experience, my emotions, my healing, my gifts. To be a charismatic Calvinist was about the best example of an oxymoron I could think of!
Reading Grudem’s arguments for his charismatic stance was like reading the arguments all over again for the first time. I could not put him in the same nutty category in which I placed all the Charismatics of my youth. I could not associate him with the scandals of the past, the out-of-control television personalities, or the sensational anti-intellectualism that seemed to accompany so many Charismatics. Since then, the population of rational, level-headed, intellectual Charismatics has only grown. Who would ever accuse Gordon Fee, C. J. Mahaney, John Piper, Sam Storms, or Craig Keener of being theological lightweights? Yet they are charismatic. Then there is my other hero, J.P. Moreland. His book Love Your God With All Your Mind is a standard tract that I hand out now. It admonishes Christians to use their minds, not just their emotions, in their faith. Yet J.P. is Charismatic too! Concerning Sam Storms: you could not meet a more level-headed, passionate, pastoral, and (ahem) charismatic thinker. Yeah, and he is a Calvinist too!
How could all of these guys be wrong? Though I am, as of Tuesday, the afternoon of February 7th, 2023, not persuaded of their arguments, I am no longer anti-charismatic.
From Cessationist to “I want to be Charismatic”
It’s been 25 years since I sat in that class studying Wayne Grudem with my charismatic buddy. Today I tell people that I am not charismatic, but I want to be. I remain on the side of some type of qualified cessationism (the belief that the gifts of the Spirit such as tongue, prophecy, and healings, ceased sometime in the early church) for biblical, historical, and experiential reasons, but changing my position is not out of the question. As we will see, while the arguments I put forward for cessationism are somewhat compelling, they are only somewhat compelling. As I have rethought this issue over the years, I have often prayed without ceasing that God would direct me in the right way.
I have never tried to speak in tongues. I would not know where to start. It would probably make me very uncomfortable. But life in Christ is not about staying in your comfort zone. Two very personal issues in the last 15 years have caused me to step outside my comfort zone and seek God’s charismatic intervention. The first was with my sister, Angie. Though exorcism is not necessarily a gift reserved for the charismatic, the idea itself has always fit more naturally within a charismatic worldview than within a cessationist worldview (more on that in my forthcoming). When my sister was mentally ill, severely depressed, and suicidal, she kept telling me she had a demon inside her. She wanted me to do something about this evil she carrying and believe was responsible for her impending self-harm. Here I am, a pastor, with my sister asking me to exorcise a demon. Having been through what I had with Angie over the preceding year and a half, I was desperate and willing to do anything. Therefore, one day I set up an “exorcism” (whatever that was). I went over to her house, prayed that God would give me the power to cast the demon out of her, mustered up as much faith as I could (just believe it Michael, just believe in God), laid my hands on her (why? I don’t know . . . that is what they do on TV), and commanded the evil spirit to come out in the name of Jesus. After many repeated and very sincere attempts with no success (I did not even know what “success” looked like), I gave up. My sister killed herself a couple of months later. Did she have a demon? I don’t know. But my charismaton could not do anything about it. Did God not take my request as sincere? Was he sitting on the edge of his seat, waiting for me to demonstrate a faith that I lacked, hoping that I was going to heal her?
Then there was my mother. She had an aneurysm and a stroke at age 56 in 2006. After they removed a significant portion of her brain, she was rendered unable to walk or talk (except for a few odd phrases and songs). This Christian hero of my life now sits in a chair all day long, unable to walk or talk, watching the same movies over and over. She has the mental capacity of a six-year-old. Just about every week I prayed over her with charismatic vigor, asking the Lord to heal her through me. Nothing ever changed. Sam Storms has told me not to give up, but it is hard not to try and adjust my thoughts and believe God wants us to be content in her paralysis of mind and body. I have never wanted to have or experience the gift of healing so desperately in my life. Does God not think I am serious? Is he waiting for me to take her to someone with the gift of healing? Name the person. I am there.
“Please don’t come to me” used to be my cry. But it isn’t anymore. Today, I truly want to be Charismatic. After all, who wouldn’t? What Christian wouldn’t want to experience God in such a way? Who wouldn’t want to see the hand of the Almighty perform a miracle? Who wouldn’t want God to come in such a way and speak into their darkest situations, giving them encouragement, saying he cares, that it’s going to be alright? Maybe I want to be charismatic for selfish reasons. Maybe that is why it is not working. Or maybe it is just wrong.
I know I have been throwing around the word charismatic as if it means something definite right now. I have to define my terms so that we can all be on the same page and know exactly what it is that I am not and what I am evaluating. I don’t portend to make charismatics look bad by being a sincere non-charismatic who has tried his damnedest to be charismatic but has not been able to cross that bridge. I want to approach this honestly, maybe correcting some misunderstandings on both sides, and helping people to see that we all have this deep down desire to find the movements of God in the supernatural.
Part 2 coming…