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A Biblical Screening of Jim Cymbala’s Book, 'Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire'

(December 1998 - Volume 4, Issue 11)

The motivation behind reading this book was both a rave review from an IFCA (Independent Fundamental Churches of America) communiqué (written by Steve Johnson, member of the publication committee), which was also published by the IFCA bulletin service; and an equally positive book review in Voice (the IFCA magazine) by Richard McCarrell. I will quote McCarrell’s review in total, for context:

Vance Havner loved telling of two Indians watching the construction of a lighthouse. It was finally completed, and the big day arrived for its opening. As dignitaries gathered, the worst fog of the season blew in. One Indian turned to the other and said, "Light shine, bell ring, horn blow, fog come in just the same." Vance Havner would then say, "We’ve never had more lights shining, bells ringing, and horns blowing than we have today within the church. Yet, we’ve never had so much fog." Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, written by Pastor Jim Cymbala of the Brooklyn Tabernacle is a book that cuts through the fog. In a day when we are called to market brighter lights and louder horns within our church ministries, Pastor Cymbala’s book pulsates with a passionate call to personal purity and powerful prayer. As you read of God’s blessings on this church and its ministries (including its choir), you will laugh, weep, rejoice, and pray, but you will not be bored. Pastor Cymbala shares his personal and professional struggles with humble honesty and transparency. This book does more than focus on the physical and spiritual growth of a church, it follows the spiritual growth of a pastor and wife who epitomize full commitment to our Lord while ministering in a very difficult environment. We see Jim and his wife Carol on the mountain top, in the valley, and God’s faithfulness through it all. The simple, easy-to-understand prose draws readers into the story, leaving them wondering whether they would have been as faithful as Jim and Carol in their walk with the Lord. As you follow them through church and family struggles, you will be challenged concerning your own commitment to our faithful Lord. This book should be required reading for all those contemplating going into the pastorate and most certainly for those currently serving (Voice,July/Aug.1997, p.36).

Surprised by the endorsement of a charismatic minister by the IFCA I quickly ordered the book hoping to discover why. (For evidence of Cymbala’s charismatic associations see Charisma Magazine, December 1998, which identifies him as a keynote speaker for a conference on Pentecostal Prophecy and Power in Springfield, Missouri on March 8-10, 1999). As promised there was much to commend: Cymbala, pastor of the huge Brooklyn Tabernacle, best known for its choir, places great emphasis on prayer, one of the truly missing commodities in our lives and churches today. He is not deceived by the gimmicks of the church growth movement. He is dismayed at Christian commercialism, especially in the area of music. He is bothered by the extreme forms of the Spiritual Warfare movement, although he does not completely divorce himself from it. He believes that God is willing and able to do a great work in the lives of His people. These are refreshing and needed admonishments.

On the Other Hand, There is Much to Concern Us

Calling the Spirit Down

Cymbala takes a clearly charismatic position on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. "The Spirit of God came down upon us" (p.18). "People began to sense the presence of the Lord in that humble place" (p.31). "I felt the Spirit nudging me" (p.128). In a complaint about ordered church services Cymbala states, "A basic sign of revival is that the wind is allowed to blow where it will. . . . Are church members encouraging their pastors to act on the Lord’s prompting no matter the cost?" (p.134) Quoting positively a friend of Charles Finney, "I am now convinced, it is my duty and privilege, and the duty of every other Christian, to pray for as much of the Holy Spirit as came down on the day of Pentecost, and a great deal more" (p.176).

Reviewer’s Comment: The "coming down of the Holy Spirit" and "feeling His presence," etc. are not New Testament teachings. The Holy Spirit has already come, and we already possess all of the Holy Spirit that is available. Besides, how could we know when we "feel" His presence? To pray for the Holy Spirit to come down as at Pentecost, is a gross misunderstanding both of the purpose of Pentecost and of the present ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Revelation in the Inner Spirit

Cymbala supports the increasingly accepted view that one can hear from God in the inner spirit. "I sensed God speaking. . . . I knew I had heard from God. . . . His word to me was. . ." (p.25). "Brothers and sisters, I really feel that I’ve heard from God about the future of our church" (p.27). "The Holy Spirit stopped me. ‘No!’ a voice seemed to say. ‘Fight for him! Cry out to me!’" "The Holy Spirit spoke to one of the choir members" (p.103). "As I spoke, the Holy Spirit seemed to prompt me to add" (p.160). Of course what God had to say to Cymbala was what every pastor would love to hear, "If you and your wife will lead my people to pray and call upon my name, you will never lack for something fresh to preach. I will supply all the money that’s needed, both for the church and for your family, and you will never have a building large enough to contain the crowds I will send in response" (p.25).

Reviewer’s Comment: Where in Scripture does one find this concept? That God has communicated audibly, in dreams and visions, through prophets and apostles, we are in agreement, but this "inner voice" is not to be found. Even the Vineyard theologian Jack Deere claims that the concept of God guiding through promptings, impressions, and insights has no biblical base. He says, "The word ‘prompt’ never appears in Scripture with God as the subject. [We are being] asked to believe in a form of guidance that can’t even be found in the Bible" (Surprised by the Voice of God, pp.283,284). When men like Deere can poke holes in our understanding of revelation, we had better take a second look.

Azusa Street

Cymbala sees the Pentecostal "tragedy" of Azusa Street (1906) as an example of the outpouring of God’s Spirit. He even quotes William Seymour, the guiding light of Azusa Street, as saying, "We are measuring everything by the Word" (p.117).

Reviewer’s Comment: Something is seriously wrong if we accept this statement at face value. Those who know the history of Azusa Street, Pentecostalism, and the theology of Seymour, should be repulsed by such a comment, for Seymour and his followers, obviously were not measuring everything with Scripture. And the Pentecostal church that sprang from their teachings is full of theological error.

Power Evangelism

One of the most disturbing elements of this book is an apparent acceptance of "power evangelism" (a Vineyard doctrine). Cymbala writes,

"The absent element is what is expressed in the final sentence of the prayer recorded in Acts 4, ‘Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders’ (verse 30). What gains unbelievers’ attention and stirs the heart is seeing the gospel expressed in power. It takes more than academic rigor to win the world for Christ. Correct doctrine alone isn’t enough. Proclamation and teaching aren’t enough. God must be invited to ‘confirm the word with signs following’ (see Hebrews 2:4). In other words, the gospel must be preached with the involvement of the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. The apostles prayed for God to do supernatural things. . ." (p.138).

Following quotes from Acts concerning signs, wonders and healings, Cymbala writes "Message plus divine demonstration. Doctrine plus power. This is the New Testament way" (p.146). "The teaching of sound doctrine is a prelude, if you will, to the supernatural" (p.151).

Reviewer’s Comment: This is almost straight John Wimber. Had the IFCA quoted Wimber’s Power Evangelismwith favor, most would be up in arms. Here is Wimber’s definition of "Power Evangelism."

"It is a spontaneous, Spirit-inspired, empowered presentation of the gospel. Power evangelism is preceded and undergirded by demonstrations of God’s presence, and frequently results in groups of people being saved. Signs and wonders do not save, only Jesus and his substitutionary work on the cross saves. Through these encounters people experience the presence and power of God. Usually this takes the form of words of knowledge (such as were given to me about the man on the plane), healing, prophecy, and deliverance from evil spirits. In power evangelism, resistance to the gospel is overcome by the demonstration of God’s power, and receptivity to Christ’s claims is usually very high" (Power Evangelism, p. 78,79).

The only difference I can discern between Wimber and Cymbala’s views is that Wimber’s are more familiar than Cymbala’s.

Revival and Finneyism

While the Charismatic teachings alone render this book hopelessly flawed, there is more. For example, Cymbala promotes the currently popular and highly unbiblical view of revival as per Charles Finney style. Finney, who did more to cheapen evangelism than any one individual I can think of, is apparently Cymbala’s greatest hero, and is often quoted (e.g. p.58, p.115, and pp.174ff). Finney, the 19th Century evangelist and theologian, was the well-known author of "means" or special methods that he believed could produce conversions, as well as revival. All the church needed to do, so taught Finney, was to use the right means and the results were guaranteed, with or without help from the Holy Spirit. His evangelistic inventions are legion and lethal. Even prayer was seen as a "means" to an end (see p.58). God could be manipulated to send revival if only the church prayed hard enough. Evidence of Finneyism is rampant in evangelism today. Finney and his views need to be exposed, not endorsed.

Study the history of revivals and you will find that they are sovereign outpourings of God’s blessings, not dependent in any way upon our methods. The oft-stated comment that prayer has been the catalyst for all past revivals is just not historically accurate. Ian Murray’s out-standing Revival & Revivalism concludes: "No human endeavours can ensure or guarantee results. There is sovereignty in all God’s actions. He has never promised to bless in proportion to the activity of His people.
Revivals are not brought about by the fulfillment of ‘conditions’ any more than the conversion of a single individual is secured by any series of human actions. The ‘special seasons of mercy’ are determined in heaven" (p.22). An on-the-spot assessment of the Second Great Awakening, including this analysis: "This revival has made its appearance in various places, without any extraordinary means to produce it. The preaching, the singing, the praying, have been the same to which people had been long accustomed, and under which they had hardened to a great degree" (ibid. p.127). The use of "means" to produce revival, even the means of prayer, can be traced to Charles Finney, not Scripture. Jonathan Edwards’ famous account of the Great Awakening is entitled A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God for a reason. Even Edwards had no explanation for the revival. Cymbala tells of another hindrance to revival as well, "There has never been a revival of religion so long as the order of service has been strictly followed" (p.148). This certainly fits the charismatics agenda, but not history’s, nor Scripture’s.

Evangelism

This volume makes unbiblical and intimidating claims for the results of evangelism. Using Pentecost as our apparent example he asks, "Are we bringing thousands of men and women to Christ the way Peter did? If not, we need to get back to his power source" (p.97).

Reviewer’s Comment: To my knowledge Peter, nor any of the other apostles, ever again had such a reception to their preaching of the Word. As a matter of fact on some occasions the gospel was rejected by most, the apostles imprisoned, the church scattered. Yet Cymbala assures us that, "When we sincerely turn to God, we will find that His church always moves forward, not backward" (p.97). I do not believe that this claim can be substantiated either in Scripture or church history.

False Claims for Prayer

As important as prayer is, and who wants to say anything against prayer, I nevertheless question whether the Bible reduces virtually the whole Christian life down to this one element. While many of Cymbala’s comments seem to make sense, far too often they do not have the backing of Scripture. For example, he writes: "No matter what I preach or what we claim to believe in our heads, the future will depend upon our times of prayer" (p.27). This sounds good, but what in Scripture teaches this?

Arminianism

When it comes to conversion, Cymbala takes the Arminian – "sealing the deal" as soon as possible position. We dare not allow someone to go home and think about the gospel, read the Scriptures, or give the Holy Spirit time to bring forth true spiritual birth (p. 126). Again, it is Finney not Scripture that guides the author’s philosophy of ministry.

Conclusion

While there are certainly bright spots and good comments in Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, I believe it to be a largely unbiblical, charismatic, mystical approach to Christian living. That the IFCA could endorse it, without so much as a warning, is beyond my understanding.

In fairness to the IFCA, when I sent an abbreviated form of this book review to both the director, Richard Gregory and the president, Donald Fredericks, I received somewhat encouraging responses. Gregory wrote, in part,

I assure you that I am not interested in relaxing our commitment to doctrinal purity and if I knew what I know now, I would not have included it [the position review]. I will say that from what I have heard about the book, there is much that we can learn about childlike faith in prayer and the personalized ministry of the Holy Spirit that is often so lacking in our fundamental orthodoxy. I am committed to being biblical but believe that in our caution concerning over emphasizing the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we make the pneumatology a cold orthodoxy devoid of the warmth of the personality of the Spirit. Biblical balance is the key with respect to the work of the Spirit in the life of the church and in the hearts of individual believers. It is my prayer that the Holy Spirit will be free to bring revival to believers and deep conviction to sinners. Paul’s caution to "grieve not the Holy Spirit," Ephesians 4, and "quench not the Spirit," I Thessalonians 5 places responsibility upon Christians not to hinder the Spirit’s work in them and through them. Although I recognize the Spirit’s sovereignty in bringing revival, I also recognize the human responsibility. The writer of the Hebrews calls upon believers to "Come to the throne of grace boldly, to obtain grace and mercy to help in time of need." We want to use more precise language than an "outpouring of the Holy Spirit" because of the misunderstanding that can come along with it, but the fundamental, Bible believing church needs a fresh freeing of the Spirit and an outpouring of His blessings. Perhaps that is what Jim Cymbala was trying to say.

While admitting a mistake, Gregory also seemed to imply that I was being over cautious. As the review above indicates, I do not believe that I over-reacted. Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire opens a door in a direction that the IFCA surely does not want to go, it includes some false winds and strange fires. Are we so desperate to have a "fresh freeing of the Spirit" that we are compelled to turn to largely unbiblical, quasi-charismatic, mystical approaches to Christian living?

Fredricks wrote me a kind letter of appreciation, but it was muted by the admission that he had not even read that issue of Voice, which had been published over a year before. Nevertheless, upon my request, Gregory was willing to let me write, and publish in the Voice, Jan/Feb 1999, a short review of Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire. For this I am thankful and anxiously await reaction.

For information on:

  • Spiritual Warfare, see Think on These Things, (a 3-part series), Vol. 1, Issues 6-8.
  • The Vineyard Movement, see Think on These Things, (a 2-part study), Vol. 1, Issue 12 & Vol. 2, Issue 1.
  • The Charismatic Movement, see the booklet, bearing the same title, written by Gary Gilley.
  • Charles Finney,see Ashamed of the Gospel, Appendix 2, by John MacArthur.
  • Mystical Leading of the Holy Spirit, see Think on These Things, "Experiencing God," (a 3-part series), Vol. 3, Issue 8,9 & Vol. 4, Issue 7.
  • Revival, see Revival and Revivalism, by Ian Murray.