Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire” – Excellent Book Review.
I am thankful for the opportunity to have been a part of many of the prayer meetings mentioned in this book. I learned some important things concerning the necessity of prayer. However, when prayer is placed over and above the Word of God it leads to anti-intellectualism. The inevitable result of anti-intellectualism is that other things replace the Word of God as central to the Christian Faith. Without a rich biblically informed mind, our prayers are amiss.
I believe Jesus stresses the importance of the Word of God regarding prayers when he told his disciples in John 15:7–8:
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”
Jesus did not pit prayer against the Word of God. On the contrary, he linked prayer WITH the Word of God. It is not either/or, but both.
I believe that Christians more than ever need to practice discernment and not simply accept something because their favorite preacher said so. We must hold everything up to the light of Scripture, hold fast to what is true and reject what is not.
“We live in what may be the most anti-intellectual period in the history of Western civilization.”
—R. C. Sproul
“God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers.”
—C. S. Lewis
“Anti-intellectualism is a disposition to discount the importance of truth and the life of the mind.”
“At root, evangelical anti-intellectualism is both a scandal and a sin. It is a scandal in the sense of being an offense and a stumbling block that needlessly hinders serious people from considering the Christian faith and coming to Christ. It is a sin because it is a refusal, contrary to Jesus’ two great commandments, to love the Lord our God with our minds. Anti-intellectualism is quite simply a sin. Evangelicals must address it as such, beyond all excuses, evasions, or rationalizations of false piety.”
“Our churches are filled with Christians who are idling in intellectual neutral. As Christians, their minds are going to waste. One result of this is an immature, superficial faith. People who simply ride the roller coaster of emotional experience are cheating themselves out of a deeper and richer Christian faith by neglecting the intellectual side of that faith.”
—William Lane Craig
Below are 2 excellent critiques on Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire.
Book Review: Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, by Jim Cymbala
I first read Jim Cymbala’s book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire as a last-year undergraduate. I enjoyed it. I recently read the book again, two and a half years later, and for the most part, I enjoyed it again. Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire is Cymbala’s story of God’s work in his own life and in the life of his church, the Brooklyn Tabernacle. His burden in the book is to convince the reader that God desires to answer the fervent prayers of His church. Many of the stories that Cymbala tells are wonderfully encouraging. It is good to be reminded of God’s ability and even desire to work powerfully and visibly in the lives of His people. I was moved nearly to tears several times as Cymbala told of how God powerfully answered prayers and changed lives through the gospel. One of those stories (page 40 and following) contains a letter from a woman who tells of her terrible battle with drugs and depression. When she “finally hit bottom,” she drove to the Brooklyn Tabernacle and cried to God to save her. Now she sings in the Tabernacle choir and is a faithful member of the church. Cymbala tells of the time that this woman was asked to give her testimony before the church. Her father was present that night. The story that this young woman had to share, Cymbala says, was not a pretty one, and certainly not one that a father would smile in pride to hear coming from his daughter’s lips. As she came to the most disturbing parts of her story, she stopped, looked at her father, and said with tears in her eyes, “Daddy, I know this is hard for you to hear. But I have to say it, because it shows how Jesus can forgive the worst in a person’s life.” Cymbala tells also of his own daughter Chrissy (pp.60-65), who rebelled against God and her family and disappeared into the streets of New York City. He writes passionately about that experience, and several times I found myself feeling the same pit in my stomach that he himself must have felt during those days. One Tuesday night, Cymbala went to his church’s Tuesday night prayer meeting and asked the church to pray for Chrissy. They did. A few nights later, she showed up on the doorstep and collapsed into her father’s arms. “Daddy—Daddy—I’ve sinned against God. I’ve sinned against myself. I’ve sinned against you and Mommy. Please forgive me.” A few seconds later, Cymbala writes, she pulled back startled and said, “Daddy, who was praying for me? On Tuesday night, who was praying for me?” It had been the church.
I don’t know all the circumstances of those events, but I do know that those stories resonate with me. I love to hear stories like those of God’s love and forgiveness through Christ, maybe because they are so familiar to me. I have experienced that forgiveness myself, and I have watched other people in my life dissolve into those same tears that these women cried as they realized the forgiveness that was bought by Christ on the cross. Maybe that’s why Cymbala’s stories so affect me. I recognize them.
I was glad to see that in all his stories of God’s faithfulness in growing the Brooklyn Tabernacle, Cymbala is determined to make sure that glory is given where it is due—to Christ. The emphasis is refreshingly not on pragmatic ways to bring people into the church or effective strategies for developing a management structure. Cymbala again and again points to Christ as the source of all good and blessing in a church, and he calls on the church to pray to God rather than revamp their worship band. It is a welcome emphasis.
Cymbala writes as the pastor of an inner-city church in Brooklyn, New York. He is under no illusion that things always work out right, and he does not teach his readers to expect that. Cymbala calls on the church to pray and to believe that God will answer, but he also understands that God does not always will to give us what we most want. Sometimes things do not work out. The lives don’t change; the AIDS patient he prays for does not finally live. Yet faith remains, even when God doesn’t do our bidding. In a time when Christians are eager to do anything they are promised will obligate God to bless them, Cymbala’s sobriety in that area is commendable.
All of that makes me even more disappointed to have to say that I cannot recommend the book. For all the good and useful things Cymbala says about God’s willingness to answer prayer, he sees a need for some reason to pit prayer against the preached Word of God. It really is a strange position to take, since the Scriptures constantly link the two together. Prayer is a vital part of the Christian life, and any preacher would tell you that it is indispensable to affecting and God-honoring preaching. Yet Cymbala seems bent on exhorting the church to pray at the expense of hearing the Word of God. He writes on page 71, “Does the Bible ever say anywhere from Genesis to Revelation, ‘My house shall be called a house of preaching?’. . . Of course not. . . . Preaching, music, the reading of the Word—these things are fine; I believe in and practice all of them. But they must never override prayer as the defining mark of God’s dwelling.” His most definitive statement on the matter is on page 84: “[The Bible] doesn’t say, ‘Let us come to the sermon.’ We in America have made the sermon the centerpiece of the church, something God never intended.” I appreciate Cymbala’s emphasis on prayer. Prayer is a wonderful thing talk about and exhort our churches to do. But I think he has profoundly misunderstood the Bible’s teaching on how God works in the world. Certainly God works through prayer. That is not in debate. Contrary to Cymbala’s belief, though, God did make His Word the centerpiece of the church, and in fact the centerpiece of His work throughout all history. God’s purpose in the world, no matter what part of the Bible one studies, is always accomplished by His Word. Read the Old Testament, and you will find the Word of God—the Law and the Prophets—at the center of the story. Read the Gospels, and you will find the Word of God—incarnate—at the center of the story. Read Acts, and you will find that the gospel is spread without fail through the preaching of the Word. Read the epistles, and you will find Paul asking for prayer that he might boldly preach the Word of God. Nowhere in the entire Bible will any serious reader ever find that it agrees with Cymbala in de-prioritizing the preaching of the Word. Preaching always stands at the vanguard of any move of God in the world.
Not only that, but Cymbala’s own use of the Scriptures to back this de-prioritizing of preaching is questionable. We have already quoted his argument on page 71 to the effect that Jesus never said, “My house shall be called a house of preaching.” But what kind of exegesis is it to take a passage like that of Jesus in the temple and say that because He calls it a “house of prayer,” therefore we have done too much preaching? Quite simply, it is unconvincing. Cymbala also cites Acts 1-2 on pages 71-72 to argue, “Have you ever noticed that Jesus launched the Christian church, not while someone was preaching, but while the people were praying?” Of course the apostles were praying; no one would argue against that. But when I read the first two chapters of Acts, what I see is a chapter-long sermon by Peter and the statement in Acts 2:37, “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart.” It lines up well, doesn’t it, with Romans 10? “Faith comes by hearing!” How Cymbala can appeal to the Day of Pentecost as evidence that we should de-prioritize the preaching of the Word, I do not understand.
So tightly are prayer and the preaching of the Word interlocked in Scripture that it is just, well, a little weird that Cymbala tries to pit them against one another. Preaching and prayer are both essential to the Christian life, and to each other. Prayer itself is informed by preaching, and it is through prayer, in turn, that we ask God to bless the preaching of His Word. The relationship between God and His church, like any relationship, involves communication in two directions. We talk to God through prayer, He speaks to us through the preaching of the Word. Why would Cymbala ever call the church to minimize God’s part in that conversation? Even if we were somehow forced to choose, I suggest that it would be far more important for us to hear from God than for Him to hear from us. But thank God we don’t have to make that choice! We are to pray, and we are to preach. Neither should be minimized.
In Acts 4, which Cymbala often cites, the believers don’t just pray generically for the power of the Spirit. Most essentially, they pray that God will enable His servants “to speak Your work with great boldness.” Paul asks the same in Ephesians 6:19, “Pray for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel . . . Pray that that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”
As I said earlier, I appreciate and rejoice with Cymbala that God has done wonderful things in his life and church through prayer. The lesson to be gained from that, though, is not that we have over-emphasized preaching. The lesson to be gained is that we should pray and preach. We should pray, like the apostles, that God will use the preaching of His Word to draw many to Christ.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.