The charge that ‘Charles Finney is a heretic’ is often the result of ignorance and misrepresentation. Granted, Finney often used controversial terms to state his positions, but those who would hear him out would recognize a brother- perhaps a brother with whom they disagree- but certainly not a heretic.
In spite of his peculiar understanding of how the atonement works, those who hear him out would discover that he passionately embraced the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ. He has been quoted out of context and made to look as if he rejected this. He has also been accused of being the cause of most modern-day seeker gimmicks and ‘easy believism’. This is totally off the mark, and the great irony of it is that those who accuse him of this would find him to be one of their strongest allies in the desire to correct the problems. In fact, he has much to say towards the correction of faulty evangelism and ‘spurious conversions’ in our day.
And, it is suspected that many try to persuade others not to give him a fair hearing because of his relentless attacks on Calvinism. However, Finney really wasn’t an Arminian. He attacked Calvinism in response to the passive apathy that was caused by the hyper-calvinism that was prominent in his time. Yet most Calvinists would not have a problem with his writings on ‘election’ in his “Systematic Theology.'”
Finney is often accused of sounding like a ‘Pelagian’, as his goal was to stir others to their responsibilities in Christ. But he nowhere asserted that man was basically good, and he everywhere asserted the necessity of the Holy Spirit in the experience of Christ and salvation.
I believe Finney was ultimately too legalistic. Nonetheless, reading him helped me learn to think “outside of the box”. Many in the church swallow a lot of theological teaching without ever really thinking it out for themselves.
Lectures on Charles Finney
THE SAD TRUTH: CHRISTIANS are divided on many issues. One issue, however, that most can agree on is the desire for revival. Born-again evangelical Christians desire to see Christ exalted in their life, the church, and their surrounding environments. But they are often divided on just how that is played out in practice and doctrine.
During a period known as The Great Awakening, George Whitefield went blazing through the early American colonies stirring up spiritual zeal and preaching the gospel with power. From 1740-1743, virtually every part of New England was affected, with church records revealing at least ten percent of the population as being converted!Whitefield was a phenomenon, and even a cultural icon in that day.But he was hated as much as he was loved. Revival always stirs up opposition.
Other preachers, like Gilbert Tennent and the famous Jonathan Edwards, were instrumental in the Awakening as well.They too had to battle much opposition, which amazingly was not so much from outsiders, but from other Christians. Ministers were offended by itinerant preachers who actually challenged their salvation! Many felt threatened by the rising influence of lay ministry. Others could not stand the tears and shakings, even faintings of those who were under convictions from the Holy Spirit.
Nonetheless, one reason the Great Awakening came about was because the status quo of faith and the church had been challenged. Sermons were preached to pierce the heart, searching to destroy any grounds of false assurance and to awaken sleepy souls into vibrant lives of consecration to the Lord.
After the American Revolution (circa.1787-1825), the Second Great Awakening saw revivals spreading once again through the eastern states, and onward into the western frontier territories. Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians all charged ahead in zeal to awaken the lapsing spirituality of the new republic. They saw great and varied results. The revivals in the East took on a calm and refined nature, while the Methodist revivals in the West were in the eyes of some, wild!
A great controversy emerged through all of this. The church became deeply divided over the ways in which ministers were conducting their meetings.New measures were being utilized to encourage sinners to repent. One man took to these measures and would eventually be placed in the forefront of the controversy. He would be bold, practical, and stubborn in his defiance of certain conventional teachings and practices. Yet he was constantly sought after.He was in demand throughout the western and eastern regions, and then eventually overseas in England.
Although Charles Grandison Finney is commonly remembered as the great revivalist of the nineteenth century, he is also commonly attacked. He has been assigned some less than desirable titles, such as Legalist, Heretic, and Pelagian. Finney has even been called, “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” and has been blamed for the deterioration of the evangelical movement as we know it today. This kind of opposition actually began early on in his career, and it has simply continued on up to our present day. At the same time, however, many have regarded Finney as a truly remarkable man of God.
However one looks at Finney, it must be clear that he was no ordinary individual. For good or for bad, the man poured himself out for the service and cause of Christ all the way up to his end.Besides being an evangelist, he was a theologian, social reformer, pastor, author, and educator.
One camp sees his revivals as events that ultimately resulted in religious failures, while the other camp sees his revivals as models for success that resulted in great harvests! One camp deplores his theology, while the other camp finds it liberating. He is a hero to some and a heretic to others. Who is right?
Why are there such reactions, and why have they continued up to this day? Should the church reject the teaching and methodology of Charles G. Finney, or is there something to be gleaned from him? The opinions are strong on both sides of the question.In this treatise, I hope to shed some light on the issue, and in doing so I propose,
I. To survey Finney’s background and conversion.
II. To examine the nature of Finney’s ministry, and
III. To explore the question of his theology.
I. His background and conversion.
Charles Finney was born in 1792 and then born again in 1821. Before his conversion, in Adams, New York, he had attended the preaching ministry of George Gale, the pastor of a Presbyterian church. To him, Gale’s preaching was dry and hard to follow. Nonetheless, the two of them had lively theological discussions, with Finney often criticizing the sermons unmercifully.
Though an unbeliever, he had attended the church’s prayer meetings as a kind of curious observer. At one meeting, the elders asked if he desired their prayers. He declined, stating that it appeared that God did not answer their prayers! “You have been praying for a revival of religion ever since I have been in Adams, and yet you have it not. You have been praying for the Holy Spirit to descend upon yourselves, and yet [you complain] of your leanness.” He recalled that they never seemed to have any expectation that God would give them what they asked for.
Meanwhile, Finney was known as a godless and reckless “ringleader of fun.” Is this the kind of man you want leading the choir in your church? Yet that is what he did, and that gave him a significant influence with the young people. It was a significantly negative influence! When some of the members had suggested to pray more specifically for him, Rev. Gale discouraged them, believing that Finney was too hardened and that he could never be converted. And one skeptical husband proclaimed to his believing wife, “If religion is true, why don’t you convert Finney? If you Christians can convert Finney, I will believe in religion.”
Yet in spite of Finney’s denouncing of his church’s prayers, revival did come to Adams! In Gale’s temporary absence, a young man named Jedediah Burchard was invited to fill his pulpit. When Gale returned, he found that ‘the state of religion had advanced,’ and invited Burchard to stay and work with him for a while. Eventually Gale sent Burchard to go into other towns to preach, and about a month later Finney had his tremendous conversion experience.
Under the pangs of conviction, Finney resolved to go into the woods and give his heart to God. But when he knelt down to pray, he found that his heart was hard.He tried to pray again, but he began to sink into despair. All was dark for him, and he feared that he had grieved away the Spirit of God.He cried out in angst over his sin and broke down before the Lord.
Then, a passage of Scripture flooded in upon his mind: “Then shall ye go and pray unto me, and I will answer you. Then shall ye seek me and shall find me, when you search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:12-13). He embraced these words by faith, and would later refer to his act as a voluntary trust as opposed to an intellectual state. Then came many other promises from the Scriptures, and “they did not seem so much to fall into my intellect as into my heart, to be put within the grasp of the voluntary powers of my mind; and I seized hold of them, appropriated them, and fastened upon them with the grasp of a drowning man.” In spite of all this, Finney was not sure if he had yet been converted, and remembers saying as he went home that if he ever was converted, he would preach the Gospel.
As he approached his village, he noticed that all sense of guilt had left him. He could not conjure up any anxiety, but instead experienced a ‘profound spiritual tranquility’. In the evening he experienced a ‘powerful baptism of the Holy Spirit’ and could not sleep for being so filled with love!In the morning, he considered the doctrine of justification by faith as ‘a present experience’ and realized that he had been reconciled to God.
At that time he was embarking on a promising legal career in Adams. However,when one Deacon Barney came to fetch him for a case, he replied, “Deacon Barney, I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and I cannot plead yours.” From that time on, Charles Finney devoted himself to the preaching of the Gospel.
II. The nature of Finney’s ministry.
When it comes to his ministry and theology, many voices cry out against him. He was indeed a controversial figure.Yet as we progress, the honest inquirer will find that his critics often misunderstand him, or worse, misrepresent him. It is not my primary intent to defend Finney’s methods or theology, but to try to set both in their proper context.
In rejection of his theology, Finney has been criticized for being an untrained novice and beginning to preach immediately after his conversion. The truth of the matter, however, is that although he immediately began to preach, he did not begin his formal ministry until a full two years later. During that time he studied as an apprentice under his pastor, Rev. George Gale. And during the last six months of that time, the Presbytery officially tended to him as a student for the ministry.
He was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of St. Lawrence on December 30, 1823. At that time, missionary and reform societies were established in order to promote the gospel and distribute Bibles.The Female Missionary Society was one such organization, and commissioned him as a missionary in March, 1824. Then in July he was ordained by the Oneida Presbytery. So he was not exactly a ‘loose cannon’ as has sometimes been implied.
But while he was not a loose cannon, he differed very much in thinking from the predominant Calvinism of his time. In fact, there was a growing movement of thought that was parting from what was called the ‘Old School’ theology of orthodox Calvinism.The ‘New School’ theology was a modified form of Calvinism that emphasized the freedom of the will. Finney particularly reacted strongly to the then dominant idea that one was unable to repent or believe in Christ, and that they had to wait until the Lord changed them.To him, people were not unable, they were unwilling. Therefore the crux of his preaching was in exposing the wickedness and deception of unwilling hearts; condemning them with the law; and then appealing to them to turn to Christ– and to do so immediately! He criticized the Old School preachers who were calling their congregations to repent and then telling them that they could not. He strongly felt that his revivals, and revivals in general at that time, were the results of breaking free from the faults of overemphasized Calvinism:
“When I entered the ministry, there had been so much said about Election and Sovereignty, that I found it was the universal hiding-place, both of sinners and of Christians, that they could not do anything, or could not obey the Gospel. And wherever I went, I found it indispensable to demolish these refuges of lies. And a revival would in no way have been produced or carried on, but by dwelling on that class of truths which hold up man’s ability and obligation, and responsibility.”
Today his critics correctly maintain that Finney gave little if any acknowledgment that revivals might happen and were happening under a balanced Calvinism at that time. Asahel Nettleton, in particular, was conducting such revivals in the north. Nonetheless, Finney saw great results from his New School preaching.
Critics who favor Calvinism tend to agree that there was a ‘hyper-Calvinistic’ problem at the time, but that Finney’s assaults against the problem went too far– attacking Calvinism in general.
Finney would not call himself an Arminian, however. In fact, he advocated preaching strongly on the doctrines of Election and Sovereignty to congregations that had put too much stress on ability and obligation. He was trying to wake up the church by preaching the doctrines they were neglecting: “If Election and Sovereignty are too much preached, there will be Antinomianism in the church, and sinners will hide themselves behind the delusion that they can do nothing. If, on the other hand, doctrines of ability and obligation be too prominent, they will produce Arminianism, and sinners will be blustering and self-confident.” According to Finney, “A right view of both classes of truths, Election and Free-agency, will do no hurt.” But according to some, Finney’s views were anything but right!
Finney’s views are targeted by one critic who maintained that he became licensed to preach under false pretenses. At his examination, the committee had asked him if he agreed with the Westminster Confession of Faith.Unprepared for such a question, he answered that he agreed with the substance of it as far as he understood it. But he had never actually read it, and later when he did read it, he realized that he disagreed with several points. He would go on to openly preach against its strong Calvinistic doctrines.
For this he is strongly rebuked: “he did not resign the commission he had received under false pretenses. Instead, he accepted the platform he had duped those men into giving him—then used it for the rest of his life to attack their doctrinal convictions.”
This criticism is deeply misleading. The question from the committee was actually a formality. Most of the elders present were already as loose as Finney in their Calvinism, including the Rev. Daniel Nash, who would later partner with Finney in his revival work. In his two years of study with Rev. Gale, there was discussion of its fundamental points, and Finney often argued against them.But he and Gale never focused on actually reading the larger Confession. Thus Finney was surprised when the question came up:
“Upon these points we had constant discussion, in some shape, during the whole course of my study. I do not recollect that Mr. Gale ever insisted that the Confession of faith taught these principles right out and out, as I afterwards learned that it did when I came to study it. I was not aware that the rules of the presbytery required them to ask a candidate if he accepted the Presbyterian Confession of faith. Hence I had never read it…”
Finney did not consider it a false pretense, believing he could agree with the substance of it in terms of common gospel points. And of course, the examination did not rest on this one question! He certainly did not dupe his examiners, as suggested. Even Rev. Gale would come to side with Finney later on in his own convictions.
Finney’s ministry was an immediate success. The initial opposition, however, was not aimed against his theology, but at his use of ‘New Measures’. These consisted of protracted meetings, which meant a series of meetings throughout the days of the revival; anxious meetings, where awakened sinners might receive personal instruction; women speaking and praying in worship; praying for specific individuals by name; and invitations to sinners to ‘submit to God’ and to prove it by standing up, kneeling down, or coming forward to the ‘anxious seat’.
His preaching was also a New Measure, as he spoke extemporaneously and in the common language of the people. He did not write out eloquent sermons beforehand, like most preachers of the day, and he often waited until he saw the condition of the congregation to receive his text from the Holy Spirit.But this should not be misunderstood as being unprepared. Finney was well versed in the Bible and was constantly in prayer.He would also gather people in every place he went, to pray for the conversion of sinners and the blessing of the Holy Spirit upon the work.
Iain Murray correctly notes that Finney was not actually the originator of the New Measures. These had been practiced earlier by the Methodists and were also being practiced by others in the Western New York area and beyond. But Finney’s popularity was gaining him ground as the representative proponent.
The issue was not so much the New Measures, but the abuse of them. There was great concern about the way measures stirred up emotions and excitement. Not that emotions and excitement were wrong in a revival, but they thought that they should only result from the powerful preaching of the truth. Rev. William Weeks wrote at that time, “We complain that the whole system of measures seems to be adapted to promote false conversions, to cherish false hopes, and propagate a false religion; and thus, ultimately, not only destroy the souls of those who are deceived by it, but to bring revivals, and experimental religion itself, into discredit.” But this seems to cast Finney in a light as if he solely relied on measures for the results. He was also known to preach powerfully, and he often testified to the necessary ‘means’ of the truth in converting sinners.
Based on largely false reports of fanaticism and objectionable conduct, two leading clergymen, Dr. Lyman Beecher in Boston and Mr. Asahel Nettleton in Connecticut, launched a great opposition campaign against Charles Finney. After much controversy, a convention was held in which Finney was found innocent. Later, Dr. Beecher would invite Finney to come to Boston, but Nettleton never accepted him. Nettleton disdained more than the New Measures. He disdained the New School theology.
To be sure, Mr. Finney’s theology frightened many. It is remarkable, though, that several instances are recorded in the Memoirs, of ministers who took a chance and invited him to preach. They ended up finding nothing objectionable. His own mentor, Rev. George Gale eventually sided with him theologically.
One prominent British theologian, Dr. George Redford, met with Finney and later said to a friend, “I see no reason for regarding Mr. Finney in any respect as unsound. He has his own way of stating theological propositions; but I cannot see that he differs on any essential point from us.” Later, when Redford had read Finney’s controversial work, Systematic Theology, he wished to speak to him about some questionable points. Dr. Charles Hodge had already written a critical review of the work. Finney handed Redford the replies he wrote in response to Hodge’s attack. It appears that Hodge never responded to them. But when Redford carefully read them through, he was “fully satisfied.” Later, a London minister, Dr. John Campbell who was previously a critic, reviewed the book and wrote, “On a careful examination of his views, it will be found that he does not differ so widely as might be supposed from the accredited Theology of England.” Finney lost more friends, however, in later years when he developed his ideas on Perfectionism.
Finney continued doing ministry up to the end of his life in 1875, including his labors at Oberlin College as Professor of Theology, and then as President in 1851. He never stopped conducting revivals, though, even during his Oberlin years. He was always in demand. He did slow down, however, as he got older.
His modern day opponents have given the impression that the revivals were mostly failures. Here is one example:
“Despite Finney’s accounts of glorious ‘revivals,’ most of the vast region of New England where he held his revival campaigns fell into a permanent spiritual coldness during Finney’s lifetime and more than a hundred years later still has not emerged from that malaise.
The Western half of New York became known as ‘the burnt-over district,’ because of the negative effects of the revivalist movement that culminated in Finney’s work there. These facts are often obscured in the popular lore about Finney. But even Finney himself spoke of ‘a burnt district’ [Memoirs, 78], and he lamented the absence of any lasting fruit from his evangelistic efforts.”
These are serious charges, and are once again misleading. Finney embarked on the writing of his Memoirs because of the insistence of friends (and his own desires) to set the matter straight concerning his revivals. Revivals had largely wore off toward the end of his career because of the opposition that had frightened many churches away from working with him.In his Memoirs, he purposely sets forth stories relating to well known events and people connected with the revivals, in order that they might be verifiable.He is in several spots inaccurate and sometimes in error, but a great bulk of his text has proven reliable. Editors Garth Rosell and Richard Dupuis have gone to great lengths to add historical footnotes in the Complete Restored Text edition (see below). While there are some reported successes that turned out to be failures in the end, the actual successes far outweigh them. Looking back over forty years, Finney recalled many who were still thriving spiritually from the revivals.
Now see how he is misrepresented: when Finney mentions the ‘burnt-district’, he is referring to a German village in Jefferson County that had previously suffered from an objectionable Methodist revival. He was able to overcome the opposition due to the earlier damage, and he succeeded in his labors. While he used the term, ‘burnt-district’ negatively, the actual term ‘burned-over district’ was made popular from a book by historian Whitney Cross. The term is used positively of the revival and reform movements in upstate New York and onward North. After noting Finney’s negative use of the term, Cross writes, “The history of the twenty-five years following Finney’s early campaigns suggests that the burning over process fertilized luxuriant new growths rather than merely destroying old ones.”
In some critiques, Oberlin President, Asa Mahan, and Finney himself, are quoted as presenting negative evidence of the revivals’ results. These, however, are taken out of context. Quotes from specific instances are made to look like general indictments upon his entire career.
Finney’s revival in Rochester, 1830, proved itself in the church membership statistics and the growing Temperance movement that grew out of it. In 1858 when Finney needed recommendation letters to preach in England, a pastor in Connecticut wrote his gratitude for the revival work in 1852. Several pastors from Rochester wrote that many of the leading citizens of the city were Finney converts and that the churches were strong. There is so much positive evidence that could be mentioned, but time and space do not permit.
Says another critic: “His doctrine of revival is unbiblical and, what is more, it does not work in practice. His book is a do-it-yourself revival kit in which he outlines the measures by which revival can be obtained.” He is referring to Lectures on Revival. The book was actually credited for a significant awakening in Wales in 1840. In 1845 a Congregational minister from Yorkshire wrote to him, saying, “Your works (especially that on Revivals) have had a vast influence upon all sections of the Christian church. You would perhaps meet with more condemnatory reviews than commendatory…Indeed there are very few who would sail in the same boat with Finney, but I am confident that book has made a broader and deeper impression upon the cause of Christ in these realms than any volume that has been published within the memory of man.”
The chief objection usually aimed at Lectures on Revival is that from the very first chapter it is asserted that a revival is not a miracle, but “the result of the right use of the appropriate means.” Many tend to get stuck here and take offense that Finney is suggesting that the result depends on man. And in fact he states it that way: “Religion is the work of man.” But this is not the whole idea, as it is often misrepresented. Read the rest:
“Religion is the work of man. It is something for man to do. It consists in obeying God. It is man’s duty. It is true, God induces him to do it. He influences him by his Spirit, because of his great wickedness and reluctance to obey.”
Thus in spite of its initial appearance,Finney is not suggesting that man takes the place of God and produces a revival whenever he wants. It is a question of obedience.
The whole idea of using appropriate means to promote a revival assumes that God governs His world through spiritual laws as well as physical. God answers prayer, and so prayer is a means that man is to use. God promises blessings upon repentance, and so confession of sin is a means. The humbling of ourselves is a means; and the faithful preaching of the Word is a means. Finney simply claimed that when we get right with God, God will bring the blessing:
“But means will not produce a revival, we all know, without the blessing of God. No more will grain, when it is sown, produce a crop without the blessing of God. It is impossible for us to say that there is not as direct an influence or agency from God, to produce a crop of grain, as there is to produce a revival. What are the laws of nature according to which it is supposed that grain yields a crop? They are nothing but the constituted manner of the operations of God. In the Bible, the Word of God is compared to grain, and preaching is compared to sowing the seed, and the results to the springing up and growth of the crop. A revival is naturally a result of the use of the appropriate means as a crop is of the use of its appropriate means.”
Surely the critic misunderstands when he warns, “Finney’s teaching on revival must be rejected because it seriously departs from the biblical emphasis.” Why reject aiming for a revival through prayer and the repentance? Why reject a hopeful dependence on God that He will bless obedience? If these are not certain to produce a revival, they are nonetheless good, whether the revival comes or not!
Perhaps the fear is in the use of measures, which is also advocated in the book. But Finney never relied solely on measures, as he is often caricatured. He himself warned against this when discussing the use of protracted meetings:
“Be watchful against placing dependence on a protracted meeting, as if that of itself would produce a revival. This is a point of great danger, and has always been so. This is the great reason why the Church in successive generations has always had to give up her measures—because Christians had come to rely on them for success.”
The critics who blame him for the methods used in evangelicalism today would actually find him voicing their very concerns: “Whenever the Churches get settled down into a form of doing things, they soon get to rely upon the outward doing of it, and so retain the form of religion while they lose the substance.” Thus Finney was not just novel in his ministry, he was spiritually sensitive as well.
What perhaps stands out most about his ministry is that he emphasized man’s responsibility in order to counteract the prevailing idea that man had nothing to do but remain passive. So Finney must be read in context, not just in context of what he taught, but in the context of the spiritual atmosphere of his time.
III. The theology of Charles Finney
Finney was a theological rebel. He would not subscribe to commonly held doctrines just because they were considered traditionally orthodox. He wanted to make sure that what he believed and taught was clearly revealed in the Bible. Yet while he believed that he was correcting errors in the church, his opponents declared that he was the one who was in error.
To be sure, many who read Finney will not agree with his theology. There are errors in his thinking just like most Christian thinkers in the church. St. Augustine himself wrote of purgatory and the veneration of Mary, yet he is not cast off as a heretic! This is not to condone error, but only to suggest we do not ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’.
And much of the bathwater may not be as bad as it seems. A friend wrote to Finney: “If there is anything on earth for which my heart pants it is the state of mind which you so often describe…But I do regret exceedingly that you have called it perfection.” Much of Finney’s theology is deplored because of the language he uses. His friend would have preferred terms more in line with those used by Jonathan Edwards, such as the assurance of faith or consecration to God. This is not to suggest that his theology was the same as Edwards’, but it does imply that he might have gained more acceptance if he had used different terminology.
By Entire Sanctification, Finney meant astate of faith and obedience in which believers live, “so that if they should sin it would be an inconsistency and exception, an individual case, in which they act contrary to the fixed and general purpose and tenor of their lives.” Inherent in this idea was that Christ died not just for our justification but for our sanctification as well.By faith, we are to trust in Him for both.
Entire Sanctification implies “the constant appropriation of Christ by faith as the sanctification of the soul.” Christ needs to be viewed in each of His relations- as Mighty God, as Redeemer, as Wisdom, as King, and so on.In any particular temptation, the believer needs to look to Christ in His particular relation to the present need. If we are confused, He must be our Wisdom. If we despair over sin, He must be viewed as our Advocate, or High Priest. “This view of Christ will enable the soul to commit all to Him in this relation, and maintain its peace and hold on to its steadfastness.” Through the Holy Spirit and dependence on Christ in each situation, the believer finds Christ Himself to be his sanctification (1Corinthians 1:30). It is not the believer’s work, it is Christ working through faith.
Finney never meant that a believer would not need to continually grow, or that temptations would not come, or that it was not possible to sin. But he did maintain that it was a Biblical injunction to strive for the utmost perfection.
Unfortunately, Perfection is not the only area of theology that critics take issue with Charles Finney. In ideas about the atonement and justification, he again uses language that can appear to be less than orthodox when taken out of context. In fact, he appears to be shocking when he is presented in different critiques. One writes, for example,
“Worse yet, Finney denied that a holy God would impute people’s sin to Christ or impute Christ’s righteousness to believers. Finney concluded that those doctrines–clearly taught in the third, fourth, and fifth chapters of Romans– was ‘theological fiction.’ In essence, he denied the core of evangelical theology.”
Who would not be angry over that?But when the actual context is understood, it is not un-evangelical. As a former lawyer, Finney was simply very adamant about technicalities.
To Finney, if our sin was literally imputed to Christ, and He paid our debt literally, we would be free to sin on a legal basis. Technically, the law could require nothing further from us. This would amount to Antinomianism. There would also be no grace in the extension of forgiveness from the cross, because it would solely be a matter of legal obligation. Therefore, instead of calling it ‘a payment of a debt,’ he called it a ‘satisfaction of public justice.’ He explains, “Under the government of God, the pardoned sinner is restored to the favor of God. He is brought back into a new relation, and stands before God and is treated by him, so far as the law is concerned, as if he were innocent. It does not suppose or declare him to be really innocent, but the pardon restores him to the same state as if he were.”
For the same reasons, righteousness, in his estimation, cannot be literally imputed to us. What he calls a ‘theological fiction’ is the actual mystical transference of Christ’s righteousness to believers. He could not see this without considering the legal implications allowing for lawlessness on the part of the believer. Yet stay with him in context and he reveals that we are still the benefactors of Christ’s righteousness: “All that are Christ’s children and belong to Him, are received for His sake, treated with favor, and the rewards of the righteous are bestowed upon them for His sake.” Christ’s “obedience is, under the covenant of grace, accounted to us. Not in the sense that on the footing of justice he obeyed ‘for us,’ and God accounts us just, because our substitute has obeyed; but that we are so interested in his obedience, that as a matter of grace, we are treated as if we had ourselves obeyed.” One can take issue with Finney’s technicalities, but ultimately this does not differ so far off the scale of evangelical Christianity as it is sometimes suggested. [Note: Finney’s confusion here resulted in a lot of legalism. See my article, Freedom in Christ.]
He does differ, however, from the traditional Augustinian view of total depravity. In this area, though, he is once again misrepresented: “Finney understood man’s ‘total depravity’ only as a voluntary condition.” Finney did deny that man’s depravity is a constitutional problem. It is not a problem of some mysterious element in our nature, it is a problem of the will. It is not a matter of a sinful nature, but of a sinful heart.It is a voluntary state.It comprises a spirit of self-seeking and a “voluntary committal of the will to self-gratification.” Yet by voluntary state he did not mean that one would choose good on his own.He insisted that man is guided by selfishness, and “unless the Holy Spirit interferes to shed light on the soul, the will, as might be expected, retains its hold on self-gratification.”
By emphasizing the guilt of the will he reveals the criminal element of sin, which is worthy of punishment by the law.But, he adds, there is no law against having a sinful nature. Sin is defined as actual transgression of the law. He objected to the doctrine of constitutional sinfulness, not because he saw good in man, but because it would signify calamity— not crime. If the sinful nature doctrine is true, man “is not to blame for being a sinner, any more than he is to blame for being a human being…If men are without excuse for sin, as the whole law and gospel assume and teach, it cannot possibly be that their nature is sinful, for a sinful nature would be the best of all excuses for sin.”
Ultimately, Finney was trying to do away with any excuse for disobedience. He was concerned that many took refuge under the notion of having a sinful nature and the fact that they ‘could not help it’. It would not be too much to claim that almost everything he preached and wrote aimed at pushing obedience. This is why he talks so much about voluntary choices and the will. To him it is very simple:man has the ability to obey God. God would not command man to do something that man was not able to do. It would be like commanding a man to jump up and fly, in spite of the fact that it is impossible, and then holding him responsible for his failure.
It is at this point that critics are quick to label Finney as a Pelagian. Pelagianism holds that man has the ability to obey God and that man is basically good. It should be clear that Finney did not believe that man is basically good. Pelagianism also denied any need for special grace or the work of the Holy Spirit. In writing on sanctification,Finney says, “We have seen that this obedience is not rendered independent of the grace of God, but is induced by the indwelling spirit of Christ received by faith, and reigning in the heart.” And again, “Sin, as a matter of fact, is never overcome by any man in his own strength.” He preached it as well: “When will you learn the first lesson in religion, that you have no help in yourselves without Christ, and that all your exertions without Christ, for sanctification, are just as fruitless as are those of the wretch who is in the horrible pit and miry clay, who is struggling to get himself out.”
See then how critics betray their lack of understanding when they write like this: “But as sin is thought to consist mainly of actions, Finney viewed repentance as a reformation of behavior only.”
Such a statement could not be further from the truth. Finney made it his prime objective in preaching to root out any and all false notions that right behavior itself was acceptable religion. His Lectures to Professing Christians is a prime example. A perusal of the lecture titles should be enough to prove this: ‘Self-Deceivers’; ‘False Professors’; ‘Legalistic Religion’; ‘True and False Repentance’; ‘True and False Conversions’; and ‘Necessity of Divine Teaching’, among others.
So although Finney loved to preach on Ezekiel 18:31, “Make yourselves a new heart,” and expressed in very strong terms that it was up to the sinner whether or not to be converted, that is not the entire Finney message. He did not believe that man could just simply decide to do the right thing and then be counted a Christian. He was adamant about the need for the Holy Spirit. He spoke often of grieving the Spirit, or of the Spirit departing.He knew no one would be converted without the Spirit. And he relied heavily on the Spirit, as can be seen in his multitude of praying and his teachings on prayer.
He is hard to nail down theologically. He would not rightly be called a Calvinist or an Arminian. He preached against both! And at different places he could sound like one or the other. His thinking was not totally original, but it was very independent.In his preface to the 1851 British edition of Systematic Theology, the Rev. George Redford said it best:
“Suspend your judgment of the Author and his theology until you have gone completely through his work.On many subjects, at the outset of the discussion, startling propositions may be found which will clash with your settled opinions; but if you will calmly and patiently await the Author’s explanation, and observe how he qualifies some strong or novel assertions, you will most probably find in the issue, that you have less reason than you supposed to object to his statements.”
1. The ministry and theology of Charles Finney has been largely misunderstood where it has not been correctly acknowledged.Concerning the revivals, Finney himself at times admits of error and lack of results. But this is in no way indicative of his career. Revivals throughout history have had problems more or less, and revivalists are human. However, any reader interested in revivals would find excitement and blessing in the reading of Finney’s Memoirs, if they would not be offended by his attacks on Calvinism.
Concerning his theology, he is Christian. But he can be confusing and hard to follow because of his idiosyncratic ideas. At the same time, his thinking is brilliant and will often challenge the considerate reader. He was very influenced by the thinking, though not the theology, of Jonathan Edwards. In some places he refutes Edwards, though everywhere he shows high regard for him.
2. Finney’s works contain little if any meditative thoughts on the Lord. He was certainly a devotional man, and devotion to the Lord fueled his writing, but it mostly comes out either as philosophical or practical in nature.He had but two sights in focus- conversion and obedience. There are no poetic heights in his works, like Edwards.
As his critics point out, he does at times sound harsh and even legalistic. Everything is black and white with him, and he does not see past his own logic. The reader who can endure the rough edges will enjoy how Finney states his cases. “I was bred a lawyer. I came right forth from a law office to the pulpit, and talked to the people as I would have talked to a jury.” This lawyer supplies much needed counsel and has important things to say to us, which perhaps is one reason there is so much opposition against him.
3. Ironically, Finney should be read as a remedy for the very problems in the church that he is accused of creating. He is, in fact, relentless and meticulous about exposing the forms and hollow state of evangelicalism. Lectures on Revivals should be required reading for all ministers. Not for the theology, but because it points out much that is taken for granted today that needs to be reformed.
4. Finney’s ideas on entire sanctification can be very helpful, if filtered through the lens of grace. They may not be agreeable to everyone’s tastes, but there is still much to be gleaned, whether or not all is accepted. What can be wrong with looking to Jesus in faith and learning how to trust in Him for our righteousness?
5. Finney’s theology is often labeled as man-centered theology. Many speak in our day of desiring a God-centered theology. I would suggest that the terms are nebulous. Theology is properly the study of God. It is by its very definition, God-centered. But branching out from God are his relations with His creation. In the study of these relations, some attention must be given to the role of His creatures as well as Himself. When any theologian begins to postulate the nature of man and his responsibility, he must of necessity focus on man. This does not mean that God is out of the picture, or that God is not of first importance. It simply means that man is in consideration, rather than, say, the attributes of God.
If Finney is labeled as ‘man-centered’ in the sense that he particularly emphasizes the man side of the ‘God and man’ relationship, it is a fair description. But if he is labeled as ‘man-centered’ in the sense that he places man before God or views man as the end of all things, it is patently false. He preached faith and obedience because he believed that God should have all of the believer, and that our lives should be unreservedly consecrated to Him.
6. Ultimately, Finney’s voice is a voice that should be given a fair hearing. His preaching and teaching, considered in a balanced manner, can yield valuable checks and balances to the way we are living our lives and conducting ministry. In an evangelical age of empty forms and parroted preaching, Finney is good to stir us up and drive us to our Bibles that we may think through our theology.
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