Two Articles for my local paper on Charles Finney

Charles Finney Part 1: Theology

Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) ministered at the end of the "Second Great Awakening," a revival that swept America. Finney came out of a Presbyterian background. As recounted in several of his sermons, Finney one day experienced a "baptism of the Holy Ghost… [that] seemed to come in waves of liquid love.” He began to conduct revivals. He preached revival sermons to many people in many different tent revivals.

No preacher from his time has had more influence on the modern evangelical church and its methods for evangelism. From mass evangelistic crusades to the church growth movement, Finney’s massive influence lives on.

But every preacher’s work flows from his view of theology, and Finney’s theology would not be recognized by most of the modern preachers who have followed his lead.

Finney denied that Christ died for our sins. He said, "The doctrine of imputed righteousness, or that Christ’s obedience to the law was accounted as our obedience, is founded on a most false and nonsensical assumption." Christ’s life and death "could do no more than justify himself. [It can never be imputed [or credited] to us ... it was naturally impossible, then, for him to obey in our behalf." Finney said that any theology which saw Christ as living and dying for us as “a sad occasion of stumbling to many." (pp.320-322)

Following the “moral government theory of the atonement,” Finney held that Christ died for something. Christ’s death was an example.

As a consequence of this line of thinking, Finney held that a true Christian could lose his salvation. "The Christian, therefore, is justified no longer than he obeys, and must be condemned when he disobeys (p. 46)." Elsewhere, “can man be justified while sin remains in him? Surely he cannot, either upon legal or gospel principles, unless the law be repealed ... But can he be pardoned and accepted, and justified, in the gospel sense, while sin, any degree of sin, remains in him? Certainly not" (p. 57).

If this is true than all Christians are in trouble. We know full well what the Bible teaches about morality. Even a cursory reading of Matthew Chapters Five through Seven can terrify any conscientious Christian. We follow the Christ who said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48).

How comforting for our often troubled souls that we can rest all of our hopes on Jesus Christ because God “hath … made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). All people who place their faith in him can know that “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). And that Christ “was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

The theology of Charles G. Finney ‘meets its match’ in the pages of Scripture. Next week we will look at Finney’s methods.


All quotes are from Charles G. Finney, Finney’s Systematic Theology (Bethany, 1976) as downloaded from http://www.mtio.com/articles/aissar81.htm.

Charles Finney Part 2: Pragmatism

Pragmatism is “action or policy dictated by consideration of the immediate practical consequences rather than by theory or dogma” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/pragmatism). Pragmatism is a distinctively American approach to life. “If it works, do it,” is arguably our philosophical motto. We admire the practical instead of the true, the useful teaching over the accurate theology. Charles G. Finney’s revival methods are the epitome of pragmatism.

As we discussed last week, Charles G. Finney lived from 1792 to1875 and ministered at the end of the revival called the "Second Great Awakening." No preacher from his time has had more influence on the modern evangelical church’s methods for evangelism. From mass evangelistic crusades to the invitation, Finney’s legacy continues to dominate our efforts in many ways.

Finney almost single-handedly changed the thinking of the church on revival from a movement of the Holy Spirit to an outworking of the right use of various techniques. Finney was clear:

“There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means—as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means. . . . A revival is as naturally a result of the use of means as a crop is of the use of its appropriate means" [Charles Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, n.d.), 4-5].

Evangelism was conducted in massive meeting often held in tents. Whereas the primary methods of evangelism in times past were personal and appealed to the intellect, Finney’s sermons were directed at vast crowds and full of emotional appeals.

The “anxious bench,” located in the front of the seating at his tent revivals, singled out notorious sinners from the community where their emotions were played upon in an attempt to turn them from their sinful ways. Many of the very same techniques are used in the invitations given at the end of sermons in our churches.

Gone are the days of Jonathan Edwards and the revival begun by his famous sermon. God is no longer the sovereign bringer of revival through His Holy Spirit; revival is the result of carefully laid out campaigns. Man is not a sinner by nature who is in need of rebirth, but a seeker after God who can be converted with successful techniques.

But how does Finney stand up against the Bible? Romans says, “there is none that seeketh after God” and that we “are together become unprofitable” (3:11-12). Ephesians says that Christians once “were dead in trespasses and sins” and therefore unable to contribute to their salvation (2:1). But we were not left to ourselves because “God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;).” (Ephesians 2:4-5).

The Bible sees men as sinners who need a mighty work of God to incline them to accept Christ. God saves sinners, not an evangelist’s technique or special appeal.

We saw last week that Finney’s teaching on Christ’s life and death were repudiated by Scripture. Now we see his pragmatic approach running into the same condemnation.

This is a relief if you think about it. We do not have to rely on our own craftiness. We are not under pressure to get everything just right. God saves sinners through us, even in spite of us. We share our faith as best we can, and we know that the Holy Spirit makes us successful.


Steve Martin said...

Nice one, J.K.!

It is amazing how many Chriatians hold Finney with such high regard, even as he was leading them to hell with his denial of the cross of Christ.


J. K. Jones said...

Thanks, Steve.

It is amazing, in a scary sort of way.


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