Excerpt from The Legacy of Charles Finney:
[Charles] Finney is particularly esteemed among the leaders of the Christian Right and the Christian Left, and his imprint can be seen in movements that appear to be diverse, but in reality are merely heirs to Finney’s legacy. From the Vineyard movement and the church growth movement to the political and social crusades, televangelism, and the Promise-Keepers movement, as a former Wheaton College president rather glowingly cheered, “Finney lives on!”
That is because Finney’s moralistic impulse envisioned a church that was in large measure an agency of personal and social reform rather than the institution in which the means of grace, Word and Sacrament, are made available to believers who then take the Gospel to the world…
To demonstrate the debt of modern evangelicalism to Finney, we must first notice his theological departures. From these departures, Finney became the father of the antecedents to some of today’s greatest challenges within the evangelical churches themselves; namely, the church growth movement, Pentecostalism and political revivalism.
Who Is Finney?
Reacting against the pervasive Calvinism of the Great Awakening, the successors of that great movement of God’s Spirit turned from God to humans, from the preaching of objective content (namely, Christ and him crucified) to the emphasis on getting a person to “make a decision.”
Charles Finney (1792-1875) ministered in the wake of the “Second Awakening,” as it has been called. A Presbyterian lawyer, Finney one day experienced “a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost” which “like a wave of electricity going through and through me…seemed to come in waves of liquid love.” The next morning, he informed his first client of the day, “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause and I cannot plead yours.” Refusing to attend Princeton Seminary (or any seminary, for that matter), Finney began conducting revivals in upstate New York. One of his most popular sermons was, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.”…
What’s So Wrong With Finney’s Theology?
First, one need go no further than the table of contents of his Systematic Theology to learn that Finney’s entire theology revolved around human morality. Chapters one through five are on moral government, obligation, and the unity of moral action; chapters six and seven are “Obedience Entire,” as chapters eight through fourteen discuss attributes of love, selfishness, and virtues and vice in general. Not until the twenty-first chapter does one read anything that is especially Christian in its interest, on the atonement. This is followed by a discussion of regeneration, repentance, and faith. There is one chapter on justification followed by six on sanctification. In other words, Finney did not really write a Systematic Theology, but a collection of essays on ethics.
But that is not to say that Finney’s Systematic Theology does not contain some significant theological statements. First, in answer to the question, “Does a Christian cease to be a Christian, whenever he commits a sin?”, Finney answers:
Whenever he sins, he must, for the time being, cease to be holy. This is self-evident. Whenever he sins, he must be condemned; he must incur the penalty of the law of God…If it be said that the precept is still binding upon him, but that with respect to the Christian, the penalty is forever set aside, or abrogated, I reply, that to abrogate the penalty is to repeal the precept; for a precept without penalty is no law. It is only counsel or advice. The Christian, therefore, is justified no longer than he obeys, and must be condemned when he disobeys; or Antinomianism is true…In these respects, then, the sinning Christian and the unconverted sinner are upon precisely the same ground. (p. 46)
[The Doctrine of Original Sin] held by both Roman Catholics and Protestants, this biblical teaching insists that we are all born into this world inheriting Adam’s guilt and corruption. We are, therefore, in bondage to a sinful nature. As someone has said, “We sin because we’re sinners”: the condition of sin determines the acts of sin, rather than vice versa. But Finney followed Pelagius, the 5th-century heretic, who was condemned by more church councils than any other person in church history, in denying this doctrine.
Instead, Finney believed that human beings were capable of choosing whether they would be corrupt by nature or redeemed, referring to original sin as an “anti-scriptural and nonsensical dogma” (p. 179). In clear terms, Finney denied the notion that human beings possess a sinful nature (ibid.). Therefore, if Adam leads us into sin, not by our inheriting his guilt and corruption, but by following his poor example, this leads logically to the view of Christ, the Second Adam, as saving by example…
[On Atonement] the first thing we must note about the atonement, Finney says, is that Christ could not have died for anyone else’s sins than his own. His obedience to the law and his perfect righteousness were sufficient to save him, but could not legally be accepted on behalf of others. That Finney’s whole theology is driven by a passion for moral improvement is seen on this very point: “If he [Christ] had obeyed the Law as our substitute, then why should our own return to personal obedience be insisted upon as a sine qua non of our salvation?” (p. 206)…
[On Justification] the Protestant Reformers insisted, on the basis of clear biblical texts, that justification (in the Greek, “to declare righteous,” rather than “to make righteous”) was a forensic (i.e., “legal”) verdict. In other words, whereas Rome maintained that justification was a process of making a bad person better, the Reformers argued that it was a declaration or pronouncement that had someone else’s righteousness (i.e., Christ’s) as its basis. Therefore, it was a perfect, once-and-for-all verdict of right-standing at the beginning of the Christian life, not in the middle or at the end.
The key words in the evangelical doctrine are “forensic” (meaning “legal”) and “imputation” (crediting one’s account, as opposed to the idea of “infusion” of a righteousness within a person’s soul). Knowing all of this, Finney declares,
But for sinners to be forensically pronounced just, is impossible and absurd…As we shall see, there are many conditions, while there is but one ground, of the justification of sinners…As has already been said, there can be no justification in a legal or forensic sense, but upon the ground of universal, perfect, and uninterrupted obedience to law. This is of course denied by those who hold that gospel justification, or the justification of penitent sinners, is of the nature of a forensic or judicial justification. They hold to the legal maxim that what a man does by another he does by himself, and therefore the law regards Christ’s obedience as ours, on the ground that he obeyed for us…
[On salvation] it is upon Finney’s naturalistic moralism that the Christian political and social crusades build their faith in humanity and its resources in self-salvation. Sounding not a little like a deist, Finney declared, “There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. It consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that, and nothing else. When mankind becomes truly religious, they are not enabled to put forth exertions which they were unable before to put forth. They only exert powers which they had before, in a different way, and use them for the glory of God.” Thus, as the new birth is a natural phenomenon, so too a revival: “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.” The belief that the new birth and revival depend necessarily on divine activity is pernicious…
Thus, in Finney’s theology, God is not sovereign; man is not a sinner by nature; the atonement is not a true payment for sin; justification by imputation is insulting to reason and morality; the new birth is simply the effect of successful techniques, and revival is a natural result of clever campaigns. In his fresh introduction to the bicentennial edition ofFinney’s Systematic Theology, Harry Conn commends Finney’s pragmatism: “Many servants of our Lord should be diligently searching for a gospel that ‘works,’ and I am happy to state they can find it in this volume.” As Whitney R. Cross has carefully documented in The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Cornell University Press, 1950), the stretch of territory in which Finney’s revivals were most frequent was also the cradle of the perfectionistic cults that plagued that century. A gospel that “works” for zealous perfectionists one moment merely creates tomorrow’s disillusioned and spent super-saints.
This is an excerpt from an article The Legacy of Charles Finney by Michael Horton for Modern Reformation Magazine.