Charles Finney

Friend of Foe?

Charles Finney photoThe most successful advocate of Arminianism in America was not Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), but Charles Finney (1792-1875). Because The Works of Arminius (Baker Book House, reprinted 1996) are highly intellectual and academic — bordering on the arcane, few people have (or will) read them. Arminius, a young boy when Calvin died, was concerned about the division in the Church brought about by the Protestant Reformation. He proposed to mend the theological breach between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation by correcting several perceived errors in Calvin’s theology. Positively stated, he attempted to reassert Catholic theology into Protestantism. His purpose was to bring Protestants back to what he thought to be a true belief — a catholicity held previously by the Roman See. He thought Protestantism to be in error, and hoped to help correct it. However, he succeeded most in further fracturing an already fractured church.

Charles Finney began working in a law office in Adams, New York, and after limited formal education was later admitted to the bar. He began to attend religious services conducted by a Presbyterian friend, George Gale, who then discipled Finney in Reformed Presbyterian doctrine. At first Finney bristled at Presbyterian dogma, but after studying the Bible himself he was converted in 1821. Turning from his work in law, he began to preach, and received Presbyterian ordination in 1824 without having attended seminary or having any formal theological training. His ordination, of course, required full assent to all the doctrines of Reformed theology.

The Great Awakening of the 1740s had stimulated several variant styles of revival, among them was what became known as New Lightism. The driving forces of New Lightism were several New England Congregational preachers who supported the Great Awakening and its apparent emphasis upon an instantaneous or sudden conversion experience that included highly emotional and mystical elements. Many Congregationalists were moderates in this regard. Some people include Jonathan Edwards among the moderates.

Other of these New Lights became radical separatists and were vehemently critical of the established churches. They assumed that the Reformed Calvinist beliefs of the established churches had caused them to become highly ineffective, even dead to the Word of God. These same preachers were adamant about the absolute separation between church and state. The New Lights employed New Measures in their revivals, measures that sparked a great controversy among Congregationalists.(See Asahel Nettleton: Life and Labors, by Bennet Tyler & Andrew Bonar, Banner of Truth, reprint 1996. Nettleton, another Congregational minister, was one of Finney’s most adamant opponents.)

From every indication it appears that Finney came in contact with the New Lights, and adopted much of their theology into his own. However, the theology of the New Lights was opposed to the theology of his Reformed Presbyterian ordination at every point. After struggling with various theological issues and with his Presbytery, Finney fled to Congregationalism. And it was as a Congregationalist that Finney accomplished his most influential work.

In 1835 Finney became professor of theology at Oberlin College, Ohio, at that time a new Congregational college. Associated with that school for the rest of his life, Finney served as its president from 1851-1866. There Finney taught and refined his theology.

Finney’s theology is difficult to categorize because it does not fit the normative patterns of theology. It is organized and presented much more like a work in philosophy than theology, with a significant emphasis upon morality. Trained as a lawyer, Finney was a practical tactician whose work in the application of revival techniques is practically unrivaled, and widely praised.

However, from an evangelical perspective Charles Finney said some rather disturbing theological things. Without a doubt Finney’s aim was to overturn the established doctrines of Reformed theology. His teaching and practice went against them at every point.

The preeminent doctrine upon which the Protestant Reformation stands or falls, said Luther, is the doctrine of justification by faith alone, sometimes called salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. These Reformed “solas” (Latin meaning alone) — Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Soli Deo Gloria — became the rallying cry of the Reformation, and shaped the very heart of Protestantism. As such, we will look at what Charles Finney said about the doctrine of justification.

To understand Finney’s doctrine of justification we must understand the framework for moral government that he posited, not political government but theological government. He was concerned about how God was able to govern the world and at the same time preserve human morality. He understood morality to require human freedom. Without a free will, he posited, men cannot be moral. This idea, however, originates in moral philosophy, not in the Bible.

Finney learned from his studies in law that governors can issue pardons, but judges cannot. Judges, on the other hand, may acquit, but not pardon. The differences have to do with guilt and pardon. A governor’s pardon acknowledges the guilt, but cancels the punishment even though the charge remains. Whereas the judge’s acquittal alone eliminates the guilt because it nullifies the charge against the defendant. Thus, Finney’s concept of justification involved a pardon but not an acquittal; it was not forensic — meaning: not in the domain of the law or of a judge.

Finney taught that God acts as a governor rather than a judge when He pardons sin. The theological difficulty with Finney’s doctrine of justification is that both the guilt and the charge of sin remain, while the punishment alone is abated. Thus, forgiven sinners are understood to continue life on a kind of probation that has been granted for good behavior. This probation is understood as God’s grace. However, every new sin then requires a fresh justification (pardon), and places the Christian under the constant threat of condemnation for unforgiven or ongoing sin. Finney understood that God dangled that threat over the heads of sinners as a motivation for good behavior. Finney’s concept of justification then requires ongoing and strict obedience to God.

However, this understanding of justification belongs to Rome. If it is true, the whole of the Protestant Reformation has been for naught! Could it be that Finney’s theology, which comes part and parcel with the practice of his revival techniques, has served to undermine Protestantism itself? Exactly what did Finney say? He begins a lecture on justification by telling us “what gospel justification is not.”

Gospel justification is the justification of sinners; it is, therefore, naturally impossible, and a most palpable contradiction, to affirm that the justification of a sinner, or of one who has violated the law, is a forensic or judicial justification. …sinners to be forensically pronounced just, is impossible and absurd.

I find it important to distinguish between the ground and conditions of justification and to regard the atonement and work of Christ not as a ground, but only as a condition of gospel justification. — Finney’s Systematic Theology, Expanded Edition, Bethany House Publishers, reprint 1994, p. 360.

Here Finney said that Christ did not secure salvation for anyone in particular, but only met a general condition for a potential salvation that would be offered to all, but which required sinners to meet certain conditions before it would take effect. In other words, each sinner must secure his own salvation from his own resources, from his own decision, commitment, etc.

Finney said that “repentance is also a condition of our justification” (p. 366), which means that God’s justification of sinners is conditioned upon their repentance, that it depends upon the right behavior of the sinner, which in turn means that sinners cannot be saved until they prove themselves worthy. He continues, “It is self-evident that, until the sinner breaks off from sins by repentance or turning to God, he cannot be justified in any sense” (p. 366).

However, this completely overturns the heart of Protestant theology. The Protestant Reformers said that it is the power of God alone that enables sinners to turn from their sin, and that power is given as a gift of grace. The Reformers maintain that it is God’s commitment to his people that guarantees salvation, not the commitment of individuals to God. God’s commitment is strong and able, while man’s is weak and unable.

Finney expands his thinking by saying that “faith in Christ is, in the same sense, another condition of justification” and even “that perseverance in obedience to the end of life is also a condition of justification” (p. 366). Where the Reformers said that people were saved by the faithfulness of Christ, Finney said that people were saved by their own faithfulness in Christ. Where the Reformers said that Christians could persevere in faithfulness because of Christ’s strength, Finney said that their perseverance depended upon their own strength. The Reformers said that Christians are faithful because of their justification, Finney said that they are justified because of their faithfulness. Again, the difference is the classic distinction between the Protestant understanding of justification and the Roman Catholic understanding.

Finney believed that sinners must put an end to their sinfulness before they can be justified. “It certainly cannot be true, that God accepts and justifies the sinner in his sins.” He continues to argue “that present, full, and entire consecration of heart and life to God and His service, is an unalterable condition of present pardon of past sin, and of present acceptance with God” and “that the penitent soul remains justified no longer than this full-hearted consecration continues” (p. 368).

In addition, Finney taught that preachers should focus on the interior decision of sinners, but never mentioned that they should preach about the action of God in Christ at the cross. “A prime object with the preacher must be to make present obligation felt. …Sinners ought to be made to feel that they have something to do… Religion is something to do, not something to wait for… A change of heart is the sinner’s own act” (from Revivals of Religion, Moody Press, 1962, as quoted in Reformation & Revival Journal, Vol. 6, No. 4, 1997, p. 123).

It cannot be clearer that Finney believed that the justification of sinners is conditioned upon their own beliefs and actions, and that the maintenance of that justification is in their own hands. According to Finney salvation depends upon the mindset and actions of individuals. Salvation is understood by Finney to be a possibility whose actuality depends upon the individual, rather than a certainty that has been initiated and completely satisfied by Christ on the cross. Finney himself understood that the classical Reformed Protestant understanding of salvation was other than what he taught, that Reformed Protestant theology “is certainly another gospel from the one I am inculcating” (p. 369).

Taking specific aim against the Westminster Confession, to which he had sworn allegiance at his ordination — and therefore against the Savoy Declaration of the Congregational churches, Finney argued that justification “is not founded in Christ’s literally suffering the exact penalty of the law for (sinners), and in this sense literally purchasing their justification and eternal salvation.” Appealing to the natural understanding of man he suggests that justification cannot proceed “on the ground that Christ has fully and literally paid your debt. To represent the work and death of Christ as the ground of justification in this sense, is a snare and stumbling-block” (p. 373).

Pointing out the capstone of his argument he said, “Neither is the atonement, nor anything in the mediatorial work of Christ, the foundation of our justification” (p. 375). Again and again he takes up the Roman Catholic/Arminian argument against the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone of the Reformers. Agreement with Finney regarding justification amounts to the nullification of the Protestant Reformation.

But, you might say, Finney offers so many useful and practical means for bringing about revival. Indeed, Finney’s revival measures have proven to be very effective in bringing many people to commit themselves to Christ. However, where the basis of their commitment is grounded in Finney’s understanding of justification — the heart of Finney’s theology, it is not compatible with historic Protestantism. It is a commitment to a person’s own ability to become and remain faithful to the demands of Christ. It is a noble sentiment, but a folly proven by Scripture itself.

The Pharisees and Sadducees, maintained a similar commitment to the Old Testament law, but their commitment to such personal holiness based upon obedience to God only served to harden their hearts against the gospel of Christ. They were unable to achieve or sustain the righteousness demanded by God, and their failure led to the destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem, and the whole of the Old Testament enterprise of personal righteousness through obedience and ceremonial sacrifice.

Nonetheless Finney’s immediate success at bringing many people to revival services and into church membership grew and spread into many, many Congregational churches and others. Finney appealed to the immediate and measurable success in what we have come to know as “church growth techniques.” But the growth that he brought into the Protestant churches was, at its heart, utterly opposed to historic Reformed Protestantism. Is it any wonder that over the years since Finney there has been increasing conflict, disarray, and dissent within and among modern Protestant churches?


“Finney was known for his innovations in preaching and conducting religious meetings, such as allowing women to pray in public and the development of the “anxious bench,” a place where those considering becoming Christians could come to receive prayer. Finney was also known for his use of extemporaneous preaching.

In addition to being a successful Christian evangelist, Finney was involved with the abolitionist movement and frequently denounced slavery from the pulpit. Beginning in the 1830s, he denied communion to slaveholders in his churches. He is also claimed as a former Freemason[2], though there is little evidence to support this.

In 1835, he moved to Ohio where he would become a professor, and later President of Oberlin College from 1851 – 1866. Oberlin was a major cultivation ground for the early movement to end slavery. Oberlin was also the first American college to allow blacks and women into the same classrooms as white men.” — Wikipedia

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

How Charles Finney’s Theology Ravaged the Evangelical Movement by Phillip R. Johnson.

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