Monday, August 22, 2016

Thoughts on the theology of Charles Finney

AW Tozer refers to him approvingly time and again in his writings, for example:

“Many of the great evangelists who have touched the world for God, including such men as Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney, have declared that those who insist on Christianity being made 'too easy' are betraying the Church.” (link)

“They were rightly looked upon as leaders, but they were all servants of God, even as you and I are. Luther sowed. Wesley watered. Finney reaped-but they were only servants of the living God.” (link)

“God used Finney to get people thinking straight about religion. He may not have been correct in all his conclusions, but he did remove the doctrinal stalemates and start the people moving toward God. He placed before his hearers a moral either/or, so they could always know just where they stood. The inner confusion caused by hidden contradictions was absent from his preaching. We could use another Finney today.” (link)

That Tozer spoke so highly of Finney surprised me because of the accusations that often come from Calvinists and Arminians alike: that Finney was a “semi-pelagian” or worse. So I began to look into his writings.

In this post I will look at:

  1. Was Finney a "Semi-Pelagian"? Did he deny the need of prevenient grace?
  2. Did Finney deny imputed righteousness? Did he affirm it in any sense?
  3. Did Finney deny Justification by faith? Did he hold to justification by works?

Was Finney a "semi-Pelagian"? Did he deny the need of prevenient grace?

As a Calvinist, describing total depravity and the sin nature, we would use the illustration of a dog and a bone. We would say, “If you put a bone in front of a dog, the dog has the ability to refuse the bone but we all know he will gobble it up, because that is the dog’s nature. In the same way, we know that because of our sin nature, noone will ever believe the gospel unless the Holy Spirit first changes their nature.” (This is the distinction between natural ability vs moral ability).

Charles Finney has been accused of being a semi-pelagian, yet in his Systematic Theology, he seems to have something like the distinction in the above illustration in mind. Under the heading “To show that the doctrine of a gracious ability, as held by those who maintain it, is an absurdity” he begins:

The question is not whether, as a matter of fact, men ever do obey God without the gracious influence of the Holy Spirit. I hold that they do not. So the fact of the Holy Spirit's gracious influence being exerted in every case of human obedience, is not a question in debate between those who maintain, and those who deny the doctrine of gracious ability, in the sense above explained. The question in debate is not whether men do, in any case, use the powers of nature in the manner that God requires, without the gracious influence of the Holy Spirit, but whether they are naturally able so to use them. Is the fact that they never do so use them without a gracious divine influence, to be ascribed to absolute inability, or to the fact that, from the beginning, they universally and voluntarily consecrate their powers to the gratification of self, and that therefore they will not, unless they are divinely persuaded, by the gracious influence of the Holy Spirit, in any case turn and consecrate their powers to the service of God?

Finney explains that unless men are able to obey, they cannot be held accountable for disobeying, just as we could never be held accountable for failing to fly. On the other hand, he never says that man will obey apart from the influence of the Holy Spirit, but explicitly states that man will not. (I think this is similar, if not the same, as Jonathan Edwards distinction between moral inability and natural inability; see, for example, the last section of John Piper's article here under the heading "why this clarification matters").

Also keep in mind that Finney was Presbyterian, and writing against those who held to a determinism that said men must be regenerated before they could believe. He writes (bold mine):
When I entered the ministry, I found the persuasion of an absolute inability on the part of sinners to repent and believe the gospel almost universal. When I urged sinners and professors of religion to do their duty without delay, I frequently met with stern opposition from sinners, professors of religion, and ministers. They desired me to say to sinners, that they could not repent, and that they must wait God's time, that is, for God to help them. [...] The church was almost universally settled down in the belief of a physical moral depravity, and, of course, in a belief in the necessity of a physical regeneration, and also of course in the belief, that sinners must wait to be regenerated by divine power while they were passive.

Finney concludes the section:
Let it not be said then, that we deny the grace of the glorious gospel of the blessed God, nor that we deny the reality and necessity of the influences of the Holy Spirit to convert and sanctify the soul, nor that this influence is a gracious one; for all these we most strenuously maintain. But I maintain this upon the ground, that men are able to do their duty, and that the difficulty does not lie in a proper inability, but in a voluntary selfishness, in an unwillingness to obey the blessed gospel. I say again, that I reject the dogma of a gracious ability, as I understand its abettors to hold it, not because I deny, but solely because it denies the grace of the gospel. The denial of ability is really a denial of the possibility of grace in the affair of man's salvation. I admit the ability of man, and hold that he is able, but utterly unwilling, to obey God. Therefore I consistently hold, that all the influences exerted by God to make him willing, are of free grace abounding through Christ Jesus.

Moreover, his sermon “On Quenching the Spirit” shows how concerned he was with unbelievers resisting the Holy Spirit.  This, I think, explains why he sought to remove any obstacles to belief. As he writes, “The solemn truth is that the Spirit is most easily quenched. There is no moral work of His that cannot be resisted. An immense responsibility pertains to revivals. There is always fearful danger lest the Spirit should be resisted.

Persons often are not aware what is going on in their minds when they are quenching the Spirit of God. Duty is presented and pressed upon them, but they do not realize that this is really the work of the Spirit of God. They are not aware of the present voice of the Lord to their hearts, nor do they see that this solemn impression of the truth is nothing other than the effect of the Holy Ghost on their minds.

(One Arminian author writes that for Finney, “there is no enablement as in historic orthodoxy, but rather mere persuasion”, link, however if, as Finney held, noone will respond apart from this “persuasion”, then I am not sure what the distinction here is. Even Reformed Arminian author Dr Robert Picirilli talks about prevenient grace as “persuasion”, as does Arminius himself. Dr Picirili writes:
[T]he Word is the instrument, the means used by the Spirit as a basis for the conviction, the persuasion, the enabling.  This observation accords with the concept of the power of the Word of God spoken of everywhere in the Scriptures, as in Hebrews 4:12 for example.  Arminius’ view on this is clear when, speaking of the persuasion involved in this pre-regenerating grace, he says, "This is effected by the word of God. But persuasion is effected, externally by the preaching of the word, internally by the operation, or rather the co-operation, of the Holy Spirit, tending to this result, that the word may be understood and apprehended by true faith". [Grace, Faith, Free Will, page 158].)

Did Finney deny imputed righteousness? Did he affirm it in any sense?

Another accusation I have heard is that Finney denied imputed righteousness, and even accusations that he denied substitution! While he held to governmental theory of the atonement (as a side note, Roger Olson has noted that both John Piper and Jonathan Edwards also “highlight” the governmental “dimension of the atonement” throughout their writings, link), Finney does not deny substitution (governmental theory is a form of substitutionary theory, link and link), and while he does deny the traditional Reformed view of imputed righteousness, he admits, “there is a sense in which the righteousness of Christ may be said to be imputed to us”. Here is an excerpt from his sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:21, “Substitution:

We see in what sense the saints are saved by the righteousness of Christ. Much has always been said by Old School divines about imputation. I do not mean now just what they do by this term, but there is a sense in which the righteousness of Christ may be said to be imputed to us. I have already explained what this sense is. Jesus Christ was treated as if He were a sinner, that we for his sake might be treated as if we were righteous. He deserved no sufferings--we deserved them all. They were not endured for his sake, but for ours. He stood before God to be treated as sinful; we as a result, stand before God and are treated as righteous. As He represented the sins of a lost race, so we represent the righteousness of a spotless Savior.
7. Our own personal obedience has no part in the matter of our justification, not even any obedience rendered after conversion. After conversion we are pious and to some extent holy; but this is not taken into account as a ground of our justification.

(1.) Because when once condemned, no subsequent obedience can procure our acceptance on legal grounds. It is perfectly obvious that no obedience performed after sin and condemnation, can in any way atone for the previous sin.

(2.) Our obedience is not our own in such a sense that we can be justified by it according to law. It should be considered that our obedience after conversion is not under law--that is, not a system of mere law, but is under grace--it being all performed in consequence of Christ's gracious work within us, and not wrought out under purely legal influences. We are therefore not to suppose that we do not need Christ after once being converted and pardoned. No idea can be more false and ruinous than this. For the holiness of Christians after conversion is the result of Christ's Spirit working in them and is in this sense a gracious righteousness, and hence can never come into the account as if it were a legal righteousness, so as to justify men on merely legal grounds. We owe to the grace of Christ our entire salvation, and are to be rewarded, not for our own righteousness, but on the ground that we represent the righteousness of God.

8. We see how much we are indebted to Christ for our salvation. He has been set forth as a propitiation for sin, and in him an atonement was made. He stood in our stead where we must else have stood as condemned and quailing rebels; he suffered in his own person that awful manifestation of divine displeasure which would else have been made in our destruction in order to render it possible for God to be just to his government and good to all his subjects and yet pardon sinners. Christ has done all this for us, and now does it well become us to say--in the inmost soul--
"Had I ten thousand hearts to give,
Lord, they should all be Thine."
9. We can see how great the future glory of the saints must be. We have been looking at the great agony and grief endured by Jesus Christ. Look now in the other direction at the great glory resulting from our being made the righteousness of God in him.

Did Finney deny Justification by faith? Did he hold to justification by works?

Finally, I have also heard the accusation that Finney denied justification by faith.  As you can see from the quotes I have already provided, this is clearly not the case. But for greater certainty, in his sermon “Justification by faith”, Finney says:

When we say that men are justified by faith and holiness, we do not mean that they are accepted on the ground of law, but that they are treated as if they were righteous, on account of their faith and works of faith. This is the method which God takes, in justifying a sinner. Not that faith is the foundation of justification. The foundation is in Christ. But this is the manner in which sinners are pardoned, and accepted, and justified, that if they repent, believe, and become holy, their past sins shall be forgiven, for the sake of Christ.

Here it will be seen how justification under the gospel differs from justification under the law. Legal justification is a declaration of actual innocence and freedom from blame. Gospel justification is pardon and acceptance, as if he was righteous, but on other grounds than his own obedience. When the apostle says, "By deeds of law shall no flesh be justified," he uses justification as a lawyer, in a strictly legal sense. But when he speaks of justification by faith, he speaks not of legal justification, but of a person's being treated as if he were righteous.

Later he seems to teach that apostasy is impossible for a true believer:

Gospel justification differs from legal justification, in this respect: If the law justifies an individual, it holds no longer than he remains innocent. As soon as he transgresses once, his former justification is of no more avail. But when the gospel justifies a sinner, it is not so; but "if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." A new relation is now constituted, entirely peculiar. The sinner is now brought out from under the covenant of works, and placed under the covenant of grace. He no longer retains God's favor by the tenure of absolute and sinless obedience. If he sins, now, he is not thrust back again under the law, but receives the benefit of the new covenant. If he is justified by faith; and so made a child of God, he receives the treatment of a child, and is corrected, and chastised, and humbled, and brought back again. "The gifts and calling of God are without repentance." The meaning of that is not, that God calls and saves the sinner without his repenting, but that God never changes his mind when once he undertakes the salvation of a soul.

I know this is thought by some to be very dangerous doctrine, to teach that believers are perpetually justified--because, say they, it will embolden men to sin. Indeed! To tell a man that has truly repented of sin, and heartily renounced sin, and sincerely desires to be free from sin, that God will help him and certainly give him the victory over sin, will embolden him to commit sin! Strange logic that! If this doctrine emboldens any man to commit sin, it only shows that he never did repent; that he never hated sin, and never loved God for his own sake, but only feigned repentance, and if he loved God it was only a selfish love, because he thought God was going to do him a favor. If he truly hated sin, the consideration that notwithstanding all his unworthiness God had received him as a child, and would give him a child's treatment, is the very thing to break him down and melt his heart in the most godly sorrow. O, how often has the child of God, melted in adoring wonder at the goodness of God, in using means to bring him back, instead of sending him to hell, as he deserved! What consideration is calculated to bring him lower in the dust, than the thought that notwithstanding all God had done for him, and the gracious help God was always ready to afford him, he should wander away again when his name was written in the Lamb's book of life!

And still later, he answers the question, “When are men justified?”:

I answer--Just as soon as they believe in Christ, with the faith which worketh by love. Sinner, you need not go home from this meeting under the wrath of Almighty God. You may be justified here, on the spot, now, if you will only believe in Christ. Your pardon is ready, made out and sealed with the broad seal of Heaven; and the blank will be filled up, and the gracious pardon delivered, as soon as, by one act of faith, you receive Jesus Christ as he is offered in the gospel.

UPDATE: August 23, 2016 (10:15 AM):

I have come across one more piece which confirms that Finney held to perseverance of the saints and to the necessity of prevenient grace. In his 1851 Systematic Theology (the sermon I quoted above, “Justification by faith”, was from 1837), he actually sounds like a full Calvinist, except when he says “God calls effectually, but not irresistibly, before the sinner yields.” (Calvinists, of course, hold to irresistible grace, the “I” in TULIP).

Under the title “Perseverance of the Saints Proved” Finney writes (bold mine):

I would remark, that I have felt greater hesitancy in forming and expressing my views upon this, than upon almost any other question in theology. I have read whatever I could find upon both sides of this question, and have uniformly found myself dissatisfied with the arguments on both sides. After very full and repeated discussions, I feel better able to make up and express an opinion upon the subject than formerly. I have at some periods of my ministry been nearly on the point of coming to the conclusion that the doctrine is not true. But I could never find myself able to give a satisfactory reason for the rejection of the doctrine. Apparent facts that have come under my observation have sometimes led me seriously to doubt the soundness of the doctrine; but I cannot see, and the more I examine the more unable I find myself to see, how a denial of it can be reconciled with the scriptures.

    I shall give the substance of what I regard as the scripture proof of this doctrine, and beg the reader to make up his opinion for himself by a careful examination. Perhaps what has been satisfactory to my mind may not be so to the minds of others. Let no one believe this, or any other doctrine upon my authority, but "prove all things and hold fast that which is good."


  But the following considerations, taken together, seem to me to establish the truth of the doctrine in question beyond reasonable doubt.

    (1.) God has from eternity resolved upon the salvation of all the elect. This we have seen. No one of this number will ever be lost. These are given to Christ from eternity as a seed to serve him. The conversion, perseverance, and final salvation of the elect, we have seen to be secured. Their conversion, perseverance, and salvation, are secured by means of the grace of God in Christ Jesus, prevailing through the gospel, so to influence their free-will as to bring about this result. The instructions, promises, threatenings, warnings, expostulations of the Bible, with all the influences with which they are surrounded, are the instrumentalities by means of which the Holy Spirit converts, sanctifies, and saves them. At every step, as Fletcher acknowledges, "grace is beforehand with free-will." God first comes to, and moves upon, the sinner; but the sinner does not come to and move, or attempt to move God. God first draws, and the sinner yields. God calls, and the sinner answers. The sinner would never approach God, did not God draw him.

    Again: God calls effectually, but not irresistibly, before the sinner yields. He does not yield and answer to a slight call. Some indeed wait to be drawn harder, and to be called louder and longer than others; but no one, in fact, comes to God until effectually persuaded to do so; that is, until he is effectually hunted from his refuges of lies, and drawn with so great and powerful a drawing, as not to force, but to overcome, his reluctance or voluntary selfishness, and as to induce him to turn to God and to believe in Christ. That the sinner is wholly disinclined to obey, up to the very moment in which he is persuaded and induced to yield, there can be no doubt. His turning, as we have seen, is an act of his own, but he is induced to turn by the drawings of the Holy Spirit.

    Every person who was ever truly converted knows, that his conversion is not to be ascribed to himself, in any other sense, than that he finally consented, being drawn and persuaded by the Holy Spirit. The glory belongs to God, for the sinner only yielded after, perhaps, protracted resistance, and never until after he was so convinced as to have no further excuse or apology for sin, nor until the Spirit, by means of truth, and argument, and persuasion, fairly overcame him, and constrained, not forced him to submit. This is a brief statement of the facts connected with the conversion of every soul that was ever converted to God. This is true of the conversion of all the elect of God; and if others besides the elect are ever converted, this is a true account of their conversion.

    Again: the same is true of their perseverance in holiness, in every instance, and in every act. The saints persevere, not by virtue of a constitutional change, but alone by virtue, or as a result of the abiding and indwelling influence of the Holy Spirit. "Free grace is always beforehand with free-will;" that is, the will never obeys, in any instance, nor for one moment, except as it is persuaded to do so as really as at the first. The work begun by the Holy Spirit is not carried on, except as the same Spirit continues to work in the saints to will and to do of his good pleasure. Saints do not begin in the Spirit, and then become perfect through or by the flesh. There is no holy exercise that is not as really to be ascribed to the grace and to the influence of the Holy Spirit, as is conversion itself.

    The saints convert not themselves, in the sense that they turn or yield when drawn, until persuaded by the Holy Spirit. God converts them in the sense, that he effectually draws or persuades them. They turn themselves, in the sense that their turning is their own act. God turns them, in the sense that he induces or produces their turning. The same is true of their whole course of obedience in this life. The saints keep themselves, in the sense, that all obedience is their own; all their piety consists in their own voluntary obedience; but God keeps them, in the sense, that in every instance, and at every moment of obedience, he persuades, and enlightens, and draws them, insomuch, that he secures their voluntary obedience; that is, he draws and they follow. He persuades, and they yield to his persuasions. He works in them to will and to do, and they will and do. God always anticipates all their holy exercises, and persuades the saints to put them forth. This is so abundantly taught in the Bible, that to quote scripture to prove it would but waste your time. The saints are not only said to be converted, but also sanctified, and kept by the power of God.

    No saint then keeps himself, except in so far as he is kept by the grace, and Spirit, and power of God. There is therefore no hope for any saint, and no reason to calculate upon the salvation of any one, unless God prevails to keep him from falling away and perishing. All who ever are saved, or ever will be, are saved by and through free grace, prevailing over free will, that is, by free grace securing the voluntary concurrence of free will. This God does, and is sure to do, with all the elect. It was upon condition of the foreseen fact, that God could by the wisest administration of his government, secure this result, that they were elected to eternal salvation, through sanctification of the Spirit, and belief of the truth. Now observe how the elect are saved. All the threatenings, warnings, and teachings of the Bible are addressed to them, as to all others. If there are any saints, at any time, who are not of the elect, the Bible nowhere notices any such persons, or speaks of them, as any less or more secure than the elect.

Later still, consistant with 5-point Calvinism and contrary to Arminianism, Finney writes, "none but the elect are converted [...] and of course they were elected to salvation from eternity." And later, taking a Calvinist interpretation of John 6:

Here it appears that no one can come to Christ except he be drawn of the Father. Every one who is drawn by the Father with an effectual drawing, or every one who hears and learns of the Father comes to Christ, and no other. The Father draws none to Christ, but those whom he has given to Christ; for these, and these only, are the children of God. Isa. liv. 13: "And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children." From these passages it appears that none come to Christ but those who are drawn by the Father, and that none are drawn by the Father but those whom he has given to his Son, or the elect; and that of those who are thus drawn to Christ, it is the Father's will that he should lose none, but that he should raise them up at the last day; that is, that he should save them. But observe, it is my particular object just now to establish the fact, that none come to Christ but those who are of the number that are given to Christ, and also that every one who is given to him shall come to him. These, and these only, are effectually called or drawn of the Father. All are called in the sense of being earnestly and honestly invited, and all the divine persuasion addressed to them that can wisely be addressed to them. But others, besides those given to the Son, are not, as a matter of fact, persuaded and effectually drawn, in a sense that secures the "concurrence of free will with free grace."

And on John 10, “Here it is plainly implied, that all those were sheep who were given to him by the Father, and that all such would surely hear and know his voice and follow him, but those that were not of his sheep, or were not given him by the Father, would not believe. [...] those and those only come to Christ who are given to him of the Father, or are of the elect”, and on Romans 8:28, “All that love God, do so because they have been effectually called, according to the purpose or election of God. This passage seems to settle the question, especially when viewed in its connexion, that all who ever love God are of the elect, and that they are prevailed upon to love God in conformity with their election."

What do you think?  Have I misunderstood Finney on these points?

1 comment:

  1. I had the same conclusion you had after readind Finney's Systematic Theology. I really don't understand why he is called semypalagian. To me it's very clear that he believed in prevenient grace and total depravity. It's also clear his teaching about perseverance of saints. I think he is very misunderstood 'cause he has a very particular theological vocabular. He has his own way of express theological concepts.

    Douglas Barroso


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