Charles Finney’s Defective Theology

Denying original sin, Finney asserted that we are only guilty and corrupt when we choose to sin, Christ’s work on the cross couldn’t have paid our debt but could only serve as a moral example and influence to persuade us to repent and be obedient. “If he 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?” So Finney goes on to write, “the atonement is simply an incentive to virtue,” rejecting the view that “the atonement is a literal payment of a debt” Finney can only concede it is “true that the atonement of itself does not secure the salvation of anyone.” Justification by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness Finney says, “is not only absurd, but undermines all motivation for personal holiness. The new birth is not a divine gift, but the result of a rational choice to turn from sin to obedience.” In fact, his most famous sermon was “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.” Christians can perfectly obey God in this life if they choose and only in this way are they justified. In fact, he adds, “Full present obedience is a condition of justification. No one can be justified while sin, any degree of sin, remains in him.”
Finney declared concerning the Reformation formula “simultaneously justified and sinful,” “this error has slain more souls I fear than all the Universalism that ever cursed the world. For whenever a Christian sins he comes under condemnation and must repent and do his first works or be lost. As I have already said,” he writes “there can be no justification in a legal or forensic sense but upon the ground of universal, perfect, and uninterrupted obedience to Law. The doctrine of an imputed righteousness or that Christ’s obedience to the Law was credited as our obedience is founded on a most false and nonsensical assumption. For Christ’s righteousness could do more than justify himself, it could never be imputed to us. It was naturally impossible, then, for him then to obey in our behalf. Representing the atonement as the ground of the sinner’s justification has been a sad occasion of stumbling for many.” Referring to the framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith and their view of an imputed righteousness Finney writes, “If this is not antinomianism then I don’t know what is.”
Folks, this is exactly the heresy that we have identified from the church councils of the fifth and sixth centuries. It is remarkable that the catholic church in fifth and sixth centuries recognized these very positions as outside the bounds of the Christian faith, while Billy Graham can say of Charles Finney that he was the greatest evangelist since the Apostle Paul. And this is a concern that is hardly limited to a few grumpy Calvinists and Lutherans. “Self salvation is the goal of much of our preaching,” complains United Methodist Bishop William Willimon and he says in this respect, “we are heirs of Charles G. Finney who thought that conversion was not a miracle, but a purely philosophical result of the right use of constituted means.

Michael Horton, White Horse Inn

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2 Responses to “Charles Finney’s Defective Theology”

  1. Daniel J. Dick Says:

    I don’t think you are quoting or representing Finney’s words with utmost honesty. I think you are right in saying he denied the concept of “original sin”. Although may pound the pulpet and put a “thus saith the Lord” behind original sin, others regard it as a bunch of nonsense from Augustine and Calvin, and then both sides begin to misquote and misrepresent and call each other heretics. Some even brand Finney a Pelagian totally ignorant that some of the assumptions of heresy ascribed to Pelagius was not even something Pelagius either believed or stated.

    For example, Pelagius maintained to incur guilt one had to do so by choice. Then from think air people contort, twist and extrapolate a heresey out of it falsely accusing Pelagius of claiming that one could be saved by his or her own strength or power or ability without the blood of Jesus to pay for our sins. Bloody stupid liars! If Pelagius did not say it, then Pelagius did not say it. Period.

    But, why all this lying? Why all this false accusing? Because the opponents of Finney and Pelagius knew if they were to speak truthfully regarding their arguments, they would be unable to oppose their arguments scripturally. It is easier to lie about them and claim they are teaching that which they never taught and accuse them of heresy and turn off people’s ears to what they have to say. Because if you can keep the people ignorant and dependent upon a few religious leaders then you can rule them just as any other cult leader would.

    Think about it this way. What would you say of a man who threw his dog into the fire for failing to obey him when he told his dog to recite Chaucer and solve advanced calculus problems? Wouldn’t this man be a stupid tyrant, unreasonable, cruel, and perhaps insane? But, what happens when you create a god after some crazy system of belief who demands that people refrain from sin, who promises them his grace is sufficient, and demands people repent of sin under penalty of eternal hellfire, and then it turns out people cannot because they are unable? Would this not make God out to be a liar? Or would it make Him inept and negligent in providing grace that was sufficient?

    No. That self-contradictory stupidity is nothing but heresy, and it is no big surprise that those who follow it must maintain it through mandated ignorance and bullying and accusations of heresy because if anyone set their minds to work on this issue with integrity and review it with scripture in prayer, their views would come completely clean of any contortions that either Augustine or Calvin would have brought to this teaching on forgiveness, grace, atonement.

    No. Pelagius did not teach a person could save himself without the grace of God. Neither did either Pelagius or Finney teach that there are some people who have not sinned and fall short of the glory of God. What they did teach was that when we sinned, and we all did sin, when we sinned, we always did it by choice. Which means God was not lying when He said we were guilty. Nor was He mistaken. Nor did He fail to overlook anyone in particular. But, we all did it by choice. Nobody made is sin. Nobody forced us. We cannot point to Adam and Eve and claim they passed down their sin genes through the generations down to us. What we find the Bible teaching us is that thorugh one man sin came into the world. But, how can anyone say that sin might just as easily have come into the world through any of us? It did. It’s just Adam and Eve got there first, but they’re no different than us. They passed a bad influence down the generations and to others around them, and so did we. So, the teaching of original sin is a concoction of man and a twisting and contorting of scripture.

    If a giant brute took your hand and forced a knife into it and wrapped his hand around yours and thrust it against your will into the heart of another person, how would you argue your case if you were brought to court for murder? Wouldn’t you claim it was not your fault? Would you claim you were forced against your will, that you had no choice in the matter? Would you say you were unwilling and fought with all your might to resist the murder but were unable? Would you consder the judge reasonable if he were to admit and agree you were unable, that you were forced against your will, but that you still must go to the gallows and hang for your crime?

    Guilt, to be real, must always be chosen, and a judge is a liar who claims guilt knowingly where there is no choice or ability to choose. Even a child knows this. Listen to how they argue when accused of wrong doing. They say things like, “It’s not my fault. It was an accident. Johnny made me do it.” It is a concept so simple and true even a child naturally sees it. It is written into our hearts from birth. We live by it every day. Why do things have to change magically once the spirit of “religion” comes around?

    Before a person can repent, he must admit guilt and culpability. He must confess he was free to choose but chose wrong. He must take responsiblity for the wrong choice and intend not to do it again. If he is unable to avoid doing it, then it would be impossible for him to intend to do it and therefore impossible to repent. We can only repent of things we can choose to do or choose not to do. We cannot repent of something that is forced against our will because someone may very well force it again and we may very well be unable to stop it. Therefore we cannot promise not to do it again with any sincerity. Any such repentance or promise would be a lie, and God cannot honor that or reward it with forgiveness and salvation. Nor can He make our salvation depend on our willingness to tell those kinds of lies in false repentance.

    God is a very real God, a very truthful God, a very holy and honorable and reasonable and fair and righteous and merciful and loving and just God. This fact should strike terror into the hearts and minds of all sinners but it should be a great source of comfort to those who have truly repented of all sin.

  2. soulangler Says:

    You comment made very interesting reading. However:

    Pelagianism is a heresy – that’s a mere historical fact.

    Condemned by:
    • Councils of Carthage (412, 416 and 418)
    • Council of Ephesus (431)
    • The Council of Orange (529)
    • Council of Trent (1546) Roman Catholic
    • 2nd Helvetic (1561/66) 8-9. (Swiss-German Reformed)
    • Augsburg Confession (1530) Art. 9, 18 (Lutheran)
    • Gallican Confession (1559) Art. 10 (French Reformed)
    • Belgic Confession (1561) Art. 15 (Lowlands, French/Dutch/German Reformed)
    • The Anglican Articles (1571), 9. (English)
    • Canons of Dort (1618-9), 3/4.2 (Dutch/German/French Reformed).

    Any, or all of these could be wrong of course. But the Scripture condemns Pelagius too.

    I wonder, when Paul asks, ‘Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?’ (Rom.7:24) whether Pelagius and his modern-day proponents will answer, ‘Me, myself without the aid of the Spirit of God.’ Unless they believe the Spirit is at work in unbelievers who hate and reject God and are ‘by nature children of wrath (Eph.2:3)

    How, I wonder, does the Pelagian raises himself from death without God’s power, since he, like all, are born ‘dead in trespasses and sins.’ (Eph. 2:1) How did he do it? He must be a miracle worker!

    If Adam’s sin is just a bad example, then how can our sinning be ‘not like the transgression of Adam’ (Rom. 5:12) – surely it must be just the same in kind?

    If Adam’s sin is not unique, merely prior, then how did sin come into the world uniquely through him? (Rom. 5:12) Can we all chase sin out of the world now?

    How can Adam be just like all the rest of us if his ‘trespass led to condemnation for all men’? (Rom 5:18)

    No wonder Calvin, Augustine and so many more saw/see it in Scripture – I mean where else did they get the idea from? I notice from your comment there is something missing: Scriptural authority. Has Pelagius got a SINGLE Scripture teaching to prove the falsehood of original sin (i.e. man’s inability and unwillingness to turn, unaided by God’s Spirit, to Christ in saving faith)?

    I look forward to your reply, amicably yours…

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