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The Legacy of Charles Finney

I still have yet to understand why so many leading evangelical pastors (Billy Graham and the late Jerry Falwell to name two) and others in the movement uphold this man as someone who championed the faith once for all delivered to the saints. If there is one person that can be blamed for so many of the current theological and ecclesiological problems we find in the evangelical movement (though there are many causes to be sure), it is Charles Finney. These articles deal with the content of what Finney taught and how it was anything but evangelical, in the historical, Gospel sense of the word.

After reading these, you will see a little bit clearer how much of his influence is still felt in the church today and how much damage it continues to cause. Even much of the pragmatic, mega, seeker movement in the church owes its pragmatic thought process about how to “get people in the door” to the teaching of Finney, which he himself rooted in the error of Pelgius, the fifth century heretic. Very insightful.

Here are some of Finney’s quotes taken from these articles. Some of them are just shocking:

“Whenever [a person] 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, Systematic Theology).”

“… full present obedience is a condition of justification. But again, to the question, 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 Surely he cannot, either upon legal or gospel principles, unless the law be repealed … But can he be pardoned and accepted, and justified, in the gospel sense, while sin, any degree of sin, remains in him?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, Ibid).

“Finney declares of the Reformation’s formula simul justus et peccator or ‘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'” (p.60, Ibid).

“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, Ibid)?

“The atonement would present to creatures the highest possible motives to virtue. Example is the highest moral influence that can be exerted … If the benevolence manifested in the atonement does not subdue the selfishness of sinners, their case is hopeless” (p.209, Ibid).

Penal substitutionary atonement “assumes that the atonement was a literal payment of a debt, which we have seen does not consist with the nature of the atonement … It is true, that the atonement, of itself, does not secure the salvation of any one” (p.217, Ibid).

“Throwing off Reformation orthodoxy, Finney argued strenuously against the belief that the new birth is a divine gift, insisting that ‘regeneration consists in the sinner changing his ultimate choice, intention, preference; or in changing from selfishness to love or benevolence,’ as moved by the moral influence of Christ’s moving example (p.224, Ibid). ‘Original sin, physical regeneration, and all their kindred and resulting dogmas, are alike subversive of the gospel, and repulsive to the human intelligence’ (p.236, Ibid).”

“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.” …

… “To this, Finney replies: ‘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.’ After all, Christ’s righteousness ‘could do no more than justify himself. It can never be imputed to us … it was naturally impossible, then, for him to obey in our behalf. ‘ This ‘representing of the atonement as the ground of the sinner’s justification has been a sad occasion of stumbling to many’ (pp.320-2, Ibid).

“We shall see that perseverance in obedience to the end of life is also a condition of justification. Some theologians have made justification a condition of sanctification, instead of making sanctification a condition of justification. But this we shall see is an erroneous view of the subject.” (pp.326-7, Ibid).

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3 Comments

  1. Robin Westerfield

    Based on those quotes, Finney’s jumbled theology sounds beyond wrong and evil to just plain lunacy. He denies justification by the atonement of Christ alone applied through faith to sinful men by the Holy Spirit? That’s a complete denial of the gospel. How could so many modern day evangelists and pastors such as Billy Graham uphold Finney? Guess ‘nailing it down’ by walking the aisle, ‘making a decision for Christ,’ and so on are appealing to the American free will spirit. It’s also a good deal for ‘preachers’ looking to grow their church (and incomes), not that it was true of Billy Graham. But a gospel that says the atonement earned by the Son of God can be gained or lost by the choice of man to stop sinning (or start up sinning again) is absurd and denies everything the Bible clearly says about justification by faith. What a mockery of the eternal Son of God who created the universe and will be worshiped forever in heaven for what He did at Calvary. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive honor, and power, and glory!”

  2. Norman

    Yet another truckload of bovine feces passing as “sound” teaching.
    And poor Robin Westerfield is utterly clueless in his impoverished evaluation. Typical Calvinist codswallop. Calvinists, always believing themselves to be the light and glory and the end-all interpreters of the Word, they have fallen miserably into self-righteousness and foolish doctrines, beyond belief.

    Calvinism is a plague on the church, and hyper-Calvinism is a doctrine of demons.
    It is astounding to see how blind and stupid people sucked into Calvinism can be, implacable, unteachable, always holier than thou and ever learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.

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