>Its very understandable that not everyone knows Charles Finney – he has been dead 135 yrs or so. Yet Finney may be one of the most important shapers of modern evangelicalism – and that ain’t a good thing. Finney was a minister, a president of a college, the ‘Father of Modern Revivalism’, one of the key leaders of the 2nd Great Awakening, and a heretic. Big time heretic – not to mention he was one ugly mug!
Finney is famous for implementing ‘new measures’ in his revival meeting. Some were as benign as public advertisement of revival meetings, others were more malignant, like the anxious bench and manipulative emotional preaching. As he understood it, revival was entirely mans work – God had nothing whatsoever to do with it. He writes, “There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. 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. . . . A revival is as naturally a result of the use of means as a crop is of the use of its appropriate means” [Charles Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion].
Such a view springs from Finney’s unbiblical and heretical denial of original sin – a heresy called Pelagianism, dating all the way back to 5th century. Pelagius “taught that people had the ability to fulfill the commands of God by exercising the freedom of human will apart from the grace of God. In other words, a person’s free will is totally capable of choosing God and/or to do good or bad without the aid of Divine intervention. Pelagianism teaches that man’s nature is basically good. Thus it denies original sin, the doctrine that we have inherited a sinful nature from Adam. He said that Adam only hurt himself when he fell and all of his descendents were not affected by Adam’s sin. Pelagius taught that a person is born with the same purity and moral abilities as Adam was when he was first made by God. He taught that people can choose God by the exercise of their free will and rational thought. God’s grace, then, is merely an aid to help individuals come to Him” [CARM article on Pelagianism]. Augustine opposed Pelagius and the heresy was condemned by several church councils (Councils of Carthage in 412, 416 and 418; Council of Ephesus in 431; The Council of Orange in 529) as well as Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic and Anglican Confessions of Faith.
Finney also maintained that justification required perfect obedience to the law. In this I agree. Thank God Christ obeyed for me and imputed his righteousness to me (and accepted the imputation of my debts to him). But Finney discarded imputation as patently false. He writes, “…[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.” According to Finney, Christ did not die for anyone, but only as an example for how to love and live (moral influence theory). According to Finney, “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.” Certainly Christ’s death does provide us an example and a stimulus to change – but from where will the power to change come from? Who will deliver us from our guilt and bondage to sin? Christians throughout the ages – Catholic, Protestant, Reformed, Arminian – have answered, “CHRIST – He will save us.” Finney (and Pelagius) answered, “We will save ourselves!”
Following on the heals of rejecting Christ’s righteousness for us, Finney continues to assert we must be perfectly righteous to be justified. He argues, “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.” Again, “… 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.”
I know most who celebrate Finney’s revivals would repudiate this theology of Christian perfectionism, Pelagianism and rejection of Christ’s substitutionary atonement. Yet many continue to make use of the methods he popularized – methods that rest on this heretical foundation. Why? Because the methods work – sort of. They produce numbers, though I doubt (and most historians doubt) they produced many real converts. Even Finney grew frustrated at the poor quality of his ‘converts’, and the districts he ran revivals in grew tired of his manipulative methods – that’s why western/upstate NY is referred to as the ‘burned over’ district. In the end, Finney’s theology and method have done more damage that all the pagan attacks on belief in God, liberal attacks on the Bible or postmodern attacks on truth. Let’s move on already.
Want to read more? Check out the article “The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney” by Michael Horton, the article “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” by Philip Johnson, or watch the 11 minute video by Pastor Mark Kielar of First Baptist of Boyton Beach below.