Charles Finney is hailed as an evangelistic hero by many in American Christendom today. Calvary Chapel, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jim Cymbala, Vineyard, Promise Keepers, and many others see the results of Finney’s early 19th century revivals as a story of Gospel success. I respect many of these people, but must disagree with their assessment of Finney due to his heretical beliefs which when compared to Scripture, fall short of God’s standard for evangelism and solid doctrine.
Last week I made reference to Finney and noted that He was not a model for our faith and practice. This addendum today will present just a few of his theological issues. Feel free to read it at your own leisure as this is not today’s devotional.
History: Charles Finney was born in Connecticut in 1792 and died in Ohio in 1875. He never attended college or seminary, but was trained to be a Presbyterian minister. His revival ministry spanned 1825-1835 until Daniel Nash, his prayer partner, died. Then he moved to Ohio to become president of Oberlin College.
While raised a Baptist, he became a Presbyterian later in life. Keep in mind, this was when most Presbyterians were dead-on theologically for the core beliefs. Princeton, the Presbyterian University, was at this time a bastion of biblical teaching and truth. Many great scholars such as Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield taught at Princeton. However, Finney rejected orthodox Presbyterian theology for Arminianistic, man-centered heresies that later influenced America in too many ways to discuss here.
Theological Problems: Some of his heresies and false beliefs included:
- Perfectionism wherein a Christian can and needs to become perfect in his lifetime. God is an assistant at best in this endeavor, but nonetheless, a Christian can do it if he so chooses.
- His plus Methodist theology influenced the holiness movement which emphasized high moral living upon all society (Prohibition is one example of this influence).
- A Christian ceases to be a Christian when he sins, and at that point must receive God’s penalty and is no longer justified: “In these respects, then, the sinning Christian and the unconverted sinner are upon precisely the same ground.”
- Note, Finney doesn’t go so far as to say the sinning Christian would lose his salvation, but he sure does come close.
- He believed that a sinning Christian is no longer justified: “But again, to the question, can man be justified while sin remains in him?… But can he be pardoned, and accepted, and justified, in the gospel sense, while sin, any degree of sin, remains in him? Certainly not”.
- Finney denied the doctrine of original sin (which is held both by Roman Catholics and Protestants). Thus, he did not believe we were born inheriting Adam’s sin. He, instead held to Pelagianism’s heresy of denying this doctrine (remember, Pelagius was a 5th-century heretic who later influenced Arminius and his heresy).
- He denied the substitutionary atonement, essentially believing that “Christ could not have died for anyone else’s sins than his own.”
- He stated: “It is true, that the atonement, of itself, does not secure the salvation of any one”.
- He denied that redemption was an act of grace, and instead insisted that, “regeneration consists in the sinner changing his ultimate choice, intention, preference; or in changing from selfishness to love or benevolence”.
- Further, he states, “Original sin, physical regeneration, and all their kindred and resulting dogmas, are alike subversive of the gospel, and repulsive to the human intelligence”.
- Finney denied the doctrine of imputation which states that Jesus gave us His righteousness. Of this Finney stated, “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.”
- Finney believed 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”.
- However, II. Corinthians 5:21 says Christ became sin for us so that we could be made righteous in Him, thus refuting Finney’s error.
And, one of the areas where his doctrinal beliefs heavily influenced the American landscape was through his Pelagian-oriented revivals that believed man’s will is what saved him rather than God’s sovereignty. Remember, up until this time the predominant Christian work throughout Europe and America was founded on Reformed doctrines that were in stark contrast to Roman Catholic doctrines. The excessive missionary work of the Reformers and Puritans spread heavily. And, most of the Baptist churches in America were Reformed in their doctrine in the early days (the Particular Baptists, as an example). The overarching emphasis of Reformed doctrine is God, His glory, His sovereignty. The overarching emphasis of Pelagianism and to some degree, Arminianism, is that man chooses God, chooses righteousness, and in many ways handcuffs God’s sovereignty because man has a foot in the sovereignty game.
However, two major issues eventually created a spiritual and biblically-centered void in America, or at least set the stage for future deviations:
- The rejection of Charles Spurgeon’s writings (such as the Sword & Trowel) which were exceptionally popular in the 19thCentury South until Spurgeon wrote against slavery. Charles Spurgeon, the English Reformed Baptist, is known as the “Prince of Preachers” and was exceptionally burdened for the lost and for solid theology.
- We see changes to the theology of the South even by the time Southern Baptist Theological Seminary moved to Kentucky in 1877. Its 1858 Abstract of Principles (doctrinal position) reflect earlier 19thcentury Baptist Reformed theology, but Arminian theology would virtually replace most Baptist theology in America by the 20th
- And Charles Finney’s revivals throughout mostly New York which emphasized man’s will in salvation practically to the exclusion of the work of God.
- Oddly enough, anywhere Finney went the “success” and longevity of emotionally-driven conversions would end quickly thereafter. Finney himself lamented that the areas where he held his revivals did not remain Christian. Western New York became known as the Burnt-Out District because of the significant vacuum left. An excessive number of cults and occultic practices filled in the gap, from Adventism (including Jehovah’s Witnesses), Mormonism (from just east of Rochester), religious communes (Oneida, for example), seances and communing with the dead in Rochester by the Fox Sisters, and so forth.
Regarding salvation, Finney stated: “A revival is not a miracle according to another definition of the term ‘miracle’ — something above the powers of nature. There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. It consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that, and nothing else. When mankind become religious, they are not enabled to put forth exertions which they were unable before to put forth. They only exert powers which they had before, in a different way, and use them for the glory of God. 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.”
Hence, leading someone to Jesus, according to Finney, had nothing to do with the Gospel being the power unto salvation, or the working of the convicting and transformative power of the Holy Spirit. Finney strongly believed that if he could influence people through persuasion and emotional appeals that they would logically be convinced to come to Christ. And, we see how this theology has been embraced by Rick Warren wherein he states in his book, The Purpose Driven Church that he can lead anyone to Christ if he can just figure out that person’s felt needs (page 219).
Conclusion: In our business world that views growth, an increase of revenue, and an increase of customers as proof of success, American churches have fallen prey to the idea that just because a church is big and growing that it is God-honoring and God-focused, and that any activity or event that draws a crowd must be proof of God’s blessings. We’ve forsaken the biblical principles and metrics of church growth and health for worldly, business-oriented ones. I think our country is paying dearly for this.
As Christians (“Christ followers”), we are to do things God’s way even if we see little or no results. Of course, we pray for God to work mightily among the people in our communities, and God requires us to be the laborers who go into the field with the life changing Gospel of truth. But anyone can draw a crowd and put on a show. The saying goes, “What you with them with is what you win them to.” If we don’t win them with the simple Gospel as found in the Bible, then we didn’t win them at all. If we win them with emotionalism, excitement, a good show, a rocking band, then we need to put on a better performance each time or else they’ll just move on to the next show.
Westminister Seminary California professor, Michael Horton, summarized Finney’s theological divergence: “Thus, in Finney’s theology, God is not sovereign, man is not a sinner by nature, the atonement is not a true payment for sin, justification by imputation is insulting to reason and morality, the new birth is simply the effect of successful techniques, and revival is a natural result of clever campaigns.”
Note: Charles Finney quotes are taken from Finney’s Systematic Theology (my edition was published by Bethany in 1976