Note: The following post was written by Dr. Richard Belcher, who received his M.Div. at Covenant Theological Seminary and his Th.D. from Concordia Seminary. He is a retired professor of Bible, Theology, Greek, and Preaching at Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University) in Columbia, South Carolina. By God’s grace he has been privileged to serve for over fifty years as a pastor and in the public ministry of the Word.
In many cases today it is rather easy to summarize the position of a theologian in accordance with the various theological categories of the day and of history. This person is an Arminian. This person is a Calvinist. And on and on we could go. But to give a summary sentence placing Charles G. Finney in a certain category is not easy. He could be called a Pelagian in some areas. He could be called an Arminian in other areas. He could be labeled as one who holds to a Governmental or Moral Influence view of the atonement of Christ. But even some of Finney’s views would be so different, that some of these common labels we use to speak of one’s theology today, cannot be used of him. He could also be called a perfectionist, but again he differs from many of that viewpoint.
So what do we do with Finney? It seems we must put him in his own category, and then it is best to call him a theologian with the center of his theology being the Government of God and Man’s Moral Responsibility to obey God’s law as the way of salvation. Let me see if we can summarize rather briefly (understanding nothing is brief about Finney) his overall system of theological truth. But first let me remind us of the words of the apostle Paul, when he said in Galatians 1:8-9:
8 But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. 9 As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.
I am convinced that Finney, like some of the Galatians, held a theology that moved from the grace of Christ to another gospel, which is not another gospel, and therefore we are admonished to treat him accordingly. But I will let the reader judge for himself as we seek to unfold Finney’s thinking from his laborious theology book or books (there were several editions of his theology books with some additions to the later ones).
I. THE CENTRALITY OF GOD’S GOVERNMENT AND GOD’S MORAL LAW IN THE THEOLOGY OF CHARLES G. FINNEY
A. The center of Finney’s theology is not God as we have seen.
God exists, but it almost seems, as one reads Finney, that God is a bystander Who is caught in the moral and legal system which He has set up to rule His world in a proper and moral manner, for that is where Finney begins and ends his theology. God is there, but His law is what guides Him and controls Him and controls all things including man and his actions and his failures and his salvation.
B. It is the moral law that rules man’s actions—the actions of a man of free will and free will only.
Finney believed that man not only has a free will, but that the sin of Adam did not effect man in his nature at all. The sin of Adam was only a bad example for us. Adam had no nature of sin and neither do we. Thus, man is born with a will that is totally free and each man begins life with a perfect freedom from sin. But as a man’s life unfolds, though it could be a possibility that he would never sin, all men do sin by their own choice and not because of any nature of sin within them.
God, on the other hand, has placed upon all mankind His moral law along with restrictions and negative sanctions – that is, what God will do if man breaks His law. When that happens (when man breaks God’s law), man becomes a lost sinner. On the other hand, when a man keeps God’s moral law, God rewards him. But, again, when a man breaks God’s moral law, which all men do, he becomes a rebel and sinner against God, and God must punish him with eternal separation from God, unless that man submits himself back to the law of God to keep it with perfection. Thus, the moral law of God and His government are indispensable for God and man to relate themselves for the highest well-being of the universe of moral agents. Plus, God being the Highest Being of the universe, it is God’s right to rule His moral government, as He is the best qualified to do so.
C. The reality of God as the Highest Being of the universe also demands that all moral agents are to obey God’s moral law and, if there is such a demand, then for the demand itself to be moral man must be capable of obeying the law.
There are two points to be noted here very clearly. First, that God demands all men to obey His moral law, and secondly, if God makes such a demand then all men must be capable of obeying God’s moral law. This is a first truth of reason – that is, it is such a clear truth that we need not the revelation of God to teach it to us but it is intuitive to all men.
Thus we have seen something of the centrality of government and moral
law in the theology of Charles G. Finney.
II. THE DUTY OF MAN TO KEEP GOD’S MORAL LAW
A. It is the duty of all men to commit themselves with an entire
consecration to the keeping of the moral law of God.
The moral law of God, which man is required to keep, may be summarized by the word benevolence or love – that is the sum requirements of the law! Love is not an emotion but an ultimate choice – the ultimate choice that is required by man towards the well-being of God and the universe. This phrase (well-being of God and the universe) speaks of the intrinsic and infinite value of the highest good, and it constitutes the true foundation of man’s moral obligation – to keep God’s law of love towards God and His well-being and the universe’s, including that of other men. Thus, it is not the grace of God that saves a sinner, but it is his turning from his selfishness to keep the moral law of God, which is a sign of the reality of His love towards God and the universe (including other men around him).Thus this word love is the true spirit and meaning of the moral law, even as it is revealed in the Bible as having two great precepts which are: (1) Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all they heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind and with all thy strength, (2) And thy neighbor as thyself. The law does not say we must love the right, the truth or beauty or anything else with all our heart and with all our soul – but we must love God and our neighbor.Thus we see that it is the duty of every man to commit himself with an entire consecration to the keeping of God’s moral law. This is man’s salvation!B. Sin then consists of violating the law of God – in choosing that which sets aside the love of God and neighbor, whereby we chose not to live for the Highest Being and good of the universe but to live for ourselves.And here is where the reality of sanctions come in – penalties or rewards – in accordance with man’s compliance or non-compliance to commit himself to the highest well-being of God and the universe. It is impossible to sin while this end of the highest well-being of God and the universe is intended with all the heart and with all the soul. Thus, the person with such a goal will be sinless, as he lives for this goal at every moment of his life. Also, every moral agent can know in every possible instance what is right and what is wrong, so that he will never mistake his duty and responsibility to God.Therefore, again, there can and will be perfection, and by perfection Finney means complete obedience to the law, as he says that obedience to the moral law can never be partial. One cannot partly obey or partly disobey the moral law of God at the same time. This is to say that for consecration (salvation) to be real it must be entire and universal, which is to say again, that the choices have no degree of conformity to the God’s moral law unless they are always and necessarily wholly conformed to the moral law of God. Which is to say, also, that it is impossible for us to make opposite choices at the same time! The will cannot choose the ultimate good at the same time that it chooses any other lesser ultimate end. It cannot choose God and sin at the same time. Thus, what consists of being a Christian is the keeping of the moral law of God, not partially, but wholeheartedly and without exception with perfection. This is salvation and holiness for Finney.C. Thus whenever a Christian sins he must for the time being cease to be holy!Yes, this is what Finney says – that whenever a man sins, he must be condemned and he must incur the penalty of the law of God. Otherwise, the law would have had to have been abrogated, which can never be, since the law is constant and demands perfection. Thus, a Christian is justified no farther than he obeys the law, and he must be condemned again when he disobeys the law. When a Christian sins, he must repent and do his first works – come back to perfection – or else he will perish. Until he repents (submits himself anew to the keeping of the law with perfection), he cannot be forgiven. In these respects the sinning Christian and the unconverted sinner are precisely on the same ground – both are breakers of the law of God and are therefore lost and condemned by God.One must remember here that Finney is not speaking of being unborn from a Biblical view of regeneration, but he is speaking from his view of salvation, which says man does not need a new birth within his nature. Man only needs a change of his commitment from sin to the keeping of God’s law – only a human commitment not a divine change of nature.Thus, Finney does believe that it is possible to be unborn after one has been born again, according to his definition of the new birth. For him regeneration is not an inward birth but only a change of man’s outward actions. Thus, one sin can make one a breaker of the whole law of God and leave man in a state of unholiness again, which means he is now lost. Thus, for Finney failure to keep the law means no holiness and no holiness then means no salvation, and Finney makes it very clear that he means entire obedience to the law – exactly what the law requires and nothing less! Simply put, he says, holiness is holiness, and it is nonsense to speak of a holiness [or a salvation] that consists of sin or partial obedience to God.D. Perfection then is what the moral law of God requires of sinful men in order that they might be or become Christians.
1. There can be no rule of duty but the moral law of God.Finney rejects faith alone as the way of salvation, when he says that some have strangely dreamed that the law of faith has superseded the moral law of God. But this, he says, is a falsehood for nothing can be virtue or true religion except obedience to the moral law of God.
2. Repentance consists in the turning of the soul from a state of selfishness to benevolence – of a turning from disobedience to God’s law to obey it and to walk in obedience to it.
Finney says that true repentance consists of the following: an understanding of the nature of sin – it is a spirit of self-seeking – selfishness; a turning from this state to a state of consecration to God and the good of the universe; a sorrow for past sin when it is remembered ; a universal outward reformation – perfection; a hatred of sin; a self-loathing on account of sin; a thorough reformation of heart and life which includes a turning from selfishness to benevolence.
Nothing is accepted as virtue under the government of God but a present
full obedience to His law.
3. Faith is the receiving of or confiding in and the embracing and the
loving of the truth – the truth of God and to do what God demands.
God can never accept us on the basis of a partial obedience while we
continue to sin moment by moment. Men who profess to be saved by faith without obedience to the law, thinking that grace accounts them as righteous, while they are still continually sinning, are gravely mistaken.
4. The moral law will never ask a man to do that which he cannot do.
The moral law will never require more than man has natural ability to do, that is, something inconsistent to his nature, which means that all the moral law asks a man to do he is capable of doing – even keeping the moral law with a perfection.
5. Entire obedience to the moral law does not require any change
in man’s nature.
This means that man has the natural powers within himself (aided by the Holy Spirit) to keep the moral law of God, which also means that regeneration cannot mean any inward change of a man’s nature. Man’s human nature is not sinful and does not need an inward change. Entire obedience to the law of God is possible only as man consecrates all his power and appetites and susceptibilities of the body and mind to the will and service of God.
E. Since love is the spirit and sum of the whole law man needs to understand the attributes of love – we can only list them here.
1. Voluntariness – voluntary love and good will.
2. Liberty – love is a free and responsible choice.
3. Intelligence – the mind makes this choice intelligently.
4. Virtuousness – the moral element of love.
5. Disinterestedness – mind’s choice of an end for its own sake.
6. Impartiality – choosing the good because of its intrinsic value.
7. Universality – choosing the highest good of being in general.
8. Efficiency – a true choice of the highest good of being one has the energy to obey.
9. Penitence – the will’s continued rejection of past sins.
10. Faith – an attitude of love in embracing and loving the truth.
11. Complacency in holiness or moral excellence – tranquil pleasure in holiness.
12. Opposition – love as it expresses opposition to sin.
13. Compassion for the miserable – love in relation to misery and guilt.
14. Mercy – a desire for the pardon or good of one who deserves punishment.
15. Justice – a disposition to treat every moral agent according to his desert.
16. Truth or Truthfulness – truth is conformity of the will to the reality of things.
17. Patience – perseverance or a bearing up under trials of afflictions.
18. Meekness – a sweet and forbearing temper under provocation.
19. Longsuffering – an intense form of forbearance under long and great suffering.
20. Humility – a willingness to be known according to our real character.
21. Self-denial – the denial of self and favor of others in all choices.
22. Condescension – a willingness to descend to the poor, ignorant and vile.
23. Candor – a disposition to treat every subject with fairness and honesty.
24. Stability – the intelligent and impartial and universal consecration to the proper end.
25. Kindness – a tender regard for the feelings and well-being of others.
26. Severity – love manifesting strictness, rigor and purity when necessary.
27. Holiness or purity – moral purity.
28. Modesty – a shrinking from whatever is impure or unchaste or vain.
29. Sobriety – a solemn, honest intention to pursue the highest good of being.
30. Sincerity – the opposite of hypocrisy – a whole-hearted honesty.
31. Zeal – a zeal of benevolence that cannot rest as long as sin is in the world.
32. Unity – being united with God in His goals and purposes.
33. Simplicity – the singleness of love to serve God and not mammon.
34. Gratitude – thanks to our Benefactor and commitment to His will.
35. Wisdom – love directed by knowledge whereby we choose God’s ends.
36. Grace – a disposition to bestow gracious favor on the undeserving.
37. Economy – a love that desires to promote the public good.F. Disobedience to God’s law must consist in the choice of self-gratification as an end.Self-love is the choice to gratify our desires – thus sin is the seeking of self-love or self-gratification and not the good of God and the universe of beings. Thus, sin is the committing of the will to the impulses of our senses or desires or emotions or feelings or passions. Sin or disobedience to the law does not imply a sinful nature or a sinful constitution for Adam and Eve sinned and angels sinned and they had no sinful nature.G. Just as love has attributes so does selfishness have its attributes.1. Voluntarinessself – begins when the will yields voluntarily to desire.
2. Liberty – the will is at liberty to chose self-gratification.
3. Intelligence – choices are made with knowledge of moral obligation.
4. Unreasonableness – selfish choices are made in opposition to reason.
5. Disinterestedness – the choice of self-good and self-will.
6. Partiality – giving preference to things of self-good or self-will.
7. Impenitence – this is the heart’s cleaving to the commission of sin.
8. Unbelief – this is trusting in self and refusing to trust in God.
9. Efficiency – sin is the thing chosen and selfishness is the reason.
10. Opposition – this is the mind being opposed to benevolence.
11. Cruelty – that state of feeling that takes savage pleasure in the misery of others.
12. Unreasonableness – sin is chosen in opposition to the demands of intelligence.
13. Injustice – preference to others on basis of self-interests.
14. Oppression – a disposition to deprive others of their rights.
15. War – selfishness is a declaration of war on all other beings.
16. Unmercifulness – an unwillingness to forgive sin and practice forgiveness.
17. Falsehood or Lying – a choice of any end which is opposite of the truth.
18. Pride – a disposition to exalt self above others.19. Enmity – a selfishness in opposition to God and even hatred of God.
20. Madness – a moral insanity of the heart as it refuses to be controlled by truth.
21. Impatience – a resistance or providence and its ways.22. Intemperance – a committal of the will to the indulgence of our appetites.
23. Recklessness – a carelessness of mind that seeks to gratify self regardless.
24. Unity – selfishness and all sin is a unity with the end being self.
25. Egotism – a disposition of mind that manifests itself in self-glory.
26. Simplicity – a singleness to live for self.
27. Total Moral Depravity—this speaks of man’s moral depravity of actions
[The above material comes from Chapters 1-28 in the 1846 edition of Finney’s theology.]
Perhaps the reader finds it hard to believe that this is the theology of Charles G. Finney. The author of this article would suggest that you not judge him or anyone else for calling Finney a heretic until you too have read the material noted above. When you have done that, there will be no doubt about where Finney stands in relation to sound doctrine. We can only do as the apostle Paul said to do:
But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.