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.
8 thoughts on “CHARLES G. FINNEY: Heretic or Man of God? Part I”
I like the way you have begun setting forth Finney's actual teaching in such an understandable format. I found it easy to follow and to comprehend his basic ideas.
I am looking forward to the next installment.
It is amazing that such a man has had such an influence in evangelicalism! Thanks for the BLOG.
Is there any chance to get footnotes for further study?
What timing. Today I am going to be working with a man who has been and still is heavily influenced by Finney. This is great stuff to take with me. Providential.
I don't intend to argue in defense of Charles Finney, or prove that he was, or was not a heretic. I shall leave that up to God who judges all men according to what they have done. (1 Peter 1:17)
I commend you, because you try to give a fair presentation of Finney's theology. And at least in this blog post, really don't seem to make any significant arguments against Finney other than an inflamatory and vague reference to Galations 1:8-9.
Since you've given such little evidence of why Finney is wrong, it looks to me like you're having trouble with the idea of free will and moral law.
By way of argumentation, let offer some support for man possesing freewill.
First of all, Moses would have had no concept of the idea that man was not a free moral agent. As you well know, in Moses' final addresses to the Jews in the last chapters of Deauteronomy, he tells the Jews that it will be easy for them to keep the commands he put in place.
The Jewish tradition is based upon the idea of freewill. The Jews revered the Torah because they saw it as the height of wisdom. They saw all of the Old Testament as God breathed, but held the Torah in a slightly higher place than the rest of the Old Testament. The Jews saw men praise-worthy as they obeyed the law of God, and blame-worthy as he disobeyed the law of God.
The same would have been true of 2nd Temple Jews in the days of Jesus. If Jesus would have decided that a man could not have obeyed the moral laws of God, it would have been contrary to all that 2nd Temple Jews believed and especially the schools of thought in his day. If that had been so, Jesus would have certainly said, “you can't possibly obey the law,” and it would have been notable in the gospels.
But Jesus didn't do that at all. In fact, he holds his disciples to a much higher moral standard than the midrashic writers when he says, love your enemies and do good to those that abuse you.
I won't go into all of the writings of the Early Church. I assume because you have a Doctorate, that you are well versed in them.
However, I will offer you this quote from Hipolytus (AD 170-236).
“Since man has free will, a law has been defined for his guidance by the Deity, not without answering a good purpose. For if man did not possess the power to will and not to will, why should a law be established? For a law will not be laid down for an animal devoid of reason, but a bridle and a whip; whereas to man has been given a precept and penalty to perform, or for not carrying into execution what has been enjoined”
As you can see in this brief quote from Hippolytus, that his theology wouldn't have been far from Charles Finney's, and probably a long way from your theology.
Nor is Hipplytus unique among the Early Church fathers. If time were available, I could select quotes from Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Ireneaus, Tatian, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Novatian, Archelaus, Alexader of Alexandria, and Lactantius that would say things that are very similar to what I quoted from Hippolytus.
It really wasn't until the time of Augustine that we got some of the ideas in theology that would make you think that somehow man was not able to obey moral law.
Humbly submitted for the cause of Christ,
Dear Brother Wheeler:
Rather than me giving you all of my answers one by one, let me just say that Galatians answers all your questions concerning man being able to be keep the law and be saved.
1. The condemnation of the Judaizers by Paul with the strongest of language in Chapter 1, as they were indicating a man had power to keep the law and be saved.
2. The strong stand by Paul in Chapter 2 when he saw Peter giving into the law even in a small measure, which might indicate the law could save a man—which would indicate a man had power to keep the law, when he does not.
3. The statement of Paul in Chapter 2 that men cannot be justified by the works of the law (does this not indicate the inability of man), but man can only be saved by grace through faith, as faith is the gift of God by grace and not a work of man.
4. The statement of Paul again in Chapter 2 that by the works of the law shall no man be justified before God, indicating again that man has no power to keep the law for salvation, for such would require perfection.
5. The statement of Paul again in Galatians Chapter 2 that if man can be righteous by the law, then Christ has died in vain!
6. The statement of Paul again in Galatians 3 that Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness, even indicating that he could not produce a righteousness of his own that would be accepted by God.
7. The statement of Paul again in Galatians 3 that as many as are under the works of the law (for salvation) are under a curse, for cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.
8. The statement of Paul again in Galatians 3 that no man is justified by the law (by keeping it) in the sight of God, but the just are made alive by faith.
And I could go on and on. But I would add before closing that if one might want to argue, which would surely be a false argument, that these verses do not clearly say one cannot be justified by the law because he is powerless, but that God has just ordained that no man can be saved by the law because God has another way of salvation (although I think this is a false argument), then I would point one to the verses in the Bible which speak of man's great sinfulness and inability—dead in treaspasses and sin, etc. Ephesians 2 and Romans 1 surely point out the great sinfulness and deadness of the human race, and that man without the grace of God is nothing but a dead, lost, blind, hell-bound, guilty sinner. There are other things about salvation we may not understand, but I think the deadness of man in sin and his inability to please God by his own power is something made very clear in the Scriptures
Thanks for your question, Richard P. Belcher
As a new believer at age 18, I read a few of Professor Finney's lectures on different topics. At the time, I regarded them to be profitable. However, now some 25+ years later, as I have embarked on an inquiry into his “Lectures on Systematic Theology” I have been suddenly halted in my studies by some alarming discoveries about his view of “Moral Law” and man's natural ability to perform that which God requires. I only managed to delve about 8 pages into his work of his before deciding it was in my best interest to abandon the inquiry because the nature of his errors are foundational. The necessity of the grace of God is notably absent from his understanding.
I appreciate your blog and found myself quickly in agreement with your examination of his teaching and the points you adduced.
Thomas A. Murawski
Ok, Gentlemen, if Charles Finney was wrong, where did he miss it?
1.) Don't you believe that man has a moral obligation to serve God with all his heart and love his neighbor with all of his heart?
2.) If so, then doesn't God indeed administer both a Providential as well as a Moral government over his dominion?
3.) Then isn't there a moral law?
Thank you for your patience with me,
I think Dr. Belcher's previous response to you highlights the problem. No one is denying whether or not God had given us a moral law. The issue is under debate concerns the role of the law. Finney essentially taught that we can obtain salvation by keeping the law, whereas the Scriptures teach that we cannot and that salvation is by grace through faith alone, apart from works of the law.
NKJ Romans 3:21-28 “21 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”
NKJ Ephesians 2:8-10 “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should in them.”