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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 Part I of our first article on Charles G. Finney’s theology we set forth some of the main divisions of his theology. These included (1) The Centrality of God’s Government and of God’s Moral Law, (2) The Duty of Man to Keep God’s Moral Law for Salvation. Obviously, we saw that salvation for Finney is not by grace through faith in Christ and His work for the sinner, but by the keeping of the moral law of God with perfection. That leaves some serious further questions about how Finney defines the major words and doctrines of the Bible, which orthodox Christians use to define the work of Christ and the salvation of man. This part of our analysis will deal with some of those words and areas, particularly his view of the atonement, as we get into the heart of Finney’s further heresy.
A. According to Finney no one can be saved who does not return to full obedience to the law.
Finney says that holiness and full obedience to the law are the same things and that salvation by grace does not dispense with a return to the full obedience of the law, as a condition of salvation.
B. Man cannot be saved without a personal holiness as noted above.
Finney says that some are lovers of sin, and so they are never conscious of personal holiness, but they have very conveniently adopted the idea of an imputed holiness. They are content with what they call an outward righteousness imputed to them by faith, instead of submitting to the truth by faith to have the righteousness of God wrought within them. Thus, with an unwillingness to become personally pious and holy in their lives, they have taken refuge in the idea of an imputed piety or righteousness.
But the truth is, Finney continues, that there is no passage rightly understood that even intimates that men can be saved or justified upon any condition short of personal holiness – that is the return to a full obedience of the moral law. It is naturally impossible for grace to save the soul, except upon the condition of entire sanctification, for the grace of the gospel was designed to restore sinners to a full obedience to the moral law.
C. The efficient influence that secures this return to full obedience to the law is the Holy Spirit.
God writes the law in a man’s heart by the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit [at salvation] sets up and continues His dominion in the heart and begets the love required by the law. Faith then receives and confides in the Holy Spirit and consents to be governed and directed by Him. But the Spirit can have influence on a man no further than that man has confidence in the Spirit and consents to be governed by Him.
D. Sanctions of the Law of God
The sanctions of the law are motives [given to us by God] to obey the law, and these sanctions consist of two kinds remuneratory and vindicatory. The remuneratory sanctions promise reward for obedience, while the vindicatory sanctions threaten punishment for disobedience. These sanctions are all part of God’s desire to secure the happiness of men, and bring them to a submission to the law, so that men would be submissive to obey the law and be saved. Sin or disobedience to the moral law results in misery, while virtue or holiness is attended with and results in happiness. This to say that God will reward the righteous and punish the wicked, as the penal infliction under the government of God must be eternal death. Natural death would be no penalty at all, but eternal death is God’s punishment – spiritual death for all eternity.
E. Atonement
Finney distinguishes between different kinds of justice.
1. There is first of all Distributive Justice.
This is a justice which is distributed to every subject of the government, according to the character of his moral state, and it makes no exceptions but punishes law-breaking without mercy in every instance of crime. This justice cleaves to the letter of the law and makes no exceptions – the soul that sinneth it shall die!
2. There is also according to Finney Public Justice.
This is the exercise of justice in the promotion and protection of public interests by such legislation and administration of the law, as is demanded by the highest good of the public. This justice implies the execution of the
penalties of the law, when the law is violated, unless something else is
done that will as effectually secure the public interests. This justice can
make exceptions upon the meeting of certain conditions, and when these
certain conditions are met mercy is extended – this is an atonement. Where no atonement is made the government is weakened by fostering a hope of impunity in light of sin, when it is committed and the precept is violated, and no atonement is made.
3. Which is to say also that public justice for Finney requires that God provide a substitute for the execution of the law, if anyone is to be forgiven – something must be done to secure the influence of the law, as the execution of the penalty would do.
Or to put it another way, God must uphold His moral law in some manner, if He is to dispense with the penalties of the breaking of the law by sinners. Either the soul that sinneth must die according to the letter of the law, or a substitute must be provided in accordance with the spirit of the law – a substitute which shows the full satisfaction of public justice and God’s full determination to support His law. God has an absolute abhorrence of all violations of the precepts of His law, and it is only when these conditions of a substitute are fulfilled in some way, and when the sinner has returned to full obedience to the law of God, that the penalty of God’s law can be set aside. Notice salvation is dependent not only on the death of a substitute, but also on a man’s full return to a continuing committal to the law and a continual keeping of the law. Thus, the substitute cannot be effectual to save a man without a man fully keeping the law continually! It is then and only then, when both a substitute has been made and a man comes to a continual and full obedience to the law, that the sinner has and can continue in salvation – then and only then will public justice demand that the penalty of the law be set aside.
4. Natural theology can teach us these things – revelation is not needed to teach us this.
Finney says that natural theology can teach us that man’s human nature is in a fallen state, and that the law of selfishness is ruling men and not the law of God. Natural theology (we don’t need the Bible here) can teach us that God is benevolent (love), and hence mercy must be an attribute of God. Natural theology can teach us that no atonement was needed to satisfy any implacable [unforgiving] spirit in the divine mind [no satisfying of God’s wrath which burns with sin is needed]. Natural theology can tell us again, that God is sufficiently and infinitely disposed to extend pardon to the penitent, if this could be wisely and safely done – thus Finney’s is a non-propitiatory and even an anti-propitiation view of the atonement.
Natural theology, again, can teach us that sin cannot be pardoned under the government of God upon condition of repentance alone – that would be a repeal of divine law – man must not just be sorry for his sin, but he must return to complete obedience to God’s law. Natural theology can teach us again that many lessons can be taught man by the execution of an atonement by the proper person, who can render to the government a substitute, who will fully answer for the execution of the penalties of the law for sin. Thus, God gave His Son to justify or to render it just for God to forgive sin [as man would return to an obedience of the law – entire sanctification]. Does this mean that Christ satisfied the demands of the law for us? See the next section!
5. Christ did not satisfy the demands of the law for us.
This is a clear statement of Finney’s – Christ did not satisfy the demands of the law for us, for Christ Himself owed obedience to the moral law for Himself both as God and man. Therefore it was impossible for Christ to perform any works of supererogation – that is the drawing of infinite funds or merit for the sins of others – as far as His obedience to the law was concerned. If Christ had obeyed the law for us, He would not have suffered for us – that is if He had kept the law for us, then His obedience for us would have been a substitute for our obedience, so why then should He have to die for us? And if Christ had obeyed the law then why should our personal obedience be insisted upon as a condition of our salvation? Which is to say that Finney could not believe Christ fulfilled the law for us for that would have ruined his view of salvation by the law!
6. The fact that the atonement was not a commercial transaction.
This is to say that Finney did not believe that the atonement was the payment of a debt – our debt! Christ did not purchase our salvation, the salvation of the elect, by suffering the [exact] same amount of suffering in His own person – the suffering that justice would have exacted upon all the elect. Thus, we have by Finney another denial of Christ as our substitute. Retributive or distributive justice can never be satisfied by Christ, for the guilty sinner himself must suffer as long as he deserves it – for eternity – unless he returns to a full obedience to the law of God. Finney does not see how Christ could suffer in such a manner – eternal suffering – for all the elect until they ceased to be guilty?
7. The atonement of Christ was intended as a satisfaction of public justice.
Finney says that penalties are inflicted upon the law breaker for the public good, as an expression of the Lawgiver’s regard to the law and His determination to support public order by a due administration of justice to secure the highest well-being of the public. The great design of
sanctions, both remuneratory and vindicatory for Finney, is to prevent
disobedience and secure obedience and universal happiness through the
precept, sanctions and the execution of His law. This begets in man an AWE, on the one hand, and confidence and love on the other hand. Thus, whatever can effectually reveal God and make known His hatred of sin and His love of order and His determination to support His government and to promote the holiness and the happiness of His creatures through the execution of His law – that is a full satisfaction of public justice. Atonement, thus, is a part and the most influential part of moral government, as it gives vastly influential motives to induce obedience. We can certainly ask here and properly so, is this not the moral influence theory of the atonement?
Christ’s atonement is an overpowering exhibition of love and compassion, as well as an inspiration of confidence in the offers and promises of pardon in all the promises of God to men. An atonement was needed as the great and only means of sanctifying sinners, as the law could only shut the sinner up in a dungeon, and nothing could subdue his sin and cause him to love God’s disinterested benevolence. But when there came to the sinner the manifestation of the death of Christ, which was the literal and visual manifestation of God’s disinterested benevolence, man then could clearly see God’s great love for him – that was the atonement! [Moral influence theory again!]
Thus, the death of Christ was no doubt vastly more influential in supporting the government of God, than the execution of the law would have been against the sinner. The atonement also presented to creatures the highest possible motive to virtue, as men would conform their lives to obedience to His law. And the atonement reveals all the attributes of God, which are needed to influence the minds of moral beings [to obedience]. Thus, all who are united to Christ by faith should be treated as righteous for His sake [one might ask here, faith in Christ for what?] The atonement is the highest means of promoting virtue in the world, as it reveals God and tends to promote virtue and happiness [remember here that Finney is speaking of the Moral Influence view of the atonement]. The atonement helps prevent further rebellion against God in every part of the universe, and it also strengthens the confidence of holy beings in God’s character and government. The atonement confirms holy beings in their allegiance to God and thus prevents the progress of further rebellion. The value of the atonement is in its moral power or its tendency to promote virtue and happiness, as it is the example of God and the highest moral influence in the universe [Again, the atonement to Finney is only an influence – a moral influence to cause men to decide to keep the law with perfection!]
Finney says again that God’s example in the atonement, which showed His own benevolence and His own disinterested love, as expressed in the atonement, is a vastly higher moral influence than His word or any of His other ways. The atonement [as defined and proclaimed by Finney] is God’s highest moral influence in the promotion of holiness among all holy beings. The influence of the atonement [Christ’s death] is an exhibition of God suffering as a substitute for His rebellious subjects – the highest testimony He could give of His abhorrence of sin, of His regard to His law, of His determination to support His law, of His great love for His subjects, of His compassion for sinners, of His willingness to suffer Himself in their stead, rather than to punish them. The influence of the atonement shows God’s desire to set aside the penalty of sin but only with the proper satisfaction being made to public justice. Sinners will not give up their enmity against God nor believe that His is a disinterested love, until
they realize that He actually died as their substitute. Remember, according to Finney, that Christ died as man’s substitute not to make a real atonement for their sin, but to influence them to love Him and
keep His law for salvation.
8. The Extent of the Atonement
God was benefited by the Atonement and the universe was benefited by the atonement, plus all inhabitants of the world and all mankind can be pardoned, if they will, as Finney says, be rightly affected by it. Christ’s death was for all men, and it is offered to all indiscriminately. Sinners are universally condemned for not receiving it. If the atonement was only for the elect, Finney says, God is insincere in offering salvation to all men. If the atonement were made for only the elect, then no one can know for whom it was and was not made, and no one can know if he has a right to embrace it, and no one can embrace the atonement with revelation. If the atonement was not made for all men, then ministers would not know to whom they should present the offer of salvation – they cannot offer it to all men, but only those they call the elect – but how does one know who these are?
It is obvious from Finney’s remarks that he is not Reformed in his theology! But it is also obvious that he did not even possess a broad evangelical view of doctrine! He denies the substitutionary atonement, and he makes the atonement little more than a moral influence of the death of Christ on sinners, in order to drive them to keep the law with perfection, so that they might be saved, not by Christ, but by their own works in the keeping of the law. Finney can talk about Christ and salvation and coming to Christ and the influence of the Holy Spirit upon us, but it is very clear that he does not use those and many other evangelical words of the faith of true believers with a Biblical definition.
Therefore, rather than being the successor of the great men of the true faith of the Bible and of history, he really is more of the successor of a man of early church history named Pelagius, who was readily condemned as a heretic by the early church. One wonders why Finney has not been recognized as such in our day as the same? Could it be that many of the churches and ministers of this hour care little, or even worse, know little about doctrine, and that many are concerned more about how to produce numbers of converts, though they be false, as Finney did? But what good are numbers, if the true gospel of the Bible is not preached and taught?

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