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 our previous two articles on the theology of Charles G. Finney, we saw his views in the following areas:
God’s Moral Law and Government
Man’s Obligation to Keep God’s Moral Law with Perfection for Salvation
Repentance As the Turning of Man from His Selfishness to a Perfect Keeping of the Law of God
Man’s Natural Ability to Keep the Moral Law with Perfection
The Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement As Held by Finney
We now turn to deal with several other areas of Finney’s theology, areas which might very well be anticipated by the reader in light of what we have already seen.
I. FINNEY’S VIEW OF MAN’S DEPRAVITY
Finney does not use the term of moral depravity in the sense of original or constitutional depravity, but in the sense that man becomes depraved in his actions and not in his nature. Thus, Adam affects the human race, not by any change in man’s nature, but only as his sin influences a man to sin also. He says to talk of a sinful nature or a sinful constitution is to talk sheer nonsense, and such an idea is to make sin a physical virus, instead of a voluntary physical choice. Obviously, Finney is concerned that those who believe in physical depravity will also deny that men could ever be entirely sanctified in this life, which too would destroy his view of salvation – which is perfection by the keeping of the law.
Finney also believes that such a view of constitutional depravity modifies the whole system of practical theology. This surely means that our preaching and evangelism is not by the power of God, for man is capable in his own being to respond to the gospel. All man needs is the strong convincement and urging by the preacher to do what he knows he ought to do and what he can do in his own strength – make this decision to commit himself to keep the law of God. A constitutional depravity would make man without any power to help himself in the keeping of the law, which would ruin Finney’s view of salvation.
Thus, Finney rejects any idea of original sin that came to the human race through Adam to be inherited by natural generation. Each man has his own fall and his own responsibility for his sin. Finney says the idea of a moral depravity that comes to the human race by the sin of another is not only a stumbling block to the church and the world, but it is even an abomination to God and human intelligence, and it should be banned from every pulpit. Man’s depravity is only in his will and in his choice to sin rather than to obey the law of God, and man is fully capable in his own power to change his mind and life from a life of sin to a life of obedience to God’s law.
II. FINNEY’S VIEW OF REGENERATION
Regeneration for Finney is the reality of a person having a new heart. It is true that a sinner must have a new heart, but the sinner himself, according to Finney, is required to make himself a new heart. Thus, men are active in this change, but one must remember that it is not a constitutional change, but only a change in actions. Finney does admit that God draws men to make this change, but He never overcomes a man, for the man makes this change of his own volition and will. Thus, God draws men, and they can either choose or reject God’s calling them to be born again, that is to change their hearts.
It is regeneration, that is man’s submitting to God’s law, that makes a man holy, and if a man’s moral character is not changed, he has not been regenerated – he has not really submitted himself to the law of God. Thus, the sinner has all the faculties and natural attributes required to give perfect obedience to God and His law, which is the regeneration that a man needs. This change of regeneration that takes place as produced by man is a change FROM a state of entire consecration to self – self interest, self-indulgence, self-gratification for it own sake as the supreme in life. It is a change TO a state of entire consecration to God and to the interests of His kingdom as the supreme and ultimate end of life. The Holy Spirit and the Word of God and truth and providence have a part, but the human power is the primary agent in regeneration, according to Finney. Neither God nor any other being can regenerate a man, if he himself will not turn to God and His law for salvation! The regenerate man from the time of his regeneration (as defined by Finney) should from then on live without sin. Finney says further that there is not a greater heresy and a more dangerous dogma than the denial that true Christians should and can actually live a great majority of their days in the state of perfection. The other side of this supposed dangerous doctrine, according to Finney, is that Christians can live the majority of their days not sinning.
III. FINNEY’S VIEW OF THE NATURAL ABILITY OF MAN
According to Finney, every man has a natural ability to obey God and keep His moral law. But man can also will to oppose the law of God. For anyone to talk of man not having a natural ability to obey God and His law, and yet then be responsible to keep God’s law is to talk nonsense. Man does have the ability to obey the commandments of God and to do all his duty to God. This is a natural ability and not an ability that God needs to give him. Finney does speak of men laying hold on God’s strength or of availing themselves of God’s grace in order to fulfill God’s requirements. But still God never requires man directly to do any more than he is able to do.
Obviously, then, Finney rejects any idea of gracious ability – any spiritual ability that man must get from God in order to become a Christian. Man has all the spiritual ability that he needs by nature, so he does not need any gracious ability from God. The only reason some men think they need some gracious ability from God is because they think they lost their ability because of the sin of Adam, which is foolishness to Finney. Man does not need any gracious ability, because of the fall of Adam, for man has a natural ability to obey God, and the human race was not been affected in its nature by Adam’s sin. A just command always implies man has an ability to obey it, while a command to perform an impossibility, because of man possessing a sinful nature, is an absurdity to Finney. There is no proof that mankind ever lost the ability to obey God, either by the first sin of Adam or by man’s own sin. According to Finney, grace is great only in proportion to the sinner’s ability to comply with God’s requirements. Finney turns grace upside down, when he says, strip a man of his freedom and render him naturally unable to obey God and His law, and you render grace impossible, so far as his obligation to obedience. In other words, according to Finney, grace cannot and will not come to us, until we ourselves exercise our power and keep the commandments of God with perfection.
The Bible says, according again to Finney, that the difficulty which must be overcome for man to obey God, is the sinner’s unwillingness alone and nothing else – not some sinful nature. The fact that the Bible represents the sinner as in some sense dependent on divine influence for a right heart does not imply inability in a sinner’s being or nature. Such a doctrine of human inability has chilled the heart of the church and lulled sinners into a fatal sleep, Finney says. To say that men lost in Adam their ability to obey God, and then say that God gave men a bestowment called grace is an abuse of language and an absurdity and a denial of the true grace of the gospel.
IV. FINNEY’S DENIAL OF THE DOCTRINE OF INABILITY
Finney says that those who believe in man’s inability to obey God have been biased by a mystifying education. This false education, he says, casts a fog over their convictions, so that they would believe that all men sinned in Adam and now have a sinful nature. According to Finney, the logical end of such a conviction is that no one on earth or in heaven, who has ever sinned, will be able to render the perfect obedience, which the law demands – which means no one would ever be able to be saved. But in reality, Finney shows himself again to believe that men do not need Christ and His perfect life and His death, and that he believes men need not to depend on Christ, but they can depend on themselves and their ability to keep the law perfectly. Finney believes that through the right action of our own will we can be saved – there is no degree of spiritual attainment required of us, that may not be reached directly or indirectly by the right willing of our hearts and lives.
V. FINNEY’S UNDERSTANDING OF FAITH
Some of Finney’s statements about faith may sound quite orthodox to some. He says that faith is confiding in God and in Christ as revealed in the Bible and reason. Again, faith is the receiving of Christ for just what He is represented to be in His gospel. Faith is an unqualified surrender of the will and of the whole being to Christ. But then as he goes further, his statements begin to raise some questions, as he says that faith is the committal of the soul to God and Christ in all obedience and faith results in a state of present sinlessness. Faith is the universal conformity of the will to the will of God, which makes faith synonymous with entire sanctification.
Thus, it seems again, that Christ and His work is overshadowed by man and his power and ability to live in a state of entire sanctification.
VI. FINNEY’S VIEW OF JUSTIFICATION
There might be a tendency of some to expect to define Finney’s doctrine of justification, as we would in our own evangelical language. But with Finney we cannot do that. His definitions can sometimes be very difficult to understand for that very reason. To help us here, Finney himself tells us what the doctrine of justification is not. It is not the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us by faith alone, so that we then might be declared righteous by God the Father. Finney says that it is nonsense to affirm that a sinner can be pronounced just in the eyes of the law because of the righteousness of someone else, even Christ. The sinner must have his own righteousness. Finney assails those who teach that a sinner can be justified by the perfect and imputed righteousness and obedience of Christ. Finney says that this view is not possible, because it is founded on a false assumption – a nonsensical assumption. It is founded on the false assumption that Christ owed no obedience to the law in His own person, and therefore His own obedience was not for Himself but for others. Finney says this view does not understand that Christ needed to obey the law for Himself, and, therefore, he could not obey the law for others. If Christ Himself owed personal obedience to the moral law, then His obedience could do no more than justify Himself, and therefore His obedience could never be imputed to us. Thus, it was impossible for Him to obey the law for us. He could do only His duty for Himself.
Therefore, the sinner can be justified only by his own righteousness, which comes by the perfect keeping of the law of God. Man must have for justification a universal, perfect and interrupted obedience to the law of God. Then, one might ask, why did Christ die? Finney says it was to satisfy public justice. God takes His law very seriously and no one can break it without impunity, for God will punish such recklessness and sin. The death of Christ is intended to cause the sinner to repent [moral influence again], and thus His death causes the sinner to break with his sin and return to full obedience of God’s law. It is here that Finney does as many do—he confuses justification and sanctification, for only as one is completely sanctified by a full obedience to the law of God, according to Finney, is that one justified before God. Finney admits that he makes sanctification a condition of justification – there is no justification without sanctification.
Thus, by saying that sanctification is a condition of justification, Finney means that present, full and entire consecration of the heart and life to God and to His service, is an unalterable condition of present pardon of one’s past sin and of present acceptance with God. But he goes further, when he says that the penitent soul remains justified no longer than this full-hearted consecration continues. And if a man falls from his first love into a spirit of self-pleasing, then he falls again into the bondage of sin, and he is now condemned again and lost again. And he must repent again and do his first work, as a condition of his restoration to salvation.
Finney admits that his view denies the evangelical view of justification, the evangelical view being, that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us by faith alone for the declaration of our righteousness before God is the only way of salvation – the only way of man becoming righteous before a holy God. He says this idea of imputed righteousness is another gospel than the one he is preaching. And he adds that the difference is not just some speculative or theoretic point, but it is a point fundamental to the gospel and salvation. Here Finney himself makes it very clear that his is a different gospel than the one we preach, even though multitudes of evangelicals today think that he preached the same gospel that we preach – the Biblical gospel. I say again, here it is by his own admission – that one of us is preaching a false gospel – his IS NOT the same gospel which we preach.
We must understand that Finney says our gospel, which preaches the following doctrines and ideas are fabulous [exaggerated or absurd ideas], which are better fitted to some romance than as a system of theology. These are those doctrines Finney so strongly denies and opposes:
1. The literal imputation of Adam’s sin to all his posterity
2. The literal imputation of all the sins of the elect to Christ
3. The suffering of Christ for elect the exact amount due to their transgressions
4. The literal imputation of Christ’s righteousness/obedience to the elect by faith
5. The continual justification of all of those converted and in Christ
Finney then spends several pages condemning the view of the Westminster Confession of Faith concerning its view of justification by faith alone.
VII. FINNEY’S VIEW OF SANCTIFICATION
If the reader has been understanding carefully Finney’s view of justification, he could probably have guessed his view of sanctification, though we have already mentioned it to some extent in dealing with justification. We have said that for Finney entire sanctification is the basis of his view of justification. Sanctification itself is nothing more or less than entire obedience to the moral law of God. It is not that the soul cannot sin, but it is that the soul continually appropriates Christ by faith, as the entire sanctification continues in his soul. As we have seen, this obedience to God’s law [or entire sanctification] is attainable and possible on the ground of natural ability, and this entire sanctification must be present before the soul can enter heaven.
After giving some Scripture as his proof, Finney says there is no doubt about the question of the attainability of entire sanctification in this life, and all should see the practical aspect and necessity of this doctrine. But until evangelists and pastors adopt and carry out this doctrine in practice in their lives and in the lives of their people – this principle of total abstinence from all sin – evangelists and pastors will be called every few months to do their work of conversion all over again in the lives of their converts.
Finney does speak of the need of the revelation of Christ to our souls, as King to set up His government and write His law in our hearts; as Mediator to stand between God’s offended justice and our guilty souls; as Advocate to plead our cause to the Father; as Redeemer to redeem us from the curse of the law and from the power and dominion of sin and to pay the price demanded by public justice for our release; as the one who has risen for our justification; as the one bearing our griefs and as carrying our sorrows; and as Christ revealed as being made sin for us. But when all is said and done, it is the moral influence of His death that causes us to loath self and hate sin and love God. As one reads Finney, he may very well ask, where is the blood of Christ? Where is His substitutionary death? Where is His imputed righteousness for sinners? Where is salvation by grace through faith alone without the works of the law? No wonder he has to admit that new converts know too little about Christ to be established in permanent obedience, which is to say that his converts did not remain faithful very long with an established permanence.
Finney says that there is a reason why the church has not been entirely sanctified in its history – the church does not believe that such a state is attainable. Finney maintains and admits that perfection is possible on the ground of natural ability, both for wicked men and devils – we all have the power to be entirely holy. But the problem is our unwillingness to use this natural power correctly. New converts have not been allowed to think that they could live even for a day wholly without sin, and they are no more taught to expect to live without sin. But it is still true, according to Finney, that if a man is willing to give up his sins and to deny himself all ungodliness and every worldly lust; if he is willing to be set apart wholly and forever to the service of God; then he will receive this doctrine and experience its reality – he can and will possess entire sanctification.
Thus, Finney’s whole theology, including his false views of man’s depravity, of regeneration, of the natural ability of man, of his denial of man’s inability before God, of faith, of justification, and of sanctification, are all part of the foundation, which carries his understanding of salvation, as not by grace through faith alone, but by man’s ability to be completely and entirely sanctified by his own power and will and works.
(The above doctrines of Finney are found in the 1878 edition of his theology book.)