By Brannon S. Howse
Many practices of the modern evangelical church are so ingrained that people generally do not question them. They assume what goes on is normative, scriptural, and true to the best “traditions” of the church. So it may surprise you to know that many traits of contemporary “biblical” churches are not biblically sound at all, including:
- Altar calls
- Emphasis on church growth
- Political and social involvement
- Creating a “worshipful” atmosphere to elicit an emotional response from worship participants.
What’s more, all of these “standard operating procedures” of the modern church can be traced back to the teachings of one well-known, widely respected, nineteenth-century evangelist by the name of Charles Finney, also known as the Father of Modern Revivalism.
Crossing the Finney Line
From political activism to worship service evangelism, many conservative church practices we take for granted as long-standing parts of church life have only been around for the past 150 years or so. And many of these “time-honored” ways of doing church are actually hazardous to the spiritual health of believers.
Charles Finney is best known for his role in America’s Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s, but he also served as the president of Ohio’s Oberlin College and was an activist in the Abolitionist Movement. During revivals, his innovations included holding an altar call for those wishing to “make a commitment” to Christ. The problem with altar calls—then and now—is that they have little success in producing true converts. Even Finney’s own studies revealed that the attendant emotional manipulation often produces false converts—the “goats” Jesus refers to in Matthew 25:32-33.
Finney’s social activism fostered modern church activities that have crossed the line of what is appropriate for churches. Boycotting, for instance, is not a biblical reaction to social problems. Bullying and annoying the unsaved world to get them to live the way we want them to is not a biblical mandate. We are not supposed to judge those outside the Church.
While it is all right to point out their unbiblical lifestyles, we should spend more time concerned about what the Church is doing. Are we functioning according to the standards given in the Scriptures? The world is not expected to measure up, but many groups today want to be involved in political moralizing and social movements. Like Finney, we are far too involved in social action movements. The American Family Association, for example, made news in 2014 by promoting a drive to “Boycott PetSmart This Christmas.” The AFA.net website announced why:
[quote] AFA is calling for a limited one-month boycott of PetSmart over the company’s censorship of the word Christmas. For years, PetSmart has refused to use the word Christmas on its website and television commercials, newspaper ads, and their store promotions, despite tens of thousands of consumers’ request to recognize Christmas, and in spite of repeated requests from AFA to do the same. [end quote]
I hardly think the biggest issue facing America and the Church today is whether or not PetSmart has enough Merry Christmas signage and says Merry Christmas on their website and in their ads. Saying Merry “Christ” mass is not significant. It’s a Catholic reference to transubstantiation, offering up Christ in the wafer, the practice of a false religion. This refers to another Jesus and another Gospel.
I have no problem with people celebrating Christmas—my family puts up a Christmas tree each year—because these things do not have to retain the pagan meanings they may have once had. Truly honoring or recognizing the birth of Christ is what matters—even though His birth probably did not occur on December 25th. Worrying about PetSmart’s recognizing or not of the birth of Christ, though, is a waste of the Church’s time and energy.
We have inherited a strange idea that coercing church outsiders into “good behavior” is a legitimate use of our resources. It’s a misguided notion that getting Hollywood to produce more Christian-friendly movies or Americans to elect the right representatives will change our cultural values and produce revival.
Charles Finney believed that sinners need to change their own hearts before they could be saved. He also taught that Christians eventually become sinless, a belief known as perfectionism, but you will not find support for this doctrine in the Bible. Scripture clearly teaches that we battle our old man, our flesh, all through life. While we are sanctified as we walk in faithfulness and obedience, we still battle the old man.
Michael Horton, author of The Gospel-Driven Life, also notes Finney’s unfortunate influence on American evangelicalism:
[quote] Finney is particularly esteemed among the leaders of the Christian Right and the Christian Left—by Jerry Falwell and Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine—and his imprint can be seen in movements that appear to be diverse, but in reality are merely heirs to Finney’s legacy. From the Vineyard movement and the church growth movement to the political and social crusades, televangelism, and the Promise-Keepers movement, as a former Wheaton College president rather glowingly cheered, “Finney lives on!” That is because Finney’s moralistic impulse envisioned a church that was in large measure an agency of personal and social reform rather than the institution in which the means of grace, Word and Sacrament, are made available to believers who then take the Gospel to the world. [end quote]
It is troubling that Finney can be so widely esteemed by people as diverse as Jim Wallis and the late Jerry Falwell. Falwell is one of the originators of the Religious Right, while Wallis is a Neo-Marxist.
In both Grave Influence and Religious Trojan Horse, I detail Wallis’ views and his defense of many communists in South America. His versions of social justice advocates socialism, redistribution of wealth, and his ecumenicalism includes being a spiritual adviser to Barack Obama. Finney’s appeal lies in his vision and ability to set up revivals, draw a crowd, and manipulate them with emotional experiences in order to elicit the desired response.
It is likewise revealing that Finney is cited as an influencer of the Vineyard movement—the late John Wimber’s precursor to the New Apostolic Reformation. So, Finney has had an impact on both mainstream evangelicalism and more extreme versions such as the Vineyard, Word of Faith, and the New Apostolic Reformation movement. The boundary lines of his influence seem wide open.
Many people today—including me—strongly oppose altar calls because they are mostly about manipulation. Countless church attenders have walked the aisle multiple times. A friend of mine who was raised in the Southern Baptist church told me that he had walked the aisle three times. As a result, even some Southern Baptist pastors I know oppose Finney’s legacy. One from Mississippi emailed to thank me for the radio and TV programs I’ve done to expose Finney. So to be clear: I am aware that not all Southern Baptist or other evangelical churches are into the Finney style of manipulation.
Altar calls are really about setting the stage, prepping the environment, and tweaking emotions, not about explaining the Gospel. Even the notion of “making a decision for Christ” is questionable. God is the One who, through the Holy Spirit, draws people and reveals Himself and their sinfulness to them, granting godly sorrow that produces repentance unto salvation.
Finney taught that salvation starts with people changing their hearts and cleaning up so as to become a Christian, and his methods reflect his teaching. He used an “anxious bench”—a designated seating area at a revival for people especially worried about their spiritual condition—to set up the eventual altar call. Yet many of Finney’s “saved souls” later returned to their old, sinful lifestyles.
Altar calls produce false converts specifically because salvation is not an emotional experience. Coming to Christ is not meant to be a response elicited through emotional tactics. People are meant to hear the Gospel and understand the requirements of God’s Law and the offer of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice.
Still, some evangelicals continue to endorse the practice. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, promoted altar calls in an interview on Trinity Broadcasting Network (which should be a red flag itself since TBN is one of the largest false teaching networks in the world). During the interview, Jeffress wondered out loud: “How is it possible that a pastor couldn’t do an altar call? Perhaps he doesn’t believe what he’s really preaching; otherwise, he would surely do an altar call, right?”
It sounds as if Jeffress does not recognize what many pastors have come to see.
Some are not interested in playing just the right music through three, four, five, six, or seven stanzas, repeated over and over, to give people “one last chance” to come forward. They’re not interested in manipulating people into a “conversion” that is more a measure of the pastor’s persuasiveness than it is about the personal salvation of people in the congregation. It shows in the reaction after a service that pastors get discouraged because “no one came forward today”—as though they needed their egos stroked by people coming forward to validate the message preached. The truth is, if you’re preaching God’s Word, you don’t need anyone to validate it. And so, altar calls often are really for no purpose other than for a preacher to be able to say, “Look at the response I got.” Finney once claimed that “I have convicted many people. I have convicted people.” Yet, no one convicts the sinner except the Holy Spirit and the power of His Word.
I now attend a church that does not offer altar calls. The pastor concludes our services by saying something like:
[qote] If you would like to come forward, after we dismiss, and talk with me, I would gladly visit with you and answer any questions you might have concerning the Bible or anything I said today. Maybe you have a question about the Gospel, or maybe you don’t even understand the Gospel. I’m here to answer those for you. I’ll sit down here in the front row and talk with you. Or perhaps we can set up a time to have lunch, so I can answer your questions another time. But please, feel free to come and visit with me. Now, let’s pray and have our benediction. [end quote]
He’s not setting up an emotional situation, with music playing and scare tactics to get a response. Nevertheless, Robert Jeffress bemoans this reasonable approach, as reflected by his TBN interview:
Interviewer—You give altar calls in First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.
Interviewer—Would you, would you address that . . .
Jeffress—We were talking about this before the show. I do not understand churches that do not give an invitation. I think it must be because the pastors don’t really believe what they’re preaching. They really don’t believe that there is a heaven and a hell. They don’t believe that there is only one way to heaven. There are not multiple ways to heaven. If there were multiple ways to heaven, then why did God send His only Son to die for us? . . . I believe that unless we have the conviction that people without Christ are going to spend an eternity in hell—it’s only when we have that conviction that pastors are going to be encouraged to give altar calls, that Christians are going to be encouraged to share their faith. [end quote]
Jeffress equates concern with a person’s eternal salvation with whether or not a pastor gives an altar call. It’s questionable, though, how much concern Charles Finney had for the eternal destiny of his hearers.
Finney’s theology offers a strange legacy detrimental to modern-day evangelicalism. On page 46 of his book Memoirs, for example, he notes the problem he had with another pastor at the time: “I could not receive his views on the subject of atonement, regeneration of faith, repentance, the slavery of the will, or any of their kindred doctrines.” The pastor to whom he referred, though, actually held the correct view of atonement, original sin, and imputation of Christ’s righteousness into the account of those who place their faith and trust in Christ, but Finney rebelled against those core doctrines.
An Altered Call
Finney, a lawyer who became a preacher, set out to derail the true Gospel. He admitted that he couldn’t agree with the central teachings of the Faith. In Memoirs, he complained about the classic understanding of the state of man’s lost-ness:
[quote] A nature sinful in itself, a total inability to accept Christ and to obey God, condemnation to eternal death for the sin of Adam and for a sinful nature, and all the kindred and resultant dogmas of that [particular] school, have been the stumbling block of believers and the ruin of sinners. [end quote]
He denied the ideas of original sin and the eternal death for the sin of Adam even though both are biblical teachings. In spite of Finney’s contention, it is actually the false gospel of Finney that has been “the ruin of sinners.”
Let’s be clear about exactly why Finney is wrong. The biblical doctrine of imputation holds that the righteous life of Christ is imputed or credited to our account, when through faith and repentance we deny ourselves, repent of our sins, and place our faith and trust in Christ. At that point, we become true believers through the power of the Holy Spirit, and our sinful lives are replaced by the righteous life that Christ lived. It’s as though Christ lived our sinful life, and we lived His righteous life that we could not otherwise live. He took on our sin debt as though He had sinned, even though He didn’t sin. He took on our sin, being counted as though He had sinned, for our sakes, and then we are given credit for His righteous life.
The doctrine of imputation also explains why Christ had to be born, grow up, and live into adulthood rather than simply appearing as an adult to conduct a three-year public ministry before His crucifixion and resurrection. He had to live a thoroughly sinless life so that His entire sinless life could be imputed to us. As Isaiah 53:6 says, “And we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Similarly, 1 Peter 2:24 explains that Jesus is the One “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.” Many other verses reflect the same truth:
- 1 John 2:2— “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.”
- Romans 4:4-5— “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”
- Romans 10:3— “For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.”
- 2 Corinthians 5:17— “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
Charles Finney taught that man had to earn his own salvation and change his own heart. This leads to the false teaching of perfectionism—that man has to be and can be sinless, but if he sins, he has to start all over again.
The true Gospel offers instant justification. It is not based on our work or merit or our ability to change our ways. It is based only on Christ and His completed work on the cross. Yet Charles Finney is admired by many people—often, I think, because people don’t know what he really believed. “A Lawyer Warns the Unrepentant,” an article at lifeaction.org, is guilty of that sort of ignorance when it notes:
[quote] Repentance was a key theme during the First and Second Great Awakenings. Prominent ministers of the Great Awakening such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and a lawyer turned revivalist Charles Finney, drove home the necessity of repentance and regeneration to thousands of listeners. [end quote]
I can fairly well guarantee you that George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards would have had serious problems with Charles Finney. So, to put Whitefield and Edwards in the same camp as Finney shows the writer’s ignorance of what Finney believed. Those three names should not be lumped together as though they were preaching the same Gospel or the same teaching on repentance, because they were not.
The lifeaction.org “misunderstanding” of Finney is not surprising if you know a little background on the organization. I’ve known of Life Action since the 1980s when a group from the organization presented a two-week revival at the church I attended at the time. As part of their program, they extolled the work of Charles Finney and other more contemporary leaders in the church growth, seeker friendly movements. Even then, I recognized that they taught Scripture out of context. What they presented was a spiritual train wreck. In addition to the poor teaching, the group employed manipulative emotionalism through testimonials and preaching. Testimonials are fine, of course, when those giving the testimonies are mature enough to share a scripturally sound approach to the Gospel. Otherwise, testimonies can be confusing to genuine seekers after the truth. In the Life Action testimonies, for instance, people were saying things like “God told me,” “I was driving, and I heard God say this,” or “I heard a voice, and God said. . . .” It think it was all done for the purpose of manipulating people and eliciting a response. I no longer attend the church that sponsored the Life Action show because, along with several other solid believers who pointed out the problem to our pastor, my concerns were ignored.
Just to be clear: I think testimonies are wonderful. A church leader, though, should monitor what is being said and help the speaker make sure he or she uses correct terminology. Phrases like “God told me” should be avoided. That could be construed as the Lord speaking audibly, which would be a form of mysticism. The appropriate phrasing would be to say something like, “When I was studying the Bible, the Holy Spirit convicted me.” A statement like that lines up with Scripture.
I think everyone who is baptized should give a testimony explaining the person’s conversion and repentance. It is an excellent time to testify to the new life in Christ and to offer a public profession of faith. It works well this way because people who are baptized should have already been discipled and trained in the truth. It’s also a good idea to have people write out the testimony they intend to give, and have it reviewed beforehand. That way, it can even become a time of instruction for the one giving the testimony, if need be.
Manipulations can make people feel like they’re getting right with God, and that actually fits well with Finney’s idea of perfectionism and his rejection of imputation. I’ve compared below selected scriptures that specifically point to imputation with Finney’s view, as recorded in Memoirs.
Scriptures about Imputation
• Galatians 2:16— “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.”
- Philippians 3:9— “and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”
None of us can live the righteous life. All it takes is one sin to break the moral laws: adultery (including looking lustfully at someone), lying, stealing, coveting. Only Jesus lived a wholly moral life, and His righteous life is credited to us through faith.
Finney’s Rejection of Imputation
- Memoirs, page 58— “I could not but regard and treat this whole question of imputation as a theological fiction, somewhat related to our legal fiction of John Doe and Richard Roe.”
- Memoirs, page 60— “These and similar passages are relied upon as teaching the doctrine of an Imputed righteousness; such as these, “The Lord our righteousness” [Philippians 3:9]. . . . Christ our righteousness is Christ the author or procurer of our justification. This does not imply that He procures our justification by imputing His obedience to us.”
Yet that is exactly what Jesus did. He imputed His righteousness to us.
Finney leaves no gray area as to what he believes, and yet he is taught in seminaries, upheld in churches, and touted within the evangelical movement as someone to follow, read, admire, and emulate. The subtitle of Finney’s book on systematic theology is revealing: Foundation of the Justification of Penitent Believers in Christ. What Is the Ultimate Ground or Reason of Their Justification? His answer includes the following:
- “It is not founded in Christ’s literally suffering the exact penalty of the law for them, and in this sense literally purchasing their justification and eternal salvation” [page 373].
- “Gospel justification is not to be regarded as a forensic or judicial proceeding. . . There can be no justification in a legal or forensic sense, but upon the ground of universal, perfect, and uninterrupted obedience to law.” [page 360].
Although it may sound a bit esoteric, this second point is especially important. What is “a forensic or judicial proceeding?” Here, Finney is referring to what happens when a judge hands down a verdict. The result is instantaneous. When a judge declares a defendant “not guilty,” the person is, from that moment on, no longer subject to punishment for the crime under investigation. It’s the same as marking debt paperwork “paid in full.” The debt is paid and no longer owed by the debtor. That is the truth of what is done for us through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. In an instant, His righteous life is credited to our account when we believe. As Christ said on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Finney, by contrast, says salvation is something you have to work for. This makes Finney’s teaching similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church. He even knew how aberrant his doctrine might seem to those who really know the truth in that he tried to pre-empt objections to his thinking:
[quote] This is, of course, denied by those who hold that Gospel justification or that justification of penitent sinners is of the nature of a forensic or judicial justification. They hold to the legal maxim that what a man does by another he does by himself, and therefore the law regards Christ’s obedience as ours on the ground that He obeyed for us [Memoirs, 362]. [end quote]
Finney believed in salvation by works and connected it in an odd way with sanctification:
[quote] By sanctification being a condition of justification, the following things are intended:
1. That present, full, and entire consecration of heart and life to God and His service is an unalterable condition of present pardon of past sin and of present acceptance with God.
2. That the penitent soul remains justified no longer than this full hearted consecration consists. [end quote]
In other words, if you sin, you have to start over. Finney is clear on this:
[quote] If he falls from his first love into the spirit of self-pleasing, he falls again into bondage and to the law and is condemned and must repent and do his first work, must turn to Christ and renew his faith and love as a condition of his salvation. Perseverance in faith and obedience, or in consecration to God, is also an unalterable condition of justification, or of pardon and acceptance with God. By this language in this connection, you will of course understand me to mean, that perseverance in faith and obedience is a condition, not of present, but of final or ultimate acceptance and salvation [Systematic Theology, 368-369]. [end quote]
When we sin, he says, justification is no longer available. That’s not true, of course. If I have a wrong thought or a sinful action, I don’t lose my salvation. I can come under conviction and express my sorrow and regret to restore the relationship, my communion, with God. But it’s not so I can be saved all over again. Justification happens once and for all for the true believer, whereas Finney says, in essence, “If you sin, your justification has been nullified.” What follows is our sanctification, not our being “re-saved.”
Charles Finney so fully rejects the doctrine of justification by faith that he says:
[quote] Those who hold that justification by imputed righteousness is a forensic proceeding, take a view of final or ultimate justification according with their view of the nature of the transaction. With them, faith receives an imputed righteousness and a judicial justification. . . . The first act of faith, according to them, introduces the sinner into this relation and obtains for him a perpetual justification. They maintain that after this first act of faith, it is impossible for the sinner to come into condemnation [Memoirs, 369]. [end quote]
The Bible does, in fact, teach eternal security in that “nothing shall separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:39). Scripture teaches exactly the opposite of what Charles Finney taught. Our justification comes through grace— “by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8)—and after that leads to the sanctification process. That means we will begin to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit—more and more righteous character that reflects the nature of God. To this, Finney also objects:
[quote] that being once justified, he is always thereafter justified, whatever he may do; indeed, that he is never justified by grace, as to sins that are past, upon the condition that he ceases to sin; that Christ’s righteousness is the ground, and that his own present obedience is not even a condition of his justification, so that, in fact, his own present or future obedience to the law of God is, in no case, and in no sense, a sine qua non of his justification, present or ultimate. Now this is certainly another gospel from the one I am inculcating. It’s not a difference merely upon some speculative or theoretic point. It is a point fundamental to the gospel and to salvation if anyone can be. [end quote]
Simply put, Finney disagrees with what I’ve explained in the doctrines of justification by faith and imputed righteousness, even calling it “another gospel.” His was, of course, another gospel—a false one.
While Finney’s evangelistic methods set up the contemporary problem of “easy-believism” through the manipulative use of altar calls and the like, his underlying doctrine is anything but easy to practice. By rejecting imputed righteousness, people are essentially left to themselves to figure out whether or not they’ve qualified for salvation. To make theological matters worse, Finney also dispenses with the truth about substitutionary atonement and original sin.
In his Systematic Theology, Finney takes issue with substitutionary atonement because he thinks it ridiculous that the doctrine “assumes that the atonement was a literal payment of debt, which we have seen does not consist with the nature of the atonement. It is true that the atonement of itself does not secure the salvation of anyone” (page 272).
His Systematic Theology also disputes the correctness of the doctrine of original sin. Finney claims:
[quote] Original sin, physical regeneration and all their kindred and resulting dogmas are alike, subversive of the gospel and repulsive to the human intelligence. . . . The judgement arose from one transgression—Adam’s sin—resulting in condemnation by the transgression of the one—meaning Adam—death reigned. Through one transgression—Adam’s sin—there resulted condemnation to all men through the one man’s disobedience—again meaning Adam—the many were made sinners (page 236). [end quote]
He rejects the clear biblical teaching that Adam’s sin affected us all and later adds:
[quote] What law have we violated in inheriting this sin nature? What law requires us to have a different nature from that which we possess? Does reason affirm that we are deserving of the wrath and curse of God forever for inheriting from Adam a sinful nature? (page 320) [end quote]
Contrast this to the biblical declaration in Romans 5:12: “Therefore just as through one man, sin entered into the world and death through sin and thus death spread to all men because all have sinned.” And 1 Corinthians 15:21-22: “But now Christ is risen from the dead and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, for since by man came death.” Scripture is unequivocal: By man, the first Adam, came death. By man, also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.
Finney likewise argues against the concept of mankind’s depravity: “Moral depravity cannot consist in any attribute of nature or constitution, nor in any lapsed and fallen state of nature. Moral depravity, as I use the term, does not consist in, nor imply a sinful nature” (page 245).
Whether Finney knew it or not, his ideas were consistent with a well-known fifth century heretic by the name of Pelagius. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the heresy of Pelagianism this way:
[quote] A fifth century Christian heresy taught by Pelagius and his followers that stressed the essential goodness of human nature and the freedom of the human will. Pelagius was concerned about the slack moral standards among Christians, and he hoped to improve their conduct by his teachings. [end quote]
His heretical doctrine has become synonymous with the idea that man can save himself—that people can change their own hearts to make ready for salvation. The Bible, though, is clear that this is not at all possible. Only God can change the heart. People merely come to Christ through faith and repentance.
Pelagius was in his late twenties when, in 380 A.D., he arrived in Rome from Britain. Although never ordained a priest, he became an influential monk and theologian who promoted human effort in salvation until his death in 418. Charles Finney essentially taught Pelagianism as part of his theology. Finney was also heavily involved with a nineteenth century Roman Catholic priest by the name of Father Nash, from whom he picked up threads of Roman Catholic teaching that emphasize works righteousness. Finney’s Systematic Theology reveals his Pelagian leanings:
[quote] Sinners are under the necessity of first changing their hearts, or their choice of an end, before they can put forth any volitions to secure any other than a selfish end. And this is plainly the everywhere assumed philosophy of the Bible. That uniformly represents the un-regenerated as totally depraved and calls upon them to repent. To make themselves a new heart (page 249). [end quote]
Even though Finney uses the word depraved, it’s critical to note that he is not using the term in a way appropriate to correct theology. Phil Johnson, executive director of John MacArthur’s Grace to You Ministry, wrote an article on Finney entitled “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” in which he explains that Charles Finney’s theology ravaged the evangelical movement. He notes, “Although Finney employs the expression totally depraved, he makes clear that he speaks of a purely voluntary condition, not a constitutional depravity.”
Although Finney claims we can choose not to be depraved by changing our own hearts, Scripture says, “There’s no one good. No, not one. . . All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:10, 23). Jeremiah 17:9 tells us the heart is deceitful and “desperately wicked” above all else, and in 13:23, he asks rhetorically if the leopard can change its spots, likening it to the impossibility of people doing “good who are accustomed to evil.”
We cannot change our own hearts. We can only have our stony hearts replaced with a heart of flesh through faith and repentance in Christ alone. Only then can all things become new and we become born again. That’s when the righteous life of Christ is credited to us.
Finney’s theology set the stage for his strange view of revivals. Again, human effort seems to be the main theme of his thinking. He argues that:
[quote] 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 becomes 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. A revival is as naturally a result of the use of the appropriate means as a crop is of the use of its appropriate means. [end quote]
Yet salvation itself is the greatest of miracles. The only One who can cause sinners to understand what they deserve is God through the power of the Holy Spirit. Although people call many things miracles that are not, salvation is a miracle. For a depraved human to come to recognize his or her depravity and experience godly sorrow that produces repentance unto salvation is an incredible miracle.
You might think Finney would recognize the irony of this belief when, by his own admission, it results in a multitude of false converts. Here’s what he says about his methods:
[quote] I was often instrumental in bringing Christians under great conviction, and into a state of temporary repentance and faith, but falling short of urging them up to a point, where they would become so acquainted with Christ as to abide in Him, they would of course soon relapse into their former state. [end quote]
So Finney recognizes the propensity of his methods to produce false converts. That’s because a preacher is not the one who brings people to a state of repentance. The Holy Spirit does. As Titus 3:5 says, “Not by works of righteousness, which we have done, but according to His mercy, He saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.”
When Finney argues that manipulating the forces of nature, rather than a miracle of the Holy Spirit, produces a repentant response in people, he is also tapping into another heresy called perfectionism. R. C. Sproul describes the nature of this off-base teaching:
[quote] An ancient heresy of the distinction between two types of Christians, carnal and Spirit-filled, is the heresy of perfectionism. Perfectionism teaches that there is a class of Christians who achieve moral perfection in this life. One of the true marks of our ongoing sanctification is the growing awareness of how far short we fall of reaching perfection. Perfectionism is really anti-perfectionism in disguise. If we think we are becoming perfect, then we are far from becoming perfect. [end quote]
One of the hallmarks of true believers as they grow in sanctification is ongoing faithfulness and obedience. This is the result when the Holy Spirit transforms our lives through the washing of the Spirit and the Word. And as you grow in sanctification, one of the things that should be evident in your life is a keen awareness of your sinfulness. You recognize that you are not a righteous person, that your heart is deceitfully wicked. We are constantly battling the old man. That’s the spiritual battle we fight until we enter glory.
A truly growing and maturing Christian on the path of sanctification never says, “Look at how perfect I’m becoming.” No, a true Christian realizes how far short he or she falls and acknowledges only the righteous life of Christ. The Bible says even our righteous deeds apart from Christ look like wickedness to God. True Christians do not get to a place of arrogance and think gaining perfection through their own efforts is a possibility.
Finney’s techniques are strangely embraced by modern evangelicals. Even Christianity Today seems unable to discern the problems with “Finney-ism.” An August 8, 2008 article entitled “Charles Finney, Father of American Revivalism” enthusiastically quotes Finney, saying:
[quote] The Holy Spirit seemed to go through me, body and soul. . . . I could feel the impression like a wave of electricity going through and through me. Indeed, it seemed to come in waves of liquid love for I could not express it in any other way. [end quote]
The article goes on to extol the evangelist’s work, acknowledging his methods: “During this time Finney developed what came to be known as New Measures.” His “new measures” included allowing women to pray in mixed public meetings by which Finney early introduced feminism into the evangelical world. As I’ve already noted, his measures also included altar calls, stirring stories, and manipulations through setting the tone of meetings—in short, thoroughgoing emotionalism. Christianity Today details his measures this way:
[quote] He allowed women to pray in mixed public meetings. He adopted the Methodists’ “anxious bench:” he put a pew at the front of the church, where those who felt a special urgency about their salvation could sit. [end quote]
Finney opened the floodgates of emotionalism that swept into all areas of evangelicalism. He is the reason so many pastors feel compelled to tell cute, shallow stories to hype people up or to preach shallow sermons simply to arouse people. Finney has also found his way into Bible “study” that encourages people to talk about the meaning of scriptures in this manner:
- “Well, I feel . . .”
- “This is what the verse means to me.”
- “I feel like the Bible means this . . .”
Good hermeneutics, though, doesn’t care how someone feels about a scripture verse. What matters is the intended meaning. And the way we discover that is by using known tools of hermeneutics such as studying the Bible in context and letting scripture interpret scripture.
Finney also paved the way for the Word of Faith movement. In his article “Charles Finney’s Influence on American Evangelicalism,” Bob DeWaay presents the connection:
[quote] In a sense one could say that Finney was the forerunner of the modern Word of Faith movement. I say that because of the similar emphasis on the ability of man to cause his own spiritual effects by the right use of means. The “Faith” Movement, as characterized by Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland—popular Word of Faith guys—is well known for claiming that there are “laws” built in the universe that can be tapped into by those who have the right “revelation knowledge” and put it to use to create the desired spiritual effects. The similarity with Finney is the unbridled optimism that humans with the right spiritual knowledge can solve every important problem and create their own desired results by the right use of means. Finney had a slightly different emphasis in that he desired to create revivals of religion, a millennial age before the return of Christ, and a Christianized society, (rather than health and wealth); but his approach was similar. [end quote]
The Word of Faith teaching is similar to Finney’s. For them, it’s known as the Law of Attraction. Oprah Winfrey also teaches it. So does Joel Osteen. Even Glenn Beck teaches it. It’s extremely popular in the New Age and connects to Word of Faith because the two are essentially the same thing: modern-day Shamanism. They believe our words have the power to create.
Finney believed we can use these laws to get what we want: more converts. Instead of health and wealth—which is what the Word of Faith wants—Finney wanted converts.
The connection between Word of Faith and Charles Finney is underscored by New Apostolic Reformation “prophet” Dutch Sheets. He wrote “The Power of Honor—My Experience at the Grave of Charles Finney,” an article in the October 28, 2014 issue of Charisma Magazine, in which he claimed:
[quote] While ministering near Oberlin, Ohio this past Sunday, September 21, I had the privilege of visiting the grave of Charles Finney. Finney, an attorney turned evangelist, was one of the greatest revivalists that has ever lived. He was a leader in the Second Great Awakening, and is often called, The Father of Modern Revivalism. He also promoted social reforms, such as the abolition of slavery and equal education for women. I thanked God for Finney and those like him who have left us powerful legacies and examples. I reminded the Holy Spirit of the First and Second Great Awakenings, and appealed to Heaven for another. As I pondered and honored the work of Finney and others gone before me, I once again committed myself to God and His cause. [end quote]
Sheets also says that, while he pondered Finney’s influence, “The Spirit of the Lord mightily came upon me and I was re-mantled and re-anointed.” One of Sheets’ conclusions is that a Third Great Awakening is coming to the United States.
Finney’s influence on feminism is highlighted in Nancy Hardesty’s Women Called to Witness: Evangelical Feminism. The Amazon description says of the book:
[quote] First published in 1984 and now revised and updated, this book focuses particularly on the followers of Charles Grandison Finney, an Evangelist whose revivals spread from upstate New York eastward to New England and westward to Ohio. The author shows that in Finney’s brand of Revivalism, personal and social salvation were inseparably linked. [end quote]
The idea of “personal and social salvation” is an especially troubling philosophical connection. In recent history, one of the greatest promoters of collective, or social, salvation was Martin Heidegger. A powerful Nazi used by Hitler to infiltrate the German church, Heidegger’s strategy was to disband the various denominations in Germany and consolidate them under the Reich Bishop, handpicked by Adolf Hitler to lead the “church.” He promoted the community as the only way to salvation—if we all come together collectively. To do so, of course, the existing churches had to set aside the “old dogmas” and absolutes and look to human reason and a new spiritualism to revive Germany’s glory days. As a result of setting aside absolutes—like the Ten Commandments—the Nazis rationalized slaughtering six million Jews and five million non-Jews. As part of creating this community, the Bible was removed from churches and replaced with Mein Kampf. Crosses were also replaced with the Swastika. Out of an estimated 14,000 evangelical pastors in Germany at the time, only about 800 took a stand against Hitler, and of course, many of those were taken off to concentration camps and killed.
Even more recently, President Barack Obama has adopted the concept of collective salvation. It is a motivator of his community organizing.
Cause and Effect
Collective salvation lends itself to a variety of causes. Evangelical strategies used in spreading the Christian gospel were readily adapted to various social crusades including temperance, abolition, and eventually suffrage. As Hardesty shows in Women Called to Witness, leaders such as suffragists Frances Willard, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton all had links to the Finney-ite revivals.
Liberal blogger Derek Flood (TheRebelGod.com) picks up the importance of Finney’s social salvation inclinations in his post “Finney the Feminist,” explaining why we lack revivals these days. He says, “Finney lists a failure to confront social evil and advocate for human rights as one of the reasons revival is hindered.” Flood also points out that Oberlin College educated many women who furthered the feminist movement, including Lucy Stone, who was famous for keeping her maiden name after marriage, and Betsy Cowles, who became the president of the Second National Women’s Rights Convention in 1851.
Many within the Word of Faith, and New Apostolic Reformation, and New Religious Right believe that we have to set right many things that were wrong right before we can have revival in America. We must moralize, hold prayer rallies and repent for national sins from a century or two ago because of generational curses.
The truth is, there are no generational curses for a true believer. When believers come to Christ through faith and repentance, they are set free.
Out of the idea of generational sins, the New Apostolic Reformation concocted their doctrine of identificational repentance. This practice repents for the sins of one’s ancestors or other people. For example, they repent for all Americans for wrongs committed against the Indians 150 years ago or more. The problem is, generational curses for true believers are not in the Bible.
Like emotionalism and other Finney-ish techniques, moralizing produces numerous false converts. In Luke 11:24-26, Jesus tells a parable about a man who had a demon but “cleaned up his life.” He moralized, if you will. Perhaps he was a drunkard—we don’t know from the story. Whatever his problem had been, Jesus said the demon left when the man’s “house” was cleaned up. But after a while the demon got tired of wandering in the desert so he returned with seven demon buddies and took up residence in the man’s life again. Then, instead of having one demon, the man had eight demons and his condition was worse than before.
The parable speaks of the danger of thinking we can clean ourselves up and save our own lives. The result of our attempts at good works is that we end up worse off than before, more demonically oppressed than ever. Our lives can only be cleaned up by Christ.
Finney Jumpstarts the Mormons
Another legacy we derive from Charles Finney is the influence of Mormonism. Finney was a contemporary of Latter Day Saints founder, Joseph Smith. The Watchman.org website provides an excellent article by Paul Derengowski entitled, “Piecing Together the First Vision,” that shows what it terms the five parallels between Charles Finney and Joseph Smith.
Both New Englanders, Charles Finney was born in 1792 in Litchfield County, Connecticut and Joseph Smith 13 years later in Sharon, Vermont. Subsequently, both families moved to New York state. Watchman.org explains how the story developed after that:
[quote] One clear spring morning, Joseph Smith journeyed west of his parents’ farm into a beautiful grove to petition God regarding his dilemma. After having looked around and finding himself alone, he kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of his heart to God. It was supposedly the first time in young Joseph’s life that he had ever endeavored to attempt prayer vocally. . . . [end quote]
Similarly, Charles Finney knew of a grove of woods that lay north of Adams. He set forth one morning for work and was compelled that he must accept God or die. He turned and bent his course for that grove of woods, feeling that he must be alone and away from all human eyes so that he could pour out his prayer to God.
Both men apparently reported similar experiences in the woods. According to Derengowski:
[quote] Not long after Joseph began his petition, the enemy subdued him. He could not speak for his tongue had been bound. Hearing noises in the woods near him Smith assumed that other persons were walking around in his presence. He tried several times to make his request known to God, but without success. The young inquirer despairingly supposed that he was doomed to destruction. He had never encountered such supernatural strength. In like manner, Charles Finney determined to give his heart to God, but upon making his petition, he found he could not pray. When he attempted to pray, he became dumb, having nothing to say to God. Rustling of leaves nearby led him to believe that other individuals were in his presence. Ultimately that thought led him to such a sense of conviction of personal wickedness that it took possession of him. Charles attempted to pray several times without success, leading him to the verge of despair. He recollected that “a great sinking and discouragement came over me at this point, and I felt almost too weak to stand upon my knees.” [end quote]
The strange “encounters” continued for Smith and Finney, as reported by Derengowski:
[quote] Upon deliverance from the clutches of the enemy, Joseph witnessed a pillar of light descending upon him until it enveloped him. He became filled with the spirit of God, causing him also to be filled with unspeakable joy. . . . Charles envisioned a light also, but it was scripturally caused. Reflecting upon Jeremiah 29:12-13, the passage seemed to drop into his mind with a flood of light. With that, he was convinced that he could perform his vow of accepting God that day. In the midst of such spiritual ecstasy, he left the woods and returned to the village. After dinner Charles wished to pour out his whole soul to God. He retired to the counsel room of his law practice where it was dark, but it appeared to him as if it was perfectly light. In that “lighted” room he came face to face with Jesus Christ. No words were exchanged, but Finney fell down at his feet and poured out his soul to him. Shortly thereafter, Charles received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost, which he characterized as a “wave of electricity” or “waves of love.” The event lasted until late in the evening. . . . Finney even visited Joseph Smith’s community in 1831 . . . the parallelism between Smith’s testimony and Charles G. Finney’s prior written declaration seems also to negate Smith’s story as original. [end quote]
In other words, Smith took Charles Finney’s account and edited it to make it his own.
So, at the end of the day it might be said that Charles Finney even influenced Mormon founder, Joseph Smith. It is important to consider Finney’s claim that he saw a light and encountered Christ because his experience is akin to what many of New Apostolic Reformation and Word of Faith people claim when they encounter angels. Finney’s claim to have encountered Jesus was a forerunner of the false teaching and similarly bizarre, unbiblical stories we see today in the New Apostolic Reformation and Word of Faith.
Certainly Finney is not due the adulation given him by far too many evangelicals. He is a forerunner to the Word of Faith, the New Apostolic Reformation, and much of what is wrong with evangelicalism today—manipulation through altar calls, emotionalism, manifestations of “waves of love,” dumbing down theology, denying original sin, and rejecting the imputed righteousness of Christ. Finney was a heretic and a false teacher. Yet the fact that he is honored by many in evangelicalism reflects the sad state of today’s church. The lack of discernment is appalling.
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