Charles Finney’s Assault Upon Biblical Preaching
On October 11, 1821, the day after the young lawyer’s dramatic conversion to Christianity, Charles Finney told a client, “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and I cannot plead your.” With this statement, modern evangelism was born. Although his theology had not yet been fully formulated, in that one utterance, Charles Finney had just encapsulated modern revivalism’s message. For the courtroom scene was to be changed in the American mind from sinners being the accused with Christ as our advocate and God as the judge, to Christ as the accused with the Christian as His advocate and witness, and the mass of humanity as a hostile jury. This rejection of Edwardian theology took with it much of what was left of historic Calvinism in the Northern United States and set the stage for the demise of Calvinism as a dominant force in the American church as a whole.
Finney became an enigmatic blend of Pelagianism, pragmatism and mystical Pietism, packaged in biblical garb. His theology was joined to “new measures,” or methods, to create a unique message. This message swept across the nation from New England to Ohio. Finney is therefore called the “father of modern revivalism.”
He changed evangelicalism’s understanding of revival. The Edwardian idea that revival is “prayed down” was replaced by Finney’s conviction that it is “worked up” (along the lines of mass evangelism). The former views God as the agent in salvation and the latter sees man as the instrument of his own spiritual birth. William McLoughlin summarized Finney’s major contribution to revivalism by saying that,
both he [Finney] and his followers believed it to be the legitimate function of a revivalist to utilize the laws of mind in order to engineer individuals and crowds into making a choice which was ostensible based upon free will.
The rationale for all that Finney did during revival services was the gaining of converts. The numerical success of his methods was his vindication. As he stated in his Memoirs, “Show me the fruits of your ministry and if they so far exceed mine as to give me evidence that you have found a more excellent way, I will adopt your views.” This reasoning prompted Perry Miller to write, “Finney perfected, in his Memoirs, the all-powerful answer to such objections…the results justify my methods.”
This factor helped lead later generations of evangelists to adopt Finney’s success theme as the barometer of God’s blessing. Billy Sunday stated, “theory has got to go into the scrap heap when it comes to experience.” In effect, this statement meant that the historic doctrines of grace could be ignored if not altogether rejected by the evangelist. Indeed, D.L. Moody picked up on this reasoning when he said, “It makes no difference how you get a man to God, provided you get him there.”
Until his conversion, Finney claims to have only heard that type of preaching where the pastor would blandly read his sermon, telling the congregation that they should sit and wait upon God to save them. These memories greatly affected the young convert. He took this style and content of preaching to be the practical outworking of Calvinism. In his view, the passivity of man in salvation brought deadness into the pews. Therefore, his preaching and his methods were designed to catch the sinner’s attention, and once caught, to create an emotional outpouring that would result in conviction, which would then result in conversion. Among the “new measures” that Finney employed to do this work were protracted prayers and meetings, the anxious or inquirer’s meeting, the anxious bench, public prayers for know sinners, coarse and irreverent language, and women praying in mixed gatherings.
Was this judgment of the Calvinistic pulpit methodology a fair one? After all, had not Jonathan Edwards “blandly” read his sermons? And yet, his ministry was blessed in the First Great Awakening. The key to this question is not found in methodology, but in theology. The deadness that Finney perceived, was not due to the methods (or lack thereof) which were used in the pulpit, but to the type of response required of the congregation.
The Hopkinsians, who made up a sizable segment of the New England clergy, believed that, of one attempted any exercise to improve his soul’s status with God, he would only deepen his guilt and further harden his own heart. The effect of this view upon soteriology was to turn warm, balanced Calvinism into cold, hopeless hyper-Calvinism. This is what Finney saw. It was against this group that Finney reacted.
In contrast to this, Jonathan Edwards and, later, Asahel Nettleton (who was a contemporary of Finney) exhorted their hearers, upon coming under conviction of sin, to go privately before the Lord and plead for their souls. Both of these committed Calvinists witnessed great spiritual awakenings under their ministries.
At issue is Finney’s definition of “revival.” The debate over methods was, in reality, a debate over the proper means of conversion. Finney, believed that a revival “is not a miracle or dependent on a miracle. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means.” Nettleton, however, agreed with Jonathan Edwards that a revival was a blessing that was sent directly from God. To Finney, if one plants corn, one will get corn. But to Nettleton, if one plants corn, one must then wait for God to send rain.
Roger Nicole was once asked by a student, “What did Finney have that Pelagius didn’t?” He replied, “A revival!” Did Finney hold the same doctrine of salvation as Pelagius? Or were Finney’s similarities with Pelagius superficial and their differences deep? Foundational one’s views of salvation are the doctrines of man and sin. Both Pelagius and Finney held to the innate ability of man to do good and thus, to choose God. They argued that there is no justice if man does not have the ability (absolute free will) to obey what God has commanded. And because neither believed that man has an inherent flaw, they concluded that man possesses the possibility for sinless perfection. Both rejected imputation and guilt from Adam, although Finney did ambiguously state Adam left a tendency in man to sin.
As one might guess from the preceding discussion, both men also essentially rejected orthodoxy when it came to the doctrine of salvation. Pelagius, understanding that Christ counteracted Adams’s bad example, saw Christ as the good example for man to follow. Finney opted for the Governmental Theory of the atonement, which says that through Christ’s death, God was showing man that He was serious about judging sin. Thus, for neither man was the atonement a literal payment of a debt.
Salvation then, for both men, essentially becomes a human work. Election is quieted with foreknowledge. After stating that the Holy Spirit, being only an external influence, is not necessary for salvation, Pelagius defined grace as simply man’s ability to choose. Thus, he badly referred to “deserving works” (works which deserved a reward). Regeneration, then, is not in any way a constitutional change within man. Grace, for Finney, is also man’s God-given ability, but there is also a necessary external influence of the Holy Spirit in the conversion experience as well. Even so, Finney asserts that man saves himself, making works the true method of salvation. As he himself has said, “the actual turning, or change, is the sinner’s own act…the sinner actually changes and is therefore, himself, in the most proper sense, the author of the change.” Regeneration, again not being a constitutional change, is merely a change of choice or intention.
Looking at the comparison of the two systems, one can see that, though there are differences, the similarities are more substantial. The cornerstone of Pelagian theology, absolute free will (moral ability), is accepted by Finney without qualification, leading both to conclude that man is the author of his own salvation.
An analogy may be used to doemonstrate the differences and similarities between their views of conversion. Finney sees the “not-yet-Christian” as a disobedient prince locked away in the dungeon of a palace. Suddenly a voice (the Holy Spirit) tells him that he has the key to unlock his cell, if only he would use it. Pelagius, however, understands man as a prince living in that same palace with the Bible us a guidebook to royal etiquette. The major differences are whether man is in a habitual self-bondage to sin and whether he needs the Holy Spirit to remind him that escape from the dungeon is in his own grasp.
As pastors and congregations accepted Finney’s message, they also accepted his theology. In this manner, the Presbyterian Church in the Northern United States was torn asunder by Finney’s influence. Other churches were also drawn away from biblical preaching as traveling mass evangelists and Finney’s own writings spread his theological poison from church to church and denomination to denomination.
Nettleton had already embarked upon a successful revival career which incorporated, in a Reformed manner, methods that Finney would later successfully use as a Pelagian. But how does one define “success” in this context? Is it getting large numbers of people to make a profession of faith in a meeting? Or is it the number of people who persevere after the evangelist is gone? Since the Bible lays a premium on perseverance and warns against empty professions, salvation is understood as being more than just calling, “Lord, Lord.” Thus, one should conclude that he who gains professions that persevere is much more successful than he who acquires professions that do not. Even if the latter number is greater, the destiny of the soul is what matters.
Though no actual numbers are available, it has been repeatedly stated, even by Finney himself, that he had many “converts” who fell away from the Christian life. Whereas, Nettleton had very few converts who did not persevere. Both men called on the people to come to Christ for salvation. Comparatively speaking, Nettleton’s ministry was far more successful (as that concept has been defined) than Finney’s (although undoubtedly some were truly converted under the latter’s preaching).
Nettleton was a Calvinist, who called men to recognize their responsibility to repent. But he called men to repent privately, for repentance is between man and God. As a follower of Edwards, Nettleton knew that the fruit of repentance was the barometer of a profession. False repentance could not be sustained by the memory of a mere momentary act of the will. So, by calling on men to respond to God’s sovereign grace (if it may be worded that way) in the non-pressured solitude of his own home and by the repeated warnings of spurious solitude of his own home and by the repeated warnings of spurious conversions, Nettleton avoided many false professions.
Finney also called on man to recognize his responsibility to repent. However, being Pelagian, he based repentance not on God’s sovereign grace, but upon man’s own efforts. By the use of certain methods, the anxious bench for example, Finney pressured his listeners into a decision that seems to have been many times only emotional in nature (false profession). Thus, many of his converts did not persevere. Without the intervention of God’s grace, any who embarked on this works salvation were striving either toward despair or carnal security.
Finney’s judgment of the pulpit ministry was skewed. Nettleton’s practice reflects a more biblically balanced perspective. The methodology of the latter in preaching and evangelism upheld both man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty.
Success is not necessarily God’s stamp of approval. It is always, however, God’s stamp of grace. Doctrine and methods are to be checked by Scripture. For if God could only use perfect instruments, whether men or means, no one would be saved.
Nettleton took up the pen of a “prophet” when he wrote about the “new measures” in 1827:
If the evil be not soon prevented, a generation will arise, inheriting all the obliquities of their leaders, not knowing that a revival ever did or can exist without all those evils. And these evils are destined to be propagated from generation to generation, waxing worse and worse.
And with the excesses of man-centered preaching in churches today, who can say that Nettleton was wrong?