Finney’s Theology as Self-Worship in the Bud


In The Memoirs of Charles G. Finney he presents his theological differences with the confessionalist stream of Congregational and Presbyterian ministers as having begun early. His recollections from 1866-68 imposed on that time forty-five years earlier may have presented his doctrinal system more defined and clearly stated than it actually was. That his spirit of independence in thought and his attachment to a populist kind of rationalism made him resist the system of his would-be tutors cannot be doubted. How quickly he systematized his thought is a matter of speculation. Given his admittedly complete ignorance of theological literature at the time of his conversion and how quickly he began his revival preaching, that it developed over a two decade period would not be far wrong. When it did grow into a discernible system, however, it is easy to see why the practical outworking of these ideas troubled Asahel Nettleton and those like him.

For Finney, consistently with Arminian views on the subject, election is built on foreknowledge – “God must have foreknown who would and who would not have been saved.” Individual selection, unto salvation was done just as it is in accordance with moral government. “If any part of mankind is saved, it is because God can wisely save them.” In the wisest possible administration of his government, God “can bring sufficient moral influence to bear upon” those particular person to convert them without violating the voluntary nature of all human decision. The same successful moral suasion, however cannot be brought upon every individual. Persons are chosen to eternal life as God foresees “that in the perfect exercise of their freedom, they could be induced to repent and embrace the Gospel” This pushes the supposed inviolability and independence of the human will into eternity as the determiner of God’s intentions.

According to that principle, Finney viewed sin as purely voluntary and theoretically avoidable. There is no original corruption of nature. The wicked heart must be seen as the voluntary state of the will “setting up his own interest in opposition to the interest and government of God, or seeking to “promote his own private happiness, in a way that is opposed to the general good.”

Given the nature of depravity, it is not surprise that regeneration is seen a voluntary alteration of one’s ultimate intention.” The change of heart that constitutes regeneration means “changing the controlling preference of the mind in regard to the end of pursuit” (Sinners Bound to Change 9). Finney made regeneration analogous to any change of opinion that can be effected in a person by rational argument. Differences between people on any number of matters does not mean that the substance of their minds, bodies, or rationality is different. This variety comes from “the voluntary state of mind in which they are.” Finney does not imply that God “must preclude himself from throwing in moral influences to affect their action.” He did insist, however, “that their liberty of moral action must not be abridged.” If, then, God works upon the sinner by means of his providence and his spirit, to the utmost extent he wisely can, and all in vain, there remains nothing more which, as a moral governor, he can do to save him.” Commands always imply present ability. The natural ability to perform a command must include the moral ability. There can be no aspect of inability if persons are true moral agents to whom moral commands apply. Sinners, therefore, must change their own hearts. Again the final, determining factor in the man-God relationship is the inviolability of the human will.

Finney saw that fundamental to the Reformed concept of innate moral corruption was the system of imputation. He considered that system, therefore, immoral. In Finney’s theology, justification and atonement lose any content of specific substitution. The atonement falls in line with the moral government theory, justification is forgiveness and voluntary obedience unto holiness. “Finally, the greatness of the change requisite in passing from sin to real holiness – from Satan’s kingdom into full fitness for Christ’s, creates no small difficulty in the way of saving even the converted,” Finney preached. Concerning Christ’s obedience in the context of justification, Finney noted, “Had he obeyed for us, he would not have suffered for us. Were his obedience to be substituted for our obedience, he need not certainly have both fulfilled the law for us, as our substitute, under a covenant of works, and at the same time have suffered as a substitute, in submitting to the penalty of the law” (Systematic Theology 206). Connecting the atonement in any way to a substitutionary obedience represents God as requiring: 1. The obedience of our substitute; 2. his suffering, as if no obedience had been rendered; 3.then our repentance, and. 4. our return to personal obedience. And then, legal requirements having been fulfilled, salvation is ascribed to grace. “Strange grace this, that requires a debt to be paid several times over, before obligation is discharged” (ST 206)!

Having done with any imputation, the atonement is general because of its nature. It has no vital and organic connection with the forgiveness of sins, but is only as expedient on the part of God to bring about repentance on the part of the sinner. In such an atonement, there is no “lack of provision in the atonement to cover all the wants of sinners, and even to make propitiation for the sins of the world. The Bible nowhere raises the question as to the entire sufficiency of the atonement to do all that an atonement can do or need do for the salvation of our race.” The atonement only serves for salvation when a sinner uses the occasion of the atonement to reason with God he can be forgiven since he sees in the death of Christ a call for sincere repentance and an unalterable determination to do the will of God. Nothing efficacious flows from Christ’s atoning work, but its operation to salvation is suspended on the sinner’s decision to repent. And then it has no causative connection with the forgiveness of sins.

Given his understanding of human ability and the nature of justification, it should come as no surprise that Finney believed perfection as endemic to salvation and necessarily connected with true faith. In fact, so Finney asserted, perfect holiness is attainable and essential to salvation. “The command to be holy implies the practicability of becoming so.” Those who do not believe it possible in this life are not true believers. “They do not believe God’s word of promise. They have no faith that men can become holy in this life, yet they say they believe in Christ.” Are they believers if they do not believe that Christ saves them from their sins, that is, even from sinning n this life.

The repercussions of this radical denial of the corrupting power of sin, the affirmation of the converting power of the human will and the perfection of human obedience, and the ultimate concern of God to honor human desire at every level of the work of the triune God for salvation reshaped evangelical Christianity and set a trajectory of theological development with a wild variety of religious extensions.


Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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