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Casting Out The Ghost Of Charles Finney

haunted hands

Summary: During the Second Great Awakening, Revivalist, Charles Finney preached that Christians live in constant danger of losing their salvation. Nearly 200 years later, the Protestant Church is still haunted by many of the same fears. Is there hope for the struggling? In this article, apologist, Ben Fischer, offers a unique look at the teaching of Charles Finney in light of his ominous departure from multiple Protestant confessions of faith. To subscribe to future blog posts, click here.


The Work of Charles Finney

In a book widely read amongst early Charismatic Christians, itinerant teacher and preacher, Arthur Wallis, wrote the following: “It would be impossible to estimate the influence exerted on revival...all over the world over the past hundred years by Charles [Finney]...” [1]

Arthur Wallis was an able revival historian. He was a strong proponent for the baptism in the Holy Spirit. His classic work on the fundamentals of revival has received great attention from many noted evangelical leaders. His rich recounting’s of various Christian movements have blessed the lives of countless praying readers, inspiring students in the subject of revival to the study of its various foundational precepts.

“Behind [this] message,” writes Wallis, “is the solemn conviction that…we are surely moving toward a day of God’s power.” [2] “[R]evival is a thing of special times and seasons.” [3] “It is God revealing Himself to man in...irresistible [force].” [4] Noting various revivalists, Wallis promotes the work of American evangelist, Charles Grandison Finney, noting as he does, the enormous conviction which attended his preaching throughout the period of the second Great Awakening.

Quoting from Finney directly, Wallis relates: “An awful solemnity seemed to settle upon the people...[T]he congregation began to every direction….If I had...a sword in each hand [I] could not have cut them down...[faster].” [5] The house where Finney spoke thus shook with fear as the people who listened wailed in contorted and ghastly terror. It was an outward exercise of a powerful inward work—one which was reportedly initiated by the hand of almighty God.

But how did Charles Finney view his own ministry? How did he interpret the signs which attended his fearsome pronouncements? History seems to show that the lawyer-turned-preacher saw the fruit of his work as proof that he had somehow “cracked the gospel.” He wrote: “For hundreds of years little of the true Gospel has been preached to the world without being clogged with [false] theology.” [6] Finney thus sought to advance his own message. In many respects, the state of Christianity has never been the same.

“Saved and Saved Again!"

Few men as Finney have so shaped American religion. His life literally marks a watershed in the chapters of church history. [7] Historian, Mark Noll, in fact, described the fiery preacher as the most crucial figure in American evangelicalism after Jonathan Edwards. [8] Yet a personal friend of Finney also disturbingly described him as “impassioned to the borders of impetuosity” and “original to the borders of heresy.” [9] For this reason, Charles Finney presents a formidable challenge to the Christian inquirer seeking to comprehend his life.

Some time ago, I began to reevaluate Finney. I sought to give myself to the study of his ministry. As I did, I became increasingly amazed at his numerous brash denouncings of important gospel tenants. I slowly became aware that Finney’s influence had (potentially) maimed the very heart and soul of American Christianity. In fact, his impact is still evident today in a Church which struggles greatly to embrace a basic, biblical identity.

Soon after commencing my work, I met with a victim of Finney’s influence. I enjoyed a wonderful breakfast with an honorable Christian brother. The quality of his character was clear throughout the meal, as he spoke with a kind tone and displayed a gentle, Christ-like demeanor. Yet he also admitted to struggling in seasons with being able to maintain a sense of certainty regarding his own salvation. Inquiry into his background revealed the reasons why, displaying exactly the kinds of problems which have been passed down to us through Finney.

“For the better portion of my early days,” he said to me, “I wrestled with being endlessly uncertain. I responded to virtually every altar call I ever heard. I must have ‘gotten saved’ in over a hundred different meetings.” He then noted, “Finally, a prayer minister at a large, national conference told me that I needed to learn to quit my pleading! For some curious reason, I struggled tremendously with trying to fathom the basis for my own personal salvation.”

Upon hearing the man’s story, I immediately identified with it. For a period in my life, I had struggled in just the same way. Yet I was also recently keen to the teachings of Charles Finney which had somehow managed to render plausible the basis for such doubts. For example, in his lectures on systematic theology, Finney wrote: “The justified no longer than he obeys...” [10] Thus according to the “principle preacher” of America’s Second Great Awakening, the sinning Christian becomes just as lost as though he had never been converted.

This was the central crux to Charles Finney’s theology. It was the guiding precept in his peculiar blend of teaching. He viewed the sinning soul as wholly reprobate to God, even if the same soul was clearly, thoroughly Christian. He wrote: “Whenever [a Christian] sins, he….must incur the penalty of...God…” [11] Such was the view which Finney promoted in his meetings. He then added that if justification were to ward away the penalty due, then this would have the effect of repealing the law of God! [12]

Again, Finney stated: “...full present obedience is a condition of justification….man [cannot] be justified while sin remains in him…” [13] For this reason, Finney taught the need for total, sinless surrender. He then claimed, “...Whenever a Christian sins he...must repent and do his first works, or be lost.” [14] By these sorts of statements, Charles Finney arrested the breathless attention of his fretfully anxious audiences.

An Imperious Gospel

But what were such statements truly intended to accomplish? Did Finney’s claims genuinely tally with the gospel? Or had the harrowing preacher merely succeeded in persuading his listeners to momentarily doubt their own salvation? Although popular revival-lore tends to praise Finney highly, a closer look at his work reveals a very troubling story. In fact, a reasonably good case can be made that this American evangelist completely misunderstood the gospel.

I therefore told the man that a reformation of sorts was in order. I urged him to consider inwardly silencing Finney’s voice. For the problem with such a teaching is that it preaches a new gospel, a point which the revivalist was apparently, hale to admit. He plainly acknowledged concerning the familiar sense of grace, “...this is certainly another gospel from the one I am inculcating. It is not a difference merely upon some...theoretic point. It is a point fundamental to the gospel and to salvation…” [15]

Unfortunately, Finney’s darker comments are often misinterpreted. Scholars hold that the lawyer, at times, “overstated his case.” For this reason, it is believed that Finney merely argued for a more “Wesleyan” view of the gospel while rejecting “Calvinist grace.” [16] Those familiar with both names will immediately recall the legendary debate on the subject of God’s foreknowledge vs. man’s free-will. What many theologians, however, have simply failed to acknowledge is that Finney’s views differed radically from those of either men.

To illustrate this point, take the central doctrine of the gospel—namely, the cardinal teaching of the righteousness of faith. Here, Finney completely rejected the notion that God imputes the sinner with righteousness, solely for Jesus’ sake. He commented: “I could not but regard and treat this whole question of imputation as a theological fiction…” [17] Thus the great New York evangelist fervently preached that Christians who stumble momentarily lose their salvation.

This in turn became the spark which ignited Finney’s threats. Whenever he opened his mouth, it was as though he were discharging a cannon. Entire congregations uproariously behaved themselves as though suddenly denuded of the righteousness of Christ! The echoes of his preaching are still felt today in the hearts of countless Christians who secretly live in fear. The big question for us is: Are there any good grounds from reason or from scripture to justify such a belief?

The answer to this critical question is no. Not a single verse of scripture is supportive of this view. In fact, no more eloquent testimony can be proffered here than the revealing admissions of English revivalist, John Wesley. In his own personal writings, the Arminian evangelist declared that his view of the believer’s righteousness was identical to that of Calvin! [18] Some other explanation is therefore needed to show why Finney chose to reject the message of imputation.

Woefully, modern commentators are once again, unhelpful. For Wesley is often cast with Finney as an antagonist of imputation. Thus, holiness preacher, Richard S. Taylor, has alleged that Wesley wholeheartedly denied this core doctrine of the faith. Claiming to quote from Wesley, Richard Taylor wrote: “It is nowhere stated in scripture that Christ’s...righteousness is imputed to us.” [19] He then further belied, “Not a text can be found which contains any enunciation of the doctrine.” [20]

Nothwithstanding, such claims are wholly inconclusive. In fact, Richard Taylor, amazingly, never cited his quote! Instead, John Wesley, when elsewhere referenced, is found to be teaching precisely the opposite point. “We are justified by faith, not by works,” Wesley stated. “So Calvin [taught that]...Christ’s righteousness [is] imputed to us…” [20] He then concluded: “St. Paul affirms this over and over…I affirm it too. Faith is imputed for righteousness.” [22]

Charles Finney therefore stood completely alone. No one in the historic stream of Protestantism agreed with his beliefs. Christians do not enter and exit the kingdom of God like yo-yo’s. Gospel justification is not nearly so tenuous. Yet, what is perhaps the most revealing point about this entire montage is that Calvin and Wesley disagreed on whether a Christian could lose their salvation. Nevertheless, they stood in unity on the believer’s present security, that Christian justification is no precarious thing.

A More Sure Salvation

I thus began to carefully craft my “over-the-table” answer. I encouraged the gentleman to see that such a teaching is biblically unwarranted. For when we compare Charles Finney to other historic revival preachers, his message stands apart as altogether unique. In place of the clear teaching of the gospel of God’s grace, Finney saw repentance and justification as biconditional. The man who fails to ask for forgiveness is therefore unjustified. But the gospel Jesus preached is perpendicular to this teaching.

Scripture clearly states: “Faith comes by hearing…” (Rom 10:16; ESV) It furthermore assures us that we are justified “by faith” (Rom 5:1). This distinctive lies at the very heart of the gospel itself, that man is not the central cause or ground of his salvation. Hence, we are not justified through seeking our forgiveness. Rather, we are forgiven, because by faith, we have been justified. So also, repentance is best understood as altogether separate and distinct from justification.

Two questions, however, still trouble intelligent Christians. The first is how exactly should we interpret Finney’s work? Wasn’t Charles Finney instrumental to American Awakening? Once again, the surprising answer to the question is no. The Second Great Awakening had rather been going on for some twenty years before Finney ever stood to preach. As R. L. Hmyers and Christopher Cagan stated: “Finney only held a prominent place [for] the last ten years.” [23]

Finally, as to the question of the fruits of Finney’s labors, it should be admitted that his work was vastly overstated. Amid the glorious reports of the converting of whole cities, Finney himself admitted that the effects of his preaching were sadly misleading. He wrote: “I was often instrumental in bringing Christians under great conviction, and into a state of temporary repentance….[But] falling short of urging them up to a point...they...soon [relapsed] into their former state…” [24]

The real secret behind Finney’s true successes was thus the period within which he was given by God to preach. Simply put, it was a time of great heavenly down pore, on a scale unseen in Christian America for over a hundred years. Former Principle of the Bible Institute of South Africa, Clive Taylor, fitly described it as time when “...a single look from the evangelist was sufficient to break down souls and [convert them].” [25] Nevertheless, Finney’s ideas deeply wounded the Church. The effects of his message may never fully regress.

Concluding Thoughts

In closing, no spiritual experience which confirms such a teaching should ever be accepted in an uncritical way. Every “new theology” by an evangelist or revivalist should always be compared with the Bible's usage of law and grace. So let’s remember that common torts are never legal grounds for losing or forfeiting our justification. Instead, such stumblings are merely the battlegrounds where we, by faith, prove our justification. In Jesus name. Amen.

Postscript: Ben Fischer Ministries is not only being used by God to touch the lives of skeptics, but also to touch the lives of Christians with the power of the gospel. Would you prayerfully consider partnering with us in this work? Make out your tax deductible donations to the International Ministerial Fellowship or give through our ministries website at: Thank you for helping us to spread the message of Jesus. Remain blessed. ----------------- End Notes: [1]. Arthur Wallis, In The Day Of Thy Power, (© 2010 by Jonathan Wallis for the Arthur Wallis Estate. First published by Christian Literature Crusade, London, © 1956), pgs. 13-14. [2]. Ibid. pg. 20. [3]. Ibid. pg. 24. [4]. Ibid. pg. 25. [5]. Arthur Wallis, In The Day Of Thy Power (© 1956 Christian Literature Crusade; GT. Britain: 39 Ludgate Hill, London, E.C. 4 U.S.A.: Fort Washington, PA. Australia: Sydney, N.S.W.), pg. 67. [6]. Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revival (Minneapolis: Bethany House, © 1988), 234-35. [7]. Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, © 1994), 227. [8]. Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, © 1992), 176. [9]. A. T. Pierson, Evangelistic Work, © 1892, p. 140 [10]. Charles G. Finney; Systematic Theology (© Bethany, 1976), 46. [11]. Ibid. [12]. Ibid. [13]. Ibid. pg. 57. [14]. Ibid. pg. 60. [15]. Charles G. Finney; Systematic Theology (© Richard Max Friedrich, 2002), p. 740. Note: Republication of the © 1851 unabridged edition, published by William Tegg in London. Second Alethea in Heart edition printed in the United States of America.

[16]. Gregory A. Boyd & Paul R. Eddy; Across the Spectrum (Baker Publishing Group; Grand Rapids, MI, © 2002), 134. [17]. Charles G. Finney; Memoirs, (New York; Fleming H. Revell Company, The Trustees of Oberlin College. © 1876) pg. 56. [18]. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, third edition, © 1979), volume V, pp. 240-241. [19]. Richard S. Taylor; A Right Conception Sin (© 1939 Nazarene Publishing House; 2923 Troost Ave., Kansas City, Missouri Printed; Printed In The United States Of America), 44. [20]. Ibid. [21]. Wesley; pp. 240-241. [22]. Ibid. [23]. R. L. Hymers, Jr. and Christopher Cagan, (Today’s Apostasy: How “Decisionism” is Destroying Our Churches; Second Edition, April © 2001) pg. 68. [24]. B. B. Warfield, Studies in Perfectionism, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford, ©1932), 2:24]. [25].

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