Charles Finney: Theology of Revivals

by Hannah Beard

“The center of Edwards’ world was God; the center of Finney’s world was man”.[1] Charles Finney was one of the great American revivalists in the Second Great Awakening. He preached the gospel all over the East Coast and in England and held magnificent revivals that left the masses in awe. Thousands were converted at his meetings and because of this he holds great impact in the American Presbyterian church today. But not all who learn about Finney are captivated by his spiritual influence. His theology and “new measures” have left many people skeptical and has made Finney a controversial figure in history.

Finney studied law for three years before becoming a Christian. His proficiency in the law paved the way for how he would present the Gospel to congregations near and far. Some have said that Finney was obsessed with the Common Law and saw obtaining salvation as following “divinely sanctioned rules”.[2] Because of his obsession with the law, most of Finney’s theology is founded upon a set of moral beliefs, rather than our desperate need for God.[3] In contrast to Calvinistic thought, Finney holds the view that sin is voluntary, so you can essentially work your way up to perfection using the right means and measures.

If sin is voluntary, and we can freely reject Christ, then we can also make the conscious choice to choose Christ. In this case, Christ does not choose us – it is our own human agency that does the work. For Finney, God’s sovereign will is not at work here. This theology developed out of Finney’s conversion experience which involved him concluding on his own that he needed to save his soul. Finney writes, “On a Sabbath evening in the autumn of 1821, I made up my mind that I would settle the question of my soul’s salvation at once, that if it were possible I would make my peace with God”.[4] Finney had decided that his salvation was up to him.[5] This theology conflicts with Calvinism in which Finney struggled with in his early years as a Christian.

While Finney studied law, he also was a choir director at Adams Presbyterian Church in New York. He was faced with theological questions concerning the depravity of man and his soul’s need for salvation as he discussed these topics with his senior pastor. This pastor was a Calvinist and Finney disagreed with most of what he argued theologically. He even went as far as to call Calvinism “cannot-ism”[6] and thought that the Westminster confession on election and predestination was too deterministic and leads to moral passivity.[7] One scholar said, “Finney sees Calvinism as providing a ready excuse for those seeking to evade responsibility for their decisions to reject Christ”.[8] Although Finney rejected a lot of Calvinist theology, he was still ordained as a Presbyterian minister.

Finney does not have many published works of his own, but one that has helped people define his theology is “Lectures on Revivals of Religion”. In this collection of lectures, Finney goes through the process of conversion and how one can be properly converted, using the right means. He writes, “revival is the right use of the appropriate means…but means will not produce a revival, as we all know, without the blessing of God”.[9] He goes on to give the illustration of sowing a seed that has been planted, a metaphor used in Jesus’ teaching. Finney has been criticized for placing too much emphasis on human action, and here it seems he is fighting back. He makes it clear that revival will not happen without the will of God, but we do have a responsibility to create a space where people can be open to a regeneration of the spirit in their lives.

Finney adapted many Methodist and Baptist means for revival and “perfected them” for his own style. In his lectures, Finney says that preaching alone cannot start a successful revival. The standard of religion must be raised first, so that the lives of the preacher and congregation are following what is being preached every Sunday.[10] Finney believed that everyone should be a walking testimony and if they aren’t, they are contradicting themselves. In this way, he promoted modesty and right conduct. He writes, “They make their vows to God, to consecrate themselves wholly to him, and then go bowing down at the shrine of fashion, and then wonder there are no revivals”.[11] It is through this theology that Finney develops the idea of perfecting oneself; to be wholly righteous and innocent before God.

Many evangelical Christians today believe that Jesus Christ “paid the debt” for our sins in order that we can have eternal life. Our sins were imputed onto Jesus so that we could be free from guilt and shame. Finney, on the other hand, has a different idea. He believes that Jesus did not take our sins, because that would violate God’s justice.[12] Rather, our sinfulness is not a part of our inherent nature; we make a choice to engage in sin. In short, he denies the doctrine of original sin. It is here that Finney uses his background in the law to develop his theology of justification. Finney thinks that if Christ had truly suffered the punishment for humanity’s sin, he would have been punished in hell for millions of years and there would have been no resurrection. Therefore, he did not fully take our sin, and we still have a moral obligation to justify ourselves before God.[13] One scholar wrote, “moral depravity replaced physical depravity”.[14]

So why conversion? What is the point of conversion if everything has to do with moral law? Finney believes that conversion happens when a person stops making decisions of self-gratification and starts to make decisions that glorify God instead.[15] The goal of the revivalist is to persuade the sinner to choose to sin no longer.[16] One scholar responds to this by saying, “Echoes of American “can-doism” are easily heard, as in the voice of Poor Richard: “God helps those who help themselves.”.[17] The American spirit of individualism and freedom of choice was clearly present in Finney’s theology on justification.

If Finney believes that Jesus did not pay for our sins, then do we need a savior? Finney would answer no.[18] We can be our own savior if we choose to glorify God with our actions – Jesus teaches us those morals. Many theologians and scholars have said that Finney is a pelagian precisely for this view.[19] If Jesus did not give his life for us, then we must save ourselves through works and having the right means for salvation. Here, Finney is dealing with the heart of the protestant reformation that occurred just a few centuries earlier.

When hearing the question, “are we saved by grace or by works?” many of us protestants immediately will say ‘grace’ with little hesitation. But how often do we act like it? Finney argued that your life needs to match your convictions, or else you are a contradiction.[20] Therefore, Finney stresses the need for the “right” means and measures for revivals. If you are not doing the right things to invite God in, he will not come in. In the same way, if you don’t act like a Christian throughout the week, you are not really a Christian. Some of these new measures included altar calls, calling people by name during a revival, and allowing women to pray.[21]

American churches today have incorporated the altar call, or as Finney called it the “anxious seat”, into normal worship. Finney created this “new measure” as a way for people to publically announce that they need saving. During this time, in the mid 19th century, this anxious seat was radical and exciting. Similarly, today many Christians firmly believe in the spiritual power of altar calls and how they can change someone’s life. Others, roll their eyes when they hear those words and say that it’s just a “spiritual high” and “not real discipleship”. Though, the Presbyterian church would not be where it is today without Finney’s influence. It still struggles with traditional worship vs. contemporary worship, conversion experiences through adult baptism, and altar calls. Although Finney did not focus on some of these issues, I believe they stem from his new measures and his step away from “Old School Calvinism”.

Finney urged congregations to either choose the world or choose Christ.[22] Pastors still preach this message today, but with less urgency, in my opinion. Why was Finney concerned with wasting time? This seemed to be a new concept in this time because many centuries earlier, when the early church was being formed, Christians depended on the Catechumenate for ‘conversion’. I suspect that Finney would not agree with the catechumenate system and would say that it is a huge waste of time. Finney deeply believed that people’s wills were sinful and if they did not repent and get saved, they would burn in hell for eternity. Grace was not a major component in his preaching. This is why he is so urgent when preaching to disregard the world, become modest, live out your faith not only on Sunday but every day and all the time. We are still guilty, and every day must be an opportunity to perfect ourselves so we are holy and blameless before God on judgment day.

Finney brought thousands to Christ. He has greatly increased the kingdom of God and is respected for his hard work in caring for people’s souls. He brought new measures to the Presbyterian church which greatly impacted the growth of congregations and conversion experiences. However, in my opinion, Finney is missing the point. I think he is taking a major step backwards from the Protestant Reformation. Grace is what saves us from our depravity and guilt. And that grace has a name – Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only thing that can bring us back in relationship with God, no matter how bad we have messed up in our lives. Putting emphasis on humans to save themselves is too great a burden to carry, and Jesus lifts that burden from us on the cross. Because we are sinful humans in our inherent nature, we will always be in a cycle of mortification and vivification. In other words, sinning and repenting. This allows us to always be dependent on the grace of God.

Charles Finney is one of America’s great revivalists and theologians and has significantly influenced theology and worship today. His revivals were extremely successful for his time and people were captivated by the new measures that he brought into worship. His theology led people into conversion experiences because of how he presented the gospel, which has been scrutinized and critiqued by later theologians. He was influenced by American ideals of individualism and freedom which captured the minds of his congregants. Though his controversial theological ideas have left many people skeptical, there is no doubt that he helped the Presbyterian church to grow and become what it is today. Altar calls have helped so many people come to Christ and truly experience the work of the Holy Spirit. Giving women a voice in the church has contributed the progress that the Presbyterian church is making to allow women to be ordained. His work will continue to be discussed as new generations explore new ways to experience Christ and his work in our lives.

 

NOTES

[1] William Mcloughlin, Keith Beebe Lecture
[2] Robert H. Abzug and David L. Weddle, “The Law as Gospel: Revival and Reform in the Theology of Charles G. Finney,” Journal of the Early Republic 6, no. 1 (1986): , doi:10.2307/3122683, 1.
[3] Jay E Smith, “The Theology of Charles Finney: A System of Self-Reformation” Trinity Journal 13, no.1 (1992), 1.
[4] Charles G Finney, “Memoirs of Charles G. Finney Written by Himself.” New York: Fleming H Revell (1903), 12.
[5] System of Self-Reformation, 1.
[6] Keith Beebe Lecture
[7] Keith Beebe Lecture
[8] Robert H. Abzug and David L. Weddle, “The Law as Gospel: Revival and Reform in the Theology of Charles G. Finney,” Journal of the Early Republic 6, no. 1 (1986): , doi:10.2307/3122683, 2.
[9] Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion(New York: Leavitt, Lord &, 1835), , accessed April 30, 2018, 12.
[10] Lectures on Revivals of Religion, 141.
[11] Lectures on Revivals, 142.
[12] Lawrence R. Jr Rast, “American Christianity and Its Jesuses.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 71, no.2. (April 2007), 190.
[13] Charles Finney “Systematic Theology” S.l.: E.J. Goodrich, (1851)
[14]Leonard I Sweet, “The View of Man Inherent in New Measures Revivalism” Church History 45, no.2. (1976), 207.
[15] Sean Michael Lucas, “Charles Finney’s Theology of Revival: Moral Depravity.” The Masters Seminary Journal 6, no.2 (1995), 203
[16] Charles Finney’s Theology of Revival: Moral Depravity, 211.
[17] American Christianity and Its Jesuses, 190.
[18] Lawrence R. Jr Rast, “Charles Finney on Theology and Worship” Concordia Theological Quarterly 62, no.1 (1998), 64.
[19] Keith Beebe Lecture
[20] Lectures on Revivals of Religion
[21] Keith Beebe Lecture
[22] J W Weddell “CHARLES G. FINNEY, LAWYER EVANGELIST: THE FORERUNNER OF THE MODERN MEN’S MOVEMENT IN THE CHURCHES.” Review & Expositor 15, no. 2 (1918), 147.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Beebe, Keith. Lecture on Charles Finney. Whitworth University, April 2018.

Finney, Charles G. Charles G. Finney.: Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney Written by Himself. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1903.

Finney, Charles G. Lectures on Revivals of Religion. New York: Leavitt, Lord &, 1835. Accessed April 30, 2018.

Finney, Charles Grandison. Systematic Theology. S.l.: E.J. Goodrich, 1851.

Grossmann, Robert E. 1987. “The Calvinistic Ground of True Evangelism.” Mid-America Journal Of Theology 3, no. 2: 218-235. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed April 30, 2018).

Hardman, Keith. Seasons of Refreshing: Evangelism and Revivals in America. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pubs., 2006.

Lucas, Sean Michael. 1995. “Charles Finney’s Theology of Revival: Moral Depravity.” The Master’s Seminary Journal 6, no. 2: 197-221. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed April 30, 2018).

Rast, Lawrence R Jr. “American Christianity and its Jesuses.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 71, no. 2 (April 2007): 175-194. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed April 30, 2018).

Rast, Lawrence R Jr. 1998. “Charles Finney on Theology and Worship.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 62, no. 1: 63-67. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed April 30, 2018).

Smith, Jay E. 1992. “The theology of Charles Finney: a system of self-reformation.” Trinity Journal 13, no. 1: 61-93. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 30, 2018).

Sweet, Leonard I. 1976. “View of man inherent in new measures revivalism.” Church History 45, no. 2: 206-221. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 30, 2018).