On August 29, 1792, one of the most influential figures in evangelical history was born. His name is Charles Grandison Finney, arguably the Father of the Modern-Day Crusades Movement. His “new measures” and “excitements” turned out to be precursors to the modern contemporary worship service and his “anxious bench” to revivalism’s altar call. He is the hero of Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell (“one of my greatest heroes”), Greg Laurie and all other modern-day “crusaders.”
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But what kind of hero is Finney? For sure, he was a great revivalist preacher and teacher during the so-called Second Great Awakening. But what most evangelicals would be shocked to find out, if they just did a little reading, is that Finney rejected many basic orthodox Christian doctrines.
Original Sin: A “Monstrous and Blasphemous Dogma”
Foremost is his opposition to the doctrine of original sin. He begins by distinguishing between physical and moral sin as he discusses Scriptures that talk about man’s sinful nature:
These extracts show, that the framers and defenders of [the Westminster] confession of faith, account for the moral depravity of mankind by making it to consist in a sinful nature, inherited by natural generation from Adam. They regard the constitution inherited from Adam, as in itself sinful, and the cause of all actual transgression. They make no distinction between physical and moral depravity. They also distinguish between original and actual sin.
Adam’s sin was not as covenant head of mankind–he represented every human being who would ever live–and we sin not because we inherit Adam’s sinful nature, but only because we follow his disobedience.
Finney denies in no uncertain terms the clear teaching in Psalm 51:5 regarding man’s sinful nature even at conception:
But we have seen that the law does not legislate over substance, requiring men to have a certain nature, but over voluntary action only. If the Psalmist really intended to affirm, that the substance of his body was sinful from its conception, then he not only arrays himself against God’s own definition of sin, but he also affirms sheer nonsense. The substance of an unborn child sinful! It is impossible!
His condemnation of original sin is also exemplified in his comments on Ephesians 2:3:
That it cannot, consistently with natural justice, be understood to mean, that we are exposed to the wrath of God on account of our nature. It is a monstrous and blasphemous dogma, that a holy God is angry with any creature for possessing a nature with which he was sent into being without his knowledge or consent. The Bible represents God as angry with men for their wicked deeds, and not for their nature.
He expresses his disgust for the doctrine, calling it :
a stumbling-block both to the church and the world, infinitely dishonourable to God, and an abomination alike to God and the human intellect, and should be banished from every pulpit, and from every formula of doctrine, and from the world. It is a relic of heathen philosophy, and was foisted in among the doctrines of Christianity by Augustine
I have spoken to many evangelicals who are Pelagian with regards to the doctrine of original sin, denying with Finney that all mankind are born with Adam’s sinful nature, and being greatly offended when they hear that their cute, cuddly little babies are sinners even from their mother’s womb.
“The computer won’t boot up,” was the most common saying at the dawn of the personal computer era. “Boot up” in this lingo was derived from the idiom “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” an exhortation to make yourself better by your own efforts, without help from anyone else.
Finney’s denial of original sin naturally led to his doctrine of “bootstraps salvation,” in which a person is able to save himself through his own efforts in imitating Christ’s life and sacrifice. If we sin because we follow Adam’s disobedient example, so we can save ourselves by following Jesus’ moral example of doing good works, including his suffering and death on the cross.
For Finney, regeneration is ultimately man making the choice to cooperate with God, not the work of God alone in making a person a new creation:
We have seen that the subject is active in regeneration, that regeneration consists in the sinner changing his ultimate choice, intention, preference; or in changing from selfishness to love or benevolence; or, in other words, in turning from the supreme choice of self-gratification, to the supreme love of God and the equal love of his neighbour. Of course the subject of regeneration must be an agent in the work…
The work accomplished is a change of choice, in respect to an end or the end of life. The sinner whose choice is changed, must of course act. The end to be chosen must be clearly and forcibly presented: this is the work of the third person, and of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit takes of the things of Christ and shows them to the soul. The truth is employed, or it is truth which must necessarily be employed, as an instrument to induce a change of choice.
A person thus regenerates himself by choosing to follow Christ’s supreme moral example of suffering and giving himself as the sacrifice for others to imitate.
Substitutionary Atonement a “Strange Grace”
This then led Finney to conclude that Christ’s death on the cross is not a substitionary atonement for the sins of his people:
The atonement would present to creatures the highest possible motives to virtue. Example is the highest moral influence that can be exerted. If God, or any other being, would make others benevolent, he must manifest benevolence himself. If the benevolence manifested in the atonement does not subdue the selfishness of sinners, their case is hopeless…
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.
He finds it strange that God requires us to be perfectly holy if Christ’s perfect obedience was sufficient for our salvation:
If [Christ] obeyed the law as our substitute, then why should our own return to personal obedience be insisted upon as a sine quÃ non of our salvation? The idea that any part of the atonement consisted in Christ’s obeying the law for us, and in our stead and behalf, represents God as requiring: (i.) The obedience of our substitute. (ii.) The same suffering, as if no obedience had been rendered. (iii.) Our repentance. (iv.) Our return to personal obedience. (v.) And then represents him as, after all, ascribing our salvation to grace. Strange grace this, that requires a debt to be paid several times over, before the obligation is discharged!
God’s design of Christ dying as our substitute is a “strange grace” because it
assumes that the atonement was a literal payment of a 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 any one.
Heretic Finney’s Heretic Children Today
When a former Wheaton College president once declared, “Finney lives on!” it was not an empty boast.
Finney’s “new measures” live on in our altar calls, with its repeated calls to make “decisions for Christ,” contradicting Scriptures’ clear assertions that man is hostile to God, slave to sin, not able to understand or seek after God, and dead in sin.
Finney lives on in our “contemporary” worship services, where the worship of God has been overturned into attracting pagans by gimmicks and all kinds of creative entertainment.
Finney lives on in the “prosperity gospel” churches, where the true gospel has been replaced by the “name it and claim it” message, because salvation is not by faith in Christ who died and rose again to save us from the wrath of God, but by being a good person, imitating Christ, and reaping all the blessings thereafter.