Wednesday, August 15, 2012

On the Sawdust Trail: The Ministry and Teaching of Charles Finney

The ministry and teaching of the nineteenth century revivalist Charles Finney was and continues to be surrounded by controversy. Some hail Finney as a bold innovator; others regard him as a dangerous heretic.

In Finney’s theology we are saved by our own efforts. Even John Wesley, the father of Evangelical Arminianism, recognized that divine influence plays a role in our salvation—the prevenient grace of Philippians 2:13 and Article X.

For those unfamiliar with the controversy surrounding Finney, I am posting a number of articles about Finney, his ministry, and his teaching.

Charles Finney and The Altar Call

I recently came across two posts which led me to spend some time considering the legacy of Charles Finney.

First, I read this post by Ryan Debarr: “Depravity and the Altar Call, part one“. Ryan focuses on the altar call (or the invitation) in respect to Christians, not its evangelistic use. I agree with him that the altar call’s emphasis on making decisions may very well harm true Christian growth. Ryan says, “Rarely does a person give up a sin with a one-time act of the will….We should be more honest with people. It is usually not so easy as a mouthing a few words one time.” Read more

Read also
Walk the Aisle
Dr. Lloyd-Jones on the Altar Call

A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing: How Charles Finney’s Theology Ravaged the Evangelical Movement

It is ironic that Charles Grandison Finney has become a poster boy for so many modern evangelicals. His theology was far from evangelical. As a Christian leader, he was hardly the model of humility or spirituality. Even Finney's autobiography paints a questionable character. In his own retelling of his life's story, Finney comes across as stubborn, arrogant—and sometimes even a bit devious.

Finney's ministry was founded on duplicity from the beginning. He obtained his license to preach as a Presbyterian minister by professing adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith. But he later admitted that he was almost totally ignorant of what the document taught. Here, in Finney's own words, is a description of what occurred when he went before the council whose task it was to determine if he was spiritually qualified and doctrinally sound…. Read more

The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney

Jerry Falwell calls him "one of my heroes and a hero to many evangelicals, including Billy Graham." I recall wandering through the Billy Graham Center some years ago, observing the place of honor given to Charles Finney in the evangelical tradition, reinforced by the first class in theology I had at a Christian college, where Finney’s work was required reading. The New York revivalist was the oft-quoted and celebrated champion of the Christian singer Keith Green and the Youth With A Mission organization. He is particularly esteemed among the leaders of the Christian Right and the Christian Left, by both Jerry Falwell and Jim Wallis (Sojourners’ magazine), and his imprint can be seen in movements that appear to be diverse, but in reality are merely heirs to Finney’s legacy. From the Vineyard movement and the Church Growth Movement to the political and social crusades, televangelism, and the Promise Keepers movement, as a former Wheaton College president rather glowingly cheered, "Finney, lives on!"

That is because Finney’s moralistic impulse envisioned a church that was in large measure an agency of personal and social reform rather than the institution in which the means of grace, Word and Sacrament, are made available to believers who then take the Gospel to the world. In the nineteenth century, the evangelical movement became increasingly identified with political causes-from abolition of slavery and child labor legislation to women’s rights and the prohibition of alcohol. In a desperate effort at regaining this institutional power and the glory of "Christian America" (a vision that is always powerful in the imagination, but, after the disintegration of Puritan New England, elusive), the turn-of-the century Protestant establishment launched moral campaigns to "Americanize" immigrants, enforce moral instruction and "character education." Evangelists pitched their American gospel in terms of its practical usefulness to the individual and the nation.

That is why Finney is so popular. He is the tallest marker in the shift from Reformation orthodoxy, evident in the Great Awakening (under Edwards and Whitefield) to Arminian (indeed, even Pelagian) revivalism. evident from the Second Great Awakening to the present. To demonstrate the debt of modern evangelicalism to Finney, we must first notice his theological departures. From these departures, Finney became the father of the antecedents to some of today’s greatest challenges within evangelical churches, namely, the church growth movement, Pentecostalism and political revivalism. Read more

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."[1] 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.[2] 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…. Read more

Case Studies in Easy-Believism

The most prominent evangelist of the mid-19th Century was Charles G. Finney, a Presbyterian who developed the altar call as a device to get decisions in his meetings. Ian Murray, in Revivals and Revivalism, says that Finney "believed that all that was needed for conversion was a resolution signified by standing, kneeling, or coming forward, and because the Holy Spirit always acts when a sinner acts, the public resolution could be treated as `identical with the miraculous inward change of sudden conversion'."

Finney believed that conversions could be obtained by the "use of means" to get people to walk the aisle, and he seemed to get results. But many of his converts fell away soon after making their "decision." One of his ministry associates, in a letter to Finney, stated: "Let us look over the fields where you and I have labored as ministers and what is now their normal state? What was their state within 3 months after we left them? I have visited and revisited many of these fields and groaned in spirit to see the sad, frigid, carnal, and contentious state into which the churches have fallen and fallen very soon after we first departed from among them."

Something was wrong - people were making "decisions," but they were not demonstrating the fruits of salvation…. Read more

Charles Finney and the Legacy of ‘Easy-Believism’

“If you are not sure if you are saved, raise your hand. I see that hand. I see that hand. If you raised your hand, come to the front. Those who have come to the front, if you want to be saved, pray this prayer after me… Dear Jesus,(Dear Jesus), I know I’m a sinner (I know I’m a sinner).. etc. etc.

How many times have you seen this scene played out at the yearly revival service, at Vacation Bible School, youth camp or the annual ‘Judgment House’ on Halloween night? Maybe it is not this pronounced but some version of this senario may happen every week at your church. When did the church begin to believe that we had to help God out in the salvation of sinners? Read more

Video: Charles Finney and the Heresy of American Pelagianism (White Horse Inn)

"Why have the doctrines of grace been so difficult to take root in the American soil? What is it about the way we think and act as a people that makes Pelagianism so common, if not our very "default setting?" On this edition of the White Horse Inn, the hosts will continue their discussion of Pelagianism, with a particular focus on its influence in American religion and practice." View video

Beware of False Prophets: The Case Against Charles G. Finney DVD

“The eighteenth-century lawyer-turned-preacher, Charles Finney, impacted American Christianity in ways that have yet to be fully measured. His legacy is still wielding significant influence over modern evangelicalism. This new documentary from Apologetics Group and examines Finney’s theology and sheds gospel light on some of the more damaging aspects of his teaching.” — Dr. Tom Ascol, Editor, The Founder’s Journal

For years Charles G. Finney has gotten a free ride from evangelical preachers and churches for various reasons, but mostly because few had ever taken the time to read his obtuse books or even try to understand his theology. Many supposedly came to Christ under him, and that was enough to convince the multitudes that he must be sound and Biblical.

But now a number of writers and theologians are opening the door to his theology, and many are shocked to see what he truly believed – Charles G. Finney was clearly and undeniably a heretic—he did not preach nor teach the true gospel, as set forth in the Scriptures. In fact it is not an exaggeration to say that he was one of the greatest heretic’s of church history! And this is why the current work by Jerry Johnson and is so valuable—it exposes the reality of Finney’s false and damnable theology. Read more and view video

Charles Finney’s Influence on American Evangelicalism: Exposing Charles Finney's Heretical Teachings

Nineteenth Century evangelist Charles Finney is often credited with being a major force in the so-called "second great awakening” in America. The converted lawyer is well known for making shocking statements that upset the commonly held beliefs of most evangelicals. The following statement about the millennium is illustrative: "If the Church will do all her duty, the millennium may come in this country in three years.”1 He also believed that if the church had cooperated fully with the type of revivalism he espoused it would have already brought about the millennium: "If the whole Church, as a body, had gone to work ten years ago, and continued it as a few individuals, whom I could name, have done, there might not now have been an impenitent sinner in the land. The millennium would have fully come into the United States before this day.”2

Finney believed that a golden age of Christianity, in which Christ is honored, God’s moral law obeyed, and the need for further revivals ended could be brought about by the activities of the church.3 There are several problems with this, the greatest of which is that the Bible does not teach it. As we will see, Finney felt free to depart from Biblical orthodoxy in order to promote his ideals.

Charles Finney had a series of beliefs that are akin to the Pelagian heresy of the 5th century.4 These beliefs, and a basic philosophical premise that led Finney to them, help explain his post-millennialism and views on revival. My thesis is that Charles Finney’s theology and legacy has had a strong and adverse influence on American evangelicalism. Read more

Further articles about Charles Finney can be found on the “Finneyism” page on the Monogeism website and the “Heretics and Heresies” page on the Sovereign Truth Ministries web site.

I leave Anglicans Ablaze readers to draw their own conclusions regarding Finney’s orthodoxy.

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