The Influence of Charles Finney
September 10, 2020
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
The evangelistic campaigns of the D.L. Moody era and beyond were built on principles and techniques that were established by Charles Finney (1792-1875), who conducted crusades in the late 1820s and early 1830s.

“It has been said ‘evangelism entered modernity with him.’ It was Finney who originated many of the methods used by such famous revivalists as Moody, Chapman, and Mills, who in turn passed them on to be adapted later by men such as Billy Sunday and Billy Graham” (“Charles G. Finney--Prototype of the Modern Evangelist,” Ministry magazine, Nov. 1976).

Finney’s innovations included such things as a special choir and a musical chorister*; special revival hymns and revival songbooks; interdenominational cooperation; protracted meetings; aggressive advertising; the creation of an exciting atmosphere; manipulation of emotions or “excitements”; a de-emphasis on the necessity of the work of the Spirit in conviction and regeneration (in practice); a de-emphasis on looking for such work before leading people in a profession; a de-emphasis on looking for evidence of salvation; the invitation system as a specific, organized methodology; the anxious bench and the idea that a professor in Christ should “do something” physical, such as standing and coming forward; quick dealing with souls who respond; an emphasis on the numbers of attendees and professions; and an emphasis on weighing methods by “success.”

(* Finney’s chorister was Thomas Hastings, author of 600 hymn texts and 1,000 hymn tunes, including that for “Rock of Ages.” Hastings wrote this tune and introduced the hymn in Finney’s six-month revival campaign in Rochester, New York, in 1830.)

Finney called these the “
new measures.” He created a revivalist package specifically geared to produce “decisions.” Everything was structured for this purpose: The atmosphere, the introduction, the type of music, the type of preaching, the mechanics of the invitation.

“If not all of the ‘new measures’ were entirely original with Finney, nevertheless he did modify them and amalgamate them into a completely new approach to evangelism, an approach that later revivalists adapted to the changing times but never basically altered” (Ministry magazine, Nov. 1976).

Many of the things that Finney did were not against Scripture and therefore were not wrong. It is right to urge men to repent and trust Christ today instead of waiting for some mysterious “effectual call of God” as many Calvinists of Finney’s day wrongly taught.

It is not wrong to advertise the gospel and to get as many sinners as possible to attend gospel preaching so long as the advertising is not exalting a preacher or some other sort of carnal thing.

It is not wrong to use gospel music if it is scriptural in its message and not worldly in its sound. God’s people are commanded to sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs, and there is nothing in the New Testament that forbids such singing in the context of an evangelistic meeting, but we should not forget that when it comes to evangelism, the Bible emphasizes preaching far above singing.

It is not wrong to invite men to an “anxious room” so that they can be dealt with personally after gospel preaching. People
should be invited to come and be helped. But everything about this must be done carefully and wisely. There should be no time limit on the dealing, no pressure whatsoever about time, which means it shouldn’t be done right in the meeting itself, with the expectation that it will be finished before the closing prayer. The dealing with souls should be thorough and should continue as long as necessary, if it is hours, days, months, or years.

It is not wrong to innovate for the sake of bringing men to Christ. He has commanded us to preach the gospel to every creature, and we should certainly plan how to do this big job. We don’t need to be “stuck in a rut.” We don’t repeat the same things that we have seen and been taught.
But every plan, every technique, must be tested carefully and prayerfully by the Word of God to make sure it is not contrary to any Scriptural precept.

Though innovation itself is not wrong so long as it is not contrary to God’s Word, there is great danger for Finney-style “new measures” to produce false professions and emotional decisions that are not the product of God’s Spirit, and we are confident that this has happened to multitudes of people who have been manipulated by man-made methodology and human pragmatism. Lewis Sperry Chafer, who worked in evangelism for 17 years from 1890 to 1907, warned of “the appalling percentage of failures in the ranks of supposed converts” (
True Evangelism, 1911). We give evidence of this throughout this book.

We must understand that Finney’s evangelistic methodologies were built upon false doctrine. He didn’t merely reject some form of Calvinism, he rejected the Bible. He held some extremely serious heresies. He denied original sin, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, imputed righteousness, justification by God’s grace alone through faith alone without works, the new birth as a supernatural miracle, and eternal security.

Finney preached a works gospel. He taught that man is not born with a corrupt nature, but that he has the power to sin or not to sin and that he is not under the judgment of God for Adam’s sin but is judged only for his own sin. Finney taught that Christ died, not as a substitutionary atonement for man’s sin, not in the sinner’s place, but as an example of how that God loves sinners and hates sin. If sinners understand this and turn from sin, they will be saved. Regeneration is to change one’s actions, and one is kept saved by walking in perfect holiness.

“According to Finneyism, the atonement saves us by example. In the death of Christ, we see how much God loves us, we see how much sin cost God, and we are humbled and moved to repent and obey God’s moral law. Salvation in Finneyism is nothing more nor less than obedience to the moral law of God, of which every man is naturally capable because he is a completely free moral agent” (Leon Stump, “Charles G. Finney Justification by Faith,” Life Lines, Oct.-Dec. 1999).

Following are shocking quotes from Finney’s Lectures in Systematic Theology. Finney was a philosopher, not a simple Bible teacher. He depended upon his human reason rather than the clear statements of God’s Word. He leaned to his own understanding.

"Original sin, physical regeneration, and all their kindred and resulting dogmas, are alike subversive of the gospel, and repulsive to the human intelligence; and should be laid aside as relics of a most unreasonable and confused philosophy.” (Lecture 42)

“If the Psalmist [Ps. 51:5] 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!” (Lecture 23)

“[Psalm 58:3, ‘The wicked are estranged from the womb, they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies’] must mean like the text last examined, that the wicked are estranged and go astray from the commencement of their moral agency. If it means more than this, it is not and cannot be true.” (Lecture 36)

“[Ephesians 2:3, ‘By nature the children of wrath, even as others’] Upon this text I remark 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.” (Lecture 33)

“[Christ dying as our substitute] 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; but the promise and oath of God that Christ shall have a seed to serve him does.” (Lecture 32)

“The fact is, when Dr. Woods and others insist that Regeneration is the work or a work of God, they tell the truth but not the whole truth. For it is also the work of man and of the subject.” (Lecture 39)

“But if Christ owed personal obedience to the moral law, then his obedience could no more than justify himself. It can never be imputed to us. He was bound for himself to love God with all his heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and his neighbour as himself. He did no more than this. He could do no more. It was naturally impossible, then, for him to obey in our behalf. This doctrine of the imputation of Christ's obedience to the moral law to us, is based upon the absurd assumptions, (1.) That the moral law is founded in the arbitrary will of God, and (2.) That of course, Christ, as God, owed no obedience to it; both of which assumptions are absurd. But if these assumptions are given up, what becomes of the doctrine of an imputed righteousness, as a ground of a forensic justification? "It vanishes into thin air.” (Lecture 56)

“This doctrine of an imputed obedience for righteousness, or of that Christ’s obedience to the law was accounted as our obedience, is founded on a false assumption. Christ’s obedience could do no more than justify himself. It can never be imputed to us. It is naturally impossible for him to obey in our behalf as a proxy.” (Lecture 36)

“But for sinners to be forensically pronounced just, is impossible and absurd. ... As has already been said, there can be no justification in a legal or forensic sense, but upon the ground of universal, perfect, and uninterrupted obedience to law. This is of course denied by those who hold that gospel justification, or the justification of penitent sinners, is of the nature of a forensic or judicial justification [that Christ died in the place of sinners]. They hold to the legal maxim that what a man does by another he does by himself, and therefore the law regards Christ’s obedience as ours, on the ground that he obeyed for us.” (Lecture 36)

“God works or draws, and the sinner yields or turns, or which is the same thing, changes his heart, or, in other words, is born again. The sinner is dead in trespasses and sins. God calls on him, ‘Awake thou that sleepest, arise from the dead that Christ may give thee light.’ God calls; the sinner hears and answers, Here am I. God says, Arise from the dead. The sinner puts forth his activity, and God draws him into life; or rather God draws, and the sinner comes forth to life.” (Lecture 39)

“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.” (Lecture 39)

“But again, to the question, can man be justified while sin remains in him? Surely he cannot, either upon legal or gospel principles, unless the law be repealed. That he cannot be justified by the law, while there is a particle of sin in him, is too plain to need proof. But can he be pardoned and accepted, and then justified, in the gospel sense, while sin, any degree of sin, remains in him? Certainly not.” (Lecture 15)

“Whenever he sins, he must, for the time being, cease to be holy. This is self-evident. Whenever he sins, he must be condemned; he must incur the penalty of the law of God ... If it be said that the precept is still binding upon him, but that with respect to the Christian, the penalty is forever set aside, or abrogated, I reply, that to abrogate the penalty is to repeal the precept, for a precept without penalty is no law. It is only counsel or advice. The Christian, therefore, is justified no longer than he obeys, and must be condemned when he disobeys...” (Lecture 2, original edition)

“By sanctification’s being a condition of justification, the following things are intended. (1.) That present, full, and entire consecration of heart and life to God and his service is an unalterable condition of present pardon of past sin, and of present acceptance with God. (2.) That the penitent soul remains justified no longer than this full hearted consecration continues.” (Lecture 53)

“We shall see that perseverance in obedience to the end of life is also a condition of justification.” (Lecture 53)

Finney also had a major role in turning the churches from Christ’s Great Commission to social reform. “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” (Michael Horton, “The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney,”

This program continued to gain steam in the days of Billy Sunday before World War II, as we will see. His message focused on Christianizing America. He advertised his campaigns as “civic clean-ups.” He preached against dancing, card playing, gambling, theater-going, commercial dishonesty, drinking, not just for the sanctification of individual believers and churches, but for the conversion of America. Sunday’s preaching and campaigning was a major force in the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919, prohibiting the manufacture, transportation, and sell of intoxicating liquor. He invited his hearers to become better Americans and to make America a better country. He said, “Do you want God’s blessing on you, your home, your church, your nation, on New York? If you do, raise your hands. ... How many of you men and women will jump to your feet and come down and say, Bill, here’s my hand for God, for home, for my native land, to live and conquer for Christ? ... Come on down and take my hand against booze, for Jesus Christ, for your flag” (“Era of the Evangelist,”, Apr. 28, 2010; William McLoughlin,
Modern Revivalism, p. 434).

The program of social reform toward the Christianization of America has continue up to this day among many fundamentalists. Prominent examples are Carl McIntire’s American Council of Christian Churches and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.

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