The Heresy of Charles Finney

Among American evangelicals, Finney stands as something of an icon—a paragon of modern evangelism, a hero to folks like Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham. While I am by no means an expert on Finney or early American revivals (I was raised Lutheran, after all), it has been my impression that Finney actually contributed to the loss of the real gospel (Gal 1:6,7) among many protestant groups.

And yes, I’ve never been one to avoid controversy.

Finney is probably the best-known figure of the 2nd “Great Awakening” (the 1st GA featured folks like Jonathan Edwards, who I’ll save for a future post).  Finney was a Presbyterian, though very much a non-Calvinist (this is probably due in part to the influence of the 1st Great Awakening, with its emphasis on free will).

Finney’s theology appears to have been all over the place, but he was definitely in the Arminian camp, and possibly even Pelagian, holding that man had total control to choose good or evil. Furthermore, sin caused man to lose his justification, resulting in what I call “eternal insecurity”:

“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 … The Christian, therefore, is justified no longer than he obeys, and must be condemned when he disobeys or Antinomianism is true … In these respects, then, the sinning Christian and the unconverted sinner are upon precisely the same ground (p. 46, Systematic Theology).”

While Finney claimed to believe in justification by faith, faith for Finney seemed to be a human work. So according to Finney, whether or not you were “saved” appears to depend upon whether you had just sinned or not, or if you repented, whether you had repented sincerely enough.

Dr. Michael Horton, a Presbyterian (and, I believe, a Calvinist), has written a critical analysis of Finney in The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney. He points out that Finney didn’t believe in original sin (and therefore Total Depravity was out of the question), and then discusses Finney’s unorthodox views of the atonement:

The first thing we must note about the atonement, Finney says, is that Christ could not have died for anyone else’s sins than his own. His obedience to the law and his perfect righteousness were sufficient to save him, but could not legally be accepted on behalf of others. That Finney’s whole theology is driven by a passion for moral improvement is seen on this very point: “If he [Christ] had obeyed the Law as our substitute, then why should our own return to personal obedience be insisted upon as a sine qua non of our salvation” (p.206)? In other words, why would God insist that we save ourselves by our own obedience if Christ’s work was sufficient? The reader should recall the words of St. Paul in this regard, “I do not nullify the grace of God’, for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” It would seem that Finney’s reply is one of agreement. The difference is, he has no difficulty believing both of those premises.

That is not entirely fair, of course, because Finney did believe that Christ died for something—not for someone, but for something. In other words, he died for a purpose, but not for people. The purpose of that death was to reassert God’s moral government and to lead us to eternal life by example, as Adam’s example excited us to sin. Why did Christ die? God knew that “The atonement would present to creatures the highest possible motives to virtue. Example is the highest moral influence that can be exerted … If the benevolence manifested in the atonement does not subdue the selfishness of sinners, their case is hopeless” (p.209). Therefore, we are not helpless sinners who need to be redeemed, but wayward sinners who need a demonstration of selflessness so moving that we will be excited to leave off selfishness.

Not only did Finney believe that the “moral influence” theory of the atonement was the chief way of understanding the cross; he explicitly denied the substitutionary atonement, which

“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” (p.217).

Then there is the matter of applying redemption. Throwing off Reformation orthodoxy, Finney argued strenuously against the belief that the new birth is a divine gift, insisting that “regeneration consists in the sinner changing his ultimate choice, intention, preference; or in changing from selfishness to love or benevolence,” as moved by the moral influence of Christ’s moving example (p.224). “Original sin, physical regeneration, and all their kindred and resulting dogmas, are alike subversive of the gospel, and repulsive to the human intelligence” (p.236).
[bold type mine]

While I disagree on points with Horton (as I am not a Calvinist), I do respect him as a theologian and have benefited from his thinking. Finney raises a few points which may have some merit, such as questioning the penal substitution theory or the Calvinist doctrine of perseverance. However, Finney’s theology—such as placing our salvation in our own hands rather than in God’s—is clearly heretical.

Then, there is Finney’s emphasis on personal experience rather than on objective truth (the Word of God), etc. Someday it may prove to be an interesting analysis. But, not today. However, if someone has a contrary point of view, I’d be happy to consider it.


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7 Responses to The Heresy of Charles Finney

  1. Theodore A. Jones says:

    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    Do you think this statement is a heresy too?

    • me says:

      NEVER take verses out of context. Paul is building a logical argument, that progresses past Chapter 2. He is talking here about Jews seeking righteousness through the law; if you want to be righteous under the law, you must keep it, not just know it.

      However, this crumbles as he begins in Chapter 3 verse 10, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” Then, in verse 20, he says “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” And, verses 27 & 28: “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”

      By Chapter 5, Paul explains that the law was never meant to make us righteous; it actually caused sin to increase!

      20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

      Read the whole book of Romans in one sitting, in context. It’s pretty good. And, it’s about grace.

  2. Goodness… anyone who sees grace as ‘inconsistent’ in the light of what Paul teaches, especially in Romans 3, is in serious trouble. It just goes to show that the errors and mistakes evident in the theology of Finney are just as much an issue in the present, so books like yours, Alden, are most certainly needed.

  3. me says:

    Can someone be saved by responding to a false gospel, one that preaches a salvation based on your human effort rather than in the saving grace of God? Paul seems to think that such a preacher deserves eternal damnation (Gal 1:8,9), so obviously he sees the issue as important.

    Apparently works-based religion is still in full force somewhere, considering a comment that appeared on

    Fortunately, the “saving” is not up to us.

  4. What becomes clear about Finney’s ‘systematics’ is that it completely distorts the Biblical understanding of the fall of man, the redemptive work of God and therefore, by extension, the definition of both divine and human natures. It leaves us struggling for a solution, a rescue which must be illicited from within ourselves whereas God’s work can be trusted because it comes from OUTSIDE of us, and therefore our lives can rest in something sure and certain, not our own believism.

  5. Fred says:

    If heresy were banned from the pulpit, nobody would get saved.

  6. Steve Martin says:

    Good post on Finney, Alden.

    I don’t know a whole lot about him, but I know more now (thanks to you).

    He looks like a very affable chap, but I thought the same of Charlie Manson.

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