Finney: Can Sin & Holiness Coexist?

One reason, I think, for the weakness of the Church today (and by Church I mean the universal Church, not any particular denomination) is the acceptance of the idea that a person can be a Christian in good standing with God while actively sinning. Sin is rebellion. How can one be in a state of rebellion and be loving God simultaneously? Yet when we teach this, we are making people comfortable in their sins, allowing them to continue in deception.

Charles Finney 6Charles Finney spoke out forcefully against this all-too-prevalent concept, and I agree with his following comments:

The theory of the mixed character of moral actions is an eminently dangerous theory, as it leads its advocates to suppose that in their acts of rebellion there is something holy, or, more strictly, there is some holiness in them while they are in the known commission of sin.

It is dangerous because it leads its advocates to place the standard of conversion, or regeneration, exceedingly low–to make regeneration, repentance, true love to God, faith, etc., consistent with the known or conscious commission of present sin.

This must be a highly dangerous philosophy. . . . There can scarcely be a more dangerous error than to say, that while we are conscious of present sin, we are or can be in a state of acceptance with God.

Some people reject that analysis because it seems to say that every time one sins, one may lose his salvation. But here is the plain truth of the Scripture: sin separates from God; Jesus came to save us from [Greek word meaning “out of or away from] our sins; our salvation is not just a legal justification through the Cross but a humbling of ourselves and a changed life that makes Jesus Christ Lord of all our motives, thoughts, and actions.

Salvation is not just some technicality because you have prayed a rote prayer. Salvation is an ongoing, continuous relationship with the God of the universe. If the relationship is broken, how can that be called salvation? What have you been saved from if you are continuing in sin?

As the apostle John warned,

If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. . . .

The one who says, “I have come to know Him, and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. . . .

Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. . . .

No one who is born of God practices sin. . . . By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God.

This is not a message of condemnation, but of hope. When we truly commit our lives to the Lord, we will grow in the knowledge of Him and in our ability to turn from those sins that bound us in our former life without Him. If we really know Him, sin becomes the rarity in our lives, not the norm.

Finney: What It Means to Be a Witness

Charles Finney QuoteCharles Finney always spoke out of his vast experience dealing with those who needed to hear the Gospel. In his Revival Lectures, he pinpointed just what Christians are supposed to be doing to help the world understand truth.  Here’s his perspective:

One grand design of God in leaving Christians in the world after their conversions is that they may be witnesses for God. It is that they may call the attention of the thoughtless multitude to the subject, and make them see the difference in the character and destiny of those who believe the Gospel and those who reject it.

Finney speaks of the thoughtless multitude. I believe that’s even more of a problem today. At least in Finney’s time, the American society generally maintained a basic Biblical worldview. In our time, much of that has dissipated. He then becomes specific:

More particularly, Christians are to testify to:

  1. The immortality of the soul. This is clearly revealed in the Bible.
  2. The vanity and unsatisfying nature of all earthly good.
  3. The satisfying nature and glorious sufficiency of religion [by which he means the Christian faith, not some general religious belief[.
  4. The guilt and danger of sinners. On this point they can speak from experience as well as from the Word of God. They have seen their own sins, and they understand more of the nature of sin, and the guilt and danger of sinners.
  5. The reality of hell, as a place of eternal punishment for the wicked.
  6. The love of Christ for sinners.
  7. The necessity of a holy life, if we think of ever getting to heaven.
  8. The necessity of self-denial, and of living above the world.
  9. The necessity of meekness, heavenly-mindedness, humility, and integrity.
  10. The necessity of an entire renovation of character and life, for all who would enter heaven.

A Christian’s witness takes two forms:

How are they to testify? By precept and example. On every proper occasion by their lips, but mainly by their lives. Christians have no right to be silent with their lips; they should “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” (2 Tim. 4:2) But their main influence as witnesses is by their example. . . .

All the arguments in the world will not convince mankind that you really believe this [Christianity], unless you live as if you believe it.

In other words, to resurrect an old cliché, your walk must match your talk.

Sabbatical Update: Wheaton College

I’ve written previously in this blog about the blessing I’ve received for the coming academic year: a sabbatical to do research and writing. I also promised to provide updates. For the past week, I’ve been at Wheaton College in Illinois, delving into the papers of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and also materials relating to C. S. Lewis. I’ll talk about Lewis in tomorrow’s post; today, I’ll focus on Graham.

As a reminder, one of my projects during this sabbatical is to examine the relationship of presidents with their spiritual advisers. An obvious starting place for that is the life and ministry of Billy Graham, who has known each president from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush. Wheaton is the repository for the records of the BGEA. Those records are housed in a magnificent building called the Billy Graham Center.

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I want to offer my sincere thanks for all the help I received while burrowing through the mass of material for more than three days. The staff members are excellent. Their spirit of service is greatly appreciated.

The Center has a very interesting museum depicting the history of evangelism and how America fits into the overall picture of the spreading of the Gospel. It also has some valuable artifacts, such as a copy of the first Bible printed in America during the American Revolution:

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I was also gratified to see a prominent display on the significant contribution of Charles Finney to evangelism in the nineteenth century:

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Naturally, the last half of the museum concentrated on the ministry of Billy Graham, but the spirit of it was excellent, as the focal point was not really Graham himself, but the message he preached and the lives that were changed. The Gospel message was central, as can be shown by this beautiful crystal display of the crucifixion with the poignant Scriptural message underneath:

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My attempt to capture the solemnity and grandeur of the room with the crystal display doesn’t do it justice. There is a sense of awe as you enter that room. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross goes directly to the heart. If you are ever in Wheaton, you must visit this museum and come away inspired by what the Lord has accomplished through so many who have been faithful to His calling.

Finney: The Spirit of Prayer

Charles Finney, in his autobiography, provides excellent details on the many revivals that followed him as he ministered in New York in his early years as an evangelist. Yet while he does credit the message itself, he never falls into the trap of thinking the results came purely through man’s efforts. Prayer, he asserts, is the key to success:

Prayer-FerventIf anything occurred that threatened to mar the work, if there was any appearance of any root of bitterness springing up, or any tendency to fanaticism or disorder, Christians would take the alarm, and give themselves to prayer that God would direct and control all things; and it was surprising to see, to what extent, and by what means, God would remove obstacles out of the way, in answer to prayer.

In regard to my own experience, I will say that unless I had the spirit of prayer I could do nothing. If even for a day or an hour I lost the spirit of grace and supplication, I found myself unable to preach with power and efficiency, or to win souls by personal conversation.

So Finney offers a corrective to all of us who are tempted to move forward in our own strength alone. Without prayer, the Spirit of God is hampered in the work of spreading His truth. We need to do both: speak the truth and pray that God will back up the words we say with His power.

Finney: The Spirit of Prayer

Prayer meetings are supposed to be times when believers can join together to pray for God’s will to be done in the many areas of life—national, local, family, personal—with the promise that where two or three are gathered in His name, Jesus will be present via the Holy Spirit. In his Revival Lectures, Charles Finney cautions believers in his day to be sure they enter into these meeting in the right spirit, and that they not turn them into self-centered endeavors. He comments, rather forcefully,

PrayerA man who knows he is not in a spiritual frame of mind has no business to conduct a prayer-meeting—he will kill it. There are two reasons. First, he will have no spiritual discernment.

A person who is spiritual can see the movements of Providence, and can feel the Spirit of God, and understand what He is leading them to pray for. . . . He will not overthrow all the feeling in a meeting by introducing things that are incongruous or ill-timed. He has spiritual discernment to understand the leadings of the Spirit, and His workings on those who pray; and to follow on as the Spirit leads. . . .

And then, if the leader is not spiritual, he will very likely be dull and dry in his remarks, and in all his exercises. He will give out a long hymn in a dreamy manner, and then read a long passage of Scripture, in a tone so cold that he will spread a wintry pall over the meeting, and it will be dull, as long as his cold heart is placed in front of the whole thing. . . .

Injury is also done when Christians spend all the time in praying for themselves. They should have done this in their own homes. When they come to a prayer-meeting, they should be prepared to offer effectual intercessions for others. . . .

Neglect of secret prayer is yet another hindrance: Christians who do not pray in secret cannot unite with power in a prayer-meeting, and cannot have the spirit of prayer.

For Finney, prayer was not just an exercise or a discipline to be carried out as a form; rather, it was an expectation that God is present, He is listening, and the heart of the one who prays may determine whether that prayer is answered. The Christian life is not external rules, but a relationship with the One who created all things, sustains all things, and loves that which He has created.

Finney: Truth in a Spirit of Love

Charles Finney AutobiographyEverywhere Charles Finney preached, conversions followed. God worked in a great way through the message he brought, which, of course, was nothing less than the genuine gospel. In Finney’s autobiography, after an account of one of the revivals that occurred, he summarized just exactly what he taught in these words:

The doctrines I preached in promoting that revival were those that I have preached everywhere. The total moral, voluntary depravity of unregenerate man; the necessity of a radical change of heart, through the truth, by the agency of the Holy Ghost; the divinity and humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ; his vicarious atonement, equal to the wants of all mankind; the gift, divinity, and agency of the Holy Ghost: repentance, faith, justification by faith, sanctification by faith; persistence in holiness as a condition of salvation; indeed all the distinctive doctrines of the Gospel were stated and set forth with as much clearness, and point, and power, as were possible to me under the circumstances.

A great spirit of prayer prevailed; and after the discussion on baptism [on which the various denominations differed], a spirit of most interesting unity, brotherly love, and Christian fellowship prevailed. . . . In my readings on the subject of baptism, the Lord enabled me to maintain such a spirit that no controversy was started, and no controversial spirit prevailed. The discussion produced no evil result, but great good, and, so far as I could see, only good.

This sounds like the perfect combination of devotion to truth and a willingness to work with those who have some differing views on the non-essentials. It’s a fine recipe for today as well.

 

Finney: The Intent of the Heart

Of what does true virtue consist? What determines a person’s moral character? Charles Finney deals with that in his Systematic Theology. His language is not modern, so some of this may be hard to follow for some people, but I would urge you to think this through carefully. Here’s what he says:

Finney's Systematic TheologyIt has been shown that moral character consists in the supreme ultimate intention of the mind, and that this supreme, disinterested benevolence, good willing or intention, is the whole of virtue.

Now this intention originates volitions [i.e., the power to make one’s own choices or decisions]. It directs the attention of the mind, and therefore, produces thoughts, emotions, or affections. It also, through volition, produces bodily action. But moral character does not lie in outward actions. . . . Moral character belongs solely to the intention that produced the volition that moved the muscles to the performance of the outward act. . . .

Moral character no more lies in emotion, than in outward action. It does not lie in thought, or attention. It does not lie in the specific volition that directed the attention; but in that intention, or design of the mind, that produced the volition, which directed the attention, which, again, produced the thought, which, again, produced the emotion.

So it all comes down to the intent of the heart, the motive for why we do the things we do. There are only two ultimate intentions: to serve God or to serve self. That’s why Jesus condemned the Pharisees who, although they were doing outwardly good things, were doing so with a wrong motive: for their own vanity.

Once we get the intention/motive right, then God is pleased with the outward action.