Finney: The Blessings & Pitfalls of Praying Together

Charles Finney 2Charles Finney had many exhortations concerning prayer. That’s because he was a man of deep prayer himself, so he had grounds on which to instruct others. He urged Christians to get together for prayer for many reasons. The first one he lists is this:

One design of assembling several persons together for united prayer is to promote union among Christians. Nothing tends more to cement the hearts of Christians than praying together. Never do they love one another so well as when they witness the outpouring of each other’s hearts in prayer.

From experience, I can say that is true. It also helps to break down barriers that might exist for other reasons. When you hear someone genuinely praying from the heart, you know, despite what other concerns you may have about that person, that is still your brother or sister in the Lord.

Finney also knew some of the pitfalls of prayer meetings. One he focuses on occurs far too often:

Commonly, those who pray long in a meeting do so, not because they have the spirit of prayer, but because they have not. Some men will spin out a long prayer in telling God who and what He is, or they pray out a whole system of divinity. Some preach; others exhort the people—till everybody wishes they would stop, and God wishes so, too, most undoubtedly.

It’s easy to want to appear spiritual before others. Instead, we should come together in a spirit of humility and openness to whatever God wants to do in our midst. We need to set aside our fear of what others may think of us and just be real before God and man. Ultimately, that frees us from the burden of trying to appear “spiritual.”

Finney & God’s Providence

Charles Finney 5Charles Finney relates a very unusual story in his Autobiography, one that has stayed with me ever since I first read it back in the mid-1970s. He was carrying out his ministry as a traveling evangelist when he was approached by an elderly man who asked him to come preach at his village, a place that had never had any religious services.

Finney went with the man and, as was his custom, simply relied on the Lord for guidance as to what to say. He had no prepared text, he didn’t know the name of the village nor the man who had brought him there. Things didn’t start well as the singing was so awful he had to put his hands over his ears to endure it. When it came time to preach, he felt led to speak about Abraham receiving the Word of the Lord regarding the destruction of Sodom. Finney spoke of the evil practices of the people of Sodom and how Lot was the only righteous man living there. I’ll let him tell the next part:

While I was relating these facts I observed the people looking as if they were angry. Many of the men . . . looked at each other and at me, as if they were ready to fall upon me and chastise me on the spot. I saw their strange and unaccountable looks, and could not understand what I was saying that had offended them. However, it seemed to me that their anger rose higher and higher as I continued the narrative.

As soon as I had finished the narrative, I turned upon them and said that I understood that they had never had a religious meeting in that place; and that therefore I had a right to take it for granted . . . that they were an ungodly people. I pressed home upon them with more and more energy, with heart full almost to bursting.

I had not spoken in this strain of direct application, I should think, more than a quarter of an hour, when all at once an awful solemnity seemed to settle down upon them; the congregation began to fall from their seats in every direction, and cried for mercy. If I had a sword in each hand, I could not have cut them off their seats as fast as they fell. Indeed nearly the whole congregation were either on their knees or prostrate, I should think, in less than two minutes from this first shock that fell upon them. Every one prayed for himself who was able to speak at all.

The people stayed in that state all night and into the morning. Most were converted. The next day, Finney finally got an explanation for this overwhelming reaction to his words.

I learned that the place was called Sodom, but I knew it not; and that there was but one pious man in the place, and him they called Lot. This was the old man that invited me there. The people supposed that I had chosen my subject, and preached to them in that manner, because they were so wicked as to be called Sodom. This was a striking coincidence; but so far as I was concerned, it was altogether accidental.

Let’s call this one a providential accident, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. God places people in circumstances and gives them what is needed for the moment. Life should be comprised of this kind of constant trust and guidance.

Finney: Dealing with Unjust Accusations & Trials

Revival LecturesIn his Revival Lectures, Charles Finney writes about the indications that one is filled with the Spirit. There are a couple of these that have always been difficult for me. Perhaps you may find a portrait of yourself as well in these words:

If you are filled with the Spirit, you will not find yourself distressed and galled, and worried, when people speak against you. When I find people irritated and fretting at any little thing that touches them, I am sure they have not the Spirit of Christ. Jesus Christ could have everything said against Him that malice could invent, and yet not be in the least disturbed by it. . . .

You will be calm under affliction; not thrown into confusion or consternation when you see the storm coming over you. People around will be astonished  at your calmness and cheerfulness under heavy trials, not knowing the inward supports of those who are filled with the Spirit.

I admit publicly it’s always been particularly hard for me to handle being unjustly accused of something. My immediate reaction is to rush to my own defense. Past experience shows that hasn’t always been the wisest way to deal with the situation. I seek to respond the way Jesus would, and I hope, in future trials, my testimony can be an example of a life directed by His Spirit and not my own.

Defining Sin & Salvation

Usually on Sundays, I excerpt something from Charles Finney, who, I believe, was one of the clearest thinkers in church history when it comes to grasping the need for conviction of sin and repentance as conditions for salvation. In the spirit of Finney, I’d like to offer some thoughts today that I hope may clarify where I’m coming from in my understanding of sin, repentance, and the essence of salvation. I’ll do my best to make these comments succinct.

Some readers of this blog may have a misunderstanding of my concept of sin. Because I talk often abut the obvious sins that are threatening our society as a whole—abortion and homosexuality probably being the most prominent—they may think those particular problems are my ultimate focus and my definition of sin. No, they are merely manifestations of the real problem. They are sinful actions, but they stem from something deeper.

What is sin, exactly? My reading of Scripture informs me that sin is rebellion against the altogether reasonable and righteous commands of God. I don’t believe God lays out laws for our misery, but rather for our well-being. He knows far better than we do what virtue consists of and why it is best for us. When we depart from His path, we are setting ourselves up for disaster. That’s why He warns us to examine ourselves.

Motive of the HeartAll sin begins in the heart, which can be defined as the will and motive for our actions. There are only two ultimate intentions in life: to act for the glory of God or for our own selfish gain. Even if we never descend into outward actions that are considered notorious, we are sinners nevertheless for our inward choice to do what we want to do, contrary to the will of God.

Murder [both outside the womb and within], sexual immorality [both hetero- and homo-], and every other type of sinful behavior is committed first in the mind, then transferred to the heart, and finally manifested in action. But even if someone does not follow through on the outward action, the sin still has been committed—God judges the heart.

Outwardly, a person may be “good” in the artificial sense in which most people judge goodness. A person may be “nice” in temperament, give time and money to “worthy” causes, and even be quite adept at God-talk. Yet that same person may have never faced up to his inner rebellion, never come to the point of genuine repentance for sin, and never seriously considered humbling himself at the cross of Christ to receive forgiveness. There are a lot of people who have a wish to follow God, but that wish never translates into action. That leads to an attempt to prove oneself worthy of heaven by concentrating on external good deeds.

PhariseesBut the Lord will always look at the heart first. That’s why Jesus made some rather harsh statements about the Pharisees of His time. I like the wording of Matthew 23 in the Message version:

 You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?

You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

The thrust of Jesus’ argument is that it’s not what’s on the outside that counts, but what’s on the inside. No matter how good one may look, if the heart does not belong wholly to God, it’s all a sham. We will be nothing more than frauds and hypocrites.

Sin, therefore, is in the heart, and that’s where it must be dealt with. When it is acknowledged and sincerely repented of, one can then receive the forgiveness offered through Christ. And when the heart is cleansed, sin is avoided in the future and the desire is to be everything God wants us to be. Righteousness doesn’t become a burden, but a blessing.

The apostle John put it this way in his first letter:

Do we love God? Do we keep His commands? The proof that we love God comes when we keep His commandments, and they are not at all troublesome.

It’s not hard to do what God requires when we have come to love Him and live in gratitude for His love for us. That’s genuine salvation.

Salvation

Finney: Speaking with God’s Anointing

Many ministers during the time of Charles Finney were trained to write out their sermons each week. Finney felt this wasn’t the best way to receive God’s anointing and truly give the people what they needed. He had his own unique way of preparing to preach. Here’s how he explains it in his autobiography:

Finney's MemoirsI do not confine myself to hours and days of writing my sermons; but my mind is always pondering the truths of the Gospel, and the best ways of using them.  I go among the people and learn their wants. Then, in light of the Holy Spirit, I take a subject that I think will meet their present necessities. I think intensely on it, and pray much over the subject on Sabbath morning, for example, and get my mind full of it, and then go and pour it out to the people.

Then he discusses the problems associated with written sermons:

Whereas one great difficulty with a written sermon is, that a man after he has written it, needs to think but little of the subject. He needs to pray but little. He perhaps reads over his manuscript Saturday evening, or Sabbath morning; but he does not feel the necessity of being powerfully anointed, that his mouth may be opened and filled with arguments, and that he may be enabled to preach out of a full heart.

He is quite at ease. He has only to use his eyes and his voice, and he can preach, in his way. It may be a sermon that has been written for years; it may be a sermon that he has written, every word of it, within the week. But on Sabbath-day there is no freshness in it. It does not come necessarily new and fresh, and as an anointed message from God to his heart, and through his heart to the people.

Finney always had as his first concern the effectiveness of a message on the people who hear it. What would they take away from the message? How best to communicate it?

I believe that half an hour’s earnest talk to the people from week to week, if the talk be pointed, direct, earnest, logical, will really instruct them more than the two labored sermons that those who write, get off to their people on the Sabbath. I believe the people would remember more of what is said, be more interested in it, and would carry it away with them to be pondered, vastly more than they do what they get from the labored written sermons.

I believe he is correct.

Finney: Partial Holiness Is Nonexistent

HolinessWhat does it mean to be holy? What is Biblical virtue? Can we be holy as God is holy? We’re commanded to be. Some people may misunderstand that. Since we are not God, there is a difference. Charles Finney comments in his Systematic Theology,

It is a well-settled and generally admitted truth that increased light increases responsibility, or moral obligation. No creature is bound to will any thing with the intenseness or degree of strength with which God wills it, for the plain reason, that no creature sees its importance or real value, as He does.

Yet that doesn’t mean, Finney argues, that God settles for some kind of half-holiness. That would be an absurdity. We are to live up to the knowledge we have, and we are to be holy, according to the light we possess. It’s a full holiness, not partial, which is something that doesn’t really exist. He explains further:

Virtue and moral perfection . . . are synonymous terms. Virtue is holiness. Holiness is uprightness. Uprightness is that which is just what, under the circumstance, it should be: and nothing else is virtue, holiness, or uprightness. Virtue, holiness, uprightness, moral perfection—when we apply these terms to any given state of the will—are synonymous.

To talk, therefore, of a virtue, holiness, uprightness, justice, right in kind, but deficient in degree, is to talk sheer nonsense. It is the same absurdity as to talk of sinful holiness, an unjust justice, a wrong rightness, an impure purity, an imperfect perfection, a disobedient obedience. . . .

That which is not entirely conformed to the law of God is not holiness. This must be true in philosophy, and the Bible affirms the same thing. “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).

God expects a whole heart in obeying Him. Anything less is not real obedience.

Finney: The Agony & the Ecstasy

I’ve often remarked how I wish I didn’t have to come across as someone who’s always pointing out the sins and errors in the world, especially that part of the world connected with government. It can get old, and it’s easy to tire of being the Jeremiah. Yet, as I was reading some of Charles Finney’s Revival Lectures, I came across something quite pertinent to my situation, and it gave me a measure of encouragement:

Prayer-FerventIf you have the Spirit of God, you must expect to feel great distress in view of the condition of the Church and of the world. Some spiritual epicures ask for the Spirit because they think He will make them so perfectly happy.

Some people think that spiritual Christians are always free from sorrow. There never was a greater mistake. Read your Bibles, and see how the prophets and apostles were always groaning and distressed, in view of the state of the Church and of the world.

The apostle Paul says he was “always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus.” . . . You will know what it is to sympathize with the Lord Jesus Christ and be baptized with the baptism that He was baptized with. . . . The more you have of His spirit, the more clearly will you see the state of sinners, and the more deeply you will be distressed about them.

The other side of the proverbial coin is the joy of the Lord, but it always coexists with a profound anguish over the devastating effects of sin all around us. We need to be familiar with both the agony and the ecstasy of seeing things through God’s eyes.