Finney: Man Can Obey God

One reason Charles Finney was so successful as an evangelist was his insistence that all people are accountable for their actions. Finney didn’t allow excuses; in his view, too many people would hide behind a theology that said they couldn’t obey God. He considered that illogical and dangerous to one’s spiritual state. In his Revival Lectures, he is quite blunt:

Revival LecturesWe, as moral agents, have the power to obey God, and are perfectly bound to obey; and the reason that we do not is, that we are unwilling. The influences of the Spirit are wholly a matter of grace. If they were indispensable to enable us to perform duty, the bestowment of them would not be a gracious act, but a mere matter of common justice.

Sinners are not bound to repent because they have the Spirit’s influence, or because they can obtain it, but because they are moral agents, and have the powers which God requires them to exercise. So in the case of Christians. . . .

When God commands us to do a thing, it is the highest possible evidence that we can do it. For God to command is equivalent to an oath that we can do it. He has no right to command, unless we have the power to obey. There is no stopping short of the conclusion that God is tyrannical, if He commands that which is impracticable.

The children of Israel were told in Deuteronomy, chapter 30, that they were capable of obeying God:

For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” . . . But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.

I’m also reminded what the apostle John says in chapter 5 of his first letter:

For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.

We are called to lives of obedience, and He’s given us the ability to be obedient. It’s time we stop making excuses for sin.

Finney: The Clear Communication of the Gospel

Charles Finney 4A good many ministers in Charles Finney’s day didn’t like the way he preached. He hadn’t gone to one of the seminaries of the time; instead, he came directly out of the practice of law into his evangelistic ministry. They despised his lack of “polish” in the pulpit, in the sense that he didn’t fill his sermons with examples from classical history or use language suited more to the well-educated congregations. He had this penchant for talking to the common man and making sure that man understood the message of the Gospel.

Finney listened to their criticisms, but found no good reason to change his style. He shares this story in his autobiography that touches on the issue:

Many years ago a beloved pastor of my acquaintance, left home for his health, and employed a young man, just from the seminary, to fill his pulpit while he was absent. This young man wrote and preached as splendid sermons as he could. The pastor’s wife finally ventured to say to him, “You are preaching over the heads of our people. They do no understand your language or your illustrations. You bring too much of your learning into the pulpit.”

He replied, “I am a young man. I am cultivating a style. I am aiming to prepare myself for occupying a pulpit and surrounding myself with a cultivated congregation. I cannot descend to your people. I must cultivate an elevated style.”

I have had my thought and eye upon this man ever since. I am not aware that he is yet dead; but I have never seen his name connected with any revival, amidst all the great revivals that we have had, from year to year, since that time; and I never expect to, unless his views are radically changed, and unless he addresses the people from an entirely different stand-point, and from entirely different motives.

How many ministers are in the ministry for the wrong reasons? How many just want to impress with their intellect? How many talk above the heads of the people who need to hear the message that will lead them out of sin and into life? As Finney says, the motives need to be entirely different. I have no problem with a learned ministry, but if one has really “learned” what God wants one to learn, the Gospel will be communicated clearly and with conviction. God will work with that to bring results.

Finney: Effective Prayer

Prayer-FerventCharles Finney writes of “agonizing prayer.” What he means by this is a deep connection of the individual with the heart of God for the salvation of others. It’s not an external effort—the harder we pray, the more will happen—but an internal identification with the will of God and a sincere desire to see His will fulfilled. Properly understood, this type of prayer stems from humility and will never become proud when an answer is received. Finney explains it this way:

Another reason why God requires this sort of prayer is that it is the only way in which the Church can be properly prepared to receive great blessings without being injured by them. When the Church is thus prostrated in the dust before God, and is in the depth of agony in prayer, the blessing does them good. While at the same time, if they had received the blessing without this deep prostration of soul, it would have puffed them up with pride. But as it is, it increases their holiness, their love, their humility.

The efficacy of earnest prayer is referenced in the book of James also:

The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.

Let that be an encouragement to us all.

Finney: The Foundation of Our Moral Obligations

Charles Finney can get into some pretty deep waters at times in his Systematic Theology. Yet if we understand the aim of his discussion, we see there is always a practical application of any theory he dissects. For instance, he takes on philosophers and/or theologians who say the foundation of our moral obligations is “will the right for the sake of the right.” Not so, says Finney:

Charles Finney 3The law of God does not, cannot require us to love right more than God and our neighbor. What! Right of greater value than the highest well-being of God and of the universe? Impossible! It is impossible that the moral law should require anything else than to will the highest good of universal being as an ultimate end, i.e., for its own sake. . . .

When we pray and preach and converse, must we aim at right, must the love of right, and not the love of God and of souls influence us? . . . Must I pray because it is right, and do all I do, and suffer all I suffer, not from good will to God and man, but because it is right? . . .

Did He give His Son to die for the right, for the sake of the right, or to die to render the salvation of souls possible, for the sake of the souls? . . .

To love God is right, but to suppose that God is loved because it is right, is absurd. It is to suppose that God is loved, not from any regard to God, but from a regard to right. This is an absurdity and a contradiction. To love or will the good of my neighbor is right. But to will the right, instead of the good of my neighbor, is not right. It is loving right instead of my neighbor. . . .

But enough of this cold and loveless philosophy. As it exalts right above all that is called God, and subverts all the teachings of the Bible, it cannot be a light thing to be deluded by it. But it is remarkable and interesting to see Christian rightarians, without being sensible of their inconsistency, so often confound this philosophy with . . . virtue. Numerous examples of it occur everywhere in their writings, which demonstrate that rightarianism is with them only a theory that “plays round the head but comes not near the heart.”

I find that an illuminating passage. We need to think clearly about “why” we obey God.

Finney: Effective Preaching

A few Sundays ago, I drew from Charles Finney’s autobiography some of his comments on how other ministers criticized his speaking style. Today, again from that autobiography, a few more thoughts from that evangelist along the same line:

Charles Finney AutobiographyI used to say to ministers, whenever they contended with me about my manner of preaching, and desired me to adopt their ideas and preach as they did, that I dared not make the change they desired. I said, “Show me a more excellent way. Show me the fruits of your ministry; and if they so far exceed mine as to give me evidence that you have found a more excellent way, I will adopt your views.

“But do you expect me to abandon my own views and practices, and adopt yours, when you yourselves cannot deny that, whatever errors I may have fallen into, or whatever imperfections there may be in my preaching, in style, and in everything else, yet the results justify my methods?” I would say to them: “I intend to improve all I can; but I never can adopt your manner of preaching the Gospel, until I have higher evidence that you are right and I am wrong.”

They used to complain, oftentimes, that I was guilty of repetition in my preaching. I would take the same thought and turn it over and over, and illustrate it in various ways. I assured them that I thought it was necessary to do so, to make myself understood; and that I could not be persuaded to relinquish this practice by any of their arguments. Then they would say, “you will not interest the educated part of your congregation.” But facts soon silenced them on this point. They found that, under my preaching, judges, and lawyers, and educated men were converted by scores; whereas, under their methods, such a thing seldom occurred.

Sometimes the “experts” are not so expert after all.

Finney: Selfish Prayer

Whenever Charles Finney writes about prayer, we should listen attentively. He knew what he was writing about, not as theory but from practice. And always with Finney, the motive of the heart is central. Here’s how he connects the two in his Revival Lectures:

Revival LecturesPrayer, to be effectual, must be offered from right motives. Prayer should not be selfish, but should be dictated by a supreme regard for the glory of God. A great deal is offered from pure selfishness.

Women sometimes pray for their husbands, that they may be converted, because, they say: “It would be so much more pleasant to have my husband go to Church with me,” and all that. And they seem never to lift up their thoughts above self at all. They do not seem to think how their husbands are dishonouring God by their sins, nor how God would be glorified in their conversion.

So it is very often with parents. They cannot bear to think that their children should be lost. . . . They do not think how such . . . children are dishonouring God by their sins; they are only thinking what a dreadful thing it will be for them to go to hell. Unless their thoughts rise higher than this, their prayers will never prevail with a holy God.

The temptation to selfish motives is so strong that there is reason to fear a great many parental prayers never rise above the yearnings of parental tenderness. And that is the reason why so many prayers are not answered and why so many pious, praying parents have ungodly children.

Do you find that at least a little convicting? Or a lot? That’s the Holy Spirit just doing His job, leading us into a right heart in prayer.

Finney: The Motive for All of God’s Actions

Why does God do what He does? Is He aiming at something in all His actions? Is there a “good” at the end of His actions or is whatever He wills “good”? While this may sound rather picky, it does affect our view of God’s character. Charles Finney believes,

Lord Is GoodGod’s ultimate end, in all He does, or omits, is the highest well-being of Himself, and of the universe, and in all His acts and dispensations, His ultimate object is the promotion of this end. All moral agents should have the same end, and this comprises their whole duty. This intention or consecration to this intrinsically and infinitely valuable end is virtue, or holiness, in God and in all moral agents. God is infinitely and equally holy in all things because He does all things for the same ultimate reason, namely, to promote the highest good of being.

Theologians who promote the idea that the will of God is what is ultimate make a fatal error, according to Finney. Think carefully about his objection here:

If the will of God were the foundation of moral obligation, He could, by willing it, change the nature of virtue and vice, which is absurd.

If the will of God were the foundation of moral obligation, He not only can change the nature of virtue and vice, but has a right to do so; for if there is nothing back of His will that is as binding upon Him as upon His creatures, He has a right, at any time, to make malevolence a virtue and benevolence a vice. For if His will is the ground of obligation, then His will creates right, and whatever He wills, or might will, is right simply and only because He so wills.

If the will of God be the foundation of moral obligation, we have no standard by which to judge of the moral character of His actions, and cannot know whether He is worthy of praise or blame.

Upon the supposition in question, were God a malevolent being, and did He require all His creatures to be selfish, and not benevolent, He would be just as virtuous and worthy of praise as now; for the supposition is that His sovereign will creates right, and of course, will as He might, that would be right, simply because He willed it.

I hope you followed the logic because I think it is an accurate assessment. God is not an arbitrary being whose will can make good evil and evil good. Instead, He chooses to do that which is the best for everyone in His created world. We never need to worry about His character; His aim is always to promote the highest good for each of us.