Finney: Communicating the Gospel Effectively

Charles Finney often went against the conventions of the day in his teaching and preaching. Some of his most vociferous critics were fellow ministers who had been formally trained in the colleges. Finney had been largely self-taught and was therefore thought to be ignorant of the proper manner of speaking. Yet he had results where others did not. In his autobiography, he provides some detail on this controversy:

PreachingAll through the earlier part of my ministry especially, I used to meet from ministers a great many rebuffs and reproofs, particularly in respect to my manner of preaching. . . .

The fact is, their education had been so entirely different  from mine that they disapproved of my manner of preaching very much. They would reprove me for illustrating my ideas by reference to the common affairs of men of different pursuits around me, as I was in the habit of doing. Among farmers and mechanics, and other classes of men, I borrowed my illustrations from their various occupations.

I tried also to use such language as they would understand. I addressed them in the language of the common people. I sought to express all my ideas in few words, and in words that were in common use.

Before I was converted I had a different tendency. In writing and speaking, I had sometimes allowed myself to use ornate language. But when I came to preach the Gospel, my mind was so anxious to be thoroughly understood that I studied in the most earnest manner, on the one hand to avoid what was vulgar, and on the other to express my thoughts with the greatest simplicity of language.

In reference to my illustrations, they would say, “Why don’t you illustrate from events of ancient history, and take a more dignified way of illustrating your ideas?” To this, of course, I replied, that if my illustrations brought forward anything that was new and striking, the illustration itself would rather occupy the minds of the people than the truth which I wished to illustrate.

And in respect to the simplicity of my language, I defended myself by saying that my object was not to cultivate a style of oratory that should soar above the heads of the people, but to make myself understood; and that therefore I would use any language adapted to this end.

In effect, Finney was doing only what Jesus did when he used parables to communicate with the people of His day. The parables were illustrations drawn from what the people experienced themselves. They could then easily catch the meaning and make the application. I love beautiful language, but the most beautiful language in the eyes of God is language that effectively communicates His message.

Finney: Truth & Prayer

Personal confession time: sometimes reading Charles Finney makes me extremely uncomfortable. He seems to have a knack for pointing out my weaknesses. Perhaps this is because some weaknesses are more widespread than others and focusing on them brings conviction to a large audience. Whatever the reason, when he writes about prayer vs. simply bringing truth into people’s lives, I see myself far too much. Here’s what Finney says in his Revival Lectures:

PrayerSome have zealously used truth to convert men, and laid very little stress on prayer. They have preached, and talked, and distributed tracts [today we would say “have made many Facebook postings”] with great zeal, and then wondered that they had so little success. And the reason was that they forgot to use the other branch of the means, effectual prayer. They overlooked the fact that truth, by itself, will never produce the effect, without the Spirit of God, and that the Spirit is given in answer to prayer.

Sometimes it happens that those who are the most engaged in employing truth are not the most engaged in prayer. This is always unhappy. For unless they have the spirit of prayer (or unless someone else has), the truth, by itself, will do nothing but harden men in impenitence. Probably in the Day of Judgment it will be found that nothing is ever done by the truth, used ever so zealously, unless there is a spirit of prayer somewhere in connection with the presentation of truth.

Those are powerful words, and I believe them to be from the heart of God. In my life, I’ve had seasons of deep prayer and I’ve had times of relative prayerlessness. As a professor seeking to teach truth, I am one of those Finney talks about—the temptation is strong to depend on the truth alone without invoking God’s direct intervention in the hearts and minds of the hearers of truth. I need to always be reminded that He’s given me this ministry as a trust; for it to be carried out as effectively as possible, I must draw nearer to Him. Teaching should never be done with dependence on man’s cleverness or with a haughty view of oneself and the “exalted” education one has received. Humility and reliance on the working of His Spirit is essential.

Finney: Discerning the Intent of the Heart

Our outward actions are extremely important, but when the Lord looks at those actions, He goes deeper and sees the intent of the heart. Sometimes, the outward actions of two individuals may be exactly the same, but the intent of the heart completely different. One may be honoring God by his actions while someone else doing the very same thing may be sinning. Here’s how Charles Finney explains it further:

A student labors to get wages, to purchase books, to obtain an education, to preach the gospel, to save souls, and to please God. Another labors to get wages, to purchase books, to get an education, to preach the gospel, to secure a salary, and his own ease and popularity. In the first supposition he loves God and souls, and seeks, as his ultimate end, the happiness of souls, and the glory and gratification of God. In the last case supposed, he loves himself supremely and his ultimate end is his own gratification.

Motive of the HeartNow the . . . immediate objects of pursuit, in these two cases, are precisely alike, while their ultimate ends are entirely opposite. Their first, or nearest, end is to get wages. Their next end is to obtain books; and so we follow them, until we ascertain their ultimate end, before we learn the moral character of what they doing.

The means they are using . . . are the same, but the ultimate ends at which they aim are entirely different, and every moral agent, from a necessary law of his intellect, must, as soon as he understands the ultimate end of each, pronounce the one virtuous, and the other sinful, in his pursuits. One is selfish and the other benevolent.

Finney then later remarks [and these quotes come from his Systematic Theology],

It is undeniable that the vilest sinners do many things outwardly which the law of God requires. Now unless the intention decides the character of these acts, they must be regarded as really virtuous. But when the intention is found to be selfish, then it is ascertained that they are sinful notwithstanding their conformity to the letter of the law of God.

How often I’ve heard someone being praised for some outward action without taking into account the intention of the heart, also known as one’s motive. This is a clear reminder that God will judge the heart, and that, as His people, we need to do our best to make a sober and discerning judgment of intent/motive as well.

Finney: The Danger of False Security

Charles Finney 1Many people, I fear, have a false sense of security when it comes to their relationship with God. They convince themselves that they are in good standing, yet they’ve never confronted their sins, made a complete repentance, and had a change of heart and life. Charles Finney often comments in his autobiography about such persons. Here’s one particular narrative that’s rather striking:

My attention was called to a sick woman in the community, who had been a member of a Baptist church, and was well-known in the place; but people had no confidence in her piety. She was fast failing with the consumption; and they begged me to call and see her. I went, and had a long conversation with her.

She told me a dream which she had when she was a girl, which made her think that her sins were forgiven. Upon that she had settled down, and no argument could move her. I tried to persuade her that there was no evidence of her conversion in that dream. I told her plainly that her acquaintances affirmed that she had never lived a Christian life, and had never evinced a Christian temper; and I had come to try to persuade her to give up her false hope, and see if she would not now accept Jesus Christ that she might be saved.

I dealt with her as kindly as I could, but did not fail to make her understand what I meant. But she took great offence; and after I went away complained that I tried to get away her hope and distress her mind; that I was cruel to try to distress a woman as sick as she was, in that way—to try to disturb the repose of her mind. . . .

When this woman came to be actually dying, her eyes were opened; and before she left the world she seemed to have such a glimpse of the character of God, and of what heaven was, and of the holiness required to dwell there, that she shrieked with agony, and exclaimed that she was going to hell. In this state, as I was informed, she died.

We can’t skirt the truth just to make people feel better. Yes, we are to be kind as we show the way to life, but truth is truth. Jesus is the only Way, Truth, and Life.

Finney: Break Up the Fallow Ground

One of Charles Finney’s themes in speaking and writing was the need for everyone to undergo a merciless self-examination. By this, he didn’t mean some self-centered ego trip, but an honest assessment of where we stand before God. Those outside the family of God have to start there, of course, but he believed it is just as essential for those who have entered into the faith. He called it “breaking up the fallow ground” of the heart.

In his Revival Lectures, he urged his readers to take this seriously:

Breaking Up Fallow GroundBreak up the ground and turn it over. . . . Do not turn aside for little difficulties; drive the plough right through them, beam deep, and turn the ground up, so that it may all be mellow and soft, and fit to receive the seed and bear fruit “an hundred-fold.” . . .

It will be of no benefit to examine yourself unless you determine to amend in every particular that which you find wrong in heart, temper, or conduct. . . .

You need not expect that God will work a miracle for you to break up your fallow ground. It is to be done by means. Fasten your attention to the subject of your sins. You cannot look at your sins long and thoroughly and see how bad they are, without feeling and feeling deeply. . . .

You may get into an excitement without this breaking up; you may show a kind of zeal, but it will not last long, and it will not take hold of sinners, unless your hearts are broken up. The reason is, that you go about it mechanically, and have not broken up your fallow ground.

If this is not done, if our hearts are not broken over sin, anything we attempt to communicate to others about the love of God will come across as plastic or superficial, and the reason for it will be that we aren’t really genuine in our communication. They will see the shallowness of our words and not be moved. We don’t give the Holy Spirit anything to use to lead them to the Truth. We must be what God has called us to be first; when we are right before Him, He can use us to reach out to others.

Finney: Directness

Charles Finney was a very direct preacher. He didn’t hold back on anything. If he believed the congregation to which he was speaking was resisting God, he said so. To do that kind of thing nowadays would be to invite open rebellion and loss of pulpit in most places. Yet Finney’s approach led to numerous awakenings of solid Biblical faith.

Charles Finney AutobiographyWherever he went, controversy followed. One story from his autobiography I find both amusing and sad at the same time:

There was one old man in this place, who was not only an infidel, but a great railer at religion. He was very angry at the revival movement. I heard every day of his railing and blaspheming, but took no public notice of it. He refused altogether to attend meeting.

But in the midst of his opposition, and when his excitement was great, while sitting one morning at the table, he suddenly fell out of his chair in a fit of apoplexy. A physician was immediately called, who, after a brief examination, told him that he could live but a very short time; and that if he had anything to say he must say it at once.

He had just strength enough and time, as I was informed, to stammer out, “Don’t let Finney pray over my corpse.” This was the last of his opposition in that place.

Even on death’s door, some people will not relent. God does not send them to hell; they send themselves.

Finney: God Looks at the Heart

God always goes beyond our actions to see what’s in our hearts. The intent of the heart is a key to God’s judgment of our actions. Charles Finney has an excellent commentary on that in his Systematic Theology:

It is a saying as common as men are, and as true as common, that men are to be judged by their motives, that is, by their designs, intentions. It is impossible for us not to assent to this truth. If a man intend evil, though, perchance, he may do us good, we do not excuse him, but hold him guilty of the crime which he intended

So if he intend to do us good, and, perchance, do us evil, we do not, and cannot condemn him. For this intention and endeavor to do us good, we cannot blame him, although it has resulted in evil to us.

He may be to blame for other things connected with the affair. He may have come to our help too late, and have been to blame for not coming when a different result would have followed; or he may have been blamable for not being better qualified for doing us good. He may have been to blame for many things connected with the transaction, but for a sincere, and of course hearty endeavor to do us good, he is not culpable, nor can he be, however it may result.

If he honestly intended to do us good, it is impossible that he should not have used the best means in his power, at the time. This is implied in honesty of intention. And if he did this, reason cannot pronounce him guilty, for it must judge him by his intentions.

Examine MotivesWhen Jesus chastised the Pharisees, He didn’t criticize their outward actions—praying, fasting, tithing, etc.—but He did point to their motives for doing all those outwardly good deeds. He’s far more interested in our hearts than our actions, although, of course, actions will have consequences. And there’s no way to hide our hearts from Him. I’m reminded of this passage from the book of Hebrews, chapter 4:

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.

We need to look to our hearts and get our motives straight. Our actions should be the result of love for God, not personal gain for self. He sees the difference and judges accordingly.