by Brannon Howse | March 21, 2016
The following is an excerpt from Brannon’s new book, What Every Christian Should Know: Understanding and Defending Biblical Truths. For full details and to order please click here:
Charles Finney, a lawyer who became a preacher, set out to derail the true Gospel. He admitted that he couldn’t agree with the central teachings of the Faith. In Memoirs, he complained about the classic understanding of the state of man’s lost-ness:
A nature sinful in itself, a total inability to accept Christ and to obey God, condemnation to eternal death for the sin of Adam and for a sinful nature, and all the kindred and resultant dogmas of that [particular] school, have been the stumbling block of believers and the ruin of sinners.
He denied the ideas of original sin and the eternal death for the sin of Adam even though both are biblical teachings. In spite of Finney’s contention, it is actually the false gospel of Finney that has been “the ruin of sinners.”
Let’s be clear about exactly why Finney is wrong. The biblical doctrine of imputation holds that the righteous life of Christ is imputed or credited to our account, when through faith and repentance we deny ourselves, repent of our sins, and place our faith and trust in Christ. At that point, we become true believers through the power of the Holy Spirit, and our sinful lives are replaced by the righteous life that Christ lived. It’s as though Christ lived our sinful life, and we lived His righteous life that we could not otherwise live. He took on our sin debt as though He had sinned, even though He didn’t sin. He took on our sin, being counted as though He had sinned, for our sakes, and then we are given credit for His righteous life.
The doctrine of imputation also explains why Christ had to be born, grow up, and live into adulthood rather than simply appearing as an adult to conduct a three-year public ministry before His crucifixion and resurrection. He had to live a thoroughly sinless life so that His entire sinless life could be imputed to us. As Isaiah 53:6 says, “And we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Similarly, 1 Peter 2:24 explains that Jesus is the One “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.” Many other verses reflect the same truth:
- 1 John 2:2— “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.”
- Romans 4:4-5— “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”
- Romans 10:3— “For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.”
- 2 Corinthians 5:17— “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
Charles Finney taught that man had to earn his own salvation and change his own heart. This leads to the false teaching of perfectionism—that man has to be and can be sinless, but if he sins, he has to start all over again.
The true Gospel offers instant justification. It is not based on our work or merit or our ability to change our ways. It is based only on Christ and His completed work on the cross. Yet Charles Finney is admired by many people—often, I think, because people don’t know what he really believed. “A Lawyer Warns the Unrepentant,” an article at lifeaction.org, is guilty of that sort of ignorance when it notes:
Repentance was a key theme during the First and Second Great Awakenings. Prominent ministers of the Great Awakening such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and a lawyer turned revivalist Charles Finney, drove home the necessity of repentance and regeneration to thousands of listeners.
I can fairly well guarantee you that George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards would have had serious problems with Charles Finney. So, to put Whitefield and Edwards in the same camp as Finney shows the writer’s ignorance of what Finney believed. Those three names should not be lumped together as though they were preaching the same Gospel or the same teaching on repentance, because they were not.
The lifeaction.org “misunderstanding” of Finney is not surprising if you know a little background on the organization. I’ve known of Life Action since the 1980s when a group from the organization presented a two-week revival at the church I attended at the time. As part of their program, they extolled the work of Charles Finney and other more contemporary leaders in the church growth, seeker friendly movements. Even then, I recognized that they taught Scripture out of context. What they presented was a spiritual train wreck. In addition to the poor teaching, the group employed manipulative emotionalism through testimonials and preaching. Testimonials are fine, of course, when those giving the testimonies are mature enough to share a scripturally sound approach to the Gospel. Otherwise, testimonies can be confusing to genuine seekers after the truth. In the Life Action testimonies, for instance, people were saying things like “God told me,” “I was driving, and I heard God say this,” or “I heard a voice, and God said. . . .” It was all done for the purpose of manipulating people and eliciting a response. I no longer attend the church that sponsored the Life Action show because, along with several other solid believers who pointed out the problem to our pastor, my concerns were ignored.
Just to be clear: I think testimonies are wonderful. A church leader, though, should monitor what is being said and help the speaker make sure he or she uses correct terminology. Phrases like “God told me” should be avoided. That could be construed as the Lord speaking audibly, which would be a form of mysticism. The appropriate phrasing would be to say something like, “When I was studying the Bible, the Holy Spirit convicted me.” A statement like that lines up with Scripture.
I think everyone who is baptized should give a testimony explaining the person’s conversion and repentance. It is an excellent time to testify to the new life in Christ and to offer a public profession of faith. It works well this way because people who are baptized should have already been discipled and trained in the truth. It’s also a good idea to have people write out the testimony they intend to give, and have it reviewed beforehand. That way, it can even become a time of instruction for the one giving the testimony, if need be.
Manipulations can make people feel like they’re getting right with God, and that actually fits well with Finney’s idea of perfectionism and his rejection of imputation. I’ve compared below selected scriptures that specifically point to imputation with Finney’s view, as recorded in Memoirs.
Scriptures about Imputation
Galatians 2:16— “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.”
Philippians 3:9— “and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”
None of us can live the righteous life. All it takes is one sin to break the moral laws: adultery (including looking lustfully at someone), lying, stealing, coveting. Only Jesus lived a wholly moral life, and His righteous life is credited to us through faith.
Finney’s Rejection of Imputation
- Memoirs, page 58— “I could not but regard and treat this whole question of imputation as a theological fiction, somewhat related to our legal fiction of John Doe and Richard Roe.”
- Memoirs, page 60— “These and similar passages are relied upon as teaching the doctrine of an Imputed righteousness; such as these, “The Lord our righteousness” [Philippians 3:9]. . . . Christ our righteousness is Christ the author or procurer of our justification. This does not imply that He procures our justification by imputing His obedience to us.”
Yet that is exactly what Jesus did. He imputed His righteousness to us.
Finney leaves no gray area as to what he believes, and yet he is taught in seminaries, upheld in churches, and touted within the evangelical movement as someone to follow, read, admire, and emulate. The subtitle of Finney’s book on systematic theology is revealing: Foundation of the Justification of Penitent Believers in Christ. What Is the Ultimate Ground or Reason of Their Justification? His answer includes the following:
- “It is not founded in Christ’s literally suffering the exact penalty of the law for them, and in this sense literally purchasing their justification and eternal salvation” [page 373].
- “Gospel justification is not to be regarded as a forensic or judicial proceeding. . . There can be no justification in a legal or forensic sense, but upon the ground of universal, perfect, and uninterrupted obedience to law.” [page 360].
Although it may sound a bit esoteric, this second point is especially important. What is “a forensic or judicial proceeding?” Here, Finney is referring to what happens when a judge hands down a verdict. The result is instantaneous. When a judge declares a defendant “not guilty,” the person is, from that moment on, no longer subject to punishment for the crime under investigation. It’s the same as marking debt paperwork “paid in full.” The debt is paid and no longer owed by the debtor. That is the truth of what is done for us through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. In an instant, His righteous life is credited to our account when we believe. As Christ said on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Finney, by contrast, says salvation is something you have to work for. This makes Finney’s teaching similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church. He even knew how aberrant his doctrine might seem to those who really know the truth in that he tried to pre-empt objections to his thinking:
This is, of course, denied by those who hold that Gospel justification or that justification of penitent sinners is of the nature
of a forensic or judicial justification. They hold to the legal maxim that what a man does by another he does by himself, and
therefore the law regards Christ’s obedience as ours on the ground that He obeyed for us [Memoirs, 362].
Finney believed in salvation by works and connected it in an odd way with sanctification:
By sanctification being a condition of justification, the following things are intended:
1. That present, full, and entire consecration of heart and life to God and His service is an unalterable condition of present pardon of past sin and of present acceptance with God.
2. That the penitent soul remains justified no longer than this full hearted consecration consists.
In other words, if you sin, you have to start over. Finney is clear on this:
If he falls from his first love into the spirit of self-pleasing, he falls again into bondage and to the law and is condemned and must repent and do his first work, must turn to Christ and renew his faith and love as a condition of his salvation. Perseverance in faith and obedience, or in consecration to God, is also an unalterable condition of justification, or of pardon and acceptance with God. By this language in this connection, you will of course understand me to mean, that perseverance in faith and obedience is a condition, not of present, but of final or ultimate acceptance and salvation [Systematic Theology, 368-369].
When we sin, he says, justification is no longer available. That’s not true, of course. If I have a wrong thought or a sinful action, I don’t lose my salvation. I can come under conviction and express my sorrow and regret to restore the relationship, my communion, with God. But it’s not so I can be saved all over again. Justification happens once and for all for the true believer, whereas Finney says, in essence, “If you sin, your justification has been nullified.” What follows is our sanctification, not our being “re-saved.”
Charles Finney so fully rejects the doctrine of justification by faith that he says:
Those who hold that justification by imputed righteousness is a forensic proceeding, take a view of final or ultimate justification according with their view of the nature of the transaction. With them, faith receives an imputed righteousness and a judicial justification. . . . The first act of faith, according to them, introduces the sinner into this relation and obtains for him a perpetual justification. They maintain that after this first act of faith, it is impossible for the sinner to come into condemnation [Memoirs, 369].
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