Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875) was a revivalist preacher in the early 1800s in America. He is credited with being the first preacher to employ the method of altar calls to encourage people to make a decision for Christ. This was, according to Finney, a result of there being so many conversions during his revivals that he could not account for all of them while they were happening. Thus, Finney began to ask that all those who had been converted in a day come up to the altar in the evening to be acknowledged.
Social justice was important to Charles Finney. He preached against slavery and fought for abolition and cared deeply about African-American civil rights. He supported the Underground Railroad’s efforts to rescue slaves and taught at Oberlin College, the first American college to allow African-Americans and women to become students. Finney was eventually elected the president at Oberlin College and served in that capacity for over a decade. He was a dynamic man, both in his personal life and in the pulpit, where he helped to spark the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant revival that occurred in the first half of the 1800s. Unlike the First Great Awakening, which had its roots in Calvinism, the Second Great Awakening was much more Arminian and was characterized by postmillennialism and an exuberant worship style.
Charles Finney denied that mankind has a sinful nature inherited from Adam. Rather, Finney said, our sinfulness is the result of moral choices made by each individual. Christ’s death on the cross, according to Finney, was not a payment for sin as much as it was a demonstration that God was serious about keeping the Law. The reformation of a person’s morality is the essence of Christianity, according to Finney. It is the sinner who is responsible for his own regeneration, Finney said; while the Holy Spirit influences the decision, the choice to be saved is always man’s: “The sinner actually changes, and is therefore himself, in the most proper sense, the author of the change” (“Sinners Bound to Change,” 21–22).
Charles Finney is also well known for teaching the doctrine of Christian perfection or sinless perfection. This doctrine is based on Matthew 5:48 where Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Finney’s sermons on perfection make the argument that God would not ask us to be perfect were it not possible for us to attain perfection. He is careful to delineate the difference between what he calls natural perfection, or God’s “nature, essence, or constitution,” and moral perfection, which is “perfect obedience to the law of God.” Charles Finney declared that “the law of God requires perfect, disinterested, impartial benevolence, love to God and love to our neighbor. It requires that we should be actuated by the same feeling, and to act on the same principles that God acts upon; to leave self out of the question as uniformly as he does, to be as much separated from selfishness as he is; in a word, to be in our measure as perfect as God is. Christianity requires that we should do neither more nor less than the law of God prescribes” (Lectures to Professing Christians, Lecture 19).
Charles Finney’s logic on the subject of Christian perfection seems, at first glance, air-tight. He used reason and the Bible to show how Christian perfection is attainable, necessary, and required by God. But the practical application of this doctrine proves to be trickier than understanding it. Finney himself admitted that there is a “desperate unwillingness” to obey.
According to Finney, only when we are truly willing to give up all sin, yielding absolutely to God’s will, can we be “filled with the fullness of God.” But he also maintained that, even when Christians desire this perfection and pray for perfection “with agony,” they may still only think themselves willing to be perfect and may indeed be deceiving themselves as to their true motive.
Was Charles Finney correct? Does God really require us to be perfect before we can have full fellowship with Him?
The answer lies in understanding Christ’s role in our lives. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Paul also says that “the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). This means that the Law showed us our inability to be perfect and therefore our need for Christ. Only when we are honest with ourselves can we begin to make progress as believers, and part of that honesty is to admit that we are fallen and in desperate need of Christ’s righteousness. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).
Charles Finney recommended that, once saved, people should strive to attain perfection, which they could attain in this life with God’s help. But the Bible makes it clear that the only perfection we can gain was given to us on the cross. We are not only justified but also sanctified by the offering of Christ (Hebrews 10:10). Faith is what saves us and what changes us. Living water flows from the hearts of those who know their need, feel their thirst, and believe totally in God’s power to provide (John 7:37–39).
Charles Finney is sometimes called “the father of modern revivalism,” and his impact on Christianity and American society in the 19th century is profound. His books, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835) and Lectures on Systematic Theology (1846) were widely circulated and read.