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Christianity Godfidence Theology

The why behind the what?

Have you ever wondered how some things came to be the standard way to do church? I may not have found all the answers but I have found a few and they may surprise you.

For almost as long as I have been a Christian I have had trouble with some of the ways the church operates. I assumed that this, in many cases, was simply because I didn’t grow up in the church and therefore was not used to the particulars of church culture. However, I have recently done some studying on Charles G. Finney and have learned a little about some of the ‘why’s of the church.

Charles FinneyIt appears to me that unless you are a liturgical church, if you are evangelical you do church like Finney did church. Charles Finney was a Presbyterian evangelist in the mid 19th century who has radically shaped the way the church operates, for better or for worse.

I have long been a proponent of the idea that orthodoxy (right belief) produces orthopraxy (right living) or what you believe determines how you live and it seems to me that this was very true for Charles Finney. His beliefs determined how his ministry operated.  Finney said:

Religion is the work of man, it consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that and nothing else. When mankind become religious, they are not enabled to put forth exertions which they were unable before to put forth. They only exert powers which they had before, in a different way, and use them for the glory of God. A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of constituted means–as much as any other effect produced by the application of means [1]

Finney developed the means that he used, and we continue to use today because be believed that revival and salvation were purely in the reach of natural man without the working of God. If he could create the right set of circumstances then man could be convinced to make a decision to be saved. And making this decision is a simple matter of will to Finney because as he said man simply “exerts powers” already in his power to good instead of evil, he denies the idea of original sin which has been held as an orthodox Christian belief for its entire existence. This belief system, that man is not inherently evil by nature, having inherited this nature from his father Adam has a name, Pelagianism a heresy that has been condemned by the church since the 413AD.

Whether you believe Armenian or Reformed, believe in resistible or irresistible grace all Christians believe agree that it takes a miracle of God, that we call grace in order for a sinner to be converted.[2]

Backed by this system of heretical belief Finney developed what became to be known as the “New Measures” among them, directly naming local ‘sinners’ as well as ministers who were not sympathetic to his new means, and an ‘anxious bench’ where we derive our altar calls and our emotional appeals as Finney put it “The evangelist must produce excitements sufficient to induce sinners to repentance” [3] And when these ‘excitements’ were not enough as Cross puts it:

The revival engineers had to exercise increasing ingenuity to find even more sensational means to replace those worn out by overuse. In all of these ways the protracted meeting, though only a form within which the measures operated, helped the measures themselves grow even more intense, until the increasing zeal, boiled up inside of orthodoxy, overflowed into heresy.[4]

It seems to me that we had until recently continued in this vain of looking for greater and greater excitements at the cost of orthodoxy. I say until recently because at least in the circles I frequent this seems to be on the decline.

Although Finney’s methods and ‘excitements’ were consistent with his heretical Pelagianism beliefs I wonder if many ministers who do not share his beliefs continue with his methods because they don’t see the inconsistency.  But he drew crowds and to keep the attention of the people once Finney left local ministers were forced to create the same atmosphere as the traveling evangelist.  Consider that Finney only needed a handful of messages because his audience was constatnly changing, while the local minster had to have a different message every week.  But to keep people coming and attract other from outside the church ministers have continued to use Finney’s methods.  Is it because they have become expected or becuase “it works” or other reasons?

And understand I don’t think preaching has to be dry and boring because in our culture people will simply tune out if there is at least not some level of entertainment. And if don’t hear the gospel then the preaching is to no effect but coercion and emotional manipulation, while may crowd the altar, does not necessarily produce true conversions. Only God can do that, we should just feel honored that he has decided to do that through the preaching of his word.


[1] B. B. Warfield, Perfectionism (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed), p. 184

[4] Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 p 12-13

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