Life of Charles G. Finney

By Aaron Hills

Chapter 3


Moses was called of God to lead Israel out of bondage; then he was led into the wilderness, to be trained and fitted. by God. In like manner Saul of Tarsus was first converted, and then led out into the Arabian desert to "Brush College," of which Moses was an alumnus, there, like him, to be taught of God. Finney had a somewhat similar experience. Says one of his biographers (G. Frederick Wright, D. D., LL. D.): "About as much mystery hangs over the first year and a half of Finney's life, subsequent to his conversion, as that which shrouds the corresponding period of the renewed life of the apostle Paul." We have already briefly noticed about all he has recorded of those days; viz.: daily morning and evening meetings, much fasting and prayer, visions of God too sacred to make public, a visit to his parents, and a revival that covered much of the county. What particular part he had in it is recorded in heaven and well-known there, but not on earth.

"It was not till the 25th of June, 1823, that he was formally taken under the care of the Presbytery with reference to entering the ministry." But even here the hand of God was leading him in a way almost as wonderful as in the matter of the baptism with the Holy Ghost. He was being kept and fitted for an exceptional work, and was preserved from intellectual and spiritual detriment by an unseen hand. He tells it in his own peculiar way, as follows:

"Some of the ministers urged me to go to Princeton to study theology; but I declined, When they asked me why I would not go to Princeton, I told them that my pecuniary circumstances forbade it. This was true; but they said they would see that my expenses were paid. Still I refused to go; and, when urged to give my reasons, I plainly told them that I would not put myself under such an influence as they had been under; that I was confident they had been wrongly educated, and they were not ministers that met my ideal of what a minister of Christ should be. I told them this reluctantly, but I could not honestly 25th it. They appointed my pastor to superintend my studies. He offered me the use of his library, and said he would give what attention I needed to my theological studies."

In all human probability Finney would have been spoiled as an evangelist and utterly ruined as a great preacher of righteousness had he been educated at Princeton. Equally fatal would it have been to have accepted the opinions and views of the pastor (Rev. Mr. Gale), to whose instruction the Presbytery committed him. He says:

"My studies, so far as he was concerned as my teacher, were little else than controversy. He held to the Old School doctrine of original sin, or that the human constitution was morally depraved. He held, also, that men. were utterly unable to comply with the terms of the gospel, to repent, to believe, or to do anything that God required them to do; that while they were free to do all evil, in the sense of being able to commit any amount of sin, yet they were not free to perform any good; that God had condemned men for their sinful nature; and for this, as well as for their transgressions, they deserved eternal death.

"He held, also, that the influences of the Spirit of God on the minds of men were physical, acting directly upon the substance of the soul; that men were passive in regeneration; and, in short, he held all those doctrines that logically flow from the fact of a nature sinful in itself.

"These doctrines I could not receive. I could not accept his views on the subject of atonement, regeneration, faith, repentance, the slavery of the will, or any of the kindred doctrines, But of these views he was quite tenacious; and he seemed sometimes not a little impatient because I did not receive them without a question.

"He held that Jesus suffered for the elect the literal penalty of the Divine law; that He suffered just what was due to each of the elect on the score of retributive justice. I objected that this was absurd; as in that case He suffered the equivalent of endless misery multiplied by the whole number of the elect. He insisted that this was true. He affirmed that Jesus literally paid the debt of the elect and fully satisfied retributive justice. On the contrary, it seemed to me that Jesus only satisfied public justice, and that this was all that the government of God could require.

"I was, however, but a child in theology, and a novice in religion and in Biblical learning; but I thought he did not sustain his views from the .Bible, and told him so, He was alarmed, I dare say, at what appeared to him to be my obstinacy. I thought that my Bible clearly taught that the atonement was made for all men. He limited it to a part. I could not accept his view, for I could not see that he fairly proved it from the Bible. His rules of interpretation did not meet my views, They were much less definite and intelligible than those to which I had been accustomed in my law studies. To the objections which I urged he could make no satisfactory reply. I asked him if the Bible did not require all who hear the gospel to repent, believe the gospel, and be saved. He admitted that it did require all to believe and be saved; but how could they believe and accept a salvation that was not provided for them? I could not receive that theological fiction of imputation. I will state, as nearly as I can, the exact ground that he maintained and insisted upon:

"First. He maintained that the guilt of Adam's first transgression is literally imputed to all his posterity; so that they are justly sentenced and exposed to eternal damnation for Adam's Sin.

"Secondly. He maintained that we received from Adam, by natural generation, a nature wholly sinful and morally corrupt in every faculty of soul and body; so that we are totally unable to perform any act acceptable to God, and are necessitated by our sinful nature to transgress His law in every action of our lives. And this, he insisted, is the estate into which all men fell by the first sin of Adam. For this sinful nature, thus received from Adam by natural generation, all mankind are also sentenced to, and are deserving of eternal damnation.

"Thirdly. Then, in addition to this, he maintained that we are all justly condemned and sentenced to eternal damnation for our own unavoidable transgression of the law. Thus he held that all humanity were justly subject to a triple eternal damnation,

"Then the second branch of this wonderful imputation theory is as follows: The sin of all the elect, both original and actual -- that is, the guilt of Adam's sin, together with the guilt of their sinful nature, and also the guilt of their personal transgressions -- are all literally imputed to Christ; and therefore the Divine government regarded Him as an embodiment of all the sins and guilt of the elect, and treated Him accordingly; that is, the Father, punished the Son precisely as much as all the elect deserved. Hence, their debt being fully discharged by the punishment of Christ, they are saved upon principles of 'exact justice.'

"The third branch of this wonderful theological fiction is as follows:

"First. The obedience of Christ to the Divine law is literally imputed to the elect; so that in Him they are regarded as having always perfectly obeyed the law.

"Secondly. His death for them is also imputed to the elect; so that in Him they are regarded as having fully suffered all that they deserve on account of the guilt of Adam's sin imputed to them, and on account of their sinful nature, and also on account of all their personal transgressions.

"Thirdly. Thus by their surety the elect have first perfectly obeyed the law; and then they have in Him suffered the full penalty of the law, They have suffered in Him as if they had not obeyed in Him. Then, after the law has been doubly satisfied, the elect are required to repent and believe as if no satisfaction had been rendered; and then, payment. in full having been rendered twice over, the discharge of the elect is claimed to be an act of infinite grace. Thus the elect are saved by grace on principles of justice, so that there is strictly no grace or mercy in our forgiveness. It follows that the elect may demand their discharge on the score of strict justice. They need not pray for pardon or forgiveness; it is all a mistake to do so. This inference is my own; but it follows irresistibly, from what the 'Confession of Faith' itself asserts, that the elect are saved on principles of exact and perfect justice.

"I could not but regard and treat this whole question of imputation as a theological fiction. As soon as I learned what were the unambiguous teachings of the Presbyterian Confession of Faith upon these points, I did not hesitate on all suitable occasions to declare my dissent from them. I repudiated and exposed them.

"I found it impossible to agree with Mr. Gale on these points. He did not pretend that they were rational, or that they would bear reasoning upon. Hence he insisted that my reasoning would lead me into infidelity. But I insisted that our reason was given us for the very purpose of enabling us to justify the ways of God, and that no such fiction of imputation could by any possibility be true." (Memoirs, pp. 46, 50, 56-59.)

Is it any wonder that the healthy mind of Finney, so rich in common sense and so "filled with the Spirit," and so entirely void of any theological bias or preconceived opinions, should revolt at this mass of theological rubbish and inconsistency? God mercifully and providentially saved him from accepting a theology that would have made his great usefulness utterly impossible. He was destined to "reason with men" of "sin, righteousness, and judgment." He could not have done it without a theology which commended itself to the right reason of men, and with which he could charge home on the conscience.

"I had been used," he says, "to the close and logical reasonings of the judges, as I found them reported in our law books; but when I went to Mr. Gale's Old School library, I found almost nothing proved to my satisfaction. I am sure it was not because I was opposed to the truth; but I was dissatisfied because the positions of these theological authors were unsound and not satisfactorily sustained. They often seemed to state one thing and prove another, and often to fall short of proving anything.

"I finally said to Mr. Gale, 'If there is nothing better than I find in your library to sustain the great doctrines taught by our Church, I must be an infidel;' and I have always believed that, had not the Lord led me to see the fallacy of those arguments, and to see the real truth as presented in the Scriptures, especially had He not so revealed Himself to me personally that I could not doubt the truth of the Christian religion, I should have been forced to be an infidel." (Page 53.)

"I often said to Mr. Gale, 'Your positions are not proved; they are unsusceptible of proof.' But he would insist upon it that I ought to defer to the opinions of the great and good men who, after much consultation and deliberation, had come to those conclusions; that is was unbecoming in me, a young man bred to the profession of law, and having no theological education, to oppose my views to those of the great men and profound theologians whose opinions I found in his library. He urged that, if I persisted in having my intelligence satisfied on those points with arguments, I should become an infidel. He believed that the decisions of the Church ought to be respected by a young man like myself, and that I should surrender my own judgment to that of others of superior wisdom." (Pages 53-54.)

This was the old, old argument that has been hurled at the head of every young man through all the ages who dared to think for himself, -- "You are young and foolish; how dare you reject the opinion of the learned, and disagree with the holy fathers ?" What a hard time God has to find a man who will get out of the ruts of thought, and be honest in mind, willing to be taught by Him! And how long and wearily a suffering world must wait for a Copernicus, a Bacon, a Luther, an Arminius, a Wesley, a Finney! What an array of learned names can be marshaled in support of every damnable error that was ever advanced in theology! And how men hide behind them! May God give to the young men of America a fresh vision of truth!

Finney paid his respects to the Presbyterian Confession -- that document that has been such a check on the progress and such a hindrance to the best thought and piety of that great Church -- in the following words: "When I came to read the Confession of Faith, and saw the passages that were quoted to sustain their peculiar positions, I was absolutely ashamed of it. I could not feel any respect for a document that would undertake to impose on mankind such dogmas as those, sustained, for the most part, by passages of Scripture that were totally irrelevant, and not in a single instance sustained by passages which, in a court of law, would have been considered at all conclusive." (Page do.)

It. is easy to see that this must have been a period of great and peculiar trial to Mr. Finney, He was a thoughtful man, more than ordinarily sensitive and humble. He had that teachable modesty and humility that a baptism with the Holy Ghost brings to the heart. Moreover, no great soul can break with the past without serious misgivings and struggles. Luther went through Gethsemanes of anguish before he could bring himself to the point of forsaking and opposing his Church mother. All the great men who have marked out new paths for others have had their hours of anguish. Finney was no exception. He says: "I would often come from Mr. Gale's study greatly depressed and discouraged, saying to myself: 'I can not embrace these views, come what will. I can not believe they are taught in the Bible.' Several times I was on the point of giving up the study for the ministry altogether."

There were two things that kept him both from despair and a fatal theology. "Often," he says, "when I left Mr. Gale, I would go to my room and spend a long time on my knees over my Bible. Indeed, I read my Bible a great deal on my knees during those days of conflict, beseeching the Lord to teach me His own mind on those points. I had nowhere to go but directly to the Bible and to the philosophy of the working of my own mind, as revealed in consciousness." (Page 54.)

And God sent him a human helper. "There was," he writes, "but one member of the Church to whom I opened my mind freely on this subject; and that was Elder H____, a very godly, praying man. He had been educated in Princeton views, and held pretty strongly the higher doctrines of Calvinism. Nevertheless, as we had frequent and protracted conversations, he became satisfied that I was right; and he would call on me frequently to have some seasons of prayer with me, to strengthen me in my studies, and in my discussions with Mr. Gale, and to decide me more and more firmly that, come what would, I would preach the gospel. Sometimes we would continue till a late hour at night crying to God for light and strength, and for faith to accept and do His perfect will. He lived more than three miles from the village, and frequently he has staid with me until ten or eleven o'clock at night, and then walked home. The dear old man! I have reason to believe that he prayed for me daily as long as he lived.

"After I got into the ministry, and great opposition was raised to my preaching, he said to me, 'O, my soul is so burdened that I pray for you day and night! But I am sure that God will help you. Go on, go on, Brother Finney; the Lord will give you deliverance.'"

The Lord sent an angel to comfort his Son in his hour of anguish; He sent this dear saint to gird Finney with courage and strength. So he rose above discouragement, and was made superior to depression, and Victorious over unwise criticism and Worse instruction. He got a theology forged on the anvil of prayer, drawn from the Bible, the fountain of truth, with the Holy Ghost for his theological Instructor, as he knelt above the sacred page before God. There never was, and there never will be, a better way to study theology. It made Finney an independent, reverent, Spirit-taught, Bible-filled giant in theology. It prepared a mailed warrior for the pulpit, able to hew down the Agags and Anaks of sin, and to slay right and left the enemies of God.

Equally unwise and impractical was Mr. Gale's homiletical instruction to Mr. Finney. He prophesied, with respect to his views, every kind of evil. He assured him that the Spirit of God would not approve and co-operate with his labors; that if he addressed men, as he told him he intended to, they would not hear him; that if they came for a short time, they would soon become offended, and his congregation would all fall off; and that, unless he wrote his sermons, he would immediately become stale and uninteresting, and could not satisfy the people; and that he would divide and scatter instead of building up the congregation, wherever he preached. "Indeed," says Finney, "I found his views to be almost the reverse of those which I entertained on all such practical questions relating to my duty as a minister."

"I do not wonder, and did not at the time, that he was shocked at my views and purposes with regard to preaching the gospel. With his education it could not be otherwise. He followed out his views with very little practical result. I pursued mine, and, by the blessing of God, the results were the opposite of those which he predicted. When this fact came out clearly, it completely upset his theological and practical ideas as a minister, and for. a time annihilated his hope as a Christian, and finally made him quite another man, as a minister." (Page 55.)

Here, in his Memoirs, Mr. Finney makes another comment on Mr. Gale's deficiency, and pauses also to make a general observation which it would be an infinite blessing to the Church of Christ for theological professors and ministers to heed.

"There was another defect in Brother Gale's education which I regarded as fundamental. He had failed to receive that Divine anointing of the Holy Ghost that would make him a power in the pulpit and in society for the conversion of souls. He had fallen short of receiving the baptism with the Holy Ghost which is indispensable to ministerial success. When Christ commissioned His apostles to go and preach, He told them to abide at Jerusalem till they were endued with power from on high. This was an indispensable qualification for success in their ministry. The baptism was a Divine purifying, an anointing, bestowing on them a Divine illumination, filling them with faith and love, with peace and power, so that their words were made sharp in the hearts of God's enemies, quick and powerful, like a two-edged sword. This is an indispensable qualification of a successful ministry; and I have often been surprised and pained that, to this day, so little stress is laid upon this qualification for preaching Christ to a sinful world. Without the direct teaching of the Holy Spirit, a man will never make much progress in preaching the gospel.

"Mr. Gale was a sincere and good man; but he was sadly defective in his education, theologically, philosophically, and practically. I have said what I have of him because I think it applicable to many of the ministers even of the present day. I think that their practical views of preaching the gospel, whatever their theological views may be, are very defective indeed, and that their want of unction, and of the power of the Holy Ghost, is a radical defect in their preparation for the ministry. This is a fact which has long been settled in my mind, and over which I have long had occasion to mourn; and as I have become more and more acquainted with the ministry in this and other countries, I am persuaded that, with all their training and discipline and education, there is a lack in practical views of the best way of presenting the gospel to men, and especially in their want of the power of the Holy Ghost." (Pages 55, 56.)

At length this strange theological course, consisting of opposing continually the human teacher, and sitting humbly at the feet of the Divine, was ended. Finney came before the Presbytery, and was licensed to preach by a unanimous vote. Doubtless, as his biographer Wright asserts, the Presbytery was actuated by no love of his doctrines, but rather from "general considerations of policy, and from fear of being found fighting against God," or one whom God so wondrously used.

According to the prescribed custom, he presented to the Presbytery two written sermons, which probably, with a single exception, were the only ones he ever prepared. The third he wrote to put down a criticism that he was unequal to writing a creditable sermon. But he was hampered in the delivery of it, and shoved his manuscript under the pulpit, and then launched forth with his. accustomed freedom in extemporaneous address. Mr. Finney was a licensed preacher at last.

The next Sabbath he preached for Mr. Gale, and when he came out of the pulpit his teacher said to him, "Mr. Finney, I shall be very much ashamed to have it known, wherever you go, that you studied theology with me." It was one more shaft from Satan to discourage Finney from preaching his mighty, soulwinning gospel.

Be it said to Mr. Gale's credit that he afterward blessed the Lord that, in all his discussions with his great pupil, and in all he had said to him, he had not had the least influence to change his views. He frankly confessed his error in the manner of dealing with him, and admitted that, if Finney had listened to him, he would have been ruined as a minister. O, what multitudes of preachers have no such happy escape from bad theology and impractical training! What vast numbers have had the fire of enthusiasm and oratory extinguished by the criticism of the schools, and go to their work loaded down with what the mother of the Wesleys called "useless knowledge," while utterly unfitted for practical work by theories and notions that will cramp their energies and hinder their usefulness while they live!

It only remains to mention some of the personal characteristics of Finney which enhanced his usefulness. First, God gave him one of the most valuable physical qualifications of a great orator -- a majestic and commanding presence. He was six feet in stature, with a stately and imposing frame, a piercing, eagle eye, and a most kingly mien. "He had a voice of rare clearness, compass, and flexibility," which he used in a most natural and forcible way. "He was entirely free from mannerism; his intonation and emphasis were perfect;" and his voice and face and action were always in harmony with whatever great thought or feeling he was aiming to express. His grace of movement was always manifest, and his unstudied gestures were the perfection of grace. One might have supposed that he had Spent years with the masters of elocution and with the leaders of dramatic art. His mind was subtle and keen, and the great Dr. Charles Hodge called his logic "relentless." He had that rare balance of faculties, great reasoning powers with a quick and ready imagination, a stern loyalty to duty and obligation, and a divine compassion for the erring. He could thunder the terrors of the law with appalling power, and then turn and offer the mercy of the gospel with the tenderness. and tears of Jeremiah or Christ. His command of language was ready, his vocabulary copious, and his diction fine, He was scrupulously neat in his person, and gentlemanly in all his instincts. After thirty years of life on the platform in many States, and meeting and mingling with men of wide fame as preachers and orators, our mind goes back to the college days when we heard Finney, and felt again and again the thrill of his overpowering eloquence. We thought him then to be the prince of preachers and evangelists; a judgment we have never reversed. He was, like Elijah and John Baptist, a man of nature and of the desert, unspoiled by society, -- and untrammeled by the opinions and regulations of the schools, but taught of God and filled with the Holy Ghost. God had his giant at last.