Arminian Today

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Conversion in the Theology of Charles Finney (Part 1)

Charles Finney is often presented as an Arminian.  Often times I have heard Calvinists refer to Finney as an Arminian or that his soteriology was essentially Arminian.  While I agree that Finney often uses language that is similar to Arminians and he often defends points of Arminianism that we would defend such as an unlimited atonement, conditional election, or conditional perseverance of the faith, nonetheless I do not agree that Finney is an Arminian.  The goal of this article is to point out the differences in Finney’s theology that marks him outside of Arminianism.

Charles Finney is known for the “new measures” that he was using for his revivals.  While Finney did not invent the sinner’s prayer or the altar call, he did refine them and bring them to the forefront of evangelism.  Now, nearly 200 years later, the use of the altar call or the sinner’s prayer is so rampant in the Church that few even stop to consider whether it is biblical or not.  I know of churches that have either split or removed the Bible teacher over altar calls.  I myself do not give altar calls when preaching.  This has led some to believe that I oppose evangelism (which I do not) or that I oppose calling people to salvation (which I do not).  Some so defend the usage of the altar call that to not have an altar call is heresy.  This all comes from the ministry of Charles Finney.

But what did Finney believe about salvation?  What did he believe about man’s inability and the gospel?  First, let us look briefly at the teachings of Arminius concerning justification.  This will help us see the key differences between Arminius and Finney.

Arminius stated this about grace and free will:

Concerning grace and free will, this is what I teach according to the Scriptures and orthodox consent: Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without grace. That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word “grace,” I mean by it that which is the grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration. I affirm, therefore, that this grace is simply and absolutely necessary for the illumination of the mind, the due ordering of the affections, and the inclination of the will to that which is good. It is this grace which operates on the mind, the affections, and the will; which infuses good thoughts into the mind, inspires good desires into the actions, and bends the will to carry into execution good thoughts and good desires. This grace goes before, accompanies, and follows; it excites, assists, operates that we will, and co-operates lest we will in vain. It averts temptations, assists and grants succour in the midst of temptations, sustains man against the flesh, the world and Satan, and in this great contest grants to man the enjoyment of the victory. It raises up again those who are conquered and have fallen, establishes and supplies them with new strength, and renders them more cautious. This grace commences salvation, promotes it, and perfects and consummates it.

I confess that the mind of a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that the man himself is dead in sins. And I add to this — that teacher obtains my highest approbation who ascribes as much as possible to divine grace, provided he so pleads the cause of grace, as not to inflict an injury on the justice of God, and not to take away the free will to that which is evil.

Thus Arminius taught that while man is free, he is bound by sin.  This is the same teaching as Martin Luther or John Calvin.  Arminius did not teach that man was free to just up and choose Christ.  In fact, he agreed with Romans 3:10-18, that man was sinful and depraved.  Apart from the grace of God and the drawing power of the Holy Spirit through the gospel, mankind has no hope.  We are utterly sinful and we, by nature, are children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3).  Our desire is not to seek after God which is why He must first seek us (1 John 4:10).  The Lord is the great evangelist who seeks after the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7).  He is the one who opens the sinner’s heart for the gospel (Acts 16:14).  He is the one who regenerates us (Titus 3:5-7).  No doubt faith is that which receives this salvation as Arminius stated,

Faith is the instrumental cause, or act, by which we apprehend Christ proposed to us by God for a propitiation and for righteousness, according to the command and promise of the gospel, in which it is said, “He who believes shall be justified and saved, and he who believeth not shall be damned.”

When a person believes the gospel, they are saved (John 5:24).  We are justified through faith (Romans 5:1; Ephesians 2:8-9) and not by works (John 6:29; Romans 4:5).  This act of justification leads to the imputation of righteousness as Arminius states,

The form is the gracious reckoning of God, by which he imputes to us the righteousness of Christ, and imputes faith to us for righteousness; that is, he remits our sins to us who are believers, on account of Christ apprehended by faith, and accounts us righteous in him. This estimation or reckoning, has, joined with it, adoption into sons, and the conferring of a right to the inheritance of life eternal.

Clearly Arminius stood with the Reformers in his views regarding justification and salvation by faith in Christ.  Arminius stated,

I believe that sinners are accounted righteous solely by the obedience of Christ; and that the righteousness of Christ is the only meritorious cause on account of which God pardons the sins of believers and reckons them as righteous as if they had perfectly fulfilled the law. But since God imputes the righteousness of Christ to none except believers, I conclude that, in this sense, it may be well and properly said, to a man who believes, faith is imputed for righteousness through grace, because God hath set forth his Son, Jesus Christ, to be a propitiation, a throne of grace, [or mercy seat] through faith in his blood.

To summarize Arminius’ views regarding salvation.  Arminius taught that:

  • Salvation is accomplished through the cross of Christ alone.
  • Salvation is received by God’s grace through faith in Christ.
  • A believer is then declared righteous before God because of the gracious act of Christ and His salvation that He Himself accomplished on the cross.
  • Salvation is the gracious work of God who must open the sinner’s heart to receive salvation.  The Spirit of God does this work of conviction and He alone regenerates.  Salvation is not obtained by any works (Isaiah 64:6) nor by the act of the will (John 1:12-13).
  • The nature of humanity is that we are totally depraved, dead in our sins and without the life of God in our souls (Romans 3:23).  The wages of our sins is death (Romans 6:23) and we deserve God’s just wrath against our sins (Romans 1:18-32).  Yet God is good and loving and He sent His Son to die for our sins (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21).  Jesus alone is our substitute for the forgiveness of our sins (Isaiah 53:4-6; Ephesians 1:7; 1 Peter 2:21-24).

Next we will turn to the theology of Charles Finney to see if he agrees with Arminius over these doctrines.  In the end, I hope to show that Finney was not an Arminian but was semi-Pelagian if not a Pelagian.  Further, let it be shown that Arminius opposed Pelagianism in all its forms.  To ascribe to Arminius that he was a semi-Pelagian is not only inaccurate but unfair.

Written by The Seeking Disciple

06/08/2012 at 7:47 PM

One Response

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  1. Finney is too complicated. Straight up Pelagianism is better.


    06/09/2012 at 9:29 PM

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