As might have been expected from what has already been said, Mr. Finney denies that there is any such thing as natural depravity. His views on this subject are easily exhibited. We might describe them all, indeed, in a single phrase, by saying, that they are neither more nor less than the old Pelagian notions. ‘This state of mind,’ he says, describing the commencement of sin in a child, ‘is entirely the result of temptation to selfishness, arising out of the circumstances under which the child comes into being.’ ‘If it be asked how it happens that children universally adopt the principle of selfishness, unless their nature is sinful? I answer, that they adopt this principle of self-gratification, or selfishness, because they possess human nature, and come into being under the peculiar circumstances in which all the children of Adam are born since the fall.’ ‘The cause of outbreaking sin is not to be found in a sinful constitution or nature, but in a wrong original choice.’ ‘The only sense in which sin is natural to man is, that it is natural for the mind to be influenced in its individual exercises by a supreme preference or choice of any object.’
On reading this last extraordinary declaration, the text of an inspired apostle came to mind, in which he assures us, that we are ‘by nature children of wrath.’ If both those declarations are true, we have the curious result that we are children of wrath, not because we are sinners, but because we are so made as to be influenced by a supreme choice! But texts of Scripture are as nothing in Mr. Finney’s way. He makes them mean more or less, stretches or curtails them, just as occasion requires. His system is a perfect Procrustean bed, to which the Bible, no less than all things else, must be fitted.
An illustration of this is found in his manner of dealing with the passage, ‘I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ This text would seem, at first sight, to present a very serious obstacle to his views. And what does he do with it? He first gravely proves that it does not mean ‘the substance of a conceived fetus is sin!’ He then jumps to the conclusion, ‘All that can be possibly meant by this and similar passages is, that we were always sinners from the commencement of our moral existence, from the earliest moment of the exercise of moral agency.’ That is, when David and the other sacred writers make these strong assertions, they only mean to inform us, that the moment we adopt the principle of supreme selfishness as our rule of action, we do wrong; or, in other words, that just as soon as we begin to sin, we sin! May we not well say, that he has a marvellous faculty for making a text mean anything, or nothing, as suits his purpose?
Another illustration of this is furnished by his interpretation of the text, ‘The carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.’ The carnal mind, he says, means a minding of the flesh, a voluntary action of the mind, a choice that is supremely selfish. While men act upon the principle of supreme selfishness, obedience is impossible. This, he says, is the reason why the carnal mind, or the minding of the flesh, is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. Wonderful discovery! So the apostle, in this passage, meant nothing more than the stale truism, that a man cannot be sinful and holy at the same time, — that he cannot, in the same act, transgress the law and render obedience to it.
Pelagians have always found a difficulty in reconciling their theory with the salvation of infants by the grace of Jesus Christ. Pelagius himself was sorely pressed on this point. Infants are in no way answerable for the sin of Adam, or otherwise evilly affected by it than that it brings them into circumstances of temptation, and they have no sin of nature; how then can they be subjects of pardon? What interest can they have in the atonement of the Saviour? Let us see how Mr. Finney disposes of this difficulty.
‘Had it not been for the contemplated atonement, Adam and Eve would have been sent to hell at once, and never have had any posterity. The race could never have existed. . . . Now every infant owes its very existence to the grace of God in Jesus Christ; and if it dies previous to actual transgression, it is just as absolutely indebted to Christ for eternal life as if it had been the greatest sinner on earth.’ We have no words to express our aversion to this egregious trifling with sacred subjects. The Bible teaches us that all of our race who are saved are redeemed from sin; that they are saved, not born, by virtue of the atonement of Jesus Christ. And when we ask Mr. Finney how this can be reconciled with his theory that there is nothing connected with infants that can be atoned for, he very gravely tells us that they owe their BIRTH to the grace of God!
He does not tell us why he baptizes infants. We do not know, indeed, whether he ever administers this ordinance to children previous to the supposed commencement of moral action. Certainly, upon his principles, it could have no meaning. He rejects, with utter scorn and ridicule, the idea that in regeneration and sanctification there takes place anything that can be properly symbolized by ‘the washing off of some defilement.’ The water of baptism then, to whomsoever this rite be applied, cannot have any emblematical meaning; and the apostle committed a rhetorical error, to say the least of it, when he wrote, ‘But ye are washed, but ye are sanctified.’ But with what propriety this ordinance can be administered to children, who, having never actually transgressed, are not sinners, who are just what they ought to be, we cannot conceive. Surely consistency requires Mr. Finney to assign infant baptism a place among those hated abominations, upon which he so much dwells, that the ‘traditions of the elders’ have introduced into the church.
EXSISTENCE OF SIN
We shall not undertake to show in detail the inadequacy of Mr. Finney’s theory to account for the sin there is in the world. This has often been done. And it still remains perfectly inexplicable why, if men come into the world with just such a nature as they ought to have, prone no more to evil than to good, and are surrounded at the same time with ‘infinite motives’ to holiness, and ‘circumstances’ that tempt them to sin, that they should all, with one accord, obey the force of the finite circumstances rather than the infinite motives. If this IS the state of the case, we might naturally expect all mankind to become holy, excepting here and there some luckless one, who, not having sufficient skill so to manage the attention of his mind as to keep before it the infinite motives to holiness, would fall into sin. Here too we might ask, what has become of the doctrine that God has done all that he could to prevent the present degree of sin? If he can so influence some men, after their hearts are set in them to do evil, that they shall become holy, could he not have induced them, at the first, to choose holiness instead of sin?
We cannot pass from this part of our subject without developing one of the many singular results afforded by the comparison of different parts of Mr. Finney’s writings. The one we are now about to present is so very peculiar that we solicit for it special attention. He rejects the common doctrine of depravity, because it makes man a sinner by necessity — it makes God the author of sin — it is a constitutional or physical depravity, and leads to physical regeneration, etc. He frequently blows off the superflous excitement produced in his mind by this view of depravity, in sentences like the following:
‘That God has made men sinners, incapable of serving him — suspended their salvation upon impossible conditions — made it indispensable that they should have a physical regeneration, and then damns them for being sinners, and for not complying with these impossible conditions — monstrous! blasphemous! Believe this who can!’
Now let us see how he gets rid of this physical necessity, which he falsely but uniformly charges upon the common opinions respecting depravity. According to his theory, the cause of men becoming sinners is to be found in their possessing human nature, and coming into being under circumstances of temptation — in adaptation between certain motives which tempt to undue self-gratification, and the innocent constitutional propensities of human nature. But in one of his lectures, where he is endeavoring to persuade his hearers to use the appropriate means for promoting a revival, and presenting on that account such truths and in such forms as seem to him most stirring, he says: ‘Probably the law connecting cause and effect is more undeviating in spiritual than in natural things, and so there are fewer exceptions, as I have before said. The paramount importance of spiritual things makes it reasonable that it should be so.’
In the use of means for promoting revivals, he says again: ‘The effect is more certain to follow,’ than in use of means to raise a crop of grain. Now, upon his system, the efficiency of all means for promoting revivals may be traced up ultimately to the tendency of eternal motives to influence the mind. We have here, then, the position, distinctly involved, that motives, when properly presented, when so presented as to produce their appropriate effect, operate by a surer law than any of the physical laws of matter. The effect of the proper presentation of a motive to the mind is more certain, and of course more inevitable, than that the blade of wheat should spring from the planted seed, or a heavy body fall to the ground. Now he will not deny that the motives to sin, which meet man soon after his entrance into the world, are thus adequately presented; for the sad proof of it is found in the uniform production of their effect. That effect must of course be inevitable, beyond any idea of necessity that we can form from the operation of physical laws.
From the parts of his scheme already presented, our readers will be able to anticipate Mr. Finney’s theory of regeneration. The change which takes place in regeneration he, of course, represents as a change in the mind’s method of acting. As it originally chose sin instead of holiness, so a new habit consists in choosing holiness instead of sin. The idea that there is imparted to the heart a new relish for spiritual objects, or that any new principle is implanted, he rejects; to teach this, he says, is to teach physical religion, which has been the great source of infidelity in the church. ‘It is true,’ he says, ‘the constitution of the mind must be suited to the nature of the outward influence or motive; and there must be such an adaptation of the mind to the motive, and of the motive to the mind, as is calculated to produce any desired action of the mind. But it is absurd to say that this constitutional adaptation must be a holy principle, or taste, or craving after obedience to God. All holiness in God, angels, or men, must be voluntary, or it is not holiness. To call anything that is a part of the mind or body, holy — to speak of a holy substance, unless in a figurative sense, is to talk nonsense.’
We remark here, in passing, that this is the uniform style in which Mr. Finney caricatures the opinions from which he dissents. From one form of statement he habitually passes to another, as completely synonymous, which has not the remotest resemblance to it. He assumes here that a principle, or taste, cannot be voluntary, whereas it cannot but be voluntary, in the only sense in which voluntariness is essential to moral character; and also that it must be a substance, or form a part of the mind or body — an assumption than which nothing can be more groundless and absurd. He adds, ‘The necessary adaptation of the outward motive to the mind, and the mind to the motive, lies in the powers of moral agency, which every human being possesses.’
Understanding, conscience, and the power of choice, he supposes, are all that is needful to enable man to receive the truth of God, and act under its influence. There is nothing new in all this. It is at least as old as the fifth century. It has been broached repeatedly since the days of Pelagius, and as often shown, by arguments that have not yet been refuted, to be utterly inadequate to account for the facts of the case. We have indeed its radical unsoundness fully exposed to us by the apostle Paul, where he declares, ‘The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; neither can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned.’ This passage of Scripture will bear no interpretation which does not place it in irreconcilable contradiction with Mr. Finney’s theory. He generally asserts that the sinner knows all the truth that is necessary to induce him to make himself a new heart, and that the only reason why it fails to produce this effect is because he will not consider the truth.
We say generally, because here, as in everything else, Mr. Finney is inconsistent with himself. At one time he talks thus: ‘It is indeed the pressing of truth upon the sinner’s consideration that induces him to turn. But it is not true that he is ignorant of these truths before he thus considers them. He knows that he must die — that he is a sinner — that God is right, and he is wrong,’ etc. But again, when he is seeking to make an impression upon the sinner, he assures us that ‘the idea that the careless sinner is an intellectual believer is absurd — the man that does not feel, nor act at all, on the subject of religion, is an infidel, let his professions be what they may.’ But we will leave him to explain how an infidel can be said to know that to be true, which he does not believe to be true.
The uniform tenor of his representations, when treating of the subject of regeneration, is that the sinner wilfully refuses to consider known truths, and, on that account alone, has not a new heart. The apostle, on the contrary, declares the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, neither can he know them. We presume that no one but Mr. Finney himself can doubt to which of these authorities we should bow.
If the testimony of the apostle needed any confirmation, we might find it abundantly in human experience. Every man knows that his perception of moral truths depends upon the state of his heart. It is matter of familiar experience, that truths which sometimes affect us scarcely at all, will, at another time, act so powerfully as to break up all the fountains of feeling within us. And this difference is not owing to the greater or less degree of consideration bestowed upon the truth; — we may think of it as profoundly in the one case as in the other. Who has not felt that a familiar truth, occurring to the mind in the same terms with which it has often before been clothed, will suddenly display a hitherto unseen richness of meaning, which at once wakes up all the feelings of the heart? What is it that can thus modify our powers of moral perception but the state of the mind? And how can we expect, then, that the spiritual truths of God’s holy word should produce their appropriate effect upon the mind of the sinner, who is destitute not only of any fellowship with those truths, but of the disposition of heart by which their meaning is discerned? We cannot understand how the unrenewed heart, if as Mr. Finney says, ‘hates God with moral hatred,’ can even understand the real meaning of the truth, God is love; or feel that this truth is a motive for subduing its hatred. Nor are we able to see how any of those considerations most frequently presented in the sacred Scriptures can prevail with the sinner, and produce upon him their appropriate effect, unless his mind is illuminated, his heart renewed, by the influences of the Holy Spirit.
Mr. Finney’s own pages will furnish us with evidences that he himself considers the mind as needing some further adaptation to the motives of the Bible, than the powers of moral agency. This evidence is found in the fact that the motives which he most frequently and importunately urges, are not those which are commonly employed in the sacred Scriptures. He seems to have a kind of instinct of the insufficiency of the considerations presented by the inspired writers, to answer his purpose. The most common form in which he sets forth the change that takes place in regeneration, is that of a change in the choice of a Supreme Ruler. He divides the world into two great political parties, the one with God, the other with Satan, at its head.
When a man makes for himself a new heart, he changes sides in politics, — he gives up the service of Satan, and submits to the government of God. The great duty which he urges upon the sinner is unconditional submission to God. This duty, as presented by him, is very rarely intended to include submission to the terms of salvation revealed in the gospel, — it is a submission to God as the great creator and ruler of the world, — the God of providence rather than of grace.
Now it will at once occur to every reader of the Bible, that this is not the duty which the sacred writers most frequently urge upon the sinner. They call upon men to repent, and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. But Mr. Finney says, ‘It is generally in point, and a safe and suitable direction to tell a sinner to repent.’ Marvellous! That he should consider it generally, but not always safe to tell a sinner to do that which the apostles, with great uniformity, tell him to do. The other part of the apostolic exhortation to sinners, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ,’ he seems to think, should no longer be given in any case save where an individual is unwilling to admit that Christ is the Messiah of God. This exhortation he considers as exclusively suitable to the days of the apostles, ‘when the minds of the people were agitated mainly on the question, whether Jesus was the true Messiah.’ ‘They bore down,’ he says, ‘on this point, because here was where the Spirit of God was striving with them, and consequently, this would probably be the first thing a person would do on submitting to God.’ He does indeed number among the directions to be given to sinners, that ‘they should be told to believe the gospel;’ but he explains this to mean nothing more than ‘that trust or confidence in the Scriptures that leads the individual to act as if they were true.’ Of that specific act of faith in which the soul apprehends the Lord Jesus as its Saviour, and receives pardon and justification, he seems not to have the least idea. The sole value of repentance or faith, he finds in the manifestation which they afford of the heart’s willingness to submit to the authority of God. ‘Whatever point,’ he says, ‘is taken hold of between God and the sinner, when he yields that he is converted. When he yields one point to God’s authority, he yields all.’
This is evidently another gospel. The apostles urge all men to believe in the Saviour because faith is in itself a proper and a most important duty, — but Mr. Finney deems it of no importance, save as it manifests submission to the authority of the Great Ruler, and thinks it unsuitable to urge it upon any sinner therefore, unless it is one whose heart has assumed a hostile attitude towards the claims of Jesus Christ to be the true Messiah. How widely, indeed, does this differ from the gospel revealed to us from heaven, which places faith at the head of human duties, teaching us that it is the instrumental cause of our forgiveness, that it unites us to the Lord Jesus Christ, and is the mediate source of all our spiritual strength!
As the duty presented by Mr. Finney to the sinner’s mind is different from that commonly urged in the Bible, so does he employ different motives to induce compliance. The chief motive upon which he relies is, that it is right to acknowledge God and submit to him as our Great Ruler. We can now see another reason why he assumed the strange position upon which we have already commented, that ‘It is the rightness of a duty that must influence the mind if it would act virtuously.’ Man in his natural state can be made to see that it is right for him to submit to God, but he cannot be made to perceive His moral glory, or to feel that his character is lovely. As he cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God, Mr. Finney is therefore driven to the necessity of seeking other things which he can receive. He endeavors, by developing the useful tendency of the principles of the divine government in contrast with the injurious influence of selfishness, to produce a conviction in the sinner’s mind that it is right for God to reign; and upon this conviction he relies to induce the sinner to change his voluntary preference, and submit to the righteous rule of his creator.
In one of his sermons, after describing to the sinner how he must change his heart, he goes through a kind of rehearsal of the performance. He begs the sinner to give him his attention while he places before him ‘such considerations as are best calculated to induce the state of mind which constitutes a change of heart.’ In presenting these best considerations, he dwells upon ‘the unreasonableness and hatefulness of selfishness,’ ‘the reasonableness and utility of benevolence,’ ‘the reasons why God should govern the universe,’ etc. His remarks upon these topics are protracted through ten or twelve octavo pages, in the whole of which, about as many lines are devoted to a frigid allusion to the justice and mercy displayed in the atonement of Jesus Christ.
In a previous passage of the same sermon he says, ‘The offer of reconciliation annihilates the influence of despair, and gives to conscience its utmost power.’ He seems here to limit the efficacy of the gospel, to its opening the way for the operation of existing motives upon the heart of man. And his practice is certainly consistent with this low view of the gospel. The considerations which he brings forward, as best adapted to induce the sinner to change his heart, are almost exclusively such as are furnished by natural religion. We hear next to nothing of the grace and glory of God as they shine in the face of Jesus Christ, of the wondrous love of a dying Saviour, of the demerit of sin as illustrated by his death, or of the guilt of the sinner in remaining insensible to the motives which address him from Calvary. Our Saviour intimates that all other sin is comparatively lost in the sin of rejecting Him; and the apostles refer to the neglect of the ‘great salvation’ provided for man, as presenting the most odious form of human guilt. To the life and death of Jesus Christ, indeed, do they continually recur for the illustration and enforcement of all human duties. They make known nothing save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. This is the great central source of light and heat. Whatever may be the point of departure, how uniformly do they carry us to the Cross, and bid us thence look at the character of God, and the duty of man.
But when Mr. Finney professedly addresses himself to the task of presenting the considerations best adapted to move the heart of the sinner, he thinks he can find a better point of view. He takes his stand amidst the wonders of creation; he finds in the character there developed, and the relations there established between man and his Maker, the right and the duty of God to govern, and man’s obligations to obey, — ‘the reasonableness and utility of virtue, — the unreasonableness, guilt, and evil of sin;’ — hence he charges the sinner with having ‘set his unsanctified feet upon the principles of eternal righteousness, lifted up his hands against the throne of the Almighty, set at naught the authority of God and the rights of man!’ We do not deny the validity of these considerations, upon which he chiefly dwells; but we do deny that the truths involved in them are the peculiar truths of the gospel, or that they are those which the apostles deemed best adapted to become ‘the wisdom of God and the power of God unto salvation.’ Throughout his whole system indeed, it is painful to see how small a space is allotted to the Cross of Christ. Often where it might be expected to stand forth conspicuous, it seems to be, of set design, excluded.
In this same sermon, when defending the reasonableness of the ‘conditions of the gospel,’ he tells the sinner that faith is reasonable, because ‘nothing but faith in what God tells him, can influence him to take the path that leads to heaven.’ The faith of which he here speaks is a ‘condition of the gospel,’ and yet he represents it in no other light than as a general belief in the truth of God’s word; and justifies its requirement solely on the ground of its tendency to make man holy. There is no hint of that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, so often mentioned in the Scriptures, by which the soul commits itself to Him as its Saviour, and becomes a partaker of the benefits of his redemption, — no allusion to the reasonableness of this condition, on the ground of its rendering to God all the glory of our salvation. We see not how any pious mind, accustomed to look to Jesus Christ for all its strength and joy and glory, can pass through this new system, without being constrained at every step to cry out, ‘Ye have taken away my Lord, and I know not where ye have laid Him.’
Another illustration, trifling it is true, when compared with the one we have just presented, but yet worthy of notice, of the difficulty under which Mr. Finney labors, in carrying out his views of regeneration, is found in the necessity which is laid upon him of violating the established meaning of words. A new heart is a new act. In regeneration no principle is implanted in the mind, but the beginning and end of the process is in a new act; and consequently the process of the divine life in the soul of man is a series of acts, — there is no growth of anything which lays the foundation of those acts and disposes to the performance of them. He not only believes this to be true, but thinks it vastly important that others should be convinced of its truth. The world has hitherto been ignorant of the true nature of religion and the method of its progress in the heart. He expresses his doubt whether one professor of religion out of ten in the city of New York, if asked what sanctification is, could give a right answer. They would speak of it, ‘as if it were a sort of washing off of some defilement,’ — or they would represent it as the growth of some principle, or germ, or seed, or sprout, implanted in the soul. ‘But sanctification,’ he says, ‘is obedience.’ Of course, to sanctify must mean to obey; and to be sanctified is to be obeyed. Now we charitably hope that Mr. Finney has underrated the number of those who could give a right answer to this question; for we presume that more than nine out of ten of the professors of religion in New York have been at school, and can read a dictionary, if not the Bible and the catechisms of their church, and surely not one, thus qualified, could ever think of giving his definition of sanctification.
We have already exposed the insufficiency of Mr. Finney’s theory; and in testimony thereof have adduced his own departure, in carrying out his theory, from the instructions and motives developed in the gospel. He thus evidently betrays his own conviction that the duties which the apostles commonly urge upon the impenitent are not consistent with his scheme; and that the motives they present are of such a nature as to require a corresponding disposition of heart. The force of the objections we have brought forward, is not at all diminished by the different form in which he sometimes states his doctrine of the new heart. He has a class of passages in which he represents the spiritual heart, as ‘That deep-seated, but voluntary preference of the mind which lies back of all its other voluntary affections and emotions, and from which they take their character.’ If by ‘preference,’ be meant such an inclination as he has elsewhere described under that name, which is not an object of consciousness, and makes itself known only by its influence over our acts; and by its being ‘deep-seated,’ that is, seated in the will itself, using the term in its larger sense, and for that reason entitled to the epithet ‘voluntary,’ we should have no objection to this account of the matter. This is precisely our idea of a disposition. But this is not his act of the mind. It still remains then for him to show how the mind can be induced to prefer the glory of God, as the supreme end of pursuit, when it is blind to that glory, and if we may credit the apostle, in such a state, that until renewed, it cannot know it.
Another difficulty, too, is started by the passage we have just quoted from him. It seems that we are to look back from every other voluntary affection and emotion of mind to this ‘deep-seated preference,’ to find their moral character. But as this preference is itself but a voluntary exercise of mind, and differs from its other voluntary exercises only by being more deep-seated, it would seem that we ought to look back to something else for its moral character. It is impossible for us to imagine how one voluntary exercise of mind can possess a moral character, independent of the subjective motives which prompted it, while all other affections and emotions are good or evil only through their connection with this one. Is it not wonderful that with such beams in his own eye, he should be endeavoring to pluck out motes from the eyes of others!
MAN CAN REGENERATE HIMSELF
Mr. Finney asserts the perfect, unqualified ability of man to regenerate himself. It is easier, indeed, he says, for him to comply with the commands of God than to reject them. He tells his congregation that they ‘might with much more propriety ask, when the meeting is dismissed, how they should go home, than to ask how they should change their hearts.’ He declares that they who teach the sinner that he is unable to repent and believe without the aid of the Holy Spirit, insult his understanding and mock his hopes, — they utter a libel upon Almighty God, — they make God an infinite tyrant, — they lead the sinner very consistently to justify himself, — if what they say is true, the sinner ought to hate God, and so should all other beings hate him, as some have humorously and truly said, they preach, ‘You can and you can’t, you shall and you shan’t, you will and you won’t, you’ll be damn’d if you do, you’ll be damn’d if you don’t.’
It has been reserved, we imagine, for the refined and delicate taste of Mr. Finney, to discover the humor of this miserable doggerel. He is obviously much delighted with it, and, like all his other good things, has worked it up more than once. We hope the next compiler of the beauties of American poetry will pay a due deference to his commendation, and assign a conspicuous place to this precious morceau.
Most professors of religion, he says, pray for sinners, that God would enable them to repent. Such prayers he declares to be an insult to God. He thinks it a great error to tell the sinner to pray for a new heart, or to pray for the Holy Ghost to show him his sins. ‘Some persons,’ he says, ‘seem to suppose that the Spirit is employed to give the sinner power, — that he is unable to obey God without the Spirit’s agency. I confess I am alarmed when I hear such declarations as these; and were it not that I suppose there is a sense in which a man’s heart may be better than his head, I should feel bound to maintain that persons holding this sentiment were not Christians at all.’
We have certainly never met with a more singularly extravagant and unfortunate declaration than the one last quoted. Who are the persons who have held and taught this sentiment, so inconsistent with Christianity? Why, at the head of the list stand our Saviour and his apostles. ‘No man,’ said Christ, ‘can come to me except the Father which hath sent me draw him.’ And the apostles refer continually to the absolute dependence of man upon God for the necessary strength to perform his duties aright. Not one of those holy men felt that he was of himself ‘sufficient for these things.’ Their uniform feeling seems to have been, ‘I can do all things through Christ, who strengtheneth me.’ Mr. Finney not only believes that we can do all things without any strength from Christ, but he makes this one of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. The apostles exhorted men to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and they prayed for those to whom they wrote, that the Lord would strengthen them with might by his Spirit, that he would make them perfect, establish, strengthen, settle them. But Mr. Finney says, to pray that God would help the sinner to repent, is an insult to God; as if God had commanded the sinner to do what he cannot do. Now the Christian has at least as much ability to be perfectly holy as the sinner has to repent. God commands Christians to be perfect, and of course, when the apostles prayed that the Lord would strengthen them and make them perfect, they prayed ‘as if God had commanded the Christian to do what he cannot do.’ These prayers, then, uttered under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, must have been ‘an insult to God!’
Mr. Finney cannot relieve the character of his reckless, irreverent assertions, by saying that the sacred writers meant to represent nothing more than the unwillingness of the sinner to do his duty. Beyond all dispute they represent this unwillingness under the form of an inability, and it is against those who describe it by precisely equivalent terms that Mr. F. raves with such infuriate bitterness. There is a question here, not between him and us, but between him and the apostles, whether they employed proper and safe language in describing the moral condition of man and the nature of his dependence on divine aid.
He may perhaps say that the language employed by the apostles was perfectly proper at that time, but as their statements have been perverted and become the source of ruinous errors, it is now necessary to employ more explicit and guarded language. We suppose this will be the nature of his defence, as he distinctly takes the ground that it will not answer to preach the same class of truths, or to exhibit them in the same manner, in any two ages of the Church, or in any two places. At each time and place the sinner is entrenched behind his own peculiar errors, and the preacher must be careful not to present any truth which he can so pervert as to fortify himself in his refuges of lies. But is it true that any such change can take place, from age to age, in the natural character or the accidental circumstances of man, as to call for any important change in the matter or manner of religious instruction? What error has ever existed that does not find its refutation in some revealed truth? It is a very dangerous principle to admit, that we are at liberty to omit such truths of the Bible as we deem unsuitable to existing emergencies, and to exhibit others in a very different light from that in which they are left by inspired writers. It virtually suspends the whole of the divine revelation upon the discretion and wisdom of man. But if true, it has no application to the case now before us. There is no evidence that the perversion of the truth which Mr. F. thinks can only be met by varying the manner in which the apostles represent man’s dependence, is a modern error. On the contrary, it is undeniable that this very error prevailed in the days of the apostles. Paul met with the same objections that are now current, drawn from the divine sovereignty and human dependence; and how does he refute them? By a flat denial that man is unable of himself to do his duty? Or by a modification, a softening down of his previous statements? No, he re-asserts the perverted doctrines in the face of the objections raised against them. He does not, nor does any one of the sacred writer, affirm in a single instance that the sinner is able to obey the divine commands. Not a text of Scripture can be found in which this is declared, while a multitude can be produced which explicitly, and in so many words deny it. Will Mr. F. say that the apostles urged upon men obedience to the divine commands, and thus virtually declared their ability to obey? Then why does he not declare it in the same virtual manner? The same reasons existed then as now for a direct assertion of the sinner’s ability, and yet it was in no case made. Why, then, should he make it now, and dwell upon it, and magnify it into an important, nay, an essential part of the gospel, so that he who disbelieves it cannot be a Christian at all?
But it is not true that in urging the commands of God, the sacred writers teach the entire and independent ability of man to obey. Mr. Finney does not pretend to bring forward a single passage of Scripture in which his doctrine is directly taught; he finds it proved in no other way than by his own inferences from such commands as, ‘Make to yourself a new heart,’ ‘My son, give me thy heart.’ His brief argument for human ability is, God commands man to obey, therefore he can obey. He does not even allude to the distinction often taken between natural and moral ability. He teaches broadly without any qualification whatever, that a divine command implies the possession of all the ability necessary to obedience. Obligation and ability, he says, must be commensurate. And how does he prove the truth of this last proposition? In no other way than by repeating, times without number, that to teach otherwise makes God an infinite tyrant. But the Bible does not inform us that there is any tyranny in God’s commanding men to do what they cannot do. It teaches us directly the contrary, by making known the duty of man to receive the things of the Spirit of God, while it at the same time declares, that without divine assistance he cannot receive or know them. He must refer, then, for the truth of this maxim, to our natural sense of justice.
We might object to this reference of a case already so clearly decided by a higher authority; but we have no fear that there will be found here any discrepance between the teachings of revelation and the testimony of man’s conscience, if the latter be rightly interpreted. Our natural sense of justice does indeed teach us that no obligation can rest upon man to perform any duty for which he has not the necessary facilities; and that he is not responsible for failure in anything which he was willing to do, but was hindered in the execution by causes beyond his control. When appointed to such cases as these, there is a self-evidence belonging to the maxim in question which places its truth beyond all dispute. Mr. Finney’s mistake lies in extending it to cases which lie altogether beyond the limits within which it was generalized. We deny that the common sense of mankind has ever required that we should possess the ability to change our inclinations, as the condition of our responsibility for their exercise. To illustrate this, let us suppose the case of a man under the influence of any dominant passion. Before he has long indulged this passion, it would be comparatively easy for him to relinquish it. As he gives way to its impulses, however, its power over him increases, until at length it binds in complete subjection to itself all the other affections of his nature. At each step of its progress the difficulty of subduing it is increased; and yet who will deny that the sin of cherishing is accurately proportioned to this difficulty? The law of continuity, which has place in moral reasoning, as well as in that ‘algebra’ which is to Mr. F. the symbol of incomprehensibility, would teach us hence to infer that the guilt is greatest when the difficulty is greatest, and that the former has its highest form of aggravation in the insurmountable character of the latter.
The language of the whole world is framed in recognition of this truth. We speak familiarly of the difficulty which men find in changing their inclinations, without ever conceiving that we thereby lessen their obligation; nay, we consider the cup of their guilt full to the brim, when they have so destroyed their ability to become virtuous, that we may properly say of them, ‘They cannot cease to do evil, and learn to do well.’ When a paramount inclination, like a strong man armed, has taken possession of the heart, and, with a despotism peculiar to itself, banished all but its own ideas and emotions, how can it be dispossessed? Will it yield to a volition of the mind? We all know it will not, and Mr. Finney himself admits it.
He says that our affections will not obey the bidding of the will, — we cannot summon or dismiss them by a volition. This admission is fatal to him. The mind, he says, can operate upon its inclinations and affections only by changing the object of thought; and this change it certainly cannot effect in a moment. When any strong inclination is in exercise, the mind has an attraction for those ideas and considerations which tend to sustain and increase its present emotions, while it repels all others to an unseen distance, and some little time at least is necessary before it can succeed in calling up and keeping before it those objects of thought which may introduce a different class of feelings. Upon his own account of the matter, no man can, in an instant, change a strong inclination. And yet if that inclination is an evil one, the obligation to an immediate change is evident. What, then, has become of the maxim that obligation and ability are commensurate? The sinner who perceives the opposition of the divine government to his selfish plans, and whose heart is on that account filled with emotions of hatred towards God, cannot instantly, if at all, turn his mind to such views of the divine character as will inspire him with love. And yet the duty of immediate, instant submission is very evident. We see, then, that power is not the exact measure of obligation.
One instance of the failure of the truth of this maxim is as good as a thousand, since one is enough to destroy its generality, and leave the arguments for the inability of the sinner standing in all their force, unless they can be overthrown by considerations drawn from other sources. We do utterly deny that the sinner is able, in the sense which Mr. Finney contends for, to obey the divine commands. In proof of this we say that he is dead in trespasses and in sins, and as the dead man is insensible to all things, so is he to those objects which, if rightly perceived, would be adapted to kindle within him holy desires and affections. Until renewed, he cannot know the things which he must know before he can discharge his duty. And the arguments which we urge from reason and Scripture in defence of these views, are not touched by the assertion that obligation and ability must be commensurate with each other. We have already produced one instance in which, upon Mr. Finney’s own admission, this maxim fails to be true: and we are now about to bring forward another, in which he virtually confesses that it is never true when the affections and inclinations of the heart are in question.
In explaining why there can be no repentance in hell, he says, when a man’s ‘reputation is so completely gone that he has no hope of retrieving it, in this state of despair there is no possibility of reclaiming him; no motive can reach him and call forth an effort to redeem his character.’ Now, in view of this admission, let it be true that obligation and ability are commensurate, and what is the consequence? Why, that when a man has become so vicious as to ruin his reputation, when he has reached such a confirmed state of iniquity that he himself and all others despair of his ever becoming virtuous, when he has severed the last link that bound him to humanity, and is floating loose from his species, a demon or a brute, then is he released from all accountability! Mr. Finney adds, that in hell ‘the sinner will be in despair, and while in despair it is a moral impossibility to turn his heart to God.’ But will he deny that the sinner in hell is under any less obligation to love God, on account of this admitted impossibility of loving Him? Betraying, as he here does, his knowledge of the limitations to which his favorite standard of obligation is subject, we should suspect him of a set design to deceive, when he uses it so often in its broad, unqualified sense, and takes his stand upon it to thunder out his furious anathemas against others, had he not furnished us, through all his writings, with such abundant evidence of his incapacity to take into view more than a very small part of one subject at the same time.
With the exposure of the error involved in his position, that God cannot consistently command man to do that which he cannot perform, we shall take our leave of this part of the subject, for he has not brought forward the semblance of an argument in favor of the sinner’s ability to regenerate himself, which does not directly involve the universal truth of this erroneous maxim.2
We have already occupied so much space, that we cannot exhibit as fully as we would wish, Mr. Finney’s views of the doctrine of divine influence. His theory on this subject is expressed in the following extract.
‘The work of the Holy Spirit does not consist merely in giving instruction, but in compelling him to consider truths which he already knows, — to think upon his ways and turn to the Lord. He urges upon his attention and consideration those motives which he hates to consider and feel the weight of.’ Again he says, ‘It is indeed the pressing of truth upon the sinner’s consideration that induces him to turn.’
It will be at once perceived that he limits the agency of the Holy Spirit, in the regeneration of the sinner, to the simple presentation of truth to the mind. Said we not truly, that the influence of the Holy Spirit comes in here only by the way? It is strictly parenthetical, and has about as much fitness and meaning, in connection with the rest of his scheme, as ‘the grace of God’ has in the REX, DEI GRATIA, on the disk of a Spanish dollar. He maintains that the truth of God, if adequately considered, would convert the sinner; and that he has a perfect and independent power to keep that truth before his mind. Surely, then, the agency of the Spirit is superfluous. It is a new cause introduced to account for the production of an effect for which we already have an adequate cause. But though he has, inconsistently we think, retained the doctrine of divine influence, he has so modified it that it has but few, if any, points of resemblance with the scriptural representations of this subject.
His common method of illustrating the nature of the Spirit’s agency is by a reference to the manner in which a lawyer persuades a jury, or an orator sways his audience. The Spirit merely presents the truth, and the moral suasion of the truth regenerates the sinner, or rather induces him to regenerate himself. It is not thus that the Scriptures represent it. What mind can read his frequent illustration of an advocate persuading his hearers, and then pass to the scriptural one, of a power that raises from death unto life, without feeling that the agencies which can be properly set forth under such dissimilar symbols must be specifically and widely different from each other? If he has given us the correct account of the divine agency exerted in the salvation of man, then it cannot be denied the language of the sacred writers, on this subject, is most delusively extravagant.
He does sometimes describe the Spirit as forcing the truth home with tremendous power, — pouring the expostulation home, — keeping the truth in warm contact with the mind, — gathering up a world of motive, and pouring it in upon the soul in a focal blaze. Of these and similar expressions, the ‘warm contact,’ and the ‘focal blaze,’ seem to be his favorites, as he has most frequently repeated them. They are but the rays with which he seeks to conceal from his own view and that of others, his meagre skeleton of a Scriptural truth. He seems to resort to these expressions because he feels the inaptness and poverty of his plain statements. But it is as bad to lose one’s self in a fog of metaphor, as in that ‘fog of metaphysics’ which he so much dreads. His ‘close contact,’ and ‘warm contact,’ and ‘focal blaze,’ and ‘Pouring home,’ mean nothing more than that the Spirit presents the truth to the mind. However the form of expression may be varied, this exhausts the subject of his interference. He does nothing to awaken the attention any further than the truth which he offers awakens it; nothing to arouse the feelings, — nothing to make the scales fall from the eye of the mind that it may perceive the truth, — nothing to change the disposition of the heart so that it may love the truth and feel its constraining influence. Mr. Finney expressly and warmly excludes any direct operation of the Spirit upon the mind or heart. To suppose any such agency, he says with an irreverence of which we hope but few could be guilty, is to suppose a ‘physical scuffling’ between the Holy Spirit and the sinner! As the Spirit awakens no inclination of the heart to go forth and embrace the truth, the warm contact with the mind, into which he brings it, can refer only to its continuous presentation. When the truth is placed before the mind, and the attention is fixed, the contact is complete, and cannot be rendered any closer or warmer but by the instrumentality of the affections, upon which Mr. F. asserts the Spirit exerts no agency. We have already shown the utter inadequacy of this account of the mode of regeneration. Whether the truth remains for a short or a long time, in cold or in warm contact with the unrenewed heart, it will feel in the considerations before it no sufficient motive for loving God.
It will be seen from Mr. F.’s account of the Spirit’s influence, that the agency which he exerts in the regeneration of the sinner is the same in kind as that exerted by the preacher. Both call his attention to the truth, and neither of them does anything beyond this. If you go to a drunkard, and urge upon him the motives which should induce him to abandon his cups, you have done for him precisely what the Holy Spirit does for the sinner in his regeneration. The preacher, upon this scheme, has the same right that God has to assume to himself the glory of the sinner’s salvation. Indeed Mr. F. fully admits this in answering the objection that his view of the subject ‘takes the work out of God’s hands, and robs him of his glory.’ His defence is, that the glory belongs to God, inasmuch as he caused the sinner to act. And mark the meaning and force of his illustration: ‘If a man,’ he says, ‘had made up his mind to take his own life, and you should, by taking the greatest pains and at great expense, prevail upon him to desist, would you deserve no credit for the influences you exerted in the case?’ Is it not amazing that any man with the Bible in his hands, and professing to love its sacred truths, could divide, as this passage fully does, the glory of the sinner’s salvation between God and man, ascribing the work in the same sense to the Holy Spirit and the preacher, and distributing to each a similar need of praise!
Mr. Finney seems to have a great objection to the peaching of the doctrine of divine influence in any manner. There was a tract published in New York entitled Regeneration is the effect of Divine Power. He twice declares that, ‘The very title to this tract is a stumbling block.’ He says that, ‘While the sinner’s attention is directed to the subject of the Spirit’s influences, his submission is impossible;’ and that if the apostles on the day of Pentecost had gone off to drag in such subjects as dependence upon the Holy Spirit, it is manifest that not one of their hearers would have been converted. ‘The doctrine of election and divine sovereignty,’ he assets, ‘has nothing to do with the sinner’s duty, — it belongs to the government of God.’ And in another place he says, ‘To preach doctrines in an abstract way, and not in reference to practice, is absurd.’ As the doctrine of divine sovereignty then has nothing to do with the sinner’s duty, we suppose that he intends that it should not be preached at all. Thus does he distort, thus would he conceal from view, a doctrine which runs through the while Bible, is incorporated with all its revelation, and is the basement principle of so many emotions and actions!
It is obvious why he is thus hostile to divine sovereignty. This doctrine he thinks is calculated to keep men easy in their sins. If they are dependent upon God, they will be led to wait for his action upon them before they begin to act. No doubt the truth may be thus perverted. But is not his doctrine greatly more liable to perversion? He teaches the sinner that he has all the requisite power to convert himself. What more natural than for the sinner to say, ‘I love my sins, and therefore as I can at any moment forsake them and make myself holy, I will continue to indulge myself?’ It is worthy of remark, that when Mr. Finney is exposing, in one of his most moving paragraphs, the unfitness of a deathbed as a place for repentance, he alludes only to the difficulty of thinking and keeping the mind in warm and distressing contact with the truth, during the agonies of dissolution. He does not refer in the most distant manner to the danger that the sinner, justly abandoned of God, may be unable on that account to change his heart. Is there no danger, too, that the sinner, so repeatedly assured that God would be an infinite tyrant if he had commanded him to do what he cannot do, should find in his own experience that he cannot of himself make a new heart, and thus be led to condemn the justice of the divine requirements? May he not also very consistently say to his instructor, `It is at least as easy for you to be perfectly holy as it is for me to repent. I retort upon you your charges that I am a wicked rebel, and that my heart has been case-hardened in the fires of hell. Physician, heal thyself. If it is easier for me to love God than to hate him, it is easier for you to be perfect than to remain imperfect. It is easier indeed for you to be holy, even as your Father in heaven is holy, than it is for you to walk home; to do the latter requires that you should both be willing and exert the proper muscular action, but to do the former only requires you to be willing. You must be the wickedest being in the universe, then, to refuse to perform a duty so obvious and so easy.’
We here dismiss this subject for the present. As we have occupied ourselves with Mr. Finney’s doctrines, we have been led to seek them chiefly in his Sermons, from which most of our extracts have been taken. We propose in our next number to examine his Lectures more particularly, and develop the measures and the spirit of this new system. As we have shown that its doctrines are not those of the Bible, so will it be seen that its spirit is anything rather than the spirit of Christianity.
We have not shown the discrepancies between Mr. Finney’s doctrines, and the standards of the church to which he belongs. This would be holding a light to the sun. It is too evident to need elucidation, that on all the subjects which we have gone over, his opinions are diametrically opposed to the standards of the Presbyterian Church, which he has solemnly adopted. Many of the very expressions and forms of stating these doctrines upon which he pours out his profane ridicule, are found in the Confession of Faith. Why then does he remain in the church?
He will hold up to the detesting of his people a man who refuses to pay his subscription to the Oneida Institute, because he conscientiously believes that institution is doing more harm than good, asserting that he is not honest, and more than insinuating that he cannot go to heaven. And can he see no moral dishonesty in remaining in a church, whose standards of faith he has adopted, only to deny and ridicule them? It is a remarkable fact that this man, thus incorrect in his doctrinal views, thus dishonest in his continuance in a church whose standards he disbelieves and condemns, should have been appointed a professor of theology to assist in training up ministers for our churches. The trustees of Oberlin Institute had, to be sure, a perfect right to appoint him; but it seems to us very remarkable that they should have selected him, and rather more so that he should have felt willing to undertake the office of an instructor in theology. We suppose, however, that his object was to show the church the way in which her ministers should be trained. We give him credit for his good intentions. He declares it to be a solemn fact, that there is a great defect in the present mode of educating ministers, and that the training they receive in our colleges and seminaries does not fit them for their work. He assures his readers that all the professors in our theological seminaries are unfit for their office; some of them are getting back towards second childhood, and ought to resign; and none of them are such men as are needed in these days. Now is it not very kind in Mr. Finney, when the church is thus destitute of men who can adequately instruct her ministers, to step forward and take the office upon himself? No doubt the whole Presbyterian church ought to break forth in rejoicings. But we confess we would rather he should make the experiment of his ability in this line out of our church. He will, doubtless, think this very unkind and ungrateful, but we cannot help it. We tender him our thanks for the substantial service he has done the church by exposing the naked deformities of the New Divinity. He can render her still another, and in rendering it perform only his plain duty, by leaving her communion, and finding one within which he can preach and publish his opinions without making war upon the standards in which he has solemnly professed his faith.
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