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Revivalism and Power (Part III): Finney’s teaching and its problems

I’m going to be running an elective on Pentecostalism and the Spirit next week at the University Fellowship of Christians (UTAS) Mid-Year Conference.  We’re going to look directly at Charles Finney’s Power from on High in order to understand Finney’s teaching and its problems.

I’ve selected 5 key sections out of the book and at each point I want to examine a lengthy quote: The need for power; conditions of receiving power; the effect of possessing power; power in prayer and power in preaching. At each point, I’ll be asking the following questions: What is Finney teaching here? Is it partly true? (If so, what is right?) What are the problems? What bad fruit might this teaching bear? What corrections are needed? What good fruit should correction in this area produce?

I'm not coming to give all the answers. Instead, I want this to be a kind of working group. But I’m looking forward to working together with others on this important area, taking extensive notes and reporting back what we find out together with both Charles Finney and Bibles open.

But to help you get prepared, here are the sections:

The need for power

Charles Finney’s Power from on High begins in Chapter 1 by correcting a misunderstanding among his members of the council of Oberlin regarding the “second blessing”. Formerly the Holiness movement had inherited from Methodism the notion that the second blessing relates to perfection, or “entire sanctification”. But Finney, although maintaining the importance of ‘sinlessness’ for reception, had taken a step forward: the blessing itself was not sinlessness (or entire sanctification); that was only the means to this end. The blessing itself, the end, was power.

To Finney, because the Great Commission is given to the “whole church”, therefore “every member of the church is obligated to make it his life work to convert the world”.  Finney had been addressing what was to him the most vital of questions, “what do we need to ensure success in this great work?” His answer: we need to be clothed with power from on high, according to Luke 24:49. To Finney, receiving this power presents the certainty that we will “be successful in winning souls, if we ask and fulfil the plainly revealed conditions of prevailing prayer” (More on ‘prevailing prayer’ later).

But among the council “the lack of power is a subject of constant complaint.” Everybody is praying continually for power, but to no avail. In reply Finney lists many reasons why this outpouring of power is not received, the last and greatest of which is unbelief. And summing up, Finney reflects: “I was obliged to conclude that these and other forms of indulged sin explain why so little is received, while so much is asked”.

But here is where the Council of Oberlin still hung onto their former notions of perfectionism: they asked Finney: “If we first get rid of all these forms of sin, which prevent our receiving this outpouring, have we not already obtained the blessing? What more do we need?”
In reply Finney answers: 

“There is a great difference between the peace and the power of the Holy Spirit in the soul. The disciples were Christians before the Day of Pentecost, and, as such, had a measure of the Holy Spirit. They must have had the peace of sins forgiven and of a justified state, but yet they had not the infusion of power necessary to do the work assigned them. They had the peace which Christ had given them but not the power which He had promised.

This may be true of all Christians, and right here is, I think, the great mistake of the church and of the ministry. They rest in conversion and do not seek until they obtain this outpouring of power from on high. Hence, so many professors of Christianity have no power with either God or man. They prevail with neither. They cling to hope in Christ, and even enter the ministry, overlooking the admonition to wait until they are clothed with power from on high.” (Finney, p. 11-12)

Conditions of receiving power

In Chapter 4, “Conditions of receiving power”, Charles Finney sets out the situation of the first disciples, and in the narratives of the Gospel accounts finds three conditions of receiving the ‘outpouring of power’ from on high:

“First, we, as Christians, have the same commission to fulfil. As truly as they did, we need an outpouring of power from on high. Of course, the same admonition, to wait on God until we receive it, is given to us.
Second, we have the same promise that they had. Now, let us take substantially and in spirit the same course that they did. They were Christian and had a measure of the Spirit to lead them in prayer and in consecration. So have we. Every Christian possesses a measure of the Spirit of Christ, enough of the Holy Spirit to lead us to true consecration and inspire us with the faith essential to prevail in prayer. Let us, then, not grieve or resist Him, but accept the commission, fully consecrate ourselves, with all we have, to the saving of souls as our great and our only lifework. Let us go to the altar with all we have and are, and lie there and persist in prayer until we receive the outpouring.

Now, observe, conversion to Christ is not to be confused with acceptance of this commission to convert the world. The first is a personal transaction between the soul and Christ relating to its own salvation. The second is the sou’s acceptance of the service in which Christ proposes to employ it.

Christ does not require us to make brick without straw. To whom He gives the commission He also gives the admonition and the promise. If the commission is heartily accepted, if the promise is believed, if the admonition to wait upon the Lord until our strength is renewed is complied with, we will receive the outpouring.

Third, it is of supreme importance that all Christians should understand that this commission to convert the world is given to them by Christ individually.

Everyone has the great responsibility passed on to him or her to win as many souls as possible to Christ. This is the great privilege and the great duty of all the disciples of Christ. There are a great many departments in this work. But in every department we may and ought to possess this power so that, whether we preach, or pray, or write, or print, or trade, or travel. Or take care of children, or administer the government or the state, or whatever we do, our whole lives and influence should be permeated with this power. Christ says, “He that believeth on me, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:38). That is, a Christian influence, having in it the element of power to impress the truth of Christ upon the hearts of men, will proceed from him. “(Finney, p. 32-34)

The effect of possessing power

In Chapter 2, Finney explains what exactly is the ‘power’ described in the promise and command of Luke 24:49 for all Christians. Although for the apostles and believers on the Day of Pentecost, Finney describes an increase in illumination, gifts, holiness, self-sacrifice, cross-bearing, meekness, loving enthusiasm in preaching, teaching, faith, tongues, miracles, inspiration and moral courage, still these were all only means.

“In their circumstances, all these gifts were essential to their success, but neither separately nor all together did they constitute that power from on high which they manifestly received, That which they manifestly received as the supreme, crowning, and all-important means of success was the power to prevail with both God and man, the power to fasten saving impressions on the minds of men. This was doubtless the thing which they understood Christ to promise. He had commissioned them to convert the world to Him. All that I have named above were only means, which could never secure the end unless they were vitalized and made effective by the power of God. The apostles, no doubt, understood this; and, laying themselves and their all upon the altar, they entreated the throne of grace in the spirit of entire consecration to their work.” (Finney, p. 14)

To Finney, what the Apostles received ‘supremely and principally’ at Pentecost was “power to make saving impressions on men”. This is why so many were converted immediately following Peter’s sermon. They had from that moment a power in them to convert people. And this power “stayed with and upon them” (p. 15). This is the big thing, the main thing that the early Church had that we lack.

The power works both mysteriously and surprisingly:

“Sometimes a single sentence, a word, a gesture, or even a look will convey this power in an overcoming manner”. (Finney, p. 16)

The power depends on humility and whole hearted consecration:

“Sometimes I would find myself, in a great measure, empty of this power. I would go out and visit and find that I made no saving impression. I would exhort and pray with the same result. I would then set apart a day for private fasting and prayer, fearing that this power had departed from me, and would inquire anxiously after the reason of this apparent emptiness. After humbling myself and crying out for help, the power would return upon me with all its freshness. This has been the experience of my life.” (Finney, p. 16-17)

“When Christians humble themselves and consecrate their all afresh to Christ and ask for this power, they will often receive such a baptism that they will be instrumental in converting more souls in one day than in all their lifetime before. While Christians remain humble enough to retain this power, the work of conversion will go on until whole communities and regions of the country are converted to Christ. The same is true of ministers.” (Finney, p. 20).

Power in prayer

In Chapter 6 Charles Finney describes that most important of activities for Christian effectiveness: Prevailing prayer. Even receiving this power will not necessarily bring success in ‘winning souls’ if we do not “ask and fulfil the plainly revealed conditions of prevailing prayer.” By way of definition, he says “Prevailing prayer is that which gets an answer. Saying prayers is not offering prevailing prayer. The effectiveness of prayer does not depend so much on the quantity as the quality.” (p. 51)

“...What was I to make of what I witnessed from week to week and month to month in that prayer meeting? Were they real Christians? Was that which I heard real prayer in the Bible sense? Was it such prayer as Christ had promised to answer? Here I found the solution. I became convinced that they were under a delusion, that they did not prevail because they had no right to prevail. They did not comply with the conditions on which God had promised to hear prayer. Their prayers were just the kind God had promised not to answer. It was evident they were overlooking the fact that they were in danger of praying themselves into scepticism in regard to the value of prayer.” (Finney, p. 53)

In Finney’s reading of the Bible, he notices many conditions of answered prayer, and highlights the following: Faith in God, asking according to the will of God, sincerity, unselfishness, a clear conscience, a pure heart, due confession, clean hands, being at peace with fellow believers, humility, taking away stumbling blocks, having a forgiving spirit, exercising a truthful spirit, praying in the name of Christ, inspiration from the Holy Spirit, fervency, perseverance, a consistent us of means to obtain the object asked for, being specific, meaning what we say, assuming the good faith of God in all his promises, watchfulness, praying in the Holy Spirit (Finney, p. 53-62).

“When the fallow ground is thoroughly broken up in the hearts of Christians, when they have confessed and made restitution—if the work is thorough and honest—they will naturally and inevitably fulfil the conditions and will prevail in prayer. But it cannot be too distinctly understood that none others will. What we commonly hear in prayer and conference meetings is not prevailing prayer. It is often astonishing and lamentable to witness the delusions that prevail on the subject. Who that has witnessed real revivals of religion has not been struck with the change that comes over the whole spirit and manner of the prayers of really revived Christians? I do not think I ever could have been converted if I had not discovered the solution to the question, Why is it that so much that is called prayer is not answered?” (Finney, p. 63)

Power in preaching

In chapter 7 “How to Win Souls”, Charles Finney presents a “philosophy of preaching the Gospel in a way that will bring about the salvation of souls”.

“If we are unwise, illogical, and out of all natural order in presenting the Gospel, we have no right to expect divine cooperation. In winning souls, as in everything else, God works through and in accordance with natural laws. Hence, if we would win souls, we must wisely follow natural laws. We must present the necessary truths and do so in that order adapted to the natural laws of the mind, of thought and mental action. A false mental philosophy will greatly mislead us, and we will often be found ignorantly working against the Holy Spirit.” (Finney, p. 67)

“Sinners must be convicted of their enmity...By the law is the knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20)... By the law, he first learns that God is perfectly benevolent and infinitely opposed to all selfishness. This law, then, should be arrayed in all its majesty against the selfishness and enmity of the sinner. This law carries irresistible conviction of its righteousness, and no moral agent can doubt it. All men know that they have sinned, but not all are convicted of the guilt and deserved punishment of sin... The spirituality of the law should be unsparingly applied to the conscience until the sinner’s self-righteousness is annihilated, and he stands speechless and self-condemned before a holy God.” (Finney, p. 67-68).

“The law does its work—annihilates the sinner’s self-righteousness and shows him mercy is his only hope. Then, he should be made to understand that it is morally impossible for a just God not to execute a penalty when the law has been broken. Right here the sinner should be made to understand that he cannot assume that because God is benevolent He will forgive him. For unless public justice can be satisfied, the law of universal benevolence forbids the forgiveness of sin. If public justice is not regarded in the exercise of mercy, the good of the public is sacrificed to that of the individual. God will never do this. This teaching will give the sinner no choice but to look for some offering to public justice. Now, give him the atonement as a fact revealed and point to Christ alone as his own sin offering. Stress the revealed fact that God has accepted the death of Christ as a substitute for the sinner’s death, and that this is to be received upon the testimony of God. Since the sinner is already crushed into contrition by the convicting power of the law, the revelation of the love of God manifest in the death of Christ will naturally produce great self-loathing. It will produce that godly sorrow that needs “not to be repented of” (2 Cor 7:10). Under this evidence, the sinner can never forgive himself. God is holy and gracious, and he as sinner, saved by sovereign grace.” (Finney, p. 69-70)

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Finney, Charles G. Power from on High, Whitaker House, 1995.

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