Presbyterian History: Charles Finney vs WCF

Charles Grandison Finney

Charles Grandison Finney

Our adult Sunday School class reviewed the theology of Charles Finney. As an ordained Presbyterian pastor, you would not say that Finney was very well grounded in Presbyterian Theology. At one point he admits mostly ignorance of what the Westminster Confession of Faith (the Presbyterian Church’s confession) teaches:

I had not examined it—that is, the large work, containing the Catechisms and Presbyterian Confession. This had made no part of my study. I replied that I received it for substance of doctrine, so far as I understood it. But I spoke in a way that plainly implied, I think, that I did not pretend to know much about it.The Memoirs of Charles Finney: The Complete Restored Text (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1989), 53-54]

For a great review of Finney’s theology, see Phillip R. Johnson’s article.

Here are a couple of Finney’s views compared to Westminster Confession (WCF) :

On Christ atoning work:


…it was not true that Christ suffered just what those for whom he died deserved to suffer. That no such thing as that was taught in the Bible; and no such thing was true. But on the contrary, that Christ died simply to remove an insurmountable obstacle out of the way of God’s forgiving sinners; so as to render it possible for him to proclaim a universal Amnesty, inviting all men to repent, to believe in Christ and to proclaim a universal Amnesty, inviting all men to repent, to believe in Christ, and to accept salvation… I maintained that Christ in his Atonement merely did that which was necessary as a condition of the forgiveness of sin; and not that which cancelled sin, in the sense of literally paying the indebtedness of sinners.


WCF VII.5. The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for those whom the Father has given unto Him.

On Regeneration


Now, in speaking about this change, it is perfectly proper to say that the Spirit turned him just as you would say a man who had persuaded another to change his mind on the subject of politics, that he had converted him, and won him over.  It is also proper to say that the truth converted him; as in a situation when the political opinions of someone were changed by a certain argument, we would say, that the argument won him over.  So also, we can credit a change of heart to a preacher, or to the person who had presented the motives that encouraged him to change his heart; just as we would say about a lawyer who had prevailed in his argument with a jury; that he has won his case and converted the jury.  We can also honestly credit that change of heart to the individual himself whose heart is changed.  We would say that the sinner has changed his mind.  He has changed his heart.  He has switched sides, and he has repented.  Now it is strictly true, and it is true in the most absolute and highest sense, that the act is his own act, and the turning is his own turning.  Even though, God, by the truth, has induced the sinner to turn, still, it is strictly true that the sinner has turned and has done it himself.

Thus, you see the sense in which conversion, or regeneration, is the work of God, and the sense in which it is the sinner’s own work.  The Spirit of God, by the truth, influences the sinner to change, and in this sense, truth is the efficient cause of the change.  But the sinner actually changes his heart, and is therefore it is the sinner, in the most proper sense, who is the author of the change.  There are some people who, when they read their Bibles, focus their attention on those passages that ascribe the work of conversion to the Spirit of God, and seem to overlook all those passages that ascribe regeneration to man, and speak of it as the sinner’s own act.


WCF IX.3:Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.

WCF IX.4:  When God converts a sinner and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and, by his grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so as that, by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.

WCF X 1-2

1. All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ: enlightening their minds, spiritually and savingly, to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good; and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.

2. This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from any thing at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.

Here are the audio files for the Sunday School classes posted so far.


Roots in the Reformation

This is a summary of week 1 of our Sunday school class on American Presbyterian history Audio from this class can be found here.

In last weeks class we focused on the 15th century reformation beginning when Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the church door in Wittenberg. We talked about Ulrich Zwingly’s work and the effort to unite Lutheran and John_CalvinReformed teaching. Of course this failed due to Zwingly and Luther’s differences on the Lord’s Supper. We briefly mentioned the other major Protestant movements on the European continent with the antibaptists, including the Mennonites and others. Finally, we discussed the anglican church which features its own unique brand of protestant Christianity.

Soon after the reformation got started, we see that John Calvin is asked to serve in Geneva to help the new protestant city. Calvin is initially hesitant but after being banished from Geneva and returning a second time he settles in for the remainder of his life and begins to document the historic reformed doctrines of theology and ecclesiology. His work become the foundation for both the European reformed churches and the Presbyterian church in England, Scotland, Ireland and ultimately America.

Next week we will fast forward through the 16th century to learn about the early American settlers and their new church.

And remember, all audio for this class can be found here. 



Presbyterian History In America-A Sunday School Class

log college

The Log College for Training Ministers in the 1700s.

Why study Presbyterian history? We all know the axiom that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” but that is not why we plan to study Presbyterian history this fall. While we do not desire to repeat mistakes from the past, for Christians there are many more benefits to studying church history.

We will begin a study of Presbyterian history in America beginning this on Sept 7, 2014 beginning at 9:15AM (our normal Sunday School time). 

It is sad how little people know of history in general but certainly about Church history specifically. I have run into folks with no idea of the difference between the Roman Church, the Protestant Church or the Eastern Church, let alone the differences between various denominations. Whether worshipping in denominations or independent churches, many lack a sense of connectedness to the historical church as if the modern church was just dropped in place with no connection to the past.

The purpose of this study is several fold:

  1. To understand the roots of our own denomination,  the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and its place in the universal (i.e. catholic) church.
  2. To strengthen our knowledge of the Scriptures as understood by Presbyterians (and other Christians) since the Reformation and back to the early church.
  3. To develop a deeper knowledge of the body of Christ and Jesus Christ who reigns supreme over his church and to understand how the Holy Spirit continues has worked in the church through the ages (despite human sin).
  4. To learn what the Church’s role in American history may teach 21st century Christians.
  5. To learn about the lives and traditions of Christians who have come before us.

The purpose of this study is not to create pride in ourselves our our denomination (the history of our church and its divisions does not lend itself to boastfulness)  as our only hope is found in Jesus Christ. I expect of have some fun and work through this history together.

Here is a rough outline of the first half of this study.

Please Note: This outline is expected to be improved/changed as we move through this study

Outline of Presbyterian Church History in America

Introduction and Background

  • Discussion about various backgrounds represented in our own congregation
  • Review of key events in the 16th Century leading up to settlement in America.
  • Reformation/Reformers
  • Calvin’s establishing Protestant/reformed Church. Polity, Offices, Songs, Lord’s Supper.

Early Colonial Period

  • From Knox to America
  • Early Settlers and Francis Makemie
  • A brand new Church in the new world
  • The adoption of Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms

Young Church and Revival

  • Difference between the Northern Puritans and the Scotch Irish in the Atlantic states
  • The immigration of Scotch Irish and its influence on the Church
  • Revival, Log College and the Tennants
  • New Light/Old Light Division

The Church and Revolution

  • The college of New Jersey
  • Witherspoon, Presbyterians and the American Revolution
  • The First General Assembly Meets

To Be Continued…