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.


Paul D. Shane
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Paul wears many hats — serving as an I.T director at Milliman, a video producer with Handyguys Productions LLC, and a musician and elder at Grace & Peace. He lives with his wife and three children.