How Charles Finney (and other Overly Emotional Preachers) Made It Difficult to Preach the Gospel

Article
08.20.2019

“Liberal charismatics.”

That’s how my friend described the teenagers in his church’s youth group. As he described them, these youths would outstretch their arms during corporate worship, and sing at the top of their lungs about their longing for God. At the same time, they would reject large portions of the Bible and indulge in sinful sexual relationships—never even noticing the intellectual discrepancy.

They’re charismatics, he said, because they want to experience the Spirit’s presence. They’re liberal because they’d never acknowledge the authority or sufficiency of the Bible. They believe in God, just not the God of Scripture.

As I heard my friend describe his youth group, I was reminded of my own ministry in secular Sweden. I don’t minister to teenagers but to urban professionals and academics. And yet, like these youth, many Swedish churchgoers adhere to a mixture of unconscious liberal theology and emotionalism.

LIBERALISM AND EMOTIONALISM: WHERE DID THEY COME FROM?

The roots of this strange mixture of ideas can be traced back to the influence of the American revivalist Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875), whose “new measures” for creating revivals continue to shape Swedish Christianity. Breaking from his forerunners who considered revivals, in the words of Jonathan Edwards, “a surprising work of God,” Finney thought of revivals as entirely man-made.

A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means—as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means.1

How, according to Finney, can we engineer a revival? First, we need good marketing. Second, we need protracted meetings to maximize the psychological pressure on sinners to make decisions for Christ. Third, we should press the individual sinner and address him directly from the pulpit, all in a meticulously directed drama. We should pressure the individual and invite him to a smaller decision, namely to come forward to the “anxious bench,” and continue to urge him there to make his final decision for Christ. Finally, we should create an emotionally charged atmosphere. In Finney’s words, “The evangelist must produce excitements sufficient to induce sinners to repentance.”2

This revivalist mentality of 1830s New England may not look identical in 2019 Sweden, but it still shapes virtually all corporate worship in Sweden. It addresses the individual and presses for personal decisions. In Sweden, the individual is not invited to repent of his sins, but to light a candle or to come forward to be served by a personal intercessor. Swedes evaluate whether they had a “good” service by the amount of response they see in the room and whether there was a vibrant emotional atmosphere.

While it may seem like these services are entirely devoid of theology, they aren’t. Just as with Finney, our ministry practices flow out of our theological convictions. Finney’s near Pelagian theology enabled him to devise his “new measures,” and much of the same theology is still at play in Swedish Christianity.

So what’s the theology behind these “new measures”? Finney denied the teaching of a human, sinful nature. He declared the notion of original sin to be “anti-scriptural and nonsensical dogma.”3 Similarly, he rejects the doctrine of supernatural regeneration. He didn’t deny that the Holy Spirit exerts some moral influence on the believer, but “the actual turning . . . is the sinner’s own act.”4 He doesn’t even seem to try to conceal his Pelagianism—the most frequently condemned heresy of all time—which is evident in the mere title of his most famous sermon, “Sinners Bound To Change Their Own Hearts.”

The gospel he preached was essentially a different gospel from his forerunners. He vehemently denied the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Explaining his doctrine of atonement, Finney says, “If [Christ] had obeyed the law as our substitute, then why should our own return to personal obedience be insisted upon as a sine qua non of our salvation?”5 In other words, since our personal obedience is a sine qua non—an indispensable condition—of our salvation, Christ couldn’t have obeyed the law as our substitute. Instead, Finney says, the death of Christ “would present to creatures the highest possible motives to virtue. Example is the highest moral influence that can be exerted. . . . If the benevolence manifested in the atonement does not subdue the selfishness of sinners, their case is hopeless.”6

Where does Finney’s gospel lead? Take away the doctrines of human depravity, of supernatural regeneration, of substitutionary atonement, and instead address the individual in an emotionally charged atmosphere and call for unbiblical responses to a false gospel—well, you get a strange mixture of liberal theology and emotionalism.

PREACHING PENAL SUBSTITUTION IN A SECULAR CULTURE

The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement isn’t the only doctrine that Swedes find controversial in my preaching, but it is the most common one. I can’t say I blame my critics. I don’t think most of them have ever heard a Swedish pastor unapologetically expound God’s wrath and the Son’s willing sacrifice in our place.

So, how can a church in a secular setting work toward a culture where discussing God’s wrath and substitutionary atonement isn’t frowned upon but celebrated? There are no quick fixes or magic pills. That said, I’d like to propose three practices that will prove helpful in all of ministry.

1. Preach expositionally.

Don’t preach topically—just don’t. Week after week, open the Bible, preach through books of the Bible, verse by verse. Preach plainly. Love the Bible and submit to it. Let the congregation fall in love with the Bible rather than with you as a preacher. Let them get a sense of the vast variety of texts and tones of God’s transforming Word. Let your plain, expository preaching be a mark of your faithful ministry.

2. Preach the gospel.

Take every opportunity to teach theology proper—the attributes and character of God. Teach your people about the God who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. Teach about the state of man, that all mankind through the Fall lost communion with God. Teach that we’re under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever. And teach the glorious truths about how God saves sinners—how he, for our sake, made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. It doesn’t matter how secular or difficult your context is; these truths should never be toned down or abbreviated, but exulted in and celebrated!

3. Kill individualism.

Tone down emotionalism—but don’t ignore emotions. You don’t need to create “movement” in the room. Let worship be corporate, which is easier said than done, since it may require a complete paradigm shift. Remind your people that they’re there to worship God together; they’re not individuals who simply happen to be in the same room. Consider removing special music and altar calls that highlight individual responses. Get back to fundamental, biblical worship, where you read the Bible together, sing the Bible together, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, and see the Bible portrayed in baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

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FOOTNOTES:

1 Charles Finney, Charles Finney’s Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1976), 180.

2 Finney’s Lectures on Revival , second ed. (N.Y., 1835), 184–204.

3 Finney, Systematic Theology, 179.

4 Cited in B. B. Warfield, Perfectionism (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed), 176.

5 Finney, Systematic Theology, 206.

6 Ibid., 209.

By:
Johnny Lithell

Johnny Lithell is the pastor of Parkway Church in Gothenburg, Sweden.