Finney’s Follies

Charles Finney

I am concerned. You have read what I have stated before, but I’ll say it again, we in the evangelical community have a problem with seeing authentic faith from those who are “converted” in our churches. We experience many, many responses to our “gospel call” when we offer them. We have churches that are baptizing by the hundreds, if not thousands, and yet we find that many, if not the vast majority of these “converts” are falling away from the faith within a short period of time. Ray Comfort has claimed that 80-90% of “converts” fall away from their faith within the first year after their “conversion.” Billy Graham has been known to claim that somewhere in the area of 75% of the church is lost. Jim Elliff makes the claim that the !
Southern Baptist denomination is, on the whole, unregenerate.

So what is the problem? Well, to be honest and fair, I think there are a series of serious problems. We have a variety. Today, however, I want to deal with one that I think is an overlooked one and that is our emphasis on decisional regeneration. In laymen’s terms it could be understood, for instance, in our gospel invitation. Now by invitation, I don’t mean inviting one to respond to Christ. What I mean, however, is the period of time, generally after the message, given to elicit responses or decisions. It could also be called the altar call. Now, I don’t think that the altar call in and of itself is a problem, but rather it is symptomatic of the problem. Let me try to explain.

We are a culture that likes results, measureable results. Decisional regeneration, or the looking to a “decision” as evidence of faith, is really a rather new thing historically. It became popularized, if not created, by Charles Finney. Now Finney had more than his share of theological problems, not the least of which was his denial of original sin, substitutionary atonement and the worst, his denial of justification by faith (for more info, read here.) His emphasis, however, on the altar call may have caused the greatest long term damage. Instead of looking to a person’s changed life, which the Bible says is an !
indication of regeneration, we ask the question, “When were you saved?” In this, we refer to a moment when some choice or decision was reached in which one was re-created. Now, the biggest problem here is two fold. First, one can reach a decision without actually making a decision. We say things like, “Come to Christ today and you can be confident in your salvation.” So, the respondent makes an intellectual choice to avoid hell, there may be no repentance but there is decision, and we pat them on the back and assure them that they are “saved.” In doing so we find the second problem, and that is that we have often helped them to become confident in their salvation although it is actually non-existent. Charles Finney designed the invitation for one thing, results, and it has worked – at least in one understanding of the word. Consider this quote from Finney and Fred Zaspel as he writes !
about Finney.

The following quote from Finney’s Lectures on Revival explains his view well.

  • “Preach to him, and at the moment he thinks he is willing to do anything . . . bring him to the test; call on him to do one thing, to make one step that shall identify him with the people of God. . . . If you say to him, “there is the anxious seat, come out and avow your determination to be on the Lord’s side,” and if he is not willing to do a small thing as that, then he is not willing to do anything for Christ.”

The practice was designed to force decisions, to get results. So it did, and with slight variations the new method spread with increasing popularity through Finney and, later, Dwight L. Moody, and finally into virtually all of nineteenth and twentieth century evangelicalism. Peter Cartwright, Sam Jones, R. A. Torrey, Billy Sunday, Bob Jones, Gipsy Smith, Mordacai Ham, John R. Rice, Billy Graham all employed the method with impressive success. The invitation system had come to stay.

In this emphasis on decision, rather than repentance and holy living, could it be that we are guilty of giving many people, who are apart from God, false hope that they know God? Would we be more successful to preach the gospel, and allow God to move in hearts rather than singing 18 verses of “Just as I am” because we’re convinced one more is going to come, and in doing so emotionally pull someone into making a decision that is possibly premature, and often illegitimate? Would we be more appropriate if we, like Charles Spurgeon, gave some time between the preaching of the Word and the response opportunity to allow the emotional responses to die away and the legitimate responses to be known?

I’ll be honest enough to admit that we still use the altar call at our church. I’m not necessarily opposed to it. I am, however, questioning the validity of it. I am concerned about false confidence in faith and would like to see more authentic conversions occuring in our churches. I am curious to hear your thoughts!

Micah is a husband to Tracy & a daddy to Grace, Kessed & Haddon. He’s Senior Pastor at Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Most of all, he’s a debtor to grace.

16 thoughts on “Finney’s Follies

  1. Because I am working in a security sensitive country I am signing on as anonymous – but I do not mind giving my email address as long as it is not published. I think you have a valid point and probably something that should be looked at honestly. HOwever on the other hand i livein a country where there is seldom a public invitation and I think that can be just as problematic. Seomtimes I think there is a real need for someone ot go to an altar and confess or seek counsel. To me sometimes the problem comes when the invitation goes on – as you indicate – with 18 verses of Just As I Am. And yet I have seen some occasions where the SPirit of God appeared to be moving in the lives of people and there was a long invitation and now years later the results seem to be genuine form evidence in the lives of those I saw respond. Maybe there needs ot be some sort of statement made by a pastor – and made often enough for it to sink in – that while the opportun!
    ity is given to respond that walking down an aisle is not what saves a person – it is genuine heart and life trasnformation – so that at least the attempt is made to prevent people from resting in walking down the aisle and instead the emphasis is on heart trasformation. I agree with you – I guess I am just not sure of the best solution.

  2. This may get long, but it’s one of my “pets”, so to speak.

    First: maybe it’s ok with God that we get people to take some sort of step to commitment. Come forward and actually do something. Maybe it’s ok with God if people really do get saved and then vegitate. Maybe He’d rather have them barely saved than not at all. Maybe, if we’re hungry for more of Him and more of His word, maybe that’s a special gift for people of His choice. Or maybe when we decide we want a little more, He sovereignly gives us more desire for more of Him.

    I can give arguments against that position, but maybe there’s truth in it. One part of me wants to lean toward that, as I don’t want to claim that my “hunger” is my own doing.

    On the other side of the coin, one objectionable part of the altar call (in churches I’ve been in) is that we want to get them down front, deal with them, pray, get a card full of information on them, all during the invitation hymn. Or at least by the end of the announcements which always follow, so we can “present them” to the congregation. I’ve objected to that in our church, to no avail.

    I’d much prefer that, when people respond, they be taken to a counseling room and talked to. Whatever the reason, that would be a good idea IMHO. But we seem to want the “show” of standing responders up in front of the congregation 6 or 8 minutes after they walk the aisle. To me, that’s the most counterproductive part of it all.

  3. Micah,
    I think you are correct but the problem is with the invitation system. People have used and abused this since its beginning. I recently watched as an evangelist begged people to come down to the front. They needed to confess sin and “receive the Lord into their lives” down front. It really has become an evangelical step of salvation. What is communicated in this is that salvation comes by relocating one’s body to another part of the church building. Salvation by grace through faith is mocked by telling someone they have to do something physically in order to be saved. I know everyone does not do this but the temptation to secure decisions is there for everyone who uses this system. How does an evangelist measure his success? By how many people come forward. How does a pastor look evangelistic? By how many people come down and are baptized. I have even heard people refer to the time they were converted as the day they went forward.
    The bottom line is that the invitation system is a denial of repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It communicates that I must do something and that something is step out of my seat and move down to the front making a decision. In other words I have to go through someone to get to Christ. Sounds priestly to me and I detest that.


  4. Brother Micah,

    Just curious! What are your thoughts as to how the invitation should go? If there is not invitation how do you close our your services? Also if you do give an invitation, how do you word your apeal to respond?


  5. Tim-

    First, let me say that I’ve not totally worked this out in my own mind, remember that I said we still use an invitation system in our church.

    Having said that, remember also that the invitation system is a fairly new idea. Before Finney no one practiced such a thing so I think it’s fair to say that there are many ways to close your service.

    I, personally, am encouraged often by Spurgeon’s response mechanism. He had a time on Tuesday mornings for interested people to respond. It worked so well that people were lining the outside of the building waiting for him every week. Other churches I’ve been in recently have used response cards and then waited a few days to respond. I’m sure there are a plethora of ways.

    I think the point of all of it is that we should avoid pointing to a moment, or a decision, as the evidence of authentic faith and start encouraging people to look to repentance and holiness as they evidence needed.

    Thanks for the question though. It’s a needed one, and a good one.

  6. Thanks for a very good analysis of the altar call.

    Following the service, our home church points people to the “Connection Point” outside the auditorium near the exit. From there a counselor takes the person to a private room to talk about what God is doing in their life and what their decision is all about. Seems to work well. They also connect them with a small group asap.

    On the international mission field we have observed the effectiveness of evangelism within the context of a small group. It may take many interactive Bible studies over a period of time before participants recognize their need for the Lord and respond to the Holy Spirit speaking through God’s word. We have seen people spontaneously announce without any prompting that they are now followers of Christ!

  7. Brother Micah,

    Sorry for the length in responding to your response. It is has more to do with “honey due” lists than interest in the subject.

    First, let me begin by saying that I probably would not consider myself reformed as I do not hold to TULIP in totality. Having said that, I too have problems with the come to the front and lay your burdens at the cross and leave them there mentality of many churches. I have just not found a better way to do it.

    According to what I understand of Church History, Finney was the first to implement the altar call. I believe, as your source describes, Finney had them come to an “anxious seat” to contemplate their sins. At the end of the service he would counsel them to go home and think over this decision and return on the next morning to discuss it further. One story goes that a person left the meeting and came back to Finney early in the AM because he could not sleep for fear of dying without Christ. I cannot verify this next statement as my library is at the church and I am at home, but if I remember correctly, Finney’s Pastor/Mentor was a reformed pastor. Finney went to him and discussed their differences in theology and one of the many major concerns was the invitation system Finney would be implementing. However, the “anxious seat” if a far cry from our invitation system today.

  8. Tim-

    Good information! I think one of the points of your comments, in my opinion, is that when God is working in someone’s life, we don’t have to “sell them” Jesus. The Holy Spirit takes God’s word and stamps it on their heart. In the case of the person mentioned above (and every example I can think of in scripture) no one had to convince someone to convert, as a matter of fact they couldn’t be stopped. We need more of that kind of conversions.

  9. This is an interesting subject. I recall Billy Graham saying “Whenever Christ called someone, he called them publicly.” He mentions that during just about all his revivals.

    I’m not sure what the best solution is here. But although I think there are problems with trying to gain and instant decision, I think a more intense problem is the method that much of modern evangelism uses to preach the gospel. They often speak only of grace, and do not open eyes to our current state of lawlessness and hopeless, showing our need for grace. Instead the gospel becomes a means of self-betterment, and life enhancement. And since Christ didn’t promise us a happy life, but instead a life of persecution, many in churches do not recieve Christ at all. At least not the real Christ. And so they become embittered and unlikely to try “salvation’ again.

    I absolutely agree with what someone said earlier who says that we do not have to walk down an aisle. The decision can be made in the mind, without even an physical utterance of words. It is a decision; a repentance and placing of faith. That is not to say we shouldn’t pray aloud, or we can’t walk down the aisle; but that is no more necessary than baptism was necessary for the theif on the cross.

  10. Charlie-

    I completely concur with your thought. We must preach the whole gospel! There is no doubt that we must be comprehensive in our message. There is no short-circuiting God’s message. That being said, there is also no need (in my opinion) to create an altar call experience. Calling one to respond to Christ and calling someone to respond to the preacher by walking an aisle, raising a hand, etc. are completely different excercises.

    We must be cautious and not simply throw caution to the wind in our attempt to “win souls.” Our haphazard attempts can end up pushing people away rather than drawing them near.

  11. Brother Micah,

    You said; “we still use an invitation system in our church”. Question; What do you say as you begin the invitation at the end of your sermon?

    I bring people to a time of reflection on what was said during the sermon. I then ask what decision they feel the Lord is leading them into. I then give them direction as to their next steps during the invitation time, if they feel so inclined. This direction involves either either going to the altar, or coming to me. If they respond to the altar, I have instructed and trained my Deacons and their wives to respond with them and ask if they can pray with them about anything. If they respond to me, I send them out of the worship center with a counselor for a more indepth time of reflection and decision.

    While there are flaws in this practice, IMPO, it fixes the most obvious flaw–someone coming forward and believing by the act of coming forward they must be saved.

    Just interested in how you do it. It is obvious that though you and I do not have the same Reformed Doctrinal convictions, we do agree about the easy believeism.


  12. Tim-

    I use a response system much like yours. We really don’t emphasize “coming forward” at all. We talk about the need for repentance/change and leave the response to them. We also have moved our sermon to almost the beginning of the service with 65% of our singing after the sermon. We’ve done this intentionally to allow people to use the music as a response mechanism back to God. We hope that this helps people to find the music more valuable and also to understand that their response is about authentic change between them and God, not superficial change occuring by “walking the aisle.”

  13. Micah,

    I realize that this comment is 10 days after the last (I need to add you to my RSS reader) and I do not know if anyone will read it, but here it goes.

    I wholeheartly believe that a public profession is a matter of obedience. The Bible says (in my paraphrase) that if you confess Christ publicly, He will confess you to the Father, and if you deny Christ publicly, He will then deny you before the Father. In our church, we have a couple of songs and our pastor stands at the front to pray with anyone, and the altar is open for anyone to come and pray. We announce the weeks will have baptism in our services and that the pastor and elders are available to counsel anyone desiring baptism. It is there in that counseling that our church ensures that the conversion is authentic, by the person’s changed life and their fruit.
    I also like how our church does the baptism time, but that will be another comment someday if you write about that subject. Sorry if I have rambled on, but I guess the main point is effective discipleship and relationship with people before baptism and church membership is IMHO the best way to go.

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