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!

Church, Ministry, TheologyMicah Fries