Archive for the ‘Charles Finney’ Category
Note: While I would not argue that Charles Finney was an Arminian but a moral government theologian, I do agree with some of Finney’s writings (though not all). Below Finney defines the atonement of Christ and for whom did Jesus die. An Arminian could easily read this and agree with Finney for what he calls a general atonement.
1. God does all things for himself; that is, he consults his own glory and happiness, as the supreme and most influential reason for all his conduct. This is wise and right in him, because his own glory and happiness are infinitely the greatest good in and to the universe. He made the atonement to satisfy himself. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” God himself, then, was greatly benefited by the atonement: in other words, his happiness has in a great measure resulted from its contemplation, execution, and results.
2. He made the atonement for the benefit of the universe. All holy beings are, and must be, benefited by it, from its very nature, as it gives them a higher knowledge of God than ever they had before, or ever could have gained in any other way. The atonement is the greatest work that he could have wrought for them, the most blessed and excellent, and benevolent thing he could have done for them. For this reason, angels are described as desiring to look into the atonement. The inhabitants of heaven are represented as being deeply interested in the work of atonement, and those displays of the character of God that are made in it. The atonement is then no doubt one of the greatest blessings that ever God conferred upon the universe of holy beings.
3. The atonement was made for the benefit particularly of the inhabitants of this world, from its very nature, as it is calculated to benefit all the inhabitants of this world; as it is a most stupendous revelation of God to man. (Its nature is adapted to benefit all mankind. All mankind can be pardoned, if they are rightly affected and brought to repentance by it, as well as any part of mankind.)
4. All do certainly receive many blessings on account of it. It is probable that, but for the atonement, none of our race, except the first human pair, would ever have had an existence.
5. All the blessings which mankind enjoy, are conferred on them on account of the atonement of Christ; that is, God could not consistently wait on sinners, and bless, and do all that the nature of the case admits, to save them, were it not for the fact of atonement.
6. That it was made for all mankind, is evident from the fact that it is offered to all indiscriminately.
7. Sinners are universally condemned for not receiving it.
8. If the atonement is not intended for all mankind, it is impossible for us not to regard God as insincere, in making them the offer of salvation through the atonement.
9. If the atonement was made only for a part, no man can know whether he has a right to embrace it, until by a direct revelation God has made known to him that he is one of that part.
10. If ministers do not believe that it was made for all men, they cannot heartily and honestly press its acceptance upon any individual, or congregation in the world; for they cannot assure any individual, or congregation, that there is any atonement for him or them, any more than there is for Satan.
Note: I know that in our time it is common to hear people attack Charles Finney. Some believe he was a complete wolf in sheep’s clothing. Some believe he was a false teacher who taught outright lies. I have found that Finney had a heart for God. He was, in many ways, a product of his time and his trade (a lawyer and not a trained theologian). Read this sermon from Charles Finney on what sinners must do to be saved and notice his emphasis on Jesus Christ and His finished work.
What sinners must do to be saved.
1. You must understand what you have to do. It is of the utmost importance that you should see this clearly. You need to know that you must return to God, and to understand what this means. The difficulty between yourself and God is that you have stolen yourself and run away from his service. You belong of right to God. He created you for Himself, and hence had a perfectly righteous claim to the homage of your heart, and the service of your life. But you, instead of living to meet his claims, have run away–have deserted from God’s service, and have lived to please yourself. Now your duty is to return and restore yourself to God.
2. You must return and confess your sins to God. You must confess that you have been all wrong, and that God has been all right. Go before the Lord and lay open the depth of your guilt. Tell Him you deserve just as much damnation as He has threatened.
These confessions are naturally indispensable to your being forgiven. In accordance with this the Lord says, “If then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity, then will I remember my covenant.” Then God can forgive. But so long as you controvert this point, and will not concede that God is right, or admit that you are wrong, He can never forgive you.
You must moreover confess to man if you have injured any one. And is it not a fact that you have injured some, and perhaps many of your fellow-men? Have you not slandered your neighbour and said things which you have no right to say? Have you not in some instances which you could call to mind if you would, lied to them, or about them, or covered up or perverted the truth; and have you not been willing that others should have false impressions of you or of your conduct? If so, you must renounce all such iniquity, for “he that covereth his sins shall not prosper; while he that confesseth and forsaketh them shall find mercy.” And furthermore you must not only confess your sins to God and to the men you have injured, but you must also make restitution. You have not taken the position of a penitent before God and man until you have done this also. God cannot treat you as a penitent until you have done it. I do not mean by this that God cannot forgive you until you have carried into effect your purpose of restitution by finishing the outward act, for sometimes it may demand time, and may in some cases be itself impossible to you. But the purpose must be sincere and thorough before you can be forgiven of God.
3. You must renounce yourself. In this is implied,
(1.) That you renounce your own righteousness, forever discarding the very idea of having any righteousness in yourself.
(2.) That you forever relinquish the idea of having done any good which ought to commend you to God, or be ever thought of as a ground of your justification.
(3.) That you renounce your own will, and be ever ready to say not in word only, but in heart–”Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” You must consent most heartily that God’s will shall be your supreme law.
(4.) That you renounce your own way, and let God have his own way in everything. Never suffer yourself to fret and be rasped by anything whatever; for since God’s agency extends to all events, you ought to recognize his hand in all things, and of course to fret at anything whatever is to fret against God who has at least permitted that thing to occur as it does. So long therefore as you suffer yourself to fret you are not right with God. You must become before God as a little child, subdued and trustful at his feet. Let the weather be fair or foul, consent that God should have his way. Let all things go well with you, or as men call it, ill; yet let God do his pleasure, and let it be your part to submit in perfect resignation. Until you take this ground you can not be saved.
4. You must come to Christ. You must accept of Christ really and fully as your Saviour. Renouncing all thought of depending on any thing you have done or can do, you must accept of Christ as your atoning sacrifice, and as your ever-living Mediator before God. Without the least qualification or reserve you must place yourself under his wing as your Saviour.
5. You must seek supremely to please Christ, and not yourself. It is naturally impossible that you should be saved until you come into this attitude of mind–until you are so well pleased with Christ in all respects as to find your pleasure in doing his. It is in the nature of things impossible that you should be happy in any other state of mind, or unhappy in this. For, his pleasure is infinitely good and right. When therefore his good pleasure becomes your good pleasure, and your will harmonizes entirely with his, then you will be happy for the same reason that He is happy, and you cannot fail of being happy any more than Jesus Christ can. And this becoming supremely happy in God’s will is essentially the idea of salvation. In this state of mind you are saved. Out of it you cannot be.
It has often struck my mind with great force, that many professors of religion are deplorably and utterly mistaken on this point. Their real feeling is that Christ’s service is an iron collar, an insufferably hard yoke. Hence they labour exceedingly to throw off some of this burden. They try to make it out that Christ does not require much if any self-denial–much if any deviation from the course of worldliness and sin. O, if they could only get the standard of Christian duty quite down to a level with the fashions and customs of this world! How much easier than to live a Christian life and wear Christ’s yoke!
But taking Christ’s yoke as it really is, it becomes in their view an iron collar. Doing the will of Christ, instead of their own is a hard business. Now if doing Christ’s will is religion, (and who can doubt it?) then they only need enough of it, and in their state of mind, they will be supremely wretched. Let me ask those who groan under the idea that they must be religious–who deem it awful hard–but they must–how much religion of this kind would it take to make hell? Surely not much! When it gives you no joy to do God’s pleasure, and yet you are shut up to the doing of His pleasure as the only way to be saved, and are thereby perpetually dragooned into the doing of what you hate, as the only means of escaping hell, would not this be itself a hell? Can you not see that in this state of mind you are not saved and cannot be?
To be saved you must come into a state of mind in which you will ask no higher joy than to do God’s pleasure. This alone will be forever enough to fill your cup to overflowing.
You must have all confidence in Christ, or you cannot be saved. You must absolutely believe in Him–believe all his words of promise. They were given you to be believed, and unless you believe them, they can do you no good at all. So far from helping you without you exercise (sic.) faith in them, they will only aggravate your guilt for unbelief. God would be believed when He speaks in love to lost sinners. He gave them these “exceeding great and precious promises, that they by faith in them, might escape the corruption that is in the world through lust.” But thousands of professors of religion know not how to use these promises, and as to them or any profitable use they make, the promises might as well have been written on the sands of the sea.
Sinners too, will go down to hell in unbroken masses, unless they believe and take hold of God by faith in his promise. O, his awful wrath is out against them! And He says–”I would go through them, I would burn them up together; or let him take hold of my strength, that he may make peace with me, and he shall make peace with me.” Yes, let him stir up himself and take hold of my arm, strong to save, and then he may make peace with me. Do you ask how take hold? By faith. Yes, by faith; believe his words and take hold; take hold of his strong-arm and swing right out over hell, and don’t be afraid any more than if there were no hell.
But you say–I do believe, and yet I am not saved. No you don’t believe. A woman said to me–”I believe, I know I do, and yet here I am in my sins.” No, said I, you don’t. Have you as much confidence in God as you would have in me if I had promised you a dollar? Do you ever pray to God? and, if so, do you come with any such confidence as you would have if you came to me to ask for a promised dollar? Oh, until you have as much faith in God as this, aye and more–until you have more confidence in God than you would have in ten thousand men, your faith does not honour God, and you can not hope to please Him. You must say–”Let God be true though every man be a liar.”
But you say–”O, I am a sinner, and how can I believe? I know you are a sinner, and so are all men to whom God has given these promises. “O, but I am a great sinner!” Well, “It is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom,” Paul says, “I am the chief” So you need not despair.
7. You must forsake all that you have, or you cannot be Christ’s disciple. There must be absolute and total self-denial.
By this I do not mean that you are never to eat again, or never again to clothe yourself, or never more enjoy the society of your friends–no, not this; but that you should cease entirely from using any of these enjoyments selfishly. You must no longer think to own yourself–your time, your possessions, or anything you have ever called your own. All these things you must hold as God’s, not yours. In this sense you are to forsake all that you have, namely, in the sense of laying all upon God’s altar to be devoted supremely and only to his service. When you come back to God for pardon and salvation, come with all you have to lay all at his feet. Come with your body, to offer it as a living sacrifice upon his altar. Come with your soul and all its powers, and yield them in willing consecration to your God and Saviour. Come, bring them all along–every thing, body, soul, intellect, imagination, acquirements–all, without reserve. Do you say–Must I bring them all? Yes, all–absolutely ALL; do not keep back any thing–don’t sin against your own soul like Ananias and Sapphira, by keeping back a part, but renounce your own claim to every thing, and recognize God’s right to all. Say, Lord, these things are not mine. I had stolen them, but they were never mine. They were always thine; I’ll have them no longer. Lord, these things are all thine, henceforth and forever. Now, what wilt Thou have me to do? I have no business of my own to do–I am wholly at thy disposal–Lord, what work hast thou for me to do?
In this spirit you must renounce the world, the flesh, and Satan. Your fellowship is henceforth to be with Christ, and not with those objects. You are to live for Christ and not for the world, the flesh, or the devil.
8. You must believe the record God hath given of his Son. He that believes not does not receive the record–does not set to his seal that God is true. “This is the record that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” The condition of your having it is that you believe the record, and of course that you act accordingly. Suppose here is a poor man living at your next door, and the mail brings him a letter stating that a rich man has died in England, leaving him 100,000 pounds sterling, and the cashier of a neighbouring bank writes him that he has received the amount on deposit for him, and holds it subject to his order. Well, the poor man says, I can’t believe the record. I can’t believe there ever was any such rich man; I can’t believe there is 100,000 pounds for me. So he must live and die as poor as Lazarus, because he won’t believe the record.
Now, mark; this is just the case with the unbelieving sinner. God has given you eternal life, and it waits your order–but you don’t get it because you will not believe, and therefore will not make out the order, and present in due form the application.
Ah, but you say, I must have some feeling before I can believe–how can I believe till I have the feeling? So the poor man might say–How can I believe that the 100,000 pounds is mine–I have not got a farthing of it now–I am as poor as ever. Yes, you are poor because you will not believe. If you would believe, you might go and buy out every store in this country. Still you cry, I am as poor as ever. I can’t believe it;–see my poor worn clothes–I was never more ragged in my life; I have not a particle of the feeling and the comforts of a rich man. So the sinner can’t believe till he gets the inward experience! He must wait to have some of the feeling of a saved sinner before he can believe the record and take hold of the salvation! Preposterous enough! So the poor man must wait to get his new clothes and fine house before he can believe his documents and draw for his money. Of course he dooms himself to everlasting poverty, although mountains of gold were all his own.
Now, sinner, you must understand this. Why should you be lost when eternal life is bought and offered you by the last will and testament of the Lord Jesus Christ? Will you not believe the record and draw for the amount at once! Do for mercy’s sake understand this and not lose heaven by your own folly!
I must conclude by saying, that if you would be saved you must accept a prepared salvation, one already prepared and full, and present. You must be willing to give up all your sins, and be saved from them, all, now and henceforth! Until you consent to this, you cannot be saved at all. Many would be willing to be saved in heaven, if they might hold on to some sins while on earth,–or rather they think they would like heaven on such terms. But the fact is they would as much dislike a pure heart and a holy life in heaven as they do on earth, and they deceive themselves utterly in supposing that they are ready or even willing to go to such a heaven as God has prepared for his people. No, there can be no heaven except for those who accept a salvation from all sin in this world. They must take the gospel as a system which holds no compromise with sin–which contemplates full deliverance from sin even now, and makes provision accordingly. Any other gospel is not the true one, and to accept of Christ’s gospel in any other sense is not to accept it all. Its first and its last condition is sworn and eternal renunciation of all sin.
Charles Finney is often presented as an Arminian. Often times I have heard Calvinists refer to Finney as an Arminian or that his soteriology was essentially Arminian. While I agree that Finney often uses language that is similar to Arminians and he often defends points of Arminianism that we would defend such as an unlimited atonement, conditional election, or conditional perseverance of the faith, nonetheless I do not agree that Finney is an Arminian. The goal of this article is to point out the differences in Finney’s theology that marks him outside of Arminianism.
Charles Finney is known for the “new measures” that he was using for his revivals. While Finney did not invent the sinner’s prayer or the altar call, he did refine them and bring them to the forefront of evangelism. Now, nearly 200 years later, the use of the altar call or the sinner’s prayer is so rampant in the Church that few even stop to consider whether it is biblical or not. I know of churches that have either split or removed the Bible teacher over altar calls. I myself do not give altar calls when preaching. This has led some to believe that I oppose evangelism (which I do not) or that I oppose calling people to salvation (which I do not). Some so defend the usage of the altar call that to not have an altar call is heresy. This all comes from the ministry of Charles Finney.
But what did Finney believe about salvation? What did he believe about man’s inability and the gospel? First, let us look briefly at the teachings of Arminius concerning justification. This will help us see the key differences between Arminius and Finney.
Arminius stated this about grace and free will:
Concerning grace and free will, this is what I teach according to the Scriptures and orthodox consent: Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without grace. That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word “grace,” I mean by it that which is the grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration. I affirm, therefore, that this grace is simply and absolutely necessary for the illumination of the mind, the due ordering of the affections, and the inclination of the will to that which is good. It is this grace which operates on the mind, the affections, and the will; which infuses good thoughts into the mind, inspires good desires into the actions, and bends the will to carry into execution good thoughts and good desires. This grace goes before, accompanies, and follows; it excites, assists, operates that we will, and co-operates lest we will in vain. It averts temptations, assists and grants succour in the midst of temptations, sustains man against the flesh, the world and Satan, and in this great contest grants to man the enjoyment of the victory. It raises up again those who are conquered and have fallen, establishes and supplies them with new strength, and renders them more cautious. This grace commences salvation, promotes it, and perfects and consummates it.
I confess that the mind of a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that the man himself is dead in sins. And I add to this — that teacher obtains my highest approbation who ascribes as much as possible to divine grace, provided he so pleads the cause of grace, as not to inflict an injury on the justice of God, and not to take away the free will to that which is evil.
Thus Arminius taught that while man is free, he is bound by sin. This is the same teaching as Martin Luther or John Calvin. Arminius did not teach that man was free to just up and choose Christ. In fact, he agreed with Romans 3:10-18, that man was sinful and depraved. Apart from the grace of God and the drawing power of the Holy Spirit through the gospel, mankind has no hope. We are utterly sinful and we, by nature, are children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). Our desire is not to seek after God which is why He must first seek us (1 John 4:10). The Lord is the great evangelist who seeks after the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7). He is the one who opens the sinner’s heart for the gospel (Acts 16:14). He is the one who regenerates us (Titus 3:5-7). No doubt faith is that which receives this salvation as Arminius stated,
Faith is the instrumental cause, or act, by which we apprehend Christ proposed to us by God for a propitiation and for righteousness, according to the command and promise of the gospel, in which it is said, “He who believes shall be justified and saved, and he who believeth not shall be damned.”
When a person believes the gospel, they are saved (John 5:24). We are justified through faith (Romans 5:1; Ephesians 2:8-9) and not by works (John 6:29; Romans 4:5). This act of justification leads to the imputation of righteousness as Arminius states,
The form is the gracious reckoning of God, by which he imputes to us the righteousness of Christ, and imputes faith to us for righteousness; that is, he remits our sins to us who are believers, on account of Christ apprehended by faith, and accounts us righteous in him. This estimation or reckoning, has, joined with it, adoption into sons, and the conferring of a right to the inheritance of life eternal.
Clearly Arminius stood with the Reformers in his views regarding justification and salvation by faith in Christ. Arminius stated,
I believe that sinners are accounted righteous solely by the obedience of Christ; and that the righteousness of Christ is the only meritorious cause on account of which God pardons the sins of believers and reckons them as righteous as if they had perfectly fulfilled the law. But since God imputes the righteousness of Christ to none except believers, I conclude that, in this sense, it may be well and properly said, to a man who believes, faith is imputed for righteousness through grace, because God hath set forth his Son, Jesus Christ, to be a propitiation, a throne of grace, [or mercy seat] through faith in his blood.
To summarize Arminius’ views regarding salvation. Arminius taught that:
- Salvation is accomplished through the cross of Christ alone.
- Salvation is received by God’s grace through faith in Christ.
- A believer is then declared righteous before God because of the gracious act of Christ and His salvation that He Himself accomplished on the cross.
- Salvation is the gracious work of God who must open the sinner’s heart to receive salvation. The Spirit of God does this work of conviction and He alone regenerates. Salvation is not obtained by any works (Isaiah 64:6) nor by the act of the will (John 1:12-13).
- The nature of humanity is that we are totally depraved, dead in our sins and without the life of God in our souls (Romans 3:23). The wages of our sins is death (Romans 6:23) and we deserve God’s just wrath against our sins (Romans 1:18-32). Yet God is good and loving and He sent His Son to die for our sins (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21). Jesus alone is our substitute for the forgiveness of our sins (Isaiah 53:4-6; Ephesians 1:7; 1 Peter 2:21-24).
Next we will turn to the theology of Charles Finney to see if he agrees with Arminius over these doctrines. In the end, I hope to show that Finney was not an Arminian but was semi-Pelagian if not a Pelagian. Further, let it be shown that Arminius opposed Pelagianism in all its forms. To ascribe to Arminius that he was a semi-Pelagian is not only inaccurate but unfair.
Having just finished up a series of posts from the works of Charles Finney upon original sin, allow me to make some brief observations. I am reading a book on the theology of Finney in comparison to the Calvinists of his day and will have more to say about Finney later. For now, allow me to make these brief observations about Finney’s influence upon the modern church.
First, it can not be underestimated the influence that Charles Finney has had upon the modern Church. Both Arminians and Calvinists must acknowledge this. I believe that his influence has not been for the better. I oppose, as do nearly all Calvinists, the usage of the anxious seat or the sinner’s prayer as a means to salvation. I find nothing in Scripture to suggest that a person come forward and say a prayer to receive salvation. Not once in the Bible do we find the Lord Jesus nor the Apostles doing any thing close to the modern altar call. While Finney did not create the anxious seat, mourners bench, or the sinner’s prayer, he definitely influenced others in using the methods. Finney clearly believed that a person can will themselves to salvation at any time so long as the arguments were set forth correctly for the person to understand and he clearly believed that repentance was a matter of the will and not the work of the Spirit entirely. This led him to start calling for a public response to the gospel that demanded that a person will their way to salvation through tears, prayer, mourning, etc. Finney’s practice is now fully practiced in most semi-Pelagian American churches that find their roots in Finney, Torrey, Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham. I once challenged a pastor over this and he responded that “it works” and that was enough for him. This pragmatic approach to evangelism has hurt the church.
Secondly, Finney’s usage of the anxious seat led to thousands of false converts. New England today remains the “burned over” district of the United States. Few have seen evangelistic success in New England mainly because of the usage of the sinner’s prayer. People were incorrectly taught that you need only pray this prayer and you are a Christian which led to countless false converts who were not following Jesus as Lord (Matthew 7:21-23). This also led to Finney developing his perfection teachings later on at Oberlin College. Finney begin to see the fruits of the sinner’s prayer and he begin to say that what people needed was not just to pray for salvation but also to pray for entire sanctification to God. Christian perfection as a second work of grace was needed to help these sinning saints get rid of sin. I have read Finney’s book on perfection and they are full of works sanctification such as we need to be praying more, stop sinning in our own power more, lay all on the altar, etc. and while they are sometimes good at exhorting toward holiness, the books fail to point to Jesus as our Advocate when we sin nor to the power of His blood to cleanse us from sin (1 John 1:7; 2:1-2). The power to overcome sin lies in the power of God in the gospel and not in our power. Holiness flows not from will power but from God’s power (Romans 8:1-4). The Holy Spirit is the One who helps me to be holy (Acts 15:9-11; cf. John 16:8-11).
Thirdly, I fear that evangelism has largely followed Finney in regard to seeking to convert people to Christ merely by correct arguments and little trust in the power of God in the gospel. Romans 1:16-17 is clear that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. It is God who saves and He saves alone. Correct arguments and the right atmosphere are not the power to salvation. The gospel is the power of God to salvation. The gospel brings repentance. The gospel produces results. The duty of the Church is to preach the gospel (Acts 1:8). The Lord is the one who adds to His Church those who are being saved (Acts 2:47). The Lord uses the gospel preached to save the lost and not our fleshly arguments (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). I fear that too often modern evangelism is all about “get them to pray the prayer” instead of preaching Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). Again, nothing in Scripture suggests that salvation comes through a sinner’s prayer but through faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ (John 5:24; Ephesians 2:8-9). The proper response to the gospel is baptism (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:38, 41).
I will have more to say about Charles Finney and his theological views later. For now, I do believe that Finney loved God, loved people, and I believe that he desired to see souls saved but I do fear that his methods have produced fruit that is not good and sadly, the Church has suffered because of them.
His sixth argument is, that “We can predict with certainty, that in due time it will act itself out.”
Answer: Just as might be expected. If moral depravity consists in selfishness, we can predict with certainty, that the spirit of self-pleasing will, in due time, and at all times, act itself out. We can also predict, without the gift of prophecy, that with a constitution physically depraved, and surrounded with objects to awaken appetite, and with all the circumstances in which human beings first form their moral character, they will seek universally to gratify themselves, unless prevented by the illuminations of the Holy Spirit. This argument is just as consistent with the opposite theory, and therefore proves neither.
It is unnecessary to occupy any more time with the treatise of Dr. Woods. I will now quote the standards of the Presbyterian church, which will put you in possession of their views upon this subject.
At pp. 30, 31, of the Presbyterian Confession of Faith, we have the following: “By this sin, they (Adam and Eve) fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.”
Again, pp. 152-154, Shorter Catechism. “Question 22. Did all mankind fall in that first transgression? Answer: The covenant being made with Adam as a public person, not for himself only, but for his posterity; all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him in that first transgression.
“Question 23. Into what estate did the fall bring mankind? Answer: The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.
“Question 24. What is sin? Answer: Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature.
“Question 25. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate where into man fell? Answer: The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consisteth in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually, which is commonly called original sin, and from which do proceed all actual transgressions.
“Question 26. How is original sin conveyed from our first parents unto their posterity? Answer: Original sin is conveyed from our first parents unto their posterity by natural generation, so as all that proceed from them in that way, are conceived and born in sin.”
These extracts show, that the framers and defenders of this confession of faith, account for the moral depravity of mankind by making it to consist in a sinful nature, inherited by natural generation from Adam. They regard the constitution inherited from Adam, as in itself sinful, and the cause of all actual transgression. They make no distinction between physical and moral depravity. They also distinguish between original and actual sin. Original sin is the sinfulness of the constitution, in which Adam’s posterity have no other hand than to inherit it by natural generation, or by birth. This original sin, or sinful nature, renders mankind utterly disabled from all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all that is evil. This is their account of moral depravity.
This, it will be seen, is substantially the ground of Dr. Woods:
It has been common with those who confound physical with moral depravity, and who maintain that human nature is itself sinful, to quote certain passages of Scripture to sustain their position. An examination of these proof texts, must, in the next place, occupy our attention. But before I enter upon this examination, I must first call your attention to certain well-settled rules of biblical interpretation. (1.) Different passages must be so interpreted, if they can be, as not to contradict each other. (2.) Language is to be interpreted according to the subject matter of discourse. (3.) Respect is always to be had to the general scope and design of the speaker or writer. (4.) Texts that are consistent with either theory, prove neither. (5.) Language is to be so interpreted, if it can be, as not to conflict with sound philosophy, matters of fact, the nature of things, or immutable justice.
Let us now, remembering and applying these plain rules of sound interpretation, proceed to the examination of those passages that are supposed to establish the theory of depravity I am examining. “Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness and after his own image, and called his name Seth” (Gen. 5:3). It is not very easy to see, why this text should be pressed into the service of those who hold that human nature is in itself sinful. Why should it be assumed that the likeness and image here spoken of was a moral likeness or image? But unless this be assumed, the text has nothing to do with the subject. Again: it is generally admitted, that in all probability Adam was a regenerate man at the time and before the birth of Seth. Is it intended that Adam begat a saint or a sinner? If, as is supposed, Adam was a saint of God, if this text is anything to the purpose, it affirms that Adam begat a saint. But this is the opposite of that in proof of which the text is quoted.
Another text is: “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one” (Job 14:4). This text is quoted in support of the position of the Presbyterian Confession of Faith, that children inherit from their parents, by natural generation, a sinful nature. Upon this text, I remark, that all that can be made of it, even if we read it without regard to the translation or the context, is, that a physically depraved parent will produce a physically depraved offspring. That this is its real meaning, is quite evident, when we look into the context. Job is treating of the frail and dying state of man, and manifestly has in the text and context his eye wholly on the physical state, and not on the moral character of man. What he intends is; who can bring other than a frail, dying offspring from a frail dying parent? Not one. This is substantially the view that Professor Stuart takes of this text. The utmost that can be made of it is, that as he belonged to a race of sinners, nothing else could be expected than that he should be a sinner, without meaning to affirm anything in regard to the quo modo of this result.
Again: “What is man that he should be clean, and he that is born of a woman that he should be righteous” (Job 15:14). These are the words of Eliphaz, and it is improper to quote them as inspired truth. For God Himself testifies that Job’s friends did not hold the truth. But, suppose we receive the text as true, what is its import? Why, it simply asserts, or rather implies, the righteousness or sinfulness of the whole human race. It expresses the universality of human depravity, in the very common way of including all that are born of woman. This certainly says nothing, and implies nothing, respecting a sinful constitution. It is just as plain, and just as warrantable, to understand this passage as implying that mankind have become so physically depraved, that this fact, together with the circumstances under which they come into being, and begin their moral career, will certainly, (not necessarily), result in moral depravity. I might use just such language as that found in this text, and, naturally enough, express by it my own views of moral depravity, to wit, that it results from a physically depraved constitution; and the circumstances of temptation under which children come into this world, and begin and prosecute their moral career; certainly this is the most that can be made of this text.
Again: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalms 51:5). Upon this I remark, that it would seem, if this text is to be understood literally, that the Psalmist intended to affirm the sinful state of his mother, at the time of his conception, and during gestation. But, to interpret these passages as teaching the constitutional sinfulness of man, is to contradict God’s own definition of sin, and the only definition that human reason or common sense can receive, to wit, that “sin is a transgression of the law.” This is, no doubt, the only correct definition of sin. But we have seen that the law does not legislate over substance, requiring men to have a certain nature, but over voluntary action only. If the Psalmist really intended to affirm, that the substance of his body was sinful from its conception, then he not only arrays himself against God’s own definition of sin, but he also affirms sheer nonsense. The substance of an unborn child sinful! It is impossible!
But what did the Psalmist mean? I answer: This verse is found in David’s penitential psalm. He was deeply convinced of sin, and was, as he had good reason to be, much excited, and expressed himself, as we all do in similar circumstances, in strong language. His eye, as was natural and is common in such cases, had been directed back along the pathway of life up to the days of his earliest recollection. He remembered sins among the earliest acts of his recollected life. He broke out in the language of this text to express, not the anti-scriptural and nonsensical dogma of a sinful constitution, but to affirm in his strong, poetic language, that he had been a sinner from the commencement of his moral existence, or from the earliest moment of his capability of being a sinner. This is the strong language of poetry. Some suppose that, in the passage in question, the Psalmist referred to, and meant to acknowledge and assert, his low and despicable origin, and to say, I was always a sinner, and my mother that conceived me was a sinner, and I am but the degenerate plant of a strange vine, without intending to affirm anything in respect to the absolute sinfulness of his nature.
Again, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies” (Psalms 58:3). Upon this text I remark that it has been quoted at one time to establish the doctrine of a sinful nature, and at another to prove that infants commit actual sin from the very day and hour of their birth. But certainly no such use can be legitimately made of this text. It does not affirm anything of a sinful nature, but this has been inferred from what it does affirm, that the wicked are estranged from their birth. But does this mean, that they are really and literally estranged from the day and hour of their birth, and that they really go astray the very day they are born, speaking lies? This every one knows to be contrary to fact. The text cannot then be pressed to the letter. What then does it mean? It must mean, like the text last examined, that the wicked are estranged and go astray from the commencement of their moral agency. If it means more than this, it would contradict other plain passages of scripture. It affirms, in strong, graphic, and poetic language, the fact, that the first moral conduct and character of children is sinful. This is all that in truth it can assert; and it doubtless dates the beginning of their moral depravity at a very early period, and expresses it in very strong language, as if it were literally from the hour of birth. But when it adds, that they go astray, speaking lies, we know that this is not, and cannot be, literally taken, for, as every one knows, children do not speak at all from their birth. Should we understand the Psalmist as affirming, that children go astray as soon as they go at all, and speak lies as soon as they speak at all, this would not prove that their nature was in itself sinful, but might well consist with the theory that their physical depravity, together with their circumstances of temptation, led them into selfishness, from the very first moment of their moral existence.
Again, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Upon this I remark that it may, if literally taken, mean nothing more than this, that the body which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit; that is, that this birth of which he was speaking was of the soul, and not of the body. But it may be understood to mean, that which results from the influence of the flesh is flesh, in the sense of sin; for this is a common sense of the term flesh in the New Testament, and that which results from the Spirit, is spirit or spiritual, in the sense of holy. This I understand to be the true sense. The text when thus understood, does not at all support the dogma of a sinful nature or constitution, but only this, that the flesh tends to sin, that the appetites and passions are temptations to sin, so that when the will obeys them it sins. Whatever is born of the propensities, in the sense that the will yields to their control, is sinful. And, on the other hand, whatever is born of the Spirit, that is, whatever results from the agency of the Holy Spirit, in the sense that the will yields to Him, is holy.
Again, “By nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:3). Upon this text I remark that it cannot, consistently with natural justice, be understood to mean, that we are exposed to the wrath of God on account of our nature. It is a monstrous and blasphemous dogma, that a holy God is angry with any creature for possessing a nature with which he was sent into being without his knowledge or consent. The Bible represents God as angry with men for their wicked deeds, and not for their nature. It is common and proper to speak of the first state in which men universally are, as a natural state. Thus we speak of sinners before regeneration, as in a state of nature, as opposed to a changed state, a regenerate state, and a state of grace. By this we do not necessarily mean, that they have a nature sinful in itself, but merely that before regeneration they are universally and morally depraved, that this is their natural, as opposed to their regenerate state. Total moral depravity is the state that follows, and results from their first birth, and is in this sense natural, and in this sense alone, can it truly be said, that they are “by nature children of wrath.” Against the use that is made of this text, and all this class of texts, may be arrayed the whole scope of scripture, that represents man as to blame, and to be judged and punished only for his deeds. The subject matter of discourse in these texts is such as to demand that we should understand them as not implying, or asserting, that sin is an essential part of our nature.
This quotation, together with the whole argument, shows that he considers moral depravity to be an attribute of human nature, in the same sense that the appetites and passions are. Before I proceed directly to the examination of his argument, that sinfulness, or moral depravity, is an “attribute of human nature,” I would premise, that an argument, or fact, that may equally well consist with either of two opposing theories, can prove neither. The author in question presents the following facts and considerations in support of his great position, that moral depravity, or sinfulness, is an attribute of human nature; and three presidents of colleges indorse the soundness and conclusiveness of the argument.
He proves his position first from the “universality of moral depravity.” To this I answer, that this argument proves nothing to the purpose, unless it be true, and assumed as a major premise, that whatever is universal among mankind, must be a natural attribute of man as such; that whatever is common to all men, must be an attribute of human nature. But this assumption is a begging of the question. Sin may be the result of temptation; temptation may be universal, and of such a nature as uniformly, not necessarily, to result in sin, unless a contrary result be secured by a Divine moral suasion. This I shall endeavor to show is the fact. This argument assumes, that there is but one method of accounting for the universality of human sinfulness. But this is the question in debate, and is not to be thus assumed as true.
Again: Selfishness is common to all unregenerate men. Is selfishness a natural attribute? We have seen, in a former lecture, that it consists in choice. Can choice be an attribute of human nature?
Again: This argument is just as consistent with the opposite theory, to wit, that moral depravity is selfishness. The universality of selfishness is just what might be expected, if selfishness consists in the committal of the will to the gratification of self. This will be a thing of course, unless the Holy Spirit interpose, greatly to enlighten the intellect, and break up the force of habit, and change the attitude of the will, already, at the first dawn of reason, committed to the impulses of the sensibility. If moral depravity is to be accounted for, as I shall hereafter more fully show, by ascribing it to the influence of temptation, or to a physically depraved constitution, surrounded by the circumstances in which mankind first form their moral character, or put forth their first moral choices, universality might of course be expected to be one of its characteristics. This argument, then, agreeing equally well with either theory, proves neither.
His second argument is, that “Moral depravity develops itself in early life.”
Answer: This is just what might be expected upon the opposite theory. If moral depravity consist in the choice of self-gratification, it would of course appear in early life. So this argument agrees quite as well with the opposing theory, and therefore proves nothing. But this argument is good for nothing, unless the following be assumed as a major premise, and unless the fact assumed be indeed a truth, namely, “Whatever is developed in early life, must be an attribute of human nature.” But this again is assuming the truth of the point in debate. This argument is based upon the assumption that a course of action common to all men, and commencing at the earliest moment of their moral agency, can be accounted for only by ascribing it to an attribute of nature, having the same moral character as that which belongs to the actions themselves. But this is not true. There may be more than one way of accounting for the universal sinfulness of human actions from the dawn of moral agency. It may be ascribed to the universality and peculiar nature of temptation, as has been said.
His third argument is, that “Moral depravity is not owing to any change that occurs subsequent to birth.”
Answer: No, the circumstances of temptation are sufficient to account for it without supposing the nature to be changed. This argument proves nothing, unless it be true, that the peculiar circumstances of temptation under which moral agents act, from the dawn of moral agency, cannot sufficiently account for their conduct, without supposing a change of nature subsequent to birth. What then, does this arguing prove?
Again, this argument is just as consistent with the opposing theory, and therefore proves neither.
His fourth argument is, “That moral depravity acts freely and spontaneously.”
Answer: “The moral agent acts freely, and acts selfishly, that is, wickedly. This argument assumes, that if a moral agent acts freely and wickedly moral depravity, or sin, must be an attribute of his nature. Or more fairly, if mankind universally, in the exercise of their liberty, act sinfully, sinfulness must be an attribute of human nature.” But what is sin? Why sin is a voluntary transgression of law, Dr. Woods being judge. Can a voluntary transgression of law be denominated an attribute of human nature? But again, this argument alleges nothing but what is equally consistent with the opposite theory. If moral depravity consist in the choice of self-gratification as an end, it would of course freely and spontaneously manifest itself. This argument then, is good for nothing.
His fifth argument is, “That moral depravity is hard to overcome, and therefore it must be an attribute of human nature.”
Answer: If it were an attribute of human nature, it could not be overcome at all, without a change of the human constitution. It is hard to overcome, just as selfishness naturally would be, in beings of a physically depraved constitution, and in the presence of so many temptations to self-indulgence. If it were an attribute of human nature, it could not be overcome without a change of personal identity. But the fact that it can be overcome without destroying the consciousness of personal identity, proves that it is not an attribute of human nature.