Finney’s Firm Rejection of Imputation

Finney's Systematic Theology A New Bicentennial Edition of the Theology of America's Greatest Evangelist Charles Finney is well known for his part in the 19th century American revivals.  Obviously,  Finney and these revivals are major topics that many books have covered. But it is worth mentioning that Finney did write a systematic theology where one can learn what he himself taught.  I don’t think it’s a good systematic theology, but it is informative and helpful for thinking about the history of American Christianity and theology.

For example, Finney very strongly rejected the Reformation teaching that Christ’s obedience is imputed to the believer and received by faith alone.  In other words, he firmly denied the imputation of Christ’s obedience.  Here are his own words:

…Gospel justification is not to be regarded as a forensic or judicial proceeding.

…Gospel justification is the justification of sinners; it is, therefore, naturally impossible, and a most palpable contradiction, to affirm that the justification of a sinner, or of one who has violated the law, is a forensic or judicial justification.

…For sinners to be forensically pronounced just, is impossible and absurd.

 The doctrine of an imputed righteousness, or that Christ’s obedience to the law was accounted as our obedience, is founded on a most false and nonsensical assumption; to wit, that Christ owed no obedience to the law in his own person, and that therefore his obedience was altogether a work of supererogation, and might be made a substitute for our own obedience; that it might be set down to our credit, because he did not need to obey for himself.

…If Christ owed personal obedience to the moral law, then his obedience could no more than justify himself. It can never be imputed to us. He was bound for himself to love God with all his heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and his neighbor as himself. He did no more than this. He could do no more. It was naturally impossible, then, for him to obey in our behalf. This doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s obedience to the moral law to us, is based upon the absurd assumptions, (1.) That the moral law is founded in the arbitrary will of God, and (2.) That of course, Christ, as God, owed no obedience to it; both of which assumptions are absurd. But if these assumptions are given up, what becomes of the doctrine of an imputed righteousness, as a ground of a forensic justification? “It vanishes into thin air.”

Finney wrote more on this topic; the above is a summary.  And there are many things that come to mind when I read this section of Finney’s ST.  While he does cite some Scripture references, he does not do any exegetical work at all in his points.  For example, he cites Romans 5:9 in passing, which actually goes against his main point: by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. Furthermore, Finney misses major imputation/justification texts like 2 Cor. 5:21 and Phil. 3:9 (for just two examples).

Writing like Finney’s reminds me why I am Reformed – not because it’s cool or trendy, but because Reformed theology is thoroughly derived from Scripture and deep biblical exegesis.  And thankfully Finney was wrong!  Thankfully I don’t have to rely on any aspect of my obedience for justification.  My hope is in the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ: not my own righteousness, but the righteousness of God in Christ (Phil. 2:9).  All other ground is sinking sand.

The above quotes are found in Charles Finney, Systematic Theology, section 32.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002


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