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III. The Development Of The Oberlin Teaching
When we have obtained some insight into Mahan’s doctrines of “Christian Perfection,” and “the Baptism of the Holy Spirit,” we have already seen into the heart of his theology. It is on these things that he most constantly and strenuously dwelt in his religious instruction. There were other elements of his teaching, however—not altogether unconnected with these, and therefore not altogether untouched in what has preceded—to which we must give some particular attention if we would know Mahan in his peculiarity as a religious teacher, and especially in his distinction from his colleagues at Oberlin. He makes no secret that there were some things in which he differed from Finney, although, very naturally, he minimizes their importance. They were not things, he tells us in a curious passage,272 in which perfectly sanctified people may not differ without fault. Paul and Barnabas differed in some things, he says, and “on a very few questions in Moral Philosophy and Theology, Brother Finney and myself have arrived at opposite conclusions.” “Yet each,” he adds, “has the same assurance as before, that the other is ‘full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost.’ ” “We differ just where minds under the influence of the purest integrity, and the highest form of divine illumination, are liable to differ.” It would almost seem as if it were a virtue to differ on these things. One of the things on which they thus faultlessly differed, was the ground of moral obligation; which does not strike us as an unimportant matter. Mahan represented at Oberlin what Finney calls by the ugly name of “rightarianism.” We are glad that the thing is not as bad as the name. It means, indeed, just that Mahan defended at Oberlin intuitive morality against Finney’s teleological system—which is no morality at all. Effects of this difference naturally are traceable throughout the whole range of their teaching. Another matter of difference between them, far from unimportant whether in itself or in its results, has already been incidentally touched upon. This is the morality of our dispositions and propensities. Finney denied that any moral character attached to the affectional movements as such; only the will and its volitions are properly speaking moral. In asserting the contrary Mahan necessarily gave a totally different complexion to his doctrine of sin and of salvation from sin.
No more than Finney did he, to be sure, acknowledge any doctrine of “original sin.” Sin, says he,273 is “exclusively a personal matter, a state of the inner man, a form of voluntary moral activity.” The soul becomes sinful, “not from necessity, but choice.” We derive no sin from our ancestry, near or remote; and we have no form or degree of merit or demerit which does not attach to us personally and to no one else but us. “Personal criminality” and nothing else is sin to us. But however we have become sinful, we are all entirely sinful. All sin consists in alienation and estrangement from God, His character, His will, and the law of duty; and this alienation and estrangement from all the claims of God and of His moral law, affects all our moral movements. In all forms of our moral activity, whether externally right or wrong, this estrangement is total. “No moral act of” our “unregenerate life” is “prompted by that motive and intent which render such act morally virtuous, or such that the conscience or God can regard, or ought to regard, as an act of obedience to the divine will and the law of duty.” Surely this positive fact of universal sinfulness in all our moral activities cannot be given negative statement otherwise than in terms of inability to good. Mahan will not go so far as that. But he allows that though we may see the good and approve it, we cannot do it. There is always “a total failure ‘to do that which is good’—the good to do which there is a readiness to will.”274 He avoids the word “inability,” but he is compelled to recognize some sort of a “human impotence” to good; a “self-impotence,” a “total self-impotence.” He even rebukes the preachers of the revival of the early thirties for their purely Pelagian teaching on ability; this was, he says,275 “a leading cause of the ultimate decline of those revivals.” It was a better teaching, to be sure, he declares, than the old New England doctrine of a so-called “natural ability” wholly neutralized by a “moral inability”—which left no ability at all. But in reacting from this the revivalists reacted too far and left no disability at all.
It is plain matter of fact, however, that we are dependent on God’s grace for holy choices, or, at least, for holy executions. “We are free agents: but the freedom which we and all creatures possess is a dependent one.… Light and grace are provided and rendered available; by availing ourselves of these we ‘may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.’ We are free to avail, or not to avail, ourselves of this light and grace. Refusing or neglecting to do this, we have no available power for anything but sin.” “We have no available power”; what is that but inability? An inability overcome, indeed, by “light and grace”; but how overcome by “light and grace”? Mahan says they are “made available.” But he does not tell us how their being “made available” overcomes our previous inability “for anything but sin.” Surely the mere proffering of them to us cannot overcome this inability. What Mahan tells us is, however, just that. He tells us that we have power to accept or reject proffered grace as we will; but naturally no power to perform without grace what can be performed only with grace. Grace is the instrument for working certain effects: we must use it if we wish those effects. But what enables us, who are unable to use it—for we can do nothing but sin and to use grace surely is no sin—to use it although we are unable to do so? Mahan is silent. Or rather he deserts his doctrine of inability to good, and substitutes for it a doctrine of absolute ability—but with it a complementary doctrine of right instrumentation. We are perfectly able to do what is right—to love God, to serve Him, to be perfect; but of course we are not able to do any of these things except we use the proper instruments for their performance. We are perfectly able to cut down a tree, but not with our finger nails; we are perfectly able to drive a spike home, but not with our naked fists. If we will consent to use an axe and hammer, we can easily perform these tasks. Mahan very truly says: “Teaching the doctrine of ability as an absolute and not dependent power, tends to induce, not faith in God and His grace, but self-assurance, self-dependence, and the pride of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness.” He wishes then to teach something else than “ability as an absolute power.” He apparently supposes that he is teaching ability dependent for its exercise on grace. He is not. He is teaching grace dependent for its operation on ability. We use grace, not grace us. The whole truth is that Mahan has raised the problem of ability and inability, and then—has dodged it. He has left us with man on our hands “impotent” to good: and as he has not made it quite plain to us why he is impotent to good, so he has not given us any ground whatever to believe, that, being impotent to good, he is quite able at his option to avail himself of God’s proffered grace and by it work all good. Clearly these problems can find no solution except in the frank postulation on the one hand of the sinfulness of human nature disabling it for good, and on the other of recreative grace recovering it to good.
When he comes to deal with the doctrine of salvation from sin, Mahan gets still deeper into his problem. He is no longer able to escape ascribing to unregenerate man a sinful “nature” which determines his actions; or to the saving Spirit a “physical” effect on this nature by which it is made good and the proximate source of our renewed activities. When God takes the stony heart out of our flesh and gives us a heart of flesh, he says,276 what is really meant is “a fundamental change and a renewal of our propensities.” “We are,” he says, “by nature ‘children of wrath,’ ‘prone to evil as the sparks are to fly upward.’ ” When God makes the change He promises, “we have ‘a new heart,’ and ‘a new spirit,’ ‘a divine nature,’ which impels us to love and obedience, just as our old nature impelled us to sin.” Referring to the “works of the flesh,” of Gal. 5:19 ff., he remarks that “behind all these forms of sin, ‘works of the flesh,’ lie certain propensities, dispositions, and tempers, which, when touched by corresponding temptations, set on fire burning and ‘warring lusts’ and evil passions, and these induce the sins and crimes above designated.” “These old propensities, dispositions, and tempers are taken away, and in this state, new ones of an opposite nature are given,” and “under our renovated propensities, and new dispositions, tendencies, and tempers, or ‘divine nature,’ it becomes just as easy and natural for us to bear ‘the fruits of the Spirit’ as it was, under our old ones, to work ‘the works of the flesh.’ ” The subject is pursued and similar phraseology repeated indefinitely. “ ‘By nature,’ ” we read,277 “—that is, under the influence of our old nature, or propensities, dispositions, and tempers, we are ‘children of wrath,’ and ‘bring forth fruit unto death.’ Under the dispositions, tempers, and tendencies of our new or ‘divine nature,’ we are just as naturally ‘children of God,’ and ‘have our fruit unto holiness.’ ” We are to reckon ourselves dead unto sin, “because ‘our old man,’ our old propensities, dispositions, and tempers, is crucified, ‘put to death’ with Him, that the ‘body of sin,’ our old and evil nature, ‘might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.’ ” While the old nature remains, we are told, we cannot help sinning; similarly when the new nature is given we cannot help being holy. Sometimes, it is true, a note of “may” rather than “must” is struck. “Because that, through the Spirit of Christ dwelling in us, ‘the body of sin,’ our old and evil propensities, ‘may be destroyed,’ and ‘the old man may be crucified with Him,’ and we may ‘through the law of the Spirit of Christ Jesus,’ be ‘made free from the law of sin and death,’ we should indeed cease to ‘live after the flesh,’ should be ‘not in the flesh but in the Spirit’; and should ‘reckon ourselves dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ ” But this phraseology appears to be preserved only for purposes of exhortation, and its apparent suggestion that the effect lies in our own power is fully corrected when the speech takes a didactic form. “Such language,” we read,278 “implies more than this, that his old propensities, ‘the body of sin,’ ‘the old man,’ is yet living and warring in the soul, but, by the grace of Christ, are held in subjection. Mere subjection is not death. What the Apostle undeniably intended to teach is this: that his propensities, dispositions, and temper had been so renovated that the world, with its affections and lusts, had no more power over him than they have over the dead. Christ, on the other hand, lived in him, and occupied all his affections, and held undisputed control over all his activities.” This certainly suggests a “physical” change wrought in us by the Spirit of God, by which our governing dispositions are changed: and that as certainly implies that we are governed by our dispositions, whether evil or good.
At an earlier point,279 discussing the phrase “divine nature” in 2 Pet. 1:4, Mahan remarks: “The words ‘the divine nature,’ imply, as all will admit, not only the holiness and blessedness of the divine mind, but also that divine disposition or nature in God which induces His holiness and blessedness. For us to become possessed of this ‘divine nature’ implies not only present holiness and blessedness such as God possesses, but a divine disposition in us, a new and divine nature, which induces and prompts us to holiness, just as God’s nature prompts Him to the same. In our old or unrenewed state, we not only sinned, but had a nature or dispositions, which prompted us to sin. In Christ, we not only obey the divine will, but receive from Him, as the Mediator of the New Covenant, a new or ‘divine nature,’ which prompts us to purity and obedience, just as our old dispositions prompted us to sin.” A tendency appears here to think of the new nature imparted to us as if it were a separate entity implanted within us: and this is identified with the Holy Spirit whose coming into our hearts brings “the disposition” of Christ with Him. In commenting280 on the words: “God sends the Spirit of His Son into our hearts,” the phrase is employed: “the Spirit, or disposition, of His Son.” This corresponds to a mystical tendency which shows itself elsewhere in Mahan’s writings and forms a connecting link between him and the “New York Perfectionists” who preceded him. Apart from the suggestion of this special conception of the nature of the “new nature” imparted to us, however, there appears to be here a real recognition of the existence in us of a substrate of our activities, having moral quality itself, and so conditioning our moral activities as to determine their moral quality. “We are not only saved from the actual sins that are in the world,” we read, “but … the evil propensities and tempers, ‘the law in our members,’ which induces sin, are taken from us.” This certainly seems to posit a law in our members, underlying and determining our activities. We receive, we read again, “not only deliverance from sinning, but ‘the death of the old man,’ or”—as it is now explained—“the crucifixion of all those tempers and dispositions which induce sin.” There are, then, permanent tendencies in us, which determine our activities to be sinful. On the positive side, we receive “new and divine tendencies” which naturally induce the opposite virtues—“not only actual obedience to the divine will, but ‘a divine, nature,’ which prompts and constrains obedience in all its forms.” Are we not to give validity to the phrases “naturally induce,” “constrains” here? And then it is added in a general summary: “It is as much the nature of ‘the new man,’ or the promptings of his new and divine tendencies, to be pure in heart and life, as it was that of ‘the old man’ to ‘obey the law of sin.’ ” Surely a “physical” corruption, and a “physical” holiness, and a physical change from the one to the other is taught here.
This teaching forms the foundation for Mahan’s doctrine of the “sanctification of the sensibility,” to which we have already had occasion to advert, and which was a peculiarity of his teaching among his fellows. James H. Fairchild281 very properly tells us that it appears “to involve a supernatural and almost mechanical action upon our human nature, restoring it to its normal state before the fall,—all, however, in response to our faith.” The words, “All, however, in response to our faith,” mark the limits beyond which Mahan would not go in ascribing salvation to God; and, with that, the gross inconsistency of his thinking. For, as we have seen, he ascribes to the evil dispositions which constitute the “old man” just as much determining power over our activities, making them evil, as he ascribes to the good dispositions constituting our new man, making our activities good. And yet he supposes that while still under the dominance of the “old man” we may at will turn to Christ in saving faith. More: immediately upon the heels of his exposition of the determining effects on conduct of our “propensities, dispositions, temper and tendencies,”282 he speaks of the man who has believed for pardon but not yet for holiness, being “as far as his voluntary activities are concerned … in a state of supreme obedience to the will of God,” while yet (since the “physical” change comes only with the “second blessing”) all these “old propensities, dispositions, temper, and tendencies” remain as they were and remain at war against this new-born purpose of obedience. If validity be given to the preceding exposition, this is nonsense: if validity be given to this assertion, that exposition is without significance. Whatever Mahan teaches as to a supernatural action on the human soul of the Spirit of God—an action which Fairchild looks upon as “almost mechanical”—he has no intention whatever of suspending human salvation on anything else than human volition; a volition which at bottom he conceives as acting in complete independence of any as well subjective as objective determinants. Mahan’s whole discussion of “the sanctification of the sensibility,” therefore, with its suggestions of controlling dispositions lying behind our activities and of a consequent “physical” change in our sanctification, must be looked upon as a mere tendency of thought running athwart his most fundamental convictions and capable therefore of having validity given to it only so far as it can be made consistent with a doctrine of the will, and of the dependence of salvation on the will, with which it is in essential disharmony.
Fairchild, in his notice of this excursion of Mahan’s thought, proceeds to tell us how Finney stood in the matter. “Pres. Finney,” he says, “while not disclaiming this idea entirely, and sometimes presenting facts and experiences which were in harmony with it, insisted more upon the moral power of Gospel truth upon the believer’s heart. He found deliverance from temptation and from the power of sin in the views which the Spirit gives of Christ. The truth as it is in Jesus was to him the power of God unto salvation. ‘Sanctify us through the truth’ was the burden of his prayer and of his teaching; and this was the prevalent idea with the other leaders of thought here.” That is to say Finney dallied a little with the idea of “the baptism of the Spirit,” but did not really adopt it; he continued to confine the work of the Spirit to illumination and to deny all recreative functions to Him: He is our Guide, not our Regenerator. There is nothing strange in Finney’s failure to assimilate this idea: what is surprising is that he could dally with it even for a moment. That he did do so is probably only an illustration of that hospitality which he was ever showing to the notions of his colleagues, by which he was led to assimilate them as far as his fundamental teaching permitted him to do so, without, however, ever really modifying his fundamental teaching to accommodate them. A striking instance of how he dealt with them, apparently adopting them with heartiness and really transforming them into the image of his own thought, is afforded by his treatment of this very doctrine of the Baptism of the Holy Ghost, at a dramatic moment of his own life. Mahan’s book bearing that title was published in 1870. The National Council of Congregational Churches met at Oberlin in 1871, and, making much of Finney in his hale old age (he was in his eightieth year), invited him to address it. He did so, and, on request, continued his discussion on the following Sabbath. The subject he chose to speak on was the Baptism of the Holy Ghost; and his treatment of the theme ran on the lines laid down in Mahan’s recently published book. He followed up his address with some letters printed in The Independent, and afterwards put into tract form. In the first of these (called “Power from on High”) he outlines the doctrine of the baptism of the Spirit for power, as he had outlined it at the Council; and it might almost have been simply transcribed from Mahan. This baptism of the Holy Ghost, he declares, is the indispensable condition of performing the work given us by Christ to do; Christ has expressly promised it to the whole Church; the condition of receiving it is to continue in prayer and supplication until we receive it; it is not to be confounded with the peace which comes to the justified state—it is not peace but power; Christ gives peace but promises power—and we must not rest in conversion but go on to this second blessing which is at our disposal. A second letter now followed, in which the doctrine is given a somewhat new turn. The blessing conferred on the Apostles at Pentecost by the baptism of the Spirit is first reduced to “the power to fasten saving impressions upon the minds of men,” the power “to savingly impress men.” And then in his effort to define precisely what this power consists in, Finney comes to this:—“It was God speaking in and through them. It was a power from on high—God in them making a saving impression upon those to whom they spoke.” And then he still further teaches that the power was not conferred at Pentecost alone, and not alone on the Apostles. It is still conferred: he himself has received it. He has often converted men by so chance a word that he had no remembrance of having spoken it, or even by a mere look. He illustrates this with anecdotes from his own life, such as are found in the “Memoirs” which he had recently completed. It is a sufficiently odd doctrine which he here enunciates, a kind of new Lutheranism with the evangelist substituted for the Word. The Holy Ghost is represented, not, as in the Reformed doctrine, as accompanying the word preached extrinsecus accedens—“the Lord opened Lydia’s heart,” “Paul may plant and Apollos water, the Lord gives the increase”; and not as in the Lutheran doctrine as intrinsic in the Word spoken, acting out from the Word on the heart of the hearer; but as intrinsic in the evangelist speaking. By a mere gaze, without a word spoken, Finney says he reduced a whole room-full of factory girls to hysteria. As the Lutheran says God in the Word works a saving impression, Finney says God in the preacher works a saving impression. Not the Word, but the preacher is the power of God unto salvation. The evangelist has become a Sacrament. The letters were continued after an interval. There was another descriptive one (“The Enduement of the Spirit”) in which the anecdote of the preaching in “Sodom” related in the “Memoirs” is repeated. Then there was one called “Power from on High: Who May Expect the Enduement?” in which he explains that “all Christians, by virtue of their relation to Christ, may ask and receive this enduement of power to win souls to Him,” adding that it comes “after their first faith,” and as an “instantaneous” gift. In another, “Is It a Hard Saying?” he defends his assertion that those without this power are disqualified for office in the Church. And finally, “Enduement of Power from on High” considers the conditions upon which this enduement of power can be obtained. It is a pathetic sight to observe the aged Finney after a long life of insistence that it is only by the power of truth that men can be brought to Christ, clothing at the end the evangelist himself with supernatural powers and representing him as fitted for his functions only by the possession of these supernatural powers. It is an odd instance of the invention of a supernaturally endowed priesthood to mediate between God and man, when God is not permitted Himself to act immediately on the heart; and it seems to bear witness to a deep-lying conviction in the human soul that its salvation will not be accomplished without a supernatural intervention somewhere. The pragmatic refutation of the Pelagian construction of salvation is not a mean one. It will not work; and no one really believes that it will work. The supernaturalism thrown out at the window is very apt to creep back through some chink or other.
The form given to the Oberlin doctrine of perfection in the first stage of its development did not remain its permanent form. It was distinctly taught in essentially this form, it is true, throughout his long life, by Asa Mahan, to whose influence apparently the first shaping of the doctrine was mainly due. And Henry Cowles seems never to have advanced much beyond this mode of conceiving it. But it was not long before, in its general apprehension, it suffered a sea-change which gave it a totally new character. This was due to the dominating place given in Oberlin thinking, from 1841 on, to what is called the doctrine of “the simplicity of moral action.” This was not a new doctrine. It lay, as corollary, too near to the teleological ethics inherited by Oberlin from the New England theology, for it not to have had attention drawn to it before. Frank H. Foster has shown that it is very clearly alluded to in certain arguments of Nathaniel Emmons,283 and indeed that it was already more than hinted at by Samuel Hopkins: “Every moral action is either perfectly holy or perfectly sinful.”284 It was a settled presupposition of Finney’s thought from at least the beginning of 1839, although he recalls a time when he had not yet recognized it.285 But it seems to have been left to two of the theological students at Oberlin of the class of 1842, to bring it out of comparative neglect, announce it as of primary importance, enforce it by extended reasoning, and make it a determining factor in Oberlin thinking.
It is interesting to observe the part taken by the students at Oberlin in formulating its doctrine of perfection. We have already seen that, had the students not intervened, the Oberlin professors might never have discovered that they were in fact teaching a doctrine of perfection. And we see them intervening here again to bring into full recognition and use a fundamental principle of Oberlin thinking which appeared to be in danger of being neglected. In neither instance was there a new discovery made. In both instances what we are called upon to observe is the fresh young minds of the students, in working on the material given to them, throwing up into clear view elements of necessary implication which were being left by their teachers out of sight. Finney, writing in 1847, felicitates himself on the method of instruction pursued at Oberlin, by which the students were made fellow workers with the teachers; and handsomely acknowledges the benefit he had received from his students’ activity. “I … owe not a little to my classes,” he says,286 “for I have availed myself to the uttermost of the learning and sagacity and talent of every member of my classes in pushing my investigations.” The particular members of his classes to whose sagacity he owes not indeed his knowledge of the doctrine of “the simplicity of moral action,” but its elevation to the commanding place it at once took in Oberlin thinking, were two brothers, Samuel D. and William Cochran.
It was William Cochran, a brilliant young man who afterwards served a few years as a professor at Oberlin, until cut off by an untimely death in 1847, who brought the subject into public discussion. This he did in an address delivered before the Society of Inquiry in the spring of 1841 and repeated the following autumn, at Commencement, before the Society of Alumni. Permanency was given to this address by its publication in The Oberlin Evangelist,287 and Cochran afterwards developed his views at greater length in the pages of The Oberlin Quarterly Review.288 From this time on the doctrine of “the simplicity of moral action” became a characteristic feature of Oberlin theology. The leading instructors and preachers of the time, with “the possible exception of Henry Cowles” embraced it at once; and “especially by the consistent and unvarying advocacy of President Fairchild” it was propagated through a succeeding generation as the only genuine Oberlin teaching.289
The essence of this doctrine is briefly explained by Fairchild290 as follows: “The doctrine maintains the impossibility of a divided heart in moral action. The sinner, in his sin, is utterly destitute of righteousness, and the good man, in his obedience, is completely, entirely obedient: sin on the one side and obedience, on the other belonging only to voluntary states. The division of the will between the two contradictory moral attitudes of sin and holiness is a metaphysical impossibility.” The ethical theory underlying the doctrine is here thrown into emphasis. The man is dissolved into a series of volitions. Each volition is isolated and looked at apart: and being treated as a bare volition, it is said not to be capable of a composite character. Volitions are either good or bad; and that is the end of it. But beyond the volition no man is recognized: the volition is the man, and what the volition is at any moment that the man is. As volitions are either good or bad, so then the man is. The morally grey is eliminated: only black and white are allowed to be possible. Every man is either as bad or as good as he can be in the circumstances in which he stands for the moment. There can therefore be no such thing as a partially sanctified believer; and the whole conception of progressive sanctification is excluded. “They allege,” says John C. Lord, accurately,291 “that there is no such thing as imperfect holiness, and, of course, that there is no such thing as being sanctified in part.” Over against the general doctrine of the churches which denies the existence of perfect holiness, this doctrine sets the denial of the possibility of imperfect holiness. You are either perfectly holy, or you have no holiness at all. Holiness is a thing that does not admit of abscission and division. The idea is generalized into the proposition that “holiness must be supreme in degree to have the character of holiness at all”—a proposition which might appear to mean that a little sin neutralizes any amount of holiness, but no amount of holiness can affect the quality of existing sin at all, except that the very conception of progressive holiness is excluded. The Church at any given moment is therefore not made up of redeemed sinners in various stages of perfection, but of perfectly holy and perfectly wicked people standing side by side. The two classes are not stable but may be, in the individuals which compose them, continually changing places. The perfectly holy may, and do, become at any moment the perfectly wicked: the perfectly wicked may, and do, become at any moment, the perfectly holy. The average of the mass may yield a result that looks like the partly sanctified Christian as commonly conceived. But the “average Christian” has no real existence, and the average of the mass is obtained by finding the shifting center of gravity of a mass composed actually, in varying proportions, of perfectly holy and perfectly wicked men as units. There is no room here, therefore, for two classes of Christians, with a “second conversion” lying between them. To be a Christian at all is to be perfect: and the concern of the Christian is not to grow more perfect, but to maintain the perfection which belongs to him as a Christian and in which, not into which, he grows. What, then, he seeks after is not holiness—he has that. Nor more holiness than he has—if he has any he has all. What he seeks after is “establishment.” Holiness cannot be imperfect in degree: but it can be and is imperfect in “constancy.” The doctrine has been called “the pendulum theory of moral action.” It supposes the man to oscillate between perfect goodness and perfect badness, and denies to him any abiding, permanent character.292 To one observing the current of an individual life, it may bear—as the church at large does—the aspect of the manifestation of an imperfectly sanctified nature. This is illusion: it is due to the mingling in our observation of successive states of perfect goodness and perfect badness. They do not co-exist, but alternate. The one task of the Christian is to attain a state in which the fluctuation ceases and he is permanently established in holiness.293 When that state is attained we are not merely “entirely” sanctified—that we had been, at intervals, all along—but “permanently” sanctified. That is the goal of all Christian progress—to cease from falling and remain steadily what all Christians ought to be, and indeed what all Christians are—whenever they are Christians.
The interpolation of this doctrine, as a controlling factor, into Oberlin thinking had the effect of antiquating the doctrine of perfection as previously taught at Oberlin. Cowles, it is true, simply permitted all he had written to stand as it was written—litera scripta manet. Morgan had not hitherto put his hand to the subject, and his hands were free to take up the new doctrine and work out from it as his starting point. To Mahan and Finney, who had written copiously in the earlier sense, the task was set, to adjust their even more copious later discussions to the new point of view. Mahan’s method was to accept the new doctrine of course—and to pass by it with averted face on the other side of the road. The phraseology by which Fairchild describes his relation to it is carefully chosen and is the more significant because of its apparent colorlessness. “His later writings,” he says,294 “are intended to harmonize with the doctrine.” They do not do so. It remains with him an unassimilated element of thought. Finney, on the contrary, to whom the doctrine was no stranger, entered upon the task of adjustment to it con amore. In his “Lectures on Systematic Theology”—the most extended and systematic of his writings—he has made the notion of “the simplicity of moral action” the fundamental principle of his doctrine of salvation, and as a consequence teaches, in point of fact, the perfection of all Christians from the inception of faith in them onward. This necessitates not only a readjustment of the whole trend of his “Views of Sanctification,” which he largely incorporates into the new work, but a reconstruction of his entire treatment of the way of salvation, every stage in which requires radical alteration to fit it in with the new point of view. The doctrine of sanctification to which an inordinate formal place in the systematic arrangement is already given, nevertheless actually overflows even these ample bounds and swallows up the space allowed to the other saving operations. The doctrine of salvation becomes almost nothing indeed but a doctrine of sanctification. One of the results of this is that when the formal treatment of sanctification is reached, despite the copiousness with which it is dealt with, little is left to be said of it. In this exigency the term is retained and its meaning altered. “Entire sanctification” no longer stands as the end of the saving process, as the final goal towards which the Christian’s heart yearns. That having become the characteristic of all believers from the moment of conversion, the term “sanctification” as the designation of one stage of salvation and that the most elaborately treated of all, has lost its content. As it must add something to what Christians already possess, and as all Christians—whenever they are Christians—possess “entire sanctification,” “sanctification” comes to mean “permanent sanctification.” “Sanctification,” says Finney, in a vain attempt to deal with the embarrassing situation,295 as he enters upon his discussion of “sanctification,” “may be entire in two senses: (1) In the sense of present, full obedience, or entire consecration to God; and, (2) In the sense of continued, abiding consecration or obedience to God. Entire sanctification, when the terms are used in this sense, consists in being established, confirmed, preserved, continued in a state of sanctification or of entire consecration to God. In this discussion, then, I shall use the term ‘entire sanctification’ to designate a state of confirmed, and entire consecration of body, soul, and spirit, or of the whole being to God.” As much as to say: All believers being from the very fact that they are believers entirely sanctified from the first moment of their believing, on receiving this great new gift of sanctification … will, now just stay sanctified. The goal that is set before Christians accordingly ceases to be to become entirely sanctified—that they already are if Christians at all—but to make their entire sanctification no longer fluctuating but permanent. Fairchild thinks296 that Finney has not been able to maintain his new attitude on the subject in discussion, without some lapses into his earlier point of view. That would be both natural and unimportant; and the instances adduced by Fairchild appear fairly to bear out the suggestion. But it is the new attitude which dominates the entire system of doctrine—if this can be spoken of as a new attitude for Finney and not rather a reversion to an older attitude lying behind that exhibited in what we may perhaps call his Mahan period.297 And it is this new attitude which dominated the subsequent thought of Oberlin, so long as Oberlin remained perfectionist in its thought. The older point of view which it supplanted was now thought to be not quite an Oberlin point of view; and so far as it continued to exist in Oberlin—“in limited circles” we are told—was “sustained, not by the Oberlin theology or the Oberlin teaching or preaching, but by the writings and periodicals and teachings introduced from abroad, especially of the Wesleyan school.”298 To the Wesleyan period of Oberlin Perfectionism there succeeded, then, from 1841 on, a period of very distinctively Oberlin Perfectionism. And the characteristic feature of this new Oberlin Perfectionism is that it is the product of the conception known as “the simplicity of moral action.”
Finney formally expounds his conception of “the simplicity of moral action” in a chapter in the “Lectures on Systematic Theology.”299 He takes his start from the contention that all moral character resides in the ultimate choice; and as this ultimate choice dominates all subordinate choices, volitions and acts, it dominates the whole life. The moral character of the ultimate choice thus gives its moral character to the entire life. As now the ultimate choice is simple and its moral character is simple, a man must be morally just what his ultimate choice is morally. That ultimate choice must be wholly moral or wholly immoral; entirely holy or entirely sinful. A man must be therefore altogether holy or altogether sinful; there are no gradations, no intermixtures, no intermediations. Every man is therefore at any given moment perfectly sinful or perfectly holy.300 If his ultimate end is selfishness, he is perfectly sinful; if his ultimate end is benevolence, he is perfectly holy. There is no third condition. “Sin and holiness, then, both consist in supreme, ultimate, and opposite choices or intentions, and cannot, by any possibility, coëxist.”301 It is not intended that our holiness, or sinfulness, is as great as, in other circumstances than those in which we exist, it might be. It is only intended that it is complete and entire and as great as in our actual circumstances it can be. The holiness of God cannot be attained by a man; nor that of an angel; nor can even that of a man better placed be attained by one in lower circumstances. What holiness, or sin, is in anyone, is determined by his knowledge, by “the perceived value” of the objects of his choice. “The true spirit of the requirement of the moral law is this—that every moral being shall choose every interest according to its value as perceived by the mind.”302 “The fact is that the obligation of every moral being must be graduated by his knowledge. If, therefore, his intention be equal in its intensity to his views or knowledge of the real or relative value of different objects, it is right. It is up to the full measure of his obligation.”303 A man may thus be entirely holy extensively—that is, conformed to the law as known to him, or willing things according to their respective values as perceived by him—without being very holy intensively. He is, being such, altogether holy.
This is, obviously, only one way of lowering the demands of the law. Indeed, in one aspect, there can scarcely be said to be any such thing as the law in the case. Law is replaced by benevolence, and is fulfilled by willing the good of being as an ultimate end, chosen for its own sake. It is taught that all subordinate ends, and the executive volitions which secure them, not only ought to be, but must be and will be, determined by this ultimate end. So long as we really will the good of being as our ultimate end, we cannot make subordinate choices which are means to other ends. A law of mental nature gives dominion to our ultimate end. Having once adopted this ultimate end, our lives in all their details are absolutely determined by it. The mechanism of moral action makes that inevitable. We therefore would seem to need no law. Our ultimate choice of the good of being becomes a law which governs all our activities. It would seem to follow also that we cannot sin. Does not the mechanism of moral action determine that—working back from the ultimate choice of the good of being to the subordinate choices and executive volitions and their execution in acts? But Finney falters here.304 We cannot sin so long as our ultimate choice of the good of being remains unchanged.305 But we may change that, and in many cases we do change that. And then we not only can sin and do sin, but must sin and do nothing but sin. We have ceased to be perfectly holy and become perfectly sinful. So long as our ultimate end remains the good of being, our whole life in all its activities is determined by it. We are entirely holy. So soon as our ultimate end ceases to be the good of being and becomes our own selfish gratification, our whole life in all its activities is determined by it. We are entirely sinful. This is the doctrine of the simplicity of moral action as conceived by Finney.
It will be perceived at once that what we called the characterizing features of the older form of Oberlin Perfectionism in point of fact persist in this new construction. Perfection is still conceived as full obedience to the moral law. And full obedience to the moral law is still measured not by the objective content of the law, but by the subjective ability of the agent. It is still taught with all emphasis that a man is perfect who does all he can do, being what he is; with the disabilities belonging, we would say, to his present moral state; they would say to his present condition of ignorance and weakness; and in the circumstances with which he is surrounded.306 Beyond this narrow area of fundamental agreement, however, all is contradiction. This state of perfection in which the whole law of God is obeyed—so far as the agent, being what he is and as he is, can obey it—is no longer conceived as the culminating attainment of the Christian, to be reached, not by all Christians, but by some only, the élite of the Christian body, separated from the crowd precisely by this great attainment. It is conceived as the primary condition of all other Christian attainments, presupposed in every step of Christian living, and therefore the common possession of all Christians, without which no man is a Christian at all. We are no longer supposed to become perfect by being Christians, and pushing our Christianity to its limits; we become Christians by being perfect and it is only through the gate of perfection that we can enter Christianity at all. All Christians are then perfect: one is not more perfect than another: ex vi verbi an imperfect Christian is no Christian at all. There are therefore not two classes of Christians, the merely justified and the justified and sanctified also: no one is justified who is not also sanctified. Sanctification is not a sequence of justification, but its condition; and therefore precedes it. We are not justified in order that we may be sanctified, but sanctified in order that we may be justified. There are only two classes of men, saints and sinners; and the difference between these classes is “radical, fundamental and complete.” There is no room for a third class between them partaking of characteristics of both. The sinner has nothing of the saint about him; the saint nothing of the sinner. The saint is dead to sin and alive to God; and “the Bible … often speaks in such strong language as almost to compel us to understand it as denying that the saints sin at all; or to conclude, that sinning at all, proves that one is not a saint.”307 Is there not some faltering in that “almost”? Justification, we are told, is conditioned by sanctification, and implies complete sanctification—for God cannot accept as righteous one who is only “almost” righteous. According to the doctrine taught accordingly, all saints are entirely sanctified, are perfect, and do not sin. If they sin, that does not prove so much that they have not been saints, as that they are saints no longer. They may sin, but on sinning they cease to be saints. There are no remainders of sin in any Christian therefore to be eradicated. He is already on becoming a Christian all that he ought to be. Perfection lies behind him, not before. What lies before is only his establishment in his perfection that he may no longer fall from it; that and a growth in outlook which carries with it a corresponding growth in obligation and its fulfilment. Perfect however he already is, perfect for his present outlook and according to his present obligations; and more than perfect he cannot become.
It is obvious that one of the chief tasks which devolved on the advocates of this new form of Oberlin Perfectionism was the validation of the assumption that only those who are perfect can have any standing whatever in the sight of God. This task was undertaken from the Biblical point of view by John Morgan, who devoted to it the first of the two essays he published in The Oberlin Quarterly Review for 1845—the essay to which he gave the title of “The Holiness Acceptable to God.” This essay was so highly esteemed by Finney that he incorporated it as a whole in his “Lectures on Systematic Theology”308—thus making it a part of his own argument in support of the contention that “sanctification is the condition of justification.” By this contention, he says, “the following things are intended. (1) That present, full, and entire consecration of heart and life to God and his service is an unalterable condition of present pardon of past sin, and of present acceptance with God. (2) That the penitent soul remains justified no longer than this fullhearted consecration continues.”309 It will no doubt be observed that Finney replaces here the term “sanctification” of the original statement, by its synonym, “consecration.” This is a frequent interchange of terms with him and has no significance for the matter in hand. By sanctification he means, under either designation, just “full obedience to the known law of God.”310 Morgan himself puts the question which he undertakes to answer thus: “Is any degree of holiness acceptable to God, which, for the time being, falls short of full obedience to the divine law?”,311 and phrases his answer in the equally uncompromising terms: “Nothing short of present entire conformity to the divine law is accepted of God.”312 In employing the phrases “acceptable to God,” “accepted of God,” he is not speaking abstractly of what we might suppose to be generally pleasing to God; but with perfect definiteness of the specific act which is commonly called justification—of what God requires in order to that special act of accepting man as righteous in His sight. In order more clearly to explain his meaning, he uses accordingly such language as “the holiness” enjoined “as a condition of justification before God”;313 “the supposition that the entire subjugation of sin is indispensable to justification.”314 The ultimate foundation of the essay is denial of imputed righteousness, and with it, of course, of the vicarious obedience of Christ; and the discovery of the righteousness on the ground of which God accepts man as righteous, in man himself. The contention made is that God demands a perfect righteousness and man provides it: the situation thus created being eased only by defining benevolently what perfect righteousness requires in each stage of human moral development. Although, however, justification is very definitely in mind, the discussion is framed so as to cover a wider field, and what is sought is declared to be the determination of the degree of holiness which alone is acceptable to God—at the moment of justification of course, but also continuously thereafter. “We put the question into the most general form,” we read, “intending it to apply to both the accepted holiness of the new-born soul and the holiness of the most mature Christian.”315 We cannot be accepted by God without this holiness; neither, having been accepted by Him, can we remain accepted save this holiness be maintained. It is supposed that those accepted by God in justification may not remain acceptable to Him, and may therefore fall out of that acceptance which is justification—to which they can be restored again only by becoming again acceptable. Only the perfect are acceptable to God; if we lose our perfection we lose our acceptance; but a recovery of perfection recovers also acceptance. The two things, perfection and acceptance, go together, and are inseparable.
On the basis of this exposition Morgan now asserts that texts of Scripture which prove or appear to prove that converted persons sometimes sin, in no way embarrass his doctrine.316 Of course, if converted persons sin, they are no longer acceptable to God. They must cease to sin to become again acceptable to Him. He admits that it would be fatal to His view, “if it could be made out that the Scriptures represent the. saints as constantly sinful.” He can allow for a passing back and forward between saintliness and sinfulness; which would be a passing in and out of acceptability, and in and out of that actual acceptance which is justification. But he cannot allow that one who sins can continue acceptable to God, or accepted by Him, that is, justified. No one can be accepted by God who has not ceased to sin; and no one can remain accepted by God except as he continues without sin. It is no refutation of this contention, Morgan says, to show that Christians sometimes sin: it can be refuted only by showing that they are always sinful: sinful, of course, with a voluntary sinfulness, since there is no sinfulness which is not voluntary. “The language of the law plainly shows that it concerns itself with nothing else than the voluntary inward state or actions of men.” “Nor is there any depravity, corruption, bias, evil nature, or any thing else of whatever name, with which it is offended or displeased, in man or devil, except the voluntary exclusion of love, or the indulgence of its opposite. Disobedience on the one hand, and obedience on the other, are the only moral entities known to the Scriptures, or of which the law of God takes the least cognizance. It demands nothing but cordial obedience—it forbids nothing but cordial disobedience.”317 This cordial obedience is perfection and less than this cannot be accepted by God. “Is it the Bible doctrine, that if a man will put away the greater part of his sin, God will, for Christ’s sake, forgive him the whole?” No; the Scriptures always conjoin repentance with remission, and repentance is nothing but abandonment, and remission cannot be broader than abandonment. To suppose otherwise would be to make Christ “the enemy of the law and the minister of sin.”318
This teaching, Morgan now says,319 is not justification by works. It is “gratuitous justification by faith”—because our righteousness on the ground of which alone we are, or can be, acceptable to God—and therefore are accepted by Him—lays no ground in right for a claim upon Him for pardon of our past sins. Finney seeks the same result by merely drawing a distinction between condition and ground. Our righteousness is the condition, not the ground of the pardon of our past sins, and acceptance with God. The ground of our pardon is to be sought only in the pure clemency of God: but God exercises this clemency only on the condition that we shall perfectly obey His law. If we will perfectly obey His law, we become acceptable to Him, and He will graciously pardon our past sins. Not our future sins: if we commit any future sins we lose our standing in His favor and can recover it again only by again becoming perfectly obedient to His law, when these new sins, now become past sins, will also be pardoned. Our acceptance with God thus, now and always, is conditioned upon, though not grounded in, our complete obedience to the law.
Whether this distinction between ground and condition can be made to serve the purpose for which Finney invokes it, may admit of some question. Finney lays great stress upon it. There is but one “ground” or “fundamental reason,” he says,320 of our justification; and that is “the disinterested and infinite love of God.” But there are many “conditions,” that is to say sine-qua-nons, without which justification cannot take place; “men are not justified for these things, but they cannot be justified without them.” This is understood by George Duffield—and Finney says with substantial accuracy—to mean that these are not things which must be performed in order to entitle us to justification, but only invariable “concomitants” of our justification.321 In this sense Finney represents the atonement of Christ, repentance, faith in the atonement, sanctification, to be “conditions” of justification. He puts them on the same line: one of them is no more a ground, one of them is no less a condition, of justification than the others. He distinguishes, it is true, between present and future justification, but does not “conditionate” the one on repentance and faith and the other on sanctification; but the one on “present” repentance and faith and sanctification, and the other on “future” repentance and faith and sanctification. Justification and sanctification are thus no doubt made invariable concomitants. But does “concomitance” fully express their relation to one another? If it did, it would seem that sanctification would be as much “conditionated” on justification as justification on sanctification. But Finney is not only explicit but emphatic to the contrary. It is to him only an error of “some theologians” to make “justification a condition of sanctification, instead of making sanctification a condition of justification.”322 You can have sanctification without justification, but not justification without sanctification. This is a very one-sided concomitance, and means that the relation of sanctification to justification is not that of real concomitance, but of causal condition. Finney, it is true, denies with all energy that it is the proper “ground” of justification. “I think I may safely say,” says he,323 “that I never for a moment, at any period of my Christian life, held that man’s own obedience or righteousness was the ground of his justification before God. I always held and strenuously maintained the direct opposite of this.” Quite so. According to his own definition of terms, there is but one “ground or fundamental reason” of justification—that is God’s ineffable love. And we all proclaim, of course, with one voice, that out of the love of God alone comes that movement of His grace, the outcome of which is our justification. Only one “ground,” then, in this sense. But there are “conditions,” says Finney, in the absence of which God’s love does not issue in justification, and which are therefore the proper grounds of His love manifesting itself in this particular mode of action. Finney says emphatically that there are four such “conditions.” He clearly does not mean merely that justification is always found in company with these four things. He means that it occurs only in sequence to these four things. No atonement, no justification; but not in the same sense no justification, no atonement. No repentance and faith, no justification; but not in the same sense, no justification, no repentance and faith. No sanctification, no justification; but not in the same sense no justification, no sanctification. There is a relation here of precedence and sequence; of cause and consequence. Justification depends on these things, its occurrence is suspended on them; as they do not depend on it, their occurrence is not suspended on it. And that carries with it that justification depends on, is suspended on, “man’s own obedience or righteousness.”
It is instructive to observe what Finney asseverates that he “holds, and expressly teaches,” that the grounds of justification are not, set as they are in contrast with the one thing, the love of God, which he declares that the ground of justification is. The ground of justification he asseverates324 is not (1) the obedience of Christ for us; (2) our own obedience either to the law or to the gospel; (3) the atonement of Christ; (4) anything in the mediatorial work of Christ; (5) the work of the Holy Spirit in us. It is not anything that either Christ or we have done; and it is not anything that we have done or have become under the operations of the Spirit. It is solely the divine benevolence. The Atonement, from the point of view of the Rectoral theory, which Finney teaches, naturally has no adaptation to serve immediately as the ground of any act of God. Its only immediate effect is to bring men to repentance and faith; and thus the entire work of Christ is reduced to inducing men to repent and believe. It is not so clear, however, that the repentance and faith to which men are thus brought, together with their resultant obedience, do not constitute the proper ground of their justification in this scheme. No doubt “the fundamental reason” of justification lies in the love of God: nothing is required, in this scheme, to enable the benevolent God to forgive sin—it flows spontaneously out of His benevolence alone. But the benevolent God is not free to act on this scheme out of His benevolence alone. He has tied Himself up with governmental obligations. The love of God cannot fulfil itself in the actual justification of sinners, therefore, consistently with His governmental obligations, except in the case of those who have been brought by the Atonement (serving the purposes here of punishment) to repentance and faith, with the consequent amendment of life which is sanctification. This “reformation of life” is obviously in such a sense the “condition” of justification that it may properly be called its ground. It is not the ground of God’s impulse to justify, but it is the ground of God’s actually justifying, the sinner. In it the manifestation of His love to this or that particular sinner is grounded. It is the ground of justification in the same sense in which the righteousness of Christ—active and passive—is in the Reformation doctrine of justification, namely, that in view of which God pardons the sins of those whom He justifies and accepts as righteous in His sight. When Finney strenuously argues that God can accept as righteous no one who is not intrinsically righteous, it cannot be denied that he teaches a work-salvation, and has put man’s own righteousness in the place occupied in the Reformation doctrine of justification by the righteousness of Christ.
Finney, it must be confessed, exhibits no desire to conceal from himself the seriousness of his departure from the Reformation teaching in his doctrine of justification. One of the reasons for his constant insistence that the righteousness of man—no less than the atoning work of Christ—is only a condition, not the ground, of justification, is to escape from all implication of a forensic doctrine of justification. He fairly rages against this forensic doctrine. “Now,” he exclaims of it,325 “this is certainly another gospel from the one I am inculcating. It is not a difference merely upon some speculative or theoretic point. It is a point fundamental to the gospel and to salvation, if any one can be.” It is with full consciousness, therefore, that he ranges himself over against the doctrine of the Reformation, as teaching “another gospel.” And the precise point on which his opposition turns is that the Reformation doctrine, by interposing an imputation of the righteousness of Christ as the ground on which the sinner is accepted as righteous, does not require perfect intrinsic righteousness as the condition precedent of justification. This he cries out against as a doctrine of justification “in sin.” “It certainly can not be true,” he declares,326 “that God accepts and justifies the sinner in his sins. I may safely challenge the world for either reason or scripture to support the doctrine of justification in sin, in any degree of present rebellion against God. The Bible every where represents justified persons as sanctified and always expressly, or impliedly, conditionates justification upon sanctification, in the sense of present obedience to God.” “Present, full, and entire consecration of heart and life to God and his service,” he says again,327 “is an unalterable condition of present pardon of past sin, and of present acceptance with God”; and “the penitent soul remains justified no longer than this full-hearted consecration continues.” At an earlier point328 he lays down the proposition that God cannot in any sense “justify one who does not yield a present and full obedience to the moral law,” and, pouring scorn on any “method of justification” which does not presuppose such an obedience, exclaims,329 “What good can result to God, or the sinner, or to the universe by thus pardoning and justifying an unsanctified soul?” “If what has been said is true,” he then remarks,330 “we see that the Church has fallen into a great and ruinous mistake, in supposing that a state of present sinlessness is a very rare, if not an impossible, attainment in this life. If the doctrine of this lecture be true, it follows that the very beginning of true religion in the soul, implies the renunciation of all sin. Sin ceases where holiness begins.” And he closes with an invective against those who object to such as “teach, that God justifies no one, but upon condition of present sinlessness”—than which we could have no more precise assertion that justification proceeds on the presupposition of sinlessness. The attainment of sinlessness with Finney is the first, not the last step of the religious life.
It certainly required some temerity for Finney to “challenge the world” to adduce any Scripture to support what he calls “the doctrine of justification in sin, in any degree of present rebellion against God.”331 Paul might seem to have written a great part of his epistles expressly to provide materials for meeting this challenge. One wonders how such language could have been employed by one who had in mind, say, Rom. 3:21 ff., which is quoted in this very connection. For it is Paul’s direct object in this passage to show that men, being incapable of justification from the point of view of their relation to law-works—Finney’s “entire conformity to law”—are nevertheless graciously justified by God, in view of what Christ has done in their behalf—which is clearly an assertion of the substitution and imputation which Finney rejects with repugnance. Precisely what Paul says in the cardinal verses (23, 24) is that “all”—a very emphatic “all,” declaring what is true of all believers without exception—that “all have sinned”—the view-point being taken from their present state as believers—“all have sinned and know themselves to be without the approbation of God”—the present tense, middle voice, declaring a lack of which they were conscious—“and are therefore justified freely, by His grace, by means of the ransoming which is in Christ Jesus”—the ransoming wrought out in Christ Jesus being the means by which it has been brought about that God can proceed to justify sinners, conscious of their sin, gratuitously; the idea of the gratuitousness of the justification receiving the emphasis of repetition: “freely, by His grace.” It is distinctly asserted here that those justified are sinners, and are conscious of standing as such under the condemnation of God at the moment when they are justified; that their justification is not in any sense in accordance with their deserving, but is very distinctly gratuitous, and proceeds from the grace of God alone; and that God can act in this gracious fashion toward them only because He has laid a foundation for it in the ransoming which He has wrought out in Christ. And the Apostle declares that this is true of all who are justified, without exception. In the most explicit language he has just declared that no flesh shall be justified by law-works—that if it is a question of presenting ourselves before God “in entire conformity to the law,” every mouth is stopped and the whole world stands under the condemnation of God (3:19); and that the only hope of men accordingly lies in the provision by God of a righteousness which is apart from law, and is received through faith in Christ. And now he says that, having provided this righteousness in Christ, God, in view of it, justifies gratuitously those incapable of justification on their own account, that is to say, just sinners. If this is not a justification “in sin”—or as Finney expresses it somewhat more fully,332 “while yet at least in some degree of sin”—it would be hard to say what is. Another mode of speech employed by Finney is, “while personally in the commission of sin.” As with him “all sin is sinning,” and there is no sin conceivable except the “personal commission of sin,” all these phrases are completely synonymous with him, and what he contends for is the complete cessation of sinning on the part of the person about to be justified. There being no such thing as “constitutional depravity,” this leaves him perfectly holy. And it is Finney’s contention that it is only he who is in this condition, a condition of “personal, present holiness,” in the sense of course of “entire conformity to the law”—for there is no constitutional holiness, either—who can be justified. We must have ceased to sin—and that means we must be sinless—before we can be justified. We are pronounced righteous, because we are personally righteous. We are looked upon as in entire conformity to the law, because we are in entire conformity to the law. This is the precise contradiction of Paul’s teaching, according to which we have no righteousness of our own—a righteousness which is of law—but only a righteousness which is by faith in Christ, a righteousness which comes from God on faith (Phil. 3:9).
It ought not to pass without explicit mention—although it has repeatedly been incidentally adverted to already—that Finney makes not only sanctification—entire conformity to the moral law—but also perseverance a condition of justification. “Perseverance in faith and obedience, or in consecration to God,” he says,333 “is also an unalterable condition of justification, or of pardon and acceptance with God.” He means, of course, that it is a condition “not of present, but of final or ultimate acceptance and salvation.” Thus instead of looking upon perseverance as dependent on justification, he looks upon the continuance of justification as dependent on perseverance. In the Biblical doctrine the sinner, being justified, receives the Spirit of holiness, through whose prevalent operations he perseveres to the end. According to Finney the justified person remains justified so long as he perseveres in the obedience which is the condition of his justification. In the Biblical view it is God, in Finney’s it is man, who determines the issue: the whole standpoint assumed by Finney is that of a God responsive to human actions, rather than that of a man operated upon by divine grace. Justification is made, therefore, to follow and depend upon “present full obedience,” “entire sanctification,” “moral perfection,” and to endure only so long as they endure. We have accordingly such amazing forms of speech as these: The Christian “is justified no further than he obeys, and must be condemned when he disobeys”; “When the Christian sins, he must repent and do his first works or he will perish.” On every sin the Christian is condemned and must incur the penalty of the law of God—that is to say, the Christian on every sin falls out of justification, comes back under the condemnation of the broken law, and must begin the saving process over again, de novo. Such passages as Rom. 5:1, 9, 8:1, 31 ff., have had no influence on this theory whatever. The Christian, having been justified, is not at peace with God; he is not assured that, having been justified by Christ’s blood, he will certainly be saved from the wrath by Him; he does not know that, since he is in Christ Jesus, there is no possible condemnation for him, and nothing can snatch him from his Saviour’s hands. The point of view exploited carries with it, as George Duffield points out,334 an odd confusion between the categories of punishment and chastisement. In the place of the dispensation of painful discipline in which the Christian, in his lapses, is represented by Scripture as living, Finney subjects him, on every lapse, to the ultimate penalties of the outraged law. He sees nothing between the perfect obedience due to God and the absolute rejection of the divine authority in high-handed disobedience; between the perfect child of God and God’s declared enemy: an imperfect Christian becomes a contradiction in terms; for so soon as the Christian becomes imperfect he ceases to be a Christian—he has fallen from grace, returned to the world, and requires to do his first works over again. In attempting to reply to these strictures of Duffield’s, Finney says nothing to the purpose. He only plays with the words pardon and penalty, justification and condemnation. How can Christians be pardoned once for all, and yet their emerging sins still need pardoning—or do they not need pardoning? If a Christian commits a sin—is not that sin condemnable and condemned? If a sinning Christian suffers an infliction due to his sin, is not that a penalty? What is the use of playing with words? Use any words you choose, and it remains true—at least in the opinion of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (12:7 ff.)—that there are grievous inflictions which come from a Father’s hands and prove that we are not outcasts but sons: which do not argue therefore our condemnation but our acceptance.
The closing paragraph of Finney’s lecture on Justification335 is given the form of a detached “Remark.” Its purpose is to show that what he calls the “old school view of justification” is a necessary result of the “old school view” of depravity: that given the one, and the other, by necessary steps, must follow. “Constitutional depravity or sinfulness being once assumed, physical regeneration, physical sanctification, physical divine influence, imputed righteousness, and justification, while personally in the commission of sin, follow of course.” This is all very true. Granted the Augustinian doctrine of sin and the Augustinian soteriology becomes a necessity, if sinners are to be saved. Our interest in it for the moment arises from the evidence it affords that Finney was perfectly well aware that his own series of opposing doctrines constituted a concatenated system, rooted in his denial of innate depravity. Out of his Pelagian doctrine of sin he had been compelled to construct a whole corresponding soteriology, and he was perfectly aware that it stood contradictorily over against the Augustinian at every point. Rejecting “constitutional depravity,” that is to say, a sinfulness which goes deeper than the act and affects the “nature” itself, he has no need of any “physical” regeneration, sanctification, divine influence, and accordingly rejects them too: and as there is no reason why the sinner who is a sinner only in act and is endowed with an inalienable plenary ability to do all that he is under obligation to do, should not under the motives brought to bear on him in the gospel, cease sinning at will, and do righteousness, so there is no need of a righteousness of Christ to supply his lack; and none is provided and none imputed—the sinner’s acceptance with God hangs solely on his own self-wrought righteousness.
There is a single sentence on another page into which Finney compresses one of the most systematic of his statements of his doctrine of justification, especially in its relation to the work of Christ. It will repay us to consider its phraseology closely. This is it:336 “In consideration of Christ’s having by his death for sinners secured the subjects of the Divine government against a misconception of his character and designs, God does, upon the further conditions of a repentance and faith, that imply a renunciation of their rebellion and a return to obedience to his laws, freely pardon past sin, and restore the penitent and believing sinner to favour, as if he had not sinned, while he remains penitent and believing, subject however to condemnation and eternal death, unless he holds the beginning of his confidence steadfast unto the end.” According to this statement justification consists in pardon and acceptance, and is obtained by repentance and faith. This repentance and faith is defined as such a repentance and faith as imply the sinner’s renunciation of his rebellion and return to obedience to God’s laws—a manifest meiosis in which the word “imply” must be read, in accordance with the entire extended discussion, in a high sense. From all that appears this pregnantly conceived faith and repentance is the sinner’s own work and is so completely in his own power that, as he has himself provided it, so he can himself withdraw it; and his continuance in the pardon and acceptance which he obtains by it depends absolutely on his maintenance of it. All that Christ has to do with the whole transaction is that by his death he secures “the subjects of the Divine government against a misconception” of God’s “character and designs,” and thus so far protects them against expecting relief in impossible ways. His work is given thus purely the character of revelation, and is directed to and affects of course man alone. It can affect the action of God only through the effect which it produces on men’s mental attitude. It is therefore really not Christ’s work but the attitude of men brought about by it, to which God has respect in pardoning and accepting sinners. Because Christ has secured men against a fatal misconception of God’s character and designs, God can pardon and accept sinners—provided that they reform. From all that appears Christ’s work has nothing more to do with bringing about their reformation than it has to do with God’s pardon and acceptance of them on their reformation. Their reformation is presented only as a second condition, and we may add the only proper condition, of their pardon and acceptance. All that Christ has done is to secure them against walking in wrong paths and that only by making known to them that there are wrong paths. That they walk in the right path is their own doing. If they do, God then pardons and accepts them—for as long as they do.
The theory of the Atonement briefly indicated here is of course the common Rectoral theory, presented, not in its best form, it is true, but yet in its essentials as it is commonly presented by its advocates. How it lay in Finney’s mind may be learned in its outlines from such a statement as this.337 “The Godhead desired to save sinners, but could not safely do so without danger to the universe, unless something was done to satisfy public, not retributive justice. The atonement was resorted to as a means of reconciling forgiveness with the wholesome administration of justice.” In the extended discussions, however, something is done to mitigate the arbitrariness of the transaction thus baldly outlined. An attempt is made to show that the provision of an atonement was incumbent on God as the moral governor of the world. A more sustained attempt is made to show that in view of this atonement it is incumbent on God to forgive reformed sinners and receive them into His favor. And some attempt is made to show that the atonement is the producing cause of that reformation, which is the condition of God’s pardon of sinners and reception of them into His favor.
“In establishing the government of the universe,” Finney tells us,338 “God had given the pledge, both impliedly and expressly, that he would regard the public interests, and by a due administration of the law, secure and promote, as far as possible, public and individual happiness.” This pledging of Himself to observe public justice in the administration of the universe, did not, it is true, commit Him directly to the provision of an atonement. Public justice requires directly only an even-handed administration of rewards and punishments. Yet, as “an atonement … would more fully meet the necessities of government, and act as a more efficient preventive of sin, and a more powerful persuasive to holiness, than the infliction of the legal penalty would do,”339 it may be fairly thought that its provision was incumbent on a God, seeking under His governmental pledge “the highest good of the public.”340 What is here called an atonement is anything which “will as fully evince the lawgiver’s regard for his law, his determination to support it, his abhorrence of all violations of its precepts, and withal guard as effectually against the inference, that violators of the precept might expect to escape with impunity, as the execution of the penalty would do.”341 Whatever will do this will “as effectually secure the public interests” and therefore “as fully satisfy public justice,” as the infliction of their proper penalties on offenders; and such an atonement having been offered, “public justice demands, that the execution of the penalty shall be dispensed with by extending pardon to the criminal.”342 The pardon of the offender thus becomes incumbent on God. Finney indeed inserts a condition—a very necessary condition—in his fuller statements, and thus avoids making it incumbent on God to pardon all offenders. This condition is—the repentance of the offender. “When these conditions are fulfilled, and the sinner has returned to obedience, public justice not only admits, but absolutely demands, that the penalty shall be set aside by extending pardon to the offender. The offender still deserves to be punished, and upon the principles of retributive justice, might be punished according to his deserts. But the public good admits and requires that upon the above conditions he should live, and hence, public justice, in compliance with the public interests and the spirit of the law of love, spares and pardons him.”343
How the fulfilment of this condition is brought about is left somewhat at loose ends. It is usual with the advocates of the Rectoral scheme to link the work of Christ so closely with the reformation of men, as to constitute this its direct aim and effect, and indeed, to speak exactly, the atoning act itself. Finney does not appear to do this. He does, to be sure, argue that the atonement tends to produce this amendment of life—although he chooses to call it a condition only of the pardon and acceptance which results, and not their immediate ground. It presents “overpowering motives to repentance,” he says,344 and “the highest possible motives to virtue”; and it is “the great and only means of sanctifying sinners.” But he does not appear to give the same systematic place to this effect of the atonement that is given to it by most advocates of the Rectoral theory. The reformation of the sinner, which with him, too, really constitutes the atoning act, seems to be thought of by him, at least relatively, independently of the work of Christ. When accomplished, the sinner, reformed though still guilty, is accepted as righteous in God’s sight. This “entire consecration of the heart to God in view of all that the atonement signifies” is the same thing as what is called by Finney the sinner’s regeneration, explained as consisting in a change of ultimate choice, accomplished, under the merely persuasive influence of the Spirit, by his own free will.
An impression is left in the mind of the reader by Finney’s exposition of the relations of retribution and public justice that God is supposed, on assuming the duties of governor of the world, to have been compelled to subordinate—as many less absolute governors have been compelled to do—the law of absolute right to the demands of public interest; and does not attempt to administer the universe on any higher principle than the general “public good,” meanwhile closing His ears altogether to the absolute imperative of pure conscience. It may be admitted that in the elaborate discrimination which is drawn out between “retributive justice” and “public justice,” it is fairly shown that what is called “public justice” does not demand so strict a regard to abstract right and wrong as does “retributive justice”; and therefore that God if He were acting merely on the principle of “public justice” need not be supposed to be meticulously careful of the absolutely right. But that God in His moral government of the world proceeds solely on this “public justice” and has regard only to “public interest,” it need not be said, Finney has not shown in the least. Even though it may be said that “public justice” demands only so and so, it by no means follows that God who is the governor of the world will be governed solely by that consideration. To say that “sin deserves punishment,—and must be punished—it is right, per se, and therefore forgiveness is wrong, per se,” Finney rather plaintively declares, would “thus set aside the plan of salvation.”345 It does set aside the “plan of salvation” as conceived by him; a plan of salvation which has no place in it for expiation of sin, and supposes that God is looking around for a plausible excuse for forgiving all sin, the social effect of which can be neutralized. But it is the one basis of the plan of salvation of the Bible, the heart of the heart of which is expiation, and which represents God as sheerly unable to forgive sin on any other ground whatever.
 Reprinted from The Princeton Theological Review, xix. 1921, pp. 451–493; cf. Benjamin B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Perfectionism, Part Two, 125–165. https://faithsaves.net.
272 “The Baptism of the Holy Ghost,” pp. 124–125.
273 “Out of Darkness into Light,” pp. 13–15.
274 Ibid., pp. 104–105.
275 “Autobiography,” pp. 244–245.
276 “Out of Darkness into Light,” pp. 267–268.
277 Pp. 268–270.
278 P. 270.
279 Pp. 128–129.
280 P. 130.
281 The Congregational Quarterly, April, 1876, pp. 241–242.
282 “Out of Darkness into Light,” p. 271.
283 “A Genetic History of the New England Theology,” pp. 463–464.
285 John C. Lord, The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, April, 1841, pp. 238–239, expounds the doctrine on the basis of a passage from The Oberlin Evangelist, i. 1839, p. 42, where Finney says that he was himself formerly of the opinion that an “exercise might be put forth, in view of several motives,” or partake of “the complex character of the motives that produced it,” but is now persuaded that “this philosophy is false.” His present view is expressed thus: “It seems to be a very general opinion, that there is such a thing as imperfect obedience to God, (i.e.) as it respects one and the same act.… But I cannot see how an imperfect obedience, relating to one and the same act, can be possible. Imperfect obedience! What can be meant by this, but disobedient obedience! a sinful holiness. Now, to decide the character of any act, we are to bring it into the light of the law of God. If agreeable to this law, it is obedience—it is right—wholly right. If it is, in any respect, different from what the law of God requires, it is disobedience—it is wrong—wholly wrong.” Lord’s own summary of Finney’s teaching is admirable: “He admits that obedience may be imperfect in respect to its constancy, but never in regard to degree; and insists that if a Christian, at any given moment, has any holiness, it must be perfect both in kind and degree, and the individual of course, for the time being, wholly sanctified. The whole scope of the argument amounts to this: that the soul is nothing but its exercises: that there are no permanent dispositions; that character is what the exercises of the individual, at any given moment, may happen to be, and that these fluctuating states are always perfect for good or evil, both in kind and degree.”
286 “Lectures on Systematic Theology,” ii. 1847, p. v.
287 For 1842, pp. 33 ff., 41 ff. An abstract of the address and an estimate of its teaching are given by Foster, “A Genetic History of the New England Theology,” pp. 459–463.
288 See in general Fairchild, The Congregational Quarterly, April, 1876, pp. 247 ff.
289 We are summarizing the accounts of Fairchild and Foster, as cited. The final words are justified by such a turn of phrase as this, from the pen of Fairchild (p. 249): “The idea, then, of rising from a partial to a complete obedience, from imperfect to perfect faith and love, in the sense in which these are voluntary and responsible acts or states to be required of men, is incompatible with the idea of simplicity of moral action, and hence is not admissible in the Oberlin Theology.” The italics are ours.
290 As cited, p. 248.
291 As cited, p. 238.
292 Cf. Foster, as cited, p. 460, and the quotation from Cochran there. Cf. also Lord, as cited, p. 239.
293 Fairchild, as cited, p. 249: “The work required in Christian progress is … establishment of Christian character, and more and more complete deliverance from these interruptions of obedience,—an obedience more and more constant until it becomes permanent and suffers no interruption.”
294 As cited, p. 254.
295 “Lectures on Systematic Theology,” 1851, p. 595. Cf. Fairchild, as cited, p. 256.
296 As cited, pp. 256–259.
297 Fairchild’s opinion (p. 259) is different. He thinks Finney has not only not “adjusted his views of sanctification to his accepted doctrine as to the nature of moral action,” but that “the treatise, in almost all its features, belongs to a system of theology maintaining mixed action.” Finney is not an eminently consistent writer and in the matter of “the simplicity of moral action,” Fairchild is very exigent.
298 Fairchild, as cited, p. 259.
299 Ed. 1, i. 1846, pp. 150 ff.; ed. 2, 1851, pp. 135 ff. We quote from the latter.
300 Cf. p. 286 (also pp. 294, 296): “Moral agents are at all times either as holy or as sinful as with their knowledge, they can be.”
301 P. 141.
302 P. 140.
303 P. 144.
304 See below p. 147, and note 307.
305 In his “Lectures on Systematic Theology,” 1851, p. 261 Finney says: “The carnal heart or mind cannot but sin.… The new or regenerate heart cannot sin.” He explains the latter statement thus: “While benevolence remains, the mind’s whole activity springs from it as from a fountain,”—and appeals to “Make the tree good, etc.” In that case we need to ask How, then, can benevolence help remaining? If while it remains all our activity springs from it as from a fountain, how can it be transmuted into its contradictory? We cannot sin so long as it remains, and it remains so long as we do not sin—for have we not sinned, and sinned the master sin of all sin, when we have ceased to make benevolence our ultimate end? We can change our master motive only by changing our ultimate end, and surely we cannot change our ultimate end under its own controlling influence which extends over all our voluntary activity. We must sin while benevolence remains in order to rid ourselves of the benevolence under the control of which we cannot sin. So far as appears, then, the regenerate can never sin again.
306 To the objection that by his doctrine the standard of holiness is lowered to the level of our own experience, Finney (“Lectures on Systematic Theology,” p. 748) has the honesty to reply that it is quite true that in his opinion the standard of holiness has commonly been set too high. Much of the difficulty, he says (p. 749), “has arisen out of a comparison of the lives of saints with a standard entirely above that which the law of God does or can demand of persons in all respects in our circumstances,”—“or indeed,” he adds, “of any moral agent whatever.” Cf. p. 516. The main difference between the Oberlin men and Christians at large turns on this contention. The Oberlin men insist that Christians may be perfect and demand that they shall be. Yet the actual holiness attained does not differ from that attained by the “common Christian.” They call this attainment perfection: the others do not: their standard reaches no higher than this, that of the others stretches inimitably beyond.
307 “Lectures on Systematic Theology,” 1851, p. 439, cf. p. 846. On pp. 470–472, Finney reverts to his definition of a saint, and having quoted 1 John 2:3, 4; 3:10; 5:1–4, remarks that “these passages understood and pressed to the letter, would not only teach, that all regenerate souls overcome and live without sin, but also that sin is impossible to them.” He declines so to press them and takes as their spirit “that to overcome sin is the rule with every one who is born of God, and that sin is only the exception; that the regenerate habitually live without sin, and fall into sin only at intervals, so few and far between, that in strong language it may be said in truth they do not sin.” “If at any time he is overcome, it is only to rise again.” This is faltering indeed: it is flatly in the face of Finney’s elaborately explained doctrine of regeneration with the underlying doctrine of “the simplicity of moral action.” This requires him to say that the saintliness acquired in regeneration is incompatible with sinning and is lost by sinning.
308 Ed. 1, ii. 1847, pp. 108–155. We cite the essay from these pages. Finney omitted it from his second edition, 1851.
309 Ed. 1, ii. 1847, p. 107, immediately preceding the insertion of Morgan’s essay: ed. 2, 1851, p. 557.
310 The caption of the section in which this statement occurs in ed. 1, ii.p. 106 reads: “Sanctification is another condition of justification.” This is expanded in ed. 2, p. 555, without change of meaning, into: “Present sanctification, in the sense of present full consecration to God, is another condition, not ground, of justification.” He is only endeavoring to maintain his formal definition of sanctification as “a state of consecration to God” (ed. 2, p. 594), “exactly synonymous or identical with a state of obedience or conformity to the law of God” (ed. 1, ii. p. 200). “Sanctification,” says he more at large (ed. 2, p. 595), “consists in the will’s devoting or consecrating itself and the whole being, all we are and have, so far as powers, susceptibilities, possessions are under the control of the will, to the service of God, or, which is the same thing, to the highest interests of God and of being. Sanctification, then, is nothing more nor less than entire obedience, for the time being, to the moral law.” It is sanctification, so conceived, which is affirmed to be the condition of justification.
311 P. 109.
312 P. 137.
313 P. 113.
314 P. 129.
315 P. 109.
316 P. 137.
317 Pp. 111–112.
318 P. 152.
319 P. 153.
320 “Lectures on Systematic Theology,” 1851, p. 983.
321 P. 983.
322 P. 555.
323 P. 984.
324 P. 983.
325 P. 558.
326 Ed. 1, ii. p. 107; ed. 2, p. 557.
328 Pp. 157 ff.
329 P. 160.
330 Pp. 164–165.
331 P. 557.
332 P. 567.
333 P. 558.
334 Pp. 985 f.
335 Pp. 567–568.
336 P. 562.
337 P. 550.
338 Pp. 325–326.
339 P. 326.
340 P. 320.
341 P. 321.
342 P. 320.
343 P. 321. The italics are ours.
344 Pp. 326, 335, 333.
345 P. 934.