…Say to him, “There is an anxious seat, come and
avow your determination to be on the Lord’s side…”
—Charles Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835)
The History of Invitations and Choices
“Choose ye this day whom ye will serve… but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” These words regularly show up on the posters and plaques sold in Christian bookstores. The words were originally Joshua’s as part of his farewell address to Israel (Josh. 24). Of course, the ellipsis tells us that some of his words are missing. The larger context is missing as well. But these bold words, taken in isolation, seem consistent with the American evangelical motif of emotional preaching, impassioned altar calls, and the dramatic repentance of weeping souls streaming down the aisle. But as they say on the street: “How’s that working out for ya?” Or stated differently… Is “alter call” Christianity working?
What most Americans may not know is that the “altar call” is a relatively modern invention. It had its origins in early Methodism, where folks were invited to come and sit in the “anxious bench,” a seat near the preacher where the sinner could wrestle with sin conviction and receive counseling. This sort of invitation became popular in the camp revivals of the Second Great Awakening. But the man who made it a permanent fixture of American evangelism was Charles G. Finney.
The Methods and Theology of Charles G. Finney
Charles Finney (1792-1875) was the most popular preacher of the years that followed the Second Great Awakening. He drew large crowds and ran up an impressive tally of professed converts. His enthusiasm, commitment, and apparent successes have made him a spiritual hero to men like Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Keith Green. His preaching was informal and emotional. Finney was light on theological content and heavy on conviction. Like the frontier evangelists before him, He would invite sinners under conviction to come forward and sit beneath the pulpit to consider the needs of their souls. He believed this step was both useful and necessary as a means of winning souls to Christ. He enshrined his convictions in his published lectures on revival. Finney became the father of the modern altar call.
Finney’s methods, of course, grew out of his theology. He rejected the doctrines of original sin and total depravity. Remarkably, he taught that man had no fixed nature of any kind. Man’s actions depended upon his choices, and a man made choices one at a time. In order to be saved, the sinner needed to “autonomously” choose Christ.
The salvation Finney had in mind, however, was not that of evangelical Christianity. Finney rejected the biblical doctrines of substitutionary atonement and justification by faith. He considered them absurd. God could never receive a sinner who was still sinning. To be saved, a man must stop sinning. He must choose “entire holiness.” He must embrace “present entire obedience to God.” Again, he must stop sinning. And for Finney, it was just that simple.
The preacher’s job was to persuade the man to make the objectively wise choice of accepting God’s salvation. Though the sinner’s will was free, it was surrounded by bad influences. The sinner’s body was prone to disorder and disease. His external world was given to wickedness and corruption and exerted powerful influences on the sinner’s will. These the preacher had to offset. The winning formula? The preacher had to stir up the sinner’s own emotions to such a degree that the sinner’s will would make the proper choice. In this the Holy Spirit cooperated by bringing divine persuasion to bear. But the sinner must choose and choose freely. Even God Himself would not—indeed, could not—interfere with the sinner’s will in any way. Man’s choice was totally autonomous.
Finney on Revival
For Finney, revival was not a work of God’s sovereign Spirit. It was the result of human choices. In this effort psychological manipulation was not only welcome but became the bulwark of the conversion process:
A revival is not a miracle… something above the powers of nature. There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. It consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that, and nothing else. When mankind become religious, they are not enabled to put forth exertions which they were unable before to put forth. They only exert powers which they had before, in a different way, and use them for the glory of God. A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means — as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means. (Finney’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion, Lecture 11)
Technique was everything for Finney. Creating revival was a science, just like selling vacuum cleaners. And if more preachers had adopted Finney’s methods and techniques (or so he believed), the Millennium would already have dawned in America.
If the whole Church, as a body, had gone to work ten years ago, and continued it as a few individuals, whom I could name, have done, there might not now have been an impenitent sinner in the land. The millennium would have fully come into the United States before this day. (Lecture 15)
Sadly, what Finney was describing is practical Baalism. Man can manipulate spiritual reality by the proper use of emotional and liturgical technique. Because in the end, the “spiritual” is nothing more than the natural. “There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature.” God and the universe are necessary corollaries in Finney’s theology, and the highest good is not the glory of God, but what he called “the good of being.” God and man are the servants of metaphysical “being.”
Finney on Your Children
Finney’s doctrine of the human will led him to a peculiar take on small children.
All that can justly be said… is, that if infants are saved at all, which I suppose they are, they are rescued by the benevolence of God from circumstances that would result in certain and eternal death, and are by grace made heirs of eternal life. But after all, it is useless to speculate about the character and destiny of those who are confessedly not moral agents. (Lectures on Systematic Theology, XL)
For Finney, children are not moral agents. Their wills can’t be intelligently persuaded or manipulated. He saw children as incapable of either sin or obedience. In this sense, He didn’t believe they are fully human. Finney guesses that they’ll go heaven, but since they are not “moral agents,” (neither sinners nor saints) he isn’t willing to “speculate” any farther.
Joshua’s “Altar Call”
So back to Joshua’s farewell address. Lets clarify a bit: First, it’s important to observe that Joshua wasn’t addressing a heathen audience. He was speaking to Israel, God’s covenant people. He reminded them first of their origins. Their ancestors had been idolaters. But God called Abraham out of Mesopotamia and brought him into Canaan. There God multiplied his seed. In time his descendants went down into Egypt. They were there until God sent Moses and Aaron to rescue them from slavery. God plagued Egypt and brought His people out of bondage through the parted waters of the Red Sea. After Israel dwelt “in the wilderness a long season,” God began to destroy their enemies—first on the east side of Jordan and then in the Promised Land itself. This was the historical prologue.
God had given them Canaan. Israel needed to remember that. Israel was already in covenant with God. On these terms, Joshua made his appeal. Not an evangelistic appeal to outsiders, but rather, an appeal to covenant renewal:
Now therefore fear the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the LORD. (v. 14)
Despite all of God’s great works, despite all of His grace and gifts, there were many in Israel who still worshipped false gods. They kept secret idols and observed private liturgies. This couldn’t go on if Israel was to truly be the covenant people of God. And this is the context for Joshua’s famous appeal. Here is what he actually said:
And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. (v. 15)
Israel at once answered that they would never forsake Yahweh. He had rescued them from Egypt and given them Canaan. “Therefore will we also serve the LORD; for He is our God” (v. 18). Then Joshua said something few American evangelists would dare say:
Ye cannot serve the LORD: for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. If ye forsake the LORD, and serve strange gods, then he will turn and do you hurt, and consume you, after that he hath done you good. (vv. 19-20)
Like Jesus centuries later, Joshua told his audience to count the cost (Luke 9:57-62; 14:25-33). Covenant life with Yahweh was incompatible with idolatry. It’s not just that the two mix badly. Rather, God hates idols, and His wrath burns against idolaters. Still the people insisted: “Nay; but we will serve the LORD” (v. 21).
And Joshua said unto the people, Ye are witnesses against yourselves that ye have chosen you the LORD, to serve him. And they said, we are witnesses (v. 22).
With that, Joshua told Israel to put away their idols and turn their hearts to their God. And the people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God will we serve, and his voice will we obey” (v. 24). So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day (v. 25). That is, he renewed Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh. He recorded the whole transaction in the book of the Law and set up a great stone as a permanent witness.
Choices and Children
The world mirrors the Church. What the church practices in her preaching and liturgy will eventually find expression in the broader culture about her. Our theological errors seem to come back to bite us. And because we haven’t recognized the errors for what they are, we don’t connect them to the monstrous creatures they have birthed. Sometimes we even use our mistakes as weapons in our war against the monsters. It never works. Only the gospel of sovereign grace can slay the monsters we face.
So what happens if the evangelical church in America spends a hundred and thirty years defending the autonomy of the human will and making human choice ultimate while all the while dismissing young children as less than fully human? Could such doctrines eventually have a significant impact on the world around us? And could that world, in its hatred for God and His image in man, take the doctrines a step or two further? Does “pro-choice” take on more than just theological connotations?
On the other hand, what would happen if the American church decided that idolatry of all sorts was unacceptable as a life style? What if believers covenanted with God to serve Him together with their households, which included their infants? What if congregations were told how costly the Christian life can be? What if unbelievers were told the same thing? What if American Christians thought that covenant was more important to evangelism than emotional manipulation? What if preachers actually talked like Joshua? Would American culture be a bit different today?
Conclusion: Covenant Renewal
Joshua’s evangelism was covenant renewal in its traditional and biblical form, complete with historical prologue, and a reminder of the covenant stipulations and sanctions as well as an appeal to legal witnesses. Joshua didn’t assume that everyone present was a believer. He knew many weren’t. He preached the wrath of God against sin and the need for true repentance. He reminded Israel of what God had already done for them, but he gave them no easy assurances for the future. He told them to count the cost. He certainly discouraged a shallow commitment to Yahweh. Joshua wanted men and women who would serve Yahweh with fear and sincerity all their lives. By God’s grace, he got them. By God’s grace, we can get them too. Let’s renew our covenant with the Great King of the Universe.
For Further Reading:
Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Theology of Charles G. Finney,” in Perfectionism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1958).
“Charles G. Finney: Heretic or Man of God?”, Reformed Baptist Blog (July 22, 2009) <https://reformedbaptist.blogspot.com/2009/07/charles-g-finney-heretic-or-man-of-god.html>.
Douglas A. Sweeney and Mark C. Rogers, “Walk the Aisle,” Christian History (10/22/2008) <https://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/thepastinthepresent/storybehind/walktheaisle.html>.
Michael Horton, “The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney,” Issue, Etc., (https://www.mtio.com/articles/aissar81.htm
Iain Murray, “The Invitation System” (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967).
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