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WHY THE “OLD SCHOOL” WAS RIGHT
IN OPPOSING FINNEY ON REVIVAL

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles
Lord's Day Evening, July 18, 2010

“And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved? And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:26-27).


According to a recent Gallup Poll, 74% of the American people say they have made a commitment to Jesus Christ (National and International Religion Report, Oct. 8, 1990, p. 8). John C. LaRue, Vice President of Internet Research and Development for Christianity Today International, gives a current update:

According to Gallup research, the number of Americans who describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians has grown dramatically in the past quarter century – especially in the 1990s. In 1976, 34 percent of Americans were classified as evangelicals. Twenty-three years later, in 1999, this number was up 12 percentage points to 46 percent (Leaders Insight, Newsletter@LeadershipJournal.net, p. 1).

The Gallup Poll gives these statistics:

Year          Percentage

1976             34%
1981             38%
1992             36%
1995             41%
1999             46% (ibid.).

Putting these figures together, we find that 74% of the American people claim to have made a commitment to Jesus Christ, and a growing number (now 46% of the U.S. population) now claim to be “born again” evangelicals.

That sounds great – if you are not a pastor! But pastors know that you can’t do anything with the vast majority of these people. Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer asked this probing question in his final book:

What is the use of evangelicalism seeming to get larger and larger if sufficient numbers of those under the name evangelical no longer hold to that which makes evangelicalism evangelical? (Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster, p. 64).

There is no question that the number of those claiming to be born again Christians has risen in the U.S. over the past three decades. But men like evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry are uneasy about this “growth.” Dr. Henry said:

Many evangelicals now measure growth mainly in terms of numbers; distinctions of doctrine and practice are subordinated in a broad welcome for charismatic, Catholic, traditional and other varieties of evangelicals. Theological differences are minimized by evangelical publishers and publications reaching for mass circulation, by evangelists luring capacity audiences and even by evangelism festivals seeking the largest possible involvement…Numerical bigness has become an infectious epidemic. (Quoted in “The Day is Drawing Near,” Countryside Bible Church, Southlake, Texas, February, 2001, p. 8).

Iain H. Murray writes this concerning churches in the United States and the British Isles:

The fear of God has largely departed. A biographer of A. W. Tozer tells us that…Tozer would often comment on these two things: “that there is little sense of sin among the unsaved; and that the average ‘Christian’ lives a life so worldly and careless that it is difficult to distinguish him from the unconverted man.” It is no wonder that Tozer also thought that a “revival” of the kind for which Christians of this type were looking would be a calamity from which the United States might not recover in a hundred years (Iain H. Murray, Pentecost – Today? The Biblical Basis for Understanding Revival, Banner of Truth, 1998, p. 57).

Since Tozer’s death, America has indeed experienced a “revival” of insipid, lifeless evangelicalism. Will we recover from it in a hundred years? Maybe not! Certainly not unless we examine the false foundation upon which nearly all evangelism and so-called “revival” is based in our time. And that false foundation is the view of conversion and revival handed down to us from Charles G. Finney in the 19th century.

Few people in our time know that the First Great Awakening and Second Great Awakening were the greatest revivals America has ever experienced. And fewer still know that these mighty revivals, which gave birth to the largest number of Baptist churches in American history, happened before Charles G. Finney ever came on the scene. But, know it or not, these are the facts of history.

Today, we must have a return to the old way of evangelism, and the old view of revival, or there is no hope for our churches or our culture. We must turn away from the “new” methods and views introduced by Finney or there is no hope. We must turn back to the “Old School” methods and views of our forefathers.

When Charles G. Finney began his ministry in 1821, he stressed human ability. One of his most popular sermons was titled, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.” Finney denied that man has a ruined, depraved nature, inherited from Adam. Thus, Finney believed that a lost man did not need special grace from God to be converted. Man was not ruined by the Fall. A man could be saved whenever he chose. “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts” was the name of his famous sermon. The title shows that Finney was a Pelagian heretic. Most evangelicals today have followed him and are Pelagians also. Pelagianism teaches that man does not have a ruined, depraved nature. Therefore man can choose to be saved without the grace of God.

But the older evangelicalism taught that sinners could not change their own hearts. They needed the grace and power of God to be converted. Only the Holy Spirit could change their hearts. Their view became known as the “Old School” position, while Finney's view was called the “New School” view. I have become convinced that the “Old School” Baptists and Protestants were right and that Finney's “new” idea that “Sinners (are) Bound to Change Their Own Hearts” was – and is – wrong.

It should be remembered that the greatest revivals in American history came to those who held the “Old School” view. No national, Biblical revival has occurred since Finney’s “New School” theology and methods have been universally adopted. The 1858-1859 revival came chronologically after Finney; but it should be noted that this revival came in answer to prayer and not through a campaign which made use of Finney’s methods in any way.

Over and over, in his Memoirs, Finney tells us that the main opposition to his false views came from “Old School” pastors and teachers. The controversy and conflict over Finney’s views is outlined in chapter 14 of Iain H. Murray’s book, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 (Banner of Truth, 1994). Chapter 14 should be read first. It reveals the conflict between Finney and the “Old School” preachers. Here are the five main reasons that Old School men like evangelist Asahel Nettleton stood against the teachings of Finney:

I. First, because Finney confused two different things: an outward act and the new birth.

The disciples asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus answered, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:26-27). There is no possibility for a person to be saved without the supernatural power of God awakening him and then drawing him to Jesus Christ for justification. This is basic Christian orthodoxy, basic Christianity, meat and potato stuff. But it is “stuff” denied by Finney.

The “Old School” preachers said, “Hey, wait a minute! How can sinners change their own hearts without the help of God?” The Old School preachers taught that lost sinners needed to repent at once. But at the same time they knew that the grace to obey was in the hands of God. Iain H. Murray points out:

Under old-school preaching it was expected that conviction of sin would show hearers their need of a change at the centre of their being – a work of new creation securing a new life and a new moral existence. If no such regeneration is supposed to be necessary then conversion becomes a very much easier matter (Pentecost – Today?, p. 49).

This is one of the great weaknesses of evangelistic preaching today. We expect people to be converted without being deeply convinced of their own sinful, rebellious, wicked hearts (ref. Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 12:34; Matthew 15:18-19; Galatians 5:19-21). A person who is never convinced of his own godless, helplessly wicked nature

(1)  will never cry out “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24).

(2)  will never understand why he must be “justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28).

(3)  will never realize that he can only have his sins propitiated “through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:25).

(4)  will never be deeply thankful to Jesus because “to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Luke 7:47).

(5)  will never be a decent church member because he does not feel he owes anything to Jesus or His local church. He will become at best either a “church tramp” or a “church splitter.”


Finney confused outward human acts with the new birth. He said all you have to do is come forward or say a “sinner’s prayer” and you are converted. The Old School said “no.” They said conversion is an inner work, deep in your soul. God shows you how awful you are inwardly. God shows you your inner need for the Blood of Christ to wash your sins away. The Old School presents a serious inner psychological and spiritual religion. Finney’s modern “decisionism” presents a superficial, shallow, quick fix, with no depth or reality – and no conversion!

“Who then can be saved?…The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:26-27).

II. Second, the Old School preachers were against Finney’s decisionism because Finney was popularizing a dangerously superficial view of conversion, arising out of a superficial view of sin.

Finney taught that lost people were not converted through God changing their natures. All that was necessary was for the preacher to present arguments until the lost person agreed with him and came forward to pray. There was no need for an inner regeneration, or new birth, as taught by the Old School. All the preacher had to do was present arguments until he convinced the lost person to come forward and pray. But Old School theologian Charles Hodge said Finney was wrong:

No more soul-destroying doctrine could well be devised than the doctrine that sinners can regenerate themselves, and repent and believe Jesus just when they please (Charles Hodge, Ph.D., Systematic Theology, vol. 2 – London: Nelson, 1874 – p. 277).

Finney’s decisionism is wrong! You must have an inward conversion, brought about by God.

(The Disciples said) “Who then can be saved?” (Jesus answered) “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:26-27).

III. Third, the Old School preachers were against Finney’s views because his “decisionism” based assurance on a physical act, rather than the inward witness of the Holy Spirit.

Iain H. Murray says:

The older evangelism, in both its Calvinistic and Arminian forms, had insisted that it is the Holy Spirit himself who gives assurance and that no one should assume they have passed from death to life without his witness and a corresponding change of life (Pentecost – Today?, p. 51).

When you ask someone if he is saved today, he will often say, “Yes, I’m saved. I remember when I went forward” (or said the sinner’s prayer). I have a long-time friend who says that. He remembers when he went forward, when he was in high school, over fifty years ago. He’s sure that he is saved because he remembers the physical action of making a decision.

But no one in the Bible had such assurance. Not a single Bible figure was sure he was saved because he could remember making a decision. Every convert in Bible times was sure of salvation because of the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit made their trust in Jesus Christ a reality! It was an inwardly real trust in Jesus...not the dim memory of some long-ago decision!

IV. Fourth, the Old School preachers were against Finney’s decisionism because it emphasized physical action rather than a changed life, thus lowering the standard of membership in evangelical churches by admitting millions of lost people to church membership.

Finney’s “decisionism” put all the emphasis on instant action taken by a person after an evangelist’s appeal. Decisionism did not emphasize a changed life. It still goes on like that today. People “pray to receive Christ” at their front door, but never again come to church. They are responding by physical action rather than experiencing a changed life. They “come forward” in a service, but you seldom see them in church again. Why do they need to come? After all, they are “saved” now – in their own sight. To them, salvation is proved by a physical action, not a changed life.

In this way, Finney’s decisionist methods have ruined evangelism and filled our churches with lost people. The standards have been lowered in evangelical churches today because these churches have been flooded with the lost.

Late in the 19th century, R. L. Dabney wrote,

We believe that they (Finney’s decisionist techniques) are the chief cause…which has deteriorated the average standard…morality and the church discipline of our religion, until it has nearly lost its practical power over the public conscience (R. L. Dabney, Discussions, vol. 3, reprinted by Banner of Truth, 1982, p. 19).

That’s what’s wrong today. People make “decisions.” Later they go into deep sin because their “decisions” did not inwardly convert them. This destroys the “practical power” of evangelicalism “over the public conscience.”

Iain Murray says:

The New Testament teaches that the change resulting from the new birth is so great that whenever it occurs a continued living of the old life is impossible…Where there is no alienation from sin there is no re-birth (Pentecost – Today?, p. 52).

The reason that so many who claim to be born again are carnal is not because they are supposedly “backslidden.” It is because they are lost! Decisionism has filled our churches with lost people!

You must have a life changing conversion to be truly saved:

(The Disciples said) “Who then can be saved?” (Jesus answered) “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:26-27).

V. Fifth, the Old School preachers were against Finney’s decisionism because Finney’s views had changed revivals into mere evangelistic campaigns.

Finney taught that revival should be the normal state of a church, not an extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit that only happens occasionally, as the Old School taught. This meant that Finney had to change the meaning of “revival” from an outpouring of the Holy Spirit into an evangelistic campaign. Finney said that the Old School men were “the enemies of revival.” But the Old School men feared that Finney was taking the work out of the hands of God. In reviewing Finney's lectures on Revivals of Religion, one Old School preacher said, “The influence of the Holy Spirit comes in only by the way.” In Wales, John Elias said in the 19th century, concerning Finney’s techniques, that the “results of erroneous (false) principles shall be visited upon the ruined churches of our land” (preface to Letters of Rev. Dr. Beecher and Rev. Mr. Nettleton on ‘New Measures’ in Conducting Revivals of Religion, New York, 1828, p. 103).

John Elias had preached in many real, God-sent revivals. He felt that Finney’s new views and methods would result in “ruined churches” (ref. Iain H. Murray, Pentecost – Today?, pp. 52-53).

John Elias was right. Finney’s decisionist views have ruined the churches. First, the Congregationalist churches were ruined. Then the Methodist churches were ruined. Then the Presbyterians were ruined. And finally the Baptists were largely ruined. The churches of the English-speaking world have been laid waste through the decisionism introduced by Charles G. Finney. The Old School men were right. Finney was wrong.

You and I live in the burned out aftermath, our churches are either liberal, charismatic, or dead; our people claim to be “born again” while missing church, divorcing, dancing, committing fornication, and aborting their babies. An increasing number of “Christian leaders” commit adultery, while young people in the churches go wild. The monstrous apostasy surrounding us is the direct result of the belief and practices of Charles G. Finney and the decisionists who followed him and promoted his methods. Our churches have been raped and ravaged by Finney's decisionism.

What can we do about it?

1.  Pastors should obtain Pentecost – Today? The Biblical Basis for Understanding Revival by Iain H. Murray (Banner of Truth, 1998) and carefully read the first two chapters. If this intrigues you, then read Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 by Iain H. Murray (Banner of Truth, 1994). Start by reading chapter 14 of this book. While I do not agree with everything Murray believes, I think he clearly points out the source of our modern problems – Charles G. Finney – and how this affects us today.

2.  Pastors should stop baptizing people quickly. They should take time to listen to what lost people think about the great saving truths of salvation in several “listening” sessions before baptizing them. You should listen to see if the lost have (1) actually been convinced of sin, and (2) actually rested in Jesus Christ, Himself – at the right hand of God in Heaven.

3.  Pastors should study pages 143-176 in our book Today’s Apostasy. This section will show you how to ask questions and listen to the answers.


What should a lost person do in these dark days of apostasy and confusion?

(The Disciples said) “Who then can be saved?” (Jesus answered) “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:26-27).

1.  Do not go to “decisionists” for help. They will lead you in a quick sinner’s prayer and tell you that you are saved. This will only seal your doom.

2.  You must be convinced of your sin nature.

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked…” (Jeremiah 17:9).

“Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:7).

3.  You must be convinced that you, as a ruined and rebellious sinner, deserve the judgment of God by eternal punishment in Hell.

“And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal” (Matthew 25:46).

4.  You must be convinced that you cannot do anything “good” to save yourself, because your “good works” are just filthy rags.

“But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags…” (Isaiah 64:6).

“Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight; for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

5.  You must be convinced that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is your only hope for salvation from sin.

“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him” (Romans 5:8-9).

Only by throwing yourself on the mercy of Jesus can your sins be forgiven and your sinful heart converted. No one but Jesus can cleanse you – by His Blood. No one but Jesus can convert your heart. No one but Jesus can impute righteousness to your record.

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved”
       (Acts 16:31).

As Joseph Hart put it in his Old School hymn:

Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched, Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you, Full of pity, love and power;
None but Jesus, none but Jesus, Can do helpless sinners good;
None but Jesus, none but Jesus, Can do helpless sinners good.
   (“Come, Ye Sinners” by Joseph Hart, 1712-1768).

(END OF SERMON)
You can read Dr. Hymers’ sermons each week on the Internet
at www.realconversion.com. Click on “Sermon Manuscripts.”

Prayer Before the Sermon by Dr. Kreighton L. Chan.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith: “Revive Thy Work”
(by Albert Midlane, 1825-1909).


THE OUTLINE OF

WHY THE “OLD SCHOOL” WAS RIGHT
IN OPPOSING FINNEY ON REVIVAL

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

“And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved? And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:26-27).

I.   First, because Finney confused two different things: an outward
act and the new birth, Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 12:34;
Matthew 15:18-19; Galatians 5:19-21; Romans 7:24;
Romans 3:28, 25; Luke 7:47.

II.  Second, because Finney was popularizing a dangerously
superficial view of conversion, arising out of a superficial
view of sin.

III. Third, because Finney’s “decisionism” based assurance on a
physical act, rather than the inward witness of the Holy Spirit.

IV. Fourth, because Finney’s emphasis on action rather than a
changed life lowered the standard of membership in
evangelical churches by admitting millions of lost people to
church membership.

V.  Fifth, because Finney's views changed the meaning of revivals
into mere evangelistic campaigns, Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 8:7;
Matthew 25:46; Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:20; 5:8-9; Acts 16:31.