Who wants revival? It’s a word we toss around less and less, but I remember a time when multi-day meetings at church with a traveling, fiery evangelist were common. Turning passionately and dramatically back to God is a pattern, especially in the Old Testament. Time and again, we see Israel repenting and whether by the prompting of a leader, judge, or prophet returning to the Lord.
Powerful Preachers From The Past: Charles Finney
It’s the plea of Psalm 85:4-7: “Restore us again, God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us. Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger through all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your unfailing love, Lord, and grant us your salvation.”
We also see the need in the churches of Revelation. The church of Ephesus is told to, “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (3:5). Pergamum is also told to repent and turn from Balaam (3:16), and Thyatira to stop their sexual immorality or God will violently act against them. (3:22-23). Sardis is told to, “Wake up!” (4:2), and Laodicea is infamously the comfortably smug church that doesn’t act so God will spew them from his mouth (4:15-16).
Do we call for revival in our churches? It means the breaking up of our fallow ground, like Hosea says: “Sow righteousness for yourselves, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, until he comes and showers his righteousness on you” (10:12).
In many ways, our modern shape for revival comes from the 1800s, with preachers like Charles Finney, a lawyer who decided to listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit one autumn day in 1821. He recalls the Spirit asking, “What are you waiting for? Did you not promise to give your heart to God? And what are you trying to do? Are you endeavoring to work out a righteousness of your own?” He steps away from his law office, and, “bent my course toward the woods,” he says, “feeling that I must be alone, and away from all human eyes and ears, so that I could pour out my prayer to God.”
Charles Finney experienced God that day in a startling way, showing him the pride in his heart, “the great difficulty that stood in the way.” He dedicated his whole person, whatever that meant, to God his Savior realizing his, “sin appeared awful, infinite,” he recalled later. “It broke me down before the Lord.” He learned afresh the same truth Martin Luther learned as he crawled up the steps in Rome, the same reckless truth that Jonathan Edwards preached into the 1700s to spur on the First Great Awakening. Charles Finney says, “I could now see and understand what was meant by the passage, ‘Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.'” The more I study God’s times of outpouring, the more I see Paul’s letter to the Romans finding a central place.
If we want revival to spark in our churches, perhaps we should wrestle with Romans in our personal devotions and preach out the good news of grace with abandonment.
What happens next in Finney’s life forms a large part of what historians refer to as the Second Great Awakening. Ordained in the Presbyterian church in 1824, he moved to northern New York to be a missionary. In contrast to the mainstream view of rigid Calvinism with its predestined stance and leaders at Princeton and the like, Finney was a renegade who decided to ask his audience to make a public profession of their faith.
From 1825-1835, Charles Finney led revivals throughout New York, bringing together men and women, black and white. From September 1830 and March 1831 alone, he preached 98 sermons in Rochester, creating enough fanfare for shops to close with signs that encouraged patrons to attend the revival meetings.
He didn’t particularly care who came; all were welcome. Women would pray aloud in the service, something unheard of at the time, and Finney would denounce slavery from the pulpit. He also modeled his sermons from an apologetic plea – a lawyer’s defense – more than a traditional sermon. “You cannot change your heart, by an attempt to force yourself into a certain state of feeling,” he told his audience. “When sinners are called upon to repent, and give their hearts to God, it is common for them, if they undertake to perform this duty, to make an effort to feel emotions of love, repentance, and faith.” Nevertheless, the revival meetings were spiked with emotion. Finney’s open invitation to the Gospel at the end of a sermon ushered in the beginning of the altar call, something used by Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, Charles Fuller, and Billy Graham. The meetings even had a crying bench or anxious seat, where a person came down to the front and considered becoming a Christian.
Theologically,Charles Finney believed a person can move toward God with the decision to follow him versus the view God is the first mover. Calvinists insisted that only those elected would be saved. Finney protested that if a person doesn’t come to faith it’s because they will not, not because they can’t. He viewed everyone with the possibility for salvation because we are wired to make up our own minds, and no one, not even God, will make our decisions for us. The appeal was to live a Christian life and not a life of sin. He called people to repentance and he used the threat of Hell and the joys of Heaven to do it. Here is a longer excerpt from a sermon titled, “How to Change Your Heart.” It might provide a bit of context.
But look for a moment at the conditions of the gospel. Repentance and faith. To repent, is to hate and renounce your sin. This requirement is not arbitrary on the part of God. It would neither be just to the universe, nor beneficial to you, to exercise pardon until you comply with this requirement. Can a sovereign forgive his subjects, while they remain in rebellion? Can God forgive you, while you persevere in sin? No. This would be to give up his law, and by a public act, to confess himself wrong and you right. To renounce the stand he has taken, to condemn himself and justify you. But this would be the publication of falsehood, it would be a proclamation, that sin is right and holiness wrong. Not only so, but to forgive you and leave you in your sin, would render your happiness impossible. You might as well proclaim a man in health, who is dying with the plague.
Nor is faith an arbitrary appointment of God. God has no means of getting you to heaven unless you believe his word, and walk in the path he points out to you. If you will not believe what he tells you of heaven and hell, of the way to avoid the one and gain the other, your salvation is impossible in the nature of the case. You cannot find heaven at the end of the road that leads to hell, nor hell at the end of the road that leads to heaven. And nothing but faith in what he tells you, can influence you to take the path that leads to heaven. And now, sinner, what have you to say, why the sentence of his law should not be executed upon you? You have never cared for God, and why should he be under obligation to care for you? You have never obeyed him, what good then do you deserve at his hand? You have always disobeyed him, and what evil do you not deserve? You have broken his law, despised his grace, and grieved his Spirit. “You have cast off fear and restrained prayer.” The tendency of your selfish conduct has been to ruin the universe, to dethrone God, to build up the throne and establish the dominion of Satan, to damn yourself and all mankind. This you cannot deny. Let conscience pass sentence upon you. Let it give forth its verdict. Do you not, even now, hear it in the deep recesses of your soul cry out, guilty, guilty, and worthy of eternal death?
In 1837, Charles Finney became a member of the theology department at Oberlin College, a fine Presbyterian school at the time. He became president in 1851 and under his leadership, Oberlin became the first college to award a black woman a bachelor’s degree. Alongside his work at the college, he served as pastor of the First Church of Oberlin. He’d remain president of Oberlin until 1866 and pastor of the First Church until 1872, guiding the town as a stalwart abolitionist throughout the Civil War and afterwards.
Charles Finney is a powerful preacher from the past who helped shape evangelistic outreach even today. We can learn from his boldness and trust in God. We can learn about revival and pray that the Holy Spirit will use us as we teach his word to our congregations. If we look at the Awakenings in America, the first in the 1740s, the second in the early to mid-1800s, and a third less defined one through the work of Billy Graham, perhaps it’s time for another awakening. Let’s hope and pray for it.