Home > Fundamentalism, Mallinak, Revival > Of Man-Made Revivals

Of Man-Made Revivals

May 8, 2009

I don’t suppose that we could discuss revival without discussing Charles Finney.  His name is the most closely associated with revival of any name in the last two hundred years.  Whether we like it or not, his influence still permeates Baptist Fundamentalism.  He left his mark on us.  One of our commenters has listed out Finney’s “new measures.”  Whether these things were “new” or not, the practical things that Finney promoted for churches to do are still with us.  In fact, I would point out that more than a couple things on that list would get a church in hot water if they stopped doing them.  Finney’s new measures have become the standards in Independent Baptist Churches.

If we take Finney’s definition of revival as a stand-alone definition, we would probably find ourselves in agreement with most of it, at least in principle.  No doubt we would find a few points to qualify and perhaps to differ with, but for the most part, we would find little to disagree with.  Finney defined revival in five points, which I reproduce for you here:

It presupposes that the Church is sunk down in a backslidden state, and a revival consists in the return of the Church from her backslidings, and in the conversion of sinners. 

  1. A revival always includes conviction of sin on the part of the Church.  Backslidden professors cannot wake up and begin right away in the service of God, without deep searchings of heart.  The fountains of sin need to be broken up.  In a true revival, Christians are always brought under such conviction; they see their sins in such a light that often they find it impossible to maintain a hope of their acceptance with God.  It does not always go to that extent, but there are always, in a genuine revival, deep convictions of sin, and often cases of abandoning all hope.
  2. Backslidden Christians will be brought to repentance.  A revival is nothing else than a new beginning of obedience to God.  Just as in the case of a converted sinner, the first step is a deep repentance, a breaking down of heart, a getting down into the dust before God, with deep humility, and a forsaking of sin.
  3. Christians will have their faith renewed.  While they are in their backslidden state they are blind to the state of sinners.  Their hearts are hard as marble.  The truths of the Bible appear like a dream.  They admit it to be true; their conscience and their judgment assent to it; but their faith does not see it standing out in bold relief, in all the burning realities of eternity.  But when they enter into a revival, they no longer see “men as trees, walking,” but they see things in that strong light which will renew the love of God in their hearts.  This will lead them to labour zealously to bring others to Him.  They will feel grieved that others do not love God, when they love Him so much.  And they will set themselves feelingly to persuade their neighbours to give Him their hearts.  So their love to men will be renewed.  They will be filled with a tender and burning love for souls.  They will have a longing desire for the salvation of the whole world.  They will be in an agaony for individuals whom they want to have saved – their friends, relations, enemies.  They will not only be urging them to give their hearts to God, but they will carry them to God in the arms of faith, and with strong crying and tears beseech God to have mercy on them, and save their souls from endless burnings.
  4. A revival breaks the power of the world and of sin over Christians.  It brings them to such vantage-ground that they get a fresh impulse towards heaven; they have a new foretaste of heaven, and new desires after union with God; thus the charm of the world is broken, and the power of sin overcome.
  5. When the Churches are thus awakened and reformed, the reformation and salvation of sinners will follow.  Their hearts will be broken down and changed.  Very often the most abandoned profligates are among the subjects.  Harlots, and drunkards, and infidels, and all sorts of abandoned characters, are awakened and converted.  The worst of human beings are softened and reclaimed, and made to appear as lovely specimens of the beauty of holiness.

Can we agree with the tenor of the definition given here?  Perhaps, if we consider it all by itself, and out of context with the rest of Finney’s teaching.  But in context, we cannot agree with Finney’s view of what a revival is.  Our first reason?  In the section before Finney’s definition of revival, he explains what a revival is not.  And in that section, Finney says that a revival is not a miracle.  “A miracle” he says “has been generally defined to be a Divine interference, setting aside, or suspending, the laws of nature.  A revival is not a miracle in this sense.”

In fact, Finney denies that revival is God’s work altogether.  In his second point, Finney says, “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.”  In fact, Finney denies that salvation changes anything about a man at all. 

“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.”

Finney continues.  “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.”  In other words, revival is entirely a work of man, and not a work of God in any way whatsoever.

Now, Finney does hedge a little on that.  Even Finney recognized that his denial of Divine intervention might be a little strong.  And so he interjects in the next paragraph, “But means will not produce a revival, we all know, without the blessing of God.  No more will grain, when it is sown, produce a crop without the blessing of God.”  So, Finney believes that revival is entirely the work of man, and that God simply gives a little shove to start your sled down the big sled hill.  “A revival is as naturally a result of the use of the appropriate means as a crop is of the use of its appropriate means.”

Finney attempted to combat the hyper-Calvinism of his day, a hyper-Calvinism that taught people to do nothing for God, to preach the gospel to no man, and to make no effort for revival whatsoever, but rather to wait for God to do what He would when He would.  Thomas Ross has rightly pointed out that Finney attempted to combat their Hyper-Calvinism with his very own brand of Pelagianism.  A perfect illustration of this comes in the following illustration…

Suppose a man were to go and preach this doctrine among farmers, regarding their sowing of grain.  Let him tell them that God is a Sovereign, and will give them a crop only when it pleases Him, and that for them to plough, and plant, and labour, as if they expected to raise a crop, is very wrong, that it amounts to taking the work out of the hands of God, that it is an interference with His Sovereignty, and that there is no connection between the means and the result on which they can depend.  Suppose the farmers should believe such a doctrine?  Why, they would starve the world to death.

Just such results would follow on the Church being persuaded that promoting religion is somehow so mysteriously a subject of Divine Sovereignty, that there is no natural connection between the means and the end.  In fact, what are the results?  Why, generation after generation has gone to hell, while the Church has been dreaming and waiting for God to save them without the use of the means.  It has been the devil’s most successful means of destroying souls!  The connection is as clear in religion as it is when the farmer sows his grain.

On the one hand, we have the very wrong-headed and un-Biblical teachings of hyper-Calvinists, who waited for God to act sovereignly without ever doing anything.  These are the theologians who don’t change light bulbs, because if God wanted them changed, He would change them Himself.  In fairness, it should be pointed out that this view of God is not shared even among many Calvinists.  Our earliest missionaries, men like William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and John Paton, were all Calvinists.  Charles Spurgeon was a Calvinist.  Was there a more zealous gospel preacher than him?  So, this kind of hyper-Calvinism is not truly representative of Calvinism as a whole.  But it is representative of much of the Calvinism of Finney’s day.  Why is that?  Well, because Calvinism clearly leans in that direction.  And, men being what they are, tend to mix their sin in with their theology, whatever side of the teeter-totter that might be, and then spoil it.  Men want to be lazy and disobedient.  And so much the better if they can blame it on God, or rationalize it with high-sounding words about God’s sovereignty.

But Finney’s response was to confront this hyper-Calvinism with a full blown Pelagianism.  In Logic, we learn about the relationship between statements that is called “contrariety.”  Not to be confused with contradiction, contrariety is the sort of answer that, when confronted with a statement like “God saves everybody” replies, “Nuh-uh… God doesn’t save anyone.”  In the relationship of contrariety, both cannot be right, but both can be wrong.  Both Finney and the hyper-Calvinists can’t be right.  But they can both be wrong.  And Finney’s response to the hyper-Calvinists is as wrong as they are.  The hyper-C’s say that God does all of revival and man does nothing.  Finney replies that man does all of revival, and God does nothing. 

The Psalmist prayed, “Wilt thou not revive us again, that thy people may rejoice in thee.”  Revival is the work of God.  It is a miracle.  When the farmer sows a thousand seeds, God works a thousand miracles… he performs a thousand resurrections.  But not always.  There are times when the seed is sown, but the rain does not come or the locusts devour or the birds snatch the seed, and a famine comes.  We must always be seeking a revival.  But we can’t put it on the calendar.  God must send a revival, or we will not have one.

We have had enough of the man-made forms of revival.  Whether it takes ten years or ten decades, we want the next one to come from God.  Man-made revivals are like man-made ham.  Spit it out, and wait for the real thing.

  1. May 9, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Interesting thoughts on this. I always ask myself, if we have it right on, why was Finney the one seeing Revivals and we are the ones who just have a week of meetings on the calender that are forgotten about the week after? We spend a lot of time picking this man apart, and I understand that we ought to take a stand for every little piece of doctrine, but are we shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit?

    Maybe we should spend a little bit of time figuring out how this man was so effective at getting Christians stirred to love God once again and how he was able to bring the lost to Christ so well.

    I’m not trying to attack. I love reading this blog and I stand with you on about 99% of issues. I know that it probably sounds like I am attacking your position, but I wanted to voice a little bit of another opinion.

  2. May 9, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    It is an open question whether Finney was effective or not. Note that his area of operations was the Northeast in general. These regions are not known as exactly the hotbeds of fervent orthodoxy, and many attribute that to the failure of Finney’s work.

    Our tendency with any topic is to simply repeat what we have been told as if it is the absolute truth. I think that many fans and critics of Finney are really guilty of this. What Dave has done here is give us some of Finney’s own statements. While his comments on revival sound good in defining what a revival is, the context shows his views are abominable.

    We have to be careful about overlooking error when someone seems to support aspects of our own views. If they are teaching heresy, they are heretics, no matter what good things they may say mixed in with the bad. In this case, I think we would be on pretty solid ground in rejecting Finney.

    However… I don’t join with those who simply attack revivals and revivalism because there are some similarities between, say, a D. L. Moody and others, and a Finney. That seems to be a leap to me, but of course, I may not know all the facts on those points either.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. Joshua
    May 10, 2009 at 4:13 am

    I think I agree with Don about this.

    I’ve done some thinking about revival ever since it was our church theme for a year. I had read Calvinist attacks on Finney, and had taken that with a grain of salt. In preaching I’d occasionally hear reference to the Welsh Revivals and the effects of it.

    What really got me thinking about Revival was when we had a night of fellowship and someone put on a DVD about the Welsh Revivals and the life of Evan Roberts. I found it very disturbing – because if that was Revival then it would never be welcomed by Baptists. Roberts claimed to spend hours each night in communication with a bright light he thought was God. His prayer meetings were quite chaotic. It seemed to me that they would pray themselves into a fervour until early in the morning when “the power of God would come down”. Roberts had a group of women that would follow him about from meeting to meeting and call out during the preaching. Basically – if this was what genuine revival looked like, then it seemed to me that we were all in the wrong denomination and should join Pentecostalism.

    When I looked the Welsh Revivials up on Wikipedia later on, I found out that these revivals were attended by and heavily impacted upon the men and women who began Pentecostalism and were present at Azusa Street.

    I don’t think anyone in my church actually knew this – we’d just all heard that the Welsh Revivals were a great move of God and assumed it must be so. The fruit of that Revival seemed very mixed. I am very hesitant when people lift up a man’s ministry and then say “lets do it like he did, because everyone knows he did great things for God”. It’s not always bad to emulate good habits in others, but it pays to take a close look.

  4. May 10, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    Those are good thoughts, but it seems that you guys simply say that they were wrong because of movements that sprang from their revivals years afterward. The North East is hard to reach because of Finney’s work there? I think that may be a bit of a stretch.

  5. May 10, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    If the northeast were flooded with churches, it would not be a good reason to embrace Finney. Doctrine is our standard not results.

  6. Joshua
    May 10, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    I can see where you are coming from Nicholas. It is hard to judge from the after-effects, because everything seems to come to naught after a while. Even churches that were once strong inevitably seem to become corrupted. Can we really say a revival isn’t of God because it didn’t last and produce 100% perfect fruit?

    Probably not. But close examination can reveal that all is not as simple as “let’s do what these guys did”. Do you want Revival like the Welsh had, and like Finney produced? Are you comfortable with holding meetings like they did? Is the fact that it appeared to work now sufficient to justify their method and theology?

    I’m not saying everything they did was rotten and needs to be thrown out, but it’s like everything in life – you need to judge it according to the Bible. The Mormons are a very fast growing cult, but that doesnt mean we should emulate Joseph Smith. People like to point to the exponential growth of Pentecostal churches and ask who we are to nitpick while they are growing, as if their growth and success justifies their means.

    If you are saying that some things Finney did are okay and Scriptural and you would like to see that done in your church, by all means make an argument for it. If it’s from Scripture, folks here would be happy to hear it and talk it over. It’s just going to need more behind it than “Finney did it, and look what he got”. Not everything that came from Finney was Biblical, which this article is demonstrating. It’s also coming from men who haven’t thrown the Revival baby out with the Finney bathwater. They are just explaining the good side and the not so good side.

  7. May 10, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    Hi Nicholas

    Well, on that first point, I guess I am guilty myself of the thing I criticise in my post. Let me clarify. I have heard that the after-effect of Finney’s revivals were a very soon return to things as they were, that people felt embarrassed by Finney’s manipulative methods and became twice hardened to gospel claims. Now… I have only heard this and haven’t read this from original or well researched sources. So I will leave that point aside for now.

    But the fact is that Finney’s doctrine often was abominable, as Dave has shown us. Whatever you want to say about Finney’s effect, it is things such as these that make him very suspect.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  8. May 11, 2009 at 12:11 am

    I’ve enjoyed reading these comments. Good discussion.

  9. May 11, 2009 at 7:46 am

    Just for the record, the real reason hyper-Calvinists don’t change burned out light bulbs is that God ordained them to eternal darkness. 🙂

  10. May 12, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Maybe the real point here is that the end does not justify the means. If in fact Finney’s methods really did produce revival, we still must repudiate in the strongest terms possible his means of obtaining it.

    Along with that, I would add that even if his revivals resulted in lasting change, they were still entirely works of his own flesh. We know that because he claimed that they were works of his own flesh. He brought the revival. God simply gave his efforts a little nudge. These were the works of Finney.

    We also must reject Finney’s work because, on the basis of his arguments for what a revival is, he gave no glory to God.

  11. May 12, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    These are good thought, guys. Good discussion. I’ve enjoyed reading through your comments and feedback. Thanks.

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