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Walther And Finney
by Dr. Tom Baker

The message of salvation is delivered to people through the declaration of the divine Law and the proclamation of the divine Gospel. If this distinction is distorted, the message of salvation through Jesus Christ also will be distorted.

No Reformation theologian has more precisely defined the difference between the Law and the Gospel than Dr. C.F.W. Walther. Alternatively, perhaps no Evangelical theologian has more carelessly defined theological concepts and muddied the waters of the Gospel than has Charles Grandison Finney.

In the material that follows, Dr. Tom Baker compares some of Walther's thoughts with quotations from Finney's "Systematic theology."

Dr. C.F.W., Walther is best known as the first president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His 39 lectures delivered on Friday evenings at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis from Sept. 12, 1884 through Nov. 6, 1885 form the content of the book, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel. Walther presented these thesis on the distinctions between Law and Gospel in order to help pastors in preparing their sermons.

Perhaps lesser known among Lutherans is another theologian of Walther's day: Charles Grandison Finney. Finney, known as the leader of the Second Great Awakening in the nineteenth century, prepared a systematic theology in the 1840's. Finney's theology has become for the most part the operating theology of much of evangelicalism today. Finney lacked any formal theological training. He taught that salvation was based upon man's choice. Salvation for Finney entailed morality. He believed that man, by the exercise of his will, was able to attain perfection.

While there is little evidence that C.F.W. Walther ever dealt with the theology of Charles Finney, what follows are some of the theses presented by Walther in his lectures compared with quotations from Finney's theology.

These comparisons are presented so those within the camp of true Reformation theology will look very carefully before they leap into practices and movements that arise out of modern Evangelicalism.

(The notations following the Finney quotations are the page references from his Lectures on Systematic Theology)

What is Truth?

Walther believed that true orthodoxy was determined by Scripture properly taught and handled. He wrote:

Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all the articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguishes from each other the Law and the Gospel.

Finney believed that truth came from many quarters and that Christians must be open to changing their views.

True Christian consistency does not consist in stereotyping our opinions and views, and in refusing to make any improvements lest we should be guilty of change, but it consists in holding our minds open to receive the rays of truth from every quarter and in changing our views and language and practice as often and as fast as we can obtain further information. (xii)

Grace or Works?

Walther properly taught that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was a message of free grace and had nothing to do with works.

The first manner of confounding Law and Gospel is the one most easily recognized - and the grossest. It is adopted, for instance, by the Papist, Socinians, and Rationalists and consists in this, that Christ is represented as a new Moses, or Lawgiver, and the Gospel turned into a doctrine of meritorious works, while at the same time those who teach that the Gospel is the message of the free grace of God in Christ are condemned and anathematized, as is done by the Papists.

Finney taught that salvation was the result of a perfect obedience to the Law. A Christian could and must attain moral perfection. To teach justification without perfection was a doctrine of devils.

What is this, but pardoning present and pernicious rebellion! Receiving to favor a God-defrauding wretch! Forgiving a sin unrepented of and detestably persevered in! Yes, this must be, if it be true that Christians are justified without present full obedience. That surely must be a doctrine of devils, that represents God as receiving to favor a rebel who has one hand filled with weapons against his throne. (119) If what has been said is truth, 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. (123) The practicality of its attainment (moral perfection) must be admitted, or it cannot be aimed at. And now I would humbly inquire, whether to preach any thing short of this is not to give countenance to sin? (420)

The Relationship between Justification and Sanctification:

Based clearly on Scripture, Walther taught that sanctification, or living the Christian life, is the result of justification.

The Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is preached first and then the Law; sanctification first and then justification; faith first and then repentance; good works first and then grace.

Finney rejected the doctrine of justification and taught moral perfection. It is obvious from the quotations that Finney properly understood the cardinal doctrine of justification, but he rejected and ridiculed it.

The next inquiry is, can there be such a thing as a partial repentance of sin? That is, does not true repentance imply a return to present full obedience to the law of God ... To talk of partial repentance as a possible thing is to talk nonsense. What! A man turns away from, and holds on to sin at the same time! Serve God and mammon at one and the same time! It is impossible. This impossibility is affirmed by both reason and by Christ. (574)

The gospel justification is not to be regarded as a forensic or judicial proceeding. . . Gospel justification is the justification of sinners; it is, therefore, naturally impossible, and a most palpable contradiction, to affirm that the justification of a sinner, or of one who has violated the law, is a forensic or judicial justification. That only is or can be a legal or forensic justification, that proceeds upon the ground of its appearing that the justified person is guiltless, or, in other words, that he has not violated the law, that he has done only what he had a legal right to do. (383)

Present sanctification, in the sense of a present full consecration to God, is another condition, not ground, of justification. Some theologians have made justification a condition of sanctification, instead of making sanctification a condition of justification. (391)

The doctrine of an imputed righteousness, or that Christ's obedience to the law, was accounted as our obedience, is founded on a most false and nonsensical assumption; to wit, that Christ owed no obedience to the law in his own person, and that therefore his obedience was altogether a work of supererogation, and might be made a substitute for our own obedience; that it might be set down to our credit, because he did not need to obey for himself. (385)

The Assurance of Salvation:

Walther taught that the assurance of salvation is based upon the grace of God, not upon a change within man.

The Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher describes faith in a manner as if. . . (it) makes a person righteous and saves him for the reason that it produces in him love and reformation of his mode of living.

Finney taught the evidence of salvation was found in a person's peace of mind.

The saint is justified, and he has the evidence of it in the peace of his own mind. He is conscious of obeying the law of reason and of love. Consequently he naturally has that kind and degree of peace that flows from the harmony of his will with the law of his intelligence. His heart and conscience are at one, and while this is so, he has thus far the evidence of justification in himself. That is, he knows that God cannot condemn his present state. (310)

The Cause of the Forgiveness of Sins:

For Walther, the cause of forgiveness was not an attitude within man but the grace of God.

The Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher represents contrition alongside of faith as a cause of the forgiveness of sins.

Justification and forgiveness for Finney was based upon the intention of the human will.

What then is the state of mind which is, and must be, the condition of justification? Not merely an intention to obey, for this is only an intending to intend, but intending what the law requires to be intended, to wit, the highest well-being of God and of the universe. Unless he intends this, it is absurd to say that he can intend full obedience to the law; that he intends to live without sin. (121)

Faith and Free Will:

Walther properly taught that faith was worked in the heart of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel. Man did not cooperate.

The Word of God is not properly divided when one makes an appeal to believe in a manner as if a person could make himself believe or at least help towards, that end, instead of preaching faith into a person’s heart by laying the Gospel promises before him.

Finney taught that being saved was based upon man's choice to be saved. Man was also fully capable by his own power of obeying the entire law of God. Finney rejected the doctrine of original sin. The human problem for Finney was not man's inability to be a Christian but rather his unwillingness.

The moral government of God everywhere assumes and implies the liberty of the human will, and the natural ability of man to obey God. Every command, every threatening, every expostulation and denunciation in the Bible implies and assumes that. (325)

Every sinner under the gospel has it within his power to accept or reject salvation. The elect can know their election by accepting the offered gift. The non-elect can know their non-election by the consciousness of a voluntary rejection of offered life. If anyone fears that he is one of the non-elect, let him at once renounce his unbelief and cease to reject salvation, and the ground of fear and complaint instantly falls away. (496)

If the nature is sinful, in such a sense that action must necessarily be sinful, which is the doctrine of the Confession of Faith, then sin in action must be a calamity, and can be no crime. It is the necessary effect of a sinful nature. This cannot be a crime since the will has nothing to do with it. (250)

Let it not be said that we deny the grace of the glorious gospel of the blessed God, nor that we deny the reality and necessity of the influences of the Holy Spirit to convert and sanctify the soul... But I maintain ... that men are able to do their duty, and that the difficulty does not lie in a proper inability, but in a voluntary selfishness, in an unwillingness to obey the blessed gospel. The denial of ability is really the denial of the possibility of grace in the affairs of man's salvation. I admit the ability of man, and hold that he is able, but utterly unwilling to obey God. Therefore, I consistently hold that all the influences exerted by God to make him willing, are of free grace abounding through Christ Jesus. (352)

Charles Finney is best known, not for his theology, but for his "new measures," or techniques for doing evangelism. Finney developed the present "evangelical style" which was really based upon his systematic theology. His excitement-filled gatherings had to be "seeker-sensitive" since he was attempting to change the will of his hearers who were, in his mind, capable of making a decision to be saved and born-again.

Of course, Walther's grace-based theology also produced a style and method that focused upon the objective truths of the Gospel which changed the heart. It is a fallacy to suggest that there is no relationship between style and substance!

For a detailed account of Finney's "new measures" read Revival and Revivalism by Iain H. Murray (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994).

Dr. Tom Baker is pastor of St. James Lutheran Church in University City, Mo. He also co-hosts the daily radio program "Law and Gospel."

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