Does A Good Person’s Ultimate Intention Change When He Sins?

In moral government theology moral law dictates the actions of a person’s will, judging moral character by whether the person conforms or fails to conform to this law. Moral law deals directly with the ultimate intention of the will, and indirectly with all other actions of will as they are caused by this ultimate intention. Ultimate intention is the goal or purpose a person is living for, the reason for all his actions. A person cannot act before he has determined what he wants to accomplish. There are two possible ultimate intentions for human beings, to live for the good and happiness of God and all other conscious beings including himself, which we will call love, or to sacrifice this for some lesser goal. Pursuit of this lesser purpose for convenience we will label selfishness.[1]

Once a person decides what he will live for, he determines “how he will accomplish” this and then “goes about doing so.” We may choose to glorify God by full time ministry or in a profession. This becomes how we “hope to accomplish” our intention to glorify God. Our day to day activities in this area is how we “go about doing it.” A person can choose his profession and go about doing it for either loving or selfish reasons. A minister could love God or he could get a kick from being a pastor. An engineer may value God or she may be after money. Only the ultimate intention determines the moral character of what each has chosen to do and how he or she goes about doing it. 

Two Principles

All advocates of moral government theology agree to the above. The question arises regarding how individual acts that contradict the professed ultimate intention of the individual affect this intention. Specifically, when a person is committed to living by love and commits an act which he knows is contradictory to his goal, does his ultimate intention change? Does he become selfish when he sins? Moral government people give two answers to this question. One group says no, his purpose has not changed simply because he is momentarily inconsistent.[2]

The other groups says yes, he must have changed his intention; it is not possible to deliberately violate what you intend to do. We will call these the common principle and the psychological principle respectively. I use these labels because it is my belief that for most moral considerations people commonly see things in the first way; the second way of seeing this situation is more specialised, psychologically. I also refer to them as principles rather than views because I am going to argue we do not face an either/or situation regarding them. They are both principles for understanding moral behaviour.

Each of these principles is expressible in popular or technical terms. Interestingly we find examples of both principles in the writing of Charles Finney. This is so not because he taught explicitly the usefulness of both principles as I will here suggest, but because of an evolution in Finney’s thought where he began from the common principle and decided in favour of the psychological principle. It could be suggested he held my view implicitly, however. In 1839 at Oberlin College the development of the idea of the unity of moral action began. It said a person’s will cannot choose in two directions at the same time, or from mixed motives. A person cannot have two opposite ultimate intentions, nor partial intentions. Moral action is a unit. You either choose to live by love and go about doing this, or you choose to be selfish. A person’s ultimate intention determines his character. Prior to this idea being discussed the Oberlin faculty may have held to a mixed motive theory or other such. This gradually gave way to the view above. 

Finney And The Common Principle

Finney began applying the unity of moral action in 1840. In two sermons published in the “Oberlin Evangelist” titled “Weakness Of Heart” and “Design or Intention Constitutes Character”[3] he gives both a technical and a popular expression of the common principle. His technical expression refers to a weak heart not as “an opposite heart ruling preference or attitude of will” which cannot be because “It is impossible that there be two supreme and opposite dispositions or preferences in exercise at the same time. It also did not mean ” a divided heart” since partial intentions are not possible either. It also is not “a wicked heart in such a sense as to be the cause of wicked thoughts, volitions, emotions or actions.” Again “This is not possible” because “A regenerate heart is a holy disposition, a holy ruling preference of the will.” Rather, a weak heart is when “this ruling preference or disposition of the will has not, for the time being and under the present circumstances, such efficiency as to successfully resist temptation to specific sins.” Again “The regenerate heart is not the cause of the sin; but the sin is in spite of the regenerate heart.” Finney does not explain how a person chooses contrary to his intention, but says that every person “can testify that such facts may exist, whatever their philosophical explanation may be.”[4]These acts are not performed in obedience to any ultimate intention, either to glorify God, or to promote his own ultimate interests. But, if I may so speak, they fall out and leave a chasm in his usual course of conduct through the force of temptation, without any change in his ultimate intention. Their cause is that, for the time being and under the circumstances, the temptation has more power over his single choices than his ultimate intention has. This is indeed a deep mystery, but so it is, however its philosophy is to be explained. I repeat it, then, that the sins of true Christians, while they are voluntary, are in opposition to their supreme intention and are not continuing or habitual. (Italics added)[5] Finney expressed this principle in popular language when he said Just as a wife, who loves her husband with a supreme affection, may, by the force of temptation, be betrayed into an individual exercise or act that is inconsistent with the general state and supreme attitude of her will. Just as parents who love their children with the most intense and absorbing affection may, through the force of temptation, feel exceedingly provoked with them and for the time being exercise feelings that are entirely in contrast with the state of their hearts toward their children.[6] and A man, for example, may set out to go on a foreign mission with the ultimate intention of glorifying God. Yet, under the force of strong temptation, he may be driven off his course and commit either a single act or a series of acts not in obedience to his ultimate intention or in accordance with it. Nor yet are these acts performed with the ultimate intention of abandoning his missionary enterprise.[7] The practical examples Finney gives justify the label “common” for this principle of moral assessment. This is how most people look at other people’s actions. There seems to be something wrong with someone wanting to say a person has ceased to love his child simply because he blows up at him at some moment. We do not assess people’s characters by an isolated incident. Character seems to describe the basic way a person is living. If he is basically doing what he should we call him a good person. If he basically lives poorly, we say he is bad.[8] The Bible joins this view when it refers to people as righteous, or after God’s own heart, who did commit sins, sometimes blatant ones. Lot is referred to as righteous Lot though he offered his daughters to the people of Sodom. David is after God’s own heart though he spent possibly nine months in his adulterous, murderous situation over Bathsheba. Such statements could not be unless the Bible was looking at the over all behaviour of these people and assessing their character as we commonly do. David’s ultimate intention was to serve God. He did things which violated this from time to time but this does not mean he did not love God or that this was not his purpose.

Finney And The Psychological Principle

The answer advocates of the psychological principle would give to this is “yes, but.” While on a popular level this must be the case, it is weak on a technical level. This shows itself in Finney’s failure to explain how a person could choose contrary to his intention, technically. He refers to it as a “philosophical mystery.” The force of such popular arguments and their common use make us want to believe we can choose contrary to our intentions and that temptation has “more power over our individual choices than our ultimate intention has” but this simply cannot be. The technical difficulties for this view led Finney to become a strong advocate of the psychological principle, as he refined his view of the unity of moral action to its mature form in his Lectures On Systematic Theology. He ultimately came to believe that in any act of sin a person must forsake his ultimate intention to love and become selfish before he can choose to sin. Again Finney gives us both technical and popular arguments for this. His technical arguments are virtually the same as his statements regarding the weak heart above. 1) A person cannot make two opposite choices at the same time. 2) A complexity of motives may call on the will to choose, but it makes a single choice to prefer a single motive. 3) A choice cannot be right in kind but deficient in degree, since it would not be honest if it held back efficient strength to accomplish its goal and would therefore not be right in kind. 4) While a choice can be right while emotions or thoughts contrary to it occur, only intention is moral in nature and consequently no violation of moral law occurs simply because of wrong emotions or thoughts without reference to intention. 5) Opposing single volitions cannot co-exist with a right intention. We note this last point is in direct opposition to Finney’s earlier views, and attacks the exact issue which the popular argument for the common principle forced him to concede as a philosophical mystery. Only this last point need concern us, as it is the true issue. Finney begins by saying “I have formerly supposed that this could be true, but am now convinced that it cannot be true . . .”[9] telling us he has moved beyond his 1840 statements. He says the idea being examined is that intention can be right while volition is inconsistent with it. But what is right intention? Nothing short of this – willing, choosing, or intending the highest good of God and of the universe, and to promote this at every moment, to the extent of our ability. . . . The choice or willing of every interest according to its perceived intrinsic value. . . . To devote our entire being, now and forever, to this end. This is right intention.[10] As opposed to intention, single volitions are “the choice of something, for some reason.” The reason is always whatever the ultimate intention is. We do not choose something for no reason or in spite of all reasons. Volitions do not “happen.” Everything we choose to do is determined by what we ultimately intend. Consequently, “If at any time I will something perceived to be inconsistent with this intention, I must, for the time being, relinquish the intention, as it must indispensably exist in my mind, in order to be virtue.” To suppose, then, that benevolence still remains in exercise, and that a volition co-exists with it that is sinful, involves the absurdity of supposing, that selfishness and benevolence can co-exist in the same mind, or that the will can choose, or will, with a supreme preference or choice, two opposites at the same time. This is plainly impossible. . . . It must be, therefore, that in every sinful choice, the will of a holy being must necessarily drop the exercise of supreme, benevolent intention, and pass into an opposite state of choice; that is, the agent must cease, for the time being, to exercise benevolence, and make a selfish choice. For, be it understood, that volition is the choice of a means to an end; and of course a selfish volition implies a selfish choice of an end.[11] While in common language we may say a person does not change what he is living for when he commits an act he knows is inconsistent with it, on a psychological level he must do exactly this. He could not at this moment of choice be intending to do what he knows his chosen act contradicts. It is psychologically impossible. Finney describes this in popular language as well. Suppose I intend to go to the city of New York as soon as I possibly can. Now, if, on my way, I will to loiter needlessly a moment, I necessarily relinquish one indispensable element of my intention. In willing to loiter, or turn aside to some other object for a day, or an hour, I must, of necessity, relinquish the intention of going as soon as I can.[12]

What Does The Bible Say?

Finney also marshals scripture to support this position. Jesus said a good tree could not produce bad fruit, and a bad tree could not produce good fruit. He said we could not serve two masters, God and Satan. James says anyone who keeps the whole law but is guilty at one point is guilty of breaking all of it. He also said a fig tree cannot bear olives and a pure fountain cannot bring forth salt water. Finney also elsewhere refers to I John 3 where John says those born of God cannot sin. All these passages support the psychological principle that a person cannot have a right ultimate intention and sin at the same time. This principle concludes that a person’s ultimate intention does change when he sins. Does this make the common principle wrong? Advocates of this principle would point out that the passages Finney brings forth need not be read in the absolute sense. Jesus could have meant that people who are living with God as their purpose will not consistently bring forth bad fruit. One bad apple does not a bad apple tree make. The fact is men do pick bad fruit off good trees, but mostly good fruit. A fountain can occasionally become impure without being permanently so. James need not be read that a single act of sin makes a man a lawbreaker, but that he is a lawbreaker when he consistently violates any one law. He need not do everything that is wrong to show he has a wrong heart, only that he consistently breaks some law. It is significant that Finney does not use I John 3:10 to prove the unity of moral action since elsewhere in his systematic theology he admits  These passages, understood and pressed to the letter, would not only teach, that all regenerate souls overcome and live without sin, but also that sin is impossible to them. This last circumstance, as well as other parts of Scripture, forbid us to press this strong language to the letter. But this much must be understood and admitted, that to overcome sin is the rule with every one who is born of God, and that sin is only the exception; that the regenerate habitually live without sin, and fall into sin only at intervals, so few and far between, that in strong language it may be said in truth they do not sin. This is surely the least which can be meant by the spirit of these texts, not to press them to the letter. (Italics added)[13] John’s language would mean Christians could not sin at all if it were not to be qualified by other statements in John’s letter. Why should not all the passages Finney uses to prove a person cannot sin if his heart is right also be qualified in this way? They would then be in keeping with our common sense understanding of morality, which is the way passages like the ones mentioned earlier about Lot and David must be read. The problem with the psychological principle is that ” . . .it destroys character. Every choice is either wholly sinful or entirely holy, and hence, . . . there is no abiding or permanent thing . . . which can be called character. . .”[14]

The Source Of Confusion

I believe the issues above express a confusion about the two principles under discussion. The confusion is over the use of the word ultimate intention, and the dynamic nature of moral character. Ultimate intention as the common principle uses it sees purpose as a project over time. As used in the psychological principle it represents the present choice of this purpose with reference to my immediate alternatives. This time element is the key. As Finney says I may not come to the resolution, that I will never serve God any more, but I must of necessity relinquish, for the time being, the intention of doing my utmost to glorify God, if at any time I put forth a selfish volition. For a selfish volition implies a selfish intention.[15] The common principle recognises that a person is living for an ultimate purpose if, for the most part, he makes choices supportive of this purpose. The psychological principle recognises that such character is the result of choosing moment by moment to make this purpose mine in the present. I can choose temporarily to cease pursuing this, for an hour, for a moment, and still pick it up again. Whether I do or not and how often I choose to determines my character. What I do in the present moment determines the character of my action. Advocates of the common principle fail to recognise that morally, people are not things, they are actors. Character is not an “abiding permanent thing” which is unchangeable and does not depend on a person’s choosing it. Nor should advocates of the psychological principle see moral choices as atomistic in the sense that every act of will is entirely separate and uninfluenced by previous choices. We do develop tendencies through the laws of habit which influence us to repeat conduct. This influence never becomes causal in the sense that we cannot choose contrary to it. Character is both developed, and chosen at every moment. The amount I choose something increases the likelihood I will choose it again. If I am to do it again, I must choose to. While the will is not perfectly free in the sense of being uninfluenced by the laws of habit, neither is it bound. It is always free enough to be exercising responsible choice. The psychological principle recognises that no prior choice of will guarantees I will continue my previous course. I can choose to make a major permanent reversal any time. I must make at least a temporary reversal any time I sin. This can be seen even in cases like the wife who violates the trust of her love relationship to her husband or the parents who lose their tempers with their children. They do not change their over all intention to love their spouse or children, but this is not an act of love. And it must be for another reason. Effectively each is saying at this moment I will not choose that love which I probably do intend to keep choosing for the most part, because right now I have decided to act on a selfish principle instead. They probably regret the action shortly thereafter and insist they did not mean to do it. This is popular language for fact that it does not express their basic intentions. They would not feel bad if they were not aware that they did mean to do it. No guilt could be associated with an act they did not intend. 

Usefulness Of The Principles

The psychological principle is useful for assessing the moral character of individual acts. The earlier Finney was in a quandary how to do this with volitions opposed to ultimate intention. The moral quality of acts “not in accordance with, but in opposition to, the supreme and ultimate intention of the mind . . . must be determined by the particular design or intention that gave them birth.”[16] He came to realise they must be flowing from the ultimate intention and that he must be mistaken in maintaining an opposite intention exists when such acts take place. This is of personal practical importance. We may know the state of our heart at any given moment by whether we are choosing with right intention or not. Psychologically we cannot be sinning and intending as we ought. The common principle is useful for assessing the moral character of a person’s life. How often or how seldom a person chooses morally right acts determines how holy or sinful he is. The law of habit suggests such character can to some extent be counted on, though not in any absolute sense. The minimum the Bible allows us to say is that sin will be the exception and holiness the rule for the Christian. Even if we decide the passages Finney quotes fail to express that sin cannot at all be predicated of a pure heart at this moment, at the very least they insist sin is so exceptional rather than common in Christians, that we can determine their hearts by their fruit. Other passages indicate Christians can still sin, so these passages cannot be read in an absolute sense, when evaluating a Christian’s life. Pushed to the extreme the psychological principle interpretation of these verses would say a person is or is not a good tree whenever he does right or sins. Hence a person would cease to be a Christian every time he sins. This feels as unnatural as saying a son ceases to be a son every time he disobeys his father. But a loving son is one who usually obeys. The common principle seems to be what is intended. We should not loose sight however that even this understanding of these passages is based on the psychological principle. If we can say a Christian does not sin usually, it is because his intent to glorify God excludes psychologically the possibility of sin as it is maintained moment by moment. In cases of temptation he may fail to sustain this intention and give in to a selfish intention. This will be temporary and only occasional. Should it cease to be occasional and become the rule, he must cease to be seen as a true Christian. This is the possibility of apostasy that scripture warns us to beware. 

The Psychological Principle In Scripture

Must we conclude the psychological principle has no direct scriptural support? It would seem such support is to be found in verses that show the moral character of all actions is determined by intention, which is either right or wrong. Titus tells us to the pure all things are pure but to the wicked nothing is pure, showing there is no mixture of moral assessment to be had when a person’s heart is right or wrong. Purity of intention determines purity of action. Impurity of intention determines impurity of action. This does not suggest the impossibility of the pure becoming impure occasionally through sinning, or the impure becoming pure through repentance. It does deny the possibility of sin flowing from a pure heart and vice versa. This is more in keeping with the psychological principle. Scripture also says whether we eat or drink we should do it to the Lord, and that the plowing of the wicked is impure, indicating that all actions, even those usually considered amoral, are morally reducible to and affected by the intention of the heart. Even supposedly good acts like “the tender mercies” of the wicked are said to be “cruel.” All such verses speak of the total depravity of the sinful heart, and the complete purity of a holy heart. The psychological principle alone explains how such statements can be made. It finds its scriptural support here. Such verses might be understood in common principle terms as general statements meaning most everything is pure to those who basically maintain pure hearts, and most everything is impure to those who usually do what is wrong, but such a reading seems unnatural. The point of the verses seems not to give us a general assessment of overall character, but to tell us no individual act is right when the heart is wrong, or wrong when the heart is right. A Christian’s sin is not “pure” because he usually obeys God. A morally wrong act is still wrong and impure. It cannot be pure “to” him because he usually does what it right. The verse assumes the Christian is maintaining a pure heart and recognises this is what makes his action pure rather than sinful. The common principle is in the background, however, in that people are being referred to as “the pure” who we know from other statements of scripture do sometimes do “impure” things. Taken absolutely we would be forced to conclude no one fits the category of “the pure,” if absolutely all things are pure to them with no exceptions. But for the verse to give us any valid information on the moral purity of “the pure’s” actions it must be on the basis of the psychological principle. Only a right heart can determine a right action, since the character of action is determined by the intention from which it flows. 

God Judges By The Psychological Principle

Although a Christian would not cease to be a Christian when he sins, does he come under condemnation every time he sins? On the basis of the psychological principle Finney insists this is so. The answer must depend on whether God’s law uses the psychological principle or the common principle to assess the application of its penalty. Whatever standard we determine will decide the status of sinning Christians, since grace cannot require less than law. Advocates of the psychological principle would say Adam and Eve were told the day they ate of the fruit they would die. There was no suggestion they could sin some, as long as it was occasional. What government would command respect that implied violation of its law could be occasional? How would we feel if a person murdered someone and the law said because this person had not consistently murdered people, he would be allowed to wander free as long as he did not accumulate too many murders? It seems God immediately cursed the creation upon the sin of Adam and Eve. James says he who sins once is guilty of all, because he has become a lawbreaker. Surely the psychological principle is the standard of judgement? Common principle advocates could reply that God was not intending to promise punishment in threatening Adam and Eve would die upon eating the fruit. He was informing them of the spiritual death that would take place in their hearts if they violated moral law. God did not immediately judge them and curse the world when they sinned. First he inquired of them, seeking a penitent attitude. Instead of this he found they tried to pass their guilt on to others. They had not repented but sustained their selfish attitude. Rather than an individual violation it became a sustained attitude of will. The law cannot accept this so God judged. We mentioned earlier that James need not be referring to an isolated act of sin but to one kind of sin sustained over time. Such sinning indicates a wrong attitude of will, even if other kinds of sin do not become expressed. While such common principle arguments could be sustained they do not seem cogent. Adam and Eve did not immediately repent but they also did not carry on their rebellion for a long time. Surely our normal common principle judgements would have given them more time than this to indicate their character. The interpretation of James is up for grabs but it seems God, like any other government, would be required by the good of all not to encourage any action harmful to this good. If God is totally committed to our good, he would not want anything done which would hinder it. Hence it would seem his law must respond to even a single violation, with action of either punishment or atonement. Forgiveness would be conditional on repentance and faith in this atonement, to sustain the authority of his government. Forgiveness could only be offered through a return to complete uninterrupted obedience, or exactly what the law always required. Anything less would breed disobedience. It would seem the psychological principle is the standard of judgement. This would mean Finney is correct in seeing each sin as bringing condemnation. This seems supported by Romans 8:1-2 that states those who are in Christ Jesus have no condemnation because the law of the Spirit of life set them free from the law of sin and death. They are not condemned because they do not sin. This cannot be read in an absolute sense because we know Christians do sometimes sin. It could be read to support the psychological principle but this would again say a person is not in Christ, every time he sins. It probably should be read in the common principle sense that there basically is no condemnation for the Christian because he lives by the Spirit and basically does not sin. When he sins he does come under condemnation but this is again so exceptional that it can be said of him that he does not come under condemnation as a generally accurate statement. Notice again that the psychological principle is at the base of this interpretation. The passage assumes the lack of condemnation is because the law of sin and death is made inoperative in the Christian’s life. 

Legal And Relational Considerations

While we do not want to say a person keeps popping in and out of being a Christian every time he sins, we must not lose sight of the moral implications of his sins. Apostasy would occur if he finally decided to cease repenting and stay in his sins. The illustration of how a son does not cease to be a son when he disobeys his father needs to be balanced by the fact that in this case the son’s father is the governor of the universe, with obligations which extend beyond mere familial considerations. The president of a country may not cease to love his son when he violates the laws of his father’s country, but even this father must enforce the laws of the land, whether he loves his son or not. God is such a father. Do we cease to be in Christ when we sin? Not relationally since God loves us as our father. Legally our status must come in question since our adoption has been wrought through the legal means of atonement, and our forsaking our sins. We must not live on the assumption of the common principle, for it can lead to that gradual hardening Hebrews warns from sin’s deceitfulness. We must live by the psychological principle and deal with every temptation and sin individually. Forgiveness is possible through Christ’s atonement when we repent and come to him afresh, but we must deal with every sin. It is never alright to sin. If we die in a state of unrepentance we must be lost. This does not mean if some individual sin is missed we would be lost, since what is repented of is the state of heart involved in the sin. Whenever true repentance and return to obedience takes place, this would constitute “dealing with” even sins that cannot be remembered. But admission of all sins we are aware of is indispensible to a true change of heart. 

Can One Sin Forfeit Salvation?

If we live a godly life, basically obedient as the common principle would say, but commit some act and die before repenting, will we be lost? Here is the strongest and most common criticism of the psychological principle. Something seems grossly wrong with an affirmative reply. Finney seems to have been consistent and replied affirmatively. In discussing the doctrine of perseverance of the saints in the 1851 edition of his Lectures On Systematic Theology he argues for the necessity of the doctrine of perseverance as our only hope in facing death. If the doctrine under consideration is not true, I cannot see upon what ground we can affirm, or even confidently hope, that many of our pious friends who have died have gone to heaven. Suppose they held on their way until the last hours of life. If we may not believe that the faithfulness of God prevailed to keep them through the last conflict, what reason have we to affirm that they were preserved from sin and apostasy in their last hours, and saved? If the sovereign grace of God do not protect them against the wiles and malice of Satan, in their feebleness, and in the wreck of their habitation of clay, what has become of them? I must confess that, if I did not expect the covenanted mercy and faithfulness of God to prevail, and to sustain the soul under such circumstances, I should have very little expectation that any would be saved.[17] Obviously Finney believed if you died in an act of sin, your past life would not matter. God would judge you by the state you came to him in. Finney probably felt Ezekiel 18 sustained this position. No righteousness a man had would matter if he sinned. That this conclusion seems extreme, if not repulsive makes many lean toward a common principle understanding. Ezekiel need not have meant that a righteous man would die for a single sin following upon a godly life, but that if he turned from a godly life to a wicked life his past righteousness would not count in his favour. This would fit the view of apostasy as a continuance of occasional sin, making it usual. It seems to be the teaching of Hebrews 6:9-11. After describing how fruitless ground is worthy only to be destroyed, the writer says Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case – things that accompany salvation. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. (Italics added)[18] While continuance is stressed there is an equal stress that God will not forget their character, how they have been living. For God to send someone to hell because he fell to a certain sin and died immediately without opportunity to repent would be a violation of this principle. Is this not to say after all that God uses the common rather than the psychological principle to determine his judgement of men? Another possibility seems more in keeping with the government of God and does honour to the other emphasis of the verse of the necessity of maintaining diligence to the very end. It does seem unnecessary for God to assess a person’s life by the final act he commits before death. This is not the same thing as saying God ought not to deal with a person’s act of sin, simply because it happened at the last moment of his life. God’s law requires each sin to be dealt with. The key is there has been no opportunity for repentance in the hypothetical case in question. Since mercy is a legitimate function of law, God could give opportunity for such a person to repent before passing judgement. This would not violate the principle that it is appointed for man once to die and then judgement. This general principle makes this life our probation. The suggested opportunity is not giving a person additional probation, but completing the one he was unable to complete due to untimely death. 

Character Is More Than The Moment

What the suggestion is saying is that a person’s heart will not change at death. Our will, though free, is developed in its attitude over time through the law of habit and will not change its tendencies in a moment. A person who has been living for God and has fallen to a temptation will repent given the opportunity because he has, in common principle terms, a good heart. We remember the error of looking at the psychological principle atomistically. The will is not that free. Character is more than just what I choose at every moment, though less than a permanent something. In addition, a person with a wicked heart, even given the chance, would not repent at the judgement. A selfish heart in the presence of the judgement of God might make a selfish reform, out of fear or guilt, but not a true turning from selfishness itself. Jesus even said people would stand before him and begin to justify themselves saying they had prophesied in his name and driven out demons. Jesus will reply he never knew them. The suggestion God will give people the opportunity to repent when they had no chance before death is consistent with the psychological principle as the basis of judgement, but recognises through the reality of the common principle that this will not constitute anyone’s salvation being determined by a single act. 

Does A Good Person’s Ultimate Intention Change When He Sins?

We began by describing a difference of opinion among the advocates of moral government theology about whether a person’s ultimate intention changes when he sins. We said there were two opposite opinions. I have tried to show that rather than these being considered two opposing views they should be seen as two complimentary principles for evaluating moral action. The common principle refers to moral character, the psychological principle to moral acts. Each is dependent on the other. Choices determine character by developing tendencies that then influence the continuance of certain patterns of choice. God deals with each choice individually but a person’s ultimate destiny, though decided by these choices, will depend on how a person has lived. The warnings of apostasy are warnings to take sin seriously because it can harden us into people who will not turn back to God. The old Jewish saying is very appropriate. Watch your thoughts, thoughts become actions. Watch your actions, actions become habits. Watch your habits, habits become nature. Watch your nature, nature becomes destiny. Does a good person’s ultimate intention change when he sins? Yes and no. 1997 Kel Good. Used by permission; this publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. 


  1. We leave for another essay whether selfishness should be understood as a commitment to our own highest good rather than the highest good of all beings, which would seem to be making self esteem primary (a view which Charles Finney suggested but seems to have applied inconsistently), or is the commitment of the will to the gratification of desire irrespective of the dictates of reason (a view Finney’s successor James Fairchild advocated suggesting that a true pursuit of one’s own highest good could not be pursued in opposition to the highest good of all), or if both of the above should be included under the label. For the time being we use Nathaniel Taylor’s phraseology that selfishness is a commitment to a lesser good, though Taylor sees the pursuit of a moral being always to entail seeking his highest good and sees conversion taking place when one chooses God and benevolence out of self love, seeing these as a greater source of good to make oneself happy than the world. The voice of significant moral government theologians of the past is hardly universal here. The issue is problematic and requires more detailed examination. Since both self love (if it contradicts love for all beings) and commitment to desires (which could be destructive of self love) are lesser goods to the good of all, Taylor’s phraseology suffices, though we need to recognize that we are not agreeing with his original use. 
    2. We ignore for the time being the idea of a person sustaining this inconsistency for longer than a brief time, although this must come into consideration.
    3. Charles G. Finney, Principles Of Christian Obedience, L.G. Parkhurst, ed. (Minneapolis, Bethany House Publishers, 1990), pg. 165-175 and 143-154 respectively. 
    4. Ibid., pg. 166-167.
    5. Ibid., pg. 152.
    6. Ibid., pg. 167. 
    7. Ibid., pg. 151-152.
    8. A further essay will also deal with the question whether people who are basically bad in the common sense ever do truly good things.
    9. Charles G. Finney, Lectures On Systematic Theology (London, William Tegg And Co., 1851), pg. 147. 
    10. Ibid., pg. 147-148. 
    11. Ibid., pg. 148-149. 
    12. Ibid., pg. 148. 
    13. Ibid., pg. 471. 
    14. Frank H. Foster, A Genetic History Of The New England Theology (New York, Russell & Russell Inc., 1963), pg. 460. 
    15. Finney, Systematic Theology, pg. 148. 
    16. Finney, Christian Obedience, pg. 151. 
    17. Finney, Systematic Theology, pg. 914-915. 
    18. The Holy Bible, New International Version, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1978), pg. 1579.

Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (

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