Sin: A Reappraisal

If there is anything that impresses a person as he begins to study the thought of Charles Finney, it is how extremely tightly reasoned his system of theology is. There does not seem to be one piece of his presentation that is not integral to the whole. Everywhere there is the same almost ruthless logical correlation. Each doctrine is another brick in the edifice Finney has built. It feels almost impossible to question anything he says without questioning the entire scheme. Naturally, this is an exaggeration. Few people today who espouse what has become known as Moral Government Theology would side with everything Finney said. But it is hard to find a theologian of his caliber, one who could so ably harmonize the theology of the Bible with the dictates of reason. It is with the utmost respect for Finney’s thought and its logical rigor that I wish to examine a doctrine very central to his thesis. I want to take a look at his doctrine of sin.

I wish to carry out this inquiry by comparing what Finney had to say on this subject with the thought of another eminent theologian in the Evangelical tradition, that of John Wesley. This comparison is appropriate since both Wesley’s and Finney’s theologies have been classified as theologies of Christian Perfection. Wesleyan perfectionism is most accurately classified as Arminian in its characteristics. Finney’s view is more Pelagian. Gordon Olson appears to consider it Semi-Pelagian in his preface to Holiness And Sin.(1) The distinction between Wesley’s and Finney’s views stems from the difference between their views of man’s nature. Wesley saw men as born inherently sinful, dead in sin. Finney believed men were born innocent, though influenced by a weakened physical nature. Their theologies of sin and holiness flowed logically from these starting points.

Two Views Of Sin

Although Wesley and Finney differed in their view of man’s moral inheritance, and consequently expressed their views of perfection in different terms, both shared a common view of what the sin is which God sets us free from. Because of his Arminianism, Wesley spoke of sins “improperly so called” and sins “properly so called.” The former were “ignorance, error, infirmities which are not of a moral nature” but were “necessarily connected with flesh and blood.”(2) God does not completely save us from these sins in this life. The latter type of sin he defined as “a voluntary transgression of a known law.”(3) From this second type of sin “properly so called” Wesley believed we could be completely freed. In similar fashion Finney said “A state of perfect love implies the discharge of known duty.”(4) Sin would obviously be its opposite, the violation of a “known” duty. Finney believed also we could be saved in this life from conscious sin.

Both theologians’ practical working definition of sin questioned the classical reformed definition. This defined sin as “the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that is naturally engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil.”(5) Wesley’s Arminianism led him to a theoretical acceptance of the doctrine of original sin, and to a recognition that sin was more than just conscious voluntary transgressions, sins “improperly so called.” This did not limit his belief that perfection could be attained. Such perfection was attainable because he defined sin practically in terms of conscious violations.

This attribution of sin as conscious violation of known obligation is characteristic of theologies of perfection. In the preface to Benjamin Warfield’s classic critique Studies In Perfectionism,(6) we read this

Dr. Warfield’s ever-present criticism of Perfectionism is its inadequate notion of sin. Perfectionism is impossible, he claimed, in the presence of a profound sense of sin. The perfectionism of the Higher Life Movement is a subjective rather than an objective perfectionism. At the most it saves from sinning but not from sin, that is from “known sin,” but not from the “corruption of man’s heart.” And this because it ignores the fact that sin consists of any lack of conformity unto the law of God as well as transgression of that law.(7)

Tension Between The Two Views

One can see the tension in Wesley as he grapples with his own acceptance of this distinction between “sinning” and “sin.” On the one hand, he wants to accept that we are born sinful, and that desires and attitudes and errors over which we have no conscious control are still inherently sinful. While he sees Christ able to deliver from conscious voluntary sinning, he never is able to conclude that complete deliverance from sin is possible in this life, since sins “improperly so called” are also sin. These can never be prevented since they are inherently a part of being human, and of our sinful inheritance from Adam. This leads him to posit what he calls “evangelical obedience.” Holiness in the Christian is never a complete holiness, but is a holiness which Christ’s atonement makes acceptable to God, even though it falls short of complete conformity to the law of God. Sins “improperly so called” are forgiven through Christ, and conscious obedience to known obligation is accepted as “perfect” obedience. Hear Wesley on this.

I believe there is no such perfection in this life as excludes these involuntary transgressions [sc. W. defines these as “deviations from the perfect law”, i.e., from Adamic perfection] which I apprehend to be naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality. Therefore sinless perfection is a phrase I never use, lest I should seem to contradict myself.(8)

This is good Arminianism. Finney will have nothing to do with it. Nothing can be perfection but complete obedience to the law of God. Any sin must mean that we are not being perfect, as God requires. How does Finney deal with involuntary sins, sins stemming from ignorance, or sinful desires and inclinations? He denies they constitute sin. Warfield explains.

The New Divinity was a Pelagian scheme; a scheme of ethics; it was therefore essentially legalistic and could not conceive of perfection otherwise than as perfect obedience to law – the law of God. It could not homologate therefore the Wesleyan idea of an “evangelical obedience,” graciously accepted of believers in lieu of the “legal obedience” they were not in a position to render. Of anything else, as constituting perfection, than complete obedience to the law of God, the Oberlin men would hear nothing. But they had their own way of reaching the same relaxing result which the Wesleyans had reached. They defined the content of the law, obedience to which constitutes perfection, as just “love”; and although this language meant with them something different from what it meant with the Wesleyans, it is not clear that they were able to give it any greater ethical content. Supposing themselves successful, however, in pouring into the concept of love, objectively, the whole content of righteousness ideally viewed, they did not in any case require this content for the love by which a man is made perfect. To be perfect, he does not require to love as God loves – in whose love all righteousness is embraced – or as the angels love, or as Adam loved, or even as any better man than he loves. He only requires to love as he himself, being what he is, and in the condition in which he finds himself, can love. If he loves all he can love in his present condition, he is perfect.(9)

For Finney and his Oberlin compatriots nothing is sin but conscious violation of perceived obligation. Wesley admits involuntary transgressions are “inseparable from mortality.” They are a part of being human. Then how can these things be considered sin? Finney concludes they can not. A man can be perfect precisely because perfection is defined as doing all you can. Who cannot do what he can do? If I’ve done something objectively wrong, because I did not know it was objectively wrong, then it is not sin. If I experience an involuntary desire for something wrong, but am unable to control the occurrence of the desire, then it is not sin. Obedience is a “sliding scale”(10) which adapts itself to the ability of the sinner. Warfield says of this view of the law that

To object on this basis to the Wesleyan doctrine of “evangelical obedience” on the ground that it supposes a relaxation of the universal obligation of the law, is fatuous. There is no such thing as a universal obligation of the law to be relaxed; or indeed as a universal law, binding on all alike, to create a universal obligation. Each man’s obligation is exhausted in the law which his own ability creates for him; and as soon as the Wesleyans remind us that in their view “evangelical obedience” is accepted primarily because it alone is within the capacity of men to render – “legal obedience” being beyond their power – the Oberlin objector is dumb; that is just his own doctrine.(11)

What’s The Difference?

What is clear from this statement is that the kind of holiness being advocated by Wesley and by Finney is the same. They both saw perfection as conscious obedience to “known” obligation. Why then did the Oberlin theologians see their view as so significantly different from Wesley’s? The reason was that the New Divinity, of which Finney was a part, insisted that God could never accept anything but complete obedience to his moral law as holiness. The gospel could not become a way for sinners to avoid their obligations. To suggest God accepts less than the moral law requires of men is to suggest that God compromises with sin. God can require nothing less of the Christian after he comes to Christ than he required of him before he was saved. Only complete obedience to the divine law is acceptable.

Wesley suggested God relaxes his law for sinners. They are inherently sinful because of their generation from Adam, and can never perfectly obey. Both through ignorance, and through the sinfulness of their moral state, men are impossibly far from any kind of holiness that meets the absolute standard of God’s law. Although they cannot avoid this, they are not therefore guiltless. They are still condemned. But Christ died to cover such sin. When a man is in Christ, all such sin is atoned for. Deliverance must await the final hour. For now, God delivers his people from conscious transgressions and accepts this lesser obedience as holiness for Christ’s sake. If Christ had not died to atone for original sin, God could not accept this “evangelical obedience.” He can do so because of the atonement.

Finney would agree that men could not avoid actions that flow from ignorance, or avoid desires and attitudes of an involuntary nature. He would add that this fact indicates such things could not be sinful. Ability must limit responsibility. No one can be required to do what he cannot do. Warfield wonders at how Finney can complain that Wesley’s “evangelical obedience” relaxes God’s requirements, and yet Finney’s view of the law brings the requirements right down to where Wesley relaxed it. He says this leaves the Oberlin objector “dumb” because this “is just his own doctrine.” Finney would reply, I think, that his problem with Wesley is not that he set the level of obedience acceptable to God at the level of conscious sin, but that he failed to recognize this truly was the requirement of God’s law. It was no relaxation. In failing to see the law was graded to men’s abilities, Wesley had set the standard higher than God had, and placed holiness naturally above their reach. This showed God to be an unjust ruler, requiring impossibilities of his subjects. It also forced Wesley to accept a salvation “in sin,” a salvation where God accepts sinners while they continue to violate his precepts, and fail to meet the requirements of his law. This leads to the perception that God accepts something less than complete obedience. To suggest God compromises with sin is to undermine any positive influence God’s government can have toward men living according to moral law.

But what of Warfield’s accusation that Finney’s view eliminates any objectivity to the law? If everyone perfectly obeys the law when he lives up to his own perception of law, doesn’t this mean there is no absolute standard by which we can be judged? Again, Finney is misunderstood. In limiting obligation to the level of conscious knowledge, Finney is attempting to explain moral culpability. Failure to know everything God’s law requires does not reduce the full objective standard of God’s law. What it does do is limit the extent to which a person can be held accountable by that law. This does not remove the requirement to be growing in one’s understanding of that law, or deny that one can grow in holiness. What it says is that at every point in one’s moral growth, one can only be held accountable for what one presently knows. What Finney’s view establishes is the subjective standard by which God’s law judges people.

So Finney’s doctrine of sin is that nothing is sin but a conscious violation of the moral light one has. Such moral action is always limited by what one perceives one’s obligations to be, and what one can accomplish through willing. Ignorance is an excuse. One cannot be responsible for experiencing desires or thoughts contrary to God’s law. These are beyond one’s direct control. Only in the will does moral character reside. Wesley and his reformed ancestors confused things by seeing sin in the very desires and affections men experience, where these entice to unlawful acts. This is to confuse temptation with sin. They saw sin in mistakes men make simply because they do not have unlimited knowledge of moral relations. This is to confuse being a finite creature with sin. Finney denies all such sinfulness since it is beyond the pale of voluntary action. Nothing can be sin but voluntary selfishness. This view of sin is worked out in complete consistency throughout Finney’s theology. He shamelessly claims that a person who is committed to obeying God, up to his present moral light, is not only perfect in some “evangelical” sense, but morally perfect. This is all the law requires of him.Wesley to the contrary, such a person is sinless.

Something Is Missing

Finney’s critique of the idea that men can be responsible to do things they did not know they should do (sins of ignorance) appears hard to deny. His claim men cannot be accountable for involuntary desires and affections over which they have no control seems convincing. Why then are so many unpersuaded? Why do so many accept views like Wesley’s, that appear to claim just the opposite? I believe the reason is that there is a part of the picture missing. As thorough as Finney has been, I believe he has failed to capture all of our moral intuitions in his description of sin and moral depravity. While his view is worked out with incredible consistency from his starting point, there are some steps missing in the argument to make his view complete. I am going to suggest that sometimes ignorance is not an excuse, and that the involuntary desires and emotions we experience can sometimes be something for which we are morally accountable, even though we could not help them. I will attempt to show that Finney’s theology itself provides the basis for such assertions, although he never successfully worked these conclusions out.

Unintentional Sin

The most obvious starting point is with sins of ignorance or “unintentional” sins. We have suggested above that Finney denies the existence of such sins. How can sin ever be unintentional if sin is a conscious violation of perceived obligation? We have been somewhat unfair to Finney in asserting he completely denies the existence of unintentional sins. It would be more accurate to say that they fit uncomfortably in his system of ethics. I have been unable to find a reference to them in his most mature statements, as found in his systematic theology. It is only in an earlier work Views Of Sanctification, most recently released as Principles Of Sanctification(12), that he broaches the subject.

A state of perfect love implies the discharge of known duty. And strictly speaking, nothing can be duty of which the mind has no knowledge.

If any sin exists in such a case as this, it lies in the ignorance itself. And here, no doubt, there often is sin, because there is present neglect to know the truth. But it should always be understood that the sin lies in the ignorance, and not in the neglect of that of which we have no knowledge.(13)

We can see the logical consistency of Finney clearly here. Sometimes sins flow out of an ignorance that exists because we have failed to do our duty to obtain a knowledge that could have prevented them. Finney says this is true, but the sin is not in the action that results, but in the conscious act that produced the ignorance. We are guilty for the ignorance, not for the resultant act. Is this not contrary to the way we usually look at things? Do we not say a person is guilty of the act, even though he wasn’t aware of his obligation regarding it? “You should have known, so you’re guilty for it anyway!” is our complaint. Finney recognizes this is often what we say but claims what is really the case is that

… The guilt of the ignorance is equal to all the default that it causes. (Emphasis mine.)

Although, in form, they are not pronounced guilty for their ignorance, and punished for that specific offense, on the contrary, they are held responsible for breaches of those laws of which they had no knowledge; yet, in fact, no injustice is done them, as their ignorance in such cases really deserves the punishment inflicted.(14)

Finney is struggling here to harmonize his own system of thought with the common moral intuitions of men. Finney wishes to deny anything can be sin that is beyond one’s capacity to consciously control. If a person is guilty for the actual acts she commits as a consequence of her ignorance, then she is guilty for something she cannot control. Men usually say just this. But this is to hold men accountable for things beyond their ability. What must be the case is that men are guilty for what they could control. In this case they are guilty for not obtaining the knowledge they should have. This choice is all they can be guilty of, because this choice is the only thing within their control. We are not unjust to punish people as if they are guilty for their unintentional sins, but this is only because their original choice to avoid the knowledge that would have prevented these sins included within it all the guilt for the actions that would ultimately flow from it.

What Are We Guilty For?

This has some odd implications. First, it means people at the time they sin by failing to obtain the knowledge they should, are already guilty for things they have yet to do. None of the fruit of their ignorance exists at that point, except potentially. Yet they are already guilty for it. How can this guilt be assessed? Outside of a timelessness view of God, where all their future life is already given so that God can know what actually will flow from their choice, how would God determine what guilt this act contained? Does he not need to wait and see what actually flows out of this choice of ignorance? Perhaps he could extrapolate based on what he knows of their present course, where this will lead. But what if they die sooner rather than later? Doesn’t it seem a matter of moral luck(15) how guilty their original act of ignorance will end up being?

While Finney is being extremely consistent to his system here, he does not seem to be being true to either our natural moral intuitions, or to the scriptural view of unintentional sin. In Psalm 19:12 David prays “Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults.” Leviticus 4:13 says “If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’S commands, even though the community is unaware of the matter, they are guilty.” Both of these passages seem to suggest the guilt is assessed against the actual sin, not the ignorance. David does not ask God to forgive him of his ignorance, but of his “hidden faults,” the actions flowing from his ignorance. God does not suggest the community is guilty of being ignorant, but guilty even though ignorant.

Finney must insist the guilt is assessed against the act of voluntary ignorance because his view is that people cannot be accountable for what they could not help. For him people can be sinless precisely because nothing more than what they can do is obligatory. He cannot accept a view that denies I am now presently able to give God a total obedience. If I can be doing everything I presently can to obey God, and still be sinning and guilty through unintentionally doing so, then I can never be perfect. But the Bible says we can be perfect. It is significant, however, that David continues his prayer in Psalm 19:13 with the words “Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgressions.” David does not speak of being sinless; he recognizes his hidden faults are still there. But he does say he can be blameless, free from willful sins. This sounds like the same holiness both Finney and Wesley advocate, although it does sound more akin to Wesley’s idea of an “evangelical obedience.”

Improving On Wesley

In his treatment of unintentional sins, Finney fails to prove men cannot be guilty for things outside their control. He does show us exactly why they can be guilty in this fashion. Such sins are sins only because they are a result of ignorance that was consciously chosen. Their sinfulness is not simply because they violate the absolute moral law of God, but because this violation flows from a conscious choice to violate that law. While the guilt of such sins is assessed against the sins directly, men are only culpable for them because of this indirect connection with conscious sin. This is a vast improvement on Wesley, who we find in the odd position of having to call something sin that has nothing to do with conscious violations of God’s law. He even says these “sins” are “not of a moral nature” and are “necessarily connected with flesh and blood.” Wesley cannot escape the charge that we are guilty simply for being human. He also cannot harmonize his belief men are guilty for unintentional sins with the statements of scripture that view men as not guilty when they do not have knowledge of their obligations. Again we hear Finney.

A state of sanctification is inconsistent with any present neglect to know the truth; for such neglect is sin. But it is not inconsistent with our failing to do that of which we have no knowledge. James says: “To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). “If ye were blind,” says Christ, “ye should have not sin; but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9:41).(16)

Scripture states both that men are guilty when they unintentionally violate God’s law, and that a lack of knowledge of obligation prevents guilt. These two ideas are inconsistent on any view of unintentional sin but the one Finney suggests. Such sins must stem from voluntary ignorance, not simply the ignorance that comes with being a finite human being. God is just to hold us accountable for what we should have known. He is unjust to hold us accountable for what we could not have known. This view also explains why Jesus said men who do things worthy of punishment, but do not know these things are wrong, will be beaten with fewer stripes than those will who know better and still do such things. Our natural moral intuitions tell us that, while a person is not free of guilt for doing things he should have known better than to do, he is not as guilty as he would be had he been aware of his obligation and still chosen to commit the act. Greater guilt always attaches to conscious sins. But unconscious sins still carry guilt because they are traceable to voluntary ignorance.

Could Sinful Desires Be Seen The Same Way?

We have seen that moral obligation extends indirectly to unintentional sins, even though such sins are outside our ability to directly control through our conscious choice. Is it possible obligation could also extend in a similar fashion to desires, emotions, and thoughts, even when these are not immediately subject to the control of our will? Finney denies that sin can ever be predicated of anything but acts of will. He claims no constitutional desire or appetite is sinful or holy in itself. All sin occurs when legitimate natural desires are indulged in an unlawful manner. No matter how despotic our desires become as temptations to sin, they are never truly sinful in themselves, since our desires cannot be controlled through immediate moral choice. They often exist directly contrary to our present moral intention. This is why they constitute such temptation to sin.

As with Finney’s views regarding unintentional sins, it is significant to discover he does allow that our desires, emotions, and thoughts are indirectly subject to moral obligation. This is so for the same reason unintentional sin is indirectly an object of obligation. Our desires, emotions, and thoughts are indirect consequences of our conscious choice.

Moral obligation extends, but less directly, to the states of the sensibility, so that certain emotions or feelings are required as outward actions are, and for the same reason, namely, the states of the sensibility are connected with the actions of the will, by a law of necessity. But when the sensibility is exhausted, or when, for any reason, the right action of the will does not produce the required feelings, it is accepted upon the principle just named.

Moral obligation indirectly extends also to the states of the intellect; consequently the Bible, to a certain extent, and in a certain sense, holds men responsible for their thoughts and opinions. It everywhere assumes that if the heart be constantly right, the thoughts and opinions will correspond with the state of the heart, or will…

Moral obligation then indirectly extends to everything about us, over which the will has direct or indirect control. The moral law, while, strictly, it legislates over intention only, yet in fact, in a sense less direct, legislates over the whole being, inasmuch as all our powers are directly or indirectly connected with intention, by a law of necessity.(17)

So desires can be sinful, and we can be considered sinful for experiencing them, when they stem from a sinful state of will or intention. We choose what to focus our attention on so if we are indulging sinful thoughts, we are guilty for having such thoughts since we consciously choose to indulge them. This is different from when a thought enters our mind and we immediately dismiss it. When we dwell on it, with a consciousness of its unlawful character, the thought takes on the character of our voluntary intention, and becomes “sinful,” though only indirectly so. In the same way, when we experience a desire that is wrong, its initial occurrence is temptation. When we choose to dwell upon the object of thought producing the desire, and it grows and flourishes through this sinful state of mind, the desire becomes something we are guilty for experiencing, since its continuance and growth stems from our moral choice.

Finney denies we can be sinful for desires and thoughts that do not derive from a current sinful state of will. This is plain in his statement that when the right action of will fails to produce a corresponding state of feeling, it is still considered acceptable. As always, ability must limit accountability. God cannot require the impossible. We cannot be sinful simply for experiencing temptation. People cannot have a sinful nature, which tempts them to sin. Natural desires are constitutional and amoral. The only way they can become in any sense moral is through their indirect relationship to moral choice. This line of reasoning sounds very similar to the argument Finney gave us for how unintentional sins become culpable. As before Finney is consistent here in attempting to deny guilt for anything but a present conscious choice. We saw in the case of unintentional sins that this insistence was unsustainable. Rather, we found a person could be guilty for things he did that he could not presently prevent. His guilt for such actions derived from the fact his present ignorance was the fruit of past conscious sinful ignorance, but the guilt was in the act, not only in the ignorance that led to the act. It appears the same argument can apply to sinful desires and thoughts. Finney tells us a person can be sinful for the present state of his desires when these stem from a present wrong moral choice. This same person must be exposed to similar condemnation for present desires stemming from past moral choices.

Moral Character Vs. Moral Depravity?

When men sin, they develop habits and tendencies that make it easier to sin the same way in the future. Men experience stronger and stronger desires to repeat the sins they have indulged. Paul appears to describe such a state of developed sinfulness in Romans 7:20 where he says it is “sin living in me that does it.” Finney must be right to condemn the suggestion man can be born with a sinful nature; he must be incorrect to deny that sin can in some sense become a part of nature. While our natural desires and appetites are not holy or sinful in themselves, they do take on the moral characteristics of the choices we make. In this way, our natures become more sinful or holy as we carry on moral action. Finney does not acknowledge any sinfulness to our developed tendencies. He sees all moral depravity to consist in

…sinfulness, not of nature but of voluntary state. It is a sinfully committed state of the will to self-indulgence. It is not a sinful nature but a sinful heart. It is a sinful ultimate aim, or intention.(18)

Does Finney acknowledge that through sinning we develop ever-increasing tendencies to further sin? He does, but in complete consistency with his system of thought, he denies such things have any moral character, since they are beyond our present ability to control.

Selfishness, be it remembered, consists in a disposition or choice to gratify the propensities, desires, and feelings. This of course, and of necessity, produces just the unhealthy and monstrous developments which we daily see: sometimes one ruling passion or appetite lording it, not only over the intelligence and over the will, but over all the other appetites and passions, crushing and sacrificing them all upon the altar of its own gratification… giving striking and melancholy proof of the monstrous development and physical depravity of the human sensibility.(19) (emphasis mine)

Gordon Olson parts company with Finney here, distinguishing between moral character, which is always conscious voluntary action, and moral depravity which is a present state of our moral constitution which has been caused by past moral choices and influences future choices in the same direction.

Moral character is moral action or personal action…Moral character is not something back of the will causing action, but is the action of the will itself. Moral character is a description of what habitual actions are taking place…The will determines the nature or character, rather than the nature the will.(20)

In contrast to this, and contrary to Finney, Olson sees moral depravity to consist in

…a state or condition of our moral nature that is the result of what we have done (emphasis mine). Moral depravity is a developed habit of life, a tendency to keep on doing what we have been doing. Every wrong action deepens the ruts of our depravity until we develop mighty monsters of bondage that require an ever-increasing energy of will to counteract.(21)

It is not clear in the writings of Gordon Olson whether he concluded this developed moral depravity constituted something we were presently guilty for, or whether he with Finney would see the guilt for such a sinful state to attach to the past acts which caused the depravity. Probably the latter was true since he most likely would insist moral character as he defines it is the thing by which men are evaluated; though moral depravity must influence the continuance of the pattern of moral choices of which moral character consists. What is significant is that such a major advocate of Finney’s position would have departed from Finney’s view in referring to developed habits of nature which influence further choices to sin as moral depravity rather than physical depravity. In this I believe Olson has moved closer to our true moral intuitions regarding such a constitutional state.

But in what sense can such depravity be said to be moral if it is not a basis for evaluating a person’s character? The truth is, we often evaluate people morally by more than their simple moral choices. We evaluate people’s natural responses. Someone who is not moved with compassion in the face of another person’s need, but chooses to do the right thing regarding their need, is considered less morally good than the person who both feels and does what is required. This must be part of what John means when he says the love of God cannot be in us if we see a brother with material need and have no “pity” on him. Our failure to act is evidence of this. But even to act without the corresponding emotion of pity suggests something is lacking in us. Our emotional responses weigh heavy in moral evaluations. Whether we are culpable for such lack of response depends how in our moral development we got to this state of emotion deficit. But surely our obligations include the emotional responsiveness where this is lacking because of our past sin.

Moral Character

Finney must be right in evaluating the moral character of any given moral action by the state of will producing it. He must be correct to claim the general ongoing character of all our actions stems from the fact they are freely chosen. But all moral action also creates tendencies for continued action in the same direction, through the law of habit. No moral choice is ever caused by past choices or present inclinations. The will at all times remains free and responsible. But the influences upon the will become increasingly determined by the choices we have made. We can be accountable for these tendencies as well. They constitute a part of our moral character. When we say we can trust a person because she is a person of good character, we surely mean more than that a “description of the habitual actions taking place” in her life indicate a pattern in the direction we desire. In some sense we are saying there is something “back of the will” that makes likely a continuation in the pattern. There is a stable, established something in this persons life which, while not guaranteeing continued action, makes this pattern predictable. People rarely act contrary to character, even though we acknowledge they can. New England theologian Samuel Harris describes this balance between choice and constitutional inclination regarding moral character.

The theory that indifference is essential to freedom necessarily implies that the will never acquires a character; that voluntary action is atomistic, every act disintegrated from every other; and that character, if acquired, would be incompatible with freedom, because it would be essential to freedom that the will be always indifferent.

A choice, however long it persists, is always a choice of the will, not an involuntary excitement of the sensibilities; it is always the free and active determination by the will of the end or object of action. And under the influence of all sensibilities, however modified by previous voluntary action, the will determines.(22)

A Modified View Of Sin

Once again we find ourselves in a position to make sense of Wesley’s view where he could not. Surely we would be wrong to believe that every time we are tempted, we are guilty even before we consciously indulge the temptation, because we experience a desire for something sinful. If this were the case, temptation would be an empty category. The reformed belief that we have inherited sin because we experience inclinations toward sin cannot explain how Adam and Eve could experience such inclinations. Did God create them with a sinful nature? Nature is inherently susceptible to temptation because natural, necessary desires cannot always be indulged lawfully. This is what Adam and Eve faced, and their desires became sinful only when they chose to join their will to these desires unlawfully. This immediately created an entry into their personalities for such sinful indulgence to grow. So it is with each of us. God did not create us with inherently sinful desires. We did not inherit a sinful nature from Adam because he sinned. Each of us has chosen to indulge legitimate natural desires in an unlawful manner. Because we have done this, and repeatedly done this, we have developed increased tendencies toward sin. We are guilty for having these tendencies because they stem from our past wrong choices. Even though now we cannot prevent them from occurring, we are still guilty for having them. They are the products of our moral will.

Our discussion suggests a modification is in order to the view of moral obligation and sin Finney presents. As Finney claims, ability does limit responsibility. Men cannot be held accountable for something they could not do. But ability does not always directly limit responsibility. Men can be held accountable for what they should have been able to do, and would have been able to do had they not made themselves unable to do so through sin. Finney’s arguments regarding sins of ignorance and the indirect sinfulness of desires and thoughts contain the kernel of this conclusion, though he failed to bring it to light. This was largely because he was unwilling to accept anything as blamelessness other than complete present obedience to God’s law. Wesley’s view recognizes an “evangelical obedience” which God accepts through Christ, even though it fails to be a complete obedience to moral law. He cannot explain how true guilt can attach to unintentional sins or desires and thoughts outside our control, since he fails to tie such sins to past conscious violations of the law.

It is important to recognize a critical distinction Finney’s theology does bring out. Finney is uncomfortable with Wesley’s “evangelical obedience” because it suggests God accepts something less than complete present obedience. Wesley says God accepts this because it is all men can do. Finney says if this is all men can do, it must be all that could be required of men. We have said this conclusion of Finney does not follow, because the obligations unintentional sins fail to meet are still justly required of men, since they would have been forthcoming had men not sinned. Men would not have had desires so warped by sin had they not sinned. This view agrees with Finney that it would be unjust to hold men accountable for these sins if this inability had been forced upon them without their conscious moral choice, as in the doctrine of original sin. It recognizes all responsibility must stem from ability. But it recognizes men are accountable for what they have done to themselves through sin.

This last point is the critical point. There are only unintentional sins and sinful desires because men have intentionally sinned and become sinfully ignorant and subject to sinful tendencies. If men had never intentionally sinned, no such sinfulness would exist. This means Finney’s view of moral law and obligation is essentially correct, as a starting point, and as a subjective standard of obedience. When we began, God required of us only to live by the light we had, and to pursue further light. Had we done this without interruption, we would not only have been “evangelically obedient” but perfectly obedient. We would have been sinless. Violations of the absolute moral law committed in ignorance would not have been sins because the ignorance would have been a natural human ignorance, not a sinful ignorance. Any desires to sin would have been produced by factors outside our choice and would only have been temptation. So Finney has correctly identified all the law of God requires on a subjective level.

What he failed to see is by willfully choosing to be ignorant we have put ourselves beyond sinless perfection. The waves of our ignorance carry on into our lives, producing multiple violations of our true obligations. As David says, who can know his hidden faults? Only God can. Our sinful indulgence has left us with what Gordon Olson calls “mighty monsters of bondage that require an ever-increasing energy of will to counteract.” Temptations to sin indicate all too clearly that our problem now is not simply with sinning, but with the sinfulness that has become a part of our being through our sin.

Of such things we can only be forgiven. We cannot immediately stop them through a choice of our will. They can only be changed over time as we grow in knowledge and regain the understanding of our obligations we should have had but lost through voluntary ignorance. Through godly conscious obedience to all our moral light we can begin to reverse the sinful development of our natures and begin to change our moral characters. The prevention of further conscious sins will also hinder our incurring additional guilt. This is what Finney’s theology has always said, though he fails to call these things sin.

Evangelical Obedience

It is important to recognize that even Finney’s view contains within it an “evangelical obedience.” On his view we can never change what we have already done. Our past sins must be forgiven or judged. Through Christ God accepts an obedience that is less than his law requires. The law required complete uninterrupted obedience. Since we have failed to do this, we will always be in a state of failing to do this, because we cannot change our past. We are always sinners before God’s law, even on Finney’s view. Through the atonement our shortcomings, which we cannot now prevent, are forgiven. The difference for Finney is all the guilt for these shortcomings is in the past, where the conscious choices to sin were made. God requires complete present obedience now. This the believer can give since for Finney a believer’s present obligations never extend beyond his present abilities. This means there is presently no sin in the believer’s life if he is living by the light he has. He is completely obeying God. God has not lowered the standard. He still requires complete obedience now. In all this Finney is completely consistent to the internal workings of his theory. We have seen reason to question his theory at this point.

The important point Finney has made is God has not lowered the subjective standard he expects of believers in their conscious life. He expects the same thing of them that he did before they sinned. They are required to live up to the moral light they have. Anything less than this is sin. Such sin can only lead to greater guilt as men’s capacities for holiness are reduced by such conduct. The way Wesley is right to call this “evangelical obedience” is that outside of the atonement, the unintentional sins and sinful desires of believers do constitute a failure to meet our just obligations. Even if we do not now consciously disobey God, we are not able to come up to the full requirements of God’s law in our lives. A man does not escape his obligations by voluntarily making himself unable to meet them. As Warfield says

It is quite clear that Finney is entangled here in some ambiguities. He very properly distinguishes between a fault and the effects of a fault. But there is a further ambiguity latent in the conception of “demoralization,” which leads him astray. He treats the term as implying that “to demoralize” is to make unmoral, not immoral: and so supposes that we cease to be moral agents in proportion as we become wicked. The source of his difficulty lies in his doctrine of “natural ability,” which leads him to scale down obligation to fit decreasing ability.

…A moral agent cannot annihilate himself; neither can he annihilate his moral agency. He exists everlastingly and so long as he exists he is a moral agent, possessing a moral character and acting in accordance with it. If his moral character is bad, it inhibits good action, but does not in the least lessen obligation to it. If the wickedness becomes absolute the inhibition to good action becomes absolute; but the obligation to good remains absolute also.

…The fact is that Finney and his fellows did not believe in moral agents; they believed in moral volitions.(23)

Does Not The Atonement Cover Conscious Sins As Well?

We have said that through the atonement God accepts an “evangelical obedience.” This means God accepts believers who are in Christ as perfect, even though the sinfulness of their nature and unintentional shortcomings remains. Does this not also suggest God can accept believers as perfect, even though still consciously sinning? Why should the atonement only cover unintentional sins or moral defects, and not also cover the believer in the present commission of “known” sin? Here we find a ready answer in Finney’s theology. As we mentioned earlier, his view of the subjective requirement of the law is essentially correct. What we have been arguing is not that Finney was in error regarding what the law requires of the believer in his present conscious life. This always was and always will be complete present obedience to all perceived obligations. All we have said is that a person, in fulfilling this requirement, can never be sinless once sin has entered his life. Sin produces too much of a ripple effect for this to be the case.

While as sinful men we must forever fall short of everything God’s law requires of us, leaving God to either forgive or condemn us for the inability we have developed, this does not remove our responsibility now to prevent any increase to this sinful state through further conscious sin. It does not remove the requirement for us to work with God to reverse this situation. God still requires all that is possible for us now and could never justly require less. He must require that we be committed to reversing the victory sin has won in our lives. Atonement does not become a license for continued sinning. The book of Hebrews tells us the Old Testament atonement was for unintentional sins. It did not atone for willful sin. If believers in the Old Testament were in an unrepentant state, living in the conscious commission of sin, the sacrifices would not result in forgiveness. Only repentance, a turning from all perceived sin, and a return to complete conscious obedience to God allowed atonement to be applied to the sinner’s case. John tells us in I John 1:7 that it is only as we walk in the light, as God is in the light, that the blood of Jesus continually cleanses us from all sin. We may never be sinless in this life. Our many sins have taken us beyond that possibility. But if we allow God, as David says, to keep us from willful sins, we can be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. This is an “evangelical” blamelessness, a blamelessness that is only possible through the blood of Christ. But in heart we can be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect. This is the sanctification promised in the gospel.


1. Olson, Gordon C., Holiness And Sin (Men For Missions, Minneapolis, 1980), pg. 7-13.
2. LaRondelle, H.K., Perfection And Perfectionism (Andrews University Press, Berrien Springs, Michigan, 1984), pg. 318.
3. Ibid., pg. 318.
4. Finney, Charles G., Principles Of Sanctification (Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, 1986), Parkhurst, L.G., ed., pg. 33.
5. Ryle, J.C., Holiness (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids,1981), pg.2.
6. Warfield, Benjamin B., Studies In Perfectionism (Presbyterian And Reformed Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 1958).
7. Ibid., pg. xi.
8. Quoted in LaRondelle, pg. 318.
9. Warfield, pg. 68-69.
10. Ibid., pg. 70.
11. Ibid., pg. 70-71.
12. See note 4.
13. Ibid., pg. 33.
14. Ibid., pg. 51-52.
15. Nagel, , Mortal Questions, get info Kel.
16. Finney, Charles G., Principles Of Sanctification, pg. 33.
17. Finney, Charles G., Finney’s Systematic Theology (Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, 1994), pg. 42-43.
18. Ibid., pg. 246.
19. Ibid., pg. 246.
20. Olson, Gordon C., pg. 45.
21. Olson, Gordon C., pg. 53.
22. Harris, Samuel, The Philosophical Basis Of Theism (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1883), pg. 399.
23. Warfield, Benjamin B., pg. 69-70.

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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