“I was powerfully converted on the morning of the 10th of October 1821. On the evening of the same day, I received overwhelming infillings of the Holy Spirit, that went through me, as it seemed to me, body and soul. I found myself so endued with power from on high, that a few words placed here and there were the means of immediate conversations.” With these words, the twenty-nine year old lawyer from Adams, New York, described his conversion experience and subsequent equipping for power.
From that initial encounter with Jesus Christ, Charles Grandison Finney cut a swath of powerful evangelism through western New York, and finally throughout the entire northeast of the United States, that was unparalleled in the first half of the nineteenth century. Fairchild eulogized him by stating, “He spearheaded a revival in America which literally altered the course of history. The implications of the preaching and example of this towering figure can hardly be measured.”
As Baptist historian Leon McBeth pointed out, “Perhaps the greatest leader of the second great awakening was Charles G. Finney. The converted lawyer is credited with transforming the style of evangelism in America.”
Finney’s preaching broke with traditional Presbyterian practice. From the very outset, the evangelist was an extemporaneous preacher, many times even speaking impromptu His disdain for the written sermon manuscript is obvious. He said, “In delivering a sermon in this essay style of writing the power of gesture and looks and attitude and emphasis is lost. We can never have the full of the gospel till we throw away our written sermons.”
At the same time, however, Finney did not ramble in the pulpit. He had a keen analytical lawyer’s mind and his sermons are amazingly well-organized. Often he would write the outline after the sermon.
His rational approach produced good homiletical style. In all of his sermons there was a remarkably logical progression. Akin to the lawyer arguing before a jury — to which Finney often likened his own preaching — his sermon points usually fell under three essential headings: 1) what a scripture passage (or topic) did not mean; 2) what it did mean; and 3) inferences or remarks upon the text.
Finney was convinced that all preaching should be direct, personal and practical. He said, “The gospel should be preached to men, and not about them. The minister must preach to them about themselves, and not leave the impression he is preaching to them about others.”
He was fond of using the personal pronoun you as over against more generalized pronouns. It was, in his words, “not the design of preaching to make men easy and quiet, but to make them act.”
A case in point is one sermon in which he said, “I demand your decision now and whom do you suppose that I am now addressing? Every impenitent sinner in this house — everyone. I call heaven and earth to record that I have set the gospel before your today. Will you take it? Sinner, the infinite God waits your consent!”
Finney also was convinced that one’s vocabulary and illustrations must be of the simplest sort. He said, “One should quote studiously … avoid the use of any word that would not be understood by the common people without reference to their dictionaries.” He did use theological terms — he had a theological mindset — but would always explain their meanings thoroughly.
Finney’s illustrations were drawn from everyday life. He declared, “truths not illustrated are generally just as much calculated to convert sinners as a mathematical demonstration.”
Finney was also a dramatist in the pulpit. He recommended that preachers actually take lessons from the style of professional actors. He said, “The best method of swaying the mind, of enforcing sentiment, and diffusing the warmth of burning thought over a congregation is through facial expressions and gestures and body movements. Mere words will never express the full meaning of the Gospel. The manner of saying it is almost everything.”
As a consequence, he would create vivid word pictures, dramatically re-enact biblical stories, and was known occasionally to weep openly during his sermons. It was said of him that his homiletic style and power was almost hypnotic, even though his messages might run as long as two hours.
The anecdotes that surround Finney’s preachings are quite remarkable. For example, preaching in Antwerp in western New York in a school, he had taken no thought of the sermon subject prior to the service, as was common for him. He rose before the congregation and chose the text — Genesis 19:14: “Up get you out of this place for the Lord will destroy the city.” He then proceeded to preach on the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom. He noticed some people began to look angry — some furious. They seemed so upset he thought they were about to set on him.
He had not been on his feet more than fifteen minutes, preaching in this manner and applying the truth to the people, when all at once what Charles called “an awful solemnity” settled down on everyone. The people began to fall from their seats and cry for mercy. He described the unbelievable scene by saying, “If I’d had a sword in each hand, I could not have cut them off their seats as fast as they fell.” In a few minutes nearly the entire congregation were on their knees, if not completely prostrate.
A second service was held in the community and it was there that Finney learned the reason for the hot anger of the people when the previous service had opened. The community had such a reputation for wickedness that it was commonly called Sodom. Moreover, the old gentleman who had invited Finney was recognized as the only Christian about, so everyone called him Lot.
The people had, quite naturally, supposed that Finney knew of these facts and had deliberately chosen the subject of his message to humiliate them. But as Finney relates, “This was a striking coincidence some may call it, but as far as I was concerned, it was altogether accidental.” For many years after the momentous event, Finney met faithful converts who had come out of the schoolhouse revival. Some had become Christian leaders, ministers and the like. His work was permanent, legitimate and genuine.
In the light of all the dynamics that surrounded the ministry of this theologian-evangelist, it is little wonder that he has been called the father of modern evangelism. Holding to the basic time-honored truths of the Christian faith — even though his theology was at times rather paradoxical — he was used significantly of God in the first half of the last century.
He struck a responsive chord in the people of his day and it is certainly true, as McBeth has stated, “Finney is credited with taming the exuberant camp meetings, thus inventing the modern church revival as it is known today.” In that he has made his lasting contribution.
The lessons to learn from the preaching style of Charles Finney are quite obvious. First, there is something about the directness of the preaching of the man that is tremendously significant. The gospel is exceedingly personal and should be addressed in that fashion. Finney’s pragmatic theology demanded that approach.
Second, Finney preached the full gospel. His Christology was traditional. He demanded full repentance and faith as the appeal of the gospel. Although his view of the atonement was somewhat unusual, he was fully convinced of the necessity of the death of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. Moreover, he was orthodox in his view of the bodily resurrection of our Lord. He kept the essential gospel intact and preached it in its fullness with pungency and power.
Third, he preached in the context of his day and was concerned for the total needs of people. The tragic great divorce between evangelism and social action had not yet occurred in American Christianity. In this Finney excelled.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he was a man of the Spirit. If anyone every preached with genuine spiritual power from on high it was Charles Grandison Finney. The stories of the sheer raw power of his preaching are legendary.
Finney recognized that the total man must be addressed with the total gospel in the total power of God. In this we have the lesson for vital evangelism.

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