Monday, January 26, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

What Do Jerry Falwell & Jim Wallis Have In Common?

Nothing, you might say. Falwell was a right-winger who accused Teletubbies of sodomy, warned that the “rapture” was just around the corner (its imminence apparently tied directly to DisneyWorld’s "Gay Days"), and called Archbishop Tutu a phony for opposing apartheid. Wallis, on the other hand, has delivered the Democratic response to President Bush’s weekly radio address, unabashedly opposes capitalism, and has largely devoted his life to taking down the Religious Right.

So what do they have in common? Well, several things. First, both are seminary educated and were ordained as Christian ministers. Secondly, in my opinion, both frequently confuse what Luther called the Two Kingdoms and Augustine called the Two Cities. (I fear that little else cheapens the Gospel more quickly and more completely than equating it to a particular political movement.) And, perhaps most tellingly, both of them claim one Charles Grandison Finney as a personal hero.1

Most Americans know little or nothing about Finney. That’s why I'm here. Finney was a revivalist preacher in the 19th Century. He first studied to be a lawyer, but after an emotional spiritual experience that he likened to being showered with "liquid love" (wha-?), he decided to go into the ministry instead. Foregoing seminary, Charlie began an internship program within the Presbyterian church and pursued a license to preach. To that end, Finney proclaimed his dedication to the doctrines of the Westminster Confession of Faith. According to his own autobiography, though, Finney had little idea of what was contained in the Westminster Confession; and he rejected what little he did know.

It quickly became clear that Charlie was not cut out for ministry within the Reformed tradition. He developed his theology on the fly and, before long, had determined that he patently rejected the following:

  • The doctrine of election (Christ atoned for all men equally on the cross, according to Finney)
  • The five solas of the Reformation
  • The doctrine of original sin
  • The doctrine of imputation (that Christ's righteousness is attributed to us)--he called it a "theological fiction."
At least Finney, unlike many modern-day Arminians, was consistent. Since it would be wrong for God to charge me with Adam's sin, it's also wrong then for God to charge Christ with mine. According to CGF, Christ could not have died for anyone's sins but his own. Therefore, Jesus didn't pay for anything on the cross and no one can be declared righteous on the basis of Christ's sacrifice alone.

Like many of today's teachers and preachers, Finney was always bending the Scriptures and the doctrines of the church to match his own will and his own sense of how things should be, rather than submitting himself to Scripture. With Pelagius, he reasoned that God would never command us to do something that we were not able to do in and of ourselves. In that way, he was the Joel Osteen of his day. Sovereign grace, total depravity, original sin--they were all downers, so he came up with a religion that was more upbeat and would be a bigger hit with the average sinner on the street because it allowed him to stay in the driver's seat of his own life--in fact it totally depended on him remaining behind the wheel. God really does want to be my co-pilot.

He may not have been in line with the Reformed doctrines, but Charlie was all about individual reform. In fact, that was really the sum of what he preached. Rather than preaching that salvation is a work of God alone, one of his most popular sermons was entitled "Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts." No, I'm not making that up.

Finney's doctrine of the self-reformed heart leaves every man and woman in his or her sins and sends the ragged, filthy prodigal son back to the land of the Gentiles to "get himself together"; the father will welcome him back and kill the fatted calf only after he's made something of himself. Sadly, though, this will never happen. Scripture teaches that, when left to his own will and devices, man is so sinful that he lacks not only the ability, but even the desire to be right with God. Therefore, any religion that preaches salvation by personal reform will lead men on a primrose path to hell.

But Finney didn't care. He was an innovator, after all. A spiritual entrepreneur. Born just 16 years after our nation was, he had the same roll-up-your-sleeves-and-start-from-scratch spirituality that gave us Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormonism, (I Dispensationalism in with those, but yeah, also Dispensationalism). Finney's new religion was centered around what he called "the new measures." According to Charlie, a revival is not a miracle, nor does it need a miracle of any kind to get rolling. It's a simple case of cause and effect. If a minister or revivalist implements "methods sufficient to induce sinners to repentance," there will be repentance. Drop the right ingredients into one side of the machine and a revival comes out the other end.

And what were these methods? Well, I've always thought it appropriate that Finney founded and pastored Broadway Tabernacle, because he certainly turned church into theatre.2 For example...
  • The chancel and altar were replaced by a stage
  • The pulpit was more or less abandoned, in favor of the preacher "roaming" amongst the congregation like a performer,
  • Micro-managed "worship planning" (complete with rehearsals) ensured that the mood would be just right,
  • The "anxious bench" became a major part of the service. Those who were convicted by the shenanigans came up to the bench at the front to weep, pray, and (with God's help, of course) turn their lives around and become Christians...
Let me just pause right there because I know what you're thinking: Wait a minute! That sounds like most churches today! Sadly, you're right. Finney's "new measures" caught on in a big way and a lot of churches have embraced the circus approach. Yes, I said circus approach. No, that's not too harsh. Observe:

  • Finney sent an advanced promotion team ahead to the next city on his itinerary to promote the revival that was coming to town.
  • P.T. Barnum (of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame) made the tents. Have you ever wondered why so many churches are designed to look like a big tent? Barnum is well known for his many elaborate hoaxes and is said to have coined the phrase, "There's a sucker born every minute and two to take him." Finney was one of the two to take him.
  • CGF gave very confrontational addresses that generally included calling out and condemning immoral members of society in whatever town he happened to be preaching (in the days before Inside Addition, this was the only show in town)
  • He would also pray for the souls of pastors who hadn't supported the show (by canceling their own services and sending their congregations to Finney's meetings) as if they were unsaved.
  • These emotional tactics led to fainting, weeping, and other "excitements" (as Finney called them). On second thought, maybe I shouldn't use the word "circus." Circuses are usually more dignified.

The previous century had seen a true revival, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that did not rely on human methods, theatrics, and emotional manipulation. It is commonly known as The Great Awakening. Sadly, in the intervening years, a cloud of cold and dispassionate hyper-calvinism had settled in over New England. As a result, when Finney's Best Life Now tour came to town, it usually resulted in the widespread acceptance of this drivel. In a horribly ironic twisting of semantics and history, the movement started by Charles Finney is almost universally called The Second Great Awakening. And yet, it was the polar opposite of the true Great Awakening. There was no return to Scripture, no mass rejection of our own autonomy and mass flight to the only One who could clothe us in our nakedness and wash us of our filth. No lasting fruit. In fact, the parts of New York where his revivals had hit the hardest became known as the "burnt over district" (even Finney used this term). Religious hucksterism had left people suspicious of Christian ministers and, in the end, their hearts were all the more hardened to the Gospel.

How can Wallis and Falwell have the same hero? Easy. When the core of the Gospel is removed, anything can be put in its place. But the end product is no longer the Gospel and no longer has the power to save. Finney's legacy lives on in megachurch and small community "worship center" alike. In fact, if we're really honest, we might acknowledge "Finneyism" as the most popular religion in America. Go find what the people want and give it to them. Plan your services for maximum emotional impact. Leave nothing to chance or (God forbid!) to the Holy Spirit. Teach that man has the ability to "make a decision for Christ" with his own depraved heart and mind. There's a sucker born every minute and two churches to take him.

Are you a Finneyist? If you've fallen into that trap, repent. If your church is going down this road and struggling to figure out why it all seems so empty, even when the "auditorium" is full, repent of your man-centered religion and fly to Christ, who is alone the author and finisher of your faith.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

1 See the book Jesus: Made in America by Stephen J. Nichols (Intervarsity Press, 2008). I don't have a page number. And don't expect any more citations. After a decade of college and graduate school, I've just been too lazy to track down every reference for blog posts. Let's do it like this: if you doubt the veracity of anything in this article, raise the issue in the "comments" section and I promise to provide a full citation.

2 No offense to the many Gospel-preaching churches with the word "Broadway" in their names.

6 reader comments:

JB said...

Very intriguing. And very sad. It DOES sound like a lot of churches today.

vrm said...

I enjoyed the part making fun of the modern church architecture. Right on!

mikewittmer said...

Well said and right on target. Even without footnotes! This Sunday I am not budging from behind the pulpit, and it's your fault.

ZSB said...

Good for you. Also, if you stay behind the pulpit, you never have to worry if your fly is down!

Ted said...


This is excellent work man...there's some serious Wallis-worship in certain circles...

But as I recall, Wallis lost to My Sense of White Guilt in EV Smackdown??


ZSB said...

Yeah, I just looked it up:
The Social-Justice Division

"Jim Wallis vs. Your Sense of White Guilt in a “Who Can Make You Feel More Terrible About Being White and Suburban” match.
My Sense of White Guilt beat Jim Wallis in a split decision. Wallis can make me feel pretty bad, but I can make myself feel a little bit worse, as it turns out (my desk is from Ikea)."