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Rev. CHARLES G. FINNEY.
Speeches and Sketches
GATHERING OF HIS FRIENDS AND PUPILS, IN
OBERLIN, JULY 28TH, 1876
CRITICAL ESTIMATES OF
MR. FINNEY'S CHARACTER AND
[BY ARTHUR TAPPAN PIERSON]
[Note.--The following is a substantial reproduction of an address at the Memorial Meeting, which was not written until since its delivery. --A.T.P.]
As we study the life of any man of mark, we see some traits which stand out boldly, like mountains in a landscape, and give individuality, idiosyncrasy--sometimes idiosyncraziness. They distinguish the man from all others, and remind us of the famous couplet of Byron's:
And broke the die, in moulding Sheridan."
If these traits were all, biography could serve us but little; in our proneness to shirk heroic effort, we should say of such men, 'they are inimitable,' and rest content with our low level of life.
No doubt, some secrets of Mr. Finney's success are incommunicable, such as his insight into human nature, his powers of analysis and argument, physical and nervous energy, vivid imagination, rapidity of thought and speech, and athletic vigor in antagonism. But are we to stand afar off, and view his devotion to God and to souls, with an awe that dismisses all thought of imitation or emulation? If so, that life has left its print upon the living leaves of history, largely in vain. Upon Life's Field of the Cloth of Gold, God has flung a knightly gauntlet, challenging us all to a true Christian chivalry! Mr. Finney shows us, on a grand scale, what one life may be and do; and were he here, he would say, with Paul, "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ."
In speaking of the communicable secrets of his power, we begin and end with the ultimate source of all power, namely, Character. As a man, Mr. Finney was specially marked by Candor, Courage, Conscientiousness, and Consecration.
Candor is no common virtue. Few men are honest with themselves; they evade and avoid convictions which would compel them to condemn their past course and reform their present practices. He was habitually honest with himself, with God, and with men. His was a candid mind that rejoices in the truth, even when it rebukes, and that must deal honestly, whether in searching self, praying to God, or speaking to men. His frankness surprised and sometimes offended; but a second sober thought led men to feel that he who told them the plain truth was the man to go to, when they sought salvation or sanctification.
His Courage was not of that physical type which is often only the consciousness and confidence of brute-force; but it was moral intrepidity. It made him bold to face and fight wrong doctrine or bad practice; decisive and incisive in dealing with souls; regardless of conventional restraints; daring in his blows at popular idols; brave in the use of any means which he believed right and effective. Such courage came from that conscious fellowship with God, which made Luther bold as a lion before the Diet of Worms, gave Knox his motto, "One with God is a majority,: and led Paul to say, "If God be for us, who can be against us!"
His Conscientiousness was seen in instant and constant obedience to every conviction of duty, whether it came through his moral sense, the Written Word, or the living spirit. To know the right was to pursue it; to perceive the truth was to receive it; to see God's will was to submit to it, in serving or in suffering. He proved that "God hath given" the Holy Ghost "to them that obey Him" (Acts v. 32); for, while others passively waited for the Spirit to imbue and endue them, he learned that each new act of obedience brought a new baptism.
His Consecration was the laying of himself as a whole offering on God's altar. Emptying himself of selfish ambition, he held up the emptied vessel to be filled with the grace of God. And the "tabernacle" which he thus "sanctified to God's glory," God "sanctified by His glory." Mr. Finney found many disciples, who, like those whom Paul found at Ephesus, had not received, or so much as heard of, the Holy Ghost, since they believed; who had got as far as John's baptism of repentance, but not as far as Jesus' baptism of spiritual life and power. He taught the Church to go on from the grace of salvation to that of sanctification, and still on to that of service, that each believer might be "a vessel, sanctified and made meet for the Master's use, prepared unto every good work."
Thus far, Mr. Finney's example is not certainly beyond the reach of imitation. But may we attain unto his great Faith? How did that faith come to be so great? Was it conferred outright, as a gift of God, or was it cultivated? We answer, that faith fed and grew upon the Word of God. He searched his Bible on his knees, and grouped its promises, till unbelief fell, smitten, before the combined blaze of their testimony. It grew, again, by the experience of prayer. Experiment is the most convincing argument. God bids the doubting soul, "Enter into thy closet;" there "handle me and see!" there "prove me, if I will not open you the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing till there be none left to pour out." Faith is confirmed by every new promise which the prayerful soul grasps, and especially by every new experience of prayer answered.
Was Mr. Finney's power as a preacher, in any measure communicable? Here again we note four imitable qualities: he was simple, sincere, scriptural, spiritual.
His simplicity was seen in his singleness of aim, his sacred zeal to glorify God in saving and sanctifying souls. He cared more for the groan of one whom the arrow of truth had wounded, than for the shouts of an hundred praising the archer's skill. To reach and touch that which is deepest and most abiding in man was what he sought; not to play on transient sensibilities and emotions, but to mould lasting convictions, affections, resolutions. Hence he avoided dogmatism, substituted argument for authority, assumed nothing, and led the mind on, step by step, to the embrace of truth. Then he struck for the Will. While the iron was at white heat, he brought down the hammer to give it shape; with awful emphasis on personal responsibility and the obligation at once to choose life, he insisted on instant, decisive, visible action!
His singleness of aim begat simplicity of matter and manner. His words did not hide his thought; his illustrations did not call attention to themselves, for they were windows to let in light, and the elaborate frame-work and stained glass which adorn the window, make the light dim. He dared not interpose his greatness between dying souls and the cross, and desired to be nothing but the finger, pointing, and the voice saying, "Behold the Lamb of God!"
His obvious sincerity impressed his hearers with the conviction that he believed and knew what he said. He bade his pupils preach only what was bathed in their own rich, personal experience. "Sensational" sermons were, to him, awful trifling, poulticing the deadly cancer which is eating at the vitals and calls, at once, for the knife! This intense sincerity lent authority and majesty to his searching exposures of deceptive experiences and false hopes, such as rest upon the Ritualism which has the form, without the power, of godliness, or upon the Pharisaism which lacks the spirit and motive of a holy morality, or upon the dead past which is contradicted by the living present. It fitted him to rebuke the dishonest toward God, which appears even in self-examination and in prayer, asking for what we neither expect nor will to receive, and in habitual disregard of the voice of conscience and of the Spirit.
His preaching was Scriptural. The Bible was his constant and devout study, with the arrangement and adaptation of its truths to human souls. It was the armory where he found weapons, defensive and offensive, and took unto him the panoply of God; the treasure, whence, as a householder, he brought forth things new and old.
He preached the whole Gospel. The Law, with its stern demand and perfect standard, he used as a plough to sweep away refuges of lies and tear up false hopes by the roots; then he followed it with the love of God, as the sower gently drops into the furrow the seed steeped in his tears. The sword of the Spirit is two-edged. Warning, or invitation, alone, like a scimetar, may strike effective blows in one direction; but when the two keen edges meet in the point, they prepare us for the thrust that pierces to the joints and marrow. Thus Mr. Finney begat deep conviction of sin. As Socrates sought to lead men "from ignorance unconscious to ignorance conscious," he aimed to produce that consciousness of guilt and peril without which there can be no deep sense of need or of obligation.
How spiritual, too, was the tone of his preaching! With what ardor and fervor he besought men to be justified and sanctified by faith. With what burning, glowing zeal, did he assail the sectarianism which cares for sect more than for Christ; the conventionalism whose "awful respectability" hampers ministers and churches by a false fastidiousness, and dares not break through the bonds of custom, and adopt a new measure, even to save a soul! With what scathing rebuke he exposes the idle neglect that leaves generations to die without the Gospel, though for each disciple to win one soul each year to Christ, would be to covert the world within the lifetime of a single generation!
His preaching was spiritual in power as well as tone. He depended on the Spirit, whose blessed unction alone fits us to plead with men, or even to understand the Gospel. With the agony of Jacob at Jabbok, he sought the power to witness. "Honor the Holy Spirit and He will honor you," was his maxim; and he taught that without the habitual recognition of dependence on the Spirit, revivals neither begin nor continue.
If any one secret of Mr. Finney's power be emphatic, it is this: he gave his whole soul to God.
There is a Scottish legend for whose historic verity we do not vouch, that when Bruce, the Deliverer of Scotland, died, Douglas carried his heart, embalmed, into his battles with Edward IV; and that in the heat of the fight, he would fling the heart toward the enemy's lines and shout: "Forth, heart of Bruce, and Douglas will follow or die!" Charles G. Finney flung his own heart forward to the feet of God--over and across this world, with its hollow treasures and shallow pleasures, into the spiritual and eternal! Then he followed his heart, till, as a redeemed and perfected saint, he reached the goal where his affections had long been lodged!
Give yourself, with such sublime simplicity of aim, to God and His service; empty yourself as completely of worldly and selfish ambition; seek as devoutly to be filled and moved by the Spirit; and God will be as willing to use you as a chosen vessel for His glory!