In his most recent article for Modern Reformation Michael Horton asks the question, “Does Justification Still Matter?” He observes and laments the fact that the contemporary church, even many of those with roots in the Protestant Reformation, have either neglected or denied the central doctrine of the church: justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. In one particularly important passage Dr. Horton explains one historic trend that continues to shape American evangelicalism’s disinterest in sound doctrine.
“In the American colonies, the Great Awakening, under the leadership of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, heralded the good news of God’s justifying grace in Christ. However, by the Second Great Awakening an antithetical theology became the working theology of many Protestant bodies in the new republic. The church is a society of moral reformers, said its leading evangelist Charles Finney…
“Finney’s critics charged him with Pelagianism – the ancient heresy that essentially taught that we are not born inherently sinful and that we are saved by following Christ’s moral example. Going well beyond Rome’s errors, Finney’s “Systematic Theology” explicitly denied original sin and insisted that the power of regeneration lies in the sinner’s own hands, rejects any notion of a substitutionary atonement in favor of the moral influence and moral government theories, and regarded the doctrine of justification by an imputed righteousness as ‘impossible and absurd.’
“Concerning the complex doctrines that he associated with Calvinism (including original sin, vicarious atonement, justification, and the supernatural character of the new birth), Finney concluded, ‘No doctrine is more dangerous than this to the prosperity of the church, and nothing more absurd.’ ‘A revival is not a miracle,’ he declared. In fact, ‘There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature.’ Find the most useful methods, (“excitements,” he called them) and there will be conversion. ‘A revival will decline and cease,’ he warned, ‘unless Christians are frequently re-converted.’ Toward the end of his ministry, as he considered the condition of many who had experienced his revivals, Finney wondered if this endless craving for ever-greater experiences might lead to spiritual exhaustion. In fact, his worries were justified. The area where Finney’s revivals were especially dominant is now referred to by historians as the ‘burned-over district,’ a seedbed of both disillusionment and the proliferation of various cults. Ever since, Evangelicalism has been characterized by a succession of enthusiastic movements hailed as ‘revivals’ that have burned out as quickly as they spread…
“It does not seem wide of the mark to regard Finney’s theological assumptions as Pelagian and his influence remains with us today, in both mainline and evangelical Protestantism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw this clearly in his visit to the United States, describing American religion as ‘Protestantism without Reformation.’ In spite of the influence of a genuinely evangelical witness, the rapid spread of Arminian revivalism, especially in the developing West, proved more effective in producing ‘results.’ Doctrine in general, and Calvinism in particular, just got in the way of building a Christian America. ‘Deeds, not creeds!’ has a long pedigree in the movment’s history.”
American Evangelicalism has taken on a “do-it-yourself” approach to doctrine and spirituality. We have become pragmatists. If it works then it must be good. If it gets people “down the aisle” and gets them to “pray the prayer” then it is good. This is Finney’s legacy to us and we are still buying in.
You can read Dr. Horton’s entire article (and many other outstanding articles) at www.modernreformation.org.