What Saith the Scripture?
HOLINESS OF CHRISTIANS IN THE PRESENT LIFE --No. 4
by Charles Grandison Finney
President of Oberlin College
Oberlin Evangelist" Publication of Oberlin College
February 15, 1843
Public Domain Text
Reformatted by Katie Stewart
Text.--1 John 3:9:
"Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth
in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God."
In this discourse I shall,
I. Inquire what sin is not.
II. What it is.
III. What to be born of God is not.
IV. What it is.
V. What the seed spoken of in the text is not.
VI. What it is.
VII. What is not intended by the assertion that whosoever is born of God does not
and cannot commit sin.
VIII. What is intended by it.
IX. How a Christian may be distinguished from a sinner.
I. What sin is not.
- 1. Sin is not a part of the soul or body.
- 2. It is nothing infused into either soul or body. Some talk as if they supposed
the whole being, soul and body to be saturated with sin, than which, nothing can
be more absurd.
- 3. It is no taint of corruption in, nor a lapsed state of the constitution. The
Bible does not make it so, and reason certainly affirms it to be something entirely
different from this.
- 4. It is nothing which is or can be transmitted from parents to children by natural
generation.--This would contradict the Bible definition of sin, and the supposition
is in itself a ridiculous absurdity.
- 5. Nor does it consist in any weakness, debility, or inability, either natural
or moral, to obey God. The Bible no where makes it consist in this, and certainly
common sense does not.
- 6. Nor does it consist in any appetite, passion, or mere feeling. These we have
already seen, in a former lecture, are constitutional, involuntary, and in themselves
wholly destitute of all moral character.
- 7. Nor does it consist in any degree of excitement of these in appropriate circumstances;
for in the appropriate circumstances, they are excited of necessity.
- 8. Nor does it consist in any state or act of the intelligence; for this also
acts of necessity, and we can only be responsible for its operations just so far
as we can regulate it by willing.
- 9. Nor does it consist in any outward actions; for these are necessitated by
the supreme end chosen, and in themselves are wholly destitute of all moral character.
II. What sin is.
- 1. As was said in a former lecture, the primary faculties of the mind are Intelligence,
Sensibility, and Free Will. This we know from consciousness. The Intelligence is
that power which thinks, affirms, reasons, and reflects. The Sensibility, is the
power of feeling. To this power are referred all appetites, desires, passions, or
emotions whatever. The Free Will, is the power which wills.
- 2. The will is always influenced by motives originating either in the intelligence
or the sensibility. The will always chooses some object, or acts in reference to
some motive; and we know by consciousness that these motives are either duties perceived
by the intelligence, or the awakened susceptibilities of the sensibility, which always
invite the mind to seek the gratification of its appetites and passions for their
own sake. I do not mean that the action of the intelligence and the sensibility are
so isolated from each other, that either of them acts in perfect independence of
the other; for we know that every thought and affirmation of the intelligence is
accompanied by some feeling of the sensibility, and on the contrary that every feeling
awakens in the intelligence, affirmations, thoughts, and reasonings to a greater
or less extent. But what I mean is, that some motives originate in, and are addressed
to the will by the intelligence, and some on the contrary, originate in the sensibility,
and as such, influence the will. The distinction of which I am speaking is just what
every one means, when speaking of the difference between being led by propensity
or passion, and reason.--The intelligence and sensibility mutually influence each
other, but one or the other takes the lead. In other words, the mind, which is a
unity, in thinking feels, and in feeling, thinks. When the intelligence reveals and
imposes obligation, it is always echoed by the sensibility; and on the contrary,
when some appetite or desire is excited in the sensibility, the intelligence is awakened
into thought respecting it. In the one case the sensibility follows in the wake of
the intelligence, and in the other, the intelligence in the wake of the sensibility,
but in all cases the action both of the sense and intelligence is indirectly under
the control of the will, which by its sovereign power always determines which shall
be the ascendant.
- 3. The mind affirms itself to be under obligation to obey the law of the reason
just as I suppose the mind of God imposes obligation on Him. The holiness of God
consists in his obeying the law revealed and imposed on Him by his own infinite and
eternal reason, and so the holiness of all moral beings must consist in their voluntary
conformity to whatever their own reason affirms to be obligatory. Holiness then is
that state of the will or heart which consists in the voluntary consecration of the
whole being to God.
- 4. Sin is the exact opposite of this, and consists in the consecration, by the
will or heart, of the whole being to the gratification of self. This is selfishness,
which we have already endeavored to show is the substance of all the sin in the universe.--Whatever,
in the action of the will or heart, is not conformed to the law of love, as perceived
by the reason, is sin, whether it be omission of duty or the commission of that which
is positively prohibited. Entire conformity of heart and life, therefore, to all
known truth is holiness, and nothing short of this is, or can be. If persons deny
this, it is because they do not know what they say, and have not the idea of holiness
before their mind at all. The law of God is one--a unity, and to talk of being partly
conformed to it, and partly not, is to overlook the very nature both of the law and
of conformity to it. The law of God requires perfect conformity of life and heart
to all the truth perceived, and this is moral perfection in any being, and is the
only sense in which any being can be morally perfect in any world. Suppose there
is a moral pigmy whose standard of truth is No. 1. Now if he fully conforms to that,
he does his whole duty. So you may increase the scale to 2, 5, 10, 20, and moral
perfection will still consist in conformity to the light possessed. Suppose you ascend
the scale to ten thousand or a million, it is still the same until you arrive at
God Himself, and this is just what constitutes the moral perfection of God. All the
truths in the universe are known to Him with absolute certainty, and He conforms
to all He knows. Since his knowledge admits of no increase, his holiness admits of
none, while that of all finite beings does and will to all eternity. Angels doubtless
sustain innumerable relations of which they are totally ignorant, and to which they
are not morally conformed, but their state of will is such, that as fast as they
learn them they conform to them , and hence their holiness is constantly increasing;
and so it must be from the lowest to the highest degree of moral capacity. Every
thing, then, short of living up to the light we have, is sin, and every moral act
is either right or wrong.
III. What to be born of God is not.
- 1. Regeneration does not consist in the creation of any new faculties. We have
faculties enough, more than we use well, and do not need any more.
- 2. Nor does it consist in a constitutional change. A constitutional, would be
far enough from a moral change, and it would be hard to tell what good it would do.
- 3. Nor does it consist in implanting, or infusing any piece, parcel, or physical
principle of holiness into the soul. What can be meant by a principle of holiness,
when such language is used to designate something aside from holiness itself?
- 4. Nor does it consist in a change of the constitutional appetites and propensities.
These have no moral character in themselves and need no change. They only need to
be rightly regulated.
- 5. Nor does it consist in the introduction or implantation of a new taste. There
could be no virtue in regeneration if it consisted in any of these things, and they
all are mistakes overlooking the nature of virtue. But,
IV. What is it to be born of God?
- 1. To be born of God is to have a new heart.
- 2. We have seen that the old or wicked heart is the same as the carnal mind,
and that the carnal mind or wicked heart consists in the devotion of the will to
self gratification. Self gratification is the ultimate end chosen.
- 3. Now to be born again, or of God, is to make a radical change in the ultimate
intention, or choice of an end. It is called being born again because it is a change
of the whole moral character and course of life. Christ says, "except ye be
converted and become as little children, ye shall, in no case, enter into the kingdom
of heaven." The phraseology is figurative and emphatic, because when a moral
being has changed his ultimate intention, he must of necessity live an entirely new
life, perfectly the reverse of what it was before.
- 4. It is called, a being born of God, or from above; because sinners are influenced
to make this voluntary change by the word and Spirit of God. I say voluntary change,
because every one is perfectly conscious that he was voluntary in it, and because
it must of necessity be voluntary, if it has any moral character in it; and I might
add, that unless it is voluntary, backsliding from it would be naturally impossible,
and obedience necessary, which are as false in fact, as they are absurd in theory.
V. What the seed which remaineth in Christians is not.
- 1. It is not a physical germ, root, sprout or taste, inserted into the soul.
If so, then falling from grace is naturally impossible, and perseverance naturally
necessary. This theory robs religion of all virtue whatever.
- 2. It is not love nor any other holy exercise. In other words, it is not religion
at all. Religion is voluntary conformity to the law of God, and to say that this
remains in the Christian could have no meaning. The truth is, the Apostle, in the
text, is asserting why this voluntary conformity is continued. It then cannot be
- 3. It does not consist in any new principle implanted in the soul.
VI. What this seed is.
- 1. It is the word or truth which re-generated him--that is, in view of which
he changed his ultimate intention or heart. Truth is frequently called seed in the
bible,--"Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by
the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever." "Of his own will begat
He us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures."
- 2. This word or truth is called the seed of God, because it is introduced and
made known to the mind by the Holy Ghost. Hence we are said to be "begotten
of God." It is his truth that quickens the mind into right voluntary action.
Now every one knows, by his own consciousness, that this is the way in which he was
born again. Hear a young convert tell his experience. He begins to tell of some truth
which arrested his attention, and convicted him; how he thought of one thing after
another, that he perceived this, and that and the other thing to be true as he never
did before, and that finally he made up his mind, in view of what he thus saw was
true, to repent. Now what is he doing? Why, he is giving the history of his regeneration,
and giving it in the detail. But does he know the history of his regeneration? As
well as he knows any thing else under Heaven. To be sure he did not see the Spirit,
no[r] did he perceive that it was the Spirit, because the Spirit directs to Christ,
but he is conscious that he did see the truth as he never saw it before. And he is
conscious that he was perfectly voluntary under its influence.
- 3. This seed, which has once broken the power of selfishness, remains in him,
that is, in his memory, so that he can sin only by letting it slip. "Let that
therefore abide in you which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have
heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall
be done unto you." This truth, as I said before, is not a piece of something
which God puts into you, nor is it religion, nor love, but it is that which once
subdued your will and will not cease to influence you, only as you let it slip.
VII. What is not intended by the assertion that whosoever is born of God does
not and cannot commit sin.
- 1. It cannot mean that a holy being has not power to commit sin. Adam was a holy
being and he sinned, as did also the "Angels that kept not their first estate."
If there were a lack of natural power to sin, there would be no virtue in obedience.
This position would contradict facts innumerable. Perhaps very few have ever been
born of God who have not afterwards been guilty of sin. This is a matter of consciousness.
Most of the histories recorded in the Bible of good men, show that they did fall
into sin, and the Bible everywhere assumes that there is danger of this. It would
destroy free agency and the possibility of being sinful or holy.
- 2. It would make John contradict himself, for he was writing to regenerate persons,
but he all along assumes that they could sin, and were in danger of sinning. Nor
can it mean that one who is born of God never does in any instance sin under the
force of temptation. This would contradict all the rest of the Bible.
VIII. What is intended by it.
- 1. It is intended that since the truth has once broken the power of passion,
and appetite, and gained the consent of his will, and since it remains in him, that
is, in his memory, he will not, as a matter of fact, consent to indulge himself in
any form of sin.
- 2. Cannot is here used in its popular sense, as it generally is in the Bible.
Such language must not be strained nor cut to the quick. It is used just as it is
now used in popular conversation. Suppose I say I cannot take twenty-five dollars
for my watch. What do I mean? Not that I have not power to take it, but that I am
unwilling to take it. If I say I cannot throw this table across the room, the nature
of the case shows that I use cannot, to indicate a natural impossibility, but in
the former case I use it merely in the sense of a strong unwillingness. It is in
this sense that it is used in the text, just as it is used everyday in every store
- 3. It is intended then that with all Christians, holiness is the rule and sin
the exception--if there be sin at all, that sin is only occasional as opposed to
habitual, that it is so unfrequent, that, in the strong language of John, it may
be truly said, that they do not sin. If sin is not so rare as to be merely occasional
instead of habitual, the text is absolutely false. For example; suppose I should
say that such a man is not a drunkard. I should not be understood to say that he
had never been drunk in his life, but I should certainly be understood to say that
at most his fits of intoxication were extremely rare. John, as a writer, expresses
himself very strongly, and I might read many passages from his writings, showing
that he does not intend such terms in an absolute sense, but to state, that, in Christians,
their aversion to sin, and their purpose of obedience are so strong and fixed, that
it may be said in strong language they cannot sin. "And every man that hath
this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. Whosoever committeth sin
transgresseth also the law: For sin is the transgression of the law. And ye know
that He was manifested to take away our sins; and in Him is no sin. Whosoever abideth
in Him sinneth not; whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him neither known Him. Little
children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even
as he is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth
from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might
destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for
his seed remaineth in him: And he cannot commit sin, because he is born of God."
- 4. It must be intended that Christians only sin by being diverted from the consideration
of the truth by the force of temptation. This is the least that this and similar
passages can mean. It is not intended to assert what ought to be true of Christians,
but what is so as a matter of fact. He is drawing the very portrait of a Christian
and hanging it up for all the Church in all ages to look at.
IX. How a Christian may be distinguished from a sinner.
- 1. They cannot be distinguished by profession. For doubtless many sinners make
profession and some Christians do not.
- 2. Nor can they be distinguished by their observance of the forms of religion,
nor by their creeds or opinions, nor by their church standing, nor by the emotions
or feelings which they manifest. Emotions are as natural to the impenitent as to
Christians, and are no distinguishing test. But,
- 3. The Christian is benevolent, while the sinner is selfish. These are their
ultimate states of mind, and will manifest themselves in both by a natural necessity.
- 4. The Christian is influenced by reason, and the sinner by mere feeling. If
you wish to influence a sinner, you must appeal to his feelings, for nothing else
will move him. He has not learned to yield his will to the dominion of truth. But
the Christian has devoted himself to truth, and is always influenced by it. He knows
that the feelings effervesce, boil or freeze, just as circumstances vary; while truth
is forever the same. Said a brother to me not long since, "I am distressed about
my wife. She is very full of feeling, and can be affected by appeals which are calculated
to awaken it; but I cannot influence her by truth." I replied, that this was
truly a dark sign; and I now say, that I should have no hope for my wife nor anyone
else, who cannot be influenced to duty, by the simple truth, unaided by appeals to
- 5. The Christian obeys all known truth, on all subjects, while sinners conform
to truth only on those subjects that are enforced by public opinion. Truth is the
Christian's law, and he conforms to it as fully in opposition to, as in conformity
to public opinion. But mark! a sinner will conform to some truths outwardly, but
not to all, nor really to any in his heart. Public sentiment is a god which most
people obey and worship.
- 6. Christians adhere to principle in the face of all opposition, while sinners
quail before it. Let opposition rise ever so high, you will see the true Christian
stand like a rock, and breast the dashing wave--he will not shrink or quail. Not
so with the sinner. He will go along well enough, while all is smooth, but when the
tide begins to rise, you see him yield to its force and drive along with it withersoever
it goes. "By and by he is offended."
- 7. It can never be said of a true Christian, that, "sin has dominion over
him." But some form of sin has dominion over sinners universally. Sometimes
it assumes one type and sometimes another, but sin is their master.
- 8. Christians obey the spirit and letter of the moral law, but sinners obey only
the letter, even if they do that.
- 9. Cause a Christian to see the truth on any subject and he will obey it; but
a sinner will see and acknowledge it, and continue on in his sins. His appetites,
and not his conscience, are his master.
1. Every real Christian lives habitually without sin. Nothing is more common than
to find large classes of professors of religion who acknowledge that they are living
in sin. You ask them--Do you not know that this is wrong? Yes, they say, but no person
is expected to live without sin in this world. We must sin some. Now, as the Bible
is true, such persons are deceived, and in the way to hell. If that is religion,
what is Christianity? But, you will say--"I know what you say of this text cannot
be the meaning, for it is not my experience." Poor soul! this excuse will do
you no good, for God's word is true, whatever your experience is, and in the day
of eternity, where will you be if you rely on this? Now do you cry out and say, "why
this is awful; for if it be true what will become of the great mass of Christians?"
Let me tell you all true Christians will be saved, but hypocrites God will judge.
Said a woman to a minister not long since, "Do you confess your sins?"
confess your sins! What did she mean by that? Why, she meant to inquire whether every
time he prayed he confessed, not that he had been a sinner in times past, but, that
he was now actually sinning against God? She, with many other professors, actually
seemed to think that Christians should sin a little all the while in order to keep
them humble, and to have something to confess. Indeed!
2. It is a dangerous error to inculcate that Christians sin daily and hourly. It
sets the door wide open for false hopes, and the effect on the Church is that it
is thronged with the victims of delusion.
3. Equally dangerous is it, to say that their most holy duties are sinful--that "sin
is mixed with all we do." What! Then John should have said--"Whosoever
is born of God commits sin daily and hourly, notwithstanding the seed of God remaineth
in him, for sin is mixed with all he does!" It is a palpable matter of fact
that whatever is holy is not sinful. Holiness is conformity to all perceived obligation--it
is an act of the will, and must be a unity. If then holiness be a unity, a compliance
with all perceived obligation, there is not and cannot be sin mixed in it. Says Christ,
"Ye cannot serve God and Mammon." And James says--"For whosoever shall
keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." A person
therefore, knowing obligation to rest on him, and not discharging it, is living in
sin and is not a Christian. It is in vain to appeal to experience against the Bible.
4. All who live in the omission of duty or commission of what is contrary to known
truth, are living in habitual sin and are not Christians.
5. How infinitely different is the doctrine of this discourse, from the common view,
and what is generally inculcated. Said a celebrated minister in giving the definition
of a Christian--"He has a little grace and a great deal of devil." Now
where did such a sentiment as that come from? From the Bible? No. But from a ruinous
accommodation of the Bible to a false standard. And yet so current is such a sentiment,
that if you deny it, they look astonished, and say--"Why, I guess you are a
perfectionist." Now read the language of the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian
Church, right along side of what John says. Says the Confession of Faith--"No
mere man since the fall, is able, either of himself, or by any grace received in
this life, perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in
thought, word, and in deed."--And to this almost all the standards of the Church
agree. It is the common sentiment of the Church. Now I would ask how this accords
with what John says, in the text and in many other places in this epistle? Let me
say he is not here speaking of some Christians who have made rare attainments, but
of the common attainment. Now, which is right? By which will you be tried at the
Judgment? By the Bible or the common standards? You know very well which.
6. When any, therefore, live in the omission of known duty, or commission of what
they know to be contrary to truth, we are bound to say they are not Christians. This
is not a want of charity but a love of the truth. Suppose an infidel should meet
you with the Bible in his hand and should point out what it describes a Christian
to be, and should ask you, "do you believe the Bible speaks the truth?"
And should then point to those Christians who live daily and hourly in the omission
of known duty, in a violation of perceived obligation, and ask you if you believe
they are Christians, what would you say? What would you feel bound to say to maintain
the honor of the Bible? The answer is plain. The truth is, the common views on this
subject are a flat denial of the Bible, and are a ruinous accommodation to the experience
of carnal professors.
7. Now, beloved, if this is so it becomes us, to ask ourselves, whether our experience
accords with the Bible or the popular standard. Not whether we think we were converted
some time ago, not what feelings we may have had: but are we at present conformed
to all the truth we know. Does the seed remain in us? The test is a habitual perfection
of moral character. He who has it is a Christian. He who has it not is not a Christian.
Now where are you? Where would you be to night if summoned to the Judgment? Could
you lay your hand on your heart and say, "Lord Thou knowest all things, thou
knowest that I love Thee?" Thou knowest that my life is a life of conformity
to all thy known will?
of easily misunderstood terms as defined by Mr. Finney himself.
Compiled by Katie Stewart
- Complacency, or Esteem: "Complacency, as a state of will or heart,
is only benevolence modified by the consideration or relation of right character
in the object of it. God, prophets, apostles, martyrs, and saints, in all ages, are
as virtuous in their self-denying and untiring labours to save the wicked, as they
are in their complacent love to the saints." Systematic Theology (LECTURE
VII). Also, "approbation of the character of its object. Complacency is
due only to the good and holy." Lectures to Professing Christians (LECTURE
- Disinterested Benevolence: "By disinterested benevolence I do not
mean, that a person who is disinterested feels no interest in his object of pursuit,
but that he seeks the happiness of others for its own sake, and not for the sake
of its reaction on himself, in promoting his own happiness. He chooses to do good
because he rejoices in the happiness of others, and desires their happiness for its
own sake. God is purely and disinterestedly benevolent. He does not make His creatures
happy for the sake of thereby promoting His own happiness, but because He loves their
happiness and chooses it for its own sake. Not that He does not feel happy in promoting
the happiness of His creatures, but that He does not do it for the sake of His own
gratification." Lectures to Professing Christians (LECTURE I).
- Divine Sovereignty: "The sovereignty of God consists in the independence
of his will, in consulting his own intelligence and discretion, in the selection
of his end, and the means of accomplishing it. In other words, the sovereignty of
God is nothing else than infinite benevolence directed by infinite knowledge."
Systematic Theology (LECTURE LXXVI).
- Election: "That all of Adam's race, who are or ever will be saved,
were from eternity chosen by God to eternal salvation, through the sanctification
of their hearts by faith in Christ. In other words, they are chosen to salvation
by means of sanctification. Their salvation is the end- their sanctification is a
means. Both the end and the means are elected, appointed, chosen; the means as really
as the end, and for the sake of the end." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LXXIV).
- Entire Sanctification: "Sanctification may be entire in two senses:
(1.) In the sense of present, full obedience, or entire consecration to God; and,
(2.) In the sense of continued, abiding consecration or obedience to God. Entire
sanctification, when the terms are used in this sense, consists in being established,
confirmed, preserved, continued in a state of sanctification or of entire consecration
to God." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LVIII).
- Moral Agency: "Moral agency is universally a condition of moral obligation.
The attributes of moral agency are intellect, sensibility, and free will." Systematic
Theology (LECTURE III).
- Moral Depravity: "Moral depravity is the depravity of free-will,
not of the faculty itself, but of its free action. It consists in a violation of
moral law. Depravity of the will, as a faculty, is, or would be, physical, and not
moral depravity. It would be depravity of substance, and not of free, responsible
choice. Moral depravity is depravity of choice. It is a choice at variance with moral
law, moral right. It is synonymous with sin or sinfulness. It is moral depravity,
because it consists in a violation of moral law, and because it has moral character."
Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXVIII).
- Human Reason: "the intuitive faculty or function of the intellect...
it is the faculty that intuits moral relations and affirms moral obligation to act
in conformity with perceived moral relations." Systematic Theology (LECTURE
- Retributive Justice: "Retributive justice consists in treating every
subject of government according to his character. It respects the intrinsic merit
or demerit of each individual, and deals with him accordingly." Systematic
Theology (LECTURE XXXIV).
- Total Depravity: "Moral depravity of the unregenerate is without
any mixture of moral goodness or virtue, that while they remain unregenerate, they
never in any instance, nor in any degree, exercise true love to God and to man."
Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXVIII).
- Unbelief: "the soul's withholding confidence from truth and the God
of truth. The heart's rejection of evidence, and refusal to be influenced by it.
The will in the attitude of opposition to truth perceived, or evidence presented."
Systematic Theology (LECTURE LV).
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