||delphia > Men, Ignorant of God's Righteousness, Would Fain Establish Their Own by Charles G. Finney from "The Oberlin Evangelist"
Men, Ignorant of God's Righteousness,
Would Fain Establish Their Own
Charles G. Finney
A Voice from the Philadelphian Church Age
by Charles Grandison Finney
Public Domain Text
Reformatted by Katie Stewart
from "The Oberlin Evangelist"
November 21, 1855
MEN, IGNORANT OF GOD'S RIGHTEOUSNESS,
WOULD FAIN ESTABLISH THEIR OWN
by the Rev. C. G. Finney
"For they, being ignorant of God's righteousness,
and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves
unto the righteousness of God."
Paul here states three facts in respect to the Jews, viz.: that they were ignorant
of God's righteousness--that they sought to establish their own, and that they did
not submit to God's. This is a condensed statement of their religious condition.
The fundamental difficulty with them was, their ignorance of God's righteousness.
On this rock the nation were wrecked. Not knowing Jesus, they were forever going
about to establish their own righteousness--and forever unsuccessful.
What was true of the Jews is still true to an alarming extent of multitudes, both
in and out of the church, among all classes in Christian lands. It may be said that
all do this who are not really Christians and receive Christ.
In discussing this subject, I enquire,
I. When one may be said to be ignorant of God's righteousness.
II. When men may be said to go about to establish their own righteousness.
III. What this righteousness of God is--this of which sinners are so ignorant.
I. When one may be said to be ignorant of God's righteousness.
- 1. I answer, when he does not truly know God: particularly when he does not know
Him as he reveals himself in the spirituality of his law. It was at this point the
Jews failed. They did not see that the law called for the inmost heart and for perfect
love there. Their carnal eye was attracted by the external and ceremonial, and the
amount of visible doing in the Mosaic system gratified their ambition for distinction
and display, so that they quite overlooked those very explicit statements, everywhere
frequent throughout their scriptures, which were designed to call attention to the
state of the heart as the only thing of real value in God's sight.
- 2. God's righteousness and perfect purity of character are revealed in his law,
and are especially to be learned there.
Again, men are ignorant of God's righteousness when they do not understand his
method of making sinners righteous. The Jews did not feel any need of such a system
as the gospel. They supposed they should be accepted if they merely obeyed their
ceremonial law. In this they made a grand and fatal mistake. God never gave that
law for this purpose, but for another entirely different from this. It was only introductory
to the real gospel--intended to prepare the way for it. That ceremonial hinted plainly
at the true system, and aimed to illustrate the great principles upon which it reposes.
- 3. It is remarkable that sinners generally have no idea of God's plan of securing
in them what he commands. They look no further than the precept and the penalty,
and seem utterly unaware that the high aim of God is to bring them back to obedience
and love. Hence God must bring them first under a felt sentence of death; but this
does not make them righteous; it only prepares the way for bringing them to Christ.
Again, men are ignorant of God's righteousness when they fail to understand the
conditions on which He can treat them as righteous, that is, can justify and save
them. This was the mistake of the Jews and is the mistake of all sinners. They do
not understand how it is that God proposes to make them righteous, and turn them
from all their sin.
II. I am next to enquire, When men may be said to go about to establish their
- 1. And first, what is meant by establishing one's own righteousness?
- (1.) Suppose you see a man come into a court of justice. He is accused. He pleads
not guilty. In some way he justifies his conduct. Perhaps he will even attempt to
prove his own entire righteousness in the whole transaction, so that he can face
the judge down and insist that in every particular he has done nothing wrong and
only what is right. This would be going about to establish his own righteousness.
- (2.) Sinners go about to establish their own righteousness when they bring in
pleas of excuse for their sin. If a man can show his right under the circumstances
to do as he does. this goes to establish his righteousness. So sinners go about to
parry conviction--to bring in extenuating and justifying circumstances. Of this,
God accuses them: "Wilt thou condemn Me, that thou mayest be righteous?"
- (3.) Legitimately, the bearing of an excuse goes to arraign God. What do you
mean, sinner? So you think God can accept your apology, and admit himself to be wrong?
If not, why do you present it? Why bring it up before your Almighty Judge, to insult
him to his very face, by impeaching his equity?
- (4.) Every sinner who brings forward any form of excuse for his own sin, is really
trying to establish his own righteousness.
Again, men are trying to establish their own righteousness when they depend on
doing right for acceptance with God. How often do they tell you they mean to do about
right, showing plainly by their manner, and by the use they make of this supposed
intention, that they think hereby to secure favor with God. They turn off his claims
with this plea, and so not at all believe they are in danger of being sent to hell.
Now is this anything else but going about to establish their own righteousness?
- 2. The same must be said of those who depend on their own reformation.
- (1.) I often meet with young persons, who, before they came here, had been much
more loose, in many points of moral conduct, as for instance, the observance of the
Sabbath; but coming here they attempt to reform, and this greatly relieves their
consciences. Of course, now they are in a good way, and think themselves almost sure
of heaven; whereas this reform may be wholly due to their love of a fair reputation.
Mingling here with people who themselves observe the Sabbath, and who have established
this general usage, they are forced to conform, and do so, without any more regard
for God than they had before.
- (2.) Such persons I have seen pass through other stages of self-righteous endeavor.
They become convicted of sin, and begin to pray perhaps. Still they are uneasy, and,
therefore, resort to some forms of external reformation. How very common is this
among the masses of awakened sinners! Many of you who are before me, have had this
sort of experience. How long it took you to understand that you were all wrong, and
that nothing would avail for you short of a most radical change of heart.
- (3.) In the same train of feeling, men depend on having done nothing worthy of
condemnation. Indeed! What is this but going about to establish their own righteousness?
They think they have done nothing that can justify God in sending them to hell. On
this point they take issue with God, assuming that they have done nothing very wrong.
They must know that, in God's sight, sin deserves hell, else He would not have built
hell, nor have made it the penalty of sin. How, then, should they dare to dispute
this point with God, and arraign him on the implied charge of injustice!
- (4.) The same thing is seen, under a slightly different form when men depend
on their general integrity of character. They have been honest and kind, and on the
whole, so good that they think God cannot send them to hell, but will strike the
balance in their favor. They have done a great many things that are about right.
On the whole, they have done more good than hurt, and therefore, they are sure it
cannot be right for God to send them to hell. Their life shows more obedience than
disobedience--as they insist.
Indeed, sinner! What do you know of personal holiness? What experience have you
of a pure heart--of real love to God--of sincere regard for his will? Surely, you
are only going about to establish your own righteousness.
Again, sinners evince the same spirit when they hold on to the idea that they are
about as good as professors of religion. Some such, they know of, who are not any
better than they should be, and with whom they think their own case might compare
favorably. Such, are going about to establish their own righteousness.
- (5.) Also, when they depend on their religious observances. Many have learned
better than to rely on their honesty or morality; so they resort to their religious
observances. Like the Catholics, they, virtually, count their beads, and doup their
senseless, unmeaning services;--yes, even Protestants do this, and just as really
make a merit in these observances, as the poor man who expects to go to heaven, by
kneeling before the holy altar, kissing the holy wafer, and saying his Ave Marias.
This Protestant prays just like the Catholic--that is, with the same purpose, and
the same state of heart; he reads his Bible on the same principle, and in the same
way goes through what he calls his "religious duties."
This was the mistake of the Jews. They fasted twice in the week--were greatly
given to prayer and alms to the poor. In these services, their scribes, priests,
and Pharisees, spent a great share of their time. Thrice a year they went up to Jerusalem
to the solemn feasts. Religious duties absorbed a large share of their time and money.
You would be appalled to learn how much their temple cost, and their religious worship,
sacrifices and offerings. On all these they placed the utmost dependence. But evermore,
when men rely on other methods of salvation than God's, they are really going about
to establish their own.
III. I am next to enquire what this righteousness of God is--this of which
sinners are so ignorant.
- 1. In general, God's righteousness is synonymous with his infinite moral purity;
but, in such connections as this, it seems to mean more specifically his integrity
as a moral Governor, bound to sustain the interests of his government in its relations
both to the unfallen and to the fallen. Under the most solemn obligations to do his
utmost to secure universal obedience as a necessary means to the highest happiness,
he cannot suffer law to be broken, nor rebels to live--except on the ground of some
satisfaction made, that shall amply sustain the sanctity and honor of law. Of course,
this quality of his character, as a moral Governor, determines the great features
of his plan of saving sinners. It stands revealed in his law and in his gospel. This
righteousness of God renders it forever certain that no sinner can be accepted on
the ground of any works of his own. God's claims are so high, and the sinner has
fallen so low, that God can never accept any work of his hands. Even his prayers--out
of Christ--and his best works are all odious to God. He is trying to put God off
with something less than a perfect heart.
- 2. By the very terms and spirit of the law, it demands perfect obedience, and
the exigencies of God's great kingdom require no less. The law, in both its precept
and penalty, must be honored, or no sinner can be saved. I do not mean that God will
insist that the utmost measure of penalty shall be visited on the sinner's own person;--but
it must be this, or a substitute that will answer the one great end of fully sustaining
the dignity, influence, and authority of his law. His throne must be infinitely removed
from all supposable connivance with sin.
- 3. Hence, it became necessary that our Surety should honor the law, as to its
penalty, by offering his humanity on the altar of his divinity. In his own person,
too, he obeyed the law fully.
- 4. Hence, sinners, to be saved, must return to real obedience. God's righteousness
- 5. We can now apprehend God's method of making sinners personally righteous.
First he opens the way, by giving his Son to honor the law, so that God can come
down from heaven and enter into covenant with the sinner and draw him back to life
and love. This is God's method--that Christ be received as the sinner's righteousness,
having borne for him the curse of the law, obeying it perfectly, and then suffering
in place of the penalty, which the sinner else must have suffered. The sinner, by
faith accepting Christ, becomes, in the governmental respect, united to Christ, so
that, for Christ's sake, God accepts them both. Families sometimes come into such
a relation to government, that the children stand in the stead of the parents, and
are rewarded or forgiven for their parents' sake. Similar is the relation sustained
by Christ and the believing sinner to the government of God. Christ is "set
forth to be a propitiation for us through faith in his blood," in this sense,
that the merits of his death are made over to us, on condition of our believing,
and we have the full benefit of all that Christ has suffered and done to honor the
law. We now abandon all hope of justification from personally obeying the law, and
receive Christ as God's mode of making us right before the law. He is given to us
as a Redeemer and Savior. He is treated in this transaction as if he had been a sinner,--we,
as if we were righteous.
- 6. Thus we stand before God as if in Christ. Paul said--"If any other man
thinketh he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more;" "touching
the righteousness which is in the law blameless;"--"but what things were
gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ, that I may be found in Him, not having
mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith
of Christ--the righteousness which is of God by faith."
- 7. Thus by a governmental act, God merges in Christ the whole mass of believers--he
having become our Surety, our Advocate, Mediator and King. In this wonderful arrangement,
God turns the whole race round from looking to the law for justification, to looking
- 8. Submission to God's righteousness is the condition of salvation. So the apostle
implies. "For they, being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to
establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness
of God." Here you cannot fail to observe that this method of salvation is something
to be submitted to. The will must yield its full assent to this plan.
- 9. The constant effort of sinners is to do something of their own--some work
of some sort, or get up some experience. This is the great idea which they aim to
realize as soon as they are convicted. Hence they cannot have peace of mind, nor
real pardon, because they do not meet God's plan. They struggle against God's Spirit,
and resist his influence; they turn and shift in all possible ways to get up some
righteousness of their own. The seventh chapter to the Romans, is only a picture
of one who is struggling and floundering as in a spiritual quagmire--bringing himself
by promises and resolves, and yet finding them all of no avail. What masses of even
professed Christians, are in precisely this condition! They make not a prayer in
which they do not feel condemned. Their state is one of conviction and despair, so
deeply agonizing that they can have no peace. They are struggling to effect an impossibility,--to
establish, in some way, their own righteousness; and failing in this, they sink down
into despair. Hence it comes to pass that the last step a man takes before submission
to God is usually a mighty effort to establish his own righteousness;--which effort
ends in despair, after which, he consents to submit to God's plan of being made righteous.
How often have I seen this in professors who thought they knew what religion is,
but in the clear light of these truths have seen their mistake. If they come really
to despair of help in themselves, and then cast their souls on God through Christ,
all is well. Probably most ministers find cases of this sort. Great numbers of them
have fallen under my observation. How many have I seen who struggle and struggle,
long, and without relief, because they struggle in a wrong direction. They are ignorant
of God's righteousness, and therefore go about to establish one of their own. A striking
case now occurs to me, of a lady, now on mission-ground, a lady of many noble traits
of character, but before her conversion, strong in her self-righteousness. Hearing
of the great revivals in Oneida County, some thirty years since, she came to see
them. Her object was to learn what this new and strange movement might be. She heard
sermon after sermon, but writhed under their pointed truths, often finding fault
with the preaching as being too personal, and as being full of wrong things. Conviction,
however, sank deeper and yet deeper. Soon a friend with whom she was boarding, said
to me--We have a dreadful case at our house--you must come and see her. I went. I
found she had set herself to defend the idea that she did not deserve to be damned,
for if she was a sinner, it was only because she was made so, and born so. Being
cornered up on these points, and shown her error, she became more agonized; the struggle
was fearful! At last she screamed at the top of her voice, and yielded! Then a change
came over her--a charming, glorious change, which no language can describe. Almost
her first words, as she broke silence again, were "I'll be a missionary!"
But few months passed ere this vow was fulfilled, and she has lived a missionary
to this day. Her self-righteousness, like a mighty tower of strength, came down wonderfully;--and
when Jesus became her righteousness, she was a lamb at His feet. Such a change in
the whole being, manifest in every aspect, is truly wonderful.
Often it happens that you see professors of religion moving heaven and earth by
their self-righteous efforts to get up some righteousness of their own. You will
be struck in examining their religious system, to see how utterly Christ is left
out of it, as a practical Savior. They think of their good and right things--not
of Christ--as really the ground of their hope before God.
- 10. This method of God's righteousness is exactly opposed to human pride. Pride
loves to do the work and have the honor of it; but God's system has done all the
meritorious work itself--leaving nothing for man to do that he can be proud of.
It is for this reason that conversion costs such a conflict. Often it seems indispensable
that God should startle sinners with awful fears before they will yield. On Mt. Sinai
and all around, the trump of God waxes louder and louder--the mountain is all ablaze,
and rocks quake under Jehovah's mighty voice long and loud, till every nerve of the
sinner trembles, and he sees nothing but darkness--until the atonement reveals a
living Christ to his agonized soul.
- 11. This gospel plan seems to sinners deep and dark as midnight, till the Holy
Ghost reveals to him his self-righteousness, cleaves down that self-righteous spirit,
knocks out his props, and he falls and dies!--then the cross reveals life, and he
rejoices with exceeding joy in a salvation wrought of God through redeeming blood.
- 12. This righteousness of God must be submitted to. The sinner must submit to
the righteousness which has sentenced him to hell. He must admit it to be right and
just. I often ask sinners--Are you prepared to subscribe to that righteousness which
dooms you to hell? If I find him wavering on that point, I say to him--You do not
understand God's righteousness. You cannot be saved till you subscribe to God's righteousness
in this--till you fully admit its justness and propriety. You must yield also to
his supreme authority and right to govern all his creatures, and consent to be saved
wholly by grace--things which many fail to understand. In England, I found, to my
surprise, that many ministers talked much of grace, yet did not believe that men
deserve damnation for their sins. I said to them--What do you mean by this? You talk
largely of grace, yet deny all need of it! For, grace is the antithesis of justice.
How can there be grace shown the sinner, if it be not just to punish him!
- 13. The point of greatest struggle with the sinner is in laying aside as worthless,
his own righteousness. You recollect the case of the poor Indian and his rich white
neighbor, both awakened and convicted at the same time, but the Indian came at once
to Jesus, while the white man remained a long time in extremest darkness and distress.
At last, he asked the Indian how it happened that he found Christ so soon, while
himself had sought so long in vain. The Indian stammered his reply--"Indian
poor; white man rich; poor Indian no clothes; white man good clothes, fine clothes;
Indian throw his old rags right away, take Christ's robe at once; white man can't
throw away his fine clothes."
You recollect, also, the case of the poor woman in the gospel. Christ had been
invited to a rich man's table; they sat reclined at their meal, with their feet somewhat
extended behind them, when this woman came up gently, clasped his sacred feet, bathed
them with her tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Blessed woman! She
knew her position as a lost sinner, and she had tasted the grace that forgives freely.
What an act was that! Her humility of spirit charms us, and we read in her case the
feeling of those who discard all righteousness of their own, and come to understand
the righteousness of God.
1. The ignorance of the Jews came of their great pride, and is not at all to be ascribed
to the obscurity of the subject itself. The ignorance of sinners now, even under
the gospel, is amazing. I have recently seen one who had been well instructed in
the letter of these things, yet when he became deeply hungry for gospel life, seemed
scarcely to know how to use one of the plainest truths it embraces. It was affecting
to see him drink in a few of the simplest gospel truths, saying--"I am sure
I never heard of that before--never thought of that." How common it is for sinners,
under the Spirit's light, to say--"All this is new to me; I wonder I was never
told of this before!"
2. Many feel the need of becoming truly religious; they mean to be, and they set
themselves to work for it in some way. Perhaps they set themselves to serve God,
but have no right idea of what it is to be truly religious. Hence, we find so few
who seem, in their own experience, to know the deep power of the gospel. Ah, the
deep foundations of their selfishness are not broken up. They have never been made
conformable to Christ's death. Hence, the difference between this class and those
who are utterly cut down and slain by the law--then raised from the dead to a new
life in Christ.
3. When the sinner is truly convicted of sin, the way opens before him, and the first
conditions are fulfilled for his free pardon. Now, he has new apprehensions of God's
law--of its great spirituality. But it is not enough to know this; another lesson
yet remains. I am glad to see you cut down under thorough conviction, but you must
also learn not to fly in the face of that fiery law for salvation! Sinner, professed
Christian, do you know how you are to be saved? You need not make any atonement;
you need not suffer and toil to work up an atonement; no need of this at all. In
my own first convictions, I said, under my great sorrow--I shall have to bear a great
deal of this, I have been a sinner so long; I shall have to be nearly killed before
I can be saved. Ah, how mistaken! God wants no such atonement--no such suffering
of you. The atonement is all made, ready to your hands! Do you understand that no
works, or prayers, or tears of your own can do anything for you towards an atonement,
and towards constituting a ground of your acceptance before God? God himself has
provided the lamb for the offering. Now come, as the ancient Jew came, and lay your
hand on that dear sacrifice, and there confess your sins. The vail of the great temple
is rent away, and you may enter the inner sanctuary; may come quite to the mercy-seat
and lay your own hand on the head of the victim that takes away the sin of the world.
Will you come?
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).
RELATED STUDY AID:
Index for "The
Oberlin Evangelist": Finney:
Voices of Philadelphia