What Saith the Scripture?

The True Service of God

by Charles Grandison Finney
President of Oberlin College

from "The Oberlin Evangelist" Publication of Oberlin College
Lecture XXIX
March 31
, 1841

Public Domain Text
Reformatted by Katie Stewart

Text.--Josh 24:19: "Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the Lord: for He is a holy God."

In this discussion I will show:

I. In what the holiness of God consists.

II. That there are two kinds of service, both of which claim to be rendered to God.

III. Which constitutes the acceptable service of God.

IV. What is implied in it.

V. How these two kinds of service cannot, and how they can be distinguished from each other.

VI. If any man would serve the Lord, he must begin by making his heart holy.

I. In what the holiness of God consists.

II. Two kinds of service, both claiming to be rendered to God.

Legal and gospel services. Legal service is a course of life pursued, not from supreme love for and delight in it for its own sake, but from other considerations, sometimes originating merely in constraints or restraints of conscience, hope, fear, regard to reputation, personal safety, and multitudes of such like considerations.

Gospel service is not a constrained, but a joyful compliance with convictions of duty, from supreme love to the path of duty, and delight in it for its own sake. The first is regarded by the mind, as, after all, only a choice between two evils, neither of which is supremely lovely and desirable to the mind for its own sake. This is slavery, and this kind of service turns upon the very same principle upon which the service of slaves is rendered. They prefer laboring for their masters, to the evils which would result from their refusal. They therefore, upon the whole, choose to labor as they do; but it is only a choice between two evils. As liberty is out of the question, they must labor, or suffer the consequences. They therefore prefer to labor. But this, after all, is slavery. This kind of service rendered to God, is bondage and slavery.

The last, or gospel service, is regarded by the mind as supremely good or lovely, and desirable for its own sake. This is true liberty. It is the very course of life which the mind would prefer, if left free to choose between all possible courses of life; and that solely on its own account, or for the sake of its intrinsic value. I know not how to illustrate the difference between these two kinds of service, more naturally and familiarly, than by adverting to the conduct of children. They will labor, rather than be frowned upon by their parents. But labor is not regarded by them as desirable for its own sake; but is only chosen as the less of two evils. They would prefer play to labor, if left wholly to themselves. They love their amusements for their own sake. Now such is the true service of God. It is not submitted to as the less of two evils. It is not regarded merely as something that must be done, however irksome the task. It is not an up-hill business, a grievous labor, in which there is no satisfaction. But, like the plays of children, it is delighted in and loved for its own sake.

III. Which constitutes the acceptable service of God.

Now the true service of God consists, not only in devoting the whole being to the promotion of the same end, but also with the same motives, or for the same reasons; that is, from supreme benevolence, or an absorbing disposition to do good for its own sake, and because it is good.

IV. What is implied in acceptable service to God.

V. How these two kinds of service cannot, and how they can be distinguished from each other.

VI. If any man would serve the Lord, he must begin by making his heart holy.


1. If your religion does not afford you present happiness, if you do not feel that there is real salvation in it, it is a legal and not a gospel religion. Beloved, there is a sad mistake upon this subject among professing Christians. Instead of finding their religion a peace-giving, soul-satisfying employment, they think themselves to be engaged in what they call the Christian warfare, and expect to be made happy when they get to heaven, and can cease from their irksome labors. They drag on against their feelings, and elaborate a most distressing religion. The more they have of it, the more miserable they are. They keep up a continual controversy between their conscience and their hearts, supposing this inward struggle to constitute the Christian warfare. They bless themselves with the idea that their painful service will soon be over, and they shall have nothing to do but sit down in the midst of the joys of heaven.

Now the Christian warfare consists in conflicts with those temptations, persecutions and besetments, that endeavor to draw us aside from the labor in which we take so much delight. The true Christian's religion is his life. When he is left to pursue his course of doing good without opposition or temptation, he finds the service itself to be the delight and satisfaction of his soul. He knows full well that the grand difference between heaven and this state of existence lies in the fact that there he will have less interruption, temptation and resistance, and can therefore give himself up uninterruptedly and without fighting Satan, to that service in which he has so long had supreme delight. Is this your religion?

2. There is reason to believe that many of what are called revivals of religion go no farther than to make the converts mere legalists, and that the converts never get fairly into the kingdom of God. They are awakened and more or less deeply convicted, but never come to be possessed of the idea that religion is love, while their hearts remain entirely selfish. They are deceived by the vividness of their emotions and the excitement of their minds, into a belief that they are truly converted to God. In proof of this position, observe--

(1.) The spirit with which what claim to be revivals are often conducted--the class of motives presented are merely legal. The spirit in which they are preached is merely legal, and the whole tendency of the preaching and of the manner, together with illustrations used in endeavoring to impress the minds of inquirers with the true nature of religion, of submission and true conversion, are altogether calculated to induce only a selfish religion, to bring the converts under bondage to law and to sin, instead of bringing them into the glorious liberty of the children of God. I could give multitudes of illustrations of this method of conducting revivals, that would naturally lead a reflecting mind to the conclusion that such partial exhibitions of truth, the exhibition of such a legal spirit and zeal, as are constantly presented to the minds of inquirers would have a tendency only to a legal, selfish, self-righteous religion.

(2.) Another fact to show this, is that the spirit of the converts of such revivals is often manifestly a mere legal spirit. As a matter of fact they are not brought into the glorious liberty of the children of God. But instead of Gospel liberty, they are brought into legal bondage. By a little conversation with them, it appears, almost at first blush, that their religion is not love, that it is not mellow, holy, heavenly, meek, humble, broken-hearted, but is on the other hand hard-hearted, selfish, constrained, severe, unkind, sectarian and censorious.

(3.) Sometimes the inquirers are told not to expect happiness in religion, but to be willing to wait for happiness till they get to heaven; and when those who have professed submission begin more than to suspect that their submission is not of the right kind, and to complain that they don't feel right, that their hearts are hard, that they have little or no enjoyment in the duties of religion, that they are very little inclined to labor and to pray for the conversion of souls, and that as a matter of fact they do not enjoy or find themselves blessed and happy in the service of God, they are flatly told, when thus convicted by the Holy Ghost of being wrong, that they are not to expect to be happy in this world--that labor is their great business, whether they enjoy it or not--that they must not regard the feelings with which they labor, but act up to their convictions of duty, whether they enjoy this service or not. And sometimes they even go so far as to tell them that the less enjoyment they have in religion, the more virtue there is in it, as in that case their religion is not selfish, but disinterested. Now I do not hesitate to say, and I say it with grief, that in this kind of instruction there is a radical and most ruinous error, and such teaching, from its very nature, is calculated as fatally to mislead the soul as Universalism or even more so, for while it is equally false, it is much more specious than Universalism. It entirely overlooks the nature of true religion. It sets aside entirely the idea that religion is love, and that nothing but love and its necessary fruits are religion. It holds up the idea that religion consists in a mere legal conformity to convictions of duty. It is true that persons are not to wait for particular emotions of any kind, nor to be stumbled in the discharge of their religions duties, because they do not at all times experience the same inward emotions in the discharge of duty. But it is also true, that all religion is love or benevolence, and that the exercise of benevolence naturally and necessarily produces happiness, and that there is a divine sweetness, peace and soul-satisfying happiness in the very exercise of benevolence itself. When therefore a professed convert finds as a matter of fact his religion hangs heavily, and that his religious duties lay as a weight upon his hands--to tell him this is just what he may expect--that this is no evidence that he is wrong--that this laborious and irksome business may after all be true religion, is to inculcate upon him an abominable delusion and as fatally to deceive him, as if he were taught that he could go to heaven without a change of heart.

(4.) In all such cases it is of fundamental importance to discriminate clearly between seeking happiness in religion and actually finding it. The Bible most clearly teaches us and we may learn the same from common sense and from the nature of the case, that if permanent happiness is the object of pursuit, and the grand motive which leads the mind to engage in religion, this is working for wages. It is self-righteousness, self-service, and not the true service of God. But it is also true that if the heart is truly benevolent, if the service of God is chosen and loved for its own sake, if to do good for the sake of the good and from a desire to promote the holiness and happiness of being for its own sake, be that which the mind supremely desires and chooses on its own account, it is impossible that the duties of religion should not afford an exquisite relish in themselves, and that a course of life so highly valued for its own sake, should not afford a relish of a permanent and blessed happiness. If then the convert complain that he does not enjoy the service of the Lord, he should be instantly and plainly told that he is not engaged in the service of the Lord, that "wisdom's ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace," that "the path of the just is as the shining light that shineth more and more unto the perfect day," and that if these are not conscious realities in his own experience, he is deceiving himself--that true religion is love or benevolence--that there is a divine sweetness and relish in benevolence--and that if he does not find in the service he renders to God, that "in the keeping of God's commandments there is great reward," it is because he does not keep them. Nothing can be of greater importance than to make the impression at once that he is a legalist and has not been born again. But instead of this, professed converts are often encouraged to rest in a legal religion as the true religion, and are only exhorted to persevere, be faithful in the discharge of duty, binding and supporting themselves by oaths and promises and resolutions, and not to expect happiness in religion till they get to heaven. O, what a terrible delusion is this. And now let me ask if this is not, as a matter of fact, the real history of many in revivals.

(5.) Another consideration that establishes the fact that multitudes of professed converts have only a legal religion is, that they so suddenly backslide and as it is commonly expressed "grow cold in religion" as soon as the effervescence of excited emotion subsides. Now whether their religion is of the heart, or merely of the emotions, can only be known as the greatness of the excitement subsides. Strong feelings or very highly excited emotions, may induce volition or a series of volitions at variance with the state or permanent preference of the will or heart. A miser may be so affected in view of some spectacle or wretchedness as to exert such a temporary influence over his will, as that by a single volition he will relieve the sufferings before him, in view of which he is so greatly excited. But this volition has been induced by an excitement of feeling in opposition to the permanent state of the will. Now as soon as the excitement has subsided, he calls himself a fool for having been thus induced to part with his money, and almost curses himself for his folly. Now in revivals of religion, it often happens that strongly excited feeling will induce for the time being a series of volitions, that will so shape the life as really to lead us and to lead the subject of them to believe, that the heart is truly changed, that the deep moral preferences of the soul are reversed, that selfishness is given up, and that benevolence has taken its place. But let excitement fully subside, and then you will be able to discern clearly and distinctly, whether the heart is changed, or whether the volitions of the mind were only induced by temporary excitement. If it is found that the deep currents of the soul are benevolent, that selfishness in heart, life, business, and social intercourse is abandoned, and that love and disinterested benevolence, a supreme disposition to do good to all around is the real state of the heart, then you may be certain that there is true conversion, that that soul has truly entered upon the service of God, and that he is not a mere legalist, and serving for wages.

3. Converts should always be made to see, that the more disinterested they are in religion the more happy they will be; of course the less they seek happiness the more they will find it. And the less regard they have to their own happiness, the more self-sacrificing and disinterested they are, the greater will be their joy, and the fuller the tide of their blessedness. Suppose a man comes across, in the street, an object of the deepest distress and compassion. Being touched to the very quick with the spectacle before him, and from unmingled benevolence, he steps into a provision store and purchases a basket of provisions, and sets at the feet of this object of poverty and distress. The fainting starvling lifts up his streaming eyes of gratitude, speaks not, but looks unutterable thanks. Now the happiness of this benefactor would be precisely in proportion to the strength of his benevolence and disposition to do him good. If his benevolence was strong and disinterested, and he longed to do him good for its own sake, his happiness would be full and unmingled and he would find his happiness to be in proportion to his disinterestedness, and that in this thing he had found most exquisite happiness simply because he sought it not. Upon the principle that he who would lose his life for the sake of doing good, shall find it and keep it unto eternal life.

4. You can see the secret of the perseverance of the saints. They persevere in religion because they love it for its own sake.

5. You see also the secret of the apostacy of legalists. When their excitement subsides, their religion is too irksome a business for them. They abandon it because they have no heart in it. "They went out from us," says John, "because they were not of us. For if they had been of us, they would have remained with us." Now the same Apostle affirms that "he that is born of God doth not commit sin, because his seed remaineth in him, so that he cannot sin because he is born of God." The seed which remains in him is the love of God, the same benevolence that is in the heart of God.--This has taken the place of selfishness, has come to be the supreme ruling disposition of his soul.--And because his seed remaineth in him he cannot live in sin. And if it is found that he can live in sin, it is certain that he is not born of God.

6. Whether your religion is of the right kind or a mere legal religion, will be attested by your own consciousness. You cannot but know if you will be honest with yourselves, whether your religion is liberty or slavery. Would enough of the same kind make heaven? Or if you should multiply it a thousand fold would it not increase your wretchedness?

7. The legality of professors is a great stumbling block to sinners, seeing as they do, that there is little, or nothing of enjoyment in the religion which they observe in some persons, they conceive of God as a hard master, of religion as a hard and cruel service, as destitute of every thing that is pleasant and sweet and soul satisfying, infinitely less delightful than the pleasures of sin; and therefore to be postponed as long as possible, and yielded to only when dire necessity forces it upon the soul. It is manifest that they look upon religion as only the less of two evils. It is better than to go to hell, but much less valuable in itself than the pleasures of the world. Now where do they get this idea; how comes it to be so almost universally prevalent among the impenitent? Why, the fact is, they receive their notions of what religion is, from what they observe among professors of religion, what they behold in their parents and relations and friends around them, who profess to be in the service of God.

8. And you can see why sinners are so reluctant to give up the pleasures of sin, and why young persons are apt to conclude that religion would set aside all their happiness. Why, this is the very idea of some professors themselves. The mother of a gay young lady, a professor of religion, a few years since was distressed that her daughter became convicted and hopefully converted in a revival of religion. "O," she said, "what a pity that such a charming girl, should be so early cut off from all the pleasures of the ball room, and secluded from the gaiety of her young friends, and shut up to the sameness and solemn performance of religious duties." I trust there are not many professedly religious mothers who would say as much as this, or even think it. And yet, if they did not, it might be, that a mere natural fear of the loss of the soul, rather than a rich experience of the joys of God's salvation, would prevent their saying it. The fact is, that multitudes of professors of religion know not what enjoyment in religion is. To them it is after all a naked reality that God is a hard master, that they have short keeping and hard labor, that they live on husks, and their father does not feed them. But this is not the religion of the gospel.--It is not the religion of love. It is self righteousness and ruin.

9. You can see how few professors of religion have truly embraced the gospel; so few indeed that when here and there a soul is found that truly enjoys the service of God, and feels constrained to speak of the joys of God's salvation, he is looked upon as a wonder, as having a great deal of animal feelings, and as being well nigh deranged. He is not unfrequently rebuked and even despised for talking so much about enjoyment in religion. He is suspected and publicly accused of selfishness, and as serving God for the loaves and fishes, without considering at all, that it is his disinterested love and labors of love that constitute his happiness.

10. There is a kind of happiness that is not religion. And wherever it appears, needs and deserves rebuke. It is the opposite extreme of a legal religion. It is antinomianism, the religion and happiness of emotions, ecstacies, and a false peace, amounting to a kind of quietism, that does little or nothing to glorify God or benefit mankind. Now between this state of feeling and the happiness of true religion there is a distinction as broad and palpable as the noon day light. The one consists in the emotion, and effervescence of excited feelings which does nothing, and the other consists in the exercise of good willing, of benevolence, and in labors of love, together with those states of the emotion that naturally and necessarily result from this state of the will. The happiness of one consists in doing nothing for the glory of God and the good of men, but simply giving up the mind to the influence of imagination and excited emotion, while the other finds its happiness in giving up the whole being to active exertions, for the promotion of the glory of God and the salvation of men.

11. You see the necessity of a class of ministers that know, and continually experience the joys and the power of God's salvation. That such an experience is important to the promotion of true religion is evident, from the very nature of the case. How shall a man describe what true religion is, unless he has it in his own experience? How shall a man preach Christ, who does not know Christ?--How shall a man preach a religion of love, and make people understand it, who is not himself in the enjoyment of it? Isaiah says: "Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head; they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away." The Psalmist says: "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free Spirit: Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee."

The grand reason why ministers promote a legal religion is, that they are themselves legalists.--They preach as far as they know, and having only the baptism of John, they have need that some one should expound unto them the way of God more perfectly. They testify what they have seen and experienced, and this, they consider to be true religion. They inculcate it upon others; being themselves in bondage, they beget children in their own likeness. They are born and continue slaves.--Nothing is more alarming to them than the idea of getting above their sins. They would even manifest indignation at the profession of sanctification on the part of any soul. They would think that surely he knows little or nothing of the evils of a wicked heart, and would look upon him as in a most deluded and self-righteous state. Why, they have never so much as conceived of gospel liberty. A religion of love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, temperance, meekness, and all the graces of the Holy Spirit, what do they know of these? "Being rooted and grounded in love, and comprehending with all saints, what is the length, and breadth, and height, and depth, of that love of God, that passeth knowledge." O, what do they know of this? Alas, the poor slaves! No, reader, they regard the doctrine of entire sanctification in this life as a most dangerous heresy; it is so infinitely at variance with their own experience, and with all that they call and really suppose to be religion, that they look upon such a sentiment, as ridiculous, and dangerous. I say then, we must have a class of ministers, the state of the Church and of the world imperiously demand it, that know what gospel liberty is. Look at Wesley and his coadjutors, at Luther and his coadjutors. Read their writings; look into Luther's Commentary, on the Epistle to the Galatians. Read the history of the life and times of those holy men.--Witness the effect of their labors. And what is the secret of all their success. The fact that they walked with God, that they were in the liberty of the gospel, that they distinguished clearly between a legal and a gospel religion, that they distinguished between the righteousness which is by faith and the righteousness of the law. In short, they pressed upon their hearers, the great idea, that God is love, that religion is love, not emotions or complacency, but benevolence, and this succeeded under God in kindling up among mankind the very fire that lives in the heart of God.

12. The truly religious man need not, and does not want to get to heaven before he is happy. He is happy here. He finds, that to be true in his own experience which James declares: "But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed."

13. Unless self-denial, and the carrying out of your benevolence, work out in you a soul-satisfying happiness, you are not truly converted.

14. Great multitudes make up their minds to serve God, without understanding definitely what it is to serve God, and many ministers preach on such texts as this: "Choose ye this day whom ye will serve," when they press sinners up to the point of decision, in respect to whose service they will choose, but omit accurately to discriminate between a gospel and a legal service. Now men are in the habit of seeing others serve for reward, and of serving themselves for reward. And as all their notions of service on every subject are selfish, and they have little or no idea of any other service than a selfish service, it is of indispensable importance, and fundamental to their salvation that a discrimination as clear as light be made, between a selfish and a disinterested service. And as their notions are all selfish, no pains should be spared to possess their minds fully of the true idea of a gospel service, as distinguished from a legal service. They should be shown that one is holiness and the other is sin, that one is serving God and the other is serving self, that the one is true religion and the other arrant wickedness.

15. And now, dearly beloved, as I have spread out this subject before you, let me ask you where you are. What is your true character? What is your religion? Are you a real servant of God, or are you serving yourself? Are you a legalist, or are you a Christian? Are you converted, or are you not converted? Are you free, or are you a slave? Do you walk with God in the liberty of the gospel, or are you wearing the galling yoke of the law, and in bondage to sin? O, beloved, walk up to an honest answering of these questions.--Remember, that God has said, "sin shall not have dominion over you, because you are not under the law but under grace." Does your experience test the truth of this? Can you honestly say "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ, hath made me free from the law of sin and death," or are you still crying out in the legal experience portrayed in the 7th of Romans: "O, wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"--My perishing and beloved souls, rest not a moment in such a state as this. This whole matter of a legal experience is full of death. It is the rottenness of a legal religion, which will lead you down to the gates of hell. O, remember that "there is now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit."

If then your own heart condemns you, remember that God is greater than your heart, and will condemn you. "Shall mortal man be more just than God?" "Escape for your life," and rest not till you are rooted and grounded in love.

of easily misunderstood terms as defined by Mr. Finney himself.
Compiled by Katie Stewart

  1. 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 XII).

  2. 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).

  3. 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).

  4. 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).

  5. 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).

  6. 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).

  7. 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).

  8. 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 III).

  9. 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).

  10. 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).

  11. 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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