What Saith the Scripture?

Men, Ignorant of God's Righteousness,
Would Fain Establish Their Own

by Charles Grandison Finney
President of Oberlin College

from "The Oberlin Evangelist" Publication of Oberlin College
Lecture XII
November 21
, 1855

Public Domain Text
Reformatted by Katie Stewart

Text.--Rom. 10:3: "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.

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.

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 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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

  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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