What Saith the Scripture?

Living To Please God

by Charles Grandison Finney
President of Oberlin College

from "The Oberlin Evangelist" Publication of Oberlin College
Lecture III
January 30
, 1861

Public Domain Text
Reformatted by Katie Stewart

Text.--1 Thes. 4: 1: "Ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God."

In speaking from these words, I enquire,

I. What is it to live and walk so as to please God?

II. Why we should so live and walk as to please God?

III. How to please God.

IV. How can I intend to please God?

I. What is it to live and walk so as to please God?

To this I answer --

II. Why we should so live and walk as to please God?

To please Him is to gratify His fatherly heart. To please Him we must meet His views respecting our obligation; we must meet His wishes, we must obey His will, must adjust ourselves to all that He wishes us to be and do.

He is then pleased with us; He is not grieved but gratified. Now to live with this continual aim to be all that God, under the circumstances wants us to be, is to live and walk so as to please God.

It is a comfort to Him to be able to approve the life that we live, as it is a comfort to parents to be able to approve the lives of their children. And it is a comfort to us to secure His approbation, as it is a comfort to children to secure the approbation of their parents. Nay, the comfort of receiving the approbation of God is infinitely more sweet, consoling, and joyous, than the approbation of all other beings together.

But do you account it an abstraction to live to please your mother or your father, your wife, or your dearest friend? That is anything but an abstraction. Your wife, or husband, or friend, would account their own pleasure anything but an abstraction.

I have been amazed sometimes, to hear some people talk of the end of being as an abstraction, as if it were a mere idea, and not the profoundest reality in the universe. What! the end of sentient beings, and especially of moral beings, their highest satisfaction and perfect happiness, an abstraction! Verily, I pity the individual who regards the good pleasure of God as an abstraction -- or the good pleasure of any good being.

Therefore we always violate the laws of our own nature, the laws of our conscience and higher reason, whenever we live to please ourselves. There is always an inward upbraiding, an inward struggle, a mutiny, a self-condemnation, when we live to please ourselves.

III. How to please God.

We are so constituted that when we honestly endeavor to please any being, we cannot help assuming that that being ought to accept our endeavor. We have done what we could; nothing more can in justice be required of us. If the endeavor is honest, and the intention right, all is done that the mind can do under the circumstances.

Now, with the honest intention to please God, you cannot commit a single mistake. If the heart is set to please Him, the mind is in an honest state, and will use all the means to obtain light that it can, and will endeavor to the utmost to please Him. Now any mistake that may be made in the state of mind cannot involve sin; for how else could one [aim]? If God will fault us, when we honestly endeavor to please Him, what would He do if we did not honestly endeavor? What else, more or less, should we do, than honestly endeavor to please Him? What else is possible to us? What other obligation can there be than honestly to endeavor to please Him? He must accept honest endeavor, for what else could we do? But do you object, that Paul "verily thought he ought to do so many things contrary to the name of Jesus and Nazareth"? and was not this a sinful mistake?

Paul says he verily thought he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. But Paul was a Pharisee, a bigot, dishonestly committed against Jesus. He was a persecuting fanatic, and he was just one of those of whom Christ said, "The days shall come when he that killeth you will think that he doeth God service." But does any one suppose that these persecutors were really filled with the love of God; that they were honestly devoted to pleasing a God of love; that they were fair-minded, candid, and really devoted to pleasing the true God? No! their zeal was founded in delusion, and in a delusion in which they were dishonest. They were under a dishonest bias; they assumed that Jesus was a wicked impostor, and that His disciples were deluded fanatics. This they had no right to assume; this assumption was dishonest. It was founded in prejudice. Its roots were roots of bitterness, and its fruit was death. But it remains a truth, that where a mind is truly and honestly committed to pleasing God, in all its honest endeavors, it is and must be accepted.

And it is impossible to conceive that God should condemn us when we honestly endeavor to please Him. The youngest child knows this. If your young child means to please you and then you find fault with it, it feels that it is wronged. It is grieved and regards you as tyrannical and unjust. Sometimes parents will require something of a child. The child attempts to please, but by mishap, breaks something. It was perhaps hastening with rapid step, to fulfill some command, to meet the wishes of a parent, but he slipped; something happened that he failed to secure the end intended. In such cases it is always cruel to even give a look of disapprobation. The child in every instance feels that it is unjust. The child has a conscience, and it knows that when it honestly endeavors to please, it ought to be accepted. And parents, or guardians, or masters, commit a great error, or a great sin, when they frown upon an honest endeavor, although it may have proved a failure. God never does this. He is never displeased with an honest endeavor. He never upbraids for any mistake that was so incidental as not at all to impair the integrity and honesty of the endeavor. If the intention was right, if the endeavor was honest, if the soul truly designed to meet His whole will, His will is met. There is no possibility in such a case of His being displeased.

IV. Do any of you ask, How can I intend to please Him?

I answer --

When in England, I was struck with the fact that everybody considered it such an honor to have an opportunity in any way to oblige the queen. Now, suppose that you were in London, in Hyde Park, and the queen was riding through the Park, and her postillion should stop, and the queen should call you to her carriage and ask you if you would do her the favor to put a letter in the post-office for her. Now, if you were one of her subjects, would you not consider it a great favor to do this for her? Would you not care to please her? Would it not almost draw from your eyes tears of joy to be able to do anything which should meet her wishes? Why, her officers and her soldiers can march in the face of death to gain her approbation. They will run any risk, and make any sacrifice, and account it all joy to do so, to please the queen.

Now you are made with a love of approbation. Have you no desire to please the great and the good? If a subject of Victoria can joyfully hazard his life, make any sacrifice to please the queen, and even in the agonies of death, feel that he is rewarded if he has met the queen's approbation, have you no care to please God, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?

Why, suppose you should meet the Lord Jesus Christ, and He should show you His hands and His feet, should remind you of His bloody sweat, of His shameful death, of all He had done and suffered for you, and then should ask if you had no care to make any grateful returns to Him, no care to please Him, no fear of displeasing Him -- what would you say? Would you ask, How can I care to please Thee? Why, what would be said in heaven to such a state of mind as this? Just let Him signify to the hosts of heaven a wish -- let Him inquire, "Whom shall I send? and who will go for Me?" ten thousand voices are raised at once, "Here am I; send me." And if there be any controversy, it is who shall be allowed to do His will -- which shall be allowed to do the most to please Him. All the ambition there is to lay themselves out to the uttermost, to see which shall do most to meet His blessed will.

What if it should be inquired in heaven, as you inquire, How can I care to please Him? Why, there the anxiety is all the other way -- How can I help caring to please Him? I must please Him; I will please Him; I would rather die than displease Him, is the language of all His real friends.

But is His love in fact to you no prevailing motive to seek His pleasure? Has all that He has done for you fallen so far short of winning your heart that after all you coldly inquire how you can intend and care to please Him? If this is your case, you are in fact far enough from being saved.


1. From this subject it is easy to see what true religion is. When I was young, I do not recollect ever to have heard a sermon from which I could gather what true religion was. I used to say, What is it? I used to ponder what Christianity meant by the language they used. I could not understand it. For a long time the impression was on my mind that religion was purely a feeling; that it was something that was to come to us, and no deliberate intention or act of my own. I thought it an unintelligible matter. But here see what it is. It is one of the most intelligible of all things. Just contrast it with sin. Take the case of Adam and Eve. For a time they dressed God's garden, and kept it. They were devoted to pleasing Him. And doubtless the lovely Eve, with her delicate hands, was pruning and cultivating in a most tasteful manner, the shrubbery and flowers in the garden of God. She and her husband took delight in this. As yet they knew no other way than to meet God's pleasure in everything.

When He visited His garden, and commended their diligence, and commended their taste, and expressed a pleasure in the appearance of His garden, it no doubt filled their minds with inexpressible delight. They meant to please Him; they did please Him. Their hearts were set upon meeting His wishes, and when they did they were satisfied. But in an evil hour they fell. The tempter suggested that they could please themselves, though at the expense of displeasing and disobeying God. They consented, and made their own pleasure their supreme end. In this they sinned; they fell. And this has been the sin of man, living to please himself instead of living and walking to please God.

2. Now see what it is to become a Christian. Suppose that when Adam and Eve had fallen, when they heard the voice walking in the garden, instead of hiding among the trees, they had immediately come forward, and Eve had broken down before the Lord, confessed her sins, and begged to be restored, and allowed to keep the garden.

If she and Adam had returned with all their heart, with the simplicity of aim that they had before to please the Lord -- this would have been repentance, this would have been a change of heart. They changed their hearts when they turned away for pleasing God, and set up their own pleasure as their end. In this they changed their hearts from a holy to a sinful heart.

Now had they immediately returned, changed back again, renounced their wrong, and devoted themselves at once to pleasing God again, this would have been conversion to God. In this they would have become truly religious again.

3. You see what is a truly religious life. That is a truly religious life which is a continual offering to God; and where in all our ways we intend to please Him. There are many who think they live a religious life, and after all seem to be doing many things they cannot pretend to be doing for God. You see them in many places, engaged in many employments; and if you should ask them, why are you here? what do you here? they could not tell you that God sent them there -- they could not tell you that they are doing this for God.

They might, as many do ask you, Why, what harm is there in it? Is there any harm in my being here? Is there any harm in my doing this or that? Now, the very asking of such a question, shows that the person is not truly religious. A great many people are living to please themselves, and doing what they do for their own pleasure, and are merely asking, What harm is there in it?

Why, God's commandments are positive and not negative. He commands that whatever we do, "whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, we do all to the glory of God;" we do all to glorify and please Him. The question is not, therefore, in any given act or course of action, what harm it will do, but, will it do any good? The question is not, Does God forbid it? but, Does He require it?

It is common, I find, among professors of religion, to go hither and thither merely to please themselves, to take journeys, to purchase articles, and in short, to pursue a self-pleasing course of life, and really make their own pleasure their end. And yet they profess to be consecrated to God, they profess to be Christians. Expostulate with them for this or that act or course of action, for this or that expenditure of money, for this or that use of their time, and you will receive for answer immediately, "Why, what harm is there in it? what hurt will it do?" Now this question always indicates a delusion in the mind of the professor of religion who makes it. It shows that he has no positive religion, but only a negative religion. He is contenting himself with doing no harm, as he says. He is using his time, his influence, his possessions, really to please himself, because he cannot see any harm that will result from what he is doing. But this is not the religion of Jesus. The inquiry with a true Christian is, What wilt Thou have me to do? Will this or that course of action please Christ? Will it promote His honor and glory? Will it win a soul? Will it help forward the kingdom of God?

The question is not what harm a thing will do, but what good it will do? The question is not, whether a thing, this or that, is objectively right or wrong, but what is the subjective intention. What do I mean or intend in what I do? Objectively, it is right to go to meeting; but subjectively, it is wrong, unless I mean to please God thereby.

Objectively, that is, in the letter, many courses of conduct are right; but they are wrong subjectively, that is they are sinful in any case in which the intention is not to please God. According to the letter, it is right to pray; that is, the outward act has no wrong in it. But if I do not mean thereby to please God, it is wrong in me.

So with everything wise. If a man asks me what harm there is in what he is doing, I answer, it is all harm or wrong in you, unless you mean therein to please God. Here is a person who gives himself to the study of music. He asks me, Is it not right to cultivate the fine arts? is it not right to study painting? is it not right to study music? What harm is there in it? what harm will it do? I answer, there may be no harm in it, it may do no hurt, but the question returns, what do you mean by it? what do you intend by it? In you it is all wrong, and all harm, unless you mean thereby to please the Lord and to serve Him; unless you do it because you suppose that He requires it of you.

Many people seem to go no farther than this: they will do what will please themselves, and take it for granted that God does not object to it. They do not suppose that He wants them to do it; they do not do it because it is His pleasure, and because they regard it as His pleasure that they should do it. This they cannot believe. But it is their pleasure to do it; and they do it to please themselves, God not objecting, as they think. They never think of rising any higher than to avoid that which they think will displease God. But, positively, they never think of doing whatever they do because they mean to please Him.

Now in all this negative religion there is not one particle of acceptable service rendered to God. There is nothing in it but self-pleasing after all. It is only a modified form of selfishness. It is just that kind of philosophy that teaches that men are to seek their own interest and their own pleasure as an end; but in so doing, not to interfere with the rights of others. They do not care to please God, but to please themselves. But they hold that in pleasing themselves they should not displease God. But the fact is, they always do displease God unless they positively mean to please Him. His requirements are positive, that we should live and walk so as to please Him; that is designing to please Him, making this our supreme and ultimate end in all that we do.

Now this religion that inquires, what harm will this do, and what harm will that do, instead of inquiring how to please God, and doing it for the purpose of pleasing Him -- I say the religion that seeks to please self and not God, that asks what harm will a thing do, instead of what good will it do, is not the religion of Jesus. It is not supreme love to God and equal love to man. It is the supreme love of self; it is selfishness under a religious type; it is a delusion, and an abomination to God.

But I fear it is after all the religion of the vast majority of professors. Many seem seldom or never to be aggressive in their religion. They are not laying themselves out, sacrificing self to please God; but they are living to please themselves, and as far as is consistent with this supreme regard to self, they avoid displeasing God. But in fact it is all displeasing to God. I say again, the religion of Jesus is positive, is necessarily aggressive. It is not merely the avoiding what there is harm in; but it is a positive labor, and a constant endeavor to please Christ, to do that which will glorify Him and save souls.

The enquiry, therefore, must be made, Wherefore do I do this? A proposition is before me to do this or that. Now the true enquiry universally is, not what harm will it do, but why should I do it? Does Christ want me to do it? Will it please God? Is it His good pleasure that I should do it? I am invited to a party: here the true question is not, What harm it will do for me to go there? but, what good can I do there?

The question is not, will the Lord object to my going; but does He wish me to go? The question is not whether I can barely get His consent; but is it His positive wish that I should go, and will He be pleased with it?

We sometimes see children set their hearts upon going somewhere, and their parents dislike to have them go, and yet they do not like absolutely to refuse. They dislike to say no because other young people are going. The children are very anxious to go to please themselves. The parents do not think it is wise; they would greatly prefer that their children should not go, but upon the whole they reluctantly consent. They do not like to restrain them too much. Now the children go, knowing at the same time that their parents would have preferred that they should not go, that they gain but the reluctant consent of their parents to go. They know their parents would have been much better pleased if they had cheerfully and willingly remained at home.

Now a great many professors of religion treat God just in this way; with this difference, however, that God has not given His consent. They go, in fact, without His consent. They cannot believe that God really wants them to go. They do not go because they think that God desired them to go. The deep impression is on their minds after all, that in going they have not the consent of their heavenly Father. Yet they are set upon pleasing themselves. So they will; and their determination to go is almost always prefaced by the question, Why, what harm is there in it, after all? What can there be wrong about it? What evil will it do? And then they think, why ministers do so -- minister's children do so -- everybody's going, why what harm is there in it? And thus they go with the multitude, to serve themselves.

Now this is nothing but real disobedience to God. There is no religion in any such course of conduct as this in any case whatever. And I am really afraid that after all this is the religion of great multitudes, to avoid doing harm while at the same time they aim at supremely pleasing themselves.

4. Religion greatly simplifies the aims of life. When once the whole being is consecrated to God there is really but one great question to ask -- Will this please God? The question is not whether it will please this one or that one. We are then disentangled from the meshes of worldly influence and the fear of man, and can act with simplicity, with singleness of aim. Instead of continually troubling ourselves with what this one or that one will think, what this or that one wishes us to do, how this or that will please or displease man, we have only one question to ask -- Will it please God? And this question is generally very easily answered. In almost everything the way is so plain that the wayfaring man, though a fool, cannot err therein.

Apply this to various kinds of business. Who, for example, would engage in selling tobacco as a business, intending thereby to please God? Who would engage in dealing in intoxicating drink, intending thereby to please God? Who would get up theatres, intending thereby to please God? Who would attend them, and spend their time and money, intending thereby to please God? Who would buy slaves, intending thereby to please God? Who, in short, would engage in very many branches of business, intending thereby to please God? No one, surely; for everybody knows that God would not call upon any man to engage in such business and to do such things.

5. Many persons profess to consecrate all to God. This they will do at the communion table; this they will kneel down solemnly and profess to do in the house of God, in their closets, or at the family altar; and then immediately go away, and go right to pleasing themselves, and pursue their own plans of self-gratification just as they did before. Practically, they have made no change whatever in their lives. They go right away and carry out all the schemes of self-pleasing upon which they had settled.

Here is a person who has promised at the communion table to live wholly to please the Lord. The next day I find him starting off on an excursion of pleasure, or in pursuit of some selfish object. I ask him, How is this? have you got the mind and will of God in this? and has He required this at your hands?

He will reply, I had calculated upon this course, had laid my plans for this for some time past; I thought I might as well execute it now as at any future time. I reply: so you did not mean anything yesterday when you swore at the table of the Lord to do all for His glory and to aim in all things at pleasing Him. Practically, then, you have made no change in your self-pleasing arrangements. You purpose still to carry out all your plans for self-gratification. Here you are deliberately pursuing all the plans that you had laid to please yourself, and this is your religion! This is all you intended by your consecration! This is what you meant when you swore with the elements of Christ's broken body and shed blood in your hands, that you would not live to please yourself, but would live wholly to please God! Yesterday was Sabbath -- you swore solemnly to live every day of your future life wholly to please the Lord. But today you are executing your projects of self-pleasing. Tomorrow you have something else planned for pleasing yourself; and the next day, and the next; and so you deceive yourself. Today I meet you here. I ask, Brother, how came you here? Your answer amounts to this, I came here to please myself. But you ask, what harm is there in it? I answer, in you, there is infinite harm in it, for you don't mean to please God. And thus you think you are religious, and go about what you call a religious life; but with the supreme intention of pleasing yourself. After all, how little real, honest, consecration to God there seems to be.

But after all we can well afford to live to please God; for the more singly we aim at pleasing Him, the more truly and surely do we really please ourselves. We do not aim in this to please ourselves; but, notwithstanding, we do gain our own approbation. We aim at pleasing God, and not man. We therefore care comparatively little what man thinks of what we do; if God approve, it is enough. The soul is quiet under that consideration, is peaceful and calm as a summer-evening sea. It becomes crucified unto the world and the world unto it; it pleases God; it is adjusted to His will; it meets His pleasure. He smiles His approbation, and all is peace.

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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