Jonathan Edwards vs Charles Finney: On the Causes of Conversion and Revival

Jonathan Edwards’s view on the causes of conversion and revival is more biblical than Charles Finney’s because Edwards maintains the biblical tension of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility in conversion—between God’s immediate and mediate actions—while Charles Finney loses that tension by overemphasizing the responsibility of man and the mediated nature of God’s work, and thereby loses grip on some key doctrines like the depravity of man and the sovereignty of God. What we have here is a debate between two Evangelicals regarding not just the nature of conversion (the birthing of the divine life in one’s soul) but of revival as well (the refreshing of that life with new vitality), heavy stuff that we must approach with humility. Before we analyze their arguments, we must first see how they define each of these actions.

Defining Conversion and Revival

Edwards defines conversion as “a great and glorious work of God’s power, at once changing the heart, and infusing life into the dead soul.…”[1] Finney, on the other hand, writes that conversion “consists in changing the controlling preference of mind in regard to the end of pursuit.”[2] Finney says that conversion is an intellectual choice, a getting over of people’s selfish interests by coming to choose “Jehovah for their governor, and consecrate themselves, with all their interests, to his service and glory.” Thus salvation is merely the logical and proper response to the law. Edwards, on the other hand, defines conversion as a miracle.

Edwards presents much clearer thinking and very easily delineates between these two actions (conversion and revival), while Finney seems to very often conflate the two. This gets at the core of Finney’s faults. Edwards sees the work of conversion as separate, a monergistic work of God, while the work of revival is synergistic (a work of both God and man). Finney indicates that both are synergistic. To get at the core of this debate we can analyze the way both theologians understand the use of means in order to answer the question: does God use means in conversion and revival?

God’s Mediate versus Immediate work

Finney states right off the bat that “Religion is the work of man” (and not a work of God), a statement that overemphasizes the responsibility of man over the sovereignty of God.[3] Finney’s argument is to prove that in both conversion and revival, there are normal human means of making it happen. One means is emotional excitement: “There must be excitement sufficient to wake up the dormant moral powers, and roll back the tide of degradation and sin.”[4] Another is rationality: in an essay entitled Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts, Finney says that conversion “consists in changing the controlling preference of mind.”[5] In both cases, he is arguing for conversion as a mediate work of God, a work accomplished indirectly through means—excitement and rationality.

Edwards takes a very different path, making a clear distinction between conversion and revival. He argues that conversion is immediate, meaning that God alone accomplishes the work of redemption in the heart of a person, apart from any means. He says, “Salvation is given immediately by God and not obtained by natural means.”[6] Jonah 2:9 affirms: “Salvation is from the LORD.” While Finney says that emotions are the very cause of conversion and revival, Edwards argues that while the move of God can affect our bodies and emotions, those physical signs are results of such works of God, not causes.[7] The means of “reason” is used, but not in order to discover, only to explain what you are now seeing due to the “Divine Light” given by God which awakens you to salvation.[8] He says that “God makes use of means; but ’tis not as mediate Causes to produce this Effect. There are not truly any second Causes of it; but it is produced by God immediately.”[9]

The causes for revival are not emotion or anything so trivial, but arise from a purer joy. Recounting the experience of revival of some, he pointed out how different it is from ecstasy or some excitement of the “animal spirits”: “Their rejoicing operated in another manner; it abases them, breaks their hearts, and brings them into the dust. When they speak of their joys, it is not with laughter but a flood of tears. Thus those that laughed before, weep now, and yet but their united testimony, their joy is vastly purer and sweeter than that which before did more raise their animals spirits.”[10] Revival of the spirit comes when you focus on the one who is glorious, when you fix your gaze on the object of worship who then changes your heart to be like Him: “In all companies, on other days, on whatever occasions persons met together, Christ was to be heard of, and seen in the midst of them. Our young people, when they met, were wont to spend the time in talking of the excellency and dying love of Jesus Christ, the glory of the way of salvation, the wonderful, free, and sovereign grace of God, His glorious work in the conversion of a soul, the truth and certainty of the great things of God’s word, the sweetness of the views of His perfections, etc.”[11]

But these two men come closer to agreeing on this topic of means than this simplification. While Edwards absolutely rejects the idea that God uses means to quicken a heart to perceive and participate in what he calls the “Divine Light”, he doesn’t reject the idea that God uses means in order to convey that message of Redemption—the primary means of which is the Word of God.[12] Edwards simply adds cautions everyone looking to label an emotion or physical sign as a move of God because there are counterfeits to everything, especially religious works. Love can be mistaken for self-love.[13] Placing any faith in the signs of the means is, to Edwards, opening yourself up to Satanic deception,[14] while to Finney, this is the proper way to fan the flame of the Spirit of God. So while both agree that God employs means to do His work, they believe different things about the causality and efficacy of those means.

Conversion and Revivals: Arminianism vs Calvinism

To understand the fundamental differences between these two men, we need to look deeper into the theology of both with regard to conversion. Edwards says that conversion is an act of God while Finney says it is manufacturable. Edwards says that God brings people to see the “Divine Light” by opening their eyes with His word to see objective facts (His holiness, their depravity, the coming judgment) and that vision leading them to repentance. Finney says that all religion has only come from revivals, that “God has found it necessary to take advantage of the excitability there is in mankind, to produce powerful excitements among them, before he can lead them to obey,” and that, “It is necessary to raise an excitement among them, till the tide rises so high as to sweep away the opposing obstacles.”[15] Edwards places the mystery of conversion at the feet of God while Finney intentionally demystifies it and places it at the feet of man.

Edwards’s main concern is with the authenticity of the work of God. He devoted an entire essay to this (Marks of the Work of the True Spirit), the thesis of which is that there are “distinguishing evidences of a work of the Spirit of God, by which we may safely proceed in judging…[and] that we are to take the Scriptures as our guide in such cases.”[16] He gives a no-nonsense definition of a work of God and exhorts everyone to judge all perceived “movements” of God by that Biblical definition. When making those judgments, he has other wise counsel, such as: “It is more difficult to discern the spirit of an individual than a group.”[17] He cautions against the revivalist mentality with this: “The error of revival is that in the ‘heat of youth’ people run into error.”[18] Emotion leads us into error, but holiness does not. Holiness is the goal of religion, and emotion is merely the by-product.[19] If you make the by-product the goal, you lose the definition of religion, making it about man instead of God. As Edwards writes here: “The sign of true love is humility and the sign of true repentance is humiliation and abasement” (and I might add: not emotional ecstasy).[20]

The difference between these two men are embodied in the doctrinal systems of Calvinism and Arminianism. They differ not just in these soteriological ways, but also in the doctrines of total depravity, the sovereignty of God, the work of Christ, and the free will of man. Finney takes the Arminian path, believing that man is not ultimately dead in his sin, that he has the ability to choose God at some level prior to God’s effectually choosing Him, while Edwards takes the Calvinist path, believing that man is totally depraved and unable to choose God without a work of the Spirit in his heart. Finney sees God’s sovereignty depending on the free will of man to choose Him or not; Edwards sees God as sovereignly ordaining and superintending even the free wills of men to accomplish His decreed will.

The implications of these doctrines is most readily shown in how they portray our God. Edwards sees Calvinism as giving God more glory because it is all of him and nothing of us.[21] He writes, “We are dependent on God’s power through every step of our redemption.”[22] And it is this dependence that brings Him glory: “God is glorified in the work of redemption by this means, viz. By there being so great and universal dependence of the redeemed on him.”[23] It’s this very dependence Finney undermines, and by so doing diminishes the glory attributed to God. This is not his motive, but it is an unintended result—something we will get to at the end.

Signs of True Conversion and Revival

Jonathan Edwards says that conversion is a result of God opening our eyes by putting His Spirit within us, something he calls the “Divine Light”. That light comes to us by the direct work of God, through the instrument of the Word of God which allows us to see the object of our faith (Christ). Pagans can see the Truth in the Word, but they cannot believe it because it is outside of them, not within them, because they do not possess the Spirit of God who is Truth to our souls. So while we can bring the truth to bear on people’s minds, we cannot open the eyes of their hearts and give them the Divine Light they need in order to believe.

Meanwhile, Finney encourages any and all means of drumming up excitement and emotion because that’s how it works—God always uses emotion. He says that conversion is a choice we make based on how we think and feel as rational and emotional creatures—that if we get excited enough we will turn from our sinful ways of self-worship and obey and worship God instead, that there can be a work of redeeming power on the hearts of mankind if only we have the ability to make them see and feel the right thing.

Practically Understanding the Problem of Causality

The Orthodox position is Edwards’s position: that conversion is monergistic and sanctification is synergistic, and that revival is simply a result of focusing one’s attention on the glory of God who made your heart and gave it life to begin with. What caused Finney to depart from orthodoxy? In a word: pragmatism. Finney claimed he wasn’t an Arminian, but because the church began to lose the balance between sovereignty and free will, they began “waiting for God to come and do what he required them to do, and so revivals ceased for many years”, and in order to solve that problem, he veered into error.[24]

Finney is well aware of the tension he is struggling with, calling for a “right view of both classes of truths, election and free-agency”, and he even said that Jonathan Edwards was one of the “bold and devoted servants of God [who] came out and declared those particular doctrines of grace, Divine sovereignty, and election, and [the people] were greatly blessed.”[25] But he couldn’t let the church sit idly by: “No doubt more than five thousand millions have gone down to hell, while the church has been dreaming, and waiting for God to save them without the use of means.”[26] Thus he overemphasizes, in a subtle distinction, the free will of man, as seen best in his analogy of conversion: “It is true then, that the physician saved him, and it is also true that God saved him. It is equally true that the medicine saved his life, and that he saved his own life by taking the medicine; for the medicine would have done no good if he had not voluntarily take it, or yielded his body to its power.”[27] In order to put the onus back on church people to evangelize and seek revivals for themselves, he demystifies the work of God, casting out the miraculous nature of redemption, and places too much power in the ability of man to choose a God while still did in their trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1).


At the end of the day, Jonathan Edwards is very different from Charles Finney, but that is not to say Finney is a heretic or a bad person. He loses the center balance of some crucial theologies, but he does for pragmatic reasons. He is still in error, but I see his errors as very human, not malicious. He also displays much doctrinal depth and loyalty to the God of the Bible, even as he creates an “orthodoxy” of his own. For example, he obviously places a lot of importance on emotions, but he says that the only way those emotions will be good and helpful is if they arise from the object of divine grace.[28]

This by no means excuses him, because all error begins with small inconsistencies and pragmatic movements here and there across a tension that is formed within the Truth revealed to us. But it does showcase the power of error, to reach across and pull us from the truth, even when we have the best intentions in mind. Edwards’s view of conversion and revival is more biblical, and that view is the one that maintains the biblical tension of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, and leaves God’s work to God, placing the responsibility for conversion at His feet and the responsibility for evangelizing at ours.


Edwards, Jonathan. A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls, in Northampton and the Neighbouring Towns.

_________. God Glorified in the Work of Redemption.

_________. The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.

_________. A Divine and Supernatural Light.

Finney, Charles. Lectures on Revivals of Religion.

_________. Sinners Bound to Change their Own Hearts.

  1. Jonathan Edwards, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, 17.  ↩

  2. Charles Finney, Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.  ↩

  3. Charles Finney, Lectures, 9.  ↩

  4. Ibid., 11.  ↩

  5. Charles Finney, Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.  ↩

  6. Jonathan Edwards, A Divine and Supernatural Light, 5.  ↩

  7. Jonathan Edwards, Marks of the Work of the True Spirit, 261.  ↩

  8. Jonathan Edwards, A Divine and Supernatural Light, 27.  ↩

  9. Ibid., 16.  ↩

  10. Jonathan Edwards, Marks of the Work of the True Spirit, 272.  ↩

  11. Jonathan Edwards, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, 5.  ↩

  12. Jonathan Edwards, Marks of the Work of the True Spirit, 263.  ↩

  13. Ibid., 268.  ↩

  14. Ibid., 274.  ↩

  15. Jonathan Edwards, Marks of the Work of the True Spirit, 274.  ↩

  16. Jonathan Edwards, Marks of the Work of the True Spirit, 260.  ↩

  17. Jonathan Edwards, Marks of the Work of the True Spirit, 270.  ↩

  18. Jonathan Edwards, Marks of the Work of the True Spirit, 271.  ↩

  19. Jonathan Edwards, Marks of the Work of the True Spirit, 274.  ↩

  20. Jonathan Edwards, Marks of the Work of the True Spirit, 272.  ↩

  21. Jonathan Edwards, God Glorified in Man’s Dependence, 1.  ↩

  22. Jonathan Edwards, God Glorified in Man’s Dependence, 5.  ↩

  23. Jonathan Edwards, God Glorified in Man’s Dependence, 8.  ↩

  24. Charles Finney, Lectures, 189.  ↩

  25. Charles Finney, Lectures, 189.  ↩

  26. Charles Finney, Lectures, 13.  ↩

  27. Charles Finney, Lectures, 181.  ↩

  28. Charles Finney, Lectures, 34.  ↩

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