It is been reported that Charles Finney prepared only two written sermons. He tried no other time to preach from a written sermon, because he believed that it hindered the Spirit of God from speaking through him. He preferred to work out his own system of theology, based as it was upon his prayerful and independent study of the Scriptures interpreted in the light of the vivid religious experience through which he had passed, but he had his own notions as to how the Gospel should be preached. Written sermons at that time were the order of the day, but Finney preached as he would when addressing a jury.
“What would be thought of a lawyer,” he asked, “who should stand up before a jury and read an essay to them? He would lose the case!” Just as an attorney sought to win a verdict for his client, so he aimed at bringing lost souls to a decision for Jesus Christ. He was God’s advocate, pleading with sinners to turn from the error of their ways and accept the offered gift of salvation. He often argued truths that seemed to need no further argument, and repeated statements that apparently had been taken for granted.
He said: “I talked to the people as I would have talked to a jury. Of all the causes that were ever plead, the cause of religion, I thought, had the fewest able advocates, and that if advocates at the bar should pursue the same course in pleading the cause of their clients that ministers do in pleading the cause of Christ with sinners, they would not gain a single case.”He was often criticized for his lawyer-like method of presenting the truth and for lowering the dignity of the pulpit. But to his hearers it seemed as if he were talking to them personally about matters of great mutual concern.
Those who heard him often said: “Why it didn’t seem like preaching. It seemed as if Mr. Finney had taken me alone, and was conversing with me face to face.”He sought to convert people by the truth, and like Paul of old he “reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come.” His preaching was highly logical and analytical.
In fact, his critics said that he had a great tendency to excess in this area, his sermons sometimes having as high as forty to fifty divisions. These divisions often consisted of a single sentence, but the thought was so clear and the applications so logical that the most simple statement went like an arrow to its mark. His preaching resulted in the same effect that Peter had on the day of Pentecost when the hearts of the people were pierced, and they said, “What much we do to be saved? During one of the meetings, he told the people that:
I had come there to secure the salvation of their souls; that my preaching I knew, was highly complimented by them; but that, after all, I did not come there to please them but to bring them to repentance; that it mattered not to me how well they were pleased with my preaching, if after all they rejected my Master; that something was wrong, either in me or in them; that this kind of interest they manifested in my preaching was doing them no good; and that I could not spend my time with them unless they were going to receive the Gospel. I then, quoting the words of Abraham’s servant, said to them, “Now will you deal kindly and truly with my master? If you will, tell me; and if not, tell me, that I may turn to the right hand or to the left…
“During one of the revivals, an old man asked Finney to preach in a schoolhouse about three miles away from Antwerp. Finney said he would there that Monday at five o’clock in the afternoon. When he arrived, he found the schoolhouse full. After some singing that was so discordant that Finney had to cover both ears with his hands, he threw himself to his knees, and “The Lord opened the windows of heaven, and the spirit of prayer was poured out, and I let my whole heart out in prayer.”
Finney had not thought about the text he was going to preach, but waited to see the congregation. As soon as he had finished praying, he arose from his knees and said, “Up, get you out of this place; for the Lord will destroy this city.” He told them he could not remember exactly where the verse was but gave them some idea where to find it, and then began to explain it.
As he told them about Abraham and Lot and the city of Sodom, and how wicked Sodom was and that Lot was the only righteous man in the city, and how the Lord sent Angels down to destroy the city and save Lot, he noticed that the people seemed to be getting increasingly angry. This is part of what he wrote in his Memoirs:
Many of the men were in their shirt sleeves; and they looked at each other and at me, as if they were ready to fall upon me and chastise me on the spot. I saw their strange and unaccountable looks, and could not understand what I was saying that had offended them. However it seemed to me that their anger rose higher and higher, as I continued that they had never had a religious meeting in that place; and that therefore I had a right to take it for granted, and was compelled to take it for granted, that they were an ungodly people. I pressed that home upon them with more and more energy, with my heart full almost to bursting.
I had not spoken to them in this strain of direct application, I should think, more than a quarter of an hour, when all at once an awful solemnity seemed to settle down upon them; the congregation began to fall from their seats in every direction, and cried for mercy. If I had had a sword in each hand, I could not have cut them off their seats as fast as they fell.Indeed nearly the whole congregation were either on their knees or prostrate, I should think, in less than two minutes from the first shock that fell upon them. Everyone prayed for himself, who was able to speak at all. Of course I was obliged to stop preaching; for they no longer paid any attention.
I saw the old man who had invited me there to preach, sitting about in the middle of the house, and looking around with utter amazement. I raised my voice almost to a scream, to make him hear, and pointing to him said, “Can’t you pray?” He instantly fell upon his knees, and he poured himself out to God; but he did not at all get the attention of the people. I then spoke as loud as I could and tried to make them attend to me. I said to them, “You are not in hell yet; and now let me direct you to Christ.” For a few moments I tried to hold forth the Gospel to them; but scarcely any of them paid any attention….
When I went down the second time, I got an explanation of the anger manifested by the congregation during the introduction of my sermon the day before. I learned the place was called Sodom, but I knew it not; and that there was but one pious man in the place, and him they called Lot. This was the old man that invited me there. The people supposed that I had chosen my subject, and preached to them in a manner, because they were so wicked as to be called Sodom. This was a striking coincidence; but so far as I was concerned, it was altogether accidental.