By Charles G. Finney
During my Christian life I have been asked a great many times, in substance, by thoughtful and anxious souls: "What is the mental act or acts and states that God requires of me?" I have found it profitable, and even indispensable, with the commands of God before me, to question consciousness for a satisfactory answer to this question. I have satisfied myself, and, by the help of God, I trust I have aided many others to their satisfaction. Be it understood, then, that by the psychology of righteousness I mean to designate the mental act and state that constitutes righteousness. I will endeavor to develop this in the following order by showing--
I. What righteousness is not.
II. What it is.
III. How we know what righteousness is.
IV. How a sinner may attain to righteousness.
I. What Righteousness Is Not.
1. Righteousness does not consist in the outward life or in any physical or bodily act whatever. All of these acts belong to the category of cause and effect. They are necessitated by an act of the will and have in themselves no moral character whatever.
2. Righteousness does not consist in volition. Volition is an act of will, but necessitated by choice. It is an executive act, and is the product of a purpose or choice. It is designed as a means to an end. It is put forth to control either the attention of the intellect, the states of the sensibility, or the movements of the outward life by force. Volition is both an effect and a cause. It is the effect of a choice, purpose, intention. It is the cause of the outward life and of many of the changes both of the intellect and sensibility. Volition is a doing. Whatever we do we accomplish by the exercise of volition. Volition is not, in the highest sense, a free act, because it is an effect. It is itself caused. Hence, it has no moral character in itself, and moral quality can be predicated of it only as it partakes of the character of its primary cause.
3. Righteousness does not consist in proximate or subordinate choice. I choose an ultimate, supreme end, for its own sake. This choice is not executive. It is not put forth to secure the end, but is simply the choice of an object for its own sake. This is ultimate choice. I purpose, or choose, if possible, to secure this end. This is proximate or subordinate choice. Strictly speaking, this choice belongs also to the category of cause and effect. It results by necessity from the ultimate choice. In the strictest sense, it is not a free act, since it is itself caused. Hence, it has no moral character in itself, but, like volition, derives whatever moral quality it has from its primary cause, or the ultimate choice.
4. Righteousness does not consist in any of the states or activities of the sensibility. By the sensibility I mean that department of the mind that feels, desires, suffers, enjoys. All the states of the sensibility are involuntary, and belong to the category of cause and effect. The will cannot control them directly, nor always indirectly. This we know by consciousness. Since they are caused, and not free, they can have no moral character in themselves, and, like thoughts, volitions, subordinate choices, have no moral quality except that which is derived from their primary cause.
II. What Righteousness Is.
Righteousness is moral rightness, moral rectitude, moral uprightness, conformity to moral law. But what mental act or state is that which the moral law or law of God requires? Law is a rule of action. Moral law requires action--mental action, responsible action, therefore free action. But what particular form of action does moral law require?
Free action is a certain form of action of the will, and this is the only strictly free action. Christ has taught us by His own teaching and through His inspired Prophets and Apostles that the moral law requires love, and that this is the sum of its requirements. But what is this love? It cannot be the involuntary love of the sensibility, either in the form of emotion or affection; for these states of the mind, belonging as they do to the category of cause and effect, cannot be the form of love demanded by the law of God. The moral law is the law of God's activity, the rule in conformity to which He always acts. We are created in God's image. His rule of life is therefore ours. The moral law requires of Him the same kind of love that it does of us. If God had no law or rule of action, He could have no moral character. As our Creator and Lawgiver, He requires of us the same love in kind and the same perfection in degree that He Himself exercises. "God is love." He loves with all the strength of His infinite nature. He requires us to love with all the strength of our finite nature. This is being perfect as God is perfect. But what is this love of God as a mental exercise? It must be benevolence or good will. God is a moral agent. The good of universal being is infinitely valuable in itself. God must infinitely well appreciate this. He must see and feel the moral propriety of choosing this for its own sake. He has chosen it from eternity. By His executive volitions He is endeavoring to realize it. The law which He has promulgated to govern our activity requires us to sympathize with His choice, His benevolence, to choose the same end that He does, for the same reason--that is, for its own sake. God's infinite choice of the good of universal being is righteousness in Him, because it is the choice of the intrinsically and infinitely valuable for its own sake. It is a choice in conformity with His nature and the relations He has constituted. It must be a choice in conformity with His infinitely clear conscience or moral sense.
Righteousness in God, then, is conformity to the laws of universal love or good will. It must be an ultimate, supreme, immanent, efficient preference or choice of the highest good of universal being, including His own. It must be ultimate, in that this good of being is chosen for its own sake. It must be supreme, because it is preferred to everything else. It must be immanent, because it is innate and at the very foundation of all His moral activity. It must be efficient, because, from its very nature, it must energize to secure that which is thus preferred or chosen with the whole strength of his infinite nature. This is right choice, right moral action. The moral quality, then, of unselfish benevolence is righteousness or moral rightness. All subordinate choices, volitions and actions, and states of the sensibility which proceed from this immanent, ultimate, supreme preference or choice, have moral character in the sense and only for this reason that they proceed from or are the natural product of unselfish benevolence. This ultimate, immanent, supreme preference is the holy heart of a moral agent. Out of it proceeds, directly or indirectly, the whole moral or spiritual life of the individual.
III. How We Know What Righteousness Is.
I answer: By consciousness.
(a) By consciousness we know that our whole life proceeds from ultimate choice or preference.
(b) By consciousness we know that conscience demands perfect, universal love or unselfish benevolence; and, by consequence, it demands all those acts and states of mind and outward courses of life that by a law of our nature proceed from unselfish benevolence.
(c) By consciousness we know that conscience is satisfied with this, demands nothing more, and accepts nothing less.
(d) By consciousness we know that conscience pronounces this to be right, or righteousness.
(e) By consciousness we know that this is obedience to the law of God as revealed in our nature, and that when we render this obedience we are so adjusted in the will of God that we have perfect peace. We are in sympathy with God. We are at peace with God and with ourselves. Short of this we cannot be so. This I understand to be the teaching both of our nature and the Bible. My limits will not allow me to quote Scripture to sustain this view.
IV. How a Sinner May Attain to Righteousness.
A sinner is a selfish moral agent. Being selfish, he will, of course, make no other than selfish efforts to become righteous. Selfishness is a state of voluntary committal to the indulgence of the sensibility. While the will is in this state of committal to self-indulgence, the soul will not and cannot put forth any righteous act. The first righteous act possible to an unregenerate sinner is to change his heart, or the supreme ultimate preference of his soul. Without this he may outwardly conform to the letter of God's law; but this is not righteousness. Without this he may have many exercises and states of mind which he may suppose to be Christian experience; but these are not righteousness. Without a change of heart he may live a perfectly outwardly moral and religious life. All this he may do for selfish reasons; but this is not righteousness. I say again his first righteous act must be to change his heart. To say that he will change this for any selfish reason is simply a contradiction, for the change of heart involves the renunciation of selfishness. How, then, can a sinner change his heart or attain to righteousness? I answer: Only by taking such a view of the character and claims of God as to induce him to renounce his self-seeking spirit and come into sympathy with God. To say nothing here of possibility, the Bible reveals the fact and human consciousness attests the truth that a sinner will never attain to such a view of the claims of God as will induce him to renounce selfishness and sympathize with God without the illuminations of the Holy Spirit. A sinner attains, then, to righteousness only through the teachings and inspirations of the Holy Spirit.
But what is involved in this change from sin to righteousness?
(1) It must involve confidence in God, or faith. Without confidence a soul could not be persuaded to change his heart, to renounce self, and sympathize with God.
(2) It must involve repentance. By repentance I mean that change of mind which consists in a renunciation of self-seeking and a coming into sympathy with God.
(3) It involves a radical change of moral attitude in respect to God and our neighbor.
All these are involved in a change of heart. They occur simultaneously, and the presence of one implies the existence and presence of the others. It is by the truths of the Gospel that the Holy Spirit induces this change in sinful man. This revelation of divine love, when powerfully sent home by the Holy Spirit, is an effectual calling. From the above it will be seen that, while a sinner may live a perfectly outwardly moral and religious life, a truly regenerated soul cannot live a sinful life. The new heart does not, cannot sin. This John in his first Epistle expressly affirms. A benevolent, supreme, ultimate choice cannot produce selfish, subordinate choices or volitions. It is possible for a Christian to backslide. If it were not, perseverance would be no virtue. If the change were a physical one, or a change of the very nature of the sinner, backsliding would be impossible and perseverance no virtue. It is objected to this view that backsliding must consist in going back to a selfish, ultimate preference, and, therefore, involve an adverse change of heart. What if it does? Must this not be, indeed, true? Did not Adam and Eve change their hearts from holy to sinful ones? But may a man change his heart back and forth? I answer: Yes; or a sinner could not be required to make to himself a new heart, nor could a Christian sin after regeneration. The idea that the same person can have at the same time both a holy and a sinful heart is absurd in true philosophy, contrary to the Bible, and of most pernicious tendency. When a soul is backslidden, Christ calls upon him to repent and do his first work over again.
Righteousness is sustained in the human soul by the indwelling of Christ through faith and in no other way. It cannot be sustained by purposes or resolutions self-originated and not inwrought by the Spirit of Christ. Through faith Christ first gains ascendancy in the human heart, and through faith He maintains this ascendancy and reigns as king in the soul.
There can be no righteousness in man back of his heart, for nothing back of this can be voluntary; therefore, there can be no righteousness in the nature of man in the sense that implies praise worthiness or virtue.
All outward conformity to the law and commandments of God that does not proceed from Christ, working in the soul by His Holy Spirit, is self-righteousness. All true righteousness, then, is the righteousness of faith or a righteousness secured by Christ through faith in Him.