Written by Rev. Charles G. Finney,
Updated and edited by Steve Grochow
The word heart has many meanings in the scriptures. In a few instances it appears to be mean soul or spirit; sometimes it means the whole mind, and sometimes the understanding, and sometimes the conscience. In some places it seems to mean the characteristics which belong to human nature, whether holy or sinful. Often it expresses all the passions or exercises of the mind; and in many instances it is spoken of as the fountain of our exercises; as "the good man, out of the good treasure of his heart," &c. In such cases, as the heart is spoken of as the fountain or source of our moral exercises, it must mean the supreme ruling choice or governing purpose of the mind. This I take to be the meaning of the term in all those verses where it is spoken of as understanding God's law and human duty. And this is its meaning in the text; and the passage requires sinners to change their governing purpose, or make their leading object of life a new one, such as they have never indulged before.
I. I will show what is not meant by this command.
It is not intended that a sinner is to make a new soul or spirit; although the word spirit is used in the text, and although even the word heart sometimes means the soul. Every man already has the soul that he needs, to love and serve God. Christians do not receive any new soul when they are converted. A new soul is not necessary, and is not required in the text or in the bible.
It is not intended that a sinner is to make any new capability of his soul or mind. He needs no new capability; and the Christian has received none. He only needs to use what he already has in a godly way. He is not required to make any new moral principle of a permanent character; it, by principle, is meant any thing distinct from and prior to moral exercises; any thing behind the will, and necessary and giving character to intentions. It is not required to make a new taste or disposition; if by those terms is meant any thing distinct from and prior to moral exercises, and necessary and giving character to intentions. This would be, like the other cases mentioned, something relating to his nature, which is impossible. A nature cannot be holy. The nature of Adam at his creation was not holy. What is holiness? It is virtue, the moral action of an intelligent being, directed to a right object. It is absurd then to speak of holiness or virtue as pertaining to his nature.
II. I will show what is intended in the command of the text. It is, that the sinner should change the supreme governing purpose of his life. A man decides to be a lawyer. Then he directs all his plans and efforts to effect that goal. He passes by or resists every thing which would hinder him from his goal. During this time this is his governing purpose. Afterward, he may change his goal and decide to be a merchant. Now he directs all his efforts to that goal, and so has changed his heart, or governing purpose, in regard to his secular affairs. Sinners, in like manner, have made it their governing purpose to seek their own interest or happiness, and have lived without God in the world. They are required to turn about, and choose the serve of God: and when they do so, they make themselves new hearts in the sense intended in the scriptures.
God is infinitely holy; not because His nature is holy, but because His supreme governing purpose is infinitely holy or virtuous. He will always be holy because His holy governing purpose is infinitely strong. God can never be influenced or tempted to change His supreme governing purpose. Adam was made with a nature that was neither sinful nor holy. When he began to act, he made it his governing purpose to serve God. He was afterwards induced to change his purpose, through the suggestions of satan, who told him he would become like God. Hoping to enjoy that distinction, he chose to gratify himself; and in doing this he violated a divine command, and became a selfish being or a sinner. Thus we easily solve those knotty questions which have long puzzled theologians "How could Adam, being holy, become a sinner? How could sin enter the universe, in heaven or on earth, when God made all rational creatures in His own likeness?"
Adam changed his heart, or governing purpose, from good to evil. Now suppose that God, when he came to reprove him for his transgression, had bid him repent and make him a new heart, and Adam should say, "I cannot make a new heart." God might reply, "Why not? You have just done it. You have changed your heart, or governing purpose, from my service to your own selfish objects. Now change it back again and turn to me."
Our not changing from a governing purpose depends on the strength and permanency of that purpose. The new purpose of the young convert is a governing purpose, but feeble. He would soon be perfect, if he held on to his purpose fully, and went on decidedly in the Christian life. But though he never gives up his governing purpose, he pursues it inconsistently; and this accounts for the instability of Christians.
It is clear that the change now described, effected by the simple decision of the sinner through the influence of motives, is a adequate change; all that the bible requires. It is all that is necessary to make a sinner a Christian. It is, moreover, all the change that can possibly have a moral character. I grant that it is very different from the change which sinners have been accustomed to expect, according to the instructions they have received. They have waited in perfect stillness, forgetting that they are required to change their own hearts, and expecting God to come suddenly and perform some wonderful work upon their souls, like the man who is going to take for the first time an electric shock. He takes hold of the chain, and waits trembling for a sudden and indescribable shock, to affect him he knows not how. A sinner may wait this way forever, and never be converted. The sentiment that teaches this waiting, is calculated to send souls to death and hell.
III. This is a reasonable command.
1. Because it requires man to use his powers in a reasonable manner. If it is right for God to require men obey, then it is right he should require them to purpose it.
2. Because man actually have the control of their mental and moral powers.
3. Because they are constantly in the habit of controlling their powers, and of changing their purposes and designs every day. And it is strange, that when the motives for a change are infinite, they should have no power to make it.
4. Because it is as easy to purpose right, as to purpose wrong; and one would think, infinitely more so. How comes it then, that men cannot purpose right? The fact is, it would be infinitely impossible not to do it, if men did not resist all the infinite motives to purpose right.
5. Because it is indispensable to their good; it is only, in other words, commanding them to be happy.
1. As Adam did, so have all sinners made themselves wicked hearts, without the permission of a divine influence. Children, when they begin to act, make their hearts wicked, by setting out with a purpose of self-gratification. Seeking their own happiness, they soon violate the commands of God and become sinful.
2. The idea of a sinner's being passive in regeneration, is calculated to destroy souls. It involves the senselessness of his having a passive volition.
3. Every rebellious sinner is infinitely guilty, for not making himself a new heart; for not going the whole length of performing the work himself.
4. To say "I can't love God and repent," is to plead one sin for the commission of another.
5. This view illustrates the nature of the sinner's dependence on the Spirit of God. The only necessity for his aid or influence, lies in the sinner's unyielding defiant stubbornness; and when He converts the sinner, he only overcomes that stubbornness.
6. The Spirit uses methods in producing conversion. He does not come and take right hold of the heart and perform an operation upon it; but he presents motives by methods of the truth; he persuades, and the sinner yields to his persuasion. Many have supposed that he moves, by a direct and immediate act, either upon the motive to give it efficiency, or upon the mind to make it willing. But there is no mystery about it. Every Christian knows how he was induced to change his governing purpose or his heart. He was convinced and persuaded, and freely gave his own heart to God without any force. And I know not which is the greater infidel, he that denies the agency of the Spirit in conversion; or he that believes God has provided methods which are not suited to the end for which they are used.
7. There is a sense in which a sinner does make a new heart. There is also a sense in which God does it; another, in which a preacher does it; and another, in which the truth or the word of God does it. The bible uses expressions regarding conversion, in these four different ways. It is credited to the subject, the sinner himself; he changes his own heart. It is credited to the instrument, or the preacher; he converts sinners and saves souls from death. It is credited to the methods, or the word; men are begotten by the word of truth. It is credited to God, or the Spirit; they are born again by the Spirit. A person sees another man who is walking directly toward the edge of a cliff, somehow unconscious of any approaching danger. He has just raised his foot to step off, when the other sees his danger and cries out, Stop! He is awakened, turns at the critical moment and is saved. People gather round, and the rescued man in great excitement relates the events. "That man," says he, "has saved my life." "But how?"
"Oh he called to me at the very moment I was stepping off, and that word, stop, saved me from destruction. Oh if I had not turned that instant, I should have been dashed to pieces. Oh it was the mercy of God that kept me from a horrid death." This illustrates the use of those four kinds of expression in the bible, in reference to the conversion of a sinner, with one exception.
In the case supposed, there was only the voice of the man who gave the alarm; but in conversion, there is both the voice of the preacher, and the voice of the Spirit; the preacher cries, "Stop," and the Spirit cries, "Stop," also.
8. If sinners will not yield to truth, they will inevitably be lost.
9. We see the consistency of using methods for the conversion of sinners.
10. It is more probable that sinners will be converted under the voice of the living minister, than afterwards. Some think it is a bad idea to urge sinners to repent right on the spot, because they might some how get a false hope. Better to exhibit the truth, and let them go home to reflect and pray, and there give their hearts to God more deliberately. But how does, the lawyer do, when he decides to change the hearts of the jury and gain his cause? Does he say, I will make a speech of half an hour or three quarters, state the law, and the facts, and the arguments and dismiss them to their room for calm deliberation? No; he applies all his efforts to change their hearts while he is speaking; and so should ministers, when pleading with sinners.
11. When ministers do not understand this subject, they use methods for the conversion of sinners to little or no purpose.
12. If you are expecting any other agency, than that which accompanies the methods, you will wait in vain.
13. As you are able to change your own hearts, the great point of responsibility lies right there. To change your own hearts will save you; nothing else can; and on that point hangs your whole eternal destiny.