Here are several sermons by Charles Finney which touch upon subjects that are rarely mentioned in the preaching and teaching of evangelical churches today. My recommendation is that pastors and believers today give them consideration for their own lives, and that pastors give consideration for possibly adapting and preaching them again.
The first sermon, Hardness of Heart, deals with a possible consequence of hearing Biblical preaching and teaching and not putting it into practice through negligence or refusal. It seems like many in the modern church approach the Word of God like as if that they can pick and choose among its precepts, commands, assertions and promises, and many pastors seem to leave that attitude uncorrected. The Biblical teaching is rather that neglect and refusal of the Word of God leads to a hardening of the heart toward God and his Word. This may in fact be the condition of believers who are stuck in the same religious routines and the same slogans and Christianese, and who remain untouched when a genuine revival may be starting in their congregations.
The second sermon, Christ’s Yoke Is Easy, deals with the passage Matthew 11:28-30, and it addresses two distortions that occur among some believers. The first distortion is that of the mournful old believer who goes on lugubriously about how hard it is to follow Jesus, and brings discouragement on younger believers. The second case is that of the ubermacho Christian believer with the compassion of a cruel drill sergeant, who treats Christian commitment as something not for sissies, and spreads disdain for the imperfections and weaknesses of other believers. Neither reflects Biblical Christianity, and Finney shows how in this sermon.
The last sermon, Evil Thinking, deals with something that I don’t think that many believers have ever had brought to their attention: that God is concerned with the moral direction of their thoughts as well as their words and actions. Finney deals with this not as a matter of avoiding sexual lust, which is the most likely way that many have had the matter of their thought life presented to them, or as spiritual warfare in dealing with the temptations and influences of the demonic world. Rather, he takes it from the point of believers who have a habitually suspicious and hypercritical way of thinking about other believers and others in general. As far as I can tell, this is where much conflict and slander in the church start: someone has an unreasonable and uncharitable take on something about another person or something that person has said or done, and never lets go of that even in the light of scripture and reason. In some cases I believe that that person with the suspicious and hypercritical attitude toward others leaves conversations that he or she has had with others and then Satan has a field day with playing upon this aspect of that person’s nature, leaving that person stuck in bitterness and spreading conflict and slander over something that had been entirely innocent.
I’ve mentioned that these could be preached today with adaptation for modern audiences. Here’s how I would do it.
- I would make it clear from the outset that I was adapting and using a sermon which had been preached by Finney. I would make it clear that this was not a common occurrence, and that I normally preached based upon my own study and understanding of the scriptures, but that I felt that this material was worth updating and bringing to the congregation.
- I would make it clear that preaching any one of these sermons does not mean total doctrinal agreement with Finney, or anyone else whose sermons I might adapt on a one time basis, but rather substantial agreement on the matters preached. From another perspective, I could adapt and preach some of the sermons of C.H. Spurgeon and John Wesley without total doctrinal agreement with either – though definitely with attribution of my source and reminders that this would not be a common occurrence in my preaching and teaching ministry.
- I would update the vocabulary in the sermon, perhaps add some additional background and thoughts on interpreting the passages in question, and perhaps add or substitute more modern or more relevant illustrations. I think that it would be worthwhile to add a word of disclaimer in these cases as well that where my thoughts and words diverge from the original sermon that they are my own and not those of the person whose sermon I’ve adapted.
Again, this type of sermon preparation would not be something that I would advise for more than once or twice a year for a normal pastoral ministry. Since it would definitely require much less preparation time, it might be a refreshing way to provide quality preaching to a congregation when the pastor has just returned from a retreat or a conference or has had a significant personal incident in his life, such as a death in the family, that would preclude putting in the hours normally needed for sermon preparation. Again, it would be also a way to bring different subjects and perspectives to a congregation that might not be emphasized much any more, though they are definitely a part of what the Bible asserts as truth for belief and action.