Nettleton & Finney


by David Leach

Asahel Nettleton (1783 – 1841) an influential figure in his day, is largely now unknown in evangelical Christianity. Even among reformed folk he is not well known. Curiously (and pathetically!), the great evangelist of his day is often thought to be Charles Finney: a man who understood neither the nature of  God or the gospel aright. Think of Finney as the Father of modern Arminian evangelism, with it’s emphasis on conversions built on decisions and easy-believism.

Finney was an adherent of the so-called "New Haven theology" which rejected the truth of original sin, and took a view of man and God pretty much in the same mode of much of present day evangelicalism. Which is to say, "big man, little god."  Finney sought testimony of  a change of mind among his "converts" while  Nettleton held out for evidence that the Holy Spirit wrought a real and lasting conversion.

In Nettleton and Finney we have a splendid manifestation of the two ongoing primary views of regeneration, the one centered in the will of man, the other centered in the will of God. Nettleton taught that God brings salvation by grace completely, but to Finney prominent was the notion of a synthesis between man and God whereby man chooses aright, or consciously chooses to not follow God -  out of the resources of his own soul. As in so much of modern evangelism, man in spite of being tainted by sin, had a sort of de facto neutrality and had the inward resources to unilaterally turn to God.

History testifies that the preaching efforts of Finney had virtually no lasting results, and sometimes proved to be the door to odd and eccentric charismatic like excesses. Nettleton on the other hand was able to return 20 or 30 years later to areas he had evangelized in his youth and found sound and solid churches established by those genuinely  converted under his God blessed ministry.

The differences between the methodology and results  of Finney and Nettleton are yet reflected in the differences we still see within Christianity today. Essentially there has always been one big broad false gospel with many different names and peculiarities that proclaims and extols the ability of man and his complete freedom to seek and find Christ in his (the sinner’s) own power. In this system, salvation is at it’s core something we do – believe, get baptized, join a church, submit to some theological system, follow some aspect of the law. This "gospel" stands in stark contrast to the genuine gospel of Christ which is evidenced  by the grace of God in the saving and making alive of His people, and the keeping of those same people, His elect.  In Finney and Nettleton we see the struggle between the false and the true in soteriology that has existed since Cain and Abel.  Finney had his champions in his day. and He still does. As long as men seek God on their own terms and not on God’s, Finney always will.

– David Leach