HOLINESS THE TEST OF CHRISTIAN CHARACTER
By The Rev. CHARLES G. FINNEY
is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot
sin, because he is born of God.”—1
this discourse I shall,
Inquire what sin is not.
What it is.
What to be born of God is not.
What it is.
What the seed spoken of in the text is not.
What it is.
What is not intended by the assertion that whosoever is born of God does not and
cannot commit sin.
What is intended by it.
How a Christian may be distinguished from a sinner.
I. What sin is not.
Sin is not a part of the soul or body.
It is nothing infused into either soul or body. Some talk as if they supposed
the whole being, soul and body to be saturated with sin, than which, nothing can
be more absurd.
It is no taint of corruption in, nor a lapsed state of the constitution. The
Bible does not make it so, and reason certainly affirms it to be something
entirely different from this.
It is nothing which is or can be transmitted from parents to children by natural
generation.—This would contradict the Bible definition of sin, and the
supposition is in itself a ridiculous absurdity.
Nor does it consist in any weakness, debility, or inability, either natural or
moral, to obey God. The Bible no where makes it consist in this, and certainly
common sense does not.
Nor does it consist in any appetite, passion, or mere feeling. These we have
already seen, in a former lecture, are constitutional, involuntary, and in
themselves wholly destitute of all moral character.
Nor does it consist in any degree of excitement of these in appropriate
circumstances; for in the appropriate circumstances, they are excited of
Nor does it consist in any state or act of the intelligence; for this also acts
of necessity, and we can only be responsible for its operations just so far as
we can regulate it by willing.
Nor does it consist in any outward actions; for these are necessitated by the
supreme end chosen, and in themselves are wholly destitute of all moral
II. What sin is.
As was said in a former lecture, the primary faculties of the mind are
Intelligence, Sensibility, and Free Will. This we know from consciousness. The
Intelligence is that power which thinks, affirms, reasons, and reflects. The
Sensibility, is the power of feeling. To this power are referred all appetites,
desires, passions, or emotions whatever. The Free Will, is the power which
The will is always influenced by motives originating either in the intelligence
or the sensibility. The will always chooses some object, or acts in reference to
some motive; and we know by consciousness that these motives are either duties
perceived by the intelligence, or the awakened susceptibilities of the
sensibility, which always invite the mind to seek the gratification of its
appetites and passions for their own sake. I do not mean that the action of the
intelligence and the sensibility are so isolated from each other, that either of
them acts in perfect independence of the other; for we know that every thought
and affirmation of the intelligence is accompanied by some feeling of the
sensibility, and on the contrary that every feeling awakens in the intelligence,
affirmations, thoughts, and reasonings to a greater or less extent. But what I
mean is, that some motives originate in, and are addressed to the will by the
intelligence, and some on the contrary, originate in the sensibility, and as
such, influence the will. The distinction of which I am speaking is just what
every one means, when speaking of the difference between being led by propensity
or passion, and reason.—The intelligence and sensibility mutually influence
each other, but one or the other takes the lead. In other words, the mind, which
is a unity, in thinking feels, and in feeling, thinks. When the intelligence
reveals and imposes obligation, it is always echoed by the sensibility; and on
the contrary, when some appetite or desire is excited in the sensibility, the
intelligence is awakened into thought respecting it. In the one case the
sensibility follows in the wake of the intelligence, and in the other, the
intelligence in the wake of the sensibility, but in all cases the action both of
the sense and intelligence is indirectly under the control of the will, which by
its sovereign power always determines which shall be the ascendant.
The mind affirms itself to be under obligation to obey the law of the reason
just as I suppose the mind of God imposes obligation on Him. The holiness of God
consists in his obeying the law revealed and imposed on Him by his own infinite
and eternal reason, and so the holiness of all moral beings must consist in
their voluntary conformity to whatever their own reason affirms to be
obligatory. Holiness then is that state of the will or heart which consists in
the voluntary consecration of the whole being to God.
Sin is the exact opposite of this, and consists in the consecration, by the will
or heart, of the whole being to the gratification of self. This is selfishness,
which we have already endeavored to show is the substance of all the sin in the
universe.—Whatever, in the action of the will or heart, is not conformed to
the law of love, as perceived by the reason, is sin, whether it be omission of
duty or the commission of that which is positively prohibited. Entire conformity
of heart and life, therefore, to all known truth is holiness, and nothing short
of this is, or can be. If persons deny this, it is because they do not know what
they say, and have not the idea of holiness before their mind at all. The law of
God is one—a unity, and to talk of being partly conformed to it, and partly
not, is to overlook the very nature both of the law and of conformity to it. The
law of God requires perfect conformity of life and heart to all the truth
perceived, and this is moral perfection in any being, and is the only sense in
which any being can be morally perfect in any world. Suppose there is a moral
pigmy whose standard of truth is No. 1. Now if he fully conforms to that, he
does his whole duty. So you may increase the scale to 2, 5, 10, 20, and moral
perfection will still consist in conformity to the light possessed. Suppose you
ascend the scale to ten thousand or a million, it is still the same until you
arrive at God Himself, and this is just what constitutes the moral perfection of
God. All the truths in the universe are known to Him with absolute certainty,
and He conforms to all He knows. Since his knowledge admits of no increase, his
holiness admits of none, while that of all finite beings does and will to all
eternity. Angels doubtless sustain innumerable relations of which they are
totally ignorant, and to which they are not morally conformed, but their state
of will is such, that as fast as they learn them they conform to them , and
hence their holiness is constantly increasing; and so it must be from the lowest
to the highest degree of moral capacity. Every thing, then, short of living up
to the light we have, is sin, and every moral act is either right or wrong.
III. What to be born of God is not.
Regeneration does not consist in the creation of any new faculties. We have
faculties enough, more than we use well, and do not need any more.
Nor does it consist in a constitutional change. A constitutional, would be far
enough from a moral change, and it would be hard to tell what good it would do.
Nor does it consist in implanting, or infusing any piece, parcel, or physical
principle of holiness into the soul. What can be meant by a principle of
holiness, when such language is used to designate something aside from holiness
Nor does it consist in a change of the constitutional appetites and
propensities. These have no moral character in themselves and need no change.
They only need to be rightly regulated.
Nor does it consist in the introduction or implantation of a new taste. There
could be no virtue in regeneration if it consisted in any of these things, and
they all are mistakes overlooking the nature of virtue. But,
IV. What is it to be born of God?
To be born of God is to have a new heart.
We have seen that the old or wicked heart is the same as the carnal mind, and
that the carnal mind or wicked heart consists in the devotion of the will to
self gratification. Self gratification is the ultimate end chosen.
Now to be born again, or of God, is to make a radical change in the ultimate
intention, or choice of an end. It is called being born again because it is a
change of the whole moral character and course of life. Christ says, “except
ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall, in no case, enter into
the kingdom of heaven.” The phraseology is figurative and emphatic, because
when a moral being has changed his ultimate intention, he must of necessity live
an entirely new life, perfectly the reverse of what it was before.
It is called, a being born of God, or from above; because sinners are influenced
to make this voluntary change by the word and Spirit of God. I say voluntary
change, because every one is perfectly conscious that he was voluntary in it,
and because it must of necessity be voluntary, if it has any moral character in
it; and I might add, that unless it is voluntary, backsliding from it would be
naturally impossible, and obedience necessary, which are as false in fact, as
they are absurd in theory.
What the seed which remaineth in Christians is not.
It is not a physical germ, root, sprout or taste, inserted into the soul. If so,
then falling from grace is naturally impossible, and perseverance naturally
necessary. This theory robs religion of all virtue whatever.
It is not love nor any other holy exercise. In other words, it is not religion
at all. Religion is voluntary conformity to the law of God, and to say that this
remains in the Christian could have no meaning. The truth is, the Apostle, in
the text, is asserting why this voluntary conformity is continued. It then
cannot be the seed.
It does not consist in any new principle implanted in the soul.
VI. What this seed is.
It is the word or truth which re-generated him—that is, in view of which he
changed his ultimate intention or heart. Truth is frequently called seed in the
bible,— “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by
the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.” “Of his own will begat
He us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his
This word or truth is called the seed of God, because it is introduced and made
known to the mind by the Holy Ghost. Hence we are said to be “begotten of
God.” It is his truth that quickens the mind into right voluntary action. Now
every one knows, by his own consciousness, that this is the way in which he was
born again. Hear a young convert tell his experience. He begins to tell of some
truth which arrested his attention, and convicted him; how he thought of one
thing after another, that he perceived this, and that and the other thing to be
true as he never did before, and that finally he made up his mind, in view of
what he thus saw was true, to repent. Now what is he doing? Why, he is giving
the history of his regeneration, and giving it in the detail. But does he know
the history of his regeneration? As well as he knows any thing else under
Heaven. To be sure he did not see the Spirit, nor did he perceive that it was
the Spirit, because the Spirit directs to Christ, but he is conscious that he
did see the truth as he never saw it before. And he is conscious that he was
perfectly voluntary under its influence.
This seed, which has once broken the power of selfishness, remains in him, that
is, in his memory, so that he can sin only by letting it slip. “Let that
therefore abide in you which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye
have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye shall ask what ye will,
and it shall be done unto you.” This truth, as I said before, is not a piece
of something which God puts into you, nor is it religion, nor love, but it is
that which once subdued your will and will not cease to influence you, only as
you let it slip.
VII. What is not intended by the assertion
that whosoever is born of God does not and cannot commit sin.
It cannot mean that a holy being has not power to commit sin. Adam was a holy
being and he sinned, as did also the “Angels that kept not their first
estate.” If there were a lack of natural power to sin, there would be no
virtue in obedience. This position would contradict facts innumerable. Perhaps
very few have ever been born of God who have not afterwards been guilty of sin.
This is a matter of consciousness. Most of the histories recorded in the Bible
of good men, show that they did fall into sin, and the Bible everywhere assumes
that there is danger of this. It would destroy free agency and the possibility
of being sinful or holy.
It would make John contradict himself, for he was writing to regenerate persons,
but he all along assumes that they could sin, and were in danger of sinning. Nor
can it mean that one who is born of God never does in any instance sin under the
force of temptation. This would contradict all the rest of the Bible.
VIII. What is intended by it.
It is intended that since the truth has once broken the power of passion, and
appetite, and gained the consent of his will, and since it remains in him, that
is, in his memory, he will not, as a matter of fact, consent to indulge himself
in any form of sin.
Cannot is here used in its popular sense, as it generally is in the Bible. Such
language must not be strained nor cut to the quick. It is used just as it is now
used in popular conversation. Suppose I say I cannot take twenty-five dollars
for my watch. What do I mean? Not that I have not power to take it, but that I
am unwilling to take it. If I say I cannot throw this table across the room, the
nature of the case shows that I use cannot, to indicate a natural impossibility,
but in the former case I use it merely in the sense of a strong unwillingness.
It is in this sense that it is used in the text, just as it is used everyday in
every store on Broadway.
It is intended then that with all Christians, holiness is the rule and sin the
exception—if there be sin at all, that sin is only occasional as opposed to
habitual, that it is so unfrequent, that, in the strong language of John, it may
be truly said, that they do not sin. If sin is not so rare as to be merely
occasional instead of habitual, the text is absolutely false. For example;
suppose I should say that such a man is not a drunkard. I should not be
understood to say that he had never been drunk in his life, but I should
certainly be understood to say that at most his fits of intoxication were
extremely rare. John, as a writer, expresses himself very strongly, and I might
read many passages from his writings, showing that he does not intend such terms
in an absolute sense, but to state, that, in Christians, their aversion to sin,
and their purpose of obedience are so strong and fixed, that it may be said in
strong language they cannot sin. “And every man that hath this hope in him
purifieth himself, even as he is pure. Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth
also the law: For sin is the transgression of the law. And ye know that He was
manifested to take away our sins; and in Him is no sin. Whosoever abideth in Him
sinneth not; whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him neither known Him. Little
children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even
as he is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil
sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that
He might destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God doth not
commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: And he cannot commit sin, because he
is born of God.”
It must be intended that Christians only sin by being diverted from the
consideration of the truth by the force of temptation. This is the least that
this and similar passages can mean. It is not intended to assert what ought to
be true of Christians, but what is so as a matter of fact. He is drawing the
very portrait of a Christian and hanging it up for all the Church in all ages to
IX. How a Christian may be distinguished
from a sinner.
They cannot be distinguished by profession. For doubtless many sinners make
profession and some Christians do not.
Nor can they be distinguished by their observance of the forms of religion, nor
by their creeds or opinions, nor by their church standing, nor by the emotions
or feelings which they manifest. Emotions are as natural to the impenitent as to
Christians, and are no distinguishing test. But,
The Christian is benevolent, while the sinner is selfish. These are their
ultimate states of mind, and will manifest themselves in both by a natural
The Christian is influenced by reason, and the sinner by mere feeling. If you
wish to influence a sinner, you must appeal to his feelings, for nothing else
will move him. He has not learned to yield his will to the dominion of truth.
But the Christian has devoted himself to truth, and is always influenced by it.
He knows that the feelings effervesce, boil or freeze, just as circumstances
vary; while truth is forever the same. Said a brother to me not long since, “I
am distressed about my wife. She is very full of feeling, and can be affected by
appeals which are calculated to awaken it; but I cannot influence her by
truth.” I replied, that this was truly a dark sign; and I now say, that I
should have no hope for my wife nor anyone else, who cannot be influenced to
duty, by the simple truth, unaided by appeals to the Sensibility.
The Christian obeys all known truth, on all subjects, while sinners conform to
truth only on those subjects that are enforced by public opinion. Truth is the
christian’s law, and he conforms to it as fully in opposition to, as in
conformity to public opinion. But mark! a sinner will conform to some truths
outwardly, but not to all, nor really to any in his heart. Public sentiment is a
god which most people obey and worship.
Christians adhere to principle in the face of all opposition, while sinners
quail before it. Let opposition rise ever so high, you will see the true
Christian stand like a rock, and breast the dashing wave—he will not shrink or
quail. Not so with the sinner. He will go along well enough, while all is
smooth, but when the tide begins to rise, you see him yield to its force and
drive along with it withersoever it goes. “By and by he is offended.”
It can never be said of a true Christian, that, “sin has dominion over him.”
But some form of sin has dominion over sinners universally. Sometimes it assumes
one type and sometimes another, but sin is their master.
Christians obey the spirit and letter of the moral law, but sinners obey only
the letter, even if they do that.
Cause a Christian to see the truth on any subject and he will obey it; but a
sinner will see and acknowledge it, and continue on in his sins. His appetites,
and not his conscience, are his master.
Every real Christian lives habitually without sin. Nothing is more common than
to find large classes of professors of religion who acknowledge that they are
living in sin. You ask them—Do you not know that this is wrong? Yes, they say,
but no person is expected to live without sin in this world. We must sin some.
Now, as the Bible is true, such persons are deceived, and in the way to hell. If
that is religion, what is Christianity? But, you will say—“I know what you
say of this text cannot be the meaning, for it is not my experience.” Poor
soul! this excuse will do you no good, for God’s word is true, whatever your
experience is, and in the day of eternity, where will you be if you rely on
this? Now do you cry out and say, “why this is awful; for if it be true what
will become of the great mass of Christians?” Let me tell you all true
Christians will be saved, but hypocrites God will judge. Said a woman to a
minister not long since, “Do you confess your sins?” confess your sins! What
did she mean by that? Why, she meant to inquire whether every time he prayed he
confessed, not that he had been a sinner in times past, but, that he was now
actually sinning against God? She, with many other professors, actually seemed
to think that Christians should sin a little all the while in order to keep them
humble, and to have something to confess. Indeed!
It is a dangerous error to inculcate that Christians sin daily and hourly. It
sets the door wide open for false hopes, and the effect on the Church is that it
is thronged with the victims of delusion.
Equally dangerous is it, to say that their most holy duties are sinful—that
“sin is mixed with all we do.” What! Then John should have
said—“Whosoever is born of God commits sin daily and hourly, notwithstanding
the seed of God remaineth in him, for sin is mixed with all he does!” It is a
palpable matter of fact that whatever is holy is not sinful. Holiness is
conformity to all perceived obligation—it is an act of the will, and must be a
unity. If then holiness be a unity, a compliance with all perceived obligation,
there is not and cannot be sin mixed in it. Says Christ, “Ye cannot serve God
and Mammon.” And James says—“For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and
yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” A person therefore, knowing
obligation to rest on him, and not discharging it, is living in sin and is not a
Christian. It is in vain to appeal to experience against the Bible.
All who live in the omission of duty or commission of what is contrary to known
truth, are living in habitual sin and are not Christians.
How infinitely different is the doctrine of this discourse, from the common
view, and what is generally inculcated. Said a celebrated minister in giving the
definition of a Christian—“He has a little grace and a great deal of
devil.” Now where did such a sentiment as that come from? From the Bible? No.
But from a ruinous accommodation of the Bible to a false standard. And yet so
current is such a sentiment, that if you deny it, they look astonished, and
say—“Why, I guess you are a perfectionist.” Now read the language of the
Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church, right along side of what John
says. Says the Confession of Faith—“No mere man since the fall, is able,
either of himself, or by any grace received in this life, perfectly to keep the
commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and in
deed.”—And to this almost all the standards of the Church agree. It is the
common sentiment of the Church. Now I would ask how this accords with what John
says, in the text and in many other places in this epistle? Let me say he is not
here speaking of some Christians who have made rare attainments, but of the
common attainment. Now, which is right? By which will you be tried at the
Judgment? By the Bible or the common standards? You know very well which.
When any, therefore, live in the omission of known duty, or commission of what
they know to be contrary to truth, we are bound to say they are not Christians.
This is not a want of charity but a love of the truth. Suppose an infidel should
meet you with the Bible in his hand and should point out what it describes a
Christian to be, and should ask you, “do you believe the Bible speaks the
truth?” And should then point to those Christians who live daily and hourly in
the omission of known duty, in a violation of perceived obligation, and ask you
if you believe they are Christians, what would you say? What would you feel
bound to say to maintain the honor of the Bible? The answer is plain. The truth
is, the common views on this subject are a flat denial of the Bible, and are a
ruinous accommodation to the experience of carnal professors.
Now, beloved, if this is so it becomes us, to ask ourselves, whether our
experience accords with the Bible or the popular standard. Not whether we think
we were converted some time ago, not what feelings we may have had: but are we
at present conformed to all the truth we know. Does the seed remain in us? The
test is a habitual perfection of moral character. He who has it is a Christian.
He who has it not is not a Christian. Now where are you? Where would you be to
night if summoned to the Judgment? Could you lay your hand on your heart and
say, “Lord Thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love Thee?” Thou
knowest that my life is a life of conformity to all thy known will?