By Charles G. Finney (Edited and paraphrased by Keith Green)
said therefore to Him, 'What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?' Jesus
answered and said to them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has
sent.'" - John 6:28-29
There are multitudes of anxious Christians who are inquiring what they shall do to
overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil. They overlook the fact that "this is
the victory that has overcome the world - our faith" (I John 5:4) that it is with
"the shield of faith" that they are to "extinguish all the flaming
missiles of the evil one." (Eph. 6:16) They ask, "why am I overcome
by sin? Why can't I get above its power? Why am I the slave of my appetites and
passions and the sport of the devil?" They look all around them for the cause of all
this spiritual wretchedness and death. Sometimes they think they have discovered the
answer in the neglect of one duty, and at another time in the neglect of another duty.
Sometimes they imagine they have found the cause of their wretchedness to be that they
have yielded to one sin and sometimes in yielding to another. They put forth efforts in
this direction and patch up their righteousness on one side, while they make a tear in the
other. Thus they spend years running around in a circle, making dams of sand across the
current of their own corruptions. Instead of at once purifying their hearts by faith
(Acts 15:9), they are engaged in trying to stop the overflow of its bitter waters.
"Why do I sin?" they inquire; and looking around for the cause, they come to
the same conclusion: "It is because I neglect such and such a duty!" "But
how shall I get rid of sin?" Usual answer: "By doing my duty, that is by ceasing
from sin." Now the real question should be: Why do they neglect their duty? Why do
they commit sin at all? Where is the foundation of all this mischief? But all this only
brings us back to the real question again: How are we to overcome this corrupt nature,
this wickedness, and our sinful habits? I answer, BY FAITH ALONE. No works of law
have the least tendency to overcome our sins, but rather they strengthen the soul in
self-righteousness and unbelief.
The great and fundamental sin which is at the foundation of all other sin is
unbelief. The first thing to do is to give that up - to believe the Word of God. There
is no breaking away from one sin without this. "Whatever is not from faith is
sin." (Rom. 14:23) "Without faith it is impossible to please Him." (Heb.
11:6) Thus we see that the backslider and convicted Christian, when agonizing to
overcome sin, will almost always try to use the works of law to obtain faith. They will
fast and pray and read and struggle and outwardly reform, and thus endeavor to obtain
grace. But all this is in vain and wrong. Do you ask, "Shall we not fast and pray and
read and struggle? Shall we do nothing but sit down in cheap security and inaction?"
I answer: You must do all that God commands you to do; but begin where He tells you to
begin, and do it in the manner in which He commands you to do it. That is - in the
exercise of that faith that works by love. (Gal. 5:6) Purify your hearts by faith.
Believe in the Son of God! (I John 5:10)
What Is "Faith"?
The first element of saving faith is realizing the truth of the Bible. But this alone
is not saving faith, for Satan also realizes the truth of the Bible, which makes him
tremble. (James 2:19) But a second element in saving faith is the agreement of the
heart (or will) to the truth understood by the mind. It is a cordial trust or resting of
the mind in those truths, and yielding up the whole being to their influence. Now it is
easy to see that without the consent of the will, there can be nothing but an outward
obedience to God. A wife without confidence in her husband can do nothing more than
outwardly perform her duty to him. Works of law may be performed without faith, that is,
we may serve from fear or hope or some selfish motive, but without the confidence that
works by love, obedience from the heart is naturally impossible.
By what I've already said, I mean that to seek the grace of faith by mere human works
is an utter abomination. It is as abominable as to attempt to purchase the Holy Ghost with
money. (Acts 8:20) It is to set aside the testimony of God's Word concerning our
utter depravity (helplessness) and attempt to pawn off our unbelieving, heartless works
upon an infinitely Holy God. It is an attempt to purchase His favor, instead of accepting
grace as His sovereign gift.
To give any other answer to one in unbelief, and to tell him to perform any work with
the expectation that by it he shall obtain faith, is to confirm him in self-righteousness,
to prolong his rebellion, to lead him to settle down in a self-righteous hope to produce
in the end, discouragement and blasphemy.
Because repentance, faith, love, and every other holy exercise both imply and proceed
from faith - without confidence in the character and requirements of God, it is impossible
to repent. For what is repentance but heartily to justify God and condemn ourselves?
So it is equally impossible to exercise a trusting love in God without faith.
Submission to God implies the exercise of confidence in God and in His requirements.
Faith is the only exercise that receives Christ with all His powerfully sanctifying
influences into the heart. The Bible everywhere represents the sanctified soul as being
under the influence of an indwelling Christ. Now the exercise of faith is an opening of
the door by which Christ is received to reign in the heart. If this is so, the proper
direction plainly is to do that which receives Christ. If this is done, all else will be
done. If this is neglected, all else will be neglected, of course!
Some Helpful Remarks
1. You see why the Church is not sanctified. They overlook the office and necessity of
faith as that which alone can produce acceptable obedience to God. They are engaged in
efforts to obtain faith by works, instead of first exercising that faith which will
produce within them a clean heart. And in this way they seek in vain for sanctification.
How common it is to see Christians bustling about with outward efforts and works - fasting
and praying, giving and doing and struggling - and after all this, they do not have the
fruits of the Spirit: "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness,
faith, meekness, temperance, against such there is no law." (Gal. 5:22-23 KJV)
2. You see why the Bible lays so much stress upon faith.
3. You see what the difficulty is for those who are constantly in a complaining state
in their walk with the Lord. They seem to know they are wrong, but do not understand what
the foundation of their wrong consists of. They sometimes think that a neglect of a
certain duty is the grand difficulty, and sometimes their mind fastens upon something else
that is the prime difficulty in their case. They set themselves to break off from one sin
and another, they practice this self-denial and that duty, and all without
that faith that fills the heart with love. Thus they go round and round in a circle and do
not see that unbelief is their great, their damning sin, without the removal of which no
other sin can be repented of or forgiven. All their efforts are entirely legal,
hypocritical, and vain until they exercise faith.
4. If persons without faith, in an unsanctified state, set themselves to obey the
commandments of God, their efforts must necessarily be legal, self-righteous, and
destructive. To them the directions of the Gospel, as well as the commandments of the law,
are a horrible pit of miry clay. And when you cast a man into a horrible pit of miry clay,
the more he struggles the deeper he sinks. Every effort at obedience without faith is sin,
and as it confirms self-righteousness, is sinking him further and further from God and
rational hope. And the more violently he struggles, the more desperate and alarming his
case becomes. The clay surrounds him and cleaves to him, suffocates and kills him. Just so
the commands of God to an unbelieving heart are a snare and a pit. Without faith, there is
ruin and damnation in them.
5. To the careless, unawakened sinner who knows nothing of his lostness, it might be
important and proper to direct his attention to the law of God to bring conviction - not
with the expectation of promoting holiness in him, but of convicting him of sin. Thus we
find Christ requiring the rich young man who is wrapped up in self-righteousness to keep
the commandments, bringing out before his mind his supreme love of the world and of
things. (Luke 18:18-23)
6. You see how to the Jews and to all unbelievers, the commandments of God are a
stumbling block. All outward conformity to them is useless and ruinous. Love without
faith is impossible. And consequently, the merciful directions and instructions
contained in the dos and don'ts of the Bible are made the food of self-righteousness and
the snare of death. But to those whose souls are full of faith and love, the commandments
of God are just the instruction which they need when, in their ignorance, they earnestly
inquire what they shall do to glorify God. "Do this and avoid that," and the
like, are just the things upon which hearts of love will seize as the needed directions of
their Heavenly Father.
7. But someone may inquire, "Do not men learn to exercise faith by what you call
legal efforts and an obedience to the legal directions?" No. They only learn by
experience that all such directions are vain, and that they are totally depraved and
dependent, which they ought to have believed before. They set themselves to
pray and read and struggle, expecting at every meeting they attend, with every prayer they
make, to obtain grace and faith. But they never do until they are completely discouraged
and despair of obtaining help in this way. And the history of every self-righteous
sinner's conversion and every anxious Christian's sanctification would develop this truth:
that deliverance does not come until their self-righteous efforts are proved by their own
experience to be utterly vain, and abandoned as useless - and the whole subject thrown
upon the sovereign mercy of God. This submitting a subject to the sovereign mercy of God
is that very act of faith which they should have put forth long before, but which
they would not exercise until every other means had been tried in vain!
8. But perhaps you will say, "If by this self-righteous struggle they learn their
depravity and dependence, and in this matter come to prove by their own experience the
truth of God, why not encourage them to make these efforts as at least an indirect way of
obtaining faith?" Answer: Blasphemy and drunkenness and any of the most shocking sins
may be, and often have been, the means of working conviction which has resulted in
conversion. Why not encourage these things to possibly bring about ultimate salvation for
The truth is, when a sinner's attention is awakened and he is convicted and puts forth
the inquiry, "What shall I do?" and when a Christian, struggling with his
remaining corruption, puts forth this same inquiry, why should they be thrown into the
horrible pit of which I have spoken? Why not tell them at once, in the language of the
text, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has
sent"? (John 6:29)
9. Let me say to you who would make the inquiry, "How can I overcome sin?"
don't wait to fast, read, pray, or anything else - don't expect to break off from any sin
in your unbelief! You may break off from the outward commission - you may substitute
praying for swearing, reading your Bible for reading magazines, outward employment and
honesty for theft and idleness, soberness for drunkenness, and anything you please - but
this, without faith, is after all, only exchanging one form of sin for another - it is
only varying the mode of your rebellion towards God. For remember that in unbelief,
whatever your conduct is, you are still in rebellion against God. Faith would instantly
sanctify your heart, sanctify all your doings, and render them in Christ Jesus, acceptable
My dear friend, you inquire whether you shall obtain holiness by reading the Bible, or
by prayer, fasting, or by all these together. Now let this sermon answer you and know that
by neither nor by all of these, in the absence of faith, are you to
grow any better or find any relief. You speak of being in darkness and of being
discouraged. No wonder you are so, since you have plainly been seeking sanctification by
outward works. You have "stumbled over the stumbling stone." (Rom. 9:32) You
are in that pit of miry clay. Immediately exercise faith upon the Son of God! It is
the first, the only thing you can do to rest your feet upon the Rock - and it
will immediately put a new song into your mouth!
This article was originally published under the title
"Faith" in the Oberlin Evangelist on January 1,1839. The article in its
original form has been reprinted in a book called "The Promise Of The
Spirit" by Charles Finney, edited and compiled by Timothy L. Smith, and is
available from Bethany Fellowship, 6820 Auto Club Road, Minneapolis, MN 55438.
We highly recommend this book to anyone seeking more on the subject
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard
Bible, (c)The Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977.