Charles Finney (1792-1875) was one of the greatest revivalist who ever lived. Working primarily in the northeastern part of the Unite States, thousands of people from all classes of society were converted. In reading Finney’s autobiography, one discovers that prayer was a continuing preeminent factor in his success. Supporting him were Daniel Nash and Abel Cleary, two great men of prayer, who would go to the towns in advance to pray. Often they would choose some of the least likely profligates to pray for, and more often than not those very people were converted, and with them a great host of others. As a result of these combined labors, entire towns were converted, resulting in great improvements in communities that continued long after. Sometimes the revivals began with the poorer classes; sometimes they started with the moneyed classes. Whatever the case, God used Finney in a great way. Like John Calvin, the great reformer who began his career as a lawyer, Finney was also trained as a lawyer, and therefore brought logic and great powers of persuasion to his meetings. You will find he does the same in these lectures. For those who care and know the difference, Finney somewhat followed Wesley’s thinking instead of John Calvin's when it came to understanding salvation—Arminian—though there were differences.
This lecture is the fifth of a twenty-three part series on revival which he gave in New York City, at a time of financial difficulty. They were published in 1835, and then revised and republished in 1868.
This is some of the clearest thinking on the prayer of faith that I have read to date.
This is condensed from the original. The original has ten pages of copy at this size point; this version has seven pages of copy. I urge you to read the full lecture.
"Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them."-Matt. xi. 24.
These words have been by some supposed to refer exclusively to the faith of miracles. But there is not the least evidence of this. That the text was not designed by our Savior to refer exclusively to the faith of miracles, is proved by the connection in which it stands.
Our Savior was desirous of giving his disciples instructions respecting the nature and power of prayer, and the necessity of strong faith in God. He therefore stated a very strong case, a miracle-one so great as the removal of a mountain into the sea. And he tells them, that if they exercise a proper faith in God, they might do such things. But his remarks are not to be limited to faith merely in regard to working miracles, for he goes on to say,
"And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have aught against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive you your trespasses."
Does that relate to miracles? When you pray, you must forgive. Is that required only when a man wishes to work a miracle? There are many other promises in the Bible nearly related to this, and speaking nearly the same language, which have been all disposed of in this shorthand way, as referring to the faith employed in miracles. Just as if the faith of miracles was something different from faith in God! ...
I. To show that faith is an indispensable condition of prevailing prayer.
II. Show what it is that we are to believe when we pray.
III. Show when we are bound to exercise this faith, or to believe that we shall receive the thing that we ask for,
IV. That this kind of faith in prayer always does obtain the blessing sought.
V. Explain how we are to come into the state of mind, in which we can exercise such faith.
VI. Answer several objections, which are sometimes alleged against these views of prayer.
I. That faith is an indispensable condition of prevailing prayer, will not be seriously doubted. There is such a thing as offering benevolent desires, which are acceptable to God as such, that do not include the exercise of faith in regard to the actual reception of those blessings. But such desires are not prevailing prayer, the prayer of faith. God may see fit to grant the things desired, as an act of kindness and love, but it would not be properly in answer to prayer. I am speaking now of the kind of faith that insures the blessing. Do not understand me as saying that there is nothing in prayer that is acceptable to God, or that even obtains the blessing sometimes, without this kind of faith. But I am speaking of the faith which secures the very blessing it seeks. To prove that faith is indispensable to prevailing prayer, it is only necessary to repeat what the apostle James expressly tells us: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.- But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of, the sea,, driven with the wind and . tossed."
II. We are to inquire what we are to believe when we pray.
1. We are to believe in the existence of God-"He that cometh to God must believe that he is"-and in his willingness to answer prayer-”that he is, and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him." There are many who believe in the existence of God, and do not believe in the efficacy of prayer. They profess to believe in God, but deny the necessity or influence of prayer.
2. We are to believe that we shall receive-something- what? Not something, or any thing, as it happens, but some particular thing we ask for. We are not to think that God is such a being, that if we ask a fish, he will give us a serpent, or if we ask bread, he will give us a stone. But he says, “What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them." With respect to the faith of miracles, it is plain that they were bound to believe they should receive just what they asked for-that the very thing itself should come to pass.
III. When are we bound to make this prayer? When are we bound to believe that we shall have the very things we pray for? I answer: When we have evidence of it. Faith must always have evidence. A man cannot believe a thing, unless he sees something which he supposes to be evidence. He is under no obligation to believe, and has no right to believe, a thing will be done, unless he has evidence. It is the height of fanaticism to believe without evidence. The kinds of evidence a man may have are the following:
1. Suppose that God has especially promised the thing. As for instance, God says he is more ready to give his Holy Spirit to them that ask him, than parents are to give bread to their children. Here we are bound to believe that we shall receive it when we pray for it. You have no right to put in an “if” and say, “Lord, if it be thy will, give us thy Holy Spirit." This is to insult God. To put an “if” into, God's promise, where God has put none, is tantamount to charging God with being insincere.
2. Where there is a general promise in the Scriptures, which you may reasonably apply to the particular case before you. If its real meaning includes the particular thing for which you pray, or if you can reasonably apply the principle of the promise to the case, there you have evidence. For instance, suppose it is a time when wickedness prevails greatly, and you are led to pray for God's interference. What promise have you? Why, this one: “When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him." Here you see is a general promise, laying down a principle of God's administration, which you may apply to the case before you, as a warrant for exercising faith in prayer.
3. Where there is any prophetic declaration, that the thing prayed for is agreeable to the will of God. When it is plain from prophecy that the event is certainly to come, you are bound to believe it, and to make it the ground for your special faith in prayer. If the time is not specified in the Bible, and there is no evidence from other sources, you are not bound to believe that it shall take place now, or immediately. But if the time is specified, or if the time may be learned from the study of the prophecies, and it appears to have arrived, then Christians are under obligation to understand and apply it, by offering the prayer of faith. For instance, take the case of Daniel, in regard to the return of the Jews from captivity. What does he say? "I Daniel understood by books the number of the years whereof the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah the prophet, that he would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem." Here he learned from books, that is, he studied his Bible, and in that way understood that the length of the captivity was to be seventy years. What does he do then? Does he sit down upon the promise, and say, “God has pledged himself to put an end to the captivity in seventy years, and the time has expired, and there is no need of doing any thing? No; he says, “And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes." He set himself at once to pray that the thing might be accomplished. He prayed in faith. But what was he to believe? What he had learned from prophecy. There are many prophecies yet unfulfilled, in the Bible, which Christians are bound to understand, as far as they are capable of understanding them, and then make them the basis of believing prayer.
4. When the signs of the times, or the providence of God, indicate that a particular blessing is about to be bestowed, we are bound to believe it. The Lord Jesus Christ blamed the Jews, and called them hypocrites, because they did not understand the indications of Providence.
5. When the Spirit of God is upon you, and excites strong desires for any blessing, you are bound to pray for it in faith. You are bound to infer, from the fact that you find yourself drawn to desire such a thing while in the exercise of such holy affections as the Spirit of God produces, that these desires are the work of the Spirit.... If you find yourself strongly drawn to desire a blessing, you are to understand it as an intimation that God is willing to bestow that particular blessing, and so you are bound to believe it.
IV. I will proceed to show that this kind of faith always obtains the object. The text is plain here, to show that you shall receive the very thing prayed for. It does not say, “Believe that ye shall receive, and ye shall either have that or something else equivalent to it." To prove that this faith obtains the very blessing asked, I observe,
1. That otherwise we could never know whether our prayers were answered.
2. If we are not bound to expect the very thing we ask for, it must be that the Spirit of God deceives us.
3. What is the meaning of this passage, "If a man ask bread, will he give him a stone?" Does not our Savior rebuke the idea that prayer may be answered by giving something else? ... All the history of the church shows that when God answers prayer, he gives his people the very thing for which their prayers are offered. God confers other blessings, on both saints and sinners, which they do not pray for at all. He sends his rain both upon the just and the unjust. But when he answers prayer, it is by doing what they ask him to do. To be sure, he often more than answers prayer. He grants them not only what they ask, but often connects other blessings with it.
4. Perhaps you may feel a difficulty here about the prayers of Jesus Christ. People may often ask, "Did not he pray in the garden for the cup to be removed, and was his prayer answered? "I answer that this is no difficulty at all, for the prayer was answered. The cup he prayed to be delivered from was removed. This is what the apostle refers to, when he says-"Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, was heard in that he feared." ... Some have supposed that he was praying against the cross, and begging to be delivered from dying on the cross! Did Christ ever shrink from the cross? Never. He came into the world on purpose to die on the cross, and he never shrunk from it. But he was afraid he should die in the garden before he came to the cross. The burden on his soul was so great, and produced such an agony, that he felt as if he was on the point of dying. His soul was sorrowful even unto death. But after the angel appeared unto him, we hear no more of his agony of soul. He had prayed for relief from that cup, and his prayer was answered. He became calm, and had no more mental suffering till just as he expired.
Another case often brought up, where the apostle Paul prayed against the thorn in the flesh. He says, "I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me." And God answered him, "My grace is sufficient for thee." ... The very manner in which God answered him shows that it was not in faith. He virtually tells him, "That thorn is necessary for your sanctification, and to keep you from being exalted above measure. I sent it upon yon in love, and in faithfulness, and you have no business to pray that I should take it away.-LET IT ALONE.”
There is not only no evidence that he prayed in faith, but a strong presumption that he did not. From the history it is evident that he had nothing on which to repose faith. There was no express promise, no general promise, that could be applicable, no providence of God, no prophecy, no teaching of the Spirit that God would remove this thorn; but the presumption was that God would not remove it. He had given it to him for a particular purpose.
5. It is evident that the prayer of faith will obtain the blessing, from the fact that our faith rests on evidence that to grant that thing is the will of God. Not evidence that something else will be granted, but that this particular thing will be. But how, then, can we have evidence that this thing will he granted, if another thing is to be granted?
V. I am to show how we are to come into this state of mind, in which we can offer such prayer. People sometimes ask, “How shall I offer such prayer?
1. You must first obtain evidence that God will bestow the blessing. How did Daniel make out to offer the prayer of faith? He searched the Scriptures. Now, you need not let your Bible lie on a shelf, and expect God to reveal his promises to you. Search the Scriptures, and see where you can get either a general or special promise, or a prophecy, on which, you can plant your feet when you pray. Go through the Bible, and you will find it full of such things-precious promises, which you may plead in faith. You never need to want for objects of prayer, if you will do as Daniel did. Persons are staggered on this subject, because they never make a proper use of the Bible.
I could name many individuals, who have set themselves to examine the Bible on this subject, and before they got half through with it, have been filled with the spirit of prayer. They found that God meant by his promises just what a plain, common sense man would understand them to mean. I advise you to try it.
2. Cherish the good desires you have. Christians very often lose their good desires, by not attending to this; and then their prayers are mere words, without any desire or earnestness at all. The least longing of desire must be cherished. If your body was likely to freeze, and you had even the least spark of fire, how you would cherish it! So if you have the least desire for a blessing, let it be ever so small, don't trifle it away. Don't grieve the Spirit. Don't be diverted. Don't lose good desires, by levity, by censoriousness, by worldly-mindedness. Watch, and pray, and follow it up, or you will never pray the prayer of faith.
3. Entire consecration to God is indispensable to the prayer of faith. You must live a holy life, and consecrate all to God-your time, talents, influence-all you have, and all you are, to be his entirely. Read the lives of pious men, and you will be struck with this fact: that they used to set apart times to renew their covenant, and dedicate themselves anew to God, and whenever they have done so, a blessing has always followed immediately.
4. You must persevere. You are not to pray for a thing once, and then cease, and call that the prayer of faith. Look at Daniel. He prayed twenty-one days, and did not cease till he had obtained the blessing.
5. If you would pray in faith, be sure to walk every day with God. If you do, he will tell you what to pray for. Be filled with his Spirit, and he will give you objects enough to pray for. He will give you as much of the spirit of prayer as you have strength of body to bear.
Said a good man to me, “O, I am dying for the want of strength to pray. My body is crushed, the world is on me, and how can I forbear praying?" I have known that man go to bed absolutely sick, for weakness and faintness under the pressure. And I have known him pray as if he would do violence to heaven, and then seen the blessing come as plainly in answer to his prayer, as if it was revealed, so that no person would doubt it, any more than if God had spoken from heaven.
VI. I will refer to some objections.
1. “It leads to fanaticism, and amounts to a new revelation." Why should this be a stumbling block? They must have evidence to believe, before they can offer the prayer of faith. And if God gives other evidence besides the senses, where is the objection? True, there is a sense in which this is a new revelation; it is making known a thing by his Spirit. But it is the very revelation which God has promised to give. It is just the one we are to expect, if the Bible is true; that when we know not what we ought to pray for, according to the will of God, his Spirit helps our infirmities, and teaches us the very thing to pray for. Shall we deny the teaching of the Spirit?
2. It is often asked, “Is it our duty to pray the prayer of faith for the salvation of all men?" I answer, No, for that is not a thing according to the will of God. It is directly contrary to his revealed will. We have no evidence that all will be saved. (Note Finney was not predestinarian in thinking so he was not referring to some people being elected for salvation and others for damnation, rather that each person has a choice to make in the matter and can refuse.)
3. But say some, “If we were to offer this prayer for all men, would not all men be saved?" I answer, Yes, and so they would be saved, if they would all repent. But they will not.
4. But you ask, “For whom are we to offer this prayer? We want to know in what cases, for what persons, and places, and at what times, &c. we are to make the prayer of faith." I answer, as I have already answered, When you have evidence, from promises, or prophecies, or providences, or the leadings of the Spirit, that God will do the things you pray for.
5. “How is it that so many prayers of pious parents for their children are not answered? Did you not say there was a promise which pious parents may apply to their children? Why is it then, that so many pious praying parents have had impenitent children, that died in their sins?" Granted that it is so, what does it prove? Let God be true, but every man a liar. Which shall we believe, that God's promise has failed, or that these parents did not do their duty? Perhaps they did not believe the promise, or did not believe there was any such thing as the prayer of faith. Wherever you find a professor that does not believe in any such prayer, you find, as a general thing, that he has children and domestics yet in their sins. And no wonder, unless they are converted in answer to the prayers of somebody else.
6. “Will not these views lead to fanaticism? Will not many people think they are offering the prayer of faith when they are not? That is the same objection that the Unitarians make against the doctrine of regeneration-that many people think they have been born again when they have not. It is an argument against all spiritual religion whatever. Some think they have it, when they have not, and are fanatics. But there are those who know what the prayer of faith is, just as there are those who know what spiritual experience is, though it may stumble cold-hearted professors who know it not.
1. Persons who have not known by experience what this is, have great reason to doubt their piety.
2. There is reason to believe millions are lost forever because professors have not offered the prayer of faith. ... The signs of the times, and the indications of Providence, were favorable, perhaps, and the Spirit of God prompted desires for their salvation, and they had evidence enough to believe that God was ready to grant a blessing, and if they had only prayed in faith, God would have granted it, but God turned it away, because they would not discern the signs of the times.
3. You say, “This leaves the church under a great load of guilt." True, it does so; and no doubt multitudes will stand up before God, covered all over with the blood of souls that have been lost through their want of faith.
4. Many professors of religion live so far from God, that to talk to them about the prayer of faith, is all unintelligible.
5. I want to ask the professors who are here a few questions. Do you know what it is to pray in faith? Did you ever pray in this way? Have you ever prayed, till your mind was assured the blessing would come-till you felt that rest in God, that confidence, as perfect as if you saw God come down from heaven to give it to you? If not, you ought to examine your foundation. How can you live without praying in faith at all? How do you live in view of your children, while you have no assurance whatever that they will be converted? ... Do you live in such a manner that you can offer such prayer for your children? I know that the children of professors may sometimes be converted in answer to the prayers of somebody else. But ought you to live so? Dare you trust to the prayers of others, when God calls you to sustain this most important relation to your children?
Finally-See what combined effort is made to dispose of the Bible. The wicked are for throwing away the threatenings of the Bible, and the church the promises. And what is there left? Between them, they leave the Bible a blank. I say it in love: What are our Bibles good for, if we do not lay hold on their precious promises, and use them as the ground of our faith when we pray for the blessing of God?
Taken from the fifth chapter of Charles Finney's Lectures on Revival.