Excerpt from Charles Finney’s
‘Systematic Theology (1851); Lecture II: Moral Government’
“…Law, in a sense of the term both sufficiently popular and scientific for my purpose, is a RULE OF ACTION. In its generic signification, it is applicable to every kind of action, whether of matter or of mind – whether intelligent or unintelligent – whether free or necessary action. I must distinguish between Physical and Moral Law.
Physical law is a term that represents the order of sequence, in all the changes that
occur under the law of necessity, whether in matter or mind. I mean all changes,
whether of state or action, that do not consist in the states or actions of free will.
Physical law is the law of force, or necessity, as opposed to the law of liberty. Physical
law is the law of the material universe. It is also the law of mind, so far as its states and
changes are involuntary. All mental states or actions, which are not free and sovereign
actions of will, must occur under, and be subject to, physical law. They cannot possibly
be accounted for, except as they are ascribed to the law of necessity or force.
Moral law is a rule of moral action with sanctions. It is that rule to which moral
agents ought to conform all their voluntary actions, and is enforced by sanctions equal
to the value of the precept. It is the rule for the government of free and intelligent
action, as opposed to necessary and unintelligent action. It is the law of liberty, as
opposed to the law of necessity–of motive and free choice, as opposed to force of
every kind. Moral law is primarily a rule for the direction of the action of free will, and
strictly of free will only. But secondarily, and less strictly, it is the rule for the regulation
of all those actions and states of mind and body, that follow the free actions of will by a
law of necessity. Thus, moral law controls involuntary mental states and outward
action, only by securing conformity of the actions of free will to its precept.
I must call attention to the essential attributes of moral law.
- Subjectivity. It is, and must be, an idea of reason, developed in the mind of the subject. It is an idea, or conception, of that state of will, or course of action, which is obligatory upon a moral agent… It is the law developed, or revealed within himself; and thus he becomes ‘a law to himself,’ his own reason affirming his obligation to conform to this idea or law.
- Objectivity. Moral law may be regarded as a rule of duty, prescribed by the supreme Lawgiver, and external to self. When thus contemplated, it is objective; when
contemplated as a necessary idea or affirmation of our own reason, we regard it
subjectively, or as imposed upon us by God, through the necessary convictions of our
own minds. When contemplated as within ourselves, and as the affirmation of our own reason we predicate of it subjectivity; but when thought of as a law declared and
enforced by the will of God, it is contemplated as distinct from our own necessary
ideas, and predicate of it objectivity.
- A third attribute is liberty, as opposed to necessity. The precept must lie developed in the reason, as a rule of duty – a law of moral obligation – a rule of choice, or of ultimate intention, declaring that which a moral agent ought to choose, will, intend. But it does not, must not, can not process the attribute of necessity in its relations to the actions of free will. It must not, cannot, process an element or attribute of force… This would confound it with physical law.
- A fourth attribute of moral law, is fitness. It must be the law of nature, that is, its
precept must prescribe and require, just those actions of the will which are suitable to the nature and relations of moral beings… that is, the intrinsic value of the well-being of God and of the universe being given as the ground, and the
nature and relations of moral beings as the condition of the obligation, the reason
hereupon necessarily affirms the intrinsic propriety and fitness of choosing this good, and of consecrating the whole being to its promotion. This is what is intended by the law of nature. It is the law or rule of action imposed on us by God, in and by the nature which he has given us.
- A fifth attribute of moral law is universality. The conditions and circumstances
being the same, it requires, and must require, of all moral agents, the same things, in
whatever world they may be found.
- A sixth attribute of moral law is, and must be, impartiality. Moral law is no
respecter of persons-knows no privileged classes. It demands one thing of all, without regard to anything, except the fact that they are moral agents. By this it is not intended, that the same course of outward conduct is required of all; but the same state of heart in all-that all shall have one ultimate intention-that all shall consecrate themselves to one end-that all shall entirely conform, in heart and life, to their nature and relations.
- A seventh attribute of moral law is, and must be, justice. That which is unjust cannot be law. Justice… must respect both the precept and the sanction… Justice, as an attribute of the sanction, consists in apportioning rewards and punishments, to the merit of obedience on the one hand, and to the guilt of disobedience on the other. Sanctions belong to the very essence and nature of moral law. A law without sanctions is no law; it is only counsel, or advice. Sanctions are the motives which the law presents, to secure obedience to the precept; and that is not properly law which does not promise, expressly or by implication, a reward proportionate to the merit of obedience, and threaten punishment equal to the guilt of disobedience. Law cannot be unjust, either in precept or sanction: and it should always be remembered, that what is unjust, is not law, cannot be law. It is contrary to the true definition of law. Moral law is a rule of action, founded in the nature and relations of moral beings, sustained by sanctions equal to the merit of obedience, and the guilt of disobedience.
- An eighth attribute of moral law is practicability. That which the precept demands must be possible to the subject. That which demands a natural impossibility is
not, and cannot be, moral law. The true definition of law excludes the supposition that it can, under any circumstances, demand an absolute impossibility. …To talk of inability to obey moral law, is to talk nonsense.
- A ninth attribute of moral law is independence. It is founded in the self-existent
nature of God. It is an eternal and necessary idea of the divine reason. It is the eternal
self-existent rule of the divine conduct, the law which the intelligence of God prescribes to Himself. Moral law, as we shall see hereafter more fully, does not, and cannot originate in the will of God. It originates, or rather, is founded in his eternal, self-existent nature. It eternally existed in the divine reason. It is the idea of that state of will which is obligatory upon God upon condition of His natural attributes, or, in other words, upon condition of his nature. As a law, it is entirely independent of His will just as his own existence is. It is obligatory also upon every moral agent, entirely independent of the will of God. Their nature and relations being given, and their intelligence being developed, moral law must be obligatory upon them, and it lies not in the option of any being to make it otherwise. Their nature and relations being given, to pursue a course of conduct suited to their nature and relations, is necessarily and self-evidently obligatory, independent of the will of any being.
- A tenth attribute of moral law is immutability. Moral law can never change, or
be changed. …If capacity is enlarged, the subject is not thereby rendered capable of works of supererogation- of doing more than the law demands; for the law still, as always, requires the full consecration of his whole being to the public interests. If by any means whatever, his ability is abridged, moral law, always and necessarily consistent with itself, still requires that what is left-nothing more or less-shall be consecrated to the same end as before. Whatever demands more or less than entire, universal, and constant conformity of heart and life, to the nature, capacity and relations of moral agents, be they what they may, is not, and cannot be, moral law. …If therefore, the capacity is by any means abridged, the subject does not thereby become incapable of rendering full obedience; for the law still demands and urges, that the heart and life shall be fully conformed to the present, existing nature, capacity, and relations. Anything that requires more or less than this, whatever else it is, is not, and cannot be, moral law. To affirm that it can, is to talk nonsense. Moral law invariably holds one language. It never changes the spirit of its requirement. “Thou shalt love,” or be perfectly benevolent, is its uniform and its only demand. This demand it never varies, and never can vary. It is as immutable as God is, and for the same reason. To talk of letting down, or altering moral law, is to talk absurdly. The thing is naturally impossible. No being has the right or the power to do so. The supposition overlooks the very nature of moral law. Should the natural capability of the mind, by any means whatever, be enlarged or abridged, it is perfectly absurd, and a contradiction of the nature of moral law, to say, that the claims of the law are either elevated or lowered. Moral law is not a statute, an enactment, that has its origin or its foundation in the will of any being. It is the law of nature, the law which the nature or constitution of every moral agent imposes on himself, and which God imposes upon us because it is entirely suited to our nature and relations, and is therefore naturally obligatory upon us. It is the unalterable demand of the reason, that the whole being, whatever there is of it at any time, shall be entirely consecrated to the highest good of universal being, and for this reason God requires this of us, with all the weight of his authority. It cannot be too distinctly understood, that moral law is nothing more nor less, than the law of nature revealed in the necessary ideas of our own reason, and enforced by the authority of God. It is an idea of that which is fit, suitable, agreeable to our nature and relations for the time being, that which
it is reasonable for us to will and do, at any and every moment, in view of all the
circumstances of our present existence,-just what the reason affirms, and what God
affirms, to be suited to our nature and relations, under all the circumstances of the
- An eleventh attribute of moral law is unity. Moral law proposes but one ultimate
end of pursuit to God, and to all moral agents. All its requisitions, in their spirit, are
summed up and expressed in one word, love or benevolence. This I only announce
here. It will more fully appear hereafter. Moral law is a pure and simple idea of the
reason. It is the idea of perfect, universal, and constant consecration of the whole being, to the highest good of being. Just this is, and nothing more nor less can be, moral law; for just this, and nothing more nor less, is a state of heart and a course of life exactly suited to the nature and relations of moral agents, which is the only true definition of moral law.
- Equity is is another attribute of moral law. Equity is equality. That only is
equitable which is equal. The interest and well-being of every sentient existence, and
especially of every moral agent, is of some value in comparison with the interests of
others, and of the whole universe of creatures. Moral law demands that the interest and well-being of every member of the universal family shall be regarded by each according to its relative or comparative value, and that in no case shall it be sacrificed or wholly neglected, unless it be forfeited by crime. The distinction, allowed by human tribunals, between law and equity, does not pertain to moral law, nor does nor can it strictly pertain to any law. For it is impossible that that should be law, in the sense of imposing obligation, of which equity is not an attribute. An inequitable law cannot be. The requirements of law must be equal. A moral agent may, by transgression, forfeit the protection of law, and may come into such governmental relations, by trampling on the law, that moral law may demand that he be made a public example-that his interest and well-being be laid upon the altar, and that he be offered a sacrifice to public justice, as a preventive of crime in others. It may happen also that sacrifices may be demanded by moral law of innocent beings, for the promotion of a greater amount of good than that sacrificed by the innocent. Such was the case with the atonement of Christ, and such is the case with the missionary, and with all who are called by the law of love to practice self-denial for the good of others. But let it be remembered, that moral law never requires nor allows any degree of self-denial and self-sacrifice that relinquishes a good of greater value than that gained by the sacrifice. Nor does it in any case demand nor permit that any interest, not forfeited by its possessor, shall be relinquished or finally neglected, without adequate ultimate compensation. As has been said, every interest is of some comparative value; and ought to be so esteemed and treated. Moral law demands, and must demand, that it shall be so regarded by all moral agents to whom it
is known. “THOU SHALT LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR AS THYSELF” is its
unalterable language. It can absolutely utter no other language than this, and nothing can
be moral law which holds any other language. Law is not, and cannot be, an arbitrary
enactment of any being or number of beings. Unequal LAW is a misnomer. That
which is unequal in its demands, is not and cannot be, law. Law must respect the
interests and the rights of all, and of each member of the universal family. It is
impossible that it should be otherwise, and still be law.
- Expediency is another attribute of moral law. That which is upon the whole most wise is expedient,-that which is upon the whole expedient is demanded by moral law. True expediency and the spirit of moral law are always identical. Expediency may be inconsistent with the letter, but never with the spirit of moral law. Law in the form of commandment is a revelation or declaration of that course which is expedient. It is expediency revealed, as in the case of the decalogue, and the same is true of every precept of the Bible, it reveals to us what is expedient. A revealed law or commandment is never to be set aside by our views of expediency. We may know with certainty that what is required is expedient. The command is the expressed judgment of God in the case, and reveals with unerring certainty the true path of expediency. When Paul says, “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient,” we must not understand him as meaning that all things in the absolute sense were lawful to him, or that anything that was not expedient was lawful to him. But he doubtless intended, that many things were inexpedient that are not expressly prohibited by the letter of the law,–that the spirit of the law prohibited many things not expressly prohibited by the letter. It should never be forgotten that that which is plainly demanded by the highest good of the universe is law. It is expedient. It is wise. The true spirit of the moral law does and must demand it. So, on the other
hand, whatever is plainly inconsistent with the highest good of the universe is illegal, unwise, inexpedient, and must be prohibited by the spirit of moral law. But let the thought be repeated, that the Bible precepts always reveal that which is truly expedient, and in no case are we at liberty to set aside the spirit of any commandment upon the supposition that expediency requires it. Some have denounced the doctrine of expediency altogether, as at all times inconsistent with the law of right. These philosophers proceed upon the assumption that the law of right and the law of benevolence are not identical but inconsistent with each other. This is a common but fundamental mistake, which leads me to remark that-Law proposes the highest good of universal being as its end, and requires all moral
agents to consecrate themselves to the promotion of this end. Consequently, expediency must be one of its attributes. That which is upon the whole in the highest degree useful to the universe must be demanded by moral law. Moral law must, from its own nature, require just that course of willing and acting that is upon the whole in the highest degree promotive of the public good,–in other words, that which is upon the whole in the highest degree useful, and therefore expedient. It has been strangely and absurdly maintained that right would be obligatory if it necessarily tended to and resulted in universal and perfect misery. Than which a more nonsensical affirmation was never made. The affirmation assumes that the law of right and of good-will are not only distinct, but may be antagonistic. It also assumes that that can be law that is not suited to the nature and relations of moral agents. Certainly it will not be pretended that that course of willing and acting that necessarily tends to, and results in, universal misery, can be consistent with the nature and relations of moral agents. Nothing is or can be suited to their nature and relations, that is not upon the whole pro-motive of their highest well-being. Expediency and right are always and necessarily at one. They can never be
inconsistent. That which is upon the whole most expedient is right, and that which is
right is upon the whole expedient.
- Exclusiveness is another attribute of moral law. That is, moral law is the only
possible rule of moral obligation. A distinction is usually made between moral,
ceremonial, civil, and positive laws. This distinction is in some respects convenient, but is liable to mislead and to create an impression that something can be obligatory, in other words can be law, that has not the attributes of moral law. Nothing can be law, in any proper sense of the term, that is not and would not be universally obligatory upon moral agents under the same circumstances. It is law because and only because, under all the circumstances of the case, the course prescribed is fit, proper, suitable, to their natures, relations, and circumstances. There can be no other rule of action for moral agents but moral law, or the law of benevolence. Every other rule is absolutely excluded by the very nature of moral law. Surely there can be no law that is or can be obligatory upon moral agents but one suited to, and founded in their nature, relations, and circumstances. This is and must be the law of love or benevolence. This is the law of right, and nothing else is or can be. Every thing else that claims to be law and to impose obligation upon moral agents, from whatever source it emanates, is not and cannot be a law, but must be an imposition and “a thing of nought.”