“The first thing we must note about the atonement, Finney says, is that Christ could not have died for anyone else’s sins than his own. His obedience to the law and his perfect righteousness were sufficient to save him, but could not legally be accepted on behalf of others. That Finney’s whole theology is driven by a passion for moral improvement is seen on this very point: ‘If he [Christ] had obeyed the Law as our substitute, then why should our own return to personal obedience be insisted upon as a sine qua non of our salvation?’ (p. 206). In other words, why would God insist that we save ourselves by our own obedience if Christ’s work was sufficient? The reader should recall the words of St. Paul in this regard, ‘I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.’ It would seem that Finney’s reply is one of agreement. The difference is, he has no difficulty believing both of those premises.
“That is not entirely fair, of course, because Finney did believe that Christ died for something–not for someone–but for something. In other words, he died for a purpose, but not for people. The purpose of that death was to reassert God’s moral government and to lead us to eternal life by example, as Adam’s example excited us to sin. Why did Christ die? God knew that ‘The atonement would present to creatures the highest possible motives to virtue. Example is the highest moral influence that can be exerted…If the benevolence manifested in the atonement does not subdue the selfishness of sinners, their case is hopeless’ (p. 209). Therefore, we are not helpless sinners who need to be redeemed, but wayward sinners who need a demonstration of selflessness so moving that we will be excited to leave off selfishness. Not only did Finney believe that the ‘moral influence’ theory of the atonement was the chief way of understanding the cross; he explicitly denied the substitutionary atonement, which ‘…assumes that the atonement was a literal payment of a debt, which we have seen does not consist with the nature of the atonement…It is true, that the atonement, of itself, does not secure the salvation of anyone'” (p. 217).
(Michael Horton — “The Legacy of Charles Finney,” Modern Reformation, 1995)