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  • Writer's pictureJoe D'Orsie

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

It's a bullet point that has to be covered because of its historical prominence, many times in short order in our history textbooks. This famous sermon delivered dryly yet cogently by a theologian with a powdered wig. I remember skimming over it in high school history class, actually. I've only somewhat recently come to see its importance and its impact on American society. 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,' preached by Jonathan Edwards, in a parish in Northampton, Massachusetts and Enfield, Connecticut, on the 8th of July in 1741, was no ordinary sermon. It was ordinary in its tone and delivery, to be sure, as Edwards was not known to be a highly skilled presenter. Its content, however, sparked one of the greatest revivals the world has ever seen, qualifying it as extraordinary. It didn't do this by itself, there were other people that prayed and petitioned God. There was also a great earthquake in New England, of all places, that stirred, instigated, & provoked people toward repentance & the fear of God, but this great message, heralded by the great Jonathan Edwards, was the turning point. His revivalist successor too, Charles Finney, preached similar sermons catalyzing the 2nd great move of God in America.

Why Preach on Hell?

So why on earth, especially in light of what we've been taught and the clear lean of modern, progressive Christian teaching would a dry sermon about hell cause such a great and lasting cleansing of hearts? Could not a rosy presentation about grace or love suffice? It's because, I think, grace and short-sighted views of God's love could not break a Godless people from their ways like the prospect of wrath and consequence. Ultimately, what people needed and what they need today is the Fear of God, as Pastor Brian has been preaching for some time now.

"The fear of the Lord is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding." Job 28:28

The truth is, that in most churches today in America, Edwards would be booed off the stage, much like his 1st Great Awakening British counterpart, John Wesley. I can hear people saying things like "well, that was a doom and gloom message," or "that guy needs a revelation of God's love & grace." I say that because of what he preached he has a revelation of God's grace and love far greater than the person that would make that comment. He loved people enough to warn them. He risked being unpopular for the possibility of rescuing souls for eternity. He took serious the charge from Jude 1:23 of pulling (or snatching) the unbelievers (or unholy) out of the fire. Here's another thing: this sermon, linked in transcript and audio recording below, was entirely biblical and doctrinally sound. I'm no theologian (Edwards was), but I was unable to find error with Edwards' hour-long soliloquy, no matter how uneasy it made me feel or controversial it would seem with the present day as my context.

Its Unavoidable Fruit

We've lacked this revelation of hell in America for many decades. We've lived without it, and let's face it, we've lived without revival or any sustainable measure of holiness for a similar span of time. What we do have is porn addicts, a high divorce rate, & lovers of money. It's gratifying to say that we at Praise are an aberration to this trend, but the church at large deals with these horrific things, as if they're acceptable or inevitable. Sure, there have been pockets of outpourings and excitement, but they've been few and it's evidenced by the reports that fewer people are attending church and calling themselves Christians. Even fewer still believe in things like sanctification, holiness, or even the reality of hell. Rob Bell's "Love Wins," about which I wrote a Book Review, even looks to dismantle the truth of hell as a real place that's not merely an unsatisfactory holding tank.

In contrast, the way the 1st Great Awakening left America and the world is truly amazing. Its impact has been unrivaled. History textbooks try to hide this fact, but, as Leonard Ravenhill commented about Wesley's part:

"there has never been a revival that has superseded the Methodist revival...when God dropped a life call into that man [Wesley] he changed the character of the world...through the Methodist revival there was a purging, cleansing flame that went throughout the world." Of course, in many accounts, the "Methodist revival," and the 1st Great Awakening in America were nearly synonymous. Where Wesley affected the UK, Edwards, Whitefield, and others championed the Holiness Gospel in America and the gravity and sobriety around sin and hell. The point is that this great move of God, which started with an examination and exhortation about the consequence of hell, changed the moral climate of towns, regions, and countries.

So the question is, if Edwards, Wesley, Whitefield, Finney, and others were radicals that were missing out on grace and God's love, how and why did millions come to Christ and hundreds of thousands put on holiness under their watch, and we can't manage anything remotely close to that? I don't think our audiences are entirely different... today's public is just as ripe as they were then for the Gospel, perhaps even more. The reason, I think, is pretty obvious. We're missing this element, this key, essential, and even central part of Christian teaching and living. Eternity. Not just that, but what the Bible says about a) the fear of the Lord & b) hell, and who exactly goes there.

"There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God." Jonathan Edwards - 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.'

The Sermon Itself

It was said of the sermon that "many" times during the approximately 60-minute message that Edwards was interrupted by shouting, wailing, fainting, and panic-stricken inquiries like "what must I do to be saved!?" It's tough to say whether "many" means five or forty, but all accounts point to its reception being both dramatic and effective. Below are some points that especially struck me about the content of the message.

1. Edwards was articulate, yet not a great orator - but he WAS anointed

One facet of this commentary, albeit dry, somewhat redundant, and highly theological, is that it was very much anointed. It had conviction behind it, influence followed it, and it was, because of its fruit and square position with scripture, the stuff of God.

2. He was not incorrect

Throughout, Edwards exhaustively cited scripture and it was rare that a point was made without the support of a scripture reference, or two. Just because it's hard to swallow and a topic that does not make folks feel comfortable, does NOT mean it's untrue.

3. The idea that mercy is 'arbitrary'

Arbitrary is defined as "on a personal whim or choice, and not by way of system or reason." I just love Edwards' word choice in describing God's mercy here. We know through scripture that God's mercy is great (2nd Samuel 24:14), rich (Ephesians 2:4), redemptive (Titus 3:5), and His desire (Matthew 9:13). 'Reasonable' is not something that mercy truly is. It's also not planned, predetermined, deliberate, or devised. It's characteristic of God and even a gift of the Holy Spirit, but it's not rational. Edwards' point is that hell is so treacherous, abominable, and at the ready to swallow up the sinners and unholy, that it's merely by way of this arbitrary mercy, and NOT by any reasonable explanation, that this camp is not immediately handed over for death and destruction. As quoted above, Edwards states in his sermon that "there's nothing that keeps wicked men at any moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God." He also goes on to describe how the produce of the earth and its creatures and landscapes were not created for debauchery, [see below] and it's only God's hand that graciously keeps the floodgate closed, otherwise it would flow unrestrained and invoke wrath on these types. You could imagine the atmosphere in the churches where Edwards preached and the surrounding communities that caught wind of this message. People were undoubtedly frightened and sober after this frank presentation of eternity and convinced, in large numbers, to follow Jesus in word and deed.

"The sun does not willingly shine on you to serve sin & satan, the earth does not willingly yield her increase to satisfy your lusts, nor is it a stage for your wickedness to be acted upon." Jonathan Edwards - Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

4. Justice, in light of eternity

Justice is the short answer to why this all was preached and talked about at this time. It's the explanation for why wrath and judgment are even variables in this equation.

Edwards asks or implies a handful of questions in this sermon in lieu of justice, like...

  1. Is it just that God would defile heaven with willful sinners and unrepentant reprobates?

  2. Is it just that God would subject the angels & saints to the company of the unholy and profane in heaven?

  3. Is it just that God's creatures subserve for a purpose directly contrary to their nature?

These questions, admittedly, were not things that I had ever thought of and they proved revelatory to me. It would be uncharacterstic of God, and more specifically his justice, to permit such a thing in heaven, and as for point #3, allow such a thing to continue.. if it weren't for that arbitrary mercy.

He goes on to say this later in the sermon about justice:

'"Divine Justice says of the Tree that brings forth such Grapes of Sodom, Cut it down, why cumbreth it the Ground," Luke 13:7 (KJV) The Sword of divine Justice is every Moment brandished over their Heads, and 'tis nothing but the Hand of arbitrary Mercy, and God’s meer Will, that holds it back." Jonathan Edwards - Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

5. The Purpose - Awakening

The final thing to be considered is the reason with which Edwards preached this sermon. It wasn't to scare parishioners or add numbers, it was to cause an "awakening," as he put it. The goal was to awake any slumberers in his congregation but it quickly widened in scope and became famous in New England and beyond. And, written and spoken by Edwards while sharing this "application" to what he had said was this sobering warning: "this [ultimate destruction] that you have heard is the Case of every one of you that are out of Christ."

Again, this was not a popular thing to preach about then, nor is it a popular thing to preach on or discuss now, but it arguably was the primary and prevailing message that birthed the 1st & 2nd Great Awakenings. For this alone it deserves careful examination. The question then is, are we ready for it America? For the sake of all of us, I hope so.

- JF D'Orsie - Communications Director - PCC

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