Are You Going to Hell?

220px-Jonathan_Edwards_engravingOn July 8 1741, Jonathan Edwards delivered that iconic sermon for which he is best known – “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” – in the church at Enfield, Connecticut.  Even though he had delivered the sermon earlier in his church in Northampton with no response, over 500 people were converted that day, and it became a notable thread in the revival fabric of the Awakening.

Today, the sermon is looked at almost as a museum piece, and is typically used to demonstrate the Puritan theological ideal.  Granted, the language of the sermon is pointed in that it portrays God as a judge whose wrath is about to be loosened on sinners.  For example,

So that thus it is, that natural men are held in the hand of God over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold ’em up one moment; the devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out; and they have no interest in any mediator, there are no means within reach that can be any security to them. In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of, all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted unobliged forbearance of an incensed God.

Edwards language, while it is terse, is truthful.  The wrath of God toward sinners is scriptural, and God’s justice OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAregarding the unrighteous is a legitimate description.  The problem is, in contemporary times, God’s judgement and wrath are not popular topics, nor is it politically correct to settle on that sort of thing while preaching, at least not to the extent that Edwards does.

If Edwards is thought of, though, as a grumpy Puritan who majors on judgement and sin, then we’re wrong.  Yes, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was focused in its description of God’s anger towards sin, but it did provide relief at the end and gives the opportunity to respond.  Later, Edwards says,

And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has flung the door of mercy wide open, and stands in the door calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God; many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are in now an happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him that has loved them and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God.

jonathan-edwards-sermonWhether we hear it preached from our churches today or not, the message Edwards preached is still true.  The points are the same, and the foundation for his words is the same Scripture we read today.

1.  We are sinners.  Daily, we choose to do things that are contrary to God’s designs for us and this world.

2.  God is holy and righteous.  And, if he is so, he cannot help but respond to sin with justice.  You can be sure that sin will be punished.

3.  Jesus’ death on the cross, in all its despicable, horribleness, was the punishment for our sin.  God’s justice, his wrath, was poured out on Christ because of your sin and mine.

4.  Our repentance – acknowledging that we are sinners and turning away from that behavior – and professing faith in Jesus Christ will remove our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west.”  They are no more.

Edwards was bold in his preaching.  He spoke truth.  Don’t dismiss it as a puritanical fire-and-brimstone anachronism that is no longer part of this culture.   Embrace it and be thankful the door of mercy has been flung open wide.

7 Comments

Filed under Commentary, Theology

7 responses to “Are You Going to Hell?

  1. Pjmoore

    Good message for all of us to be reminded of. Thanks for giving us something to think about today…….God’s mercy. Have a good day.

  2. I think it’s very strange that Edwards should dwell on the wrath of God in his sermon. It is equally strange if today’s preachers talk much about judgement.

    You know why I think it is so strange? Because when Paul and Peter preached the gospel to Jews and Gentiles they hardly talked about God’s wrath, judgement and damnation of hell.

    And as I have seen in the Bible, Jesus is not pictured as leaving the door of mercy wide open and waiting for sinners to come before it is too late. But in his own words he “has come to SEEK and to SAVE that which was lost”.

    • Thank for taking the time to read my thoughts and stopping by my blog. I’m glad you’ve taken the time to comment and give me your thoughts regarding Edwards’ sermon and God’s character as judge. I see your point, and I’d like to respond.

      As I said in the post, the Bible does speak of the character of God in regard to his wrath and justice, both in the Old Testament and New. In the Old Testament, Moses speaks of God and says, “All his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is he (Deut. 32:4). And even God says of himself, “I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right. (Isa. 45:19) Because God is righteous, it’s necessary that he treat people according to what they deserve. That means he punishes sin. Sin is wrong and contrary to God’s nature and can’t be rewarded. That’s why those who are saved are so grateful for God’s mercy through Christ – we receive forgiveness, not the wrath we deserve.

      Peter and Paul did preach about God’s wrath to the Jews and Gentiles, so I’ll have to respectfully disagree with you there. In Romans 1, the last half of that chapter states, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Paul speaks of God’s wrath (and righteousness) many times throughout Romans and in his other NT writings. And Peter, in the Book of Acts, preaches that he is a witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and he goes on to call everyone listening to “repent”. From what? Punishment for their sin, also known as God’s wrath.

      Edwards’ analogy of Christ standing at the door, having flung it open, is the imagery he used to say the same thing you’re saying, that Christ came “to SEEK and SAVE”. He also tells us to “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”

      I hope my response helps explain, in some way, my comments regarding Edwards’ sermon. Please continue reading, and certainly respond, for “iron sharpens iron.”

      • Dear Mark Moore,

        I am impressed with your cool and very sincere reply to my comments. I would also like to thank you for your openness and invitation for more discussion. Other people with whom I discussed the same topic have usually been offended and resisted further questions. Perhaps that has to do with some weakness in the way I tried to engage them. But I am truly relieved that you were not offended with my comments.

        I fully agree with you that “the Bible does speak of the character of God in regard to his wrath and justice, both in the Old Testament and New”. He is the Lord, the Lord… who forgives iniquity but by no means clears the guilty, as He said to Moses.

        I am not trying to be argumentative and I am not doing some hair-splitting, but I want to add a little explanation on my statement that Paul and Peter hardly spoke of judgment when they were preaching the gospel to Jews and gentiles.

        As you said Paul did speak of judgment and God’s wrath in his letters and so did Peter. But we know that the letters of both Paul and Peter were addressed to Christians. Letter to the Romans were written to believers in Rome, Ephesians to believers in Ephesus and so on and so forth. Peter addressed his letter “to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia”. These letters were not sent to unbelievers unlike the sermons recorded in Acts. Therefore, any discussion of judgment contained in the epistles was not intended for the unconverted.

        The point I want to make is that the letters and the public sermons were different and had different purposes and were intended for different audiences. The gospel of salvation was preached in public to Jews and Gentiles as recorded in the Book of Acts. This was addressed always to those who had not believed in Jesus Christ. Notice that in those public proclamations of the good news, the subject of judgment was not discussed in as much detail as it was in Romans 1 or in the book of Peter.

        Notice that when Peter on the day of Pentecost delivered his first sermon to the crowd of three thousand plus people, he told them that that they were guilty of putting Jesus to death. The people were aware of their guilt. But, unlike Jonathan Edwards, Peter did not scare them with impending doom. God was not holding them over the fiery pit as Edwards would have his listeners believe. Consider also Paul’s sermon to the Greeks in Acts 17. Instead of warning them about the fearful judgment that would fall upon them because of their idolatry, Paul simply told them that they were the offspring of God and seeing that they were so, it was foolish of them to liken the creator to the similitude of birds or four-footed creatures.

        I mean, warning against rejection of the gospel was not part of the good news first century Christians preached to the unconverted. The message was, “Repent and your sins will be forgiven”. Repent because God has shown that He loves you by laying down His only Son for you. The would-be believers were not told that through repentance they were escaping the wrath of God. There was not so much emphasis on judgment and wrath when the gospel was preached to unbelievers. The song of the angels who visited shepherds the night Christ was born was simply “good news of great joy” and no warning was added for those who would reject the good news. Why did Jonathan Edwards have to preach so differently from Peter and Paul?

        But in the epistles, which are clearly intended for the edification of the church, judgment and wrath are discussed at length. One of the reasons might be because “judgment begins from the house of God,” as Peter says in his letters.

        Regarding the unbeliever, in the very book Paul speaks about the severity of God’s wrath upon unrighteousness, he says that it is the goodness of God that leads the sinner to repentance (Romans 2). First, the message of God’s goodness draws the sinner to God. After he becomes part of the body of Christ, the epistles give him more knowledge of what he was saved from. They tell him, “You were a child of wrath.” But God because of His great love saved you from wrath “You were dead in your sins, but God has raised you up together with Christ” (Ephesians 2). Then, as you wrote, “That’s why those who are saved are so grateful for God’s mercy through Christ – we receive forgiveness, not the wrath we deserve”.

        I read some years ago that when John Wesley (1703-1791) was preaching to noble men in England on the “ye brood of vipers…” message. When the sermon was someone told John that he should have preached that sermon to those in jail. But John replied that to those in jail he would have preached, “Behold the lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world’”.

        Judgment in the book of Romans

        One more point I would like you to think about is that the warning about judgment is no help to the unbeliever. According to the Bible, especially the New Testament, the unbeliever is not in danger of death, or in danger of judgment. The unbeliever is already dead. We ourselves were “dead in our sins and trespasses” (Ephesians 2). What the sinner needs is the news that God has laid his sins upon Christ.

        Romans 1, the way I understand it, is a premise for the conclusion Paul makes in chapter 3. In chapter 1 he shows that Gentiles are proven sinners by the law in their conscience. And Jews are proven guilty by the law they received at Mt Sinai. Therefore, chapter 3 concludes, “there is no difference, for all have sinned”. Both of them, Jews and Gentiles, will be justified by faith in Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is not of the law.

        I believe I will learn from your reply to my reply and I am eager to read what you think of the points I raised here.

  3. I am a big fan of Edwards’ sermon as a piece of literature, and it is actually one of my favorite selections to teach in my American literature class. The rhetoric is full of figurative language ripe for analysis. The preacher’s delivery, which was stone cold and monotone rather than flamboyant and loud, also makes for great discussion regarding the emphasis of substance over style. As an attempt at evangelism, however, I think the sermon falls pretty flat–save the ending. 500 people may claimed to have converted that day, but I remain skeptical of their sincerity. You need to remember that Jonathan Edwards (and other Puritan preachers) would often call out members of the congregation, particularly those he believed to be unsaved, by name in a service, humiliating them in front of their friends, families, and peers. Is it possible many claimed their conversion simply to avoid being humiliated? I think so. But either way, it is not Edwards who converted anyone; only God can convict people and change hearts. I doubt a truly loving God would attempt (or need) to do so through fear tactics and intimidation–not when the power of love is so much stronger than the power of fear.

    Do some folks need to be scared straight? Maybe. But I don’t think anyone ever needs to be scared or coerced into accepting a precious gift–and if that is what it takes, I might argue that the person didn’t really “accept” the gift at all. Accepting is a genuine, voluntary act, much different from an agreement made under duress.

    • J.

      Great to hear from you! I’ve missed reading your blog, but I’m sure you’ve been busy with classes starting. I do hope you’ll post more often…you make me pause and think!!

      Glad to hear you’re a fan of Edwards. I think many people are exposed to Edwards by this singular entry point and, as a result, may have misconceptions about him. But, as an exercise in your class, you may want to compare Edwards’ sermon with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Both rely on imagery heavily, and it would be especially poignant with the 50th anniversary yesterday.

      Anyway…

      I wasn’t aware of the practice of Puritan preachers calling congregants out by name. In all my preparation for this class, I’ve not come across that. I think it’s a valid point to make, though, and fitting with the religious culture of that time. Puritans wanted to establish the colonies as a “city on a hill” and held settlers accountable. Church attendance was a requirement, and absence was a punishable offense. There was such a close relationship between religious and civic structures that it could almost be labeled a theocracy. But, that ended long before Edwards arrived on the scene!

      The Awakening started in 1740, due in large part to George Whitefield, whose preaching style was unorthodox. So much so that Edwards’ wife, after hearing Whitefield, implored Jonathan to imitate him (which he did). many, many people were being converted; yet, there was one little church that seemed to be unaffected by the revival spirit, and that was the church in Enfield. Edwards was a “hired gun” (not uncommon then, or now) to preach to the congregation in the hopes that a fresh perspective would open their ears. Apparently, it worked!

      I agree with your statement that it was not Edwards, but God who initiates conversion. You are well aware of my feelings regarding the sovereignty of God in all matters, and I believe it is most evident in salvation. God is the one who saves, not the preachers. But, as scripture says, “…how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?”

      Fear is a significant emotion. I’ve blogged recently about that. I’m a firm believer, too, that there is a balance in our faith between intellect and emotion. Edwards and the revivalists were highly criticized for their efforts. The “Old Lights” felt religion was purely a thing of the mind and intellect and they, too, dismissed many of the conversions in the Awakening as “fits of heat” and without lasting effect. No doubt, some didn’t last. But, many did.

      I’ve used this illustration with my boys to explain sovereign grace: Suppose 10 people get pulled over for speeding. Five of those are given a warning, but five are given tickets. Is it fair? The five who received tickets got what they deserved; the five who were let go received grace. God is like that. Yes, he is a loving God – a God of grace and mercy. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, righteousness is imputed to those who believe. Yet, he’s also a God of wrath. Those who are unrighteous will be punished. If God did not punish the unrighteous, he wouldn’t be a holy, righteous God. That’s why we gather to worship on Sundays…to respond with thankfulness that we have received mercy, not wrath.

      Sorry for the long response, but I do enjoy discussing these things with you. Perhaps it would be better done with a hotdog and beverage at a Braves game!

  4. Hey dear brothers,

    there are a lot of ppl who are confused on such issue. Many Christians believe there is a hell, but a few are saying the Bible doesn’t say so. So you better make your argument based on Bible as Bible is the only book that reconcile us. God bless you all.

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