On 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 regarding 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.
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.