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Sinners in the Hands of a Gracious God

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Editor’s note: When I heard this message at Dallas Seminary’s Chafer Chapel in October 2003, I asked Dr. Kreider if we could post it on the Biblical Studies Foundation website. I was delighted when he agreed.
--Daniel B. Wallace, January 1, 2004

The name “Jonathan Edwards” triggers in the minds of many Americans, if there is any recognition at all, the memory of a high school or college literature course.1 Most likely, the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was part of the body of material studied from the American colonial period. “Sinners” is probably the most famous sermon ever preached in America and most anthologies of American literature include at least an excerpt from this work. 2 For many people, this sermon is all that they know about the eighteenth century New England pastor Jonathan Edwards.

Critics of Edwards and the Puritans find this sermon an appalling example of all that is wrong with Calvinism and Puritan theology.3 After all, what could be more offensive than a God who takes pleasure in the destruction of the wicked? Most anthologies of American literature perpetuate this stereotype by quoting the most graphic and striking imagery of the sermon, often without much context.4 One writer comments that this sermon begins “as an attempt to awaken the unconverted” but “quickly subverts the intention of its author and becomes a sermon about self-pity and despair.”5 He concludes, “In this sermon Edwards leads us to the heart of Calvinism, yet in leading us there he (unwittingly?) subverts his own intentions. By choosing the spider as an image for Calvinism, Edwards allows the spider to ‘deconstruct’ it. The spider becomes our guide not only to the intentions of Calvinism but to its problems as well. ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ becomes a sermon about helplessness and hopelessness in which we find ourselves pitying the spider and hating God.”6

Even those who are sympathetic towards Edwards and his theology sometimes appear to be embarrassed by this sermon. Some of Edwards’s supporters rationalize that “Sinners” is not typical of Edwards’s sermons, that although he did preach on hell and judgment, this was not a major theme of his preaching, and the language of most of his sermons was less explicit, graphic, and harsh.7 A more accurate assessment comes from the editors of a recent volume of Edwards’s sermons. “If Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God distorts the larger issue when taken alone, it clearly belongs in any representation of Edwards’s work for the sheer power of its imagery. Who can resist trembling before the frightening image of sinners dangled by a vengeful God like loathsome spiders over flames, or of treading on a paper-thin, rotting canvas, not knowing at what moment you might plunge into the abyss and face a just and judging God? The words echo through time in their haunting description of the plight of the damned.”8 The language of the sermon is intentionally graphic, functioning as “a homiletical slap in the face to get the attention of those who have no sense of their investment in religion or have otherwise shown themselves ‘sermon proof.’ ”9

In his excellent recent biography of Jonathan Edwards, George Marsden writes: “In its subject, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God was not unusual either for Edwards or for New England preaching. Preaching on hell was a routine part of covering the full range of Gospel topics, and other sermons were more lurid in depicting hell’s agonies.”10 Similarly, Wilson Kimnach concludes that “comparison with other examples of that genre [hellfire sermons] among Edwards’ sermons reveals that Sinners is not even a proper ‘hellfire’ sermon, let alone the best.”11

Marsden’s evaluation of Edwards’s sermon includes a pointed application to modern-day Christianity. “In Sinners Edwards took hell and its agonies for granted as realities proven by Scripture and confirmed by reason. To be sure, some eighteenth-century people did doubt traditional views of hell, even in New England. Yet Edwards spoke to his audience as though such a denial were not an intellectual option. That he would do so is itself revealing. It suggests how immense the gulf of assumptions is that separates most modern readers from the world of the original auditors. Few today, including many who affirm traditional Christian doctrines, have the sympathies to take seriously some of these deepest sensibilities of ordinary eighteenth-century colonials.”12

Although this sermon was delivered to Edwards’s congregation in Northampton in June 1741, it is forever remembered for its effect on the congregation in the frontier town of Enfield, Connecticut, on Wednesday, 8 July 1741.13 An eyewitness described an audience so moved by the sermon that people moaned, shrieked, and cried out for salvation while the preacher was speaking.14 Apparently the reaction was so strong that Edwards was unable to finish the sermon, “possibly the only time such an interruption had happened to him except for the day several years earlier when the gallery of the old Northampton meetinghouse fell.”15

This paper is one more reexamination of Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I have two major goals. First, studying this sermon should lead us to a clearer understanding of the character of Edwards’s God. Although the sermon does describe God as angry and his anger is particularly directed toward sinners, we must not ignore the other major category of divine attributes Edwards emphasizes.16 In fact, the characteristics of God most in view in this sermon are his grace, mercy, compassion, patience, and love. Rather than a God who takes pleasure in the destruction of sinners, we will see that Edwards believed that it was because of God’s grace, what he calls “mere pleasure,” that sinners were not yet destroyed, and he pleaded with his audience to respond to God’s grace in faith and repentance.17 Edwards’s God is an angry God, he justly detests sin and sinners. But Edwards’s God is a loving and gracious God, and that he has not destroyed the sinners under his wrath is, for Edwards, compelling evidence of God’s gracious character. Marsden says it well: “Being in the hands of God means for the moment you are being kept from burning in hell as you deserve. God in his amazing long-suffering is still giving you a chance; his hand is keeping you from falling.”18

Second, that Edwards believed in a place of eternal punishment for the wicked is plain, from this sermon and other writings. Less clear is Edwards’s understanding of the nature of the place of eternal destruction. He is often used, positively and negatively, as an historical example of one who believed in hell as a place of fire. 19 Since he uses a number of other imagery to describe this place, we should be cautious about linking him to one view of the nature of hell. Perhaps his use of multiple images of hell’s horror emphasizes the horror of the destruction awaiting the wicked, in a way no single metaphor could.20

“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”

The Biblical Text for the Sermon

Jonathan Edwards’s sermons generally follow the typical Puritan three part structure, and this one is no exception.21 “Sinners” begins with a biblical text which the preacher interprets and explains within its context. In the second section of the sermon, Edwards articulates a statement of doctrine developed from the biblical text, followed by rationale and reasons to support it. Third, the preacher then applies the sermon to his audience.22 In “Sinners,” the bulk of the sermon is devoted to the application or use of the sermon.23

The biblical text for this sermon is Deuteronomy 32:35: “Their foot shall slide in due time.”24 Edwards’s exposition of the text is very brief. He does not explain the context of this verse. In fact, he does not even indicate that he has selected only one phrase from the verse, which is part of a song of Moses (cf. Deut 31:30). He perhaps knows his audience well enough to know that they are so familiar with the biblical text that he can select this one phrase about impending judgment and develop a theological sermon around that concept. He does, however, remind the congregation that this text threatens God’s vengeance on unbelieving Israelites.

He then enumerates several implications of this text: that the Israelites “were always exposed to destruction,” that they “were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction,” that they “are liable to fall of themselves,” and “that the reason why they are not fallen already, and don’t fall now, is only that God’s appointed time is not come.”25 When their appointed time for destruction comes, “Then they shall be left to fall as they are inclined by their own weight. God won’t hold them up in these slippery places any longer, but will let them go; and then, at that very instant, they shall fall into destruction; as he that stands in such slippery declining ground on the edge of a pit that he can’t stand alone, when he is let go he immediately falls and is lost.”26

Thus, the current role of God in the punishment of the wicked, according to Edwards, is to protect them, to keep them safe, to prevent their destruction, until some later, as yet undefined, point. At that time, God will release the wicked so that they will experience that which is justly deserved, eternal destruction.

The Doctrine of the Sermon

From the text, read with the implications listed above, Edwards articulates this doctrine: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”27 By “mere pleasure,” Edwards explains, he means God’s “sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God’s mere will had in the least degree, or in any respect whatsoever, any hand in the preservation of wicked men one moment.”28 In other words, the doctrine emphasizes that God is active not in sending the wicked into the place of punishment or in bringing judgment upon them. Rather, God’s active role in the judgment of the wicked is to keep them from experiencing this punishment and this is due not to anything in the wicked but only the grace of a merciful and sovereign God.

Edwards provides a list of theological reasons to support the claim that it is God’s mere pleasure that keeps the wicked out of hell. God’s power is not limited. If he wanted to cast the wicked into hell he has sufficient power to accomplish his will. The wicked deserve hell, so God’s justice is not the reason for withholding their destruction. The wicked are already condemned, the righteous judge has already pronounced them guilty. The wicked are now under God’s anger. He will not become angrier with them in hell than he is already now angry with them. Thus, their being kept out of hell is not a sign that God’s anger toward them is not yet sufficient or complete. Edwards explains, “The very reason why they don’t go down to hell at each moment, is not because God, in whose power they are, is not then very angry with them; as angry as he is with many of those miserable creatures that he is now tormenting in hell, and do there feel and bear the fierceness of his wrath. Yea, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth, yea, doubtless with many that are now in this congregation, that it may be are at ease and quiet, than he is with many of those that are now in the flames of hell.”29 Further, the devil is prepared to receive the wicked, as soon as God will permit him. The fires of hell are already burning in the souls of the wicked. It is only the restraint of God which keeps those “hellish principles” from kindling and flaming into hellfire.30

The wicked should not presume to be safe because “there are no visible means of death at hand.”31 There is nothing that provides security, not even the natural human desire for self-preservation. All the contriving and scheming of the wicked to escape hell, apart from Christ, are doomed to failure. God is under no obligation to prolong the life of any wicked person for one instant.

In summary, Edwards concludes:

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.32

The Application of the Sermon

Edwards quickly moves to the application or use of this sermon. It is almost startling to see how brief his exposition of Scripture and defense of the doctrine is. It is apparent that he wants to devote sufficient time and space to making application for his congregation. If it is merely the grace of a sovereign God which keeps the wicked from their just punishment in hell, how ought they to respond?

Another of the atypical characteristics of this sermon is that Edwards’s application is generally directed to two groups in his audience.33 He usually devotes significant attention to the implications of the sermon for the righteous or godly hearers as well as the implications for the unrighteous or the wicked. This sermon contains no explicit application for the righteous. Edwards lists an extended series of exhortations directed to the unregenerate. But this sermon only has one application: “The use may be of awakening to unconverted persons in this congregation. This that you have heard is the case of every one of you that are out of Christ.”34

Lest there be any chance of missing his point, Edwards begins the application with a graphic description of the state of all those who are not in Christ. “That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone is extended under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor anything to take hold of: there is nothing between you and hell but the air; ’tis only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.”35 For Edwards, God’s providential care of his creatures is comprehensive, even for the unregenerate, all of whom are largely unaware of God’s mercy and grace. “You probably are not sensible of this; you find you are kept out of hell, but don’t see the hand of God in it, but look at other things, as the good state of your bodily constitution, your care of your own life, and the means you use for your own preservation. But indeed these things are nothing; if God should withdraw his hand, they would avail no more to keep you from falling, than the thin air to hold up a person that is suspended in it.”36

Throughout the application section of the sermon, Edwards describes the terrible wrath of God in powerful pictures. He portrays the horrors of hell and the impending doom of the wicked in graphic terms, using several different metaphors. What must not be overlooked, however, is the consistent prominence of God’s grace in these descriptions.37 The metaphors vary; the emphasis on God’s grace remains constant.

Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf, and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock. Were it not that so is the sovereign pleasure of God, the earth would not bear you one moment; for you are a burden to it; the creation groans with you; the creature is made subject to the bondage of your corruption, not willingly; the sun don’t willingly shine upon you to give you light to serve sin and Satan; the earth don’t willingly yield her increase to satisfy your lusts; nor is it willingly a stage for your wickedness to be acted upon; the air don’t willingly serve you for breath to maintain the flame of life in your vitals, while you spend your life in the service of God’s enemies. God’s creatures are good, and were made for man to serve God with, and don’t willingly subserve to any other purpose, and groan when they are abused to purposes so directly contrary to their nature and end. And the world would spew you out, were it not for the sovereign hand of him who had subjected it in hope. These are the black clouds of God’s wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm, and big with thunder; and were it not for the restraining hand of God it would immediately burst forth upon you. The sovereign pleasure of God for the present stays his rough wind; otherwise it would come with fury, and your destruction would come like a whirlwind, and you would be like the chaff of the summer threshing floor.38

One might, perhaps, argue that the picture of a violent storm as the destruction of the wicked is not inconsistent with a lake of fire as their eternal destiny. Perhaps what precedes the fire is a terrible storm, or perhaps there is both a raging thunderstorm and burning lake of fire, or perhaps the fire is a result of a lightening strike, but it seems more likely that Edwards is using two different metaphors for destruction. Further, he describes hell as a bottomless pit, which seems to be a different analogy than either fire or storm. The interpreter need not find some way to make the metaphors fit together. Rather, it seems better to recognize that the preacher is stressing the horror of the destruction which is, apart from the sovereign pleasure of God, imminently threatening the wicked.

Edwards continues with another metaphor for divine destruction, one which is even more difficult to reconcile with the description of hell as a bottomless pit of fire.

The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given, and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose. ’Tis true, that judgment against your evil works has not been executed hitherto; the floods of God’s vengeance have been withheld; but your guilt in the meantime is constantly increasing, and you are every day treasuring up more wrath; the waters are continually rising and waxing more and more mighty; and there is nothing but the mere pleasure of God that holds the waters back that are unwilling to be stopped, and press hard to go forward; if God should only withdraw his hand from the floodgate, it would immediately fly open, and the fiery floods of the fierceness and wrath of God would rush forth with inconceivable fury, and would come upon you with omnipotent power; and if your strength were ten thousand times greater than it is, yea ten thousand times greater than the strength of the stoutest, sturdiest devil in hell, it would be nothing to withstand or endure it.39

To the imagery of a lake of fire, a bottomless pit, a violent wind storm, and a tidal wave of destruction, Edwards adds another graphic picture of the impending destruction of the wicked. “The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow at one moment from being drunk with your blood.”40

Again, it seems unnecessary, and perhaps not even possible, to treat these images of destruction as synonyms or as overlapping pictures of the reality of divine judgment. Rather, this master communicator clearly appears to be using a variety of metaphors to stress the horrors of the destiny of the wicked, not intending to describe the actual nature of that destruction. One might even surmise from the multiple metaphors that Edwards finds the language itself limiting, that hell is much worse than any of the analogies he can find in the natural world. That it is horrible and perhaps even too horrible for words seems to be his penultimate point. Ultimately, however, the sermon stresses the grace of God who, for reasons known only to him, has to this point kept the wicked from experiencing this horrible destruction which they deserve.

Without question, the most famous section of the sermon is the comparison Edwards makes between God’s treatment of the sinner and a schoolboy dangling a spider over a fire. This passage is often read by critics of Edwards as if God is pictured as a cruel and sadistic child taking perverse pleasure in the torture of a helpless insect. That is certainly to push the analogy too far, to fail to understand the literary use of the figure, to launch the interpretation past the edge of propriety. But, more significantly, it is to miss the clear declaration of divine grace even here. That the sinner has not yet fallen into the fire of hell, which he justly deserves, is due only to the mere pleasure of a sovereign and gracious God.

Here is the passage:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet ’tis nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment: ’tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep: there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up: there is no other reason to be given why you han’t gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship: yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you don’t this very moment drop down into hell.41

In this description of the fate of the wicked, Edwards again mixes two metaphors, a bottomless pit and a fiery furnace, when he continues,

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: ’tis a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against any of the damned in hell: you hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing around it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.42

Here again, God’s role is graciously to preserve life. The sinner is justly under God’s wrath and it is only due to his mercy, not because of anything in the sinner, that the life of the wicked person is preserved.

The critics of Edwards are correct in noting that he stresses the fierceness and fury of the wrath of God. Without hesitation or apology, he argues from the lesser to the greater. If the wrath of earthly kings is to be dreaded, how much more the wrath of an infinite God, “the great and almighty Creator and King of heaven and earth?”43 The wrath of God is a terrible and terrifying thing, because it is the anger of an infinite Being. When God will pour out this wrath on the unregenerate, he will do so “without any pity,” with “no compassion, . . . he will not forbear the executions of his wrath, or in the least lighten his hand; there shall be no moderation or mercy, nor will God then at all stay his rough wind; he will have no regard to your welfare, nor be at all careful lest you should suffer too much, in any other sense than only that you shall not suffer beyond what strict justice requires: nothing shall be withheld, because it’s so hard for you to bear.”44 But even here, the description of the outpouring of God’s wrath in the future is used to emphasize his graciousness now. There is a limit to God’s compassion and mercy. The time is coming when it will be withheld and only his wrath will be poured out on the unregenerate. At the present time, however, God’s mercy is available and Edwards pleads for his congregation to respond to it. “Now God stands ready to pity you; this is a day of mercy: but when once the day of mercy is past, your most lamentable and dolorous cries and shrieks will be in vain; you will be wholly lost and thrown away of God as to any regard to your welfare; God will have no other use to put you to but only to suffer misery; you shall be continued in being to no other end; for you will be a vessel of wrath fitted to destruction; and there will be no other use of this vessel but only to be filled full of wrath: God will be so far from pitying you when you cry out to him, that ’tis said he will only laugh and mock.”45

The punishment awaiting the wicked is not simply the terrible wrath of an infinite God, but it is also an everlasting wrath. Edwards explains,

It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity: there will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery: when you look forward, you shall see a long forever, a boundless duration before you, which shall swallow up your thoughts and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all; you will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite.46

Edwards then shifts the emphasis of the sermon to a series of pleas for the audience to respond to God in faith and thus avoid the wrath of God which awaits them as long as they remain in their current unregenerate state. In this extended passage, the compassionate heart of the pastor is clearly heard. There is no hint of glee in speaking of hell. There is no flippancy in describing the punishment that awaits the wicked. There is no cold-hearted cruelty in his words. There is, rather, a tone of godly sorrow and compassion as he speaks what he knows to be the truth. When delivered originally to his church in Northampton, Edwards is addressing a congregation he knows very well and his pastoral heart is grieved as he looks over the audience.

How dreadful is the state of those that are daily and hourly in danger of this great wrath, and infinite misery! But this is the dismal case of every soul in this congregation; that has not been born again, however moral and strict, sober and religious they may otherwise be. Oh that you would consider it, whether you be young or old. There is reason to think, that there are many in this congregation now hearing this discourse, that will actually be the subjects of this very misery to all eternity. We know not who they are, or in what seats they sit, or what thoughts they now have: it may be they are now at ease, and hear all these things without much disturbance, and are now flattering themselves that they are not the persons, promising themselves that they shall escape. If we knew that there was one person, and but one, in the whole congregation that was to be the subject of this misery, what an awful thing would it be to think of! If we knew who it was, what an awful sight would it be to see such a person! How might all the rest of the congregation lift up a lamentable and bitter cry over him! But alas! Instead of one, how many is it likely will remember this discourse in hell? And it be a wonder if some that are now present, should not be in hell in a very short time, before this year is out. And it would be no wonder if some person that now sits here in some seat of this meetinghouse in health, and quiet and secure, should be there before tomorrow morning. Those of you that finally continue in a natural condition, that shall keep out of hell the longest, will be there in a little time! Your damnation don’t slumber; it will come swiftly, and in all probability very suddenly upon many of you. You have reason to wonder, that you are not already in hell. ’Tis doubtless the case of some that heretofore you have seen and known, that never deserved hell more than you, and that heretofore appeared as likely to have been now alive as you: their case is past all hope; they are crying in extreme misery and perfect despair; but here you are in the land of the living, and in the house of God, and have an opportunity to obtain salvation. What would not those poor damned, hopeless souls give for one day’s such opportunity as you now enjoy!47

The appeal continues with an emphasis on the provision God has made for mercy and a reminder of the blessings which are available.

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 for 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. How awful is it to be left behind at such a day! To see so many others feasting, while you are pining and perishing! To see so many rejoicing and singing for joy of heart, while you have cause to mourn for sorrow of heart, and howl for vexation of spirit! How can you rest one moment in such a condition?48

The evangelist appeals to those “that have lived long in the world,” to the “young men, and young women,” and even to “children that are unconverted.”49 His appeal to children is as strong and compassionate as to those who are older. “Don’t you know that you are going down to hell, to bear the dreadful wrath of that God that is now angry with you every day, and every night? Will you be content to be the children of the devil, when so many other children in the land are converted, and are become the holy and happy children of the King of Kings?”50

The sermon concludes with one final appeal to the audience.

And let everyone that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now hearken to the loud call of God’s Word and providence. This acceptable year of the Lord, that is a day of such great favor to some, will doubtless be a day of as remarkable vengeance to others. Men’s hearts will harden, and their guilt increases apace at such a day as this, if they neglect their souls: and never was there so great danger as such persons being given up to hardness of heart, and blindness of mind. God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the bigger part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time, and that it will be as it was on that great outpouring of the Spirit upon the Jews in the apostles’ days, the election will obtain, and the rest will be blinded. If this should be the case with you, you will eternally curse this day, and will curse the day that ever you was born, to see such a season of the pouring out of God’s Spirit; and will wish that you had died and gone to hell before you had seen it. Now undoubtedly it is, as it was in the days of John the Baptist: the ax is in an extraordinary manner laid at the root of the trees, that every tree that brings not forth good fruit, may be hewn down, and cast into the fire. Therefore, let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over great part of this congregation: let everyone fly out of Sodom: “Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed” [Gen. 19:17].51


Perhaps what makes this sermon most offensive to the ears of contemporary interpreters is not the language of impending destruction and not even that God is angry. But rather, it seems what is most distasteful in Edwards’s theology is the doctrine of original sin, that he would believe that human beings are born guilty of sin and deserving of divine wrath. Perhaps implicitly, the view of the universal goodness of humanity which permeates the world view of our day has also penetrated into evangelical theology as well. That all humans, including children, would be guilty of sin and therefore deserving of the wrath of God seems harsh and unfair to modern ears. To those ears, the constant refrain in Edwards’s sermon that God’s good pleasure and grace have been poured out on the wicked is not heard. Edwards’s God is angry but he has not yet acted upon that anger.  He has instead withheld the judgment from sinners which their sin deserves. But, even more amazing, he has graciously provided a gift of substitutionary atonement and has graciously afforded one more opportunity to permanently avoid the judgment that sinners deserve. To those of us who believe in the doctrine of original sin, as mysterious and difficult as it is to understand and accept, the doctrine of God’s good pleasure and grace is sweet music to our ears. That God withholds his wrath from any creature is good for all creatures. That God has graciously blessed us, in spite of our sin and rebellion, should cause us to erupt into a chorus of praise for God’s amazing grace.

1 An earlier version of this paper was delivered 1 October 2003 in the chapel at Dallas Theological Seminary, as part of a series honoring the tricentennial of the birth of Jonathan Edwards.

2 Most references to this sermon describe its fame. For one example, R. C. Sproul, “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners,” (Internet) accessed 25 August 2003, 1, describes Edwards’s sermon as “perhaps the most famous sermon ever preached in America.” Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney call it “possibly one of the most affecting sermons ever preached in the English language” (“Editors’ Introduction,” in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999], xxx).

One rival to this sermon’s stature as the most famous American sermon is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C., on 28 August 1963. King’s sermon is widely available both in anthologies and on the internet. One easily accessible source is (Internet) accessed 25 September 2003.

3 Stephen J. Nichols, Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 193-94, observes: “One has to look fairly hard to find an anthology of American literature that does not include this sermon. Typically, however, it gets marked as an easy target for those wishing to depict the Puritans as hell-bent prophets of gloom and doom.” Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 72, writes: “The ‘postmillennialist’ Jonathan Edwards, for example, while sometimes writing hopefully of Christianity’s advance on all fronts, could also—as in his sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’—picture the terrors of divine wrath in terms worthy of any premillennialist.”

4 Sproul’s comment is more pointed: “So scandalous is this vivid portrayal of unconverted man’s precarious state under the threat of hell that some modern analysts have called it utterly sadistic” (“God in the Hands of Angry Sinners,” 1).

5 E. Michael Jones, “Metaphysics as Tarbaby: Intention, Deconstruction, and Absolutes,” Center Journal 1 (Spring 1982): 15-16.

6 Jones, “Metaphysics,” 16.

7 For one example, see the review by Jason Foster, (Internet), accessed 10 December 2003. David Levin, “Jonathan Edwards,” in Encyclopedia of American Biography, ed. John A. Garraty (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 323, concludes that “Edwards’s powerful influence during the Great Awakening owed at least as much to his philosophical thought as to the few hellfire sermons with which his name has been traditionally associated.” Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3d ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 568, cites Edwards’s “Sinners” as a clear statement of the “static medieval view of hell.”

8 John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema, “Editors’ Introduction,” A Jonathan Edwards Reader, edited by John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), xvii. It should be noted, however, that these editors also observe that “Even in Sinners, the reader discovers that all is not lost. The pessimism of sin and an angry God is overcome by the comforting hope of salvation through a triumphant, loving Savior. Whenever Edwards preached terror, it was part of a larger campaign to turn sinners from their disastrous path and to the rightful object of their affections, Jesus Christ.” (xviii).

George Marsden explains the lack of Gospel emphasis in this sermon this way: “Edwards could take for granted, however, that a New England audience knew well that Gospel remedy. The problem was to get them to seek it” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003], 224).

9 Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney, “Editors’ Introduction,” in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, edited by Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), xvii. See also Kenneth P. Minkema, “Jonathan Edwards,” in The Oxford Companion to United States History, ed. Paul S. Boyer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 217. Minkema calls “Sinners” Edwards’s “most famous sermon . . . a rhetorical masterpiece illustrating the uncertainty of earthly existence.”

10 Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 221.

11 Wilson H. Kimnach, “General Introduction to the Sermons: Jonathan Edwards’ Art of Prophesying,” in Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses 1720-1723, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach, vol. 10 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 168. Kimnach cites “The Eternity of Hell’s Torments” and “The Future Punishment of the Wicked Unavoidable and Intolerable” as examples which “mark the distinction between a true hellfire sermon and the proto-eschatological formulation of Sinners, focused as it is upon the here and now.”

12 Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 221.

13 Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 219-24. In addition to these two occasions, Edwards also preached the sermon on 1 August 1741 at Hadley, and probably other times in addition to these three. See the editors’ comments in Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, and Kyle P. Farley, “Appendix: Dated Sermons,” in Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses 1739-1742, ed. Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, and Kyle P. Farley, vol. 22 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 546.

14 See the description in Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, and Kyle P. Farley, “Preface to the Period,” in Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses 1739-1742, 34.

15 Stout, Hatch, and Farley, “Preface to the Period,” 34.

16 John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), 362, accurately concludes of Edwards’s preaching: “Even his lurid warnings were uttered in compassion, and his object in all preaching was to lead sinners to grace.”

17 George Marsden describes “Sinners” as an “awakening sermon.” In Edwards’s view, “The seemingly inescapable biblical teaching of eternal punishment . . . could be a wonderful gift if people could be brought to stare into the fire. Only then could they begin to feel its meaning for them. Ironically, that terrifying vision would be the means God used to bring the joys of salvation” (Jonathan Edwards, 221).

18 Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 222.

19 For an example of an interpretation of Edwards’s sermon as indicating belief in hell as a “raging furnace of fire,” see William V. Crockett, “The Metaphorical View,” in Four Views on Hell, ed. William Crockett, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 48. Since Crockett does not discuss the other metaphors Edwards uses, it seems that his point is that Edwards believed in a “literal” view of hell. Ironically, Crockett’s “Metaphorical View” would perhaps be strengthened by the variety of metaphors Edwards uses.

Not surprisingly, in the same volume, Clark H. Pinnock finds Edwards’s view of hell offensive. He explains, “So it is not only God’s pleasure to torture the wicked everlastingly, but it will be the happiness of the saints to see and know that this is being faithfully done. Reading Edwards gives one the impression of people watching a cat trapped in a microwave squirm in agony, while taking delight in it. Thus will the saints in heaven, according to Edwards, consider the torments of the damned with pleasure and satisfaction.” (“The Conditional View,” in Four Views on Hell, 140). Pinnock’s reading of Edwards is indefensible. 

20 Again, Marsden notes that what makes this sermon so remarkable is that “Edwards employed so many images and addressed them so immediately to his hearers that they were left with no escape” (Jonathan Edwards, 222.)

21 On Edwards’s sermonizing see Kimnach, “Jonathan Edwards’ Art of Prophesying,” 1-258.

22 For a brief explanation of this sermon structure, see Kimnach, Minkema, and Sweeney, “Editors’ Introduction,” xiii.

23 That so much of the sermon is devoted to application is unusual for an Edwards’s sermon, but “Sinners” is not unique even in this way. For another example, see Edwards, “None Are Saved by Their Own Righteousness,” in Sermons and Discourses1723-1729, ed. Kenneth P. Minkema, vol. 14 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 332-56.

24 King James Version, the version of the Scriptures Edwards used.

25 Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in A Jonathan Edwards Reader, edited by John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 89-90. A testimony to the significance of the sermon is that it is also published in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, 49-65, and in Sermons and Discourses 1739-1742, 400-35. In this paper, the page numbers refer to the Jonathan Edwards Reader.

26 Edwards, “Sinners,” 90.

27 Edwards, “Sinners,” 90

28 Edwards, “Sinners,” 90

29 Edwards, “Sinners,” 91.

30 Edwards, “Sinners,” 92.

31 Edwards, “Sinners,” 93

32 Edwards, “Sinners,” 95.

33 For an example of another Edwards sermon where the application is “unbalanced,” see Jonathan Edwards, “Peaceable and Faithful Amid Division and Strife,” in Edwards, Sermons and Discourses 1734-1738, ed. M. X. Lesser, vol. 19 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 658-79. In “Peaceable and Faithful,” Edwards’s application is limited to the godly auditors.  See also my “Living Peaceably One with Another: An Exhortation from Jonathan Edwards to Live at Peace Amid Division and Strife,” The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth (forthcoming).

34 Edwards, “Sinners,” 95.

35 Edwards, “Sinners,” 95.

36 Edwards, “Sinners,” 95-96.

37 Stephen Nichols observes correctly: “For Edwards, the horrors of sin serve to magnify the grace of God; the condition of the wicked only serves to point the need for Christ’s mercy” (Jonathan Edwards, 204).

38 Edwards, “Sinners,” 96.

39 Edwards, “Sinners,” 96-97.

40 Edwards, “Sinners,” 97.

41 Edwards, “Sinners,” 97-98. It should not need to be noted that the comparison of God holding the wicked over the fire to someone holding a spider implicitly includes a significant contrast. God is not cruel and sadistic, tormenting the sinner by holding her feet to the fire. He has rather intervened to preserve the sinner from experiencing the punishment which she deserves.

42 Edwards, “Sinners,” 98.

43 Edwards, “Sinners,” 98-99.

44 Edwards, “Sinners,” 99-100.

45 Edwards, “Sinners,” 100. Edwards cites Prov 1:25-32 as biblical support for this claim.

46 Edwards, “Sinners,” 102.

47 Edwards, “Sinners,” 102-3.

48 Edwards, “Sinners,” 103.

49 Edwards, “Sinners,” 104.

50 Edwards, “Sinners,” 104.

51 Edwards, “Sinners,” 104-5.

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

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