Holy Love—Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

On July 8, 1741 Jonathan Edwards preached the famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” on the precipice of the 1st Great Awakening. The text from which he was preaching  is found in Deuteronomy 32:35 and it reads, “Their foot shall slide in due time.” The way in which Edwards describes God in this sermon is troubling to many, and I would argue that if they walk away with a troubled view of God, rather than the state of their soul, they have missed his point. However, it is easy to see how some can misinterpret Edwards when he uses illustrations such as these:

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 ofhell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock. 

And again,

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 one moment from being made drunk with your blood.

And again,

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 more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.

Taking into account sayings like these, it is easy to see why some have caricatured  Jonathan Edwards as a hell, fire, and brimstone preacher—as if some sense of pleasure arises in him because this fate awaits many. However, I will argue that this sermon is ultimately about God’s love, tender mercy, and compassion. It is ultimately about His abounding grace and His forbearance towards those who have greatly offended Him. He later says,

And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in 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…How can you rest one moment in such a condition?

And again,

When God beholds the ineffable extremity of your case, and sees your torment to be so vastly disproportioned to your strength, and sees how your poor soul is crushed, and sinks down, as it were, into an infinite gloom; he will have no compassion upon you, 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 is so hard for you to bear. Ezek. 8:18. “Therefore will I also deal in fury: mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity; and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet I will not hear them.” Now God stands ready to pity you; this is a day of mercy; you may cry now with some encouragement of obtaining mercy.

Ultimately, this sermon is not about God’s hatred toward sinners, although that is definitely present. It is about the reality that the only thing that keeps us from being launched into eternal damnation and separation from the Creator is His good pleasure. The God who has every right to not show pity toward rebels stands ready to show pity through the blood of His son.

Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let every one fly out of Sodom: “Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.

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