I’ll never forget a very special evening with a small group of Christ-followers at the McLean home. My good friend, Don suggested that we read Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards in one sitting – on our knees. And so a group of middle-aged adults gathered in Don’s living room alongside several children (whose knees were much more nimble) – and we read Edward’s classic sermon – on our knees. It is a moment I will not soon forget. We were humbled. We were drawn into the very presence of God. And like the 18th-century congregation in Enfield – we were cut to the quick.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is not only one of the most well-known sermons in American history; it is one of the most powerful sermons every preached on American soil. In one sermon, the Puritan divine highlights both the awesome wrath of a holy God and the matchless grace of Jesus Christ.
This is a sermon which has received a fair amount of criticism over the years. It is maligned and caricatured. Often found on a list of required reading for college English courses, the sermon is mocked for its candid language and scary images. Many readers simply cannot stomach the God that Edwards presents or submit to the God that Edwards loves and serves.
The sermon is derived from Deuteronomy 32:35 – “Their foot shall slide in due time.” The doctrine that Edwards sets forth is simple: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” This doctrine is undergirded by ten propositions:
1. There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment.
2. They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God’s using his power at any moment to destroy them.
3. They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell.
4. They are not the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell: “The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow.
5. The devil stands ready to fall upon them, and seize them as his own, at what moment God shall permit him.
6. There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire, if it were not for God’s restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell.
7. It is no security to wicked men for one moment, that there are no visible means of death at hand.
8. Natural men’s prudence and care to preserve their own lives, or the care of others to preserve them, do not secure them a moment.
9. All wicked men’s pains and contrivance which they use to escape hell, while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked men, do not secure them from hell one moment.
10. God has laid himself under no obligation, by any promise, to keep any natural man out of hell one moment.
Edwards concludes with a strong application which is meant to awaken sinners and flee from the wrath of God. Readers are faced with a momentous decision as Edward alerts them to the painful reality of God’s wrath: “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; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.”
Readers are challenged to take advantage of “the door of mercy wide open” which beckons them to receive the grace of God in Christ. Edwards concluding words leave sinners with an important decision; the most decision they will ever make: “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.”
The “flag” of tolerance is flying in America. The “flag” of relativism has been unfurled in this land. The “flag” of compromise flies high and is accepted, even within the church. Indeed, a God-dishonoring “flag” celebrating homosexuality was unveiled at Safeco Field in Seattle a few days ago. Jonathan Edwards raises his “flag” higher and reminds sinners (homosexuals and heterosexuals alike) that God will not tolerate their sin. God hates their sin. And this great God offers mercy and forgiveness for anyone who repents and believes in the Lord Jesus Christ!