Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2017, 210 pp. $10.19
COMMENDING JONATHAN EDWARDS
I will 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 ever preached on American soil. In one sermon, the Puritan divine highlights both the awesome wrath of a holy God and the matchless grace and tenderhearted love of Jesus Christ.
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.”
Edwards concludes with a strong application which is meant to awaken sinners and flee from the wrath of God. Current readers (along with the original Enfield congregation) are faced with a momentous decision as Edwards warns them to the sobering 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. The concluding words of the sermon 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.”
CONDEMNING JONATHAN EDWARDS
The congregation in Enfield was humbled and mercifully drawn to the Savior as literally, thousands have since been Edwards first preached his sermon on July 8, 1741. But not everyone is eager to receive the biblical message that Edwards preaches. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God has received a fair amount of criticism over the years. It has been and continues to be 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.
Brian Zahnd’s new book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News is the latest thunderbolt against the Edwardsean vision of God. Zahnd argues that Edwards depicts God as a “sadistic juvenile dangling spiders over a fire.” He likens Edwards’s vision of hell to “the Almighty’s eternal Auschwitz.” And Edwards’s vision of God is compared to a “sadistic monster.”
Zahnd’s work is a best-selling release in the Christology category on Amazon. It has been highly touted by well-known authors. And it has received rave reviews on Amazon as readers are drawn to a softer version of God and a worldview which is miles away from Reformed theology. But does this popular book stand up to the scrutiny of Scripture? Does Mr. Zahnd’s critique of Reformed stalwarts like Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin have any merit? At least four major concerns surface in Mr. Zahnd’s book.
CONCERNS WITH SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF A LOVING GOD
The Portrait of God
The first concern is regarding the portrait of God. Readers will quickly discover that the portrait of God in this book is painted with a different kind of brush which renders an altogether different portrayal of God. What we find is a God utterly devoid of wrath. To be fair, Mr. Zahnd affirms the existence of God’s wrath and divine anger in Scripture but maintains these biblical realities are only metaphors, none of which are designed to be taken literally. And “liberalizing a divine metaphor,” according to Zahnd “always leads to error. We easily acknowledge that God is not literally a rock and not literally a hen, but we have tended to literalize the metaphor of divine anger.” But Zahnd confuses anthropomorphic language that attributes body parts to God or compares him to a rock or a hen or an eagle with the reality of God’s wrath. Instead of affirming the plain teaching of Scripture, Zahnd simply says, “God is not wrath.”
Once the author dispenses with any literal notion of God’s wrath, he is able to make the following sweeping statement about God’s character: “The revelation that God’s single disposition toward sinners remains one of unconditional love does not mean we are exempt from the consequences of going against the grain of love. When we live against the grain of love we suffer the cards of self-inflicted suffering. This is the ‘wrath of God.’”
So instead of facing God’s all-consuming wrath, unrepentant sinners are merely enduring a season of “self-inflicted suffering.” Time does not permit a detailed examination of the myriad of passages that point to God’s wrath. But notice, for example, a holy God’s response to sin in Psalm 5:5-7.
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.
R.C. Sproul helps dismantle the idea that God loves all sinners unconditionally:
I can think of no more pernicious lie to destroy people’s souls than this, which some preachers are spreading around the world: God loves you unconditionally. No, he does not. If we do not meet the conditions that he established for us in creation, then God will send us to hell forever. That is what the Bible says, even though the culture does not. He requires perfect obedience. Unless that condition is met, none of us will ever step inside the courts of heaven. Unless the terms of the covenant of creation are kept perfectly, we will rendezvous in hell, where we justly belong because of our disobedience.
God’s response to sin in Psalm 5:5-7 may sound severe to the typical postmodern ear. But the Scriptural reality of God’s wrath stands. Despite the overwhelming biblical evidence, though, Zahnd categorically rejects the wrath of God. He argues, “You have nothing to fear from God. God is not mad at you. God is never going to be mad at you.”
“The true biblical test of any theology,” writes Stephen Wellum, “is whether it accounts for all of the biblical data.” While a few select passages that concern God’s wrath are selected from the Old Testament in Zahand’s work (and ultimately explained away as “metaphors”), the New Testament reality of God’s wrath is simply set aside. Passages such as Matthew 3:7; John 3:36; Romans 1:18-19; 2:5; 5:9 and Colossians 3:6 are strangely missing. One wonders how 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 would be explained in a book that discounts the wrath of God:
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed because our testimony to you was believed.
A.W. Tozer was deeply concerned about views concerning God that failed to match the teaching of Scripture. He writes, “It is my opinion that the Christian conception of God current in these middle years of the twentieth century is so decadent as to be utterly beneath the dignity of the Most High God and actually to constitute for professed believers something amounting to a moral calamity.” The pattern that Tozer identified in those days continues in our day, even among people who bear the name of Christ. That pattern is repeated in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.
The Prescription for Forgiveness
Like many other popular pastors and teachers, Zahnd repudiates penal substitutionary atonement. Influenced by Jürgen Moltmann’s, Crucified God, the author makes these general assertions:
- “The cross is many things, but it is not a quid pro quo to mollify an angry God.”
- “Yes, it was a murder that God knew would happen – because of our addiction to sin and violence – but God’s foreknowledge of this killing doesn’t mean that it was God’s will for Jesus to be murdered.”
- “The cross is not a picture of payment; the cross is a picture of forgiveness. Good Friday is not about divine wrath; God Friday is about divine love.”
- “The cross is not the place where God vents his wrath on Jesus. The cross is the place where human fear and anger are absorbed into God’s eternal love and recycled into the saving mercy of Christ.”
All these statements are clear indications that the author rejects penal substitutionary atonement. Zahnd echoes the rantings of Steve Chalke who has likened penal substitution to “cosmic child abuse.” Zahnd writes, “The cross is not where God finds a whipping boy to vent his rage upon; the cross is where God saves the world through self-sacrificing love. The only thing God will call justice is setting the world right, not punishing an innocent substitute for the petty sake of appeasement.”
Zahnd agrees with the conclusion of Tony Jones’ book, Did God Kill Jesus? Both writers agree and emphatically declare that God did not kill Jesus. Zahnd continues, “Among the many problems with Calvin’s theory of the cross is that it turns God into a petty tyrant and a moral monster. Punishing the innocent in order to forgive the guilty is monstrous logic, atrocious theology, and a gross distortion of the idea of justice.” Zahnd continues, “A theory of the cross that says it was God who desired the torture and murder of Jesus on Good Friday turns the Father of Jesus into a cruel and sadistic monster. It’s salvation by divine sadism.”
What are we to make of these revealing statements which ridicule penal substitutionary atonement? To begin with, anyone who compares God to a “sadistic monster” should rethink their strategy and repent. The reality is this: “Penal substitution,” writes Roger Nicole, is the vital center of the atonement, the linchpin without which everything else loses its foundation.” Emil Brunner cuts through the theological fog and offers this timely advice: “… He who understands the Cross aright – this is the opinion of the Reformers – understands the Bible, he understands Jesus Christ.”
Zahnd maintains that God knew about the cross but never “willed” the horrific events of the cross. However, two passages in the book of Acts show the sovereignty of God in salvation and demonstrate God’s involvement in the cross from start to finish:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (Acts 2:22–23, ESV).
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4:27–28, ESV).
Affirming the love and mercy of God at the cross but discounting his wrath is wrongheaded, dangerous, and unbiblical. R.C. Sproul laments, “A god who is all love, all grace, all mercy, no sovereignty, no justice, no holiness, and no wrath is an idol.”
Finally, the reckless abandonment of penal substitutionary atonement undercuts the gospel of Jesus Christ. Penal substitutionary atonement is not an invention of Calvin – it is the plain teaching of Scripture. Christ bore the penalty for our sins. Christ was the substitute for every sinner that would ever believe.
We deserved wrath – yet Jesus stands in as our substitute (Heb. 9:26). We were the enemies of God and separated from him because of our sin – yet Jesus reconciled us to God (Isa. 59:2; Col. 1:20-22; 2 Cor. 5:18-19). We were slaves to sin, yet Jesus was our redeemer (John 8:34, 36; Mark 10:45; Col. 1:13; Eph. 1:7). We deserved the wrath of God – yet Jesus was our propitiation (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2, 4:10) and satisfied the righteous demands of the law by absorbing the white-hot wrath of the Father.
We have an unshakable hope because we are saved from the wrath of God and saved through the Son of God. These realities give rise to a new way of living. These realities spark new motivation. These truths propel us into the future and enable us to live our lives to the glory of God!
The Paltry Nature of Scripture
The problems in Zahnd’s book intensify when one considers his view of Scripture. To be clear, the author claims to have a high view of Scripture. However, his view must be clarified:
When I point out that the Bible is the penultimate word of God that points us to the ultimate Word of God who is Jesus, I do so as a person with a high view of Scripture and a lifelong commitment to the Bible. When we speak of the Word of God, Christians should think of Jesus first and the Bible second. It’s Jesus who is the true Word of God, not the Bible.
Earlier, in an attempt to strip the Bible from any kind of wrath, Zahnd writes emphatically, “The Bible is not the perfect revelation of God; Jesus is.” This convenient hermeneutic allows the author to bypass any form of divine wrath and bears a strange resemblance to the neo-orthodox notion that the Bible is not the Word of God; rather it contains the word of God.
“Jesus is greater than the Bible,” according to Zahnd. Indeed, “Jesus is the Savior of all that is to be saved … including the Bible. Jesus saves the Bible from itself! Jesus shows us how to read the Bible and not be harmed by it.” This unwarranted pitting of the Bible against Christ is a subtle move that opens a Pandora’s box which only invites doctrinal error and confusion. It is an unnecessary hermeneutical hurdle that trips the unsuspecting and ultimately undermines the authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture. Paul clearly affirms that Scripture is “breathed out” by God (2 Tim. 3:16).
We believe, however, that the Bible is God’s absolute truth for all people, at all times; it is our final authority for discerning truth. And we reject any clever hermeneutical hurdles that minimize doctrinal propositions, even realities that make us uncomfortable.
The Preoccupation with Mystical Experience
The final concern in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God makes sense of the previous unsettling theological problems, namely, a preoccupation with mystical experience. Listen to the author as he explains the pathway that led him away from the biblical vision of God: “But it wasn’t primarily reading theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri Nouwen, and Stanley Hauerwas that led me away from an angry-God theology; it was mostly mystical experiences in prayer …” Zahnd continues, “… But having learned to sit with Jesus in contemplative prayer, I have discovered by my own experience (emphasis mine) that what John said is true: God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. God is the eternal life of self-giving love. There is no darkness. No anger. No violence. No retribution. Only love.”
But do we come to understand the purposes, plans, and attributes of God through contemplative prayer? Certainly not! There are only two clear routes to knowing God. First, we come to a knowledge of God through general revelation (Ps. 19:1-4). General revelation will not lead people to a saving knowledge of Christ but it makes them sufficiently accountable to God (Rom. 1:19-20).
Second, we come to a knowledge of God through special revelation. We know God through the Lord Jesus Christ (John 17:3). We come to know him by becoming familiar with his attributes. Thomas Watson says, “God’s glory lies chiefly in his attributes, which are the several beams by which the divine nature shines forth.”
And we come to know God through the Scriptures. It is the Bible that reveals an accurate portrait of God for us. One must never make human experience the starting point in theology. “To do so,” Louis Berkhof warns, “drags God to man’s level. It stresses God’s immanence at the expense of his transcendence. The final result is God made in the image of man.” This is exactly what emerges in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. Whenever experiences trumps Scripture, the inevitable result is theological error.
HOW SHALL WE THINK ABOUT GOD?
A false representation of God and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is simply unacceptable. Yet, false views of the living God continue to be proclaimed and variations of the gospel continue to be propagated. A.W. Pink lamented, “How vastly different is the God of Scripture from the ‘god’ of the average pulpit!”
I offer three important principles that will help shape the Christian mind and enable readers to approach God with reverence and worship him in a way that is consistent with Scripture.
1. Always distinguish between the Creator and the creature
Tozer writes, “To think of the creature and Creator alike in essential being is to rob God of most of His attributes and reduce Him to the status of a creature. It is, for instance, to rob Him of His infinitude: there cannot be two unlimited substances in the universe. It is to take away His sovereignty: there cannot be two absolutely free beings in the universe, for sooner or later two completely free wills must collide.”
2. Banish idolatrous thoughts of God
Tozer adds, “Low views of God destroy the gospel for all who hold them.” We must strive to worship God rightly and maintain steadfast allegiance to his Word, which is our reliable guide for determining his plans, purposes, and attributes. For “among the sins to which the human heart is prone, hardly any other is more hateful to God than idolatry, for idolatry is at bottom a libel on His character. The idolatrous heart assumes that God is other than He is – in itself a monstrous sin …”
3. Commit to thinking biblically about God
Steven Lawson offers a fitting challenge that every person needs to hear: “I believe that the greatest issue facing the church in any century is a proper understanding of who God is. What is needed in the contemporary church today is a steady diet of the attributes and perfections of God. It is our high theology that produces high doxology … Until there is a right knowledge of God, there will never be the right knowledge of self, nor the proper remedy applied to our own inners lives.”
Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God will no doubt attract the attention of many people. It will be received by people who are unwilling to submit to the biblical portrait of God. My desire is not to be argumentative or divisive but to invite Brian Zahnd to reconsider his assertions concerning God. For Zahnd’s views lead the unsuspecting down a path that rejects a biblical portrait of God and repudiates penal substitutionary atonement. Such views lead readers on a trajectory that will, in the final analysis, lead to a spiritual wasteland. These views are bolstered by other popular writers. But truth is not a matter of majority rule – Truth is determined by God and his infallible Word.
God is still angry with sinners. His wrath is being revealed from heaven against ungodly people (Rom. 1:18). And the wrath of God will be unleashed on every person who refused to turn from sin and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ: “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts” (Ps. 8:12-13).
The words of Jonathan Edwards were true on July 8, 1741. And Edwards’ words remain true today: “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.”
But Edwards was never content to leave his hearers without hope. He was always eager to draw the attention of people to the saving grace and mercy that flows freely from the cross: “God has magnified his free grace towards you, and not to others; because he has chosen you, and it pleased him to set his love upon you. O! what cause is here for praise! What obligations you are under to bless the Lord who hath dealt bountifully with you, and magnify his holy name! What cause for you to praise God in humility, to walk humbly before him.”
The lament of A.W. Tozer gives us pause and instructs us in a day which is fraught with theological error: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” May be bow low in humility before this great and awesome God. May we delight in him and affirm each attribute that the Scriptures reveal. May our minds be ignited with zeal for his name. May our hearts be filled with joy as we contemplate his majesty. May our lips proclaim his goodness and his glory. And may our hands and feet be mobilized to share the saving message of the gospel for the joy of the nations!
I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.