Friday, March 17, 2017

"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"


The Puritan movement began in England as an attempt to bring the more radical ideas of the European Reformation into the Church of England. Because the English government was not friendly to Puritanism, many Puritans came to America, hoping to be able to establish a new, reformed society in the new world. Jonathan Edwards came from this tradition, though from a segment or break-off called Congregationalists, who believed that individual churches should govern themselves as opposed to being part of a larger church body. In other respects, Edwards reflected the ideas of the Puritan tradition, especially the idea of Divine Sovereignty and the idea that God arbitrarily and inescapably predestined the fate of every human soul, irrespective of their merits. Edwards was also born at a time when the Puritan tradition was beginning to wear thin. The church was largely becoming lax--was beginning to be without either power or purity.

He was born in 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut to Timothy Edwards and Esther Stoddard Edwards, the only son among ten sisters. He had preaching in his blood since his father was the pastor of the local area while his maternal grandfather was such an influential and respected preacher in New England that he was nicknamed the "Pope of the Connecticut Valley." As a boy, he was very interested in religion and prayer, but the interest was only superficial and he soon fell into sin. By 17 he had graduated from college and began studying for the ministry. It was during his time in college that he experienced a real conversion and come to know the true joys of religion--very different, as he described them, from everything he had known before.  He would work as a supply minister and tutor until 1726 when he began work at as assistant pastor and his maternal grandfather's church is Northampton, eventually becoming full pastor after his grandfather died. While there, he married Sarah Pierrepont, daughter and great-granddaughter of famous preacher. He had a successful and popular ministry at first, but eventually tension began because of Edward's strict insistence on true conversion and godliness, especially as a prerequisite for communion. This tension eventually led to Edward's being voted out of the church at the age of 46.

He then moved to the town of Stockbridge where he worked as a preacher in a small church there as well as a missionary to the Indians, becoming very well liked by both. He also wrote several theological papers here. During this time, his daughter married the president of a college (now called Princeton)--who subsequently died, at which point the college asked Edwards to be his successor. Edwards reluctantly accepted the position but within a few month of taking the position, he died of smallpox.

By his preaching and writing, he had a large affect on the Great Awakening and on religion in New England. "Still to-day, in spite of wide departures from his theological system, he remains an effectual spiritual force in the churches inheriting the Puritan tradition." (H. Norman  Gardiner) Perhaps his greatest legacy is the change he made in the hearts and lives of people under his ministry--not any writings he left behind him.

His most famous work is "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." It is partly famous because of the story that goes with. During the Great Awakening, when religious revival was sweeping New England, the town of Enfield, Connecticut, was untouched. Edwards had been appointed to speak there on a certain day and people from the surrounding area were so concerned that they spent the night before praying that the revival that had visited them would also come to Enfield. At the beginning of Edwards' message, the people were disinterested. As one witness said, "the appearance of the assembly was thoughtless and vain. The people hardly conducted themselves with common decency." However, by the time the sermon was over, revival had broken out among them and there was so much crying that Edwards had trouble being heard.

There is a structure to the sermon, not uncommon to Edwards. First there is the text and the examination of it. These observations lead to the main idea of the sermon; the main part of the sermon is the development and expansion of this idea. Then, having developed the idea, he ends with a section of application.

The main idea or proposition of the sermon is clearly stated early on: "There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God." In this sermon, Edwards is addressing sinners--specifically, sinners who recognize their responsibility to God. There is nothing in this sermon for those who are already Christians or for people who disbelieve either in God or their own sinfulness. It is not to such people that he speaks. Rather, he is addressing a very specific kind of person--the sinner who recognizes his need and intends to get right with God... someday. Edwards is trying to show them that they have no guarantee of a future opportunity and so must seek God now. Essentially, this sermon is a warning against procrastination, against putting off a decision to follow God.

In working up to his proposition, Edwards primarily makes use of a simile. The text is the line: "Their foot shall slide in due time." (Deuteronomy 32:35) For several paragraphs, Edwards develops this picture of someone walking along a very slippery path.  "They were always exposed to destruction, as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall." Someone walking in such places is in danger of falling every moment: "he can't foresee one moment whether he shall stand or fall the next."  The falling is very easy: "as he that stands or walks on slippery ground needs nothing but his own weight to throw him down." In the same way, the wicked are in continual danger of sudden destruction.

He develops a similar idea later, again through the use of simile, saying that "It is no security to wicked men for one moment, that there are no visible means of death at hand... The unseen, unthought of ways and means of persons' going suddenly out of the world are innumerable and inconceivable. Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they won't bear their weight, and these places are not seen. The arrows of death fly unseen at noonday; the sharpest sight can't discern them."

A little later in the sermon, he pictures what someone in Hell would say if they could be asked if they, while alive, thought they would end up in Hell.  "No, I never intended to come here: I had laid out matters otherwise in my mind... I intended to take effectual care; but it came upon me unexpected; I did not look for it at that time, and in that manner; it came as a thief."

In other words, Edwards primary point is that we have no guarantee of continued life; if you are a sinner, you have no guarantee that you will not be dead and in Hell before the day is out. Nothing in this world is keeping us safe--only the continued forbearance of God--the very God against whom we have sinned and whose righteous anger is raised against sinners. "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. 'Tis 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; and 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."

Edwards goal in this sermon is to encourage his hearers to take action, to repent and turn to God--not at some future point, but immediately, at that very moment. This is the conclusion of the sermon. "Let every one 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 calls of God's word and providence... Therefore let every one that is out of Christ now awake and fly from the wrath to come... 'Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest ye be consumed.'"

The entire sermon is built around the idea that God has, up to the present moment, shown mercy and forbearance to those sinners who are alive and therefore they should repent before that mercy and forbearance comes to an end. But why has God shown this mercy and forbearance up to this point?

It is not because He can't bring judgment, since obviously He could easily. It is not the claims of justice, since justice demands the punishment of sinners. It is not love, or, at least this is not mentioned. (God's love is only referenced twice in this sermon and both times in reference to His love for Christians.)

In a sense, then, NO reason is given, no reason except the mere arbitrary decision of God. In his proposition, Edwards says that sinners have been preserved by "the mere pleasure of God." In the next sentence he defines what he means by that: "his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty." In this one can trace the clear note of Edwards Calvinistic theology. However, it is true that God's actions are arbitrary in that they are conditioned by nothing outside him and though we believe that God's love leads him to hold open the door of mercy, this is a free choice on God's part and we have no guarantee that it will remain open for any of us. In that sense, even an Arminian can agree with the bulk and main thrust of this sermon. God, out of His vast love, has given us an opportunity today. We have no promise of being given another opportunity tomorrow.

But though the doctrine he preaches is rather hard, there is an interesting note about the attitude of the sermon itself. Over and over Edwards speaks in language of compassion and pity for the sinners he addresses: "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... 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 it would 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!"

"So far as Edwards's personal attitude is concerned, it is not difficult to detect in it the pathos and the pity of the gentlest of men weeping over the senseless folly of those who, blind to impending destruction, refuse repeated invitations of safety." (Gardiner) The compassion is very proper and right. If more preachers had presented the doctrine of Hell with this attitude, it might not have garnered the scorn and reproach it has. Too often, whatever the real attitude of the preacher, the general impression given is that of the preacher in Eggleston who “seemed to be kind of glad that we was to be damned.” But while we're on the subject, we shouldn't miss the irony of Edwards attitude. He shows love and compassion for the sinners in the hands of God--the very thing he either denies or at least ignores in God himself. Somehow Edwards is more loving and compassionate than the God he serves. This is not a particular problem of Edwards but of Calvinistic theology in general, and can be roughly said to be at the heart of the criticism of classical Calvinism by George MacDonald.

But we must not think that Edwards sermon or theology is all doom and gloom. He does have another side, a positive as well as a negative. Though it is not the main thrust of this sermon, he does point to the blessings of the saved as well as the sufferings of the lost: "Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very likely in the same miserable condition that you are in are in now a 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 for one moment in such a condition?"

Edwards, J. Selected Sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Ed., H. N. Gardiner. Project Gutenberg E-Book.

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