Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Unappreciated Truth of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"

Perhaps the most famous sermon ever preached in America was Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards was a pastor in colonial Massachusetts and a brilliant theological mind. He preached his most famous sermon as a guest speaker in a church at Enfield, Connecticut, on July 8, 1741 (Listen to Mark Dever read/preach the message in 58-minutes [link here]).

My family at the preaching site of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"
This sermon sparked one of the most dramatic episodes of revival in the Great Awakening. Here is an excerpt that shows the preacher’s graphic and frightening bluntness in portraying God’s dreadful wrath against sinners:
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. It is 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. 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. There is no other reason to be given why you have not 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 do not this very moment drop down into hell.
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is 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 many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about 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.
The language and imagery were so vivid that many people who heard Edwards trembled, some cried out for mercy, and others fainted.

Our generation—weaned on “Jesus loves me! this I know”—finds Edwards’s famous sermon shocking for an altogether different reason. Most people today would be appalled that anyone would describe God in such terrifying terms.

But it is important that we understand the context of Edwards’s sermon. Edwards was no fiery emotionalist; he appealed dispassionately to his hearers’ sense of reason—even reading his message in a carefully controlled tone lest anyone be emotionally manipulated. His message ended with a tender appeal to flee to Christ for mercy. One observer who was present that evening recorded that
“Several Souls were hopefully wrought upon [that] night, & oh ye cheerfulness and pleasantness of their countenances [that] receivd comfort—oh [that] God wd strengthen and confirm—we sung an hymn & prayd & dismissd ye Assembly.” 
So the overall tenor of that evening’s service was decidedly uplifting. It signaled a time of great revival throughout New England.

Edwards has been falsely caricatured by some as a harsh and pitiless preacher who took great delight in frightening his congregations with colorful descriptions of the torments of hell. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a warm and sensitive pastor as well as a meticulous theologian, and he stood on solid biblical ground when he characterized God as an angry Judge. Scripture tells us, “God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day” (Ps. 7:11, KJV).

Edwards’s sermon that night was an exposition of Deuteronomy 32:35–36: “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste. For the Lord shall judge his people” (KJV).

Those are biblical truths that do need to be proclaimed. And when Jonathan Edwards preached them, he did so with a humble heart of loving compassion. A broader look at his ministry reveals that he also heavily emphasized the grace and love of God. This sermon alone does not give us the full picture of what his preaching was like.

Yet Edwards was not reluctant to preach the unvarnished truth of divine wrath. He saw conversion as the loving work of God in the human soul, and he knew the truth of Scripture was the means God uses to convert sinners. He believed his responsibility as a preacher was to declare both the positive and the negative aspects of that truth as plainly as possible.

So what do you know about the wrath of God?

It may surprise us to find how frequently the Bible talks about the wrath of God. Yet if God loves all that is right and good, and all that conforms to his moral character, then it should not be surprising that he would hate everything that is opposed to his moral character. God’s wrath directed against sin is therefore closely related to God’s holiness and justice. God’s wrath may be defined as follows: God’s wrath means that he intensely hates all sin.

Descriptions of God’s wrath are found frequently in the narrative passages of Scripture, especially when God’s people sin greatly against him. God sees the idolatry of the people of Israel and says to Moses, “I have seen this people …; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (Ex. 32:9–10). Later Moses tells the people, “Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness … Even at Horeb you provoked the LORD to wrath and the LORD was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you” (Deut. 9:7–8; cf. 29:23; 2 Kings 22:13).

The doctrine of the wrath of God in Scripture is not limited to the Old Testament, however, as some have falsely imagined. We read in John 3:36, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” Paul says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men” (Rom. 1:18; cf. 2:5, 8; 5:9; 9:22; Col. 3:6; 1 Thess. 1:10; 2:16; 5:9; Heb. 3:11; Rev. 6:16–17; 19:15). Many more New Testament verses also indicate God’s wrath against sin.

As with the other attributes of God, this is an attribute for which we should thank and praise God. It may not immediately appear to us how this can be done, since wrath seems to be such a negative concept. Viewed alone, it would arouse only fear and dread. Yet it is helpful for us to ask what God would be like if he were a God that did not hate sin. He would then be a God who either delighted in sin or at least was not troubled by it. Such a God would not be worthy of our worship, for sin is hateful and it is worthy of being hated. Sin ought not to be. It is in fact a virtue to hate evil and sin (cf. Heb. 1:9; Zech. 8:17; et al.), and we rightly imitate this attribute of God when we feel hatred against great evil, injustice, and sin.

Furthermore, we should feel no fear of God’s wrath as Christians, for although “we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3), we now have trusted in Jesus, “who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10; cf. Rom. 5:10). When we meditate on the wrath of God, we will be amazed to think that our Lord Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God that was due to our sin, in order that we might be saved (Rom. 3:25–26).

Moreover, in thinking about God’s wrath we must also bear in mind his patience. Both patience and wrath are mentioned together in Psalm 103: “The LORD is … slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever” (Ps. 103:8–9). In fact, the delay of the execution of God’s wrath upon evil is for the purpose of leading people to repentance (see Rom. 2:4).

Thus, when we think of God’s wrath to come, we should simultaneously be thankful for his patience in waiting to execute that wrath in order that yet more people may be saved: “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise …” (2 Peter 3:9–10). God’s wrath should motivate us to evangelism and should also cause us to be thankful that God finally will punish all wrongdoing and will reign over new heavens and a new earth in which there will be no unrighteousness.