January 18, 2021

On Teaching Edwards’ “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God”

vc6806thA tough day at the office today, the office being teaching remedial English III to a small class of kids who failed it. A couple are new and one is not happy- at all- to be in school this summer. So I’m earning the big bucks like a real teacher this week. My fan club is small and getting smaller.

Into all this I have the assignment of teaching a short lesson on Jonathan Edwards and “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” (I won’t skip it. Too significant in American Lit.) The excerpt we use is a collection of the most intense metaphors, and I’m supposed to teach Edwards’ linguistic approach, not his theology. So I try to extract Edwards from the stereotypical ditch this sermons puts him into and I hope that someday a student will associate Edwards with the excerpts from his diary I also share with them and not just spiders hanging over flame.

Actually, I’m not an Edwards’ fan. As far as I am concerned, he made the entire Christian faith much more difficult and considerably less Jesus shaped than I believe that it is. Despite his brilliant intellect, Edwards seems to be about more about speculation and revivalism than the Gospel. His desire to awaken unconverted church members sounds very familiar to me, and his rhetorical intensity is familiar ground as well. I heard it all in the front row of fundamentalistic revivalism growing up. An inscrutable angry God demanding we wake up and realize we’re going to hell. Yes, church member who thinks he’s saved, that means you.

It’s bizarre that a man who was the most brilliant mind of his time, and the inspiration for various waves of awakening from Calvinism to Charismata, doesn’t come off to me nearly as impressed by Jesus and the Gospel as he is by the sovereignty of that “Divine Being” he keeps talking about.

While teaching my students about spiders hanging over flame, flood waters about to crash over them and arrows aimed right at their heart- all images for the wrath of God in that famous sermon- I wondered if it ever occurred to Edwards to take those intense and disturbing images and turn them into descriptions of what Christ did for us on the cross? The hell, the flood, the arrow- they all were his, for my sake. When Edwards says that God “abhors” sinners, I wonder why he didn’t make the cross the measurement of that abhorrence, so that the love of God for sinners could shine through?

The balance of the Reformation Gospel is this: we see God best in Jesus. Not in speculations, relentless logic or metaphorical bombshells. God revealed himself in Jesus. It is the kindness of God that appears and saves us when we cannot save ourselves. It is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. It was the Gospel story of the crucifixion, not of sinners in the hands of an angry God, that caused 3,000 to be “cut to the heart.”

I’m probably not smart enough to write a post on Jonathan Edwards, but I am smart enough to know that too many theological fanboys are impressed with how to turn the Gospel into revivalistic demands or incomprehensible explorations of the divine will. Both are ways to have power over the rest of us. Edwards at least came out humble in his life, so maybe there’s hope.

We are given a very simple message. It may rest on profound and intimidating revelation that only truly great minds can grasp, but any one of us slower types can go to the cross and hear Jesus say, “Father, forgive them….” I don’t understand it, but as theology, it can’t be surpassed.


  1. I don’t want to perpetuate anyone’s stereotype. Please read Edwards for yourselves people. My issue at the point of writing was this sermon.

  2. Fr. Ernesto is probably right. I think it quickly turns into “Sinners in the Hands of Angry Christians”.

    When things go wrong, its human nature to fix blame, rather than solve problems. The “awakened” are blaming the “slumbering”. This is the phase evangelicalism is in right now, I think. I think it can get out of it. I hope someone is left by then.

    “But if you bite and devour one another, be careful that you don’t consume one another.” – Galatians 5:15.

  3. …….who are you calling angry?…………..

  4. Seriously? Have you heard anyone gung-ho on revivalism? I got an ear-full last week IN A LUTHERAN CHURCH!!!! Maybe I’m the one whose angry.

  5. ……….lol…….lol

  6. Christopher Lake says

    Steve (from 11 June, 1:48 p.m.),

    I’ve never understood Edwards’ faith to be “too clean” or “too safe.” It has plenty of room for miracle and mystery. That seems to be the paradox with Edwards though… one person thinks that he preaches a distant, mysterious, inscrutable God; another person thinks that he preaches an overly rationalistic God who is more the product of human logic than of Scripture.

    From what I have read of his writings/sermons, neither is the case. As Michael said, read Edwards for yourself. If you don’t resonate with his understanding of God and Scripture, that’s certainly ok. I would just encourage you not to base your opinion of him on only one or two sermons though.

  7. Christopher Lake says

    If, in fact, you are only going on the basis of one or two sermons (which, obviously, might not be the case).

  8. iMonk,

    Very good points on Edwards. I do think it should be said–and I know you weren’t denying this, I’m just making these remarks to give some balance to what I’m about to say–that he had a lot of good traits. He was consumed for the glory of God, he was a brilliant Christian, led many people to Christ, and wrote some of the more important works of theology in the Reformed arena so far. He was not the austere man many have thought him to be; he loved God and cared about the souls of those he preached to.

    However, with that said, I do think that your criticisms are well aimed. I have read the entirety of “Sinners” more than once, and I have to conclude that while his comments about God’s wrath were well placed, Spurgeon was right to remark that “…some of the early Puritanic fathers may have gone too far in describing the terrors of the Lord.” Not only is there little or no mention of God’s redemptive love for sinners, but the Gospel is not clearly presented, even at the end where he appeals for his listeners to seek mercy in Christ. I recall reading the title of another sermon of Edwards’ that was something to the effect of “The Possibility of Salvation is Better Than the Certainty of Damnation.” The “possibility of salvation?” This, along with the severe warnings in “Sinners” is basically a reflection of Edwards’ theology of conversion which, as typical of most of the Puritans, required some sort of law-work in the sinner that put him in a miserable state before being saved.

    Contrast, however, “Sinners” with a sermon like Spurgeon’s “Turn or Burn.” In both you find stern warnings about God’s wrath, about Hell, and about damnation. But in “Turn,” you see clear instructions about what people should do to repent, while “Sinners” ends on the more ambiguous note of simply “fleeing.” To sum it up, “Sinners” is good reading, and is mostly accurate, but should be read with caution and Biblical balance.


  9. Let me say again that what affected me most was Marsden’s bio.

  10. I agree about Edwards often missing the love of God in Jesus. I also agree about his “brilliant intellect.” His FREEDOM OF THE WILL is the work of genius. (I should disclose here that I am an analytic philosopher, which can give some idea of the kind of intelligence I’m most likely to appreciate.)

    I grew up in Calvinist (CRC) churches, and was bothered by the predestination/divine determinism. But I knew I would be going to Calvin College (even if life isn’t generally predetermined, that much was: my father went to Calvin & his father before him, and it was clear to me from the get-go that’s where I was going), and I would then study Calvin, have it all explained to me, and my worries would dissipate. Didn’t work out that way. When I read important work with great expectations, I usually find the work to be impressive, as expected (perhaps to some extent I find it impressive because I’m primed to), but reading Calvin’s INSTITUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION was a profound disappointment. (Remember that this is coming from a philosopher, and it’s the more philosophical aspects of the work that I was tuned in on.) As I learned a few years later, what they really should have had me read was Edwards’s FofW. Who knows? I might still be a Calvinist today…
    But it was too late.

    I started thinking of Edwards as “Calvin with a brain.” (Coming from a philosopher, I guess that really means “Calvin with philosophical ability.”)

  11. I agree with iggy.
    The point is that God’s wrath was poured our on Jesus and we are the beneficiaries of not having to face that wrath, if we so choose.
    I say more Jonathon Edwards and a pox on the osteens of the world.

  12. Sometimes, after, I make one of my shallow and inane comments I go and see who the other commenters are.
    I am so far out of my league.

  13. sue kephart says

    Have no fear Rob Lofland for there is room here for those that love the Lord. Not only those in their heads.

  14. If God is a Calvinistic then I think the discussion of whether or not Edwards is to harsh is unwarranted. God loves His own glory above all things, If he determines a mob of humanity to everlasting agony for the praise of His glorious justice than in my view the puritans were at least consistent in their sermonizing. A vessel of perfect mercy or a vessel of perfect wrath all for His glory, and if He hates perfectly vessels fit for destruction why I am I commanded to love and pray for them. I think are view of the nature of God will reflect the homilies we give in a fundamental way. Are you and object of divine affection or a vessel prepared for destruction. Double predestination will effect how we view God more than how he views us. Did God ultimately create us to share in is defied humanity for love or for his glory. Did he display his kindness to show the brightness of His kindness or is God just kind because he is love.

  15. Roger du Barry says

    Roger du Barry wonders why the noun, Michael, and the phrase, Edwards got it right, were moderated from his post?

    Bemused and amused

  16. “Did he display his kindness to show the brightness of His kindness or is God just kind because he is love.”

    To expand on what you were saying, the former description of God is rather… um. Satanic?

    A God who deals out mercy capriciously to a few for the purpose of monstrously showing up the rest of His damned Creation, a God whose nature it is to hide His light rather than to be seen and help everyone see, seems to be the antithetical vision of God, indeed the kind of anti-god, that Paul was warning the Corinthians about:

    “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

    In fact, the whole passage (2 Corinthians 4:1-6) describes a God (and a relationship with him, and a responsibility to non-believers) who isn’t randomly good, but desiring to use believers who see to conduct to God all the people who cannot see Him! (2 Corinthians 4:13-14)

  17. John Bell says

    No one speaks more passionately or eloquently about the love of God in Christ, the glories of the eternal state, or the grace of God extended toward sinners than Jonathan Edwards. He uses vivid description in EVERTHING he preaches – be it hell or heaven. People whose understanding of Edwards is shaped almost exclusively by “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” are getting a distorted portrait.

    I wonder if people would think the descriptions Edwards employs of hell, or his theological understanding of God’s angry disposition toward unrepentant sinners would be excessive 30 billion years into eternity when unbelievers are still suffering the just wrath of God in hell? I know that sounds very stark statement, but if hell is a real place, and sinners are not just annihilated, then I feel his sermon is not over the top or unloving at all. Edwards is talking to “multitudes” in his congregation (he had a church of over 1000 people) who are, in his estimation as their pastor, nominal Christians.

  18. Roger:

    Because I edited it.

    Read the FAQ for moderation guidelines.


  19. FYI for Pastor Chad. Those lyrics are from “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” a beautiful old hymn recently re-arranged by Michael W. Smith.

  20. I have not read Marsden’s bio, but I will tell you that Iain H Murray’s bio is rather inspiring. I will also tell you that I heard John R DeWitt years ago preach an “angry” sermon that was probably 100 percent theologically correct and probably used of God. I turned me off. Millions of people. Millions of sermons. Millions of styles.

  21. I appreciate Murray’s work and have greatly profited from it, but his bio on Edwards is hagiography. Marsden was quite a revelation and explained a lot.

  22. Agree it cannot be skipped. But imagine that this sermon is of the major and relatively few points of contact between the general populace and Christianity. Sick.

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