Essay / Theology

Today Jonathan Edwards Preached His Most Famous Sermon

It was on July 8, 1741 that Jonathan Edwards preached the sermon for which he is most famous, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Edwards had already preached a different version of the sermon a month earlier at Northampton, Massachussetts, but he had strengthened the sermon in a number of ways before preaching it on July 8 to a congregation a little to the south in Enfield, Connecticut. When the Enfield congregation heard it, one eyewitness reported that there was “a great moaning & crying out throughout ye whole House … shreiks & crys – were piercing & Amazing,” and that Edwards had to stop reading the sermon.

“Sinners” looms large in American memory. It is a sermon on hell that has seared itself into the conscience of the country and made people think that most Christian preaching, or perhaps most Puritan preaching, or at least most of Edwards’ preaching, must have been hellfire-and-brimstone. Edwards himself thus looms in the popular histories as a ranting, raving, hellfire-spouting, Calvinist revival-monger who spent his days chastising his hapless congregation and his nights piling up arguments in proof of infant damnation. On the slender basis of this one sermon, Edwards’ God has been described as

Abraham’s God, the Wrathful One,
Intolerant of error–
Not God the Father or the Son
But God the Holy Terror.

A hostile 1930 biographer even described Edwards “The Fiery Puritan” as preaching a theology that was “a blight upon posterity,” “repulsive and absurd,” and finally pronouncing upon him the ultimate condemnation: He was “not truly an American.”

To make matters worse, at some point a forgotten editor of English Literature textbooks must have decided that “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” would be the best introduction to Puritan thought. Others agreed, and the sermon was reprinted and anthologized innumerable times. We are left with what appears to be a conspiracy of literature teachers to slander by misrepresentation Jonathan Edwards (and perhaps the larger concentric circles he occupied: maybe Puritanism, maybe Calvinism, maybe Protestantism, maybe Christianity). “Sinners” is indeed a great and striking sermon, fully deserving serious attention. But as an introduction to the full range of Edwards’ thought, it is highly misleading. The terror of “Sinners” has a legitimate place in Edwards’ universe, but it is far from the center.

The text of the sermon is available from the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale. In accounting for its great literary power, several critics have pointed to the way Edwards lets metaphors accumulate and overlap throughout the sermon. As the Yale editor points out,

he employs no less than twenty metaphors or descriptive adjectives to express God’s wrath and hell’s torments. The metaphors include a pit, an oven, a mouth, a furnace, a sword, flames, a serpent, a troubled sea, black clouds approaching, waters dammed by a floodgate, a bow bent with an arrow ready to be “made drunk with your blood,” an ax, and a heavy load that cannot be held.

The sermon is based on a very short and unlikely biblical text, Deuteronomy 32:35: “Their foot shall slide in due time.” From this idea of the insecurity of the steps of the wicked, Edwards develops the image of the heaviness of sin: “Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf…” Edwards’ description of the weight of sin (“you are a burden” to the earth; “the creation groans with” your weight) is what produces the sickening sense of vertigo and the visceral feeling that gravity is pulling you through the floorboards. A hearer with any sense of his own sin would wonder, with Edwards, “why you don’t this very moment drop down into hell.”

The answer Edwards gives is that God alone upholds these heavy sinners, but this news hardly ends the suspense. For heavy sinners, tending constantly downward into damnation, are held up by a God who they are not friends with. They are held up by a God whose way of deliverance they have spited. ” In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of, all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted unobliged forbearance of an incensed God.” Note that Edwards does not describe the God of the gospel, the Father of Jesus, as having a “mere arbitrary will” or being unobliged and incensed. God in the gospel shows himself obliged, propitiated, and above all, covenanted. His forbearance is not arbitrary; in the covenant he preserves his children every moment through the atonement in Christ. But the sermon is directed at those who have heard about this gospel and have nevertheless decided to take their chances on the uncovenanted forbearance of God. It is to these hearers that Edwards directs his warning: You have no ground to stand on, your sin makes you heavy, and you stand outside the sure promise of God to uphold you.

H. Richard Niebuhr described the sermon in social and political terms as demonstrating “the precariousness oflife’s poise…the utter insecurity of men and of mankind which are at every moment ready to plunge into the abyss of disintegration, barbarism, crime and war of all against all, as to advance toward harmony.” For bringing the colonies face to face with the terror which is worse than non-being, “Sinners” has been called (by Perry Miller) “America’s sudden leap into modernity.”

Why did Jonathan Edwards preach this way? He had a theory of persuasion which he summarized in the phrase, “the will is as the most apparent good is.” That is, the human will is inclined toward good things, but it is a short-sighted will. It does not incline to the greatest good, but to the good it can see most clearly. So it will choose a penny today over a dollar tomorrow, or it will choose instant gratification over long-term satisfaction. Most evil comes from this inversion in the proper hierarchical order of goods: by inclining and consenting to the most apparent good rather than the greatest good, we turn lesser goods into idols and forsake the One who is Goodness.

A preacher, therefore, has an interesting task. He has to take the greatest good and make it the most apparent good for his listeners. He has to speak of invisible, spiritual realities in such a way that his hearers get a sense of their reality. If he can show them, by compelling description, a great good which they had not previously entertained, their wills will be as that good is. They will turn to it, convert to it. It will have an irresistible draw for their wills. In most of his sermons, Edwards took up this task and described things like the character of God, the “excellencies” or beauties of Christ, the plan of redemption, and heaven as “a world of love.” He excelled at preaching the roof off of the church building so that his listeners could see the pure spiritual “divine and supernatural light” and fall in love with the God who is “the foundation and fountain of all being and beauty.”

The same theory of persuasion is operant in “Sinners,” but Edwards is approaching his task from the opposite side. Instead of making heaven the most apparent good, Edwards describes hell vividly enough to render it the most apparent bad. Instead of preaching the roof off, he preaches the floorboards rotten. Sin drags us down all the time, but we are easily insensible of it; it is the greatest evil, but not the most apparent evil. By the time Edwards is done describing sin and its effects, its loathsomeness is so conspicuously evident that his hearers cry out. Their wills recoil from the bad. We may prefer the positive approach, and wish for sermons that succeed in showing us the goodness of God and the glories of heaven. But in principle, I cannot think of any objection that would outlaw the opposite approach, the approach taken in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Not only does it make sense for Edwards’ theory of persuasion and his theology of preaching, but it is also directly biblical that sin is detestable, hell is hateful, and poisonous snakes like us ought to flee from the wrath to come. As R. A. Torrey said to his Los Angeles congregation in 1917,

(N)o one who rejects Jesus Christ shall see life, but the wrath of God abideth upon him. Men do not like that doctrine. They like to think they can reject Jesus Christ and yet be saved by their imagined morality, or in some other way. There is absolutely no foundation for such a hope. It is not the doctrine of ‘fierce old John Calvin’ nor of ‘bigoted Jonathan Edwards,’ it is the declaration of Jesus Christ. –R. A. Torrey, The Voice of God in the Present Hour (1917), p. 17

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