I can’t believe this has sat in my ‘Drafts’ box for almost a year. It’s true. So with a few edits and additions it should still make sense as this year I aim to hit the deadline!
July 8th is the anniversary of the most famous – or infamous – sermon preached by Jonathan Edwards at Enfield, Connecticut July 8, 1741 on the text ‘Their foot shall slide in due time’ Deut. 32:35 with the title; ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’.
On July 7th (2014) I was talking to a Christian work colleague about this sermon though completely unaware of the date. They had never heard of it. The very next day I discovered ‘Issues etc’ had reviewed the sermon on July 7th (2014) in ‘celebration’ of the following historic day. I related this the following day at work. Then on that Sunday evening (2014) it was mentioned again (unaware of the date I think) as part of the introduction to the ministry at our Church. So as the sermon is ‘still’ on my mind I’ll get to it..
It’s been some while since reading the sermon and because I suspect a good number of people will be completely unaware of the sermon by Edwards I mention it here. Before saying much I needed to re-read the sermon. The sermon text is formatted very well for reading or printing HERE.
You will find the sermon text appearing in anthologies in many University departments, and not just in Departments of Religion but in English & History departments and will probably find it in Psychology as well. Check out your University Library catalogue. It will mostly be an object of wonder and incredulity that such a great mind was able to produce something so utterly horrific – so would say the secular mind and sadly I suspect many Christians. The fact that Edwards was one of the greatest minds America has ever produced was a source of amazement to Perry Miller. Miller thought Edwards religion ‘a waste of an intellect’. I think this quote is in Millers’s volume on Edwards. Funny how it didn’t stop Miller spending most of his life studying him and The Puritans though!
I was surprised to find Issues etc both critiquing and criticising the sermon, especially for its lack of Gospel content. It was an eye opener for me (my naivety) regarding Lutheranism – at least that section of it. I completely disagree. Set in the context of Edwards target parishioners, the sermon and the fact that it wasn’t his regular topic should make us cautious in analysing the sermon. Back in Edwards day there was an acceptance that God hates and judges sin. I also disagree as to its Gospel content or application. It blazes out against the backdrop of God’s wrath. The context of the sermon is that in the midst of a ‘Revival’ where many sinners are turning to Christ for salvation the people in Enfield are careless about the things of God, careless for their souls and are not embracing the Saviour by responding to the Gracious invitation of The Gospel. This is stated in the very first sentence of the sermon – ‘…. God’s visible people, and who lived under the means of grace; but who, notwithstanding all God’s wonderful works towards them, remained (as in verse 28) void of counsel, having no understanding in them’.
For more on this sermon see George Marsden’s book ‘Jonathan Edwards: A Life‘ pages 219 – 226. Note page 224:
‘When Isaac Watts received the printed version of the sermon he wrote on his copy: “A most terrible sermon, which should have had a word of Gospel at the end [of] it, though I think ’tis all true”. Edwards had offered this one brief Gospel word, but if one had taken this sermon as characteristic of his preaching, it would have been dreadfully out of balance. Edwards could take it for granted, however, that a New England audience knew well that Gospel remedy. The problem was to get them to seek it.’
Also see Iain Murray’s book ‘Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography’ page 169 ff.
The sermon is mentioned on page 87 in ‘America: A Narrative History’ by George Brown Tindall & David Emory Still (1997, 4th Edition) as ‘his most famous sermon’. ‘America’ was a course textbook for A History of America course that I took while studying for a BA at Warwick University.
The sermon was preached by Edwards several times, at least twice anyway. According to Harry S. Stout it was preached at Edwards church in Northampton with little effect (The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, Hart, Lucas, Nichols, Eds. p.43). But when it was preached at Enfield ‘the effects were extraordinary’. An eye-witness account by the Reverend Stephen Williams tells that, ‘before ye sermon was done there was a great moaning and crying out throughout ye whole House. What shall I do to be saved-oh I am going to Hell-oh what shall I do for a christ etc. etc.-so that ye minister was obliged to desist. [The] shrieks and crys were piercing and Amazing. (p.43)’. It seems then, Edwards was unable to finish the sermon due to cries of the affected people crying out for mercy.
I’ll just make a few observations with appropriate quotes from the sermon. Followed by a closing application.
Before moving on however, let’s note the title. Three words that do not sit well with our modern world – Sinners, Angry & God.
Once the meaning is grasped and even if it isn’t, people do not like the idea of being called a ‘sinner’. Never have, and never will. Why do people take umbrage and think there is something special about them that entitles a free pass? It’s our pride that is offended; though there is nothing to be proud of before Almighty God. We are all in the same boat. The Bible plainly tells us ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God’. Apart from the Grace of God we are all condemned. It’s a great leveler.
Being angry these days is not an option. Anybody that is angry is in danger of receiving at the very least a bad press or even the sack. But we should be very careful and never think that God’s anger is like ours. God’s anger is always a Righteous & Holy anger. The object of His anger is anything that doesn’t conform to His Glorious character – that’s us. We are rebel sinners, shaking our fists at God – either consciously or unconsciously. And we don’t like anyone pointing that out to us. Frankly, if we had any sense and were in our right mind, this sermon should scare the pants off us and drive us to Christ in repentance and faith.
Note Edwards God (The God of The Bible) is not the modern manifestation of God – a whimsical fluffy deity able to be manipulated by His creatures. Typically, recent discussions in the CofE and the ‘Gay’ marriage debate vision a God that moves with the times without a care for what He has said in His Word (The Bible).
Note the following passages that should disabuse sinful pretentious men of a fluffy view of The Almighty in their rebellion against God:
‘The observation from the words that I would now insist upon is this.
“There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell,
but the mere pleasure of God.” By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his
sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation…’
Edwards moves on setting out several ‘considerations’ that back up this truth about God:
‘…. There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment. Men’s hands cannot be strong when God rises up. The strongest have no power to resist him, nor can any deliver out of his hands.-He is not only able to cast wicked men into hell, but he can most easily do it. Sometimes an earthly prince meets with a great deal of difficulty to subdue a rebel, who has found means to fortify himself, and has made himself strong by the numbers of his followers. But it is not so with God. There is no fortress that is any defense from the power of God. Though hand join in hand, and vast multitudes of God’s enemies combine and associate themselves, they are easily broken in pieces. ….’
God stands as the Potter. We are but clay. Rebellious clay at that. These are terrible truths. In the last paragraph of the section where he lays out our plight before God, he writes:
‘…. thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, ….’
Edwards moves into his application and tells us again the purpose of the message. ‘The use of this awful subject may be for awakening unconverted persons in this congregation. This that you have heard is the case of every one of you that are out of Christ.’ Sometimes we hear sermons and it can be difficult to know just who the preacher is addressing. Not so with Edwards. It’s those people in the congregation that are rejecting the Gospel and yet still presume come the day of wrath God will welcome them into heaven. This is a sermon of compassion, of love for the people and love for the honour of God and His truth as found in the Gospel of Christ.
To hear sermons on this topic today are relatively rare. Are they rare because as people, including preachers, we are not so conscious or aware of God’s Holiness and His burning purity or hatred of sin. That’s a bad thing. The fault is in us, not with Edwards. And yet probably like you I’ve sat under so-called Hell-Fire’ preaching where the people are completely unmoved. Some years ago I had the opportunity of preaching to a congregation of elderly people. This meeting would happen once a month. As you stand at the end and they file past to have their cup of tea they say something along the lines of ‘lovely sermon’. You have just preached to them the dreadful consequences of being lost, of not repenting, of rejecting Christ and they say ‘lovely sermon’. They are unmoved – at least outwardly. O how we need the Spirit of God to move in the hearts of the unregenerate, to awaken them (maybe you) to their need. I do not criticised these things, but it’s not our polished delivery, it’s not our pulpit eloquence or our deep learning that raises the dead – it’s the Spirit of God.
Edwards in the final sections of the sermon urges his hearers;
‘And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who 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 one moment in such a condition? Are not your souls as precious as the souls of the people at Suffield, where they are flocking from day to day to Christ?’
‘And 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 harken 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. 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.”‘
Observations & Comments
It’s true, it is a terrifying sermon. And yet, it will continue to be dissected, critiqued and criticised. It will also be ignored. Did they not do this with Jesus too when upon the earth.
Even many Christians have never heard of it. Are we embarrassed by it? By its plainness of speech. Does not Edwards accurately describe our condition before a Holy God. Does not Edwards rightly expose us all to the God of the Bible? This is no whimsical deity that can be manipulated by our supposed good deeds. There is only one remedy for our hopeless estate – the blood of Christ!
An Application for Today
Just as Edwards people were not embracing the Gospel, we in the West take for granted the love of God and are just as careless for the things of the true and living God. There’s a lot of talk about God’s love today, but not a lot of talk about it being a Holy & Righteous love. It’s spoken of as if we somehow are doing God a favour by allowing Him to love us. The attitude is that God will love us anyway no matter how much we reject and twist His Word. We re-define marriage, we murder children in the womb, we abuse His good gifts of male & female and yet expect Him to just roll over, ignore His Word and love us anyway. We expect to Him love us with no repentance and without The Gospel. Politicians – like David Cameron & Barrack Obama – speak loosely of ‘The Christian Faith’ or of the love of God but utterly reject His Word and treat The Lord Christ as if He was just one option out a plethora of religions. There are no options. They are presumptuous, in many ways the worst kind of sinner. Christ is the ONLY way, the ONLY truth and the ONLY life. To reject Him is to reject God’s way, God’s truth and God’s life as offered in the Gospel. The are only two options – it’s either repent & believe the Gospel or expect to be cast into hell. The sermon by Edwards is criticised, rejected as abhorrent, as Politically Incorrect, as divisive, as Hate Speech, but is it loving to tell people, sinners, that all will be well when the truth is their Christ rejecting ideologies will sweep them into Hell & Judgement. I say no.
Those of us that by the grace of God have been brought to repentance faith – we know our hearts are wicked and depraved and without the grace of God would be swept into hell. Our hearts too are ‘idol factories’ and are no better than the worst of sinners. Like Paul we know in some measure the terror of the Lord and so persuade men to repent and believe the Gospel of the grace of God.
We perhaps work with people or have family members that have heard ‘the joyful sound that Jesus saves’ but say it isn’t for them. They assume all will be well – whatever that means. But all will not be well. The judgement upon those that have been surrounded by Christians will be truly awful. It isn’t just a case of passing over Christianity in preference for another religion, or even no religion, but they have in fact rejected the grace of God. They are in the world but without hope. They will be lost to the torments of hell.
May we as God’s people be challenged to consider just how gracious and merciful God has been to us. Will you, O lost sinner not see your danger and flee to Christ.