The one thing that most people know about Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is that he preached an infamous sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This sermon was used by God in what is called The Great Awakening, a surprising work of God in which great masses of people in colonial America realized their need for a Savior and fled to Jesus Christ. In these revivals, some people were gripped so deeply with the reality of their situation that they would shake uncontrollably. But what people today usually associate with this sermon is hellfire, brimstone, and a sick and cruel portrait of God.
I recently heard an audio clip in which a pastor spent a large part of his sermon railing against “New Calvinists.” He described these Young, Restless, and Reformed people as a new wave of fundamentalists who wear t-shirts saying things like “Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy.” He then explained to his congregation that this is bad because Jonathan Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He then read this excerpt:
“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.”
After reading this clip the pastor stated, “There goes that whole ‘friend of God' thing right? Because I don’t think someone is your friend who is holding you over the pit.”
Most people completely misunderstand the point of this sermon. They assume that God is holding us over the pit to mentally torment us like some sort of sadist. That is what the quote above—part of one paragraph from the middle of the sermon—seems to imply. What they don’t understand is that Edwards’ point in the full context of the sermon is that it is out of God’s grace that He is holding us over the fire. God is holding us over the fire rather than dropping us into the fire.
In fact, in the same paragraph as quoted above, Edwards states that, “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.” Being in God’s hands is better than being dropped into the pit.
Edwards’ text for this sermon was Deuteronomy 32:35, “Their foot shall slide in due time.” His point for the unsaved is that their present security will not last. They are like a man walking on a slippery surface who could unexpectedly fall at any moment. Eventually, they will slip. Edwards described them as walking over the pit of hell on a covering of rotted wood that could give way at any moment. When that happens, they will fall by their own weight.
The point is that every moment that we draw breath in this life is an undeserved moment that we are not in hell. While we still live we have an undeserved opportunity to come to Christ to be saved. However this life, and that opportunity, will not last forever. There will come a time when we slip from this life.
This sermon is addressed to those who are still outside of Christ. It is a passionate plea for them to realize the eternal danger they are in and to flee to Christ for salvation while they still have the opportunity. Edwards is not describing saved people as being held over the pit. Those who have genuinely trusted Christ as their Savior are forever safe. The ones who are still in danger are those who do not have a Mediator between themselves and God. But even for these men and women, it is by God’s grace and mercy that God’s hand upholds them now. God is rightfully angry with them because of their sin and rebellion. God would be perfectly righteous if He removed His hand and allowed justice to take its course. It is not surprising for a righteous Judge to judge the guilty. It is surprising for an offended God to continue to hold the guilty in His hands.
This is difficult for us to grasp because we live in soft times. We expect church to soothe us and for people to live until their 80s. In Edwards’ time most people died young.
Hell is real. Hell is terrible. Hell is eternal. It is not the preacher who pleads with his people to escape the danger of hell who is unloving. It is the preacher who soothes the minds of the perishing who does not love his people. A fireman who brings a pillow to a child in a burning building is not a loving person.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a sermon about God’s surprising mercy. Near the end of the sermon Edwards proclaims:
“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!”