Showing posts with label Jonathan Edwards. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jonathan Edwards. Show all posts

March 10, 2011

Missing the Point of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"

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!”


April 15, 2010

Life Lessons from Jonathan Edwards


Mike Wittmer had a great post a few days ago about ministry lessons from Jonathan Edwards.  I didn't see it right away because I've been preoccupied writing a "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" VBS curriculum.

I completely agree that Prof. Marsden's biography of Edwards is absolutely fantastic. Edwards was both a pastor and a theologian and there is much that we can learn from his life in both of these areas. I just finished reading it a second time and enjoyed it just a much as the first time through.

One scene from Edwards' life could probably win an award for "most awkward moment." After his ugly dismissal from the church in Northampton, Edwards and his family had nowhere else to go and stayed in the town for about a year. On certain weeks the church was not able to find pulpit supply and had to suck it up and ask Edwards to fill in. I'm sure those Sundays were fun for everyone.

The fact that he was willing to do it says a lot about what kind of a man he was. Not too bad for a guy whose great-uncle was an ax-murderer.

One of the effects that Edwards' biography had on me was to remind me not to covet anyone's life. It is easy for an aspiring theologian to see grand achievements and accolades in Edwards' life and think that he would like to have them for himself. However, it is one thing to pick and choose the highlights of someone's life but another thing to want the whole package. After reading Prof. Marsden's book, I realized that although I admire Jonathan Edwards, I do not actually want his life.

Here is Dr. Wittmer's post:

Last week I made the time to carefully read through George Marsden’s magisterial biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. This is an important book for pastors, especially those in America. It seems important to know the finest pastor-theologian that our country has ever produced. At risk of oversimplifying an engrossing 500 page story, here in random order are a few things that we can learn from and about Edwards. Nate Archer recently took a doctoral class from Marsden on Edwards, so Nate, if you’re around, feel free to chime in.
1. Edwards died from a smallpox vaccination which he received when he became the president of Princeton. So there you have it—America’s greatest theologian, killed by Wellness Week.

2. Edwards was frugal. He wrote his indecipherably small script on the front and back of receipts and other scraps of paper. Edwards didn’t believe in wasting things, and he would probably approve of me and my old CRX.

3. Edwards always had scraps of paper with him so he could jot ideas down as they came to him and then pin them to his clothes. When he came home from a ride on his horse he would unpin his notes and organize them. He would have gone nuts with post-its.

4. Edwards was a perfectionist who probably wouldn’t have been too much fun to have around. He was better than you and he wasn’t shy about letting you know it. He was willing to die on principle, which is admirable but also got him fired.

5. America’s greatest theologian was fired from his pastorate in Northampton. This should encourage any pastor who feels like a failure in ministry.

6. Edwards intended to become an international figure. I didn’t appreciate this until I read Marsden, but Edwards’ rise was not an afterthought. He believed that he had the ability to become a significant theological force and he went for it.

7. It’s easy to go liberal but it’s hard to come back to a conservative position. The church in Northampton easily adopted the half-way covenant and even gave the Lord’s Supper to non-Christians (Solomon Stoddard called it a “converting ordinance”). But when Edwards sought to restrict the Lord’s Supper to genuine believers he got into trouble and ultimately lost his job.

8. Edwards emphasized both right doctrine and right practice. He taught that following Jesus lay as much in the affections as it did in sound theology and he sought ways to determine that a professing Christian truly was converted. See his Nature of Religious Affections for the definitive word on the subject.

9. Edwards and his generation lived under the constant threat of death. Whether it was from disease or from Indian attacks, death was never far away. Today we are more insulated from death and don’t appreciate how quickly we can die, even those of us who drive a CRX.

10. Whitefield was more gregarious and extemporaneous than Edwards. God uses a variety of temperaments and personalities, and we don’t have to become someone we’re not to have a worthwhile ministry.

11. Because it focused on the authenticity of the individual’s walk with God, the Great Awakening encouraged individualism and anti-authoritarianism. This in turn fostered the rise of those denominations, such as the Baptists and Methodists, who favored a more democratic, bottom-up approach.

12. In ways that sound similar to today’s world, Edwards sought to defend and develop orthodoxy to confront the dangers of rising secularism and liberalism. We are not the first American Christians to care about the boundaries of orthodoxy. For his part, Edwards seemed concerned about the slippery slope of Arminianism.

13. Edwards had one of the few good marriages among our Christian heroes of his day. Compared to Whitefield’s loveless marriage to an older woman and John Wesley’s decades-long separation from his wife, Edwards and his wife were the Brangelina of the 18th century. I’m pretty sure that last phrase has never been written before.

14. Because of the lack of available farmland and jobs, young people in Edwards’ day didn’t marry until their late twenties. This gave rise to sexual immorality, immaturity, and general debauchery, which provided fertile ground for the revivals to take hold (there were many unconverted church members).

15. Genuine conversion requires both drop and rescue. People must recognize their sin and guilt before they can be saved, but if they drop too far they may fall into despair and give up hope of salvation. We probably don’t drop sinners far enough today, while the first Great Awakening ended when Edwards’ uncle fell too far and committed suicide.
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