Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?

Rev. Tony Cooke

I just had the pleasure of visiting the grave of one of America’s greatest preachers, Jonathan Edwards (thank you, Eddie Storino, for driving me over to Princeton, NJ). Edwards has long been one of my heroes, and his name is linked inseparably to America’s Great Awakening. After the video, I’ll share written reflections on Edwards’ famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, as well as a few pictures.

Countless ministers have worked diligently (and rightfully so) to emphasize that God is good and that he loves people. I count myself among them. So, what shall we do with a sermon from 1741 entitled, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God? It’s easy to judge it (or misjudge it) merely by the title, but recently, I’ve been listening to it and reading it, trying to grasp its message and to understand its effect on those who first heard it.

As harsh as the title sounds, I think it’s good to first consider its scriptural background and context. In other words, does the New Testament itself present harsh warnings for those who reject God? Consider these four:

John the Baptist: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’”(Matthew 3:7 NKJV).

Jesus: “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18 NKJV).

Paul: “…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 NKJV).

Jude: “…others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (Jude 23 NKJV).

In order to understand Edwards’ approach, it is essential to realize that he was not speaking to those who trust in Christ, to those who have been born-again and are forgiven. He makes it clear that this sermon is aimed at the unregenerate, to those who have rejected God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice. It is to them that he issues stark, austere, and severe warnings.

Hell is an absolute reality in Edwards’ sermon, and he is pleading for the lost to immediately act and cry out to God. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is a shock-and-awe sermon. I found myself wincing at some of his harsh language, but I recognize that Edwards’ was doing everything within his power to awaken the spiritually dead and bring repentance to those headed for destruction and a Christless eternity.

Of Edwards’ sermon, Peter F. Gunther wrote:

Probably no sermon has ever had the effect of this one. It was interrupted by outcries from the congregation—men and women stood up and rolled on the floor, their cries once drowning out the voice of the preacher. Some are said to have laid hold on the pillars and braces of the church, apparently feeling that at that very moment their feet were sliding, that they were being precipitated into hell. All through the house one could hear the cries of those feeling themselves lost, crying to God for mercy.

Here are a few excerpts from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God:

“There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”

“That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God. There is hell’s wide gaping mouth open, and you have nothing to stand on, nor anything to take hold of. There is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up… Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead and to tend downward with great weight and pressure toward hell. If God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf.”

“It is nothing but his mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction.”

“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… There is no other reason to given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up.”

“You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it and ready every moment to singe it and to burn it asunder.”

Was There Anything “Positive” in the Sermon?

Edwards did far more than dangle the unconverted over the pit of hell; he told them of God’s love and his wonderful offer of forgiveness and salvation.

“Now God stands ready to pity you. This is a day of mercy. You may cry now with some encouragement of obtaining mercy… here you are in the land of the living and have an opportunity to obtain salvation. What would not those poor, damned, hopeless souls give for one day’s opportunity such as you enjoy now. And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day when Christ has flung the door of mercy wide open and stands in the door calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flowing to Him and pressing into the Kingdom of God… Many 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…”

Toward the very end of his sermon, Edwards pleaded, “Let everyone that is out of Christ now awake and flee from the wrath to come.”

A copy of Edwards’ famous sermon. Picture taken in the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC.

A copy of Gilbert Tennents’ sermon on The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry. He argued that dead men (spiritually speaking) cannot give life. Tennent was a friend of and co-laborer with both Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Picture taken in the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC.

The grave of Jonathan Edwards in Princeton, NJ. Buried within a few feet are Aaron Burr Jr (VP of the United States, remembered for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel) and John Witherspoon (the only clergyman and college president to sign the Declaration of Independence). A bit farther away in the same cemetery is the grave of Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th President of the United States).