A Close reading of Sinners in the hands of an angry God

Part 3 of our look at the 1741 Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” involves a close reading of the sermon. It’s not too long, for a sermon, but we’re not going to go over every word of it here for the sake of space. Instead, we’ll look at chronological excerpts that make the main points. When italics are my own, and not Edwards’, I will note it.

The sermon takes off from the Bible verse “Their foot shall slide in due time”, from Deut. 32:35

“In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, who were God’s visible people, and who lived under the means of grace; but who, notwithstanding all God’s wonderful works towards them, remained (as vers 28.) void of counsel, having no understanding in them.”

—Edwards begins with the comparison of the ancient Israelites of the Old Testament of the Bible with his modern-day New England listeners. In the Old Testament, God is constantly chastising the Israelites for their sin and lack of faith, so Edwards’ listeners would have guessed what was coming.

“…they were always exposed to destruction; as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall. …they were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction… Another thing implied is, that they are liable to fall of themselves… [and] that the reason why they are not fallen already and do not fall now is only that God’s appointed time is not come.”

—Because of their sin, humans are always on the verge of being sent to Hell by God. They are already damned by their sin, so there is no question that Hell awaits them, but the time God appointed (aeons ago) for them to go to Hell has not yet come. So don’t be comforted by the fact that you haven’t slipped into Hell yet—it’s only a matter of time.

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

—As soon as God decides it’s your time to take your punishment, you will; there is nothing you can do about it. This is a crucial Calvinist idea; you cannot choose God or salvation, you cannot change God’s mind. He will reiterate this tirelessly throughout this sermon, but, as we mentioned in part 2, he will also continually urge people to do something—to seek a remedy. He will also urge people not to continue in their sin, which is tantamount to telling them to choose good/God.

“They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God’s using his power at any moment to destroy them… it is nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God’s mere will, that holds it back. They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell.”

—God’s judgment is never wrong. So if you love someone and think they are a good person who could never be sent to Hell by a good God, you are mistaken in your judgment and God is right in His. Every sinner would be in Hell right now if it weren’t suiting God’s purposes to keep them on Earth for the moment. Notice the use of the word “arbitrary” in “the hand of arbitrary mercy”: there is no reason for God to hold back, and so his decision to do so is arbitrary mercy, in that we can never understand why God would ever suffer sinners to live in happiness on Earth for one moment, let alone long lifetimes.

Throughout the sermon Edwards, like many Christians before him, speaks of God’s “pleasure”, as in “it pleases God to hold back”.  This does not mean pleasure as we think of it, but is merely a synonym for “will”. It’s not that God derives happiness or pleasure from condemning humans; it’s just that it’s God’s will to punish those who are sinful.

“There is this clear evidence that men’s own wisdom is no security to them from death; that if it were otherwise we should see some difference between the wise and politic men of the world, and others, with regard to their liableness to early and unexpected death: but how is it in fact? [In Eccles. 2:16 it says] ‘How dieth the wise man? even as the fool.'”

—If you have spent time reasoning away your sin or damnation, you are in big trouble. It’s people who think they’re smart enough to outwit God and their fate who burn the brightest in Hell. If your smarts mattered at all then wise men wouldn’t die early or unexpectedly, such deaths being proof positive of God suddenly decided to withdraw His arbitrary mercy and let you go to Hell.

“Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security; he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do… They hear indeed that there are but few saved, and that the greater part of men that have died heretofore are gone to hell; but each one imagines that he lays out matters better for his own escape than others have done.”

—We all think it won’t happen to us, right? But really, if this were a true Puritan audience of even 50 years earlier, it would be the opposite: nearly everyone in the audience would think it would happen to them, because they were not sure they were saved. This excerpt is proof of how times had changed in New England by 1741. As people lost touch with the idea of searching for God’s grace to know His will, they lost their sharp fear of Hell, and began to wonder, at least to some extent, if the “damned until proven saved” mindset was really accurate.

“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. 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 upon, nor any thing 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.”

—Now Edwards comes to the “Application” of his sermon, in which he tells the congregation how his topic pertains to them. This would be more pertinent to a study of the shepherd and his flock or the parable of the ten virgins, but in this case, the audience certainly knew how it applied to them. Edwards has made it very clear that everyone is damned and about to fall into Hell, and everyone means everyone. This is the first of many graphic descriptions of Hell in the sermon, and it was recorded that in this sermon as in others that focused on damnation, people began to cry and scream in the church as their terror mounted.

“…all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God.”

—Here we get our title. But this is one of those confusing passages that introduces the anti-Puritan, pro-Arminian view that you as a sinful human can change, that God can and will change you, and make you new, and remove you from sin. Edwards has previously toed the Puritan, Calvinist line that no one can change their sinful nature and there’s nothing you can do to change God’s mind, and the only reason God hasn’t sent you to Hell yet is because it’s not time. Now he seems to be saying you can change, that God will change His mind and take away your sin, and that you haven’t been sent to Hell yet because God is waiting for you to ask Him for this transformation. It’s just the first of many calls to action that the first part of the sermon seemed to make redundant.

The verb tense is passive—you are “made new” and “raised up” by God—so in that sense even if you are cleansed it’s not because of anything you have done; God has decided to do this for and to you on His own. Yet how could God decide this if His mind has been irrevocably made up about you since before the dawn of time?

“You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have… nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.” [my italics]

—Here is another whipsaw passage: Edwards has just told you in the last quote that you need to be changed and made holy, and a listener could be forgiven for assuming that they need to actively seek this. But here again there is nothing you can do to persuade God to help you at all.

“…Thus it will be with you that are in an unconverted state, if you continue in it; the infinite might, and majesty, and terribleness of the omnipotent God shall be magnified upon you, in the ineffable strength of your torments.” [my italics]

—Again, one is urged not to continue in sin, but what you can do to stop sinning, and get God to save you, is not specified. The passive tense used throughout seems to say that you can’t influence God to save you, God will do this to/for you, but on the other hand, you are urged to sort of get God interested in doing so (in again unspecified ways).

“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!”

—Yes, it would be terrible to be left behind when everyone else is saved and headed to Heaven, but, as the anguished congregation must have cried out, how do you avoid it?? This passage is especially cruel in its vagary. Christ has thrown open the doors to Heaven, and sinners are flocking to Him, and thus being saved. Somehow. What is “flocking to” Christ? What does one actually do? What did those who were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, but who are now in a happy state, actually do to achieve this transformation, and salvation? Edwards does not say.

Clearly, the door being flung open means that the number of the saved is suddenly going to be increased, for some reason of God’s own, at this moment. Your name no longer has to be on the list—for this short time only, you can become saved, but how?

“God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the greater part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time…”

—Everyone who will ever be saved is being saved right now. Time is short. But again, what you do to become elect is unspecified.

“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.”

—This is the concluding paragraph of the sermon. It’s fitting that it should close with another confusing order to do something to change your fate, even though humans can do nothing, and to fly from God’s wrath even though you’re never told how to do that.

One can appreciate why so many people became so distraught during sermons like this one. The time of religious change and upheaval it came out of led it to mash together different doctrines, without making one sensible new doctrine out of the group, but rather a crazy-quilt of  conflicting demands. If it had been truly Puritan, there would not have been two dozen graphic, drawn-0ut descriptions of Hell or vague orders to change God’s mind about your soul. It would have quietly encouraged you to seek God’s will and draw strength from God’s goodness. If it had been truly Arminian, it would have come out and said you can accept God and reject Satan and earn salvation by doing so.

As it is, the sermon stirs up terror and grief, but offers no way out from them. In the next post, we’ll wrap up our look at this sermon and its time.

Next time: What the sermon says about its time

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