Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is known by believers and non-believers alike. High school seniors and college freshmen usually encounter Edwards’ sermon in English class, and the responses to the sermon are, I surmise, universal. “Boo!” “This guy is all doom and gloom.” “God is love, not wrath.”
R.C. Sproul encounters Edwards’ sermon in The Holiness of God. Chapter 9 is titled, “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.”
Perhaps the most famous sermon ever preached in America was Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Not only has the sermon been reproduced in countless catalogs of preaching, but it is also included in most anthologies of early American literature. So scandalous is this vivid portrayal of unconverted people’s precarious state under the threat of hell that some modern analysts have called it utterly sadistic.
Edwards’ sermon is filled with graphic images of the fury of divine wrath and the horror of the relentless punishment of the wicked in hell. Such sermons are out of vogue in our age and generally considered in poor taste and based on a pre-enlightened theology. Sermons stressing the fierce wrath of a holy God aimed at impenitent human hearts do not fit with the civic meeting hall atmosphere of the local church. Gone are the Gothic arches; gone are the stained-glass windows; gone are the sermons that stir the soul to moral anguish. Ours is an upbeat generation with the accent on self-improvement and a broad-minded view of sin.
Our thinking goes like this: If there is a God at all, He is certainly not holy. If He is perchance holy, He is not just. Even if He is both holy and just, we need not fear because His love and mercy override His holy justice. If we can stomach His holy and just character, we can rest in one thing: He cannot possess wrath.
If we think soberly for five seconds, we must see our error. If God is holy at all, if God has an ounce of justice in His character, indeed if God exists as God, how could He possibly be anything else but angry with us? We violate His holiness; we insult His justice; we make light of His grace. These things can hardly please Him.
Edwards understood the nature of God’s holiness. He perceived that unholy people have much to fear from such a God. Edwards had little need to justify a scare theology. His consuming nee3 was to preach about God’s holiness; to preach it vividly, emphatically, convincingly, and powerfully. He did this not out of a sadistic delight in frightening people but out of compassion. He loved his congregation enough to warn them of the dreadful consequences of facing the wrath of God. He was not concerned with laying a guilt trip on his people but with awakening them to the peril they faced if they remained unconverted.
R. C. Sproul. The Holiness of God (Kindle Locations 1765-1779). Kindle Edition.