Paul's Passing Thoughts

TANC 2015 – Susan Dohse, Session 3 – Jonathan Edwards: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

Posted in Uncategorized by pptmoderator on October 5, 2015

Jonathan Edward’s  famous sermon Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God delivered to a congregation in Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741, is often the only thing written by him some will ever read. American literature courses in high school and college include excerpts, and maybe the entire sermon in literature anthologies. It is usually presented to portray the awfulness of the Puritans and their Calvinistic religion. This was not the only hell fire sermon he delivered, yet, it is the one selected to represent Edwards and the Great Awakening movevent.  Contrary to YouTube and others who do dramatic presentations of this sermon, Edwards was not a pulpit pounding, foaming at the mouth, shouting minister. All of his messages were delivered in his low voice, almost monotone, with little emotion.

The old Puritan Way was eroding in New England for political and demographic reasons. They were no longer the majority population and most people living in 1720  who were born in the Congregational churches took it seriously, but did not regard the ministry or church doctrine with the respect their forebearers had felt.  Congregationalism wasn’t dead; most Congregationalists were still very concerned with their souls.  They just did not respond passionately to traditional Congregationalism anymore.  Voila! Enter the First of the Awakenings sometimes referred to as the Small Awakening. The revivals caught on. They addressed the people’s desire to be passionate about religion again.  In the absence of a literal wilderness to fight against, New Englanders in the 1730’s and 40’s fought against a spiritual wilderness. Preachers such as Whitfield and Edwards fought against the apathy and religious complacency that had replaced the Puritan religious zeal. Puritan religious zeal was more and more being transferred to politics.

Edwards appreciated the religious revivals because it brought people back to church and got them passionate about religion again. After all, true conversion was connected to the church.  Edwards being the theo-philosopher, and amateur psychologist of his time, was given opportunity to study and document the psychological steps involved in religious conversion.  Pre-occupied by this documentation, he did not realize that many who came to church in fear of damnation, did not come to believe that they were saved and fell into despair. Some took their own lives, such as Edwards’ uncle,  Joseph Hawley, who slit his throat in despair of his soul’s damnation.  Is there any question as to why this awakening faded in 1735?

It was sparked back to life in 1740 when the famous English Anglican minister George Whitfield answered Edwards’ request to come preach in Northampton. Whitfield convinced Edwards to preach the full revival.  What some do not know is the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was delivered by Edwards at least four times to four different congregations. He studied the make-up and psychology of each audience, and made changes to the sermon to accommodate each one. The first time he delivered the sermon was in his home church of Northampton and he was able to give the full sermon without interruption.  He repeated the sermon at Enfield, but his preaching reduced the audience to wailing, and loud crying, that drowned out the voice of Edwards before he could arrive at his hopeful conclusion.

In the sermon, he crafted his words, illustrations, and metaphors to inspire terror, to lead his listeners systematically and authoritatively to repent and humble themselves before the grace of a loving God in the hope of obtaining salvation.   His sermons were never concerned with persuading sinners to come to Christ or accept salvation. For the devout Calvinist only the arbitrary election of God determined who would be saved. (Voices of Democracy (2006)

The puzzles of his sermon:

  • He tells people they are in immediate danger of hell, urges them not to continue in their sinful ways, and seek a remedy for their sin. As a Calvinist, he cannot tell them to accept Christ and be saved—he doesn’t believe that. So the remedy is very vague, ie, “Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.”
  •  The emotional nature of his sermon is a puzzle. Edwards disliked hysterical emotionalism that was often connected to these revivals. Remember the Three Bears principle.  He did not approve or encourage his listeners to cry out in church, throw themselves on the floor, or any other dramatic thing. But he could not get the congregation to calm down so that he could finish his message.
  • Puritan ministers usually did not deliver hellfire sermons. He usually focused on the process of searching for God’s grace, the technical points of how to read God’s word, and how to live godly lives.   They were not focused on hell and damnation because he assumed that most people in the audience did not know their state and so haranguing them about hell would be counter-productive.
  • Edwards tells them that very few humans are saved, and even says that most of their friends and loved ones who have died, are undoubtedly in hell. It’s puzzling that he admonishes them to seek the remedy.
  • It’s puzzling that being a Calvinist purist he included Arminian ideas: that God can change your heart (the Puritans believed that to be impossible because God never changed his creation); that humans can become good (Puritans thought that impossible); and that God can decide to save someone previously condemned to hell (again, Puritans believed your fate was determined before the world was created). He repeats that there is nothing humans can do to avoid Hell, and then says humans have to do something, ie, “Thus it will be with you that are in an unconverted state, if you continue in it.”  Saying if you continue in it clearly implies that you can choose not to continue in your sin, and thus can do something to save yourself.

It makes you wonder if Edwards would be surprised to know that “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” would seal his everlasting fame. It was only one of his hellfire revival sermons, and not indicative of the bulk of his work. If he had his druthers, he would likely have chosen his writings on the conversion process, the qualifications one needed for full church membership, even his study of spiders and rainbows to have lived on in popularity instead.

Regardless of this sermon, let’s take a look at the “afterglow” of Jonathan Edwards’ legacy.

Mark Driscoll preaches that God personally hates you and preached a sermon from Mars Hill that drew much comment and complaint.  Rick Holland in his book Uneclipsing the Son tells the reader that God is rightfully angry with us and at us, ie, “Our sin draws His wrath like a magnet draws steel.”  Jonathan Edwards’ sermon depicts an angry God, as does his treatise The End of the Wicked; and Driscoll, Holland and Piper follow in the bend of their beloved icon.

John Piper’s version of Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God after the bridge collapse in Minneapolis: “That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live. If we could see the eternal calamity from which he is offering escape we would hear this as the most precious message in the world. The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that we are sinners and need to repent.”

Those of the Calvinist bent inherited from John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards a picture of God who is constantly angry about something or someone and use portions of Scripture such as Nahum 1 as proof texts: “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The Lord takes vengeance on his foes, and vents his wrath against his enemies.”

We fail to appreciate the difference between an angry God and a God who gets angry.  Jonathan Edwards is the poster child for the angry God group, ie, “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.”

According to a study which analyzed the results of a Gallup survey, belief in an angry God is “significantly associated with an increase in social anxiety, paranoia, obsession, and compulsion.”  When you are told repeatedly that you are totally depraved, worthless, and deserve God’s wrath, your mental, emotional, and spiritual health is in peril.  Who would want to join in a relationship with someone who is angry with you all the time? Edwards’ God is bound by His anger, and according to the theology of this American icon, has no choice but to be constantly angry at mankind, that’s His fundamental nature.

Consider this: God is not an angry God; God is a God who sometimes gets angry. A God who gets angry when anger is needed, like we see in Isaiah. God is angry at the hypocrisy of his children. He is angry with their evil deeds and ungodly behavior. But in His anger He gives the remedy: “[w]ash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right, seek justice, defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17) Quite a different remedy from the one of Edwards, isn’t it? “Therefore let everyone who is out of Christ fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of God is  now undoubtedly hanging over a great number of you.”

Consider this:  churches justify the spiritual abuse of their members because they work out of a place of anger, fear, and hate, thinking this is how God wants them to act. This is what ministers have been taught over the years, and this is what they teach to their congregations. So they pour out their wrath from a never dry well because they are embodying in themselves the type of God they believe in—a God who is fundamentally angry, and who has to be constantly angry otherwise He won’t be the omnipotent Being they need him to be, and want to be themselves, powerful and angry. (Zack Hunt)

We need God to get angry. When He sees oppression, injustice, spiritual abuse and tyranny in His house, we need Him to get angry because this is not the way He created us to be. God is not an angry God who wants His people to suffer, God is a God who gets angry when He sees His people suffer.

As believers, we are under the law of love, not under the law of condemnation. Let’s rejoice in that truth, let’s raise our hands and shout Amen to that truth of Scripture, not elevate dead men to hero status. Let’s refuse to make their false doctrines, their misrepresentations of God, and misuse of God’s Word as mission statements and church constitutions.

The insanity must end. We must continue to work to end it.  John 17:17 says, “Father, sanctify them through the truth, thy word is truth.”

Session 3, Blog TalkRadio Podcast

4 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on October 10, 2015 at 1:55 PM

    “We need God to get angry. When He sees oppression, injustice, spiritual abuse and tyranny in His house, we need Him to get angry because this is not the way He created us to be. God is not an angry God who wants His people to suffer, God is a God who gets angry when He sees His people suffer.”

    This is such a great point. They mislead people about God’s anger and worse they declare Him unjust by claiming He levels sin to be all the same. Whether you yell at your dog or molest a child…God is angry at the sin….equally. Thanks thinking is totally unjust and a culture of death.


  2. Oasis said, on October 13, 2015 at 8:12 AM

    Agree 100% with Anonymous.

    I was just watching this video, and it made me very happy to hear what was said about anger and those who refuse to make a stand. Sometimes I feel like the only person on the planet who actually gets ANGRY about false doctrine (especially the kind that presents God as an immoral, abusive monster)…the only person who actually CARES about the despair, the suicides, all of the wreckage vulnerable people are put through. I have ZERO tolerance for this kind of thing. NONE.


    • Paul M. Dohse Sr. said, on October 13, 2015 at 9:27 AM

      I think this is the pulse of many in our day. Abuse in the church is just an accepted news cycle.


  3. Oasis said, on October 13, 2015 at 1:14 PM

    Andy, yes, all kinds of outrageous accusations, if anyone even looks up… How good it is to be understood!

    Thank you for repeating that one point, and for the rest of your comment, including the funny (at least to me) meme, because it all really hit my heart just now and revolutionized my day. I absolutely never get tired of being reminded of what God is really like (and what kind of creatures we are)…nothing is sweeter to me, nothing more healing. So awesome.


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