The Unfinished Sermon: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
The title of Jonathan Edwards’s most known sermon reads like a tragedy, but truly it magnifies the beauty of God’s sovereign grace and mercy toward sinful humanity. This sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, delivered on July 8, 1741, began like many others but ended with the lives of many being drastically changed forever.
Grace and Truth
Messy Grace, by Caleb Kaltenbach, is a book on learning how to respond to those who believe differently than you. His story is remarkable, and I highly recommend you read it. One quote from the book, however, stuck out above all others: “Love is the tension of grace and truth.” If you based your opinion of Jonathan Edwards on this one sermon, you would likely come to the conclusion that he was more concerned with telling the truth than he was with giving grace to the sinner.
There is certainly a need for speech to be gracious, seasoned with salt (in fact, it’s commanded in Colossians 4:6), but there are also times when the listener needs to be told a direct, hard truth. For example, not long ago, a close member of my family was living in blatant sin and rebellion against Jesus. I had the opportunity to encourage them to follow Christ regularly, speaking graciously and kindly, but my words were ignored. Shortly afterward, another family member also had an opportunity also to speak into the situation, saying bluntly, “You’re living in sin and you need to repent.” In this situation, these words spoke volumes louder than being gracious.
A lone rock stands today commemorating the location where this sermon would embed Enfield, Connecticut into church history. As the First Church of Christ gathered to meet in the second meeting house on a summer day in 1741, no one was anticipating a great move of God. In fact, even though revival was breaking out all over New England, the people of Enfield were becoming notorious for rejecting the supernatural awakening around them.
The people were not polite. The atmosphere was not welcoming. And Edwards wasn’t even the scheduled speaker for what would become the catalyst for a movement of God. Edwards was a guest at the church and was prepared to deliver a sermon he had delivered several times before with no notable response.
Potentially uncharacteristic of Edwards, this sermon was a “hellfire and brimstone” sermon. In his sermon, Edwards powerfully and effectively communicated the truth of the gospel. All have sinned and fall short of God’s perfect standard. All are condemned to Hell without Christ. It’s only by the mercy of God that sinners are not currently in Hell experiencing God’s great wrath against sin.
Edwards began his sermon by quoting Deuteronomy 32:35: “Their foot shall slide in due time.” He used this text to show that the Israelites would eventually face the judgment of God. The same judgment that the Israelites would face would be the same for all of those who had not placed their faith in Christ and Christ alone. The only reason their feet haven’t slid yet is due to God’s mercy and his sovereign timing.
After elaborating on the text, Edwards shifted to a more direct dialogue concerning his audience. There are ten points of this section of the sermon communicating the idea that “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” Edwards preached that apart from Christ, there is nothing we can do to avoid the wrath of God that is justifiably coming against us because of our sin.
In the last and longest part of Edwards’ sermon, he paints vivid depictions of the tortures of Hell and those currently being judged. He goes on to warn them of their offense against the infinite God whose fierce wrath they will be exposed to. Edwards implores his listeners to comprehend that “God hath had it on his heart to show to angels and men, both how excellent his love is, and also how terrible his wrath is.” His excellent love and terrible wrath are two-sides of his great justice.
Edwards concludes his sermon by calling all people of all ages out of their sinful lifestyles to embrace Christ. He rebukes his direct audience for seeing the reviving work of Christ all around them but refusing to join this movement of God. Edwards abruptly ends the sermon with a final admonition quoting Jesus’ warning in Matthew 3:10: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The response to the sermon was so swift and fierce that Edwards was unable to finish due to the immense volume of weeping from the congregation. It was recorded that parishioners clasped their hands to the pews in front of them due to fear that they would soon be thrown into the Lake of Fire. The hard-hearted resistance to God by the community of Enfield was struck with a fierce blow. Men, women, and children of all ages came to repentance and a saving knowledge of Jesus that day, and we have still not seen the end of the effects of this powerful sermon.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God placed Jonathan Edwards as one of the preeminent figures of the First Great Awakening. It has become one of the most influential and popular sermons in American Church history. In an age where people are afraid of speaking truth with the concern that someone will be offended, the modern church must remember that the truth must still be told. We can be encouraged by the example of Edwards to speak the truth even when it is difficult to hear. It might just change the world.
Lucas Smith has served in full-time ministry since 2011 and holds MDiv and MA in Biblical Languages degrees from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He currently serves as Associate Pastor of Youth and Families at Eastern Heights Baptist Church in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.