The Puritan sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” presents a blatant and seemingly hopeless tone regarding the doom of unrepentant humanity. However, upon a closer and more intentional examination of this piece, its potential to establish within its audience a sincere reverence of the Biblical God becomes clear. In his acclaimed sermon, Jonathan Edwards’ commentary on the wrath of the Biblical God highlights a juxtaposition between the justice and mercy of the Almighty. Although it may be argued that contradictions are present within Edwards’ sermon, this juxtaposition allows for a more holistic understanding of the Biblical God; it also presents the opportunity for the audience to find peace in this divine completeness.
In his explanation of the wrath of God, Edwards asserts that the just anger of the Biblical God will not be enacted until God Himself commands it. his introduces a juxtaposition in Edwards’ sermon between a Biblical God’s desire to demonstrate mercy and the inescapable fact that His nature demands justice. Edwards begins his sermon with a direct reference to Old Testament scripture. He cites Deuteronomy 32:35, which reveals the just nature of the Biblical God who cannot ignore anything that blatantly opposes His perfection. This verse from Deuteronomy is used by Edwards to communicate a biblical promise that the sins of the Israelites will not be overlooked by God’s just wrath. God promised that the feet of the Israelites will slip and fall amid their wicked walks, but that this will not happen until He commands it. In his article “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: Some Unfinished Business,” Edward J. Gallagher implies that Edwards emphasizes the specific line “Their foot shall slide in due time” (Edwards 192) with the hopes that “An overwhelming sense of God’s sovereignty…would awaken the unconverted in the congregation” (Gallagher 204). Edwards makes it abundantly clear that the biblical God will inevitably enact justice because He is sovereign over sin and must deal with it accordingly. In discussing the implications of this excerpt from Deuteronomy, Edwards claims “that the reason that they [the Israelites and indirectly, Edward’s congregation] are not fallen already, and do not fall now is only that God’s appointed time is not come” (Edwards 193). Edwards is not arguing that God’s wrath does not yet exist against humanity. On the contrary, as the article by Gallagher supports, Edwards makes it clear that God’s wrath is presently being stored up against humanity. “There are black clouds of God’s wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm…the sovereign pleasure of God…stays this rough wind…” (Edwards 198). However, His wrath will only be released in His “due time,” and His mere pleasure in humanity will hold it at bay until this time comes. A juxtaposition is evident at this point in Edwards’ commentary. He is adamantly claiming that God by His very nature must release His wrath to bring justice, but also that it is God’s divine pleasure to restrain His nature. This brings into tension the priorities of mercy and justice within the Biblical God. It is difficult to reconcile a God who demands justice but also allows sin to remain. It is also difficult to justify how a God who takes pleasure in protecting humanity until the perfect time would choose to release his wrath at all.
The argument can be made that Edwards is blatantly contradicting himself in his sermon. He claims God is storing up anger against sinful humanity, yet takes pleasure in holding back His wrath. While this juxtaposition is illusively contradictory, Edwards’ establishment of this tension allows his audience to understand the fullness of both God’s anger and find peace in God’s mercy to lovingly restrain that deserved anger. Edwards claims that there is “…no refuge, nothing to take hold of; all that preserves [humanity] every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God” (Edwards 197). According to his commentary, humanity can do nothing to save itself from the accumulating wrath of a sovereign God. The only thing powerful enough to save humanity from the inevitable anger of the Almighty is the Almighty. Edwards also makes it clear that “There is no want or power of God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment” (Edwards 193). It does not please Him to condemn His creation. This claim from Edwards clarifies the juxtaposition within his commentary; God desires both complete justice and complete mercy. However, he does not desire to see humanity cast into eternal torment. According to Edwards, God overcomes this tension by restraining his wrath out of mercy. Edward’s juxtaposing commentary reveals a more complete God who has the potential to destroy man, yet the mercy to wait until His appointed time.
As Edwards discusses the nature of a justly angry God, he asserts that in His perfect wrath, God despises humanity. This creates a juxtaposition between the Biblical characterizations of a completely just God and an all-merciful forgiving God. Edwards argues that the perfection of God cannot stand to be near the sinful wickedness of humanity. He declares to his congregation that “The God who holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or a loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked…” (Edwards 199). As the embodiment of Justice itself, the Biblical God hates that which opposes His perfection because it contradicts His being. Since humanity has always been prone to sin and rebellion, the perfection of the Biblical God hates humanity’s imperfection, as Edwards points out. Edwards expands on this idea by reflecting on how the wrath of an infinite God will be an eternal and infinitely powerful wrath against that which He hates. When the waters of God’s wrath that were dammed by his pleasure (Edwards 198) are loosed, nothing will stand between humanity’s sin and an unstoppable God who must punish sin completely. Edwards says, “…He will have no compassion upon [humanity], he will not forbear the executions of His wrath, or at least lighten His hand; there shall be no moderation or mercy…” (Edwards 200). The mercy by which God restrained His wrath will be inaccessible when the “due time” of His wrath arrives. Here, the juxtaposition between the anger and mercy of a Biblical God is presented once again within Edwards’ sermon. He claims that “Now God stands ready to pity [humanity]; this is a day of mercy…” (Edwards 200), yet goes on to claim that the same God, at the “due time,” will no longer consider pity while He crushes those who have offended Him.
There is once again the opportunity to make the reasonable argument that Edwards’ sermon is contradictory. He maintains a biblical perspective throughout the sermon, quoting various passages of scripture from books including Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and Ezekiel. To maintain a Biblical perspective, Edwards cannot neglect the merciful and forgiving characterization of the Almighty; God’s complete justice within scripture is balanced with complete grace. There seems, however, to be a lack of commentary on the grace of God within this sermon.
The two “versions” of who Edwards argues to be the same God lack common ground. It can be argued that this contradiction challenges the existence of the singular biblical God for which Edwards is advocating. Upon an initial reading of this sermon, it is easy to assume that its purpose is to scare an audience into submission. However, this is not the only reasonable claim. In his article “The Artistry of Jonathan Edwards,” Edwin H. Cady argues that “Hell is in [the sermon’s] picture, but only at the periphery. The focus is on the predicament of the sinner, how dreadfully he dangles just before he plunges to eternal agony, and while he has time to repent and be saved” (Cady 69). Therefore, in primarily emphasizing the wrath of God, Edwards’ sermon commentary, in turn, reveals God’s gift of free will to humanity and therefore a completely gracious characterization of the Almighty. As mentioned before, Edwards makes his argument clear that humanity is separated from eternal torment for the present only by “…the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without promise or obligation at all…” (198). This fact resolves the tension of the juxtaposition and confirms that no contradictions are present within Edwards’ sermon. It brings peace to the seemingly present tension between His demand for justice and His forgiving nature.
As previously established by Edwards, justice must be brought to fruition, lest the Biblical God will cease to be God at all. The idea that God will release His wrath at His appointed time, although an ominous and terrifying promise, reveals in itself God’s graciousness; He gives humanity the choice to repent before this occurs. Edwards lovingly and with great hope reminds his congregation that “…now they have the 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…” (Edwards 203). Although God’s disgust will be inescapable, humanity’s ability to choose Christ now is unstoppable according to scripture. Not only is this choice interpreted as a grace from God, but God himself calls humanity, urging them to seek Him. Therefore, the harshness of the pitiless wrath of God emphasized by Edwards does not contradict His merciful pursuit of humanity, but rather emphasizes this pursuit. This juxtaposition, therefore, offers a complete and peaceful image of an all-loving Biblical God.
In conclusion, although it can be argued that it is contradictory, Jonathan Edwards’ renowned sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” establishes juxtapositions between the natures of God that ultimately reveal a more complete understanding of the love and profundity of the Almighty. In emphasizing the complete wrath of the Almighty God, Edwards acknowledges the personalities of God and how they are placed in tension by human sin. However, it is this juxtaposition that ultimately demonstrates to the congregation and the reader how God has resolved this tension with Himself according to scripture. God’s willingness to not only restrain His wrath but also provide an eternal escape demonstrates His complete love for the very humans with whose sin He is disgusted by. Because of this implicit resolution present within Edwards’ sermon, it is effective at filling the congregation with a healthy fear of and sustaining hope within the Biblical God. There is the opportunity for the audience to find peace in the fact that God resolved the tension between his perfect wrath and perfect mercy tension with His very self so that humanity may be saved.
Maisey Jefferson is a freshman English major at Gordon this year. She has always enjoyed
writing and is excited and thankful for the opportunity to be a part of the Princemere team this semester. Maisey lives in Firestone, Colorado in with her parents and younger siblings. Her favorite hobbies include writing, playing guitar, spending time with family, and watching movies. She also enjoys reading. Some of her favorite books include All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and The Lord of The Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. She looks forward to continuing working with the amazing Princemere team and would like to thank everyone for the hard work they have put into this semester’s publication.