Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
Bill Long 9/21/05
The Ring of Fire, The Ring of Fire
Edwards sermon is nine single-spaced typewritten pages in length. It is clear and to the point, amply sprinkled with biblical references which actually do not obtrude but rather serve to drive home the points he makes. This and the next essay will describe the flow of the sermon, with ample quotations so that you can catch the nature of Edwards' ideas. Two brief historical notes. Marsden and others suggest that Edwards delivered the sermon in his typical quiet voice, as if trying gently to convince rather than violently to harangue. Second, Marsden says that Edwards was not allowed by the congregation to finish Sinners, so cut to the heart by his message were they.
In good Puritan fashion, Edwards begins with a biblical text. He chooses one from a rather obscure passage in Deuteronomy (32:35), which says "Their foot shall slide in due time." If you let your imagination play with the verse for a second, before even reading Edwards, you can see how a chilling sermon could emerge. For example, if I wanted to preach a scary sermon on that text I would start with the notion of how insecure our lives really are. We want to place our foot firmly on high places and build on of secure foundation, but, I would argue, in fact our feet are planted on insecure foundations. A Katrina could wash us away just as quickly as it surged through New Orleans. I could find tons of examples of nice families that have SUVs, parents with good jobs, kids with find orthodonture, that become upset and devastated in the blink of an eye. I could argue that the security of our inner lives is something like that; indeed, we rest on precarious foundations. Thus, even before we begin with Edwards, we see how skillful he is. He picks a text that invites the imagination to soar--to soar about ways that disaster can come about. Indeed, we spend our waking moments thinking about these things anyway; Edwards just had the good manners to bring out in the open things that we know are true about the way we think.
After a few words about the precariousness of Israel's position (he was, after all, preaching on Deuteronomy), he states his thesis: "The observation from the words that I would now insist upon is this. 'There is nothng that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.'" Bingo. That is his central observation, an observation that will open like a flower in the springtime when exposed to the skillful theological rhetoric of Edwards. His major point is going to be that God is just biding his time with people until the coming judgment or, more specifically, that God is being patient with you, you members of the Enfield congregation, you people who have resisted the movements of the Spirit of God while your compatriots have responded to those gracious nudgings.
But once he has made this point, he can explore it from many different angles. He can stress the mercy of God, the God who puts up with human obstreperousness. He can develop the idea of the coldness of the human heart. He can describe in depth the way that our lives truly are precarious even in the midst of seeming security. He can describe the utter pain, dismal shrieks, and feelings of regret expressed by those who are putatively in hell right now and would like to warn their compatriots about the dangers of their own spiritual lethargy. In other words, Edwards' thesis will allow him the flexibility to hit his hearers from so many angles that they end up interrupting him and crying for mercy (which is, actually, what happened).
Edwards' Actual Words
But rather than going through the sermon in laborious detail, let's now listen to some of his words. We know from the preceding paragraphs the way that he could go in the sermon. Let's hear what he actually says. The quotations are in order as they appear in the sermon.
First, God's anger. Note how Edwards zeroes in on the people.
"4. They (i.e., wicked people) are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell. And the reason why they do not go down to hell at each moment, is not because God, in whose power they are, is not then very angry with them; as he is with many miserable creatures now tormented in hell, who there feel and hear the fierceness of his wrath. Yea, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth; yea, doubtless with many that are now in this congregation, who it may be are at ease, than he is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell."
Welcome to Enfield, pastor Edwards. I see that he ignored the 21st century rhetorical advice of pleasantly identifying with your hearers before bringing your message to them. But he had to shock his hearers if he wanted to "revive" them. How better to do this than to say that God is less angry with people who are screaming in hell than with some of you out there in the pews?
But the wonderful thing about this God, who is mightily pissed off at you, you impenitent Enfielders, is that he is restraining himself. Like the fighter being held back in his corner by a trainer or an emotional player restrained by teammates from attacking his opponent, so God is holding himself back from unleasing the just fury of his wrath against you. Edwards says:
"6. There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire, if it were not for God's restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell. There are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are seeds of hell fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments..."
After laying out more than ten points that illustrate both the precariousness of human life and the ways in which God is mercifully restraining himself from utterly obliterating sinners, Edwards moves to the real zingers of the sermon, found in the "Application." The next essay deals with how Edwards applies these gentle principles to his hearers.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long