[I had to read this powerful sermon in a class some time ago and write a response paper. I was thoroughly annoyed with the editor’s gurgling irrationalisms preceding the actual sermon that I wrote in anticipation of my colleagues’ uncritical acceptance of the editor’s preface. I’ve linked to definitions for any terms which might be unfamiliar to the reader.
Soli Deo Gloria
Law and Gospel/Condemnation and Salvation
All too commonly, I have come across interpretations of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God that give emphasis to only one side of the Hell/Heaven binary opposition he presents to his listeners. By so doing, these interpreters seek to show that Hell is a tool of control, a means of excluding “the other” from “us.” But is this what Edwards is doing? Hardly. For although, on the one hand, God is angry with sinners, as Edwards contends, He is also pleased with Christ’s sacrifice and pardons those who trust in that sacrifice. Moreover, these two aspects of God’s character – i.e. His unrelenting judgment and His boundless mercy – serve to mutually magnify one another.
Hence, the more Edwards emphasizes the justice of Hell, the more we see the boundlessness of mercy. Yes, the wages of sin is eternal death; however, God forgives sinners and gives them eternal life since Christ died in their place, undergoing the punishment that is due to them. This is the sum and substance of Edwards’ sermon, and not some underlying desire to exclude non-conformists and dissenters to the Christian faith.
Edwards makes this clear when, on the one hand, he explains that in hell “…[God] will crush you under His feet without mercy…”(p.438), and yet on the other hand says that “…Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open” (p.440). Perhaps even more poignantly, he elsewhere tells us that while “…[God] will crush out your blood, and make it fly…so as to stain all His raiment” (p.438), there are many who “…are now in a happy state, their hearts filled with love to Him who…washed them from their sins in His own blood…” (p.440). Note that in God’s judgment the blood of the unrepentant is shed and covers Him; but in the salvation of the repentant, the blood of God the Son, Jesus Christ, is shed and covers sinners. In judgment, there is no mercy shown to sinners; however, because Christ was judged as guilty for the sake of sinners, salvation is all mercy and all grace. Hence, Edwards declares that sinners “…deserve to be cast into hell…”(p.431); nevertheless, this day is an “…acceptable year of the Lord, a day of such great favors to some…” (p.441).
In light of this, then, I ask: Was Edwards trying to exclude and marginalize “the other”? Is the theological complexity we have seen in his sermon merely the deceptive manifest content birthed from and concealing/repressing a deeper and insidious latent content? If so, where is the textual warrant for such a theory? It seems to be the case that Edwards is simply following Martin Luther, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, John Owen, and all other faithful theologians in preaching Law-Judgment/Gospel-Mercy with the intention of glorifying the God who promises swift judgment to the wicked, but also promises full, free pardon to all who trust in His Son.