In this famous sermon – a negative icon of everything that people perceive to be wrong with Puritan evangelism – Jonathan Edwards describes the state of his hearers who are outside of Christ:-
That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.
I quite accept that Edwards’ overstates the imagery (but then again tolerance or intolerance of such imagery is to quite a large extent culturally determined). But I think that, rather than trotting out the usual dismissals of this sermon and others like it, a more responsible approach would be to recognise that:
- it contains solid biblical teaching (and not just hell-fire rhetoric)
- it was uttered at a time of unusual and genuine spiritual awakening
- it was occasioned by a specific pastoral problem (induced by the ‘Halfway Covenant’)
- it was a considerable means of grace (and joy and power) for many.
- we need to place alongside this ‘hell-fire’ sermon alongside his other preaching, which included a series of 16 sermons on Christian love, based on 1 Corinthians 13 and entitled ‘Charity and its Fruits’
- if Edward’s did exaggerate the threat of hell (and that is debateable), then the mood of our own age is to seriously under-emphasise it. We stand in silent defiance of a vital aspect of scriptural teaching.
Some critics imagine that there must be a cause-and-effect relationship between such preaching and a permanent mindset of “have I done all that is needed to be right with God?”. But one of the main points of such preaching was to emphasise that the sinner’s plight is so desperate that only the sovereign grace of God can suffice.
I think that the remarks posted on the web site of the Jonathan Edwards Centre at Yale University are apt:-
For better or worse, the sermon for which Edwards is probably most famous—or infamous—is the one preached to the congregation of Enfield, Massachusetts (later Connecticut) in July 1741. Anthologized in high school and college textbooks, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God represents in many persons’ minds the bleak, cruel, and hell-bent outlook of Edwards and his Puritan predecessors. But of course such a representation is only a caricature, for Sinners, if it represents anything, stands for only a small part of Edwards’s view of the relationship between humankind and God. As a specially crafted awakening sermon, Sinners was aimed at a particularly hard-hearted congregation. But, at the same time, the awakening sermon and all it expressed—the awful weight of sin, the wrath of an infinitely holy God, and the unexpectedness of the moment when God will execute justice—were integral to Edwards’s theology.