Saturday, September 22, 2012

Jonathan Edwards - Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

When publishing a commentary on some work of theology it is my preference to provide a significant portion of the work alongside my commentary. This is to help ensure that my commentary is accurate and that I have not merely selected certain statements out of context to set up as theological pinatas to take a swipe at. It was my intention on this post to provide the famous Jonathan Edwards sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God in its entirety. After completing my commentary however, I found the work to be so ponderous and disagreeable that I have decided instead to summarize the sermon in outline form and to provide commentary regarding certain of Edwards's comments which are most objectionable to anyone who believes that salvation is by sovereign grace.

General Overview / Sermon Outline

Edwards' sermon is based on a passage from Deuteronomy:
To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste. (Deuteronomy 32:35)
He starts with four points regarding the punishment and destruction to which these wicked Israelites were exposed:
  1. They were always exposed to destruction. (Psalm 73:18)
  2. Which implies that it would be sudden and unexpected. (Psalm 73:18-19)
  3. They were liable to fall of themselves.
  4. The reason they have not fallen is because God's time has not yet come.
He follows this with ten points in support of the fact that nothing keeps the wicked out of hell but the sovereign pleasure of God.  
  1. He does not lack the power to cast men into hell.
  2. They deserve to be there. (Luke 13:7)
  3. They are already in a sentence of condemnation to hell. (John 3:18, 8:23)
  4. They are the objects of God's wrath right now.
  5. The devil stands ready to fall upon them.  
  6. Their hellishness would be more manifest were it not restrained by God.
  7. Death will come upon them though they little expect it.
  8. The care for their own lives is insufficient to preserve them from death.
  9. Their contrivances cannot help the escape hell.
  10. God is under no obligation to keep any man out of hell.
Edwards closes this section with the following statement:
"So that, whatever some have imagined and pretended about promises made to natural men's earnest seeking and knocking, it is plain and manifest, that whatever pains a natural man takes in religion, whatever prayers he makes, till he believes in Christ, God is under no manner of obligation to keep him a moment from eternal destruction." (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Jonathan Edwards)
Edwards is really mishandling the truth here. This seems to imply that faith is a requirement that obligates God to save men, and that apart from man's exercise of faith, God is under no obligation. That is a very distorted explanation of salvation by grace, if it qualifies for one at all. One of the fundamental tenets of salvation by grace is that regeneration precedes faith in time (I John 5:1) and imparts eternal life (Ephesians 2:1). The establishment of faith on the footing of regeneration has other ramifications, because regeneration is established on the footing of sonship (Galatians 4:6) and sonship on election (Ephesians 1:4-5). Following this complete audit trail, it is evident that faith is a provision of the covenant of salvation, not a prerequisite to obtaining eternal life. Indeed it cannot be since eternal life is imparted in regeneration which precedes it in time. This testimony is further supported by the scripture's own definition of faith as a fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22), an evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1), and a gift of God (Philippians 1:29).


After a short summary, Edwards begins his section on 'Application' of this doctrine wherein he makes the following statement:
"Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God. However you may have reformed your life in many things, and may have had religious affections, and may keep up a form of religion in your families and closets, and in the house of God, it is nothing but his mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction. However unconvinced you may now be of the truth of what you hear, by and by you will be fully convinced of it." (Sinners, Edwards)
Edwards is directly addressing the unregenerate with Quixotic bravado. According to the apostle Paul, a natural man cannot receive spiritual truth (I Corinthians 2:14) and so Edwards is tilting at windmills. But, maybe there's more. Edwards continues on with an impassioned plea to the unregenerate which includes the statement:
"...nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment." (Sinners, Edwards)
With that much, we can certainly agree, but compare this to what Edwards says in the next section of his sermon:
"Now God stands ready to pity you; this is a day of mercy; you may cry now with some encouragement of obtaining mercy. But when once the day of mercy is past, your most lamentable and dolorous cries and shrieks will be in vain; you will be wholly lost and thrown away of God, as to any regard to your welfare." (Sinners, Edwards)
So Edwards starts out saying that there is,"nothing that you can do to induce God to spare you one moment," and follows this by saying, "you may cry now with some encouragement of obtaining mercy." This is a bald logical contradiction. Edwards's addled thinking on the matter of salvation falls short of the intellectual excellence expected from the President of Princeton University. It is this sort of nonsense that drives an abject misunderstanding of the doctrine of salvation among God's people. It is confusion, and God is not the author of such. (I Corinthians 14:33)  For those who believe this was a mere slip of the tongue, Edwards goes on to say:
"You have reason to wonder that you are not already in hell. It is doubtless the case of some whom you have seen and known, that never deserved hell more than you, and that heretofore appeared as likely to have been now alive as you. Their case is past all hope; they are crying in extreme misery and perfect despair; but here you are in the land of the living and in the house of God, and have an opportunity to obtain salvation. What would not those poor damned hopeless souls give for one day's opportunity such as you now enjoy!" (Sinners, Edwards)
And with this statement we hit bedrock on Edward's doctrine of salvation. It is salvation obtained through opportunity, not by grace. It is opportunistic Calvinism, not a covenant ordered in all things and sure. (II Samuel 23:5)  After having gone to great lengths to prove that the unregenerate were hated by God, unable to do anything to save themselves, and outside the covenant of salvation, Edwards throws all of that away in favor salvation by opportunity. In Edwards soteriology, "We love God because he first HATED us." Apparently when Edwards speaks of man's inability to do ANYTHING, he actually means DO SOMETHING AND GOD WILL SAVE YOU. Absolutely unbelievable. He goes on...
"And now you have an 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; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God." (Sinners, Edwards)
So there you have it, extraordinary, opportunistic salvation, not salvation by Grace. It begs the question - What, pray tell, could an unregenerate man do in order to take advantage of such an opportunity? Can he believe? No, such things are foolishness to him. (I Corinthians 2:14)  Can he repent? No. What man repents of something he does not believe?  

The bible NEVER says that eternal salvation is by opportunity, it says salvation is by grace.   But there's more:
"And you, young men, and young women, will you neglect this precious season which you now enjoy, when so many others of your age are renouncing all youthful vanities, and flocking to Christ? You especially have now an extraordinary opportunity; but if you neglect it, it will soon be with you as with those persons who spent all the precious days of youth in sin, and are now come to such a dreadful pass in blindness and hardness." (Sinners, Edwards)
Edwards doubles-down on his doctrine of salvation by extraordinary opportunity. This is the gospel of Ron Popeil, not salvation by grace. Edwards's handling of the doctrine of salvation is like a pepper-sprayed butter-hog in a glass menagerie - it is a hot mess of confusion and vitriol, leaving behind shards of bad doctrine and practice that God's people should not be made to suffer.  He goes on...
"And let every one that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God's word and providence. This acceptable year of the Lord, a day of such great favour to some, will doubtless be a day of as remarkable vengeance to others." (Sinners, Edwards)
Remember, according to Edwards, God hates these people. But apparently, if they will begin to love God then he will start loving them. Really? Wouldn't that mean that a carnal man is better at loving his enemies than God himself? The bible says that God loved us FIRST, and that's why any of us would love him (I John 4:19). This is just embarrassingly bad. Did I mention this is the President of Princeton University speaking? But Edwards is not finished....
"Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come." (Sinners, Edwards)
So let me get this straight, there's nothing anyone can do to make God be merciful to them, BUT they CAN "awake an fly from the wrath to come" and thereby place themselves "in Christ?" The unregenerate are dead. (Ephesians 2:1) Apparently the "flying dead" so far as Edwards is concerned. This is so utterly devoid of any understanding of the new birth that it staggers the mind. This is wig-laden balderdash, not the gospel of salvation by sovereign grace. Moreover, such an arrangement cannot be the terms of the unconditional gospel of grace, but of another gospel, the conditional gospel of salvation by extraordinary opportunity.

Edwards closes with the following:
"The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let every one fly out of Sodom: "Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed." (Sinners, Edwards)


Edwards's closing remarks underscore his failure to understand Lot's salvation from the destruction from Sodom, as well as his own lack of understanding regarding the sinner's salvation from the destruction of hell. Genesis 19:16 teaches us that Lot had to be physically brought forth out of Sodom by the mercy of God in order to be saved. Had he been left to flee of his own accord he would have undoubtedly perished with the others. And so it is with the salvation of sinners. God pulls men out of the peril of their wretched condition by the working of his mighty power (Ephesians 1:19) in immediate Holy Spirit regeneration, not by enabling the unregenerate to meet the conditions of the covenant of salvation. Christ alone met the conditions of the covenant (Romans 5:19, Hebrews 10:14), God's children do nothing to augment, improve or effectuate that work (Isaiah 64:6) nor could they (Ephesians 2:1, Titus 3:5, Ephesians 2:8-9).

It is my sincere hope that anyone reading this would inquire into these matters and that, in so doing, they would consider the following unscriptural and illogical assertions found in the preaching of Edwards and those who believe his teaching on salvation. Those assertions include:
  • That the covenant of salvation is unconditional, provided you meet certain conditions.
  • That there is nothing a man can do to make God be merciful to him, but he should cry out for mercy because God is offering salvation to him.
  • That God hates the unregenerate but, if they will love God and repent of their sins, that God will change his disposition and start loving them.
  • That salvation is based on a conditional opportunity to obtain grace, rather than an unconditional covenant to provide grace. 
These statements will most certainly be unsettling to many who have been taught to revere the "grace theology" or "strict Calvinism" of Edwards. We would simply ask that his statements and our analysis be measured by the word of God rather than by his exalted status as the greatest of early American theologians. It is our opinion that Edwards understanding, as represented by the most famous of his sermons, is weighed in the balance and found so greatly wanting as to send it hurtling through space with a velocity sufficient to land it outside the realm of any further consideration.


  1. Your analysis is filled with a great lack of understanding and wisdom. Before you try to analyze Calvinism; first understand it. Otherwise you only come out looking a bit foolish. Calvinism is mostly all about understanding better the grace of God and how it relates to free will/God's sovereignty. You seem unable to marry the three as all being individually Truth; yet together form an even greater Truth. Go back and try again my friend. I suggest more prayer, more meditation, and a lot of the grace you say Edwards lacks in his message. I'm growing weary of those who enter into a study of Calvinism w/a pre-conceived notion of what it is. That is the only way to explain such a unskilled analysis as yours. God bless!

    1. Brother Kyler,

      I'm still interested in hearing some specific examples of error in my analysis of Edwards' sermon. If I am in error, do you believe it is profitable to correct an erring brother? (James 5:19-20)

      May God bless our studies and understanding of His word,

  2. Brother Kyler,

    Thanks for taking a moment to leave a comment on my blog. Would you mind sharing some specific instances where you believe my analysis of Edwards' sermon is in error? Also would you provide your reason for believing that my analysis is based on a preconceived notion of what Calvinism is?