Today, July 8, marks the anniversary of Jonathan Edward’s 1741 delivery of probably the most famous sermon ever given in America, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Sadly, most Americans (even Christians) know little more about the mighty move of God in the 1700s that we call the Great Awakening (or the great man of God named Jonathan Edwards) than the biased, slanted, out of context excerpt that they have read in a English class as a brief excerpt of his sermon. I believe that we can, and should, grow tremendously by studying the lives of men and women of God—a great "cloud of witnesses"—who have gone before us, to help us understand their victories and falls, and the part WE are playing in the move of God’s Kingdom across the ages.
While I do not share all of John Piper’s theology, I admire his heart for God and his biographies of great men of God. Rather than try and come up with my own words about Jonathan Edwards, I find it easier to quote from him (with permission). Information about links to Piper’s biographies is given at the bottom of this post.
In his 1988 teaching at the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors called The Pastor as Theologian:
Life and Ministry of Jonathan Edwards, Piper, asks:
Does any of us know what an incredible thing it is that this man, who was a small-town pastor for 23 years in a church of 600 people, a missionary to Indians for 7 years, who reared 11 faithful children, who worked without the help of electric light, or word-processors or quick correspondence, or even sufficient paper to write on, who lived only until he was 54, and who died with a library of 300 books—that this man led one of the greatest awakenings of modern times, wrote theological books that have ministered for 200 years and did more for the modern missionary movement than anyone of his generation?Though I know that the following excerpt from another point in Piper's teaching is long, I encourage you to chew the solid food and read it through and meditate on it:
And for many text books, Edwards is no more than a gloomy troubler of the churches in those days of Awakening fervor. So what we get as a sample of latter-day Puritanism is an excerpt from his sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Perhaps one like this,How would you describe to someone the fierce reality of hell and God's wrath toward sin? How would you magnify the vastness and depth and majesty of God's love apart from contrasting it to His wrath and hell's awful reality? Does it worry you to turn someone off by talking about hell and God's wrath? Does hell's awful reality, and the fact that it is the destination of the majority of people you meet, bother or motivate you? Does eternity, or does your present comfort, drive your choices and how you spend your time? Do you share the Gospel as a way for people to have a better life, or as salvation from hell?
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousands times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
And so the kids are given the impression that Edwards was a gloomy, sullen, morose, perhaps pathological misanthrope who fell into grotesque religious speech the way some people fall into obscenity.
But no high school kid is ever asked to wrestle with what Edwards was wrestling with as a pastor. When you read "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," you see quickly that Edwards was not falling into this kind of language by accident. He was laboring as a pastor to communicate a reality that he saw in Scripture and that he believed was infinitely important to his people.
And before any of us, especially us pastors, sniffs at Edwards' imagery, we had better think long and hard what our own method is for helping our people feel the weight of the reality of Revelation 19:15. Edwards stands before this text with awe. He virtually gapes at what he sees here. John writes in this verse, "[Christ] will tread the wine press of the fierceness of the wrath of God the Almighty."
Listen to Edwards' comment in this sermon,
The words are exceeding terrible. If it had only been said, "the wrath of God," the words would have implied that which is infinitely dreadful: but it is "the fierceness and wrath of God!” The fierceness of Jehovah! O how dreadful must that be! Who can utter or conceive what such expressions carry in them?
What high school student is ever asked to come to grips with what really is at issue here? If the Bible is true, and if it says that someday Christ will tread his enemies like a winepress with anger that is fierce and almighty, and if you are a pastor charged with applying Biblical truth to your people so that they will flee the wrath to come, then what would your language be? What would you say to make people feel the reality of texts like these?
Edwards labored over language and over images and metaphors because he was so stunned and awed at the realities he saw in the Bible. Did you hear that one line in the quote I just read: "Who can utter or conceive what such expressions carry in them?" Edwards believed that it was impossible to exaggerate the horror of the reality of hell.
High school teachers would do well to ask their students the really probing question, "Why is it that Jonathan Edwards struggled to find images for wrath and hell that shock and frighten, while contemporary preachers try to find abstractions and circumlocutions that move away from concrete, touchable Biblical pictures of unquenchable fire and undying worms and gnashing of teeth?" If our students were posed with this simple, historical question, my guess is that some of the brighter ones would answer: "Because Jonathan Edwards really believed in hell, but most preachers today don't."
But no one has asked us to take Edwards seriously, and so most of us don't know him.
Most of us don't know that he knew his heaven even better than his hell, and that his vision of glory was just as appealing as his vision of judgment was repulsive.
Most of us don't know that he is considered now by secular and evangelical historians alike to be the greatest Protestant thinker America has ever produced.
These are all questions worth pondering in our hearts—questions we all probably need to ask ourselves and meditate on. Time is short. How will we spend it, and whose approval and pleasure will drive us as we move through it? Jesus says that those who are worthy of Him will, daily, deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Him. To follow means to go where He goes, to do what He does, to say what He says. Jesus talked a lot about hell. Should we be talking more about it? And, truly, can we fully appreciate God's love and Heaven's glory and the cross' majesty and horror apart from honest consideration of Hell's terror, God's wrath, and sin's cost?
Credit: The quoted text above is by John Piper. © Desiring God. Website: desiringGod.org.
Note: I wrote about Piper’s biographies, and gave a link to them, in my Feb. 9, 2010 post, “Velvet Mouthed Preaching” which you can view by clicking here, or by navigating through the blog archive in the column on the right.