It was 277 years ago, that Jonathan Edwards ascended the pulpit of a Northampton church in Connecticut. The Great Awakening, a revival movement in America, was sweeping across the colonies. It was there, on that providential day, that he changed the course of church history, and arguably American history, with a single solitary sermon. On July 8, 1741 he preached his famed message: “Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God.”
To this day, even in public school systems, the sermon is read and discussed as a classic sampling of early American literature. The cadence, imagery, sentence structure, ideas, and thrust all spoke of Edwards’ time, beliefs, and aim. But ‘Sinners in the Hands…” is not just excellent literature, it is excellent evangelism. Edwards was deeply concerned about the souls of men, women, (and yes) boys, and girls and he pleaded with them from God’s word.
Edwards’ pulpit presence was not impressive. He did not yell. Scream. Shout. Or even gesture. He reportedly read his manuscript, by candlelight, in a monotone and somber way. The power was not in the delivery, but in the content.
As he spoke, men and women began openly weeping in the church. They shouted. Some screamed in horror. They interrupted him, yelling back at Edwards, “What must I do to be saved?” Some, it was said, white-knuckled the pillars and grabbed the pews fearing that, at any moment, they might tumble into the abyss.
The sermon begins with a passage from Deuteronomy 32:35,
“Vengeance is Mine, I will repay. In due time their foot will slide…”
It was this latter statement that Edwards preaches from. His sermon begins as an exposition (showing how that statement applied to Israel in their day.) But he quickly expanded and expounded on the concept of judgment, wrath, and hell for people today. The message is essentially made up of 10 sermon points. (I’ve edited them for space.)
- God may cast wicked men into hell at any given moment.
- The Wicked deserve to be cast into hell.
- The Wicked, at this moment, suffer under God’s condemnation to Hell.
- The Wicked, on earth – even now – suffer a sample of the torments of Hell.
- At any moment God shall permit him, Satan stands ready to fall upon the Wicked and seize them as his own.
- If it were not for God’s restraints, there are, in the souls of wicked men, hellish principles reigning which would kindle and flame out into hellfire.
- Simply because there are not visible means of death before them at any given moment, the Wicked should not feel secure.
- Simply because it is natural to care for oneself…men should not think themselves safe from God’s wrath.
- All that wicked men may do to save themselves from Hell’s pains shall afford them nothing if they continue to reject Christ.
- God has never promised to save us from Hell, except for those contained in Christ through the covenant of Grace.
Those points, alone, may not seem stirring. As he explained each one, Edwards leveraged the power of imagery, painting unforgettable pictures and using bold, striking language. Here is a brief excerpt from my favorite portion:
Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten bridge, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they won’t bear their weight, and these places are not seen…
Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security; he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do; everyone lays out matters in his own mind how he shall avoid damnation, and flatters himself that he contrives well for himself, and that his schemes won’t fail…
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell.
You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment…
Towards the ends, Edwards brings the gospel to bear on everyone in his audience. He speaks directly to those who are senior adults and those who are of middle age – warning them that no one knows when their appointed time to die was. He even spoke directly to the– pleading with them to trust Christ while they still could:
And you children that are unconverted, don’t you know that you are going down to hell, to bear the dreadful wrath of that God that is now angry with you every day, and every night?
His final encouragements, in that message, to everyone then (and now) were simple: “Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.” Indeed, Edwards was right. If you don’t know Christ today, hell is your final destination. Flee from that future and take refuge, by faith, in Jesus!
(If you’ve never read it before, you can read the entire sermon here. For those who prefer to listen to it, click below to hear Max MacLean’s dramatic reading introduced by RC Sproul. It’s powerful!)