According to the first paragraph, what keeps sinners from falling from hell?
The first paragraph establishes the theme that Edwards will strike throughout the sermon. It is the "grace" of the divine that prevents individuals from "sliding" into the fires of Hell. Edwards makes the argument that those who "live under the means of grace" are prevented from descending into the pit of infernal condemnation. Individuals owe their being in the world to the divine. From the first paragraph of the speech, Edwards constructs an interesting paradigm. On one hand, individuals must possess the power to change their ways, to reform their paths of sin and transgression. Yet, the final verdict which prevents them from going into Hell is one rendered by the divine. This condition of being in the world is reflected in the very first paragraph of Edwards' sermon.
It is in this "cultivation from heaven" where human redemption lies. While human beings have the power to change, the prevention of their "slide" is completely determined by the will of the divine. When individuals can understand this in light of God's intense anger at the path of transgression that has been chosen, Edwards feels that individuals will better understand their fragile condition and pledge themselves accordingly to the will of the divine:
In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, that were God’s visible people, and lived under means of grace; and that, notwithstanding all God’s wonderful works that he had wrought towards that people, yet remained, as is expressed, ver. 28. void of counsel, having no understanding in them; and that, under all the cultivations of heaven, brought forth bitter and poisonous fruit; as in the two verses next preceding the text.
Jonathan Edwards asserts in his sermon that God is not lacking in any kind of power to punish men and place them in hell. It is a kind of restraint or grace that causes men to not be cast into this pit and damnation. The following quote from the first paragraph of the sermon reveals that it is the "mere pleasure of God" that saves men from being cast into hell.
"By "the mere pleasure of God," I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God's mere will had in the least degree, or in any respect whatsoever, any hand in the preservation of wicked men one moment."