In Jonathan Edwards' view from "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," what must sinners do to save themselves?
"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a sermon preached at Enfield, Connecticut, in 1741 by the revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards. The sermon is often considered the iconic statement of the 18th century religious revival known as the First Great Awakening.
Edwards was a member of the Congregationalist (Puritan) church, which had been the state religion of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that comprised most of New England in the 17th century. In its early days, the sect was intolerant of other religions and brooked little opposition within its own ranks. Edwards's father had been a Congregationalist minister in the small settlement of East Windsor, Connecticut.
Like all Congregationalists, Edwards accepted the doctrine of original sin, which holds that all people are born into sin, and only some will be redeemed from it by God. All the others will be condemned to eternal damnation.
However, there were differences as to what degree an individual's actions during his lifetime might save him from eternal damnation. The disagreement traced back to a factional dispute within the Dutch Reformed Church, which had adopted the Calvinist belief system.
The strict Calvinists felt that God alone decided the ultimate fate of the soul, regardless of the individual's actions or professed beliefs, and only a select few, “the Elect,” would be saved. The holders of this view, also known as pre-determinism, felt that to allow man any role in the ultimate fate of his soul was to diminish the power and glory of God.
Edwards had struggled with that viewpoint while a student, once referring to it as “a horrible doctrine.” But he writes in his diaries that in his last year in college he came to terms with it and embraced it as “exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet.”
An opposing faction, known as the Remonstrant, who followed the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), had slightly modified the doctrine to allow that a man's faith (a faculty which God has given him) could partly determine the fate of his soul on the day of judgment. Thus, those believers who resist sin through belief in Christ might be able to avoid eternal damnation. In his first public lecture in Boston, in 1731, Edwards preached against Arminianism and continued his attacks on the doctrine throughout his life.
The sermon under examination here begins with a phrase from the biblical book of Deuteronomy: “Their foot shall slide in due time.”
To Edwards, this means that the Israelites of the bible, as well as his hearers at the present time, can fall from God's grace at any time. The only reason why you have not fallen already is that the time God has chosen for it has not arrived yet. The imminent threat of God's vengeance stands over all of us. Edwards's imprecations are directed to the “wicked,” but as all men are sinners, all are included. Your only hope of salvation comes by accepting and embracing the teachings of Christ. Yet even this does not guarantee you a seat in Heaven.
His is a fierce and vengeful God:
“Consider this, you that are here present, that yet remain in an unregenerate state. That God will execute the fierceness of his anger implies, that he will inflict wrath without any pity. . . . If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case, or showing you the least regard or favour, that instead of that, he will only tread you under foot.”
And you must act soon, for the day of judgment may be near:
“God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the greater part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time, and that it will be as it was on the great out-pouring of the Spirit upon the Jews in the apostles’ days; the election will obtain, and the rest will be blinded.”
It is said that Edwards's sermon was frequently interrupted by moaning and outcries of “What shall I do to be saved?”
It is interesting that despite the fire-and-brimstone character of this piece, a standpoint which is often associated today with a doctrinal and anti-scientific view, Edwards was a highly educated scholar who embraced the Enlightenment, adored Isaac Newton, and promoted the atomistic theory. He viewed the rational, scientific view of nature as an act of deepening one's understanding of the beauty and perfection of God's creation.
Jonathan Edwards paints a pretty grim picture of humanity. According to him, humans are always exposed to sudden destruction, which we bring upon ourselves at the exact moment God has appointed. We are always a moment away from hell, and the only thing that is preventing us from being immediately thrown into damnation is God’s will. Humans, Edwards says, are already sentenced to hell. We deserve it, God has absolute power to put us there, and even in life we are subjects of the wrath that he feels towards those already in hell.
By his message, humans are actually completely unable to save ourselves from this fate. We might assume that because we are not already in hell we have done something to preserve ourselves, but Edwards assures his listeners that it is only God’s will that is keeping anybody alive.
He spends quite a bit of time elaborating on all of this. The ultimate message is that we are damned, and only God can save us. The answer is fairly simple and straightforward—faith in Christ. Christ is God’s mechanism of saving people from the hell that awaits them. Come directly to him and accept salvation. In Edwards’s words, “Therefore, let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.”
Edwards spends a great deal of the sermon making people appear unworthy of God's mercy because all people are sinners. He also states that life is unpredictable and that Hell awaits all sinners. He goes into great detail describing the fires of Hell, and how Man avoids it only because of God. After Edwards makes the parishioners feel as though they are doomed for eternal damnation, he offers hope--salvation through God's grace. He then goes into detail to describe repentance as a turning away from sin and turning toward God. It entails one admitting that one lived life incorrectly and would seek a better way through God and his Son, Jesus Christ. The contrast between damnation and salvation is quite stark in Edwards's sermon and is meant to get a reaction from the attendees. The sermon was very popular and widely printed, so one can imagine that Edwards's message convinced many of the error of their ways.
To Jonathan Edwards, all people deserve to be damned. They are so evil that all are abhorrent to God. However, he believes that people can do something to save themselves from eternal damnation.
What he says is that Jesus is calling out to all people, inviting them to the Kingdom of God. All they really have to do is accept his invitation and embrace him. They are to renounce their sinful ways and come to God.
If they will accept this invitation, then they will have a chance to be saved.
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