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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by Jonathan Edwards

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How does Edwards's tone in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" influence his congregation?

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In this sermon, Edwards combines a condemning tone with some pretty vivid figurative language to deliver a message that would shock his audience into turning from sin and accepting God's grace.

Edwards begins with a verse from Deuteronomy that sets the tone immediately: "Their foot shall slide in due time." This verse reflects God's anger with the Israelites who failed to follow God's laws, but Edwards quickly aligns the wickedness of his congregation with the Israelites. He uses the image of a slipping foot to show the precarious position of those living in sin; God will not tolerate it for long before he delivers a final judgement, casting those who choose sin into Hell.

Consider the imagery that Edwards uses in explaining how the members of his audience are on a path toward eternal devastation:

That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell's wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor anything between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.

This is a pretty terrifying image, painting a mental picture of being suspended on a thin layer of earth above a lake of brimstone—a "wide, gaping mouth" ready to capture and eternally torment each congregational member who has not chosen to truly follow God. Edwards also allows for another ending here: God currently saves each one of them from Hell and allows them time to choose a different path to a different eternity.

Edwards's tone achieved its intended effect. Reportedly, before he even finished his sermon, members of the congregation begged for salvation and fell into the floor, crying and screaming in terror. This was especially significant because this sermon was delivered in a town where there seemed to be a little pocket of "thoughtless and vain" holdouts in the Great Awakening revival which was sweeping the area. Yet the tone achieved quite an impact at the church where Edwards delivered it in Enfield and is still studied and remembered nearly 300 years later.

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Edwards's tone is threatening, and he tries to convince his listeners to repent for their sins and return to God immediately by instilling fear. He uses horrible descriptions of the eternal fate that would await them if God decided to let them fall. He emphasizes that God could make this decision at any time. Edwards says, "'There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God." He calls God's will "arbitrary" in that God has no obligation to continue to preserve wicked people, and he could, at any moment, decide to stop.

Furthermore, Edwards argues that it is basically inevitable that we will fall without God's pleasure in restraining us. He says that we are "always exposed to destruction; as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall." The sinner can do nothing to prevent himself or herself from slipping right down into Hell's fire, and can only hope and pray that God will prevent it. In fact, the devil

stands ready to fall upon them, and seize them as his own, at what moment God shall permit him [....]. The devils watch them; they are ever by them at their right hand; they stand waiting for them, like greedy hungry lions that see their prey, and expect to have it, but are for the present kept back. If God should withdraw his hand, by which they are restrained, they would in one moment fly upon their poor souls.

This imagery is particularly frightening, again, and conveys Edwards's threatening tone, describing sinners as prey for terrible predator devils. Threats like this, I imagine, would convince many people to change their ways. Because the sermon has been retained, it seems clear that it made a significant impression on its audience.

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Edwards uses threatening, emotionally-charged language to convince the congregation that they "hang by a slender Thread, with the Flames of divine Wrath" waiting beneath to consume them. Recorded accounts of the reception of the sermon at an Enfield, Connecticut church in July of 1741 describe people fainting, weeping, and crying out to ask how they can be saved. This reaction is understandable because the sermon details at length how formidable God's anger is and how torturous the eternal punishment will be if one lands in hell.

Near the end of the sermon, Edwards momentarily modifies his tone and alters his message. He briefly introduces the idea that salvation might still be possible when he claims it is "a Day wherein Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open." Edwards promptly reverts to his overall threatening tone and cautions that sinners must act quickly to avoid a terrifying fate. His last words observe that damnation is "now undoubtedly hanging over great Part of this Congregation."

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