person lying in the fetal position surrounded by hellfire

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by Jonathan Edwards

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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God Analysis

  • Edwards quotes Deuteronomy 32:35: "Their foot shall slide in due time." This quote provides the foundation for the sermon, allowing Edwards to build an argument around the image of a sinner standing on the slippery slope of sin.
  • Edwards uses repetition throughout the sermon, accentuating the image of Hell as a fiery pit of eternal damnation. With each repetition, he reinforces the image of God as the ultimate judge, poised to either condemn or absolve sinners.
  • In emphasizing a frightful image of hell, Edwards hopes to scare sinners away from temptation and steer them toward the path of righteousness.

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Literary Devices

When you want something to be memorable, you repeat it.  In literature, repetition refers specifically to the recurrence of words, sounds, or phrases.  The reason for using repetition, other than hammering home a particular idea or instruction, is to increase the sense of unity in a work.  

The Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) relies heavily on the use of repetition in order to impress upon his audience the urgency of redemption from sin.  Two of the most prominent uses of repetition within the sermon are the words “wrath” and “restrain(s)/restraint.”

Edwards uses the word “wrath” an astonishing fifty-one times. God, he warns, will not be patient with his errant flock forever. Every day his anger at humanity’s sin and indifference towards their own fate increases. Here are just a few examples of the use of “wrath” in the text:

  • On Eternal Damnation: “The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow.”

  • On the Foolishness of Waiting for Last-Minute Deathbed Conversions: “Death outwitted me: God's wrath was too quick for me. Oh, my cursed foolishness!”

  • On God’s Waning Patience: “The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose.”

Another word employed time and again is “restrain.” God’s mercy, Edwards cautions, is almost at its end. Over and over, the audience hears that divine restraint is the sole reason why sinners do not yet burn:

  • 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.

In this instance of “restraint,” Edwards speaks to the authority of God over demons. God alone “restrains” them from devouring sinners:

  • God restrains their wickedness by his mighty power, as he does the raging waves of the troubled sea, saying, "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further;" but if God should withdraw that restraining power, it would soon carry all before it.

The other literary device that makes Edwards's sermon unforgettable is his use of colorful imagery to illuminate the horrors that await the sinner who dies without redemption:

  • On Humanity’s Inability to Escape Punishment: "Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf, and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider's web would have to stop a falling rock."

  • On the Reality of Hell: "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."

  • On Dying Unrepented: "But when once the day of mercy is past, your most lamentable and dolorous cries and shrieks will be in vain; you will be wholly lost and thrown away of God, as to any regard to your welfare."

There is a unity of effect Edwards creates through his use of repetition and terrifying images: to impress upon his audience the gravity of their sin, the growing impatience of God, and the urgency of repentance.

Jonathan Edwards and the Tenets of Calvinism

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The Puritans believed in five basic concepts to guide their society:

  1. Man is born into sin and is fundamentally flawed.

  2. Although mankind is flawed, they can still improve the world.

  3. The way to improve the world was through personal self-denial and self-discipline.   

  4. God demands a personal relationship; salvation cannot be achieved through one’s church or society.

  5. Those who are saved are also obligated to be extraordinary examples of piety to others.

However, by 1734, the year of the influential Puritan preacher Cotton Mather's death, the original Puritans were falling away from these ideals. There were a variety of reasons for the fraying of the community:

  1. Original settlement hardships, including having permanent shelters erected and a more stable food supplies, had been established. The need to work so closely together was no longer as crucial for survival.

  2. The community had grown tremendously. Historians report that almost half of the original inhabitants died during the first year of settlement, but in the intervening years, birth rates skyrocketed.

  3. A rise in consumerism began when colonial goods became in high demand. This need for products dispersed the close community. Residents moved further away from the central towns to establish larger farms and other pursuits in order to make more money.

  4. Philosopher John Locke’s insistence that sympathy for fellow humans, not God’s grace, was the basis for a moral life, was causing Puritans to question their traditional values.

  5. Scientific ideas, especially those of Isaac Newton, were making the physical world far less mysterious.                           

Jonathan Edwards became increasingly aghast at his congregation’s behavior. His  fiery sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is designed to bring the people back into the Puritan fold. His message is not designed to speak to the intellect of his parishioners, but to their raw emotion. Edwards, and others who took this tact, were responsible for creating what is known as the “First Great Awakening.”

To “awaken” the people to the errors of their ways, Edwards not only impresses on his church members Puritan theology but also Calvinist doctrine. John Calvin was a French theologian and preacher during the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1518 and ended in approximately 1648.

His philosophy, which eventually became known as Calvinism, placed emphasis on the following:

  1. Man’s Depravity: nothing about a human being is pure; man’s corruption runs through man’s body, mind, and soul.

  2. God’s Sovereignty: There is one god and no man or anything else can be superior.  

  3. Predestination: the idea that God has already decided who will be saved and who will be damned. Additionally, God operates solely on his own and nothing done by man, nor anyone or anything else, affects His choices.

  4. Limited Atonement: Christ did not die for everyone in the world; his salvation through his death was only applicable to those predestined for redemption.

  5. God’s Grace: If you are among the chosen, you cannot resist his call.

  6. Forever Saved: You cannot be “unelected.” If you are saved, you are forever saved.

It was to the six tenets that Edwards wished to return. Here are examples of each of the principles of Calvinism in his infamous sermon, composed in 1741:

  • On Man’s Depravity: “Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf.”

  • On God’s Sovereignty: “There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment. Men's hands cannot be strong when God rises up. The strongest have no power to resist him, nor can any deliver out of his hands.”

  • On Predestination and Limited Atonement: “God certainly has made no promises either of eternal life, or of any deliverance or preservation from eternal death, but what are contained in the covenant of grace, the promises that are given in Christ, in whom all the promises are yea and amen.”

  • On God’s Grace and Eternal Redemption: “And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God.”

Throughout the sermon, Edwards not only emphasizes these central tenets but also the need for immediate action. He concludes with this final plea and warning: “[L]et every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let every one fly out of Sodom: "Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed."

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