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A Look at Jonathan Edwards and His Most Famous Sermon

Dr. Fred Sanders has a very helpful post on Jonathan Edwards and his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Dr. Sanders gives some context:

“Sinners” looms large in American memory. It is a sermon on hell that has seared itself into the conscience of the country and made people think that most Christian preaching, or perhaps most Puritan preaching, or at least most of Edwards’ preaching, must have been hellfire-and-brimstone. Edwards himself thus looms in the popular histories as a ranting, raving, hellfire-spouting, Calvinist revival-monger who spent his days chastising his hapless congregation and his nights piling up arguments in proof of infant damnation. On the slender basis of this one sermon, Edwards’ God has been described as

Abraham’s God, the Wrathful One,
Intolerant of error–
Not God the Father or the Son
But God the Holy Terror.

A hostile 1930 biographer even described Edwards “The Fiery Puritan” as preaching a theology that was “a blight upon posterity,” “repulsive and absurd,” and finally pronouncing upon him the ultimate condemnation: He was “not truly an American.”

To make matters worse, at some point a forgotten editor of English Literature textbooks must have decided that “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” would be the best introduction to Puritan thought. Others agreed, and the sermon was reprinted and anthologized innumerable times. We are left with what appears to be a conspiracy of literature teachers to slander by misrepresentation Jonathan Edwards (and perhaps the larger concentric circles he occupied: maybe Puritanism, maybe Calvinism, maybe Protestantism, maybe Christianity). “Sinners” is indeed a great and striking sermon, fully deserving serious attention. But as an introduction to the full range of Edwards’ thought, it is highly misleading. The terror of “Sinners” has a legitimate place in Edwards’ universe, but it is far from the center.

So what was Edwards doing with “Sinners” then? Dr. Sanders explains:

Why did Jonathan Edwards preach this way? He had a theory of persuasion which he summarized in the phrase, “the will is as the most apparent good is.” That is, the human will is inclined toward good things, but it is a short-sighted will. It does not incline to the greatest good, but to the good it can see most clearly. So it will choose a penny today over a dollar tomorrow, or it will choose instant gratification over long-term satisfaction. Most evil comes from this inversion in the proper hierarchical order of goods: by inclining and consenting to the most apparent good rather than the greatest good, we turn lesser goods into idols and forsake the One who is Goodness…

The same theory of persuasion is operant in “Sinners,” but Edwards is approaching his task from the opposite side. Instead of making heaven the most apparent good, Edwards describes hell vividly enough to render it the most apparent bad. Instead of preaching the roof off, he preaches the floorboards rotten. Sin drags us down all the time, but we are easily insensible of it; it is the greatest evil, but not the most apparent evil. By the time Edwards is done describing sin and its effects, its loathsomeness is so conspicuously evident that his hearers cry out. Their wills recoil from the bad. We may prefer the positive approach, and wish for sermons that succeed in showing us the goodness of God and the glories of heaven. But in principle, I cannot think of any objection that would outlaw the opposite approach, the approach taken in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

The whole article is worth your time.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

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