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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Critical Analysis of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (1741) by Jonathan Edwards

Protestantism in the American Colonies had been steeped in Reformed Christian doctrine fueled by the systematic theology of Calvin. This era of heightened religious sensibility and evangelism, exposing such biblical realities as the equality of all men and Enlightenment principles of egalitarianism such as inalienable rights endowed by their Creator, helped formulate the democratic thinking that led to the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin supported George Whitefield, perhaps the most famous of the evangelical preachers during this period in Colonial America, by printing his sermons in his Gazette. This sets the stage for Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is perhaps the best literary example of the style of preaching taking place during the Great Awakening. With vivid imagery and illustrative language, Edwards very emotionally addresses his congregation directly and makes an appeal for them to repent of the sin that will surely bring the deserved wrath of an angry God to bare upon them. “What are we, that we should think to stand before Him, at whose rebuke the earth trembles, and before whom the rocks are thrown down?”

With such questions as this, Edwards causes his audience to contrast and consider themselves in comparison to the terribleness and omnipotent, absolute judgement of God. That God’s power is absolute and His wrath justified against sin is very evident throughout Edwards’ sermon. He also aptly interjects Scripture passages to further illustrate the unfortunate position of sinful man. “John 3:18.” He that believeth not is condemned already." So that every unconverted man properly belongs to hell; that is his place; from thence he is, John 8:23. "Ye are from beneath:" And thither he is bound; it is the place that justice, and God's word, and the sentence of his unchangeable law assign to him.” Making clear the distinction between saints and sinners, Edwards brings Puritan beliefs into conversation with the rationalist and deist creators of the Enlightenment.

Ethics become a central issue in the social context of evangelical revivalism as well as provincial politics. Ethics and the issue of morality are the ballroom within which the old and new schools of thought in Colonial America find themselves dancing towards a revolution of ideas. Edwards seems to be somewhat of a preacher with a Reformed theological ideology who expressed Calvinist soteriology in more modern language than his predecessors. Edwards wanted his audience to know with certainty that Hell is a real place to be shunned and that God was, is, and ever would be an omnipotent God whose wrath and judgment are to be feared above all else. With vivid imagery in scenes such as, “There are the black clouds of God's wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm, and big with thunder; and were it not for the restraining hand of God, it would immediately burst forth upon you. The sovereign pleasure of God, for the present, stays his rough wind; otherwise it would come with fury, and your destruction would come like a whirlwind, and you would be like the chaff on the summer threshing floor.” The appeal Edwards makes in his conclusion is most compelling even today; for those currently out of Christ to come forth and surrender their lives and accept this momentary window of opportunity to avoid the tyranny of God’s wrath, damnation, and hellfire that is promised in Scripture.

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