by Mark Hertenstein
The most famous sermon of the Great Awakening, the most famous in the career of Jonathan Edwards, and indeed one of the most famous in American history, is titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is without doubt one of the greatest pieces of rhetoric ever composed. But I sometimes wonder if our American religious conscience would have been better off without it.
The fact is that the sermon predominately uses the fear of Hell as the motivating factor to convert the unrepentant. And as much as it probably accomplished that goal (those who have never read the sermon should- it is brilliantly terrifying), it does so at the expense of the Gospel. It does so at the expense of Christ. Edwards places Christ as the rescuer from perdition. But Edwards hardly references the love of God, or the fact that Christ is God’s Word of love to man.
Its effect has been devastating in the Church. To this day, the Church continues to use the judgment of God to instill fear in order to induce morality. Many do not use the actual impetus for moral action (and one that must be built up and formed), Christian love, as the motivating factor. Most echo Edwards from so many years ago: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of Hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”
The theological issue at stake here is that Christians should be impelled to doing works of love out of genuine love of God through faith in Jesus Christ. The issue at hand is that the Gospel is supposed to free us from the fear and dread of the Law that does demand Hell. I don’t take issue with using it occasionally, as the Law is meant to put down our own bloated image of ourselves. But it is not the whole story. The Gospel of Christ and His love must be preached and practiced. The problem with Edwards’ greatest sermon is not using Hell and the Law; the problem is that they, rather than Christ, are made into the content of the Christian message.
Martin Luther experienced the dread of judgment and Hell, and he himself says that so long as that was the Christian message, that Christ is judge, he despised God. Thankfully he was restless and was spurred on to discover the love of God to give Christ as the satisfaction of God’s judgment and as the renewed life that we should live. Unfortunately, most today do not get that message. It is one of Christ the Judge. And they are run out of Christianity by no fault of their own, save having a sin that is seen as egregious by hypocrites whose sin is supposedly less severe.
Most churches have various sins that are considered the worst. They are cordoned off and handled separately. They have books and courses, even therapy. All create a group that is, in a way, cordoned off. They are made to be different even in God’s people. And churches create ghettoes.
And so when these people do leave, can we really blame them? Who would want to continue in a faith whose God is angry, malevolent, and is only a judge? I know I would not.
The Christian message is one that says, “Yes, man has sinned and deserves Hell, but God is Love and God spoke His Word in Jesus Christ that man is loved and saved in that love that is in Christ.” God spoke a Word of judgment in Christ, a Word of judgment on sin; God also spoke a Word of love in Christ, a Word of love for all men. The Church cannot and should not attempt to create ghettoes of sinners within the City of God; rather, it is itself the ghetto of sinners who are no longer beholden to the sinful world as it is.
When the prostitute was confronted by the Pharisees, Jesus first asked that the one without sin cast the first stone, and then he talked to the woman and forgave her while saying, “Go and sin no more.” When the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were leaving Jerusalem in disappointment, the disguised Christ walked with them and taught them, and then when all was revealed to them, they went back to Jerusalem.
We as Christians should walk that road with those who are disappointed and driven away, so that they may return when Christ is revealed to them. We should first withhold the judgment that is not ours in the first place, and gently admonish and be admonished, all of us in the Church. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God. We are sinners in the hands of a loving God.