In light of our recent discussion over Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God) it occurred to me that John Calvin may help us answer the following questions:
- Where does a fear of God’s judgment arise in the natural man?
- Are sinners fearful of His wrath because the preacher builds up to a rhetorical climax of graphic content or is something greater at work?
- In our contemporary society — saturated with horror films, horror books and graphic entertainment — will a sermon on God’s wrath be marginalized to fictional fairytale?
These are serious concerns for the preacher and evangelist.
Early in the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559) Calvin addresses God’s judgment as a way to prove that knowledge of God is etched on the hearts of all men. He writes,
“One reads of no one who burst forth into bolder or more unbridled contempt of deity than Gaius Caligula [Roman emperor between A.D. 37-41]; yet no one trembled more miserably when any sign of God’s wrath manifested itself; thus – albeit unwillingly – he shuddered at the God whom he professedly sought to despise. You may see now and again how this also happens to those like him; how he who is the boldest despiser of God is of all men the most startled at the rustle of a falling leaf [cf. Lev. 26:36]. Whence does this arise but from the vengeance of divine majesty, which strikes their consciences all the more violently the more they try to flee from it? Indeed, they seek out every subterfuge to hide themselves from the Lord’s presence, and to efface it again from their minds. But in spite of themselves they are always entrapped. Although it may sometimes seem to vanish for a moment, it returns at once and rushes in with new force. If for these there is any respite from anxiety of conscience, it is not much different from the sleep of drunken or frenzied persons, who do not rest peacefully even while sleeping because they are continually troubled with dire and dreadful dreams” (1.3.2; 1:45).
God’s presence remains close enough to even the hardest of sinners, close enough that God occasionally fills the sinners thoughts with a foretaste of His coming wrath. It may be silent for a time, but then this knowledge “rushes in with new force” like God’s immediate presence overcoming the Old Testament sinner (see Lev. 26:36). To put this more biblically, Paul in Romans 1:28-32 writes,
“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”
After explaining that “death” here cannot be limited to physical death, John Murray writes, “The most degraded of men, degraded because judicially abandoned of God, are not destitute of the knowledge of God and of his righteous judgments” [The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans: 1959) 1:52]. There are ever-present reminders that God is holy, that all sin must be punished, and that sinners are rightfully consumed by the second death. Somewhere in the recesses of the conscience, all sinners are reminded that a propensity to gossip is quickening God’s wrath. And this wrath is fully justified.
What all this suggests is that – while we appropriately stand in amazement at the work of God in blessing the sermons of Jonathan Edwards to spark revival – the true power of a sermon on God’s judgment is the divine whisper in our conscience that all of us rightfully deserve God’s wrath. Because of this profound universal truth, we cannot think that preaching graphic sermons on God’s judgment compete with the entertainment industry, or that these sermons will be marginalized by our hearers to the status of fiction.
As creatures of God, we are etched with His image. When the movie concludes, we resume our busy lives. When the sermon concludes, sinners remain under His authority and bound to the inescapable reality that all sinners deserve to face God’s wrath.
I cannot help but pause for a moment to note what incredibly dead hearts we have as sinners! We even encourage and approve of other sinners in their self-condemnation (v. 32). It must be a great Savior to save great sinners, self-condemned and patting others in approval of their self-condemnation. Indeed, Christ has saved us from ourselves, saved us from God’s judgment, saved us from our guilt and due penalty! He was crushed for our iniquities (Isa. 53:5, 10). What grace and mercy that sinners self-condemned now live in hope!
My simple conclusion is this: Sermons on God’s judgment will remain distinct from horror film entertainment because terrifying fiction and terrifying wrath are not easily confused. If anything, the horrors of graphic imagery seen on the big screen will stretch the sinner’s minds to the unfathomable terrors of God’s wrath to come. Preachers should unashamedly expound all of Scripture — which includes the graphic nature of hell — with the confidence that our sovereign God is already at work speaking to every soul.