Unless You Repent by Jonathan Edwards
The faithful preaching of God’s judgment upon sinners sparks revival. America’s most spiritually traumatic era — the Great Awakening between the 1730s and 1740s — reminds us that when hell is prominent in the pulpit, souls are sobered, awakened and converted.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758 ) was both one of the most prominent preachers of the Great Awakening and the author of one of the most powerful sermons on God’s judgment. Sinners in the Hands of and Angry God was his.
For Edwards, a firm understanding of hell was central to the message of the Cross, and central to preserving the justice and glory and perfections of God. In one way or another, every eternal truth is tied to God’s judgment in some way. And so God’s judgment retained a central place in the pulpit for Edwards.
Many of you may have already read Edwards’ most famous sermon on hell. But there are several other sermons that develop this same theme from different texts. Most of these have never been published! Recently, Soli Deo Gloria published a volume titled, Unless You Repent: Fifteen previously unpublished sermons on the fate awaiting the impenitent. The sermons were compiled and edited by Dr. Don Kistler.
I have seen a number of collections of previously unpublished Edwards sermons, and this volume stands as one of the best compiled and most helpful for the preacher.
Here are a few excerpts that stand out.
Speaking to a superficial, appearance-saturated climate similar to ours, Edwards pierced hearts by presenting the horrors of hell clearly.
“Just as bodies of the saints shall be made beautiful and glorious, like Christ’s most glorious body, so we may conclude that, on the contrary, the bodies of the wicked will be of a most hideous, ghastly appearance. In the world, sometimes a filthy, loathsome soul dwells in a beautiful body; but then they will appear externally as they are internally: as their souls are most deformed, so their bodies will be of a most odious form. They will appear frightful, like devils; there will be that in their aspect that will show the sinfulness and hatefulness of their disposition” (p. 108).
As you can see from this one example, these sermons are extraordinary in their description of hell. Specifically, this volume showcases Edwards’ unparalleled ability to illustrate the biblical terms of God’s eternal judgment (like winepress, furnace, etc). Here, Edward’s explains the worm that does not die:
“The expression of the worm’s not dying in the carcasses of these men [Mark 9:44; Isa. 66:24] alludes to this: when a dead carcass lies upon the face of the earth till it begins to putrefy, it will presently be overrun with worms; the carcass will be filled within and without with worms gnawing upon it. And the expression of their fires not being quenched alludes to the custom of the heathens when any of them died to burn them in a fire and so entomb their ashes. Now the prophet says that their worm shall not die. When a dead carcass lies putrefying upon the earth, after a while the carcass will be consumed and the worms will die; but the worms that shall gnaw upon the carcasses of these men shall not die, that is, their souls shall always be tormented. The similitude holds forth exceeding misery. How miserable must a man be to be alive and yet have his flesh, his bowels, and his vital parts all filled with worms, continually gnawing upon the body as they to upon a dead carcass” (pp. 128-129).
Such powerful imagery is fitting for the horrors of God’s eternal judgment and Edwards is competent to paint these images for his hearers.
Edwards sermons are clearly driven by the biblical language of hell. For Edwards, God’s judgment is fair and justified by the offenses of the sinner towards God. His judgments are self-glorifying and eternal in duration (Rev. 19:1). It is a judgment reserved for the next world and so it’s ignored by the foolish in this world. It is a judgment that rests upon each man, woman and child for each sin, even something so minor as calling your brother a ‘fool.’ It is a judgment necessary from a sovereign authority towards rebellion. It’s consistent with basic reasoning. His judgment is sworn, authenticated and confirmed by an oath. It is the due judgment upon sinners that rob God of His glory. Hell is misery to the soul, without pity or mercy from God. It is the unmixed winepress of wrath, where the vessels of wrath are filled to the brim with wrath. It is no mere candle flame but a stoked furnace of raging destruction. Hell is to be banished from everything that is good and perfect and pleasurable. It is a wrath of pure darkness, pure fire, intolerable and immediate. It is a judgment growing hotter each day upon sinner, a pain for both soul and body from head to toe. It is a judgment un-exaggerated by strong biblical language.
To continue unmoved by the doctrine of hell, is to continue upon a path towards it. It is a wakeup call to all sinners and it reminds us of the wrath poured out on God’s own Son for us. Hell exults the grace and mercy of God. Hell is central to God, central to Christ and central to the gospel.
As Edwards warns, “Unless you frequently think of it [hell], you will never take any considerable care or pains to escape it” (p. 115).
Unless You Repent, contains fifteen total sermons. All are re-typeset. One sermon is a fragment (sermon #6) and one has already been printed (sermon #10 appears in volume 14 of the Yale edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards).
An incredibly powerful book, filled with well-developed thoughts and expositions that you would expect from Edwards. And the cover? Let’s just say this is one of the few Edwards titles you can judge by its cover.
Edwards is not content with damnation, but turns the focus to Christ who takes all the ugliness of our sin upon Himself and opens the door of eternal joy. Unless You Repent is an excellent source of meditation upon the doctrine of God’s judgment. But it will also prove useful to reach the lost, especially church-goers who are awakened to their sin but have not ‘closed with Christ’ (to use a Puritan phrase).
If history is repeated, the fires of awakening in America will not flame again until the church allows God’s justice and the horrors of hell to once again become central in the pulpit. As one contemporary preacher says, our pulpits must be dipped in the blood of the Lamb and singed by the fire of hell. Throughout church history, Edwards here remains our most excellent pattern.
Title: Unless You Repent
Author: Jonathan Edwards
Binding: hardcover/cloth (light olive, gold gilding)
Dust jacket: yes (best Edwards cover ever?)
Topical Index: no (unnecessary; one-topic book)
Textual index: no (helpful, but unnecessary)
Publisher: Soli Deo Gloria, Ligonier Ministries