‘Sinners’ in the hands of a contemporary preacher?

Could Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God be preached today? This is the question posed to Edwardian scholars Harry S. Stout and Kenneth P. Minkema.

Notice how the discussion in the video veers off into a broader question: Can any graphic sermons onjonathan-edwards.gif hell be preached today? That seems to be another question altogether. … This has me thinking: How does the rise in horror films and the graphic portrayal of evil on major films influenced the preaching of God’s eternal judgment in our culture? Are the horrors of hell now less real or more real?

Should ‘Sinners’ be preached today? One contemporary of Edwards was the famous hymn writer Isaac Watts (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed”). After reading the text of ‘Sinners’ he wrote: “A most terrible [terrifying] sermon, which should have had a word of Gospel at the end of it, though I think ‘tis all true.” I agree with Watts. Strictly speaking I would not preach ‘Sinners.’ When it comes to explaining the beauty of the Cross, (perhaps) Edwards had the luxury of assuming this reality in his setting. But that is an assumption we cannot make today. Maybe no sermon better sets the groundwork to understand the love of Christ in His willingness to endure my eternal wrath as my substitute who drank the full cup of God’s eternal wrath I deserved. How can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me? But the sermon needs a ‘word of Gospel’ at the end.

‘Sinners’ in the hands of Mark Dever. In October of 2003 Mark Dever preached this sermon to his congregation (Capitol Hill Baptist Church; Washington, D.C.). His introduction is excellent and (from what I am told) the sermon was successful.

‘Sinners’ in the hands of Billy Graham. In 1949 Graham preached ‘Sinners’ and you can listen to some very loud excerpts over at the new online exhibit at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. Here is one …

Debatable. Since we are talking of the famous sermon, I am surprised how frequently writers suggest Edwards is remembered as a preacher of God’s wrath by an over-emphasis on this one sermon — Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God — over his greater corpus of sermons. I recently came across another reference by a very popular contemporary historian of the same opinion. However, apart from this famous sermon, entire books of manuscripts have been assembled with Edwards’ sermons on God’s judgment. One example is Unless You Repent: Fifteen previously unpublished sermons on the fate awaiting the impenitent (Soli Deo Gloria: 2005). Read our review here. Edwards frequently invited sinners to delight in God’s love but also warned them of God’s wrath — a balance modeled by Christ Himself. ‘Sinners’ is just one of many similar sermons.

The sermon itself. I would encourage you to read ‘Sinners’ if you never have (text here). On Wednesday July 8th, 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut the scene unfolded like this: “Edwards, who had been building the intensity of the sermon, had to stop and ask for silence so that he could be heard. The tumult only increased as the ‘shrieks and cries were piercing and amazing.’ As Edwards waited, the wails continued, so there was no way that he might be heard. He never finished the sermon. Wheelock offered a closing prayer, and the clergy went down among the people to minister among them individually. ‘Several souls were hopefully wrought upon that night,’ Stephen Williams recorded, ‘and oh the cheerfulness and pleasantness of their countenances.’ Finally the congregation was enough under control to sing an affecting hymn, hear a prayer, and be dispersed” (pp. 220-221). Read more on this sermon in George Marsden’s excellent biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale: 2003) pp. 220-224.

14 thoughts on “‘Sinners’ in the hands of a contemporary preacher?

  1. Tony,
    I’m not sure if you’ve heard it by now, but a preacher named Tim Conway preached a sermon called The Necessity of Hell. You can also find it on SermonAudio. I think it probably comes as descriptively close to “Sinners” as I’ve heard today. Thank you for posting the link to Dever’s “Sinners”. I look forward to hearing it.

  2. Tony,
    My first exposure to this classic sermon was back in junior English. For some reason or another (well I do live in Texas) we were allowed to study Pastor Edwards’ work in public school, and for the most part our class discussions turned into criticism of the man and his work.

    Ironically enough my classmates and I (though our teacher was very impartial) found the sermon outdated and out of touch with modern (post?) sensitivities. I can remember how we railed against the ‘judgmental’ tone of the work.

    Thanks be to God that now 14 years later He has opened my eyes to take heed of Pastor Edwards’ passionate plea.

  3. on the question of “terror preaching,” it must be remembered that JE was preaching to a congregation in context. the same folks that heard him preach Sinners would hear him preach on a balancing topic at some point not too long after. JE preached to a community for a community. his sermons are very directed…very specifically oriented towards individuals and individual issues that he sees going on in his congregation. this is why, as you rightly note, it is critical to read JE’s sermons in context in order to understand the thrust of his theological and pedagogical interests.

  4. I remember RC Sproul saying the most common phrase in Edward’s works, according to the folks at Yale was “excellency of Christ.” He wasn’t sure how they figured that out,however its an instructive point. I think only a guy who’s had a taste of God’s glory is qualified to preach hell. I belive George Whitefield is a better model as he preached similarly, yet with tears pouring out of his eyes. I remember an anecdote Whitefield’s biography. Two of the contemporaries of his and Edwards were preaching. The one guy was preaching on the coming judgement, sinfulness of man, etc. The people were swooning and falling out. His brother in Christ stood up and said “Is there a Great Physician,is there any balm in Gilead?” He said yes there is and he “preached Christ!” I cannot remember their names, I’ll tray and look it up. Great stuff!

  5. “The overwhelming judgment of contemporary readers is that Edwards was dour and calloused and what when he preached, he breathed the smoke of hellfire and brimstone harangues … It is ironic because his sermons overflow with the words sweetness, plesure, joy, love, and beauty. Edwards never pulled back from proclaiming the wrath of God on sin, but he just as forcefully and readily proclaimed the abundant mercy and grace of a good and loving God.” [Stephen J. Nichols, Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of Living in Between (Crossway: 2006) p. 30.]

  6. Tony, Nice post as usual. But the highlight was seeing Marsden’s book at the end. Even just your excellent picture of the book brings back warm memories of its greatness. My number 1 favorite among biographies. Thanks for doing such a good job.


  7. Interesting that Billy Graham preached this sermon so long ago. Since Dr. Graham no longer believes in a literal hell (and hasn’t for quite some time), I doubt he would even think about preaching it today.

  8. Interesting too that the discussion on the video – by two very fine scholars – turns quickly to the *aesthetics* of hell.

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