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 on 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 One example is Unless You Repent: Fifteen previously unpublished sermons on the fate awaiting the impenitent (Soli Deo Gloria: 2005).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.