It was a study in contrasts as the frail-looking preacher stood before the congregation. Weak, thin and suffering from failing eyesight, he held his manuscript close to his face and spoke calmly, seemingly without emotion. Yet the sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” caused a virtual eruption within the congregation; Edwards at one point had to ask for quiet so that he could be heard.
Perhaps the most famous sermon ever preached, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was not typical of this great colonial thinker who has been called America’s finest theologian and philosopher. To the contrary, the majority of his sermons were pastoral or doctrinal in nature; only a handful emphasized human depravity and the horrors of hell.
Born in 1703 the son of a Congregational clergyman, Edwards received his early education from his father, including study of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. At age 12 he entered Yale College, where he graduated with highest honors at age 17. That same year he underwent a significant religious experience which brought him to strong Calvinist convictions at a time when New England was abandoning those religious roots.
He served as pastor of a Presbyterian church in New York and a tutor at Yale before becoming co-pastor in 1727 of the Congregational church at Northampton, Massachusetts. For two years he served alongside his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, and when the elder pastor died Edwards continued to serve the church as its only pastor.
While at Northampton Edwards participated in the First Great Awakening, a religious movement which shook New England after years of spiritual decline. As requirements for membership had been liberalized, the churches had come to be filled with persons making no claim to any religious experience. In fact, it was Edwards’ refusal to administer the sacraments to a single church member for four years that contributed to his dismissal from the church in 1750.
The following year Edwards began work at Stockbridge as a missionary to Indians and a handful of white settlers. It was during these years that the Puritan preacher completed his most significant philosophical works. On February 16, 1758, Edwards was inaugurated as the third president of Princeton University, then New Jersey College. That March he was innoculated because of a smallbox epidemic, but complications led to his death only a week later, at the age of 54.
Though his delivery was marked by the dryness typical of the era, Edwards’ sermons are models of careful treatment of Biblical texts. Though many of his sermons dealt with doctrinal or philosophical themes, he also preached on ethical topics, especially the exploitation and mistreatment of the Indians.
One of America’s greatest thinkers, Jonathan Edwards also made a significant impact on the history of American preaching. Selected excerpts from Edwards’ sermons follow:
From “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence”
It was of mere grace that God gave us his only begotten Son. The grace is great in proportion to the dignity and excellency of what is given: the gift was infinitely precious, because it was a person infinitely worthy, a person of infinite glory; and also because it was a person infinitely near and dear to God. The grace is great in proportion to the benefit we have given us in him: the benefit is doubly infinite, in that in him we have deliverance from an infinite, because an eternal misery; and do also receive eternal joy and glory.
The grace in bestowing this gift is great in proportion to our unworthiness to whom it is given; instead of deserving such a gift, we merited infinitely ill of God’s hands. The grace is great according to the manner of giving, or in proportion to the humiliation and expense of the method and means by which way is made for our having the gift. He gave him to us dwelling amongst us; he gave him to us incarnate, or in our nature; he gave him to us in our nature, in the like infirmities, in which we have it in our fallen state, and which in us do accompany, and are occasioned by the sinful corruption of our nature. He gave him to us in a low and afflicted state; not only so, but he gave him to us slain, that he might be a feast for our souls.
The grace of God in bestowing this gift is most free. It was what God was under no obligation to be stow: he might have rejected fallen man, as he did the fallen angels. It was what we never did anything to merit; it was given while we were yet enemies, and before we had so much as repented. It was from the love of God that saw no excellency in us to attract it; and it was without expectation of ever being requited for it.
From “A Divine and Supernatural Light”
There is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man cannot have the latter unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind. So there is a difference between believing that a person is beautiful, and having a sense of his beauty. The former may be obtained from hearsay, but the latter only by seeing the countenance.
From “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.
By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God’s mere will had in the least degree or any respect whatsoever, any hand in the preservation of wicked men one moment….
There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment. Men’s hands cannot be strong when God rises up: the strongest have no power to resist him, nor can any deliver out of his hands.
So that it is not because God is unmindful of their wickedness, and does not resent it, that he does not let loose his hand and cut them off. God is not altogether such a one as themselves, though they may imagine him to be so. The wrath of God burns against them; their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared; the fire is made ready; the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened her mouth under them.
It is no security to wicked men for one moment, that there are no visible means of death at hand. It is no security to a natural man, that he is now in health, and that he does not see which way he should now immediately go out of the world by any accident, and that there is no visible danger in any respect in his circumstances. The manifold and continuous experience of the world in all ages, shows that where is no evidence that a man is not on the very brink of eternity, and that the next step will not be into another world! … Uncoverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they will not bear their weight, and these places are not seen.
From “Justification by Faith Alone”
This is the main thing that fallen men stood in need of divine revelation for, to teach us how we that have sinned may come to be again accepted of God; or, which is the same thing, how the sinner may be justified. Something beyond the light of nature is necessary to salvation chiefly of this account. Mere natural reason afforded no means by which we could come to the knowledge of this, it depending on the sovereign pleasure of the Being that we had offended by sin.
From “The Excellency of Christ”
There meet in Jesus Christ infinite justice and infinite grace. As Christ is a divine person he is infinitely holy and just, infinitely hating sin, and disposed to execute condign punishment for sin. He is the Judge of the world, and is the infinitely just judge of it, and will not at all acquit the wicked, or by any means clear the guilty.
And yet he is the one that is infinitely gracious and merciful. Though his justice be so strict with respect to all sin, and every breach of the law, yet he has grace sufficient for every sinner, and even the chief of sinners … There is no benefit or blessing that they can receive so great, but the grace of Christ is sufficient to bestow it in the greatest sinner that ever lived.
You need not hesitate one moment; but may run to him, and cast yourself upon him; you will certainly be graciously and meekly received by him. Though he be a lion, he will only be a lion to your enemies, but he will be a lamb to you. It could not have been conceived, had it not been so in the person of Christ, that there could have been so much in any Saviour, that is inviting, and tending to encourage sinners to trust in him.

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