Charles Kemp notes, “The great preachers have usually been faithful pastors. The great pastors have very often been effective preachers.”
Jonathan Edwards needs to be viewed as a pastor-preacher. There are well over 1000 sermons by Jonathan Edwards. Thomas H. Johnson identified four groups in Edwards’ sermons: the disciplinary, the pastoral, the doctrinal, and the occasional (or miscellaneous).
Although Edwards’ sermons have been classified into four categories, it is to be assumed in this investigation of his pastoral preaching that all of his sermons are pastoral in nature. Altogether the stress is upon the pastoral, not the comminatory. A study of his sermons reveals his pastoral concern for the growth and development of his parishioners. His heart seemed to be that of a sincere and devoted undershepherd.
When revival came to his church, Edwards had preached a series of expository sermons from 1 Corinthians 13 on love as the sum of all virtues.1 David W. Waanders asserted that:
“It is against this backdrop of revivalism that Edwards’ pastoral concern must be seen. He was at heart … a pastor. Apart from his early notebooks, where he engaged in speculative philosophy to a large degree, most of his writings reflect attempts to deal with practical and pastoral problems. In Freedom of the Will, for example, his dominant concern is to come to grips with and to defeat the Arminian view of freedom which was threatening the faith and life of the church in New England. A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections grows out of a pastoral concern for people who were being influenced by extreme expressions of faith and who were becoming unsettled by controversies over the nature of true religion.”2
Jonathan Edwards’ pastoral preaching was biblical. He was first and foremost a biblical preacher, “a careful exegete and a skilled expositor.”3
In his youth, Edwards resolved “to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.”4 He became a serious student of the Bible to obtain an intimate knowledge of its contents. Samuel Hopkins said of Edwards:
“… He studied the Bible more than all other books, and more than most other divines do. His uncommon acquaintance with the Bible appears in his sermons … He took his religious principles from the Bible, and not from any human system or body of divinity. Though his principles were Calvinistic, yet he called no man father.”5
Edwards was at heart a pastor-preacher. Most of his writings reflect attempts at dealing with practical and pastoral problems.
Edwards should not be dismissed as one who only preached imprecatory sermons. Edwards basic appeal was to fear. He preached sermons in such a way because he felt the condition of the church made it necessary to preach the terror of the Lord. It was his conviction that sinful hearts of men and women could be turned only by extremely forceful and painfully direct preaching.
There was the underlying feeling of love also. John H. Gerstner claimed that Edwards was convinced of the need for a fear approach as much from love for humanity as from obedience to God. The preacher, like the Old Testament prophet, was on the one hand concerned for his people and on the other anxious to be faithful to his calling. It was necessary to warn of the consequences of evil. “His reasoning (on preaching hellfire) appears to be: hell is all of spiritual reality that can affect an unconverted man. Self-interest, his motivating principle, would concern him to avoid such a doom.”6
Edwards argued that though “Some talk of it as an unreasonable thing to fright persons to heaven … I think it is a reasonable thing to endeavor to fright persons away from hell … Is it not a reasonable thing to fright a person out of a house on fire?”7
Edwards felt that it was his duty to tell sinners their true condition. Said Edwards, “Does a surgeon stay his hand because the patient flinches when he is probing for the core of the wound?” Yet the knife of terror was prelude to the healing plaster. Indeed, Edwards said “something else besides terror is to be preached to them whose consciences are awakened; the Gospel is to be preached to them.”
If Edwards sought to master the imagery of dread, he was equally conscientious in seeking to image forth the comforts of the Gospel. One of his foremost concerns was to portray the “beauties and excellencies” of the Christ in such a way that they would seem sweet to the taste.” In his farewell sermon, Edwards said: “I have not only endeavored to awaken you, that you might be moved with fear, but I have used my utmost endeavour to win you.”
As William Barclay noted: “The preaching which is all threat and no love may terrify, but it will not save.”8
Unfortunately, Jonathan Edwards’ fame as a pastor-preacher rests upon one imprecatory sermon: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Too few people know the greatness of his preaching ability aside from this sermon. Leslie Conrad has said:
“Most of the nonsense that has been penned, typed and printed about Edwards has stemmed from the knowledge of this sermon, and the lack of the knowledge of much else about him. It is unfair to judge this pulpit great by one ‘landscape of hell’ sermon. For out of the more than 1000 sermons and outlines that he left to posterity, he very well covered the whole gamut of Scripture, theology, and practical Christian living.”9
The Great Awakening reached its peak in the summer of 1741 and it was on July 8 of that year, at Enfield, when Edwards preached his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” As a last-minute substitute, he decided to preach on a theme which he had used three times before. It was the last sermon in a series of four. The first two sermons are undated and the third had been preached to his congregation at Northampton. An atmosphere of apocalypticism prevailed over New England as a result of the Awakening. The day of judgment and the millennium seemed imminent.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was not entirely typical of Edwards’ own work. Nevertheless, it is the most widely anthologized sermon and thus deserves our attention here. This sermon needs further examination as a pastoral document as it was first preached at Northampton.
The sermon was first delivered to Edwards’ own congregation in Northampton in June, 1741, and apparently elicited no particular reaction from his parishioners. However, it was delivered at Enfield, a neighboring community, the following month with considerable effect. In fact, the revival which broke out at Enfield has been attributed to the effects of the delivery of this one sermon.10
The message, painted in realistic terms, pictured the sinner’s fate:
“The floods of God’s vengeance have been withheld; but your guilt in the meantime is constantly increasing, and you are every day treasuring up more wrath; the waters are constantly rising, and waxing more and more mighty; and there is nothing but the mere pleasure of God that holds the waters back, that are unwilling to be stopped, and press hard to go forward. If God should only withdraw His hand from the floodgate, it would immediately fly open, and the fiery floods of the fierceness and wrath of God would rush forth with inconceivable fury …”
The message was final, irreversible, total. The results were shattering. When he reached the climax of his sermon, “there was such a breathing of distress, and weeping, that the preacher was obligated to speak to the people and desire silence that he might be heard. Some unconsciously seized the sides of the pews and pillars as though they felt themselves slipping into hell.”11
“It was the preaching of Edwards,” said Joseph Haroutunian, “that initiated the revival at Northampton, and opened the way to the Great Awakening.”12
Jonathan Edwards was a pastor-preacher with few equals. It has been observed that many of the best and most cogent expressions of Edwards’ pastoral concerns are yet to be uncovered in his unpublished sermon manuscripts. Orville Hitchcock succinctly summarized the pastor-preacher:
“A preacher for thirty-six years, he prepared and delivered hundreds of sermons. These sermons were well organized, packed with logical argument and Scriptural evidence, and motivated by vivid persuasive appeals. Written in a plain and direct style and delivered with sincerity and earnestness, they had a profound effect on the people who heard them. Today organized religion has moved away from many of the principles for which Edwards stood; yet his influence still is felt. The man who, with George Whitfield, was responsible for the Great Awakening, one of the most important religious revivals of all time, cannot be said to have spoken in vain.”13
1. Tyron Edwards, ed., Charity and Its Fruits (London: J. Nisbet & Co., 1852).
2. David W. Waanders, “The Pastoral Sense of Jonathan Edwards,” Reformed Review, 29 (Winter, 1976), p. 24.
3. Ralph G. Turnbull, “Jonathan Edwards — Bible Interpreter,” Interpretation. VI, (Oct., 1952), No. 4, p. 429.
4. Sereno E. Dwight, ed., The Works of President Edwards (New York: S. Converse, 1829-1830), I, p. 70.
5. Samuel Hopkins, The Life and Character of the Late Reverend, Learned and Pious Mr. Jonathan Edwards (Boston, 1765), p. 47.
6. John H. Gerstner, Steps to Salvation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), p. 28.
7. Ibid., p. 30.
8. William Barclay, Corinthians: Daily Bible Study (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), p. 131.
9. Leslie Conrad, “Jonathan Edwards’ Pattern for Preaching,” Church Management, XXXIII (Sept., 1957), No. 12, p. 46.
10. Ralph G. Turnbull, Jonathan Edwards the Preacher (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958), p. 47.
11. R. W. Settle, “Colonial Religious Awakening — New England,” Christianity Today (Sept., 1958), p. 17.
12. Joseph Haroutunian, Piety Versus Moralism (New York: Holt & Co., 1932), p. 134.
13. Orville A. Hitchcock, “Jonathan Edwards,” A History and Criticism of American Public Address. William Norwood Brigance, ed., Vol. I (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1943), p. 235.

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