8 Powerful Lessons from the Famous Sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’
Perhaps you’ve heard of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” thought to be one of the most famous sermons of all time. Hugely influential in Christianity’s Great Awakening, a period in 18th-century American history when a massive amount of people came to Jesus, the sermon was penned by Jonathan Edwards, an American theologian and later president of what is today Princeton University, whose evocative descriptions of hell and wrath led many to the altar in repentance.
Or perhaps it’s the bold title that draws your attention — after all, concepts of “sinners” and an “angry God” strike terror in many a heart, or perhaps are reminiscent of the classic hellfire-and-brimstone-type preaching.
The fact remains that “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a powerful sermon that played a significant role in awakening — and securing — hearts to Christ. And almost 300 years later, we can still draw much important wisdom from it.
Here, then, are eight powerful lessons from Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Lara Zanarini
What Is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” About?
The first time Jonathan Edwards preached this sermon, at his home church in Northampton, Massachusetts, it didn’t draw the sort of reaction it did the second time, on July 8, 1741. There at a church in Enfield, Connecticut, audience members reportedly moaned, cried out, wept, and even fainted in response.
Raised a Puritan and the son and grandfather of preachers, Edwards is known for being one of the forerunners of the age of Protestant expansion in the 19th century, along with contemporaries John Wesley and George Whitefield. The revival movement of the Great Awakening was a massive shift among colonialists to strive for salvation, resulting in upwards of 50,000 new converts.
In summary, the sermon is an appeal, through fear, shame, and terrifying imagery, for sinners to understand they will be judged by God and subject to his wrath and damnation to hell if they do not repent and turn to Jesus. It emphasizes the great mercy of the Lord, explaining that only because of this mercy are people saved.
Here then, are eight lessons from this sermon:
1. God Is All-Powerful
As we know, God created the universe and existed before time began. As Psalm 90:2 reminds us, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” God — the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13) — can do whatever God wishes.
That’s something Edwards wants his audience to understand without question. As he notes in his sermon, “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. He is not only able to cast wicked men into hell, but he can most easily do it.”
Photo credit: Unsplash/Juan Pablo Rodriguez
2. We’re All Sinners
Secondly, all people are sinners. As Edwards says in his sermon, “There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell. There are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are seeds of hell-fire.”
It’s the same thing Paul says in Romans 3:23, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Every one of us is guilty, beginning with humankind’s “original” sin when Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3). Jesus himself said in Luke 18:19, “No one is good — except God alone.”
3. Hell Is Real, and Sinners Face a Horrible Judgment
Many believers prefer not to talk or even think about hell, and in many churches hell is not mentioned. Some of this is stylistic in nature — some churches prefer to focus on the good and positive aspects of the hope we have in Christ and the gift we have been given, rather than the elements of fear about the alternative: eternal damnation.
But make no mistake: Hell is real. Jesus warns us in Matthew 10:28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” And in Matthew 28:41, Jesus talks about the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
That is a huge part of Edwards’ sermon: We have something very real and very terrifying to fear. He wanted the people to know what they were facing.
As Edwards describes, “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.”
4. Satan Is Actively Striving to Lure People to Evil
Edwards also wanted us to know evil is actively at work in the world.
“The devil stands ready to fall upon them, and seize them as his own, at what moment God shall permit him. They belong to him; he has their souls in his possession, and under his dominion,” Edwards writes.
It’s much the same as what Peter says in his first letter to the early church, urging people, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Photo credit: Pexels/Daniel Reche
5. Only God’s Mercy Saves Us from This Horror
The Bible is clear that God hates sin. Psalm 11:5 tells us that God hates the wicked “with a passion.” Romans 6:23 reminds us that “the wages of sin is death.” Divine justice, Edwards notes in his sermon, demands that sin — and sinners — deserve their fate, which is hell.
There is absolutely nothing we can do to stop this or earn our place outside of hell, Edwards says. Only God’s great and beautiful mercy saves us from our destructive end. As he preaches, “The sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over their heads, and it is nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God’s mere will, that holds it back.”
That’s why we’re told in John 3:16 that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
He chose to send his son as a path away from hell. This is nothing we earned but only because of God’s goodness.
6. God Doesn’t Owe Us Anything, and His Mercy Is a Huge Gift
Further, Edwards wanted us to know, God doesn’t owe us anything.
As he writes, “God has laid himself under no obligation, by any promise to keep any natural man out of hell one moment. God certainly has made no promises either of eternal life, or of any deliverance or preservation from eternal death, but what are contained in the covenant of grace, the promises that are given in Christ. … Whatever pains a natural man takes in religion, whatever prayers he makes, till he believes in Christ, God is under no manner of obligation to keep him a moment from eternal destruction.”
Therefore, we can truly appreciate that God’s mercy — through the sacrificial offering that is Jesus, word become flesh (John 1:14) — is a massive and undeserved gift.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Ian Espinosa
7. Time Is Short, so Don’t Delay Your Repentance
Edwards reminds us it is of critical importance that we repent and believe now, before it is too late.
We don’t know when we will die, nor do we know when Christ will return. Jesus said, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left” (Matthew 24:37-40).
Edwards reminds us of this in his sermon, noting, “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.”
8. The Only Way to Escape Hell Is Belief and Repentance, Not Good Works
We can never be “good enough” to earn our way into heaven. We can never be nice enough, kind enough, rich enough, or morally upstanding enough, though many of us try to convince ourselves that God would never send a “nice person” to hell.
“Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security; he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do,” Edwards preaches.
As stated before, only through Christ can we escape eternal destruction.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Renel Wackett
How Did This Sermon Lead to a Great Awakening?
Edwards was invited to preach this sermon at a church in another city; the congregants reportedly had been resistant to the idea of hell, and his sermon laid out the dangers in horrific detail. While it relied on fear and shame to make its point, Edwards’ message did the trick. It helped people understand what was truly at stake: their lives, and forevermore.
We know from reading the Book of Acts that the early church grew quickly because of the power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the flame that alights in the heart of each believer today spreads the Gospel truth from one person to the other.
Between the words God laid on Edwards’ heart and the power of the Holy Spirit at work in Enfield the day he delivered his sermon, people heard his message and took it to heart. Terrified, they repented.
Then, on fire with the spirit, they spread the Good News on and on and on.
The “Great Awakening,” just like the rapid growth of the first-century church, needed only a spark for the fire to catch and spread.
What Does This Mean for Us in Our Modern Day?
Any sermon or prayer or similar gathering of the people can result in another Great Awakening. That’s the beauty and great gift of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus called the advocate.
As Jesus said, “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned” (John 16:7-11).
Edwards’ sermon — and his difficult message about the dangers of sin and the consequences that await those who do not believe in Jesus — hit home. The lessons are as true for us today and they were in 1741, and for all eternity.
If you hadn’t heard before now of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” consider looking it up online. You can read it for free here.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Digital Vision.
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.