I am definitely not making this blog a kind of political opinion thing where I critique up to date issues. However, the events of the world do seem to coincide with my own reading of late. The whole Duck Dynasty issue has been on my mind and I was struck by how a chapter from a book was just the answer I was looking for. The question in my mind has been, “What are Christians to stand for in the public?” The Same-sex issue has become so heated that many think it is distracting from the Gospel to engage in any direct manner. However, as I have thought about it the issue has become clearer. It is not distracting to the Gospel to mention specific sins and how they are spoken of in light of scripture. What is distracting to the Gospel is a false understanding of the Law. In what way can God’s law effect the presentation of the Gospel? Quite simply, if we do not have a healthy understanding of God’s Law then we will not understand God’s holiness and our sin. Without an adequate understanding of God’s holiness and our sin, we will not know or understand why we need a savior in the first place. Many want to preach only God’s love and grace, however, if you do not have a healthy respect for God’s justice and wrath you diminish God’s love and grace. There is nothing more powerful than God’s amazing grace when contrasted with God’s righteous wrath. We must realize that we are Christians within a society that has rejected the wrath and justice of God, along with His law. It is here that the battle is raging in its fullest, and unless we stand strong for God’s holiness how will a society be convicted of its sins in order that they may find their rest in Christ?
In light of this need, here is R. C. Sproul in his book The Holiness of God.
Chapter Nine: God in the Hands of Angry Sinners
Perhaps the most famous sermon ever preached in America was Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Not only has the sermon been reproduced in countless catalogs of preaching, but it is also included in most anthologies of early American literature. So scandalous is this vivid portrayal of unconverted people’s precarious state under the threat of hell that some modern analysts have called it utterly sadistic.
Edwards’ sermon is filled with graphic images of the fury of divine wrath and the horror of the relentless punishment of the wicked in hell. Such sermons are out of vogue in our age and generally considered in poor taste and based on a pre-enlightened theology. Sermons stressing the fierce wrath of a holy God aimed at impenitent human hearts do not fit with the civic meeting hall atmosphere of the local church. Gone are the Gothic arches; gone are the stained-glass windows; gone are the sermons that stir the soul to moral anguish. Ours is an upbeat generation with the accent on self-improvement and a broad-minded view of sin.
Our thinking goes like this: If there is a God at all, He is certainly not holy. If He is perchance holy, He is not just. Even if He is both holy and just, we need not fear because His love and mercy override His holy justice. If we can stomach His holy and just character, we can rest in one thing: He cannot possess wrath.
If we think soberly for five seconds, we must see our error. If God is holy at all, if God has an ounce of justice in His character, indeed if God exists as God, how could He possibly be anything else but angry with us? We violate His holiness; we insult His justice; we make light of His grace. These things can hardly please Him.
Edwards understood the nature of God’s holiness. He perceived that unholy people have much to fear from such a God. Edwards had little need to justify a scare theology. His consuming need was to preach about God’s holiness; to preach it vividly, emphatically, convincingly, and powerfully. He did this not out of a sadistic delight in frightening people but out of compassion. He loved his congregation enough to warn them of the dreadful consequences of facing the wrath of God. He was not concerned with laying a guilt trip on his people but with awakening them to the peril they faced if they remained unconverted.
Let’s examine a section of the sermon to get but a taste of its flavor:
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet, it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.”
The pace of the sermon is relentless. Edwards strikes blow after blow to the conscience-stricken hearts of his congregation. He draws graphic images from the Bible, all designed to warn sinners of their peril. He tells them that they are walking on slippery places with the danger of falling from their own weight. He says that they are walking across the pit of hell on a wooden bridge supported by rotten planks that may break at any second. He speaks of invisible arrows that, like a pestilence, fly at noonday. He warns that God’s bow is bent and that the arrows of His wrath are aimed at their hearts. He describes God’s wrath as great waters rushing against the floodgates of a dam. If the dam should break, the sinners would b inundated by a deluge. He reminds his hearers that there is nothing between them and hell but air:
“Your wickedness makes you as if it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf; and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock.”
In the application section of the sermon, Edwards places great stress on the nature and severity of God’s wrath. Central to his thinking is the clear notion that a holy God must also be a wrathful God. He lists several key points about God’s wrath that we dare not overlook.
- God’s wrath is divine. The wrath of which Edwards preached was the wrath of an infinite God. He contrasts God’s wrath with human anger or the wrath of a king for his subject. Human wrath terminates. It has an ending point. It is limited. God’s wrath can go on forever.
- God’s wrath is fierce. The Bible likens God’s wrath to a winepress of fierceness. In hell there is no moderation or mercy given. God’s anger is not mere annoyance or a mild displeasure. It is a consuming rage against the unrepentant.
- God’s wrath is everlasting. There is no end to the anger of God directed against those in hell. If we had any compassion for other people, we would wail at the thought of a single one of them falling into the pit of hell. We could not stand to hear the cries of the damned for five seconds. To be exposed to God’s fury for a moment would be more than we could bear. To contemplate it for eternity is too awful to consider. With sermons like this we do not want to be awakened. We long for blissful slumber, for the repose of tranquil sleep.
The tragedy for us is that in spite of the clear warnings of Scripture and of Jesus’ sober teaching on this subject, we continue to be at ease about the future punishment of the wicked. If God is to be believed at all, we must face the awful truth that someday His furious wrath will be poured out. Edwards observed:
“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. Ever one lays out matters in his own mind how he shall avoid damnation, and flatters himself that he contrives well for himself, and that his schemes will not fail.”
How do we rect to Edwards’s sermon? Does it provoke a sense of fear? Does it make us angry? Are we feeling like a multitude of people who have nothing but scorn for any ideas about hell and everlasting punishment? Do we consider the wrath of God as a primitive or obscene concept? Is the very notion of hell an insult to us? If so, it is clear that the God we worship is not a holy God: Indeed He is not God at all. If we despise the justice of God, we are not Christians. We stand in a position that is every bit as precarious as the one that Edwards so graphically described. If we hate the wrath of God, it is because we hate God Himself. We may protest vehemently against these charges, but our vehemence only confirms our hostility toward God. We may say emphatically, “No, it is not God I hat; it is Edwards that I hate. God is altogether sweet to me. My God is a God of love.” But a loving God who has no wrath is no God. He is an idol of our own making as much as if we carved Him out of stone.
Jonathan Edwards preached another famous sermon that can be viewed as a sequel of sorts to “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He titled the sermon “Men Naturally God’s Enemies.” If I can presume to improve Edwards’ title, I would suggest instead “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.”
If we are unconverted, one thing is absolutely certain: We hate God. The Bible is unambiguous about this point. We are God’s enemies. We are inwardly sworn to His ultimate destruction. It is as natural for us to hate God as it is for rain to mosten the earth when it falls. Now our annoyance may turn to outrage. We heartily disavow what I have just written. We are quite willing to acknowledge that we are sinners. We are quick to admit that we do not love God as much as we ought. But who among us will admit to hating God?
Romans 5 teaches clearly: “When we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:10). The central motif of the New Testament is the theme of rconiliation. Reconciliation is not necessary for those who love each other. God’s love for us is not in doubt. The shadow of doubt hangs over us. It is our love for God that is in question. The natural human mind, what the Bible calls the “carnal mind,” is at enmity with God.
We reveal our natural hostility for God by the low esteem we have for Him. We consider Him unworthy of our total devotion. We take no delight in contemplating Him. Even for the Christian, worship is often difficult and prayer a burdensome duty. Our natural tendency is to flee as far as possible from His presence. His Word rebounds from our minds like a basketball from a backboard. By nature, our attitude toward God is not one of mere indifference. It is a posture of malice. We oppose His government and refuse His rule over us. Our natural hearts are devoid of affection for Him; they are cold, frozen to His holiness. By nature, the love of God is not in us.
As Edwards noted, it is not enough to say that the natural human mind views God as an enemy. We must be more precise. God is our mortal enemy. He represents the highest possible threat to our sinful desires. His repugnance to us is absolute, knowing no lesser degrees. No amount of persuasion from philosophers or theologians can induce us to love God. We despise His very existence and would do anything in our power to rid the universe of His holy presence.
If God were to expose His life to our hands, He would not be safe for a second. We would not ignore Him; we would destroy Him. This charge may seem extravagant and irresponsible until we examine once more the record of what happened when God did appear in Christ. Christ was not simply killed. He was murdered by malicious people. The crowds howled for His blood. It was not enough merely to do away with Him, but it had to be done with the accompaniment of scorn and humiliation. We know that His divine nature did not perish on the cross. It was His humanity that was put to death. Had God exposed the divine nature to execution, had He made His divine essence vulnerable to the executioner’s nails, then Christ would still be dead and God would be absent from heaven. Had the sword pierced the soul of God, the ultimate revolution would have been successful, and mankind would now be king.
But, we protest, we are Christians. We are lovers of God. We have experienced reconciliation. We have been born of the Spirit and have had the love of God shed abroad in our hearts. We are not longer enemies but friends. All of these things are true for the Christian. But we must be careful, remembering that with our conversion our natural human natures were not annihilated. There remains a vestige of our fallen nature with which we must struggle every day. There still resides a corner of the soul that takes no delight in God. We see its ragged edge in our continued sin, and we can observe it in our lethargic worship. It manifests itself even in our theology.
It has been said that historically three generic types of theology compete for acceptance within the Christian church: Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Augustinianism.
Pelagianism is not Christian. It is not merely sub-Christian but strongly anti-Christian. It is basically a theology of unbelief. That it has a stranglehold on many churches is testimony to the power of people’s natural enmity toward God. To the Pelagian or liberal there is no supernatural activity. They do not believe in miracles, in Christ’s deity, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the Ascension, or the Second Coming. In a word, ther is no biblical Christianity to it. It is sheer paganism masquerading as piety.
What of Semi-Pelagianism? It is clearly Christian with its passionate confession of the deity of Christ and its confidence in the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the rest. Semi-Pelagianism is the majority report among evangelical Christians and probably represents the theology of the vast majority of people who read this book. But I am convinced that with all of its virtues, Semi-Pelagianism still represents a theology of compromise with our natural inclinations. It has a glaring defect in its understanding of God. Though it salutes the holiness of God and protests loudly that it believes in God’s sovereignty, it still entertains delusions about our ability to incline ourselves to God, to make “decisions” to be born again. It declares that fallen people, who are at enmity with God, can be persuaded to be reconciled even before their sinful hearts are changed. It has people who are not born again seeing a kingdom Christ declared could not be seen and entering a kingdom that cannot be entered without rebirth. Evangelicals today have unconverted sinners who are dead in trespasses and sin bringing themselves to life by choosing to be born again. Christ made it clear that dead people cannot choose anything, that the flesh counts for nothing, and that we must be born of the Spirit before we can even see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it. The failure of modern evangelicalism is the failure to understand the holiness of God. If that one point were grasped, there would be no more talk of mortal enemies of Christ coming to Jesus by their own power.
Only Augustinianism sees grace as central to its theology. When we understand the character of God, when we grasp something of our sin and helplessness. Helpless sinners can survive only by grace. Our strength is futile in itself; we are spiritually impotent without the assistance of a merciful God. We may dislike giving our attention to God’s wrath and justice, but until we incline ourselves to these aspects of God’s nature, we will never appreciate what has been wrought for us by grace. Even Edwards’ sermon on sinners in God’s hands was not designed to stress the flames of hell. The resounding accent falls not on the fiery pit but on the hands of the God who holds us and rescues us from it. The hands of God are gracious hands. They alone have the power to rescue us from certain destruction.
How can we love a holy God? The simplest answer I can give to this vital question is that we can’t. Loving a holy God is beyond our moral power. The only kind of God we can love by our sinful nature is an unholy god, an idol made by our own hands. Unless we are born of the Spirit of God, unless God sheds His holy love in our hearts, unless He stoops in His grace to change our hearts, we will not love Him. He is the One who takes the initiative to restore our souls. Without Him we can do nothing of righteousness. Without Him we would be doomed to everlasting alienation from His holiness. We can love Him only because He first loved us. To love a holy God requires grace, grace strong enough to pierce our hardened hearts and awaken our moribund souls.
If we are in Christ, we have been awakened already. We have been raised form spiritual death unto spiritual life. But we still have “sleepers” in our eyes, and at times we walk about like zombies. We retain a certain fear of drawing near to God. We still tremble at the foot of His holy mountain.
Yet as we grow in our knowledge of Him, we gain a deeper love for His purity and sense a deeper dependence on His grace. We learn that He is altogether worthy of our adoration. The fruit of our growing love for Him is the increase of reverence for His name. We love Him now because we see His loveliness. We adore Him now because we see His majesty. We obey Him now because His Holy Spirit dwells within us.
Sproul, RC. The Holiness of God. Carol Stream: Tyndale. 1998. Print