Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by Jonathan Edwards

Editor's note: The famous sermon presented here in shortened form was delivered July 8, 1741, at Enfield, Mass. Contemporary accounts told of sinners so deeply convicted that they clung to the pillars of the church to keep from falling through the floor into hell.

The expression I have chosen for my text, "Their foot shall slide in due time" (Deut. 32:35), seems to imply the following doings, relating to the punishment and destruction to which these wicked Israelites were exposed:

1. That they were always exposed to destruction; as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall. The same is expressed in Psalm 73:18: "Surely thou didst set them in slippery places; thou castedst them down into destruction."

2. It implies that they were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction. As he that walks in slippery places cannot foresee one moment whether he shall stand or fall the next; and when he does fall, he falls at once without warning.

3. Another thing implied is, that they are liable to fall of themselves, without being thrown down by the hand of another; as he that stands or walks on slippery ground needs nothing but his own weight to throw him down.

4. That the reason why they are not fallen already is only that God's appointed time is not come. For it is said, that when that appointed time comes, their foot shall slide. God will not hold them up in these slippery places any longer, but will let them go; and then at that very instant, they shall fall into destruction.

The observation from the words that I would now insist upon is this: There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any 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.

The truth of this observation may appear by the following considerations.

1. There is no lack of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment. The strongest have no power to resist Him, nor can any deliver out of His hands. Though vast multitudes of God's enemies combine, they are easily broken in pieces. They are as great heaps of light chaff before the whirlwind, or large quantities of dry stubble before devouring flames. What are we that we should think to stand before Him, at whose rebuke the Earth trembles, and before whom the rocks are thrown down?

2. They deserve to be cast into hell; so divine justice makes no objection against God's using His power at any moment to destroy them. On the contrary, justice calls for an infinite punishment of their sins. The sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over their heads, and it is nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy that holds it back.

3. They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell. They not only justly deserve to be cast down thither, but the sentence of the eternal and immutable rule of righteousness that God has fixed between Him and mankind, stands against them; so that they are bound over already to hell. "He that believeth not is condemned already" (John 3:18).

4. The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The pit hath opened its mouth under them.

5. Satan stands ready to seize them as his own, at what moment God shall permit him. They belong to him; Scripture represents them as his goods (Luke 11:12). The devils are ever by them, waiting, like greedy hungry lions that see their prey, but are for the present kept back. If God should withdraw His hand, they would in one moment fly upon their poor souls. The old serpent is gaping for them, and if God should permit it, they would be hastily swallowed up and lost.

6. The corruption of the heart of man is boundless in its fury; it is like fire pent up by God's restraints. If it were let loose, it would set on fire the course of nature; if sin was not restrained it would immediately turn the soul into a furnace of fire and brimstone.

7. It is no security to wicked men for one moment, that there are no visible means of death at hand. Unconverted 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. The arrows of death fly unseen at noon-day; the sharpest sight cannot discern them.

8. Natural care to preserve their own lives does not secure them a moment. To this, divine providence and universal experience do also bear testimony. There is clear evidence that men's own wisdom is no security to them from death: "How dieth the wise man? even as the fool" (Eccl. 2:16).

9. All wicked men's efforts to escape hell, while they continue to reject Christ, do not secure them from hell one moment. Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he can avoid damnation. Each one imagines that he lays out matters better for his escape than others have done.

But they trust to nothing but a shadow. If we could ask those who have gone before us into hell whether they had expected to escape its torments, we doubtless should hear them reply: "I never intended to come here but death outwitted me, and when I was saying, Peace and safety,' then suddenly destruction came upon me" (cf. 1 Thess. 5:3).

10. God has laid Himself under no obligation to keep any natural man out of hell one moment. God has made no promises, either of eternal life or of preservation from eternal death, but what are contained in the covenant of grace-the promises that are given in Christ, in whom all the promises are yea and amen. But if they have no interest in the Mediator of the covenant of grace, neither have they any part in it.

Thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell. They deserve it; are already sentenced to it; God is dreadfully provoked; and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger. Nor is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment; the flames gather and flash about them, and the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out-and they have no interest in any Mediator. In short, all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, the uncovenanted, unobligated forbearance of an incensed God.

Application

You that have no part in Christ are probably are not aware of this. You find you are kept out of hell, but do not see the hand of God in it. Yet if God should withdraw His hand all your best efforts would avail no more than thin air to keep you from falling.

Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, tending downwards with great weight towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately plunge into the bottomless gulf. Your good health and your carefulness, and all your [self]righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you than a spider's web would have to stop a falling rock.

Were it not for the sovereign pleasure of God, the earth would not bear you one moment, for you are a burden to it. Creation groans with you, made subject to the bondage of your corruption. The sun does not willingly give you light to serve sin and Satan; the earth does not willingly yield her increase to satisfy your lusts. The air does not willingly serve you for breath to maintain the flame of life in your vitals, while you spend your life in the service of God's enemies. God's creatures are good, and were made for men to serve God with. The world would spew you out, were it not for the sovereign hand of Him who hath subjected it in hope.

The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed up. They rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose. You are every day storing up more wrath, and there is nothing but the mere pleasure of God that holds the waters back.

The bow of God's wrath is bent and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.

Thus all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, raised from being dead in sin to a state of new light and life, are in the hands of an angry God.

However you may have reformed your life in many areas, and may keep up a form of religion, it is nothing but His mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction. However unconvinced you may now be of the truth of what you hear, by and by you will be fully convinced of it-as are those now, who once were in your circumstances. Now they see that those things on which they depended for peace and safety were nothing but thin air and empty shadows.

God 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.

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in! And consider here more particularly:

1. Whose wrath it is: it is the wrath of the infinite God. The greatest earthly potentates are but feeble, despicable worms in comparison to the almighty Creator and King of heaven and earth. "And I say unto you, my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that, have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom you shall fear: fear him, which after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell: yea, I say unto you, Fear him" (Luke 12:4-5).

2. It is the fierceness of His wrath that you are exposed to. We often read of the fury of God; as in Isaiah 59:18: "According to their deeds, accordingly he will repay fury to his adversaries" (see also Isa. 66:15). And in Revelation 19:15, we read of "the wine press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God." The fury of God! Who can conceive what such expressions carry in them!

Consider this, you that yet remain in an unregenerate state: That God will execute the fierceness of His anger implies that He will inflict wrath without pity. He will have no compassion upon you or in the least lighten His hand. "Mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity; and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet I will not hear them" (Ezek. 8:18). 

Just now, God stands ready to pity you. This is a day of mercy. But when once the day of mercy is past, your pitiful cries and shrieks will be in vain; you will be wholly lost, for you will be a vessel of wrath fitted to destruction.

3. How awful are those words of the great God: "I will tread them in mine anger, and will trample them in my fury, and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment" (Isa. 63:3). These words are manifestations of contempt, hatred, and fierceness of indignation.

When the wretched sinner is actually suffering the infinite weight and power of His indignation, then will God call upon the whole universe to behold: "And the people shall be as the burnings of lime, as thorns cut up shall they be burnt in the fire. Hear ye that are far off, what I have done; and ye that are near, acknowledge my might" (Isa. 33:12-14).

Thus it will be with you that remain in an unconverted state. You shall be tormented in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb, and of the glorious inhabitants of heaven. "They shall go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched, and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh" (Isa. 66:23-24).

4. It is everlasting wrath. It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God for one moment; but there will be no end to this horrible misery. You will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out endless ages in wrestling with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, you will know that all is but a point to what remains.

How dreadful is the state of those that are daily and hourly in the danger of this great wrath and infinite misery! But this is the dismal case of every soul that has not been born again, however moral and strict, sober and religious, they may otherwise be.

There is reason to think that there are many now hearing this discourse that will actually be the subjects of this very misery to all eternity. We know not who they are or what thoughts they now have. It may be they are now at ease and hear all these things but are flattering themselves that they shall escape. But, alas! Instead, how many is it likely will remember this discourse in hell-perhaps even before this year is outeven before to-morrow morning.

But those of you that stay out of hell the longest will be there in a little time! Your damnation does not slumber; it will come swiftly. Doubtless some whom you knew-who deserved hell no more than you-are now crying in extreme misery and perfect despair. What would not those poor damned hopeless souls give for one day's opportunity such as you now enjoy!

Now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners. Many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to Him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in His own blood. Now they are rejoicing in hope of the glory of God.

How awful to be left behind at such a day! To see so many others feasting, while you are pining and perishing! To see so many rejoicing and singing for joy of heart, while you have cause to mourn! How can you rest one moment in such a condition?

Are there not many aged ones here who have long treasured up wrath against the day of wrath? Oh, sirs, your case is extremely dangerous. Your guilt and hardness of heart is very great. You need to consider yourselves and awake thoroughly out of sleep. You cannot bear the fierceness and wrath of the infinite God.

And you, young men, and young women, will you neglect this precious opportunity, when so many others of your age are renouncing all youthful vanities, and flocking to Christ? If you neglect this extraordinary opportunity, it will soon be with you as with those who spent all the precious days of youth in sin, and are now come to such a dreadful pass in blindness and hardness.

And you, children, do not you know that you are going down to hell, to bear the dreadful wrath of God, if you do not become His children?

Today, as it was in the days of John the Baptist, the axe is laid at the root of the trees, that every tree which brings not forth good fruit may be hewn down and cast into the fire. Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. "Haste and escape for your liveslest you be consumed."

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About the Author

Jonathan Edwards (Oct. 5, 1703-Mar. 28, 1758) was one of the leading figures in the Great Awakening of the early 1740s, and is hailed as one of America's greatest theologians. Named co-pastor in 1727 of the Northampton, Mass., church with his famous grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, he became sole pastor on the latter's death two years later. In 1750 he was dismissed from the church for trying to limit the Lord's Supper to born-again believers.

He afterward pastored a small church in Stockbridge and was a missionary to area Indian tribes. He also wrote many of his major works in this period, including A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will, and The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended.

In 1757 he became president of the College of New Jersey (forerunner of Princeton University), but died only a few months later.

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