Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

“”Jonathan Edwards’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is moving and powerful. His effectiveness as an eighteenth century New England religious leader is rooted in his expansive knowledge of the Bible and human nature, as well as a genuine desire to “awaken” and save as many souls as possible. This sermon, delivered in 1741, exhibits Edwards’s skillful use of these tools to persuade his congregation to join him in his Christian beliefs.
As many religious leaders before and after him, Edwards’s source of inspiration and guidance is the Bible. His understanding of this cornerstone of New England society enables him to reinforce a persuasive dissertation with biblical quotes and passages; however, not all the quotes sited by Edwards support his interpretations exclusively. Often Edwards uses parts or sections of biblical verse rather than complete text because too much information might diminish the importance of his primary intent. These instances of manipulation occur in the doctrinal section where Edwards attempts to prove the basis of his application. “Cut it down, why cumbereth it in the ground?”, Luke 13:7, is used by Edwards to illustrate God’s justifiably immediate destruction of those guilty of sin. Absent from his selection is any mention of the moderation and patience that continues in Luke 13:8-9: “let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well.” By omitting these verses of scripture, Edwards hopes to move his audience by his calling rather than at their own leisure. Another example of manipulation occurs as Edwards proposes that sinners are already Satan’s property. In section five he states that Satan “stands ready to fall upon them and seize them as his own,” yet rather than cite a biblical reference by verse, he chooses only to name it: “Luke 11:12″. Unfortunately, this particular section in Luke deals more with asking for God’s salvation than giving into Satan:”If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” Luke 11:11-13. The complete passage shows how salvation is so easily granted whereas Edwards’s purpose is to imply certain irreversible doom. Of course, this manipulation is not always the case, but it can seem misleading under analysis.

Just as effective as language manipulation is Edwards’s use of language transformation; indeed, his skillful employment of descriptive language adds a visual dimension to his message. Even if the foundation is misinterpreted, these transformations allow any listener to mentally “see” Edwards’s overall direction. For instance, God’s wrath is referred to as “great waters that are dammed”, “a glittering sword”, and a “drawn arrow”. These terms indicate powerful and deadly forces. On the other hand, sinners are likened to “worms of the dust”, “miserable creatures”, and “loathsome insects”; consequently, these labels are receptors of God’s wrath through the forces Edwards introduces. Although these conceptual images appear basic, Edwards’s frequency and placement throughout his delivery produce a clear and precise overview to even the simplest of listeners. For example, in section five of the doctrinal section, Edwards warns of devils that lie in wait to claim sinners souls that remain unsaved, but he does not stop with a mere warning. Edwards proceeds to paint a graphic picture of “poor souls” being set upon by devils “like greedy lions” and delivered to “the old gaping serpent” of Satan. By using these visual references, Edwards ensures that everyone who is not moved by the principal of his message is, however, compelled by images of lions devouring human flesh and serpents swallowing sinners whole. This method of persuasion is artfully used by Edwards to convey and reinforce to his congregation the urgency of his message.

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Another process utilized by Edwards is concurrence between the doctrinal and application sections. By stating and proving his objective through manipulation and transformation of biblical language in the doctrinal area, Edwards is able to refer back to his own interpretations in the application. For example, early in section one, Edwards compares sinners to a bothersome “rebel”, and something to be subdued by “earthly princes”. He does this to establish a fundamental association between the rebel and sinners, and how neither one is at all successful nor welcome. After laying this foundation, Edwards returns to it in his application section to establish the same sentiment between God and sinners: “You have offended Him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince.”Yet another example occurs as Edwards describes the ease with which God is able to cast enemies into hell: “so it is easy for us to cut or singe a slender thread that any thing hangs by: thus easy is it for God, when he pleases, to cast His enemies down to hell.” Edwards relates our abilities with God’s in a way that all may comprehend; consequently, when he returns to this analogy in his application, the same understanding rules: “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.” This time, however, the spider and sinner are depicted as equals.

Jonathan Edwards uses every talent he possesses to persuade listeners and readers alike. His knowledge of biblical verse, skillful use of visual imagery, and comparisons between a doctrine and application combine to form a strong and moving argument that revolves around his intense desire for salvation.


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