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I had been asked to conduct the funeral for a teenager who had committed suicide. His short life had been marred by a litany of woes: poverty, crime, violence, and drug abuse. He had never known his father, and his mother had never stayed in one place for more than a few months. He had rarely gone to school and had never darkened the door of a church.
I had never met the young man or any of the members of his family. I was asked to do the funeral simply because I had shared the gospel with a couple of the members of a motorcycle gang to which his mother once belonged. That was the closest relationship anyone in their circle of friends had to a minister. Now they were calling upon me to offer words of consolation, comfort, and hope to them.
But what hope could I honestly offer? What hope is there for the hopeless except to hope against all hope? I knew that I was called to make a good defense of the hope that was in me (1 Peter 3:15). And I knew that since I had such a hope I had to be bold in that defense (2 Cor. 3:12). Still, I was at a loss as to what I should say or do.
Finally, I found exactly what I needed. I read, reread, and reread again the words of Jonathan Edwards—the gripping words of his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
On July 8, 1741, Edwards traveled a few miles from his home in Northampton, Massachusetts, to the town of Enfield in western Connecticut, where he read to a small congregation what author James Carlyle has called “the most famous sermon ever delivered in the history of America.” It was an exposition of the text, “ ‘Their foot shall slip in due time’ ” (Deut. 32:35). Its subject was the imminence of judgment and the horrors of perdition. It was about what we today derisively call “hellfire and damnation.”
Later described by literary and historical critics as a “rhetorical masterpiece,” the sermon was astonishingly gripping and terrifyingly vivid:
Yea, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on the earth; yea doubtless, with many that are now in this congregation, who it may be are at ease, than He is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell. 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; the glittering sword is now whet and held over them. 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 own weight, and these places are not seen.
The sermon caused an immediate sensation in Enfield. According to historian John Currid, even before the sermon was finished “people were moaning, groaning and crying out” such things as “What shall I do to be saved?” The fervor of the Great Awakening had bypassed Enfield until then, but following Edwards’ sermon it swept through the little town with a white-hot intensity.
Though obviously anointed with divine favor, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”—like so much of the rest of Edwards’ vast body of work—was not without controversy. Many said Edwards illegitimately played upon people’s emotions. Others said he shamelessly exploited the popular fears and phobias of the day. Still others said he appealed to the innate intolerance, bigotry, and mob instincts of simple-minded people.
For the record, Edwards claimed that all of his sermons—and there were many on the subject of hell, some even more vivid than the one he preached in Enfield—were modeled on the admonition of the apostle Paul: “Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11a). He told his own parish: “I don’t desire to go about to terrify you needlessly or represent your case worse than it is, but I do verily think that there are a number of people belonging to this congregation in imminent danger of being damned to all eternity.”
It was that kind of pastoral concern and evangelistic passion that enabled Edwards to lend wise leadership and direction to the Great Awakening—perhaps the most sweeping revival in modern history. And it was that kind of unflinching discernment and incisive thinking regarding the estate of those without hope that enabled me to actually offer hope at that funeral.
Edwards knew that both the imminence and the finality of eternal judgment mitigated against lowering the standards, diluting the ethics, or compromising the integrity of his message. He knew that hell was the best argument against muddled and mitigated communication to the lost. He knew that the essence of the Good News is that the bad news is bad—and yet, hope remains. Edwards threw caution to the winds and mercifully, compassionately, and graciously pled for those without hope to hear and heed the gospel of hope: “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. God hath had it on His heart to show angels and men, both how excellent His love is, and also how terrible His wrath is.”
I knew I needed to do the same thing. Yet, I hesitated. And in that hesitation I was hardly alone. I was, in fact, standing in the modern evangelical tradition of reticence. When we issue any warnings at all, they tend to be inauspicious, self-conscious, uncertain—more often than not couched in the congested compromise of political correctness. We almost act as if we are indifferent to the fate of the myriads of men and nations yet without hope.
J.I. Packer has lamented:
At no time, perhaps, since the Reformation have Christians as a body been so unsure, tentative, and confused as to what they should believe and do. Certainty about the great issues of Christian faith and conduct is lacking all along the line. The outside observer sees us as staggering on from gimmick to gimmick and stunt to stunt like so many drunks in a fog, not knowing at all where we are or which way we should be going. Preaching is hazy; heads are muddled; hearts fret; doubts drain our strength; uncertainty paralyzes action. We know in our bones that we were made for certainty, and we cannot be happy without it. Yet unlike the first Christians who in three centuries won the Roman world . . . we lack certainty.1
We lack certainty. And so, like the people in the days of Micah the prophet, we cry, “Do not speak out” (Mic. 2:6, NASB). We shy away from the difficult truth of the hopelessness of the lost, thinking that surely the Word of the Lord brings only good things (Mic. 2:7). We want to present the world with an upbeat message. We want to create a positive image. We want to emphasize the many and substantial benefits of the Christian life. We want to put on a happy face. We want to proclaim a gospel of “peace.”
The problem is “ ‘there is no peace . . . for the wicked’ ” (Isa. 48:22).
A.W. Tozer decries this accommodated version of the gospel as a “spiteful cruelty to the lost and languishing—a cruelty misguidedly offered in the name of comfort.” This updated “message of indifference” does not “slay the sinner; it redirects him.” Furthermore:
It gears him into a cleaner and jollier way of living and saves his self-respect. To the self-assertive it says, “Come and assert yourself for Christ.” To the egotist it says, “Come and do your boasting in the Lord.” To the thrill-seeker it says, “Come and enjoy the thrill of the Christian life.” The idea behind this kind of thing may be sincere, but its sincerity does not save it from being false.
If we refuse the mantle of John the Baptist (Matt. 14:3–12), of Elijah (1 Kings 21:1–25), and of Nathan (2 Sam. 12:1–13) in exposing the evil deeds of darkness in our day, announcing God’s just wrath, and proclaiming the only sure and certain hope, history attests that the suffering of one debilitating Meggido after another is sure to be our lot. “For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8) and “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18a, KJV).
It is a terrible indictment that the message of political correctness sounds to us more loving and Christlike than an Edwardslike warning of perdition, judgment, and divine justice. It is a frightful thing that we are more at home with the pleasant, non-confrontational, least-common-denominator messages and methodologies of our culture than we are with the holy alarms of Scripture. It is a senseless tragedy that we have carelessly foisted the fierce injustice of our own recalcitrance upon a hell-bound world.
G.K. Chesterton remarked, “If the world grows too worldly, it can be rebuked by the church; but if the church grows too worldly, it cannot be adequately rebuked for worldliness by the world.”
Strains of that hard truth echoed in my mind when I stood before grieving friends and family members. I knew that if I were to minister to those without hope, I would have to offer them their only hope.
- J.I. Packer, God Has Spoken (Westmont, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1979).