It was a strange time for me. I was attending a high school that was so nominal in its commitment to the Christian faith that the high school English teacher was an atheist. Still, his was among my favorite classes, both because of what we read and because of the things we talked about. While attending this school during the week, I also attended a decidedly Christian Sunday school. The late Dr. John H. Gerstner, my father’s mentor, was my Sunday school teacher. During the week, and during the weekend, for a delightful several months, we were studying the work of the Puritans. Dr. Gerstner’s class was called “The Puritans: The Church at Its Best.” Dr. Kupersmith’s tenth-grade English class was called just that, but we read snippets from several Puritan authors as a part of our survey of American literature. We read a bit of Cotton Mather’s masterwork, Magnalia Christi Americana, and we read Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Although I was a convinced Calvinist at the time, I must confess that it seemed a little strange that we were reading Puritans in English class. It was a sort of a good news, bad news thing. We were reading the works of men who poured their lives into striving for change, to save souls, and to shape a culture. And we were reading them like curious old, cultural artifacts, as if the proclamation of the Word of God could be turned into sociological dinosaur bones. It was true enough, though it was supposed to shock us, that people who thought this way once shaped the nation. It was true enough that it was true enough that strangest of all, one Sunday morning my atheist English teacher showed up to hear my hero and Sunday school teacher expound on the Puritans and how their thought shaped their culture. I prayed during the whole class that God would show Him the light. Indeed He did. But this man still preferred the darkness.
I think that Sunday morning at the feet of Dr. Gerstner at the least did this for my teacher, it helped him understand me a bit better. When the English class read through Edward’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” most of the students were repulsed. Well, to be more accurate, everyone in the room but me was repulsed. They couldn’t imagine that anyone could sit still to hear a sermon in which God was portrayed so harshly. If you are unfamiliar with the sermon, the imagery that shapes it is simple enough. Edwards encourages those in his audience to understand their situation, that they are like a spider, dangling on a single strand of web, precariously hanging above a raging fire. God holds the upper end of that strand, such that all that separates you and that burning cauldron is that gossamer thread. We didn’t, as a class, talk about God per se, but Edward’s perception of him. They knew for sure that God wasn’t at all like that. They were just shocked that anyone could think he was. But of course, they figured, this was a long time ago, practically all the way back to the dark ages.
After all the bellowing from my classmates finished, I gingerly raised my hand. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I think you all have completely missed the point of this sermon. Edwards wasn’t trying to paint God as an ogre. He wasn’t trying to impress upon his flock the harsh judgment of God. No, this is a sermon about the grace of God.” There was a brief and stunned silence as the class took in my hypothesis. When they understood what I said, they saw Edwards in a new light. He wasn’t the world’s worst Calvinist — I was. They bellowed like so many spiders dangling over a fire. Grace?! Grace?! How in the world could I argue that this was about grace?
I went on to explain, though I doubt I persuaded anyone, that the grace was simple enough to see. It was found in that gossamer thread, and in the hand that held it. Edward’s isn’t telling his audience how mean God is to hold them over the fire, but how gracious He is that He hadn’t yet dropped them in the fire.
The difference, then, between Puritan culture and our culture isn’t found, in one sense, in differing conceptions of God. Rather, it is found in different understandings of man. The culture’s wholesale rejection of the theology that served as its foundation isn’t of the predestinating God, but of the total depravity of man. The world, and that which is of the world in the church, hate the Reformed faith because of what it rightly tells us we deserve. We affirm we have earned the wrath of God, while they affirm God has earned our wrath. Which is why our attempts at soft-selling the living God have failed so miserably. As we, in trying to call the lost to Christ cover over the wrath of God, we in turn cover over the one thing they need to grasp. Everyone’s already alright with God, because we aren’t spiders, but the pinnacle of creation. Indeed, we are so committed to our own goodness that we leave God dangling over the fire, finding Him guilty for not making all our dreams come true.
Perhaps by God’s grace, one day students will be shocked at how we in this century misunderstood the nature of God and the nature of man.