Sinners in the hand of an angry God? A response to Beth Moore

Sinners in the hands of an angry God is the title of a sermon by Jonathan Edwards, the New England preacher and pastor associated with the Great Awakening.  It is a controversial one in our day and age. Steve Chalke particularly objected to it in his book, The Lost Message of Jesus.

Now, Beth Moore has taken aim.  She says:

Now, it’s worth noting a couple of things here.  First, some people have been quick to jump out to judge her.  These tweets prove to them that she isn’t a true believer, that she is in fact a false teacher.  Well, I don’t see that at all.  I get it, not every preacher or theologian is for everyone. Nor is every sermon preached.  I hope that people won’t pull out one of my sermons or articles at random and judge me on the basis of that.  This sermon focuses heavily on the wrath of God but is that all that Edwards had to say about God and us? No.  So, nor do I think it wise to make a judgement on one preacher based on a few select quotes from a sermon preached in a different time.

Then of course, there are those who have been quick to defend Beth Moore by attacking her attackers. Apparently, their problem is that they can’t accept that Beth Moore is a better exegete than their 18th C hero.  And of course, we must not forget that Edwards owned slaves.  So to be clear, Edwards’ sin in owning slaves does not tell us whether or not he got his preaching wrong here. Nor, if his preaching is right does that excuse his slave owning.

Moore is fixated on Edwards’ analogy of a spider or a fly held over the flame:

Which is not, in any case the point of the analogy drawn in the text.  I suspect here that there is an objection that arises out of our tendency to dislike and fear the eight legged creatures. But Edwards simply employs the imagery of spider and fly to emphasise our helplessness.

Here’s the point of the sermon.  You and I are helpless in our sin. We are subject to God’s wrath, his righteous anger. We deserve hell and it is only God’s patient forbearance that keeps us out of there.  It means that for every day that we do not see people sent straight to hell, every day that they have the opportunity to go about their lives without facing immediate judgement then this is down to God’s grace.

The sinner should not think that because they are going about with their day to day lives and haven’t yet received God’s judgement that there is room for complacency.  They should not think that it is their own strength, ability, inherent goodness that keeps them out of hell. They should not presume that it is God’s weakness.  That he in unable to send them there.  Nor, should they think that God isn’t really that bothered about sin.  He is.  No, they cannot be complacent, Hell is closer than they appreciate.

When Edwards makes this case, he is simply making a Biblical case.  In Romans 3:25, Paul talls about God’s “forbearance” in not punishing sins prior to Christ’s coming.  He makes a similar point in Acts 17:30. Peter meanwhile rebukes those who are cynical about Christ’s return saying:

They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.”

” Peter 2:4-7

I think that the big struggle that many have is with the language of wrath and anger in Edwards’ sermon. We really want to emphasise God’s love and mercy, his compassion, his kindness and forgiveness, the good news of the Gospel.

Yet, when Edwards talks about Wrath, he again highlights an important theme in the Bible.  This is of course the point in Romans 1:18, God’s wrath is revealed.  It’s there in the Old Testament too.  We are perhaps okay with God’s displeasure at sin. We want to talk about God as the one who hates the sin but loves the sinner.  The idea that it might be personal is difficult.  So we are disturbed when Scripture, speaking to the Assyrians says

‘I am against you,’  declares the Lord Almighty.”

Nahum 2:13

Yet, this is the point, sin does make us ugly, loathsome, objects of wrath. Adam and Eve realise this immediately in Eden and so they hide in shame and fear from God.  There in the Garden, God doesn’t say “oh don’t be silly, I don’t mind.  Come on out, it’s all fine.”  Their sin brings serious consequences.  Our status outside of Christ is as rebels and enemies. 

That’s the point, I think we sometimes shy away from stating clearly the bad news, the truth of how ugly sin is and how it distorts and destroys.  We back away from talking about God’s righteous anger, forgetting that it would be unloving of God not to show anger towards the enemies who despised, dishonoured, abused and killed his only begotten son.  However, this diminishes the beauty and glory of the good news. The Gospel is not that God is okay with us, that he doesn’t care. The Gospel is that this incredible God who has every right to throw us into hell, not only holds off from this but has proactively in Jesus Christ taken our place, suffered our punishment so that we can be free.

The good news of the Gospel is that for those in Christ, we are no longer sinners in the hand of an angry God but safe in the hand of Jesus.

Now, I don’t think that Moore completely fails to get this. She writes:

There is a point there. A lot of people don’t need to be told forcibly the reality of their sinful state. They already get it too well. The Holy Spirit is better at convicting of sin and wrath than you and me.  So many people desperately need us to get quickly to the good news of the Jesus who is all compassion. 

Not everyone though.  There are plenty of people who are complacent and hard hearted. There are plenty of the religiously proud in church, just as there were in Edwards’ day.  Even those of us who are believers can become forgetful of what we’ve been saved from and need that reminder from time to time.

Our sermons will emphasise different things from time to time. However, if all of our preaching is just about wrath then we’ve missed the important bit. Similarly, if we never or rarely mention wrath or judgement then we’ve fallen the other way and again have distorted the Gospel.  If we don’t talk about sin, wrath and judgement, then how are people mean to  know that forgiveness is good news?

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