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Summary of the Sermon
Jonathan Edwards's Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, preached on July 8, 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut, is an appeal to 'sinners' to recognize that they will be judged by God and that this judgment will be more fearful and painful than they can comprehend. Three themes stand out as particularly important for understanding Edwards's approach to his message:
Corrupt sinners face a fearful judgment.
Time is short for the unrepentant: God's righteous wrath will come suddenly and unexpectedly.
It is only God's free choice that extends the 'day of mercy' and provides another opportunity to respond to his call.
Each of these themes is made more potent by the use of vivid metaphors, which are the heart and soul of Edwards's emotional appeal to his listeners. We'll look at each of these themes in order and examine some of the key metaphorical language that Edwards uses to make these points.
Corruption and Judgement
Edwards pulls no punches when it comes to condemning the sinfulness of human beings. Those who belong in the unrepentant category may be those who are outwardly wicked and reject God, or they might be people who are complacent. They could belong to a community of people who believe, and they think they can ride that community's or family's coattails to avoid judgment. But Edwards's view of sin is that it's an active force in the world that's ultimately controlled by the devil. Anyone who hasn't experienced an inward renewal or 'awakening,' as had the many who had been converted during this time, are considered a servant of the devil: 'They belong to him; he has their souls in his possession, and under his dominion.' This way of portraying 'sinners' emphasizes their helplessness, precarious position, but also the nastiness and corruption of their ways.
Some of the metaphors that Edwards uses to portray the situation of unbelieving human beings make this point clear. He describes even the greatest, most powerful rulers in the world as 'feeble, despicable worms of the dust' and as 'grasshoppers.' In Edwards's most enduring image, the sinner is described as 'a spider, or some other loathsome insect,' which God is dangling over the fire in preparation for destruction. Each of these metaphors reiterate how puny, weak and disgusting the sinner is in the sight of God. There's no room for pride here and no room for justification. They can't simply be respectable or admirable - they must be 'born again.'
According to the sermon, the judgment of God awaiting such sinners as those described above will be truly terrifying. As would be expected, the image of the fire is central in descriptions of hell, following in line with the Biblical texts about judgment. But Edwards's descriptions are particularly strong, such as when he describes the 'dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God.' He also incorporates images of an infinite pit as descriptive of the judgment, drawing theologically on Scriptural texts about the abyss and psychologically on the primal fear of falling: 'you have nothing to stand on, nor anything to take hold of.' Combining the two, Edwards describes this chasm as 'wide and bottomless . . ., full of fire and wrath.'
God's judgment just isn't fearful, but it is truly violent. Picking up on a Biblical theme of the grapes of wrath, the sermon gruesomely describes God's retribution against sinful human beings: 'He will crush out your blood, and make it fly . . . so as to stain all his raiment.' And once this judgment begins, there's no turning back and 'your most lamentable and dolorous cries and shrieks will be in vain.'
The Fleeting 'Day of Mercy'
Edwards's sermon can't be divorced from the time in which it was written. With the many conversions and the increase in religious zeal during this time, many people saw these seemingly unprecedented events as signaling an important moment in the Christian faith. Edwards certainly seems to imply this. It's as if, with many flocking to him, the example is set: 'Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners.'