Sinners in the Hands of a Gracious God -- By: Glenn R. Kreider

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 163:651 (Jul 2006)
Article: Sinners in the Hands of a Gracious God
Author: Glenn R. Kreider


Sinners in the Hands of a Gracious God

Glenn R. Kreider

Glenn R. Kreider is Associate Professor of Theological Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas.

The sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is one of the most famous sermons ever preached in America.1 For many people, this sermon is all that they know about the eighteenth-century New England pastor Jonathan Edwards.

Critics of Edwards and the Puritans find this sermon an appalling example of all that is wrong with Calvinism and Puritan theology.2 After all, what could be more offensive than a God who takes pleasure in the destruction of the wicked?3 Most anthologies of American literature perpetuate this stereotype by quoting the most graphic and striking imagery of the sermon.4 One writer

comments that this sermon begins “as an attempt to awaken the unconverted” but “quickly subverts the intention of its author and becomes a sermon about self-pity and despair.”5 He concludes, “In this sermon Edwards leads us to the heart of Calvinism, yet in leading us there he (unwittingly?) subverts his own intentions. By choosing the spider as an image for Calvinism, Edwards allows the spider to ‘deconstruct’ it. The spider becomes our guide not only to the intentions of Calvinism but to its problems as well. ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ becomes a sermon about helplessness and hopelessness in which we find ourselves pitying the spider and hating God.”6

Even those who are sympathetic toward Edwards and his theology sometimes seem to be embarrassed by this sermon. Some Edwards supporters rationalize that this message is not typical of his sermons, that although he did preach on hell and judgment, this was not a major theme of his preaching, and the language of most of his sermons was less graphic and harsh.7 The editors of a recent volume of Edwards’s sermons give a more accurate assessment. “If Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God distorts the larger issue when taken alone, it clearly belongs in any representation of Edwards’s work for the sheer power of its imagery. Who can resist trembling before the frightening image of sinners dangled by a vengeful God like loathsome spiders over flames, or of treading on a pa...

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