Are Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?
Dr. Jim Denison
Arguably the most famous sermon in American history was preached at its infancy. On July 8, 1741, at Enfield, Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards delivered the message for which he is best known, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Imagine yourself seated on a wooden pew in that colonial congregation, hearing these words with which Edwards closed:
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire this very moment….
“O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. 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; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.”
Is this true? Are sinners in the hands of an angry God? I assume we each admit that we have committed sin. How does God feel about us now?
The simple fact is that some of us fear God’s judgment too little, while others fear it too much. Today let’s learn what to do when we fail ourselves and God.
Why don’t we fear God more?
Ours is no theoretical problem today.
The Bible is very clear: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23); “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Each of us—no exceptions.
When I stole a pack of gum at the age of five, I entered for the first time in my memory into the ranks of sinners. I’m just like you. As a child I melted crayons into the teacher’s hair, locked a girl in a coat closet during lunch, and shook eraser dust into the window air conditioner, thus coating the classroom with it. My mother earned every gray hair she owns.
We laugh at such transgressions, but sin is serious. “The wages of sin is death,” the Bible warns us (Romans 6:23). Seven times the Bible commands us to “fear God.” Yet most people don’t. Why not? Several reasons come to mind.
One: scientific progress has made the power of God irrelevant.
Diseases which used to kill us are now cured by medicine without God’s help. How many parents today pray against polio, or tuberculosis, or bubonic plague?
Technology now controls weather which used to destroy and devastate us. We know hurricanes are coming and have remedies for drought. What only God could do, we think we can do.
And this scientific march has removed much of the mystery from life. The solar eclipse of June 21 didn’t frighten us as it used to ancient peoples. We don’t need to ask the gods to give us back the sun. We don’t need Baal to give us rain, or Zeus to explain lightning, or Neptune to understand the tides.
We think we have progressed beyond needing the power of God.
Two: naïve morality has made the fear of God irrelevant. We think we’re good, moral people, and that we’re all going to heaven.
God is a kindly grandfather who loves us all and will bring us all to heaven when we die. We’re better than the “bad” people—the Hitlers and the McVeighs. We all know someone worse than we are. And so only 2% of Americans are afraid of going to hell. We’re good people, we think.
Three: secular materialism has made the punishment of God irrelevant. We believe in what we can see, and we can’t see God.
We are more afraid that our friends will reject us than that God will judge us. We are more afraid of losing that business contract or that boyfriend or girlfriend than we are of displeasing God. After all, we can always confess our sins to God later and he’ll forgive us. It’s that simple, or so we think.
Why do some people fear God too much?
So many of us fear God too little. But some people fear God too much. They cannot believe that God has actually forgiven their sins, pardoned their failures, cleansed their souls.
A psychologist recently said he could dismiss 90% of his clients if they could heal their guilt over the past or fear about failing in the future. Why is this a problem for so many?
Some of us grew up with a God of anger and wrath, more like Zeus throwing thunderbolts than a Father sending his Son to die for us. We picture God with gigantic scales, hoping to send us to hell for our sins. If your father was judgmental and unloving, you’ll especially tend to see God in the same way.
Some of us practice “Baptist penance.” We’re self-made, and cannot accept grace. We must pay it back. If God won’t punish us, we’ll punish ourselves. We’ll hold onto our guilt, our pain, our failure, until we think we’ve paid our debt.
We see the consequences of our sin and failure, the hurt our sin caused others and ourselves, and assume God has not forgiven it. . We cannot forget it, so we assume God has not, either.
So you and I need to know that guilt is not of God. The Holy Spirit convicts the sin, but does not condemn the sinner. Guilt comes from our enemy or from ourselves. But for many of us, it’s very real today. And we fear God’s wrath even more than we should.
Why does God punish our sins?
Wouldn’t things be easier if God didn’t punish sin? Or if he didn’t permit it? But neither is the case. We know that God does in fact judge and punish sin.
1 Corinthians 3 warns us of a final judgment before God, where he will examine our works and our lives. All that is wrong and sinful will be “burned up” and we will suffer loss (v. 15). He judges and punishes sin.
He did so in our text. When the inhabitants of ancient Jericho refused God’s plan for their city and future, their city and future were destroyed.
Archaeologists have long been interested in this ancient city, and think they have identified the layer of remains which belong to those of Joshua’s day. The stones of this wall were not pulled down, as was the custom in ancient warfare, where soldiers tied ropes to the tops of the walls and pulled them over. Instead, these walls are collapsed onto themselves, exactly as the text says they were.
Why did God destroy their walls and their city? If he is all powerful, why does he permit our sins? If he is all loving, why does he punish them?
Because God is grace, sin must be permitted. His love is his grace gift to us, and a gift must be received freely. He will never force his will and purpose upon us. He made us to worship him, and worship requires freedom. And so he must allow us to misuse our free will in sin, because he wants us to use it in salvation. God must permit sin, if he is grace.
Because God is holy, sin must be punished. How else could he be a righteous and just God?
We understand this, except when the sin is ours. We want the Hitlers of human history to pay for their crimes. When someone roars past us on the freeway we lament, “Where is a policeman when you need one?” But when we are the ones speeding and we get caught, we get angry.
God must punish sin if he is holy.
Because God is love, sin must be purified. Since God loves us, he will do whatever he must to keep us from continuing in sin. The doctor who cut the cancer from my mother years ago did not hurt her—he saved her. God is the best parent you know. He will punish his children’s sin so that they will not continue it. God must purify our sin if he is love.
So God must permit, punish, and purify our sins. He does this in many ways.
He permits the consequences of our sins. You can drive a nail into wood and then pull out the nail, but the hole remains. I know people who will live the rest of their lives with the consequences of sins God has forgiven—criminal records, broken marriages, divorced parents, sexually transmitted diseases, lost virginity, broken bodies. God did not cause these consequences, but he permits them. Yes, you can sin and receive the forgiveness of God, but the consequences of your sin will be devastating and they will remain.
He directly punishes our sins. In Scripture God sometimes sends disease, or pestilence, or enemies to punish sin and rehabilitate sinners. He can still do this today.
He refuses to reward our sins. When we stand before Christ in judgment we will receive eternal rewards for our obedience to his word and will. And we will suffer a loss of reward for all eternity wherever we have refused his word and will. God cannot and will not reward our sins.
He allows us the eternal result of our sins. If a person chooses to reject his love and mercy, God must allow him the result of that choice. As Calvin Miller puts it in one of his books, a man asks God: “Could you be loving and merciful and send me to hell?” God replies, “I could never send you to hell. But if you choose to go there, I could never lock you out.”
What do we do with sin?
So what do we do with sin now?
First, refuse it. Listen to Proverbs 4:14-15: “Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evil men. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way.” Hear once again this fact: sin will always take you further than you wanted to go, keep you longer than you wanted to stay, and cost you more than you wanted to pay. Always.
When you do sin, admit it and turn from it. Repent immediately, before the cancer spreads.
And when you repent, claim the forgiveness of God.
Psalm 103:3 promises that God “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” God will separate your sins from you as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12); he will bury them in the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19) and he will remember them no more (Isaiah 43:25). The next time you confess a sin you’ve already confessed, God won’t know what you’re talking about.
Receive his grace, and know that you have received it.
The poet was right:
Lord,There are countless things in my lifeThat are inexcusable.There are things unaccountableAnd things unexplainable.There are things irrefutableAnd things irresponsible.But it comes to me with unutterable reliefThat because of your amazing loveNothing in my life is unforgivable.
Karl Barth was the greatest writing theologian of the twentieth century. His Church Dogmatics occupy 14 volumes on my study shelf. After writing more than 7,000 pages, he comes to this definition of God: “The One who loves.” He’s right.
He will punish our sins through consequences, direct action, and eternal judgment. He does this because he is grace, he is holy, and most of all, because he is love. Now, would you turn to this love? Would you accept this grace? Would you experience this holiness? You can right now, if you will.
My favorite John Claypool story concerns a medieval village and the monastery high above it on a mountain. The humble villagers often wondered what the monks did up in their elevated holy world. Then one day a monk came down into the village for supplies.
One of the peasants ran, fell before him, and asked, “O holy father, what do you and the others do up there so close to God?”
The monk pulled the peasant to his feet, took his hands, smiled into his face and said, “We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up.”
Would you like to get up today?