On Jonathan Edwards and God’s Wrath

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This might be a serious essay, but I couldn’t resist the MTG reference.

35 ‘Vengeance is Mine, and retribution,
In due time their foot will slip;
For the day of their calamity is near,
And the impending things are hastening upon them.’

Deutoronomy 32

It’s interesting the way modern salvation gets thrown into a simple prayer. You know the deal – say the Sinner’s Prayer, so called, accept Jesus into your heart and life, and then everything will suddenly work out for the better. Things are fine and dandy – now go out and sin boldly (to take a Martin Luther quote out of its context)!

I guess what I’m trying to say is that reading the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible if you must be politically correct, and what the Old Testament says about our approach to sinfulness and our lifestyles is not very flattering. Same sin, different era! Human beings did not change in the past six thousand years; we did not become more civilized, and suddenly turn into different people. Sins remains sin, and it will always find a place in the heart of man until the end.

So, how do we approach evangelizing, then? We know that telling people they are “bad” to the core doesn’t appeal to our culture. As a resident of New England, which in Christianese has become relatively “unchurched” compared to its heyday, I know the deal. Usually you get Angry God or Graceful God, but you don’t get the God that Saves, if you get my meaning. Either a church forces women to wear skirts and throws that fire and brimstone without the possibility of permanent salvation, or God’s all touchy-feeling and wants what is best for you (which happens to align with what YOU think is best for you). My search for churches in this area that preach the God as seen in the Bible remains rather fruitless.

To tell a personal story: I taught a few classes in churches. Given my background with a Master’s in Theological Studies, you’d imagine this a boon for the community. Rather than take advantage, though, the entire team teaching anything in-depth about the Bible was cast to the sidelines in lieu of constant service for the coming “end times”. So, the flock remains unfed, even if the numbers continues to expand. Constant action “for” God leads to a bunch of dead lambs who falter at the first sight of danger. Tell them God loves them, and they take it like God doesn’t want them to become more like His Son, and that’a a dangerous place to go.

Cultural forces constrain the Church’s ability to become effective. Instead, we rely on gimmicks and pleasentries. We tickle the ears and accept our cultural mythos to pump up those numbers. It’s a losing battle when you extract only what you want. Can the people we reach understand Jonathan Edwards when his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God“? I honestly wonder whether people could possibly sit and listen to such a thing:

This that you have heard is the case of every one of you that are out of Christ. — That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.

You probably are not sensible of this; you find you are kept out of hell, but do not see the hand of God in it; but look at other things, as the good state of your bodily constitution, your care of your own life, and the means you use for your own preservation. But indeed these things are nothing; if God should withdraw his hand, they would avail no more to keep you from falling, than the thin air to hold up a person that is suspended in it.

A slippery slope does not make for solid ground, nor does a house built on sand. That is my concern and my worry. Don’t think that God’s wrath exists purely on the level of Old Testament conviction, either; Luke 12 shows us otherwise:

 “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.2 But there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. 3 Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops.

4 “I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do.5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him! 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.

8 “And I say to you, everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man will confess him also before the angels of God; 9 but he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God. 10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him. 11 When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not worry about how or what you are to speak in your defense, or what you are to say; 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”

When they talked about the fear of God, they weren’t kidding! It should be understood in terms of reverence, obviously, but the reverence comes from both gratitude and recognition that God could leave us utterly stranded if He so chose. Yet, we know, He does not. That is why God is love (1 John 4:8): because He chooses to love in spite of our horrible sin. Not because we are wonderful, or that we give God what He wants, or that we add people to His churches, or that we hand them a Bible and then say “sin no more” without telling them what sin is.

That’s the real danger: that God’s love gets divorced from wrath, for love cannot exist without it. Love, in this sense, isn’t eros, which is the love of desire, or philios, the love/affection between friends – we transform God into that state. Rather, the word Jesus uses in many contexts is agape, which means something approximate to “sacrificial love”. Agape, then, means something different than the common conceptions of love that we have in American society. When someone says “I love you”, usually this works as an expression of desire – i.e., “I want you”. The person in question, then, is I, and it is something I want.

Agape does not function in this sense; in fact, it’s the exact opposite. Love in the selfless manner requires sacrifice. It loves a person (or persons) regardless of their background, their faults, or anything they do. The person who loves in the agape fashion necessarily sacrifices themselves to maintain it. One loves like God loves, which is unconditionally. But that doesn’t mean you have to accept the things they do, just the person they are underneath all the sin – just as Jesus did for you. God loves willingly, but God does not love sin. He hates sin, and this we forget constantly, conflating sin with ourselves. We can’t make that mistake, or we end up like those Jonathan Edwards describes in the negative:

And let every one that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God’s word and providence. This acceptable year of the Lord, a day of such great favour to some, will doubtless be a day of as remarkable vengeance to others. Men’s hearts harden, and their guilt increases apace at such a day as this, if they neglect their souls; and never was there so great danger of such persons being given up to hardness of heart and blindness of mind. God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the greater part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time, and that it will be as it was on the great out-pouring of the Spirit upon the Jews in the apostles’ days; the election will obtain, and the rest will be blinded. If this should be the case with you, you will eternally curse this day, and will curse the day that ever you was born, to see such a season of the pouring out of God’s Spirit, and will wish that you had died and gone to hell before you had seen it. Now undoubtedly it is, as it was in the days of John the Baptist, the axe is in an extraordinary manner laid at the root of the trees, that every tree which brings not forth good fruit, may be hewn down and cast into the fire.

Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let every one fly out of Sodom: “Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.”

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.