Editor’s note: This month at GCD you will be seeing articles from our team of Staff Writers and other contributors on a handful of topics that Jonathan Edwards introduced in his own Resolutions. The aim of this series is to help you see how a gospel-formed resolution can help you flourish in your love for Christ and for others next year. Click here to see all articles in this series.
If you ever wonder how to get a bad rap with posterity, you need look no further than Jonathan Edwards, one of modernity’s favorite Puritan whipping boys. An 18th Century pastor, theologian, and missionary, Edwards has gained a negative reputation as the foremost of hellfire-and-brimstone preachers and the paragon of everything our culture finds faulty with religion. If it’s considered anathema today—like a repressive puritanical morality, an overemphasis on sin, guilt, and judgment, or a sadistic glorification of divine violence—it’s probably been pinned on Jonathan Edwards at some point.
SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY GOD?
My first exposure to Edwards came in high school literature with the assigned reading of his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Tackling the sermon as a read-aloud, our teacher prodded the class to preach with zeal: “Read it with passion! With fury in your eyes and fire in your belly!” His appeal to dramatic flair was mostly lost on a languid group of hormonal juniors, none of whom were eager to stand out amongst their peers. But the bias against Edwards—and the old-fashioned, bigoted, puritanical religion he represented—was clear.
In recent years, a popular backlash against “angry God” Christianity has risen not only from secular quarters but also from within the walls of the church. Consider a recent title from Brian Zahnd entitled Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, one in a long line of attempts to correct what is believed to be a backward and destructive theology and replace it with a non-violent, singularly loving, atonement-free gospel.
For many of us, the appeal of a gratuitously loving God in the face of Edwards’ seemingly angry and bloodthirsty deity is irresistible. The angry, severe, cold god we grew up with has left us harboring neuroses too various to number. The god many of us have pictured from childhood was more like a domineering or demanding father than a gentle and loving friend. He reigned with an iron fist, rode on a heavenly cloud, and longed for a chance to exact vengeance on sinners and saints alike. This is a god whose stratospheric expectations left us cowering in fear, hopeless victims of his capricious anger and violent wrath.
But this portrayal of God is a gross caricature of Edwards and his theology. In contrast to this popular depiction, we might consider one of his seventy “Resolutions”:
“25. Resolved, to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it."
We get a glimpse here of a young man—about 19 years old at the time of writing—enraptured by and devoted to God’s love. This might surprise anyone whose truncated impressions of Edwards have been informed by critics rather than a fair hearing of one of America’s greatest (and most warm-hearted) thinkers.
At root, Edwards had a comprehension of God’s love far richer and deeper than our modern understanding. The kind of love we expect and demand from God is lacking in anything negative, unattractive, or displeasurable. We desire a God who requires nothing of us, corrects nothing in us, and gives us everything we want. However, when we begin with ourselves and measure God by our own desires, we have a tendency to force him into a mold of our own making. We want a god that fits in our pocket—one we can take out when we want him, and put back when we’re through.
GOD’S WRATH MAKES HIS LOVE MORE BEAUTIFUL
But the God of Edwards—and, I would argue, of the Bible—doesn’t fit in our pocket. He neither exists nor acts primarily for our self-esteem. He acts for his own glory. And sin is, ultimately, an affront to that glory. The God with whom we have to deal is nothing like us. He is completely holy and requires absolute obedience. This is the God Edwards found in the Scriptures—the God who caused him to tremble and who is not to be trifled with.
It is only against the backdrop of the fierce wrath of God that divine love poured out on God’s enemies makes sense. Indeed, the central paradox of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is that “God hath had it on his heart to show to angels and men, both how excellent his love is, and also how terrible his wrath is.” This theme of God’s patient kindness and love—a kindness that leads to repentance (Rom 2:4)—motivates and animates the entire sermon with Gospel power.
C.S. Lewis elucidated the relationship between wrath and love along a similar vein:
“I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in the dismay I have been describing, and it is no use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay.”
THE SURPRISING ANTIDOTE TO DOUBT
In my own life, I have often struggled to accept God’s love for me. I've questioned how he could possibly love me, given my unworthiness and constant failure. I assume God foregoes actual affection for me and settles for mere tolerance. I feel like I'll end up sitting at the kids’ table at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.
All of this self-abnegation, of course, seems humble, but it's actually a false kind of humility undergirded by a pride that says: “God’s grace is not big enough for me. His love is not expansive enough to fully include me.” I think my sin—as heinous and wrath-deserving as it is—is more powerful than God’s justifying grace. But this kind of passive pride actually degrades the work of Christ and undermines a biblical understanding of grace.
And this is where Edwards’ twenty-fifth resolution helps me. When I doubt God’s love—a weakness the 19-year-old Edwards apparently shared with me—the place I am directed to look is to the wrath of God. Why? Because when I truly understand the wrath of God against his enemies, then I am able to truly understand my desperate place without God’s merciful intervention. It is only God’s unmerited favor and gracious pleasure—that is, his free and inscrutable love towards me—which is able to save.
And what does it save me from? According to the Scriptures, God’s love saves me from God’s wrath: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:8-9).
HOW TO CONQUER DOUBT
Here is a profound and freeing truth: the love of God saves us from the wrath of God through the death of the Son of God. God’s love is excellent in itself, but it becomes exceptional and incomprehensible to human sinners in light of the wrath from which we are saved.
When you are prone to question God’s wrath or doubt his love, the antidote for both is to look to the cross, not as a place where God affirms your infinite worthiness, but as a place where he displays his infinite wrath against sin in concert with his infinite love for his fallen creation.
Whenever you doubt the love of God, look to the cross. For the cross is where God’s wrath is appeased, his love is displayed, and his enemies become his children.
 Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” July 8, 1741.
Mike Phay serves as Lead Pastor at FBC Prineville (Oregon) and as an Affiliate Professor at Kilns College in Bend, OR. He has been married to Keri for 20 years and they have five amazing kids (Emma, Caleb, Halle, Maggie, and Daisy). He loves books and coffee, preferably at the same time.