The most famous sermon in American history is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
The most famous theologian in American history is Jonathan Edwards, the theologian who preached that most famous sermon.
My friend and a Jonathan Edwards scholar, Gerald McDermott, has recently edited a book on Edwards called Understanding Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to America’s Theologian. Just in case you don’t know much about Edwards, this book is for you — though written by experts the book succeeds in avoiding the jargon. And Edwards needs such a treatment because most only know this sermon and only know it as a caricature.
The second theme of this book is on revival. Since the book presents a study of Edwards and then has a response, there are two discussions of Edwards’ understanding of revival. There are two treats here: first, we get a study by Harry Stout, the Jonathan Edwards professor at Yale; second, we get an international respondent: Willem van Vlastuin from Amsterdam.
I learned a bundle from Stout’s piece and van Vlastuin puts Stout’s understanding in context. Three points:
First, Edwards became convinced that theology could only find its ultimate context when it was part of God’s history of redemption. So, Edwards’ big vision was to seek for what God was doing in the world and to develop a mind that fastened upon spiritual history.
Second, Edwards saw the drama of God’s history of redemption as the interaction of heaven (where God’s will is done), hell (where God’s will is opposed) and earth (where there is a contest of the two). His revival preaching emerged from these two points with radical clarity.
Third, when Edwards became even more convinced of the need to see history from God’s angle, and when he encountered the potent preaching of George Whitefield, Edwards made a shift in his preaching from more focus on heaven to more focus on hell … and in 1740-1741 he began to develop the perfect awakening sermon, and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” his second attempt at such a sermon, was given birth.
To put this in context, Edwards became convinced that the most effective form of preaching to awaken sinners from their sin was to describe hell in concrete images and to impress upon his listeners that such a fate was theirs if they did not find their way to God’s grace.