In the Summer of 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God—the most famous or infamous sermon to land on what would soon be American soil.

Edwards wasn’t the kind of preacher we typically associate with revival. He wasn’t bombastic. He didn’t make gestures. He read from a manuscript. And he had a weak voice. But one person said he could hear the wails of the crowd from a quarter mile away as Edwards delivered this famous sermon.

Edwards frightened the crowd with his vivid imagery of the impending judgment of God.

“The black clouds of God’s wrath are now hanging over your heads, full of the dreadful storm and big with thunder . . . The bow of God’s wrath is bent and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart and strains the bow.”

Most memorably, he declared, “God that holds you over the pit of hell much as one holds a spider or some other loathsome insect over a fire . . . tis nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. Sinner, consider the fearful danger you are in.”

The terrifying rhetoric had an obvious effect on the listeners. The people shrieked, “How can we be saved?!” as the sting of God’s anger pieced their hearts. With imagery like this, it’s no wonder modern readers characterize Edwards as a doom and gloom preacher.

What Does it Mean to Be in the Hands of an Angry God?

It’s common to hear people speak of Edwards as someone whose “angry God” was all wrath and no grace—or all law and no gospel. The soundtrack of Hamilton expresses this caricature as Aaron Burr refers to his grandfather a “fire and brimstone preacher.”

But fire and brimstone is only half the story of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. It misses the entire point to stop at the imagery of God’s wrath. If we stop there, people may assume that being in the hands of an angry God is another way to say that God is unleashing his wrath on the unfortunate sinners in his grasp.

As the apostle Paul so frequently does, however, Edwards moved from the human problem of sin to the intervention of God. He stressed the problem to make sense of the solution. And it’s a glorious solution.

“You have an extraordinary opportunity; Christ has flung the doors of mercy wide open and stands at the door calling in a loud voice to poor sinners!”

Edwards expounded the mercy, grace, and goodness of God to an equal degree with the wrath of God. Therefore, contrary to popular understanding, being in the hands of an angry God isn’t strangulation, it’s mercy. God’s hands are full of grace. They are the only force keeping you out of hell this very second. Every moment in his hands is an opportunity to turn to him and live.

Preaching Mercy Without Wrath is Empty

Preaching on the reality of hell wasn’t unique to Edwards or any of the Puritans for that matter. Jesus taught the reality of hell and preachers throughout history took his words literally.

Yet one will rarely find a sermon like Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God ringing from pulpits today. Our culture tells us not to preach on wrath lest we hurt someone’s self-esteem. They say we should start with the love of God then get to hell later (if we get there at all). We don’t want to scare them away with outdated hellfire preaching.

But for Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Edwards, Spurgeon, Graham, Sproul, and all the great preachers, God displays the fullness of the light of his love against the dark background of hell.

Hell is real.

To ignore this fact of the universe is the most unloving act a preacher can commit. To know of danger and dismiss it has eternal consequences. We can wish it away as much as we want, but that doesn’t change our situation. It also robs God of his act in redemption. If there was no need for a savior and no wrath to be absorbed, then Christ’s death does little more than offer moral example.

Who is righteous? No one! No not one! That’s not a Puritan scare tactic, that is the inspired Word of God giving us a warning—awakening us to our dread. But according to Edwards, it is the necessary terror to make the gospel good news.

Preaching Wrath Without Mercy is Hopeless

What if Edwards would have stopped after announcing the wrath of God? The people would have been stuck in their question, “How can we avoid this judgment?”

If a preacher can stand on a platform and stir up the crowd to loathe their sin, so what? If Christ is not raised, we are a people to be pitied. If we have God’s justice without his mercy, we have an idol just as if we had God’s mercy without his justice.

God’s mercy and justice are not at war with one another. In the cross, as displayed in Romans 3:21–26, God’s wrath is fully satisfied, and his grace is fully demonstrated. That’s why Paul can exclaim, “Thanks be to God!”

For the gospel to be good news we need to face the reality of the bad news. I fear many of us fail to love the gospel because we fail to acknowledge the peril of our own sinfulness. The greater our need for a savior is, the sweeter his mercy tastes—and the safer we feel in his hands.

The God of Edwards was not a tyrant or unfair. But he is holy. And thankfully, he is slow to anger.