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The Myth of Jonathan Edwards

Deborah Howard
The Myth of Jonathan Edwards

For many, merely the name of Jonathan Edwards called up images of gloom and doom, of Puritan austerity, of judgment and intolerance. His most famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, is likely responsible for this errant picture of him.

Yes, that sermon depicts an angry God, a God of judgment. It depicts sinners dangling by a gossamer thread over the yawning chasm of hell. That’s the part people tend to remember. But there’s another part as well. It speaks of a God who forgives.

God is not only a God of love and benevolence. To believe that would be to deny His other attributes. Yes, God is definitely a God who loves—and loves deeply. He loves His people. He loves His Son, Jesus.

God is also a God of wrath. For those who say, “Well, not my God,” they are creating a God made in their own image and not the God of the Bible. He says it Himself. “I form the light and create darkness. I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things,” Isaiah 45:7.

It offends some people’s delicate sensitivities to consider God bringing both blessing and calamity. They refuse to accept that both are true of Him.

We serve a great God who is awesome in power, who could crush us with a word, if He chose to.  It is wrong to try to put God in a box where He can only do what we think He should—according to our own sense of right and wrong.

He’s God! He can do anything He wants to whomever He wants! He created this world. He created each of us. We are His to do with as He pleases. His power is infinitely greater than we can imagine.

In that famous scene at the end of the book of Job, God, out of the midst of a storm, answers Job’s questioning of His fairness. God asks, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sung together and all the angels shouted for joy? Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’?” Job 38:4–11.

This is God speaking of creation of the world we live in. He is sovereign over that creation—including the people He created to populate it.

Jonathan Edwards knew this. He understood God’s awesome power could destroy the universe just as easily as He created it.

But he also knew that this God of awesome power was also a God of goodness, love and forgiveness. Both are true and He exercises His judgments as He sees fit. He is our Master–designer, our Master–planner. Nothing happens apart from His overarching will—for this world and for each individual in this world.

Out of a heart of love for the lost, Edwards reached out to them. He was willing to do anything it took to shake them from their complacency and ongoing sin. He recognized that most people think they are deserving of heaven based on their own standard of right and wrong. They can point to someone else and say, “Well, I’m better than that person.”

But is that how God judges? No. Instead of judging on a horizontal plane, comparing our good deeds to the deeds of others, God judges by this standard—“How do you compare to a holy God?” What does it look like to compare yourself on such a vertical plane? Do you stack up to that kind of righteousness?

Edwards shook people awake with that sermon. He reminded lost people, who were, indeed, dangling over the yawning chasm of hell and were completely unaware of it, that they were in a dangerous position, that the only way to escape that fall into the abyss was to turn to Jesus Christ and call upon Him to save them. Then and only then, would they find themselves safely resting in the palm of God’s hand.

People tend to remember the fire and brimstone part of the sermon and not the other. That’s why they color this brilliant theologian so darkly. But he was far from dark.

Jonathan Edwards was perhaps the greatest theologian this country ever produced. His brilliance and intellect were beyond comprehension. Yet he was not dark and austere. Jonathan Edwards loved deeply. He loved life. He loved his family. He loved nature. And he loved God with a devotion few of us can fathom.

Jonathan Edwards was perhaps the greatest theologian this country ever produced. His brilliance and intellect were beyond comprehension. Yet he was not dark and austere. Jonathan Edwards loved deeply. He loved life. He loved his family. He loved nature. And he loved God with a devotion few of us can fathom.

After reading his sermon, The Christian Pilgrim, I found myself lifted up and encouraged. That sermon is like a pep rally for heaven! It makes you want to go there today! This sermon discusses what our lives should reflect as we travel along the journey leading to our true and final destination—eternity with Christ in heaven.

It illustrates what Paul wrote in Colossians 3:2, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” My latest book, Jonathan Edwards and the Christian Pilgrim, encourages us to do this very thing. It reminds us that this life is not our home. Once we belong to the Lord, our home is with Him in heaven. That is the destination we are to fix our eyes upon.

As I sat with my dying father in 2020, I remembered reading this sermon and looked it up when I got home. Reading it again helped me put my father’s death into perspective and stirred up my own heart for heaven.

That’s when I decided I had to bring this message of hope into the 21st century. I had to expose this new generation to the truths it taught. We need it as much now as in the 1740s when he wrote it.

Jonathan Edwards wasn’t the man in black everyone thinks of when his name is mentioned. Instead, he was a beam of intense light. God gave him to this world for a purpose. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God woke people up who were sleeping, unaware of the calamity awaiting them without Christ. He did it in a shocking way, perhaps, but his intent was to turn them to Jesus, to help put their feet on the straight path leading to heaven. Motivated by love, he penned The Christian Pilgrim to teach us how we are to think and behave now that our feet are planted upon that straight path.

To me, Jonathan Edwards’ name does not evoke “the valley of the shadow of death.” Instead, I think of “lying down in green pastures.” The more you know about him, the more you’ll be able to appreciate the calm, serene brilliance of this important man of God.

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Jonathan Edwards and the Christian Pilgrim

Our Journey Towards Heaven

Deborah Howard
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