Fear is often a tool most appallingly used by sinful men to achieve their own wicked ends. For this reason, modern Christians will often balk at the idea that fear could be a justified means for accomplishing godly ends. Images are conjured up of a man with a homeless appearance shouting “Repent!” endlessly into the air of an open city with no compassion or apparent aim. Despite how real this caricature may be at times, he is more often a straw man used by a culture that is ironically afraid of fear. The reality is that fear is one tool given by God that, when rightfully wielded, has the potential to bring about great change in the hearts of men. Jonathan Edwards especially attested to this in his work during the American colonies’ First Great Awakening. Not only his sermons, but also his history and defense of the Awakening reveal evidence of the need for godly and honest fear to produce change in the affections of men.
What is widely understood to be the most famous sermon in American history is not filled with sunshine and lilies. No, this title has been reserved for a sermon containing the following: “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 it is nothing but the meer Pleasure of God … that keeps the Arrow one Moment from being made drunk with your Blood.” While the sermon is also rightly mixed with Gospel hope, this is a good example of its general tone.
What was the response to such a dreadful text? According to one contemporary, the room of listeners had burst with cries and moans of people pleading “what Shall I do to be Saved” before Edwards had finished his sermon. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is not considered the most famous sermon in American history simply because of the elegance and literary skill of Edwards, but because of the response it evoked in its hearers. In this sermon, Edwards used terror, not for its own sake, but in order to point sinners to the remedy that is found in Christ – and it evidently worked. Here is the difference between justified and unjustified fear-provoking.
For modern Americans, the need for these types of sermons in colonial America may come as a surprise. It is generally assumed that this was a Christian land, in the sense that society as a whole was generally pietistic and godly. But this was not so according to men like Edwards who believed that his homeland was Christian in the sense of establishment only, but not in regards to a regenerate majority. In short, for Edwards, preaching these types of sermons was not only justified but was in fact his God given duty. North Hampton was so terribly wayward, and so judgment was not just some tactical theme for provoking a tithe giving response, but death was a common reality; and where death is lurking close by, so is the question of what will follow. For Edwards, it could be no clearer: “If there be really a hell of such dreadful, and never-ending torments … why is it not proper for those that have the care of souls, to take great pains to make men sensible of it?”
Some may question the pragmatic success of such preaching. Even more, some may point to its negative effects. Edwards expert Gerald R. McDermmott argues of the preacher, “that he was so relentless and ferocious in denouncing his countrymen’s sins makes it more comprehensible … why they should have banished him.” Likewise, later in his ministry, Edwards himself doubted the benefits of such a focus on terror in preaching. Even so, being himself a historian of the Great Awakening, Edwards gave plenty evidence of the good fruit that came through a right balance of honest fright and Gospel remedy.
It could be argued that the First Great Awakening was really an awakening of preachers to the reality of the need to preach more consistently on the realities of hell and the offer of escape from such torments through Christ. One expert pointed to Edwards’ discovery during the Awakening “that nothing would promote revival better than the haunting specter of ‘infinite punishment.’” Of course, it was the duty of the pastor to preach on more than judgment and salvation, but these two themes of the Gospel were the rock on which the rest of the Christian life was to be built upon. Considered to be the historian and apologist of the Awakening, Jonathan Edwards would write convincing accounts of the conversions that took place in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God and in other historical and apologetic works that show forth the fruit of such preaching in men like George Whitfield and David Brainerd.
It is clear therefore, that no one should find joy in unnecessarily frightening poor souls. But, history reveals the truth that when there is a fire it is dutiful to sound an alarm. As Edwards argues, it is indeed “a reasonable thing to endeavor to fright persons away from hell.” Only when we understand the magnitude of our impending doom will we then be able to glory in the far superior beauty of that great Savior who can snatch us from its horrors. The First Great Awakening occurred in a culture that had replaced the severity of the wages of sin for prettied up moral and outward religion. Today, culture is afraid of being frightened and will take any measures necessary to cover up ideas of coming wrath. But if hell is real than the affectionate person will warn of the coming dangers for the good of his friends. After all, Edwards did admit “that one could get to life eternal only after first being scared to death.”
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Ritualized Context” Christianity and Literature 57, No. 4 (2008): 507. Accessed September 12, 2016. Academic OneFile
Reappraisal” American Presbyterians 69, No. 1 (1991): 37. Accessed September 12, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/i23332676
Theology of Preaching.” In The Theology of Jonathan Edwards. Oxford University Press, 2011. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2012. 497-498, accessed September 14, 2016, doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199791606.003.0031.
- McDermott, “The City on a Hill,”
- McClymond and McDermott. “The Voice of the Great God” 498.
- Harry S. Stout “Edwards and Revival” in Understanding Jonathan Edwards : An Introduction to America’s Theologian. Edited by Gerald R. McDermott. New York, US: Oxford University Press, 2009. 43, accessed September 15, 2016. ProQuest ebrary.
- See for example: Jonathan Edwards The Life and Diary of David Brainerd.
- McClymond and McDermott. “The Voice of the Great God” 498 .
- Ibid, 508.