Bayou Calvinist

A Somewhat Eclectic Discussion by a Law Student Concerning All of Today's Major Topics, as well as, a Few Not So Major Topics

Monday, June 13, 2005

Are "Fire and Brimstone" Sermons Antithetical to Gaining Converts?

I have long been of the opinion that by focusing on sin and human depravity in a way that is seen as condemnatory, many of today's preachers are hurting the cause...namely the conversion of as many people to the Truth as possible. Then the question arose is there any reason to support such statements in furtherance of this cause? Interested in finding any redeeming qualities in such sermons, or perhaps more interested in proving that such sermons have no place in the modern church, I re-read what is quite possibly the most famous "fire and brimstone" sermon of all time...Sinners in the Hands of an Angry GOD. see
This sermon was written and delivered by the puritanical preacher Jonathen Edwards in Enfield, Connecticut in 1741 and was the first and most enduring expression of the uncompromising Calvinist theology of the Great Awakening.

When this sermon is quoted, most modern critics point to phrases such as the following:

"They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God's using his power at any moment to destroy them. Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins. Divine justice says of the tree that brings forth such grapes of Sodom, "Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground?" Luke xiii. 7. The sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over their heads, . . ."

"They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell. They do not only justly deserve to be cast down thither, but the sentence of the law of God, that eternal and immutable rule of righteousness that God has fixed between him and mankind, is gone out against them, and stands against them; so that they are bound over already to hell. John iii. 18. "He that believeth not is condemned already." So that every unconverted man properly belongs to hell; that is his place; from thence he is, John viii. 23. "Ye are from beneath." And thither be is bound; it is the place that justice, and God's word, and the sentence of his unchangeable law assign to him."

"The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them."

These phrases and statements seem to badly comport with our modern sensibilities and turn most of us away as if it were the worst in vitriolic and holier-than-thou speach. How could such statements be of any use in converting humanity in the modern world?

The answer to this question, I think, is found in the same sermon. It is found in those parts most commonly not quoted. Portions of the text such as the following:

"There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God." By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God's mere will had in the least degree, or in any respect whatsoever, any hand in the preservation of wicked men one moment."

"And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God."

"Now God stands ready to pity you; this is a day of mercy; you may cry now with some encouragement of obtaining mercy."

I think the overwhelming juxtaposition of what mankind deserves with what some men are given through the grace of GOD alone, is a strong message. How great must God's love be to save one so deserving from his just punishment? By playing up the great depravity in mankind and the subsequent punishment we deserve, a tactful preacher is able to show how much greater is God's love for those he has chosen.

I still feel that Edward's language is certainly over the top for today's climate, but I no longer am of the opinion that "fire and brimstone" has no place in the conversion of others. As long as any condemnatory language is not directed against any individuals personally and as long as the overarching love of God is stated as counterbalance, I can see how such sermons fit a useful purpose.


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