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Jonathan Edwards on Gods Justice in Eternally Punishing the Wicked

A Document Analysis of Discourse IV: The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners1
Pastor Haygood

Historical Summary Jonathan Edwards arrived in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1726,2 at the tender age of almost twenty-three, to assist his maternal grandfather in the duties of the ministry.3 By the time Edwards was twenty-ve, his grandfatherSolomon Stoddardhad died and Edwards was sole pastor of the congregation at Northampton. He had stepped into the unenviable position of young successor to the eminent life and fty-seven-year work of his grandfather, the man who had been called the Congregational Pope of the Connecticut Valley.4 At the time, according to Murray, there was likely a population of between 1,250 and 1,400 in Northampton,5 most of whom were church-going people. The town was practically closed by those early years of the eighteenth century because of the increasing scarcity and cost of available land, and though there was cooperation among the inhabitants, it still was not equality. The peace and prosperity of these years likewise enlivened self-interest and ambition among the townsfolk. Church and community overlapped and, while sharing the blessings of the Gospel ministry, also experienced in common the troubles that arose.6 The situation Edwards faced locally was one of a close-knit, religious community,
1. 2. Originally presented to Dr. Marvin Anderson as a paper in Advanced Church History, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. Though some accounts say 1726 and others 1727, it seems to depend on whether the towns and churchs decision to seek a successor to Stoddard, or Edwards arrival, or his ordination is in view. Contributing to the discrepancy also may be the fact that before about 1750, it seems that the new year began on March 25th, and dates were written in the form Jan 26, 1726/7. Patricia J. Tracy, Jonathan Edwards, Pastor: Religion and Society in Eighteenth-Century Northampton (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 3. Ibid., 20. This term was applied to Stoddard by Increase Mather in the Preface to John Quick, The Young Mans Claim Unto the Sacrament of the Lords Supper (Boston, 1700), 28-29. Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 89. This is based on a statistical gure of six and a quarter people per family for Hampshire County later in the century. Ibid., 85-86.

3. 4. 5. 6.

Copyright 2011, B. Spencer Haygood. All rights reserved.

parochial in many ways, experiencing temporal prosperity and stability, and likely somewhat at ease in a sense of divine favor and eternal security. By 1734, there was added to this mix the inltration of Arminian theology, which led Edwards to address it in a series of sermons, which then resulted in opposition (mainly to his methodology) from some of the quite inuential members of the congregation, all of which set a tone of tension and disquiet in the whole parish.7 Thus in this strange atmosphere Edwards preached this sermon, the fourth in his series. Thematic Summary Edwardss theme is set out distinctly in the title of the discourse, The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners. His overview of the rst three chapters of Romans, his explication of the doctrine drawn from Romans 3:19, his conrmation of the doctrine argued from both mans sinfulness and Gods sovereignty, along with the lengthy application all are intensely focused on the one issue of stopping every mouth, quieting every objection, and establishing the justicei.e., the equity, the legality, the rightness of God in eternally punishing the wicked. It is just with God, he says, eternally to cast off and destroy sinners.8 No complaint is valid, no grievance can be heard, no protest is legitimate, no charge can be leveled! God is justfair, honorable, lawful, proper, uprightif he had saved none, but had given all over to their just reward. Extended Analysis Two things quickly become evident as the sermon is read: (1) the language is pointedly severe and (2) the manner is not only didactic, but has added the time-honored revival methods: appeal to fear and denunciation of specic sins.9 So if the punishment is deserved, it is, in the nature of the case, just. But the desert of punishment is measured in direct proportion to the degree of the crime committed. The greater the crime, the greater the punishment deserved; the lesser the crime, the lesser the punishment
7. 8. 9. Ola Elizabeth Winslow, Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758: A Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1940), 160. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 669. Winslow, 161.

Copyright 2011, B. Spencer Haygood. All rights reserved.

deserved. And therefore the terribleness of the degree of punishment is no argument against the justice of it, if the proportion does but hold .10 But what measures the terribleness of the crime? A crime is more or less heinous, Edwards argues, according as we are under greater or less obligation to the contrary.11 So it follows that if there be any being that we are under innite obligations to love, and honour, and obey, the contrary towards him must be innitely faulty.12 Is there any such being? Yes, Edwards would say. God is innitely lovely, innitely honorable, innitely authoritative, and we are under innite obligation to love, honor and obey him. Therefore, sin against God, being a violation of innite obligations, must be a crime innitely heinous, and so deserving innite punishment.13 And if the punishment is deserved, it is also just! So, in this way, he continues to make his case, arguing next from the amount of actual sin of which men are guilty. Having then discussed the issue from mans sinfulness, he turns to Gods sovereignty and proclaims unabashedly that God is not under obligation to keep men from sinning, that God had the right to appoint Adam the federal head of humanity, and that God has the right to determine humanitys redemption in terms of both its existence and extent, and that it is only tting that God should be and do so. But it is when he comes to the application that he drives home the personal involvement his hearers have in the violation of innite obligations and the dreadful implications of this truth for all who continue in sin against the righteous God. Relentlessly, Winslow notes, he called the roll of the town sins which shut men out from Gods mercy and kindled the divine wrath to their destruction.14 The fearful directness with which the Northampton pastor indicted his hearers, and the combination of specicity of sins with the universality of probable guilt,15 fused with the weightiness of the biblical doctrine to create a tremendous effect on the church.
10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. Edwards, 669. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Winslow, 162. Tracy, 82.

Copyright 2011, B. Spencer Haygood. All rights reserved.

While not nearly as lled with the kinds of analogies and imagery as can be found, for example, in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, this sermon still is exemplary in its probings of the human heart as well as in its use of threat and warning to stir up those who have become complacent or presumptuous. Interestingly though, Edwards ends the message, not on the cacophonous note of despair, but with the melodic message of encouragement. The sovereign God who might righteously forever cast the sinner off can also justly justify the ungodly in and through Christ, and it is to this end the sinner should improve this truth. The believer, on the other hand, ought to have brought to mind the freeness and wonderfulness of the grace of God16 that has been shown him or her. Compelling preaching gives the impression that something very great is at stake. With Edwardss view of the reality of heaven and hell and the necessity of persevering in a life of holy affections and godliness, eternity was at stake every Sunday.17 The heart of the Pastor/Teacher Edwards, the mind of the Theologian/Logician Edwards, and the passion of the Evangelist/Revivalist Edwards together all nd amazing expression in this sermon that, in Edwardss own estimate, was his most effective discourse.

16. Edwards, 679. 17. John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 103.

Copyright 2011, B. Spencer Haygood. All rights reserved.