Hyperbolic evangelical lady-preacher Beth Moore found herself at odds with celebrated theologian and First Great Awakening giant Jonathan Edwards over the weekend and concluded Edwards must be the problem.
“For the life of me, I don’t get the appeal of Jonathan Edwards to many,” Moore told her 1 million Twitter followers in a thread complete with a tangent about her interest in spiders and a third-person reference to herself.
“I flipped open to a page where I’d handwritten the words, ‘But I have Jesus,’” she wrote, before revealing the page contained a passage from Edwards’ famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon. The passage she quoted reads:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. … You are 10,000 times more abominable in his eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
“I get that Edwards is talking to those who do not look to Christ for salvation but I’m just saying, I was so broken & self-loathing & ensnared in my sins, such preaching would’ve made me feel like dying. Like running away, not running toward God,” said Moore. “God uses all sorts of means of calling people out of sin & unbelief. At times, I have very much needed the sternest possible warning from God. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m no big theologian but I just don’t think you’re a spider. And I don’t think God abhors you.”
Despite her status as a rockstar of women’s bible studies, Moore has been criticized for her association with questionable figures such as Victoria and Joel Osteen, her rejection of complementarianism, and her heavy reliance on emotion and arbitrary personal interpretation of Scripture (“How did God speak to you directly today?” is a common question in her studies).
It’s unsurprising that someone like Moore, who emphasizes the elements of the Gospel that are less offensive to unrepentant sinners, such as Christ’s love and companionship, is uncomfortable with Edwards’ harsh message. But the love and grace of Christ can only properly be understood in the context of the grossly offensive nature of our own sin, the sinless holiness of our Creator, and our absolute need for Christ’s sacrifice so we may be spared the righteous wrath of God.
That context is what Edwards provides in his classic sermon, which is rich with passages of Scripture that speak with equal disdain for the poisonous nature of sin: Amos 9:2-3, Psalm 73:18-19, Proverbs 20:2, Ezekiel 8:18, Isaiah 63:3, and Isaiah 66:15, which, as Edwards reminded his listeners, warns that “the Lord will come with Fire, and with Chariots like a Whirlwind, to render his Anger with Fury, and his Rebukes with Flames of Fire.” Nor are Old Testament passages like these the only examples of how seriously the Bible takes sin; Jesus himself warned of “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth,” of a fire in hell that “never goes out,” and of eternal “torment” for those who are not saved.
Edwards makes clear in that sermon that the wrath of God is not capricious or vengeful, but rooted in justice, noting that when unrepentant sinners meet His wrath, He will not cause them to “suffer beyond what strict Justice requires.” In fact, Edwards says, it is the “sovereign Pleasure” of God that has yet spared his hearers from eternal damnation, not anything of their own deserving. He emphasizes the utter holiness of God — a reality that we as egalitarian American Christians often fail to grasp, and in doing so, we discount the seriousness of our own sin.
Only when we comprehend that the misery Edwards describes is what we deserve for our sin, can we fully understand our need for the love of Christ and the mercy of God, of which Edwards also writes in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”:
And now you have an extraordinary Opportunity, a Day wherein Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open, and stands in the Door calling and crying with a loud Voice to poor Sinners. … [M]any are daily coming … [now] with their Hearts filled with Love to Him that has loved them and washed them for their Sins in his own Blood, and rejoycing in Hope of the Glory of God.
In other sermons and writings, too, Edwards speaks beautifully of God’s love. In a sermon on 1 John 4:16, Edwards wrote:
God in Christ allows such little, poor creatures as you are to come to him, to love communion with him, and to maintain a communication of love with him. You may go to God and tell him how you love him and open your heart and he will accept of it. You may be familiar in your expressions of your love to Christ, as little or unworthy as you are, for he is near to you. He is come down from heaven and has taken upon him the human nature on purpose, that he might be near to you and might be, as it were, your companion. …
Therefore don’t let your unworthiness discourage you. Let it heighten your surprise and cause you to express your love in the most humble manner possible. But let it not keep you at a distance or change the expressions of your love. You may want humility in your love, but you never can be guilty of any excess in the joys of divine love.
As Edwards says in another sermon, titled “Impending Judgments Averted Only by Reformation”: “God has no pleasure in the destruction or calamity of persons,” but “He is a God that delights in mercy.”
Unlike Moore in her Twitter thread, Edwards understood that God’s righteous anger at sin does not contradict His redeeming love, but is a necessary, beautiful complement to it. The kind of preaching that celebrates Jesus’ friendship without acknowledging the fate he saves us from ends up encouraging the false gospel that, because the Christian message is a gospel of love, it does not stand at odds with sinful abominations such as abortion or a transgender lifestyle.
Our culture does not suffer from too much awareness of its own depravity and need for God. The world in which Western Christians live celebrates sin, from self-absorption and damaging sexual chaos to tearing babies apart in utero and sexually manipulating children’s confusion about their growing bodies.
As a society, we have largely rejected God, our need for him, and the reality of our own depravity, choosing instead the folly of our own subjective “truth.” Our world badly groans to be shown its ugly need for redemption, so that it might turn toward Christ with the urgency that Edwards’ strong descriptions were meant to inspire.