By Wade Burleson
Years ago I memorized Jonathan Edwards message Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and presented it to a seminary theology class at Philips Theological Seminary. Jonathan Edwards is rightfully considered one of the premier American theologians of all time because of his wonderful grasp of the biblical languages, his brilliant mind, and his artful ability to communicate profound principles with simple sentences. Though I memorized the entire message, I was troubled by it. Over the course of the next decade I began to understand why.
In Jonathan Edwards classic message he made the profound mistake of intermingling Law and Grace (Old Covenant vs. New Covenant). Rather than seeing the love of God in sending the Messiah to fulfill the Law and pay completely for the sins and transgressions of His people, Edwards presents God as being both angry and loving at the same time towardthe same sinners. Pardon the crude language, but the bi-polar God of Edwards is not the God of Scripture. For example, Edwards writes "And let every one that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell (emphasis mine), whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God's word and providence."
John Gill, the Baptist contemporary of Jonathan Edwards and the mentor to the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, rightly corrects the error of Edwards in his classic work God's Everlasting Love to His Elect. Gill writes:
The everlasting love of God, the Father, Son, and Spirit, is the bond of the elect's union to the sacred Three. What may he said of the three divine Persons in general, is true of each of them in particular. They have all three loved the elect with an everlasting love, and thereby have firmly and everlastingly united them to themselves. Christ has loved them with an everlasting and unchangeable love, whereby his heart is knit unto them as Jonathan's was to David. He loved them as his own soul, as his own body, and the members of it. This is that cement which will never loosen, that union knot which can never be untied, that bond which can never be dissolved, from whence there can be no separation; for who shall separate us from the love of Christ? I am persuaded, says the apostle (Rom. 8:35, 38, 39), that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God's people are never dangled over the "pit of hell" as a spider on a thin web (Edward's imagery). From eternity God has chosen to deliver an innumerable company of fallen sinners from every nation, every family, every people group and every language group (Rev. 7:9). These redeemed rebels God calls "My people" for thy are the rebels for whom God has sent His Son as Deliverer. "You shall call His name Yeshua (Jesus) for He shall deliver His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21).
Again, God's people and "the world" are synonymous; they are from every race, every ethnic group, every nation, every tribe, and every family. God has chosen to save far more sinners from their rebellion than He has chosen to judge in their rebellion. The kingdom of God is compared to a vast sea (Revelation 4:6); hell is a compared to a small lake. The kingdom of God is compared to a vast city (Hebrews 11:16); hell is compared to a small prison. The kingdom of God represents lives (and eventually the earth) where the curse of sin is reversed; hell is the abyss where the curse of sin is submersed.
When rebellious hearts are captured by God's grace and love in Christ, they begin to show evidence of His kingship in their lives. Jesus said, "A new command I give you that you love one another as I (God) have loved you. By this will all know you are mine, if you have love one for another" (John 13:34-35).
The real love of God for us translates into real love for others from us. The rebel transformed by the love of God will always be receptive to message of Christ, because it is through the death of Christ that the love of God is fully magnified. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son" (John 3:16). Our love for others is the evidence of God's deliverance and love for us not the means of His deliverance and love for us. God saves sinners through Christ.
A few of my close friends have been discussing on-line this week the question, "Could infants who die go to hell?" Answer: Yes, they could. Death is "the wages of sin" (Romans 3:23). Everyone born into this world is constituted and condemned as sinners because "all died" when the first Adam rebelled against God (Romans 5:12-21). Babies are born sinners, grow in their rebellion toward God over time, and unless delivered by God, will die as sinners. When an infant dies in infancy, God could judge the infant for the first Adam's sin.
Some dislike the federal representation of Adam. At the heart of their consternation with this doctrine is a three-fold objection: (1). It's not fair that anyone should bear the consequences of the actions of the first Adam, and/or (2). God must be to blame for original sin because He could have created somebody better than the first Adam to represent us, and/or (3). I would much rather be judged by God for my own actions rather than the actions of the first Adam. Those who hold to the third belief are adamant that infants who die in infancy have done nothing wrong and so they cannot be judged by God.
I find it interesting that we live by representation every day of our lives without complaint, but when the Bible says Adam represents us before God we object. Doctors represent us in the operating room. Politicians represent us in Washington. Attorneys represent us in court. Why do we object to the first Adam representing us before God?
What troubles us is that Adam failed. We blame God for Adam's failure, for we must blame someone other than Adam. However, there is a sure truth proclaimed by Scripture: "God made man (Adam) upright" (Ecclesiastes 7:29). The rebellion of Adam as our federal head was free-will rebellion. More than that, Adam was constituted righteous by God, given every advantage and freedom in the world to follow after God, and so his free-will rebellion against God was extremely grievous. The consequence of this first Adam's rebellion affects everyone born into the world.
The good news is that when we begin to understand we are condemned by the actions of the first Adam, we begin to be able to rejoice over the marvelous biblical truth that we are redeemed by the actions of the last Adam (Jesus Christ). The people who have the hardest time resting in the work of the last Adam (Jesus Christ) are those who continually labor to move away from the truth that condemnation comes from the failure of first Adam.
Now, back to the question of infants: Could God judge infants who die in infancy for the sin of the first Adam? Yes. However, the better question would be does God judge infants who die in infancy all for the sin of the first Adam? Answer: No. Why? Because He redeems them through the actions of the last Adam.
It seems every infant who dies in infancy is reached by God, redeemed by Christ, and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. In Scripture all the examples of infants dying in infancy contain not one instance of an infant experiencing the judgment of God. You can't say they were innocent, for they died. You can say they were redeemed by God through Christ.
Some believe the last Adam (Christ) reversed the curse of the first Adam for every human being at the cross and now everyone becomes their own Adam when they are born (i.e. "the age of accountability"). However, I believe the Scripture teaches that we all bear condemnation for the original sin of the first Adam (see Romans 5:12), but God in His love redeems infants who die in infancy, imbeciles who never comprehend the cross, and an innumerable company of rational rebels whom He transforms from hardened, hateful sinners into loving, kind human beings who live life the way Christ lived it. God saves sinners through His love.
There are some sinners in the hands of an angry (just) God; but it is a comparatively small group of rebels whom God will judge for their personal rebellion and their refusal to love God and their fellow man. All others will be delivered by God from their hatred of God and man, for they will be redeemed by Christ. For those who object, "But the Bible says 'Narrow is the gate that leads to life and few there be that find it'," I respond: "The parables of the King tell us the Kingdom of God begins with 'few' but mushrooms into an innumerable company. The gospel starts as a seed and expands to a tree. Since God saves sinners, and the King establishes His Kingdom on earth, there will be no thwarting of the expansion of God's Kingdom for 'The gates of hell shall not prevail.'"
If it also be objected "But if God could save everyone, why does He not?" Answer: The judgment of the wicked in their sins is as much a glorious display of the attributes of God (holiness and justice) as the deliverance of the wicked from their sins is a glorious display of different attributes of God (grace and love). I'm not sure where we got the idea that God's judgment for sinners is something ugly, brutal, senseless, evil , and maybe even sadomasochistic (maybe Dante?), but the truth is God's judgment of sinners is just, righteous, holy, beautiful and ultimately good for the universe.
If I were to preach a sermon like Edwards, I might title it "God in the Thoughts of Angry Sinners." It seems the only ones with an unholy anger are people. God's sovereignty in graciously redeeming sinners seems to cause emotional consternation because:
(1). Sinners seem to believe man's rebellion against their Creator is "no big deal."
(2). Sinners want to believe God owes it to rebels to redeem them from the consequences of their rebellion.
(3). Sinners tend to believe God is weak and 'altogether like unto themselves,' unable to accomplish what He intends
(4). Sinners believe God can't judge some rebels in their sins and save many rebels from their sin because "that would be unfair" and God is always "fair." What He does for one, He must do for all.
(5). Sinners want God to be like they want Him to be rather than the way He reveals Himself to be in Scripture.
God is love. He is also just. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but indeed, He will righteously judge the wicked. The man who loves God with all his heart and his fellow man more than himself will never be judged by God. The rest of us who fall short of this Royal Law of Love need a Redeemer. The good news is God's love for sinners transforms His people (i.e. former rebels) into people who love God and others.
That's why I want the homosexual to know Christ. That's why I desire the adulterer to meet God. That's why I wish the child abuser could be transformed. That's why long to see the thief changed. That's why I long for the murderer to see the wickedness of his crime. The sinful nature that led them to hateful actions toward their fellow man was also in me - until God removed it by His grace. I tell the rebel who hates God and his fellow man the good news of the Redeemer. We are all born with the same inclination toward hatred of God and our fellow man because of Adam's sin. Our only hope is the Deliverer. Only He can transform our stony, wicked hearts into soft hearts that love God and our fellow man.
My philosophical friends who ignore the teaching of Scripture respond, "Why bother? If the wicked can't change their hearts unless God chooses to save them, why share Christ?" Answer: Because my heavenly Father is in the business of changing lives and He has asked me to share Christ with sinners. I do what my Father asks. In addition, in my experience, I find my Father does what I ask (i.e. "Father, please deliver Brenda from her sin of not loving you and others"). We have not because we ask not.
When people blame God for their sin and ignore God's redemption in Christ, we live in a perverted world. When people blame man for sin and reach out to God for redemption in Christ, we live a perfect world. Unfortunately, our world is not perfect - yet. It's coming. Little by little, the kingdom of God is growing. His love and justice ultimately win, for His kingdom ultimately reigns.
God in the thoughts of angry sinners leads to all sorts of convoluted theology and confusing religions. The simplicity of the gospel--God saves sinners through Christ--is the power of the good news. This is a faithful saying and worthy of your acceptance, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief." (I Timothy 1:15).