The sermon opens with two epigraphs from the Old Testament: one from Deuteronomy and one from the Book of Amos. The quotation from Amos emphasizes God’s power to see all human action, thwart human plans and behavior, and unleash vengeance upon individuals. The quotation from Deuteronomy—“Their foot shall slide in due time”—is foundational to the sermon that follows.
The opening of a sermon traditionally cites a Biblical passage that the preacher will then use the body of the sermon to interpret. Here, Edwards gives two quotations, both of which ominously imply that mankind is in grave danger of damnation.
Jonathan Edwards begins to explain the Biblical quotation from Deuteronomy that opened the sermon. The quotation is a threat of vengeance from God to the sinful Israelites who, despite God’s grace and kindness, were still not faithful. Edwards notes that he will expand on the following four implications of this quotation, all of which relate to the punishment of the Israelites.
Edwards begins his sermon by contextualizing the Bible passages he cited. This establishes for the congregation that damnation is not an abstract threat, but rather a historical reality: according to the Bible, the misbehaving Israelites were subject to God’s vengeance.
1. The Israelites were always vulnerable to punishment (or, as Edwards writes, “destruction”), just as any person who walks in a slippery place is vulnerable to a fall. Edwards quotes Psalm 73, which links God having “set them in slippery places” to the Israelites being cast “down into destruction.”
Edwards embarks on a close reading of the passage from Deuteronomy, using the notion of a foot slipping to explore the spiritual nuances of sin and damnation.
2. Not only were the Israelites vulnerable to punishment, but they were vulnerable to unexpected and sudden punishment at God’s whim. A person walking in a slippery place cannot foresee the moment in which he or she will fall—the fall is always sudden and without warning. Edwards quotes Psalm 73 further, which suggests that sinners are “brought into desolation as in a moment.”
Edwards argues that a sinner’s life is as precarious as a foot on a slippery surface. By underscoring that a slip is always sudden, Edwards seeks to unsettle the congregation and make them realize that the consequences for their sins could arrive at any time without warning.
3. Furthermore, the sudden fall is liable not to be due to any external force. Nobody is pushing the person on a slippery surface; he or she falls only due to his or her own weight.
This point clarifies that the sinner alone is to blame for their damnation, not God or circumstance. This passage also implies Edwards’ familiarity with the theory of gravity; indeed, he loved Isaac Newton.
4. In fact, the only reason that sinners haven’t yet fallen due to their own weight is that God’s hand holds them up until God’s appointed time comes. Once that time comes, they will fall suddenly, just as their weight dictates. Edwards clarifies his metaphor: it is less like a person walking on a slippery surface than like a person being held on a slippery slope that descends towards a pit; once that person is no longer held up, he or she has no choice but to “fall into destruction.”
It is now no longer clear if Edwards is speaking metaphorically about the person on the slippery surface, about the Israelites, or about the sinners in his congregation. “They” is ambiguous. Furthering the confusion, Edwards changes the terms of his metaphor to emphasize God’s power and the danger of hell (the “pit”).
The central observation that should be made from the Deuteronomy quote, then, is that: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the [mere] pleasure of God.” By this, Edwards refers to God’s “arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation” and hindered by nothing. The lives and fates of wicked men are, then, literally at the whim of God’s all-powerful will, and only at the whim of God’s will. Edwards then states that the truth of this observation is apparent in the following statements.
This point was likely already clear from Edwards’ preceding interpretation of the “slippery slope” metaphor, but speeches often build in some redundancy of message in order to make sure that the audience understands the central point. Therefore, this passage drives home that the only thing keeping sinners from hell is the arbitrary will of God, just in case some congregants missed the point before.
1. God has the power to cast a wicked person into hell at any moment and nobody, no matter how strong, is able to resist. While a prince on earth may have a difficult time quelling a rebellion, God has no trouble breaking his enemies: there is no defense against God. Edwards compares the powerless enemies of God to “great heaps of light chaff before the whirlwind” and “dry stubble before devouring flames,” and he notes how easy it is to crush a worm underfoot—it is just as easy for God to send sinners to hell. In light of this, Edwards asks, who are we to think that we can assert our will against God?
Edwards uses numbered lists throughout the sermon in order to make the structure of his thought explicit. The next ten points are implications of Edwards’ “central observation” that God’s arbitrary will is all that keeps sinners from hell. In this first point, Edwards uses evocative metaphors to underscore the point he has already made about God’s power. To get through to his congregants, it seems that Edwards needs to tie an abstract spiritual concept (the power of God) to something more tangible (the wind, a person crushing a worm, a fire).
2. Sinners deserve to be sent to hell: “divine justice,” then, is not an adequate objection to God “using his power at any moment to destroy them.” On the contrary, justice would be for a sinner to be punished immediately. The sword of justice is always hanging over the heads of sinners—it is only the “arbitrary mercy” of God’s will that holds it back.
Edwards is responding to what he sees as a common misreading of the Bible. This is an established rhetorical tactic: strengthening an argument by anticipating and responding to the audience’s objections. Here, he reframes “justice” by reminding the audience that they are unworthy of salvation, and therefore “justice” would actually mean damnation.
3. It’s worth noting that sinners’ condemnation to hell is based fundamentally on their lack of proper faith—their bad deeds exist in addition to this. Edwards quotes the Gospel of John to demonstrate that those who do not believe are not only condemned to hell, but also originally come from hell. Thus, in every way, hell is a sinner’s proper place.
This passage is slightly confusing. By saying that sinners originally come from hell, Edwards seems to imply that the difference between non-sinners and sinners is not simply their belief in Christ, but also their literal place of origin. It’s helpful not to read too much into this—Edwards seems to be making a dramatic point about the extent to which sinners belong in hell, rather than explaining human nature or theology in a nuanced way.
4. It would be a mistake to think that living sinners are not currently in hell because God is less angry with them than he is with those already in hell—God’s fury at sinners on earth is equal to, or even greater than, his fury at those in hell. Edwards states that God is doubtless angrier with some people in this very congregation (though those people likely have a false sense of safety) than he is with “those that are now in the flames of hell.” God notices everyone’s wickedness, and the pit of hell is hot and ready to receive all sinners at any time.
Once again, Edwards anticipates a possible objection to his sermon and forcefully refutes it. He also, for the first time, directly implicates the congregation by telling them that there are people in this room who are bound for hell. This is another sly rhetorical move. Those who might be unconvinced by Edwards’ speech are called out directly and told that their sense of safety does not mean that the sermon doesn’t apply to them; in fact, it might mean that they need the sermon most. Clearly, Edwards is committed to reaching every single congregant.
5. The Devil is also ready to receive sinners at whichever moment God decides—after all, sinners belong to the Devil, and their souls are already in his possession. Devils watch sinners “like greedy hungry lions” at all times; the Devils are restrained from their prey only by God’s will.
Edwards makes another comment seeming to impugn the nature (rather than the behavior or beliefs) of sinners. He once again anchors an abstract spiritual concept (the lurking Devil) to a concrete metaphor from earth (lions).
6. In fact, in the souls of wicked men lie the very elements of hell itself. Were it not for God’s will, their souls would flame “into hell fire.” Thus, in the “nature of carnal men” there is inherently “a foundation for the torments of hell.” The only thing keeping the wicked from unrestrained sin and torment is God, who restrains their wickedness on earth. If God did not do this, then sin “would immediately turn the soul into a fiery oven, or a furnace of fire and brimstone.”
This is Edwards’ strongest implication that mankind is evil by nature. It’s important to note that, while Edwards does believe that all people are born with a propensity towards evil, this is not because he believes that the human species is naturally evil; rather, it is because all people are tainted by original sin. Essentially, Edwards is making a distinction between the general nature of mankind (which is good), and the specific evil nature with which everyone is born because of original sin.
7. There is no safety for wicked men, even if death does not seem immediately at hand. Regardless of health or caution, man is always on the brink of death by “innumerable and inconceivable” means. Edwards says that sinners walk on a rotted floor over the pit of hell, and the floor could give at any moment. There are so many ways for a sinner to die that God doesn’t even need to create a miracle—he could kill them in the ordinary course of their day and it would be completely normal.
This is another example of Edwards anticipating an audience objection to his sermon. The congregation to which he preached this sermon had become notoriously comfortable with their lives on Earth—they were enjoying new health and prosperity brought about by various technological improvements—and Edwards feared that they had become too confident in their own ability to control their lives. Therefore, he emphasizes that their lives are not as stable as they may seem.
8. It’s pointless to try to preserve your own life, Edwards says, and wisdom won’t help you, either. After all, wise men don’t meet untimely deaths any less often than the unwise.
Edwards is systematically tearing down every logical objection to the necessity of having faith in Christ in order to obtain salvation.
9. Any effort to escape hell while still rejecting Christ is worthless. However, almost all people who hear of hell delude themselves into thinking that they are good enough to escape damnation. Though everyone knows that the majority of people go to hell, people tend to think of themselves as having uniquely good plans for their own salvation. However, this is overconfidence. Those who are currently in hell had the same delusions while on earth: none of them expected their own damnation, and they now regret their vanity and foolishness.
Edwards has made a version of this point once before, but he returns to it because reminding the congregation of their sin and unsettling the most confident among them is essential to making them receptive to the remainder of his sermon. If the congregation does not truly believe that they are in tremendous danger, then they have little incentive to take Edwards seriously.
10. God has no obligation to keep man out of hell. It is Christ that offered the covenant of grace, but those without interest in Christ should not expect to benefit from Christ’s promises. In this way, it would be foolish for a person to think that earnest religious activity without a fundamental belief in Christ could ever lead to salvation. All people, then, are being held over the pit of hell by a furious God who has no obligation not to send them to eternal torture. Hell and the Devil are hungry for them, and the fire in their own hearts is struggling to ignite—except for Christ (“the Mediator”), everything is conspiring to send sinners to hell. Without Christ, nobody has a refuge from the arbitrary will of an angry god.
Here, Edwards clarifies what he sees to be the relationship between people, God, and Christ. God himself has no compassion or mercy—it is Christ alone who can help mankind. The final passage of this section of the sermon gives an overview of the dire human condition as Edwards sees it, laying out a strong case for why mankind is in profound danger and why coming to Christ is essential.