The snows of 250 winters have only cooled the earth on Jonathan Edwards’ grave. The voice that shook New England towns and sparked America’s first Great Awakening in the 1740s still heats the air whenever his words are read:
“O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: ’tis a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder.”1
“Aha!” we nervously exhale as Edwards’ hot words die in the air and we resume our customary lukewarmness. “The man was wrong: there is no ever-burning hell, nor is the God of Scripture the angry, vengeful Deity the preacher summoned for his purpose.” And having cavalierly dismissed the man often considered America’s greatest theologian,2 we settle back toward cooler thoughts of those who find themselves outside of Christ. Because the great revivalist sought vehemently to scare the lost out of hell and into heaven, we picture kinder, less-demanding futures for them—as though we were doing the unsaved some inclusive favor for which they really ought to be grateful.
The lost are, well, misguided, straying—“prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.”3 We blithely assert that those who have never made a covenant with Christ or have repeatedly refused to do so are, in fact, very much like ourselves—well-intentioned, inconsistent, but ultimately redeemable if only they will think a little straighter. Some slight improvement—perhaps a kind word we remember to say in the grocery line or a civic-minded gathering of soda cans we organize for the community—will nudge them over heaven’s finish line.
But for all our generosity of spirit—and for all our slide toward semi-universalism—there is no evidence in either Scripture or experience that our casual attitudes toward the lost are anything but further illustrations of our own unrevived state. It is an awesome thing to be “in Christ.” It is a fearsome thing to be out of His grace. For every story we love to tell of persons won to Christ by recipes shared at potlucks and yards raked free of leaves, there are a hundred untold stories of men and women—our neighbors—trudging sadly toward the End with no hope of heaven. Hear the passion in Ellen White’s words: “My brother, my sister, is it nothing to you to know that every day souls are going down into the grave, unwarned and unsaved, ignorant of their need of eternal life and of the atonement made for them by the Savior?”4
Let’s say it clearly: scaring sinners with the imagined torments of hell is unhelpful and unbiblical. But let’s be just as clear that sentimental, wishful thinking by believers never moved even one person into the great white-robed multitude.
Here’s a call, sounded throughout this special ASI edition of this church’s oldest journal, to double—no, quadruple—our commitment to the lost and to winning them to Christ. After years of ministering chiefly to ourselves, of “binding up our wounds,” Adventist members and congregations across this continent ought to be healthy enough to actually wrestle with the devil on behalf of the lost.
If you have been made alive in Christ, the Spirit is already impressing you with what is possible—even necessary—for you to do. “The work that lies nearest”5 will rouse you to a godly passion for those who do not know Him, and your heart, too, will be among those that are “strangely warmed.”6
1 Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (sermon, 1741).
2 Edwards is widely considered by both religious and secular scholars to be the most original and theologically adept preacher and author in the history of North America.
3 Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” (hymn, 1758).
4 Ellen G. White, in Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Jan. 12, 1911.
5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 6, p. 267.
6 The famous phrase used by John Wesley to describe his conversion to the gospel: John Wesley, The Journal of John Wesley (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1951), p. 55.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published August 9, 2012.