Pachabel's Canon in D 


Article of the Month



The Terror of the Lord

by John H. Gerstner


Paul preached: “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord we persuade men. (2 Cor. 5:11) I am constantly impressed that we hear little or nothing of the terror of the Lord except in some fundamentalistic groups. By contrast, in Jonathan Edwards’ Northampton congregation (1726-1750), where there was little or no open or gross vice, the people heard of it, constantly being warned that all were in danger of hell unless they were born again. In one sermon preached in May 1741, for example, he said: “I don’t desire to go about to terrify you needlessly or represent your case worse than it is, but I do verily think that there are a number of people belonging to this congregation in imminent danger of being damned to all eternity.”

I have been reading in “Dear Abby,” as well as her sister and many other pop counselors, of the numerous reports of promiscuous sex in many college dormitories today. The parents who wrote protested the veritable brothel conditions not befitting disreputable hotels. That such behavior guaranteed eternal damnation is never reported by the counsellors. The “terror of the Lord” does not exist for our culture generally, in spite of the wide-spread profession of belief in God. Yet someone has written that if God does not judge us, He will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah

Very recently a Gallup poll listed the percentage of students who engaged in promiscuous sex: the percentage of Roman Catholics, the percentage of Protestants, and the percentage of evangelical students. Even approximately twenty percent of evangelicals think they can be evangelical and live in disobedience to Christ. The terror of the Lord doesn’t even frighten them. America’s best known business man, Donald Trump, alleges the corrupt maneuvering for personal gain of most of the very rich. Fear of the Lord seems to be nowhere evident in high finance.

In sophisticated religious journals, the terror of the Lord comes in only if it is the subject of some research (usually trying to downplay it). It is not surprising that one of my typists (a conservative Christian herself), doing work for me on Jonathan Edwards, found him “stuck in some kind of rut” on the hell theme. Once I preached a half-hour sermon on “The Love of Enemies” in which I made a one-sentence reference to hell. A parishioner on the way out said we ought to hear more sermons like that about hell!

Surely if Christianity be true, Christians everywhere will be trying to persuade their friends to avoid the terror of the Lord. If they are never doing so, is it conceivable that they are Christians themselves?

Knowing only Christ and Him crucified is the corollary of knowing the terror of the Lord and persuading men. The only thing that will save women and men from the terror of the Lord is the cross of the Lord. But it is usually the terror of the Lord that first brings them to consider the cross of the Lord. If men do not fear the terror of the Lord they must experience that terror. If you are not afraid of hell, you are almost certainly going there. You will then never doubt it again.

Is it conceivable that there are Christians who do not believe in hell? Some think they are Christians precisely because they reject hell! Their God could never send human beings to eternal torment, they say. Their God would be in eternal torment if He did that to one human wretch, or, as some say, to a dog. So it is hardly conceivable to them that men are Christians who do believe in hell. However, their God, who is incapable of inflicting such punishment, is not the God and Father of Jesus Christ who teaches hell as do His appointed apostles.

How do you persuade men? If you prove hell to sinful men, you persuade them to flee from it. Why, then, was John the Baptist cynical about the multitudes who fled the wrath of God?

Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid to the root of the trees: every tree therefore which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.

They apparently believed in hell. Why was John cynical? Because they thought that they were not sinful men and had no need to flee. Men usually think they are not sinful (“We have Abraham to our father”). They do what is right in their eyes, Judges 17:6. What they do is right. Why should the terror of the Lord terrify those who are righteous? Because, said John, you are not righteous as you think. How do you know, John, since they say that they are? Ought they not to know about themselves better than you? John: what they are claiming is righteousness stinks.

If there is no bad news there cannot be any good news. The good news is deliverance from the bad news. We are all born on the road to destruction. The good news is that we can be delivered from it. If you do not believe you are on the way to hell, how can you be interested in the good news of deliverance from it? Look at “salvation” today. It is freedom from life’s frustrations. We are saved from our narrowness and anxieties. We learn to live with doubts and fears. We take pills to relieve our pressures. That’s our gospel. Ann Landers is our savior and, if she can’t do her job, her sister will. Or if you have more educated sicknesses, get the local psychiatrist.

What a day! Take hell. Take heaven. Take sin. Take salvation. Children’s games. Most of what we think and do are diversions from a real hell to which all out of Christ are moving steadily and moving relentlessly. No doubt, horror books and movies are popular with many because they are fictional substitutes for their discarded real hell. In comparison with the real hell, Stephen King’s most frightening tales are amusing. Christ tells us most about hell. and He is the one we use to assure ourselves that there is no hell. The true Jesus warns us that if we do not repent we will surely perish, but He is made to say that God is our heavenly Father whether we repent or not, whether we are true Christians or not.

Many want little pagan children in public schools to say “Our Father who art in heaven . . .” while their father is in hell, and they are on their way to join their father unless they repent. Jesus said to the most orthodox religious leaders of His day: “you generation of vipers, how can you escape the damnation of hell? (Matt.23:33) We let everyone, including irreligious, wicked persons (whose only use for Christ is to provide a profane vocabulary), escape the damnation of hell. Indeed, we assure them that there is no hell no matter how much they deserve it. All this and annihilation, too.

Christ tells us not to fear those who can destroy the body, but “fear Him who can destroy body and soul in hell. (Matt. 10:28) We fear the mafia, and even the boss who can only take our job and not our life, but God? Who is afraid of God?

The only one we should fear is the One we never do fear. God may not even be, but if He is, one thing is sure, He need never be feared. “God-fearing” is a bad word today. He could not send anyone to hell even if He wanted to. His mercy has His hands of holy wrath tied behind His back. Fear Him who can destroy the body (that’s the only hell there ever is), but never, never fear God who cannot destroy the soul, not to mention the body, not to think of “in hell.” All this is constantly being said in the name of Jesus Christ.

Christ warns men of the hell where “the worm dies not and the fire is not quenched,” (Mark 9:44,46). For contemporary Christians, Christ’s hell-preaching is not “Christian.” The church of Christ simply will not let Christ say such things; the fact that He does, notwithstanding.

Don’t act from fear of punishment or desire of reward, men say. Act morally, men say. Do not consider consequences, men say. Don’t be afraid of hell or desirous of heaven, men say. How unethical Christ is who teaches us to lay up treasure in heaven (Matt. 6:20), and, to make matters worse, asks: “what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? (Mark 8:36)

Rewards and punishments — the destruction of true morality, say the ethicists. The foundations of it, says Jesus Christ. If you do things to avoid punishment or gain praise, you are not doing things because they are right, but because of their consequences. You are not acting for virtue’s sake but for what you get out of virtue. Not for virtue but for virtue’s rewards, not for God but for what God gives you. If God gave you nothing, you would not love Him, and if the devil gave you rewards, you would worship him.

Strangely, Christ says the same thing. Those who claimed to have done “mighty works” in His name, He dismissed as not being “known” by Him (Matt.7:23). They had done these mighty works in His name for rewards in the Day of Judgment, but not for His sake. So they received no reward but only punishment. They had not laid up treasure in heaven but punishment in hell.

Christ had told them to work for reward and to avoid punishment and they had not done so. You say, that is just what they did do and Christ disowned them. He seems to have rejected His own ethic.

Not quite. Christ taught that what ever is done “in His name (Mark 9:41) has its rewards. So if a person is interested in reward, he will act in Christ’s name. He aims at Christ’s name (or glory), not at reward, and he receives both. He aims at reward and not Christ’s glory and he receives neither.

That is Christ’s ethic, but rarely today is it the “Christian” ethic, even among the sophisticates.

Jesus Christ was a “scare” theologian. He was not afraid of making people afraid. It was Paul’s knowing the terror of the Lord that led him to persuade people to seek the Lord. The Lord was not only a Scare Preacher, but He is the One of whom people should be afraid. He is an angry God and He has the whole world in His hands. So when Jonathan Edwards preached about “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he was only echoing His Lord.

What is wrong with scare preaching? The reason people give for condemning scare preaching, in which their Lord engaged, is usually that frightened people will say or do whatever the threatener asks, regardless of their personal convictions. Scare preaching makes hypocrites of people, or cowards. If we are afraid of hell, we will do or say anything the threatener requires to escape going there. But what is wrong with doing what the divine Threatener requires? The Judge of heaven and earth cannot do or command anything evil. Whatever He requires is good and proper to do.

Human terrorists use their threats to make you say or do what is against conscience and ought not to be done. So you must resist their threats to the death. It is a sin to fear their threats, Matt. 10:28a, as it is a sin not to fear divine threats, Matt. 10:28b. However, even some human threateners do so in the name of God, Rom. 13:1, and have the same right so to do as God Himself, whom they represent. When the state threatens jail, or worse, for various crimes, it acts under God’s authority. Citizens are to obey it not only for the sword’s sake, but “for conscience’s sake, Rom. 13:5. Parents and other authorities have the same right under God to threaten and to punish.

What does the divine Threatener require to avoid hell, which, as sinners, we all deserve? He commands us to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved! In other words, the divine Threatener provides the damned with a way of salvation and “threatens” them with what is their due if they do not accept His grace which is not their due. Was there ever such a benign threat?

True, you say, but just the same, those who are terrified will say they believe in Christ just to escape hell. Anything to escape hell. Even profess to accept grace for no other reason than to escape hell. People are driven insane with such fear.

But saying you believe in Christ is not what God requires. Saying one believes in Christ never saved anyone from hell. In fact, merely saying one believes in Christ only to escape hell damns hypocrites to a yet hotter hell. So how can saying you believe merely to escape from hell ever help you escape hell? And if it doesn’t, then scare preaching does not produce a hypocritical, cowardly saying anything to escape the threat. As for terror driving people mad, it drives them to sanity. For sinners to eat, drink, and be merry while such living daily heats their hell the more is insane. Scare preaching awakens them to sanity and possible salvation.

What does scare preaching really produce? It produces an awesome, trembling awareness that you must have saving (not saying) faith in Christ. So the frightened ones will try sincerely to believe in Christ and be saved, which is what they ought to do for the glory of God, for the good of their own souls, and for the avoiding of deserved perdition.

When they try truly and soberly to believe in Christ, they discover, to their horror, it is not in them to do so. This is what Christ had been telling them all along. “This is the condemnation that light is come into the world and men loved the darkness rather than the light. (John 3:19) Christ is the Light of the world and these needy sinners hate all light, hate the Light especially, whom they must love (as they ought), if they would be saved! if they must believe to be saved and they do not have this faith, and cannot have it when their own hearts hate Christ, where in the world are they to get it? Nowhere in the world or in themselves. Where, then? Only from God Himself. Only from the Threatener Himself! Only by His — if He pleases to bestow it — sovereign mercy!

The evangelistic situation is this:

  1. The sinner is threatened with the horrible hell he so justly deserves unless he accepts Christ’s undeserved salvation.
  2. But he hates the Christ who alone can save him.
  3. That hatred can only be removed, and a believing heart bestowed in its place, by sovereign divine mercy.
  4. So the sinner must seek God’s mercy, which will come, if God pleases, only by divine regeneration.

The effect of biblical scare preaching is, therefore, to set a sinner seeking salvation, and not saying he has found it until he has. He will not lie to save himself, knowing that would only aggravate his damnation. As a sinner set in the ways of sin, he is very unlikely to seek God at all unless he is afraid not to. No one is ever scared into heaven, but very few have ever gone to heaven who have not first been afraid of going to hell. In a word, scare preaching is to produce: not salvation, but the seeking of salvation.

Granted that impenitent, mature sinners must be shown the terror of the Lord. What about children and church members? None of these should be threatened if there is reason to believe that they have been born again, for in Christ Jesus there is no condemnation, Rom.8:1-3, no hell.

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.

But being a child, or being a church member, is no proof that one is born again. Knowing the terror of the Lord, we should try to persuade both to seek the Lord. In fact, no period of life is so hopeful as the first period. Children are much more likely to believe their parents, pastors, and friends than when they become older; except, perhaps, when they are on their death-bed (when it’s often too late to seek God).

Why, then, do so many vehemently oppose frightening children? They don’t. They scare children away from fire, from electric sockets, from poisonous drinks or pills, from snakes, from certain toys, from anything that threatens them.

Why, then, do almost all seem to oppose frightening children with hell? The answer is obvious: they wrongly fancy that children are not in danger of hell. Can you imagine that a mother who would give her own life to save her child’s wouldn’t do everything to save her child from hell if she knew there was any danger?

There are three imagined reasons for supposing that children are in no danger of hell. Some think children are innocent of sin and guilt. Some admit that they are not innocent, but are saved from sin by being born again in infant baptism. Some fancy that though little sinners, not regenerated in baptism, children are, nonetheless, safe in the covenant of grace.

Infants are not innocent, but born in guilt and sin. Paul says we were all born dead in trespasses and sins, Eph.2:1. In Adam, in whom children are born, all died, Rom. 5:12. Only “in Christ (in whom all need to be reborn), are all made alive. (1 Cor. 15:22) So until children are born again, they are in imminent peril of eternal damnation and should be made aware of it as soon as possible.

This is not to deny that some infants may have been born again even in the womb before they have been born into this world. That seems to be true of John the Baptist (Luke 1:41) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5). We only know that, however, from divine revelation. There is no such revelation for all children. We must assume that they have not been born again, since we do not know that they have been and we do know that they are conceived dead, Ps.51:5. In any and all cases, no infant was ever born innocent except the Virgin-born One.

I may relate here my experience with a church which asked me if I — in the absence of a resident pastor — would baptize a child of two of their members. I assured them I would be happy to do so. Then I was asked if I minded following the congregation’s practice of using a white carnation with which to apply the water. Rather than saying that I did mind, I asked the elder, “What is the meaning of the white carnation?” He explained that it is to “show the child’s innocence.” I then asked, “What is the meaning of the water?” He explained that it is to symbolize the washing away of the child’s sin — but he couldn’t finish the sentence, realizing the absurdity. How could one use a symbol of innocence to apply the symbol of guilt and cleansing? Children are not innocent, but guilty by nature as their parents before them. And the wages of sin is eternal death, Rom.6:23. Children must be warned as we lovingly teach them “their lost condition by nature.”

Infant baptism does not bring regeneration. Children’s guilt is not washed away by water as natural dirt is. Since the Protestant Church almost everywhere denies baptismal regeneration, I think it unnecessary to prove it here where space is at a premium.

Some Reformed people are, however, inclined to believe that the covenant of grace, made between God and believers, includes the election of the believer’s children. One Reformed theologian, however, who heard of Jonathan Edwards’ referring to his unconverted children (virtually all of whom, incidentally, were in youth wonderfully converted), as “little vipers,” reacted strongly saying, “They may be little vipers, but they are in ‘covenantal diapers.’” He did not explain, but apparently meant that though covenant children are born as little sinners, they are born in the covenant of grace.

I cannot here enter into a discussion of covenant theology in relation to infants of professed believers. Sufficient to say that descendancy from Christians does not guarantee the genes of faith. Ishmael and Isaac were both descended from Abraham. Both were circumcised, according to covenant. One later had faith. The other never did. Jacob and Esau were both descended from Isaac. Both were circumcised, according to covenant. One later had faith. The other never did. All children of a believer are “holy” (1 Cor. 7:14). All are baptized. Some later have faith. Others never do.

It is clear that all children are born dead in sin and must be assumed to continue such, facing the “terror of the Lord” until they are born again. Parents, pastors, and all Christians are obliged to seek salvation for and with them until they clearly believe or clearly refuse to believe. There is no single person, except the one who is clearly converted by God or damned forever by the unpardonable sin, who should not be persuaded of the terror of the Lord, as well as the possible mercy of the Lord.

The best-known and best-hated sermon in American history is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It was one of Edwards’ less terrifying sermons. There is no record of its awesome effects when it was first preached in Northampton, the home church; but only when repeated by the itinerating Edwards in Enfield, Connecticut, July 8, 1741.

Surely “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners” was more frightening, and Edwards himself thought that God had honored it more in its effects. I find Matthew 25:46’s sermon, in which Edwards annihilated annihilation and goes into detail about what the Lord means when He says “These shall go away into everlasting punishment” more terrible, and the Romans 2:4 sermon dealing with the heaping up of wrath in this world for the judgment in the next the most terrible of all.

The great contemporary effort to introduce Edwards to the learned by the learned does not deny the minatory sermons, but hastily tries to show the cultured despisers of Calvinism that there was more to Edwards’ preaching than God the Holy Terror.

Edwards got heat in his own generation for his hell-fire preaching. He had to ask his generation, as we ours, don’t you warn people when their house is on fire to get out or be burned alive? Is that so unfriendly? Of course, that was the problem with some then and almost all now: they cannot believe that their spiritual house is on fire.

Edwards proved it to them then and, thanks to his “cultured despisers,” is trying to prove it to us today. The Yale University Press publication of his Works is getting some highly educated people to read the fiery Puritan who would not “waste their time” otherwise.

As a matter of fact, possibly Edwards was most frightening when he stopped preaching for a few minutes and addressed the doubters in his own congregation. He would say something like this: There are some among you who do not believe the Bible when it says these awful things about hell. Let me show you that reason teaches the same doctrine.” Then the finest philosopher-theologian in American history would prove it to their secular minds as they sat brazen or sank frozen into their hard pews.

Was Edwards a “scare preacher?” Of course. Was he hoping to scare people into the Kingdom of God? Of course not. Why, then, the scare preaching? Two reasons:

  1. God, in His Word, is a Scare Preacher;
  2. The fear of hell is the only thing most likely to get worldly people thinking about the Kingdom of God. No rational human being can be convinced that he is in imminent danger of everlasting torment and do nothing about it. But, you say, there are many now, and were even in Edwards’ day, who fear hell, or say they do, and yet don’t believe or seek the gift of faith. That is true, but, as we say, that only proves that they are no longer “rational human beings.”

Did Edwards’ scare theology get worldly people thinking about the Kingdom of God? More than that. It got them seeking the Kingdom of God.


Dr. John H. Gerstner was born in Tampa, Florida, and raised in Pennsylvania. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Dr. Gerstner pastored several churches before accepting a professorship at Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary, where he taught church history for over 30 years. He served as a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and adjunct professor at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Dr. Gerstner was also professor-at-large for Ligonier Ministries for many years, and recorded numerous lectures on audio and video for that organization.

Dr. Gerstner was a stalwart champion of the cause of reformed theology and, in particular, the teachings of Jonathan Edwards.


  Please join others who have commented upon this and other topics in our Discussion Group.


      Back to Library 

Return to the Main Highway 

Calvinism and the Reformed Faith Index