This highly structured sermon proceeds, at least at the beginning, along the lines of classical theological argumentation, almost a logical “proof.” Edwards begins with a short quote from the Old Testament, specifically Deuteronomy 32:35—the “text” on which his sermon is based—which concerns the sinful fate of the Israelites, God’s chosen people. In this first introductory section, he provides context for the short quote he has chosen—“Their foot shall slide in due time”—and lays out the four key lessons he draws from it: that the Israelites were “always exposed to destruction”; that they were “always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction”; that they “are liable to fall of themselves” without any outside force causing it; and that the mere fact that “God’s appointed time is not come” is the only reason they haven’t fallen already.
It is from these observations about the text that Edwards draws the Doctrine, that is, a simple statement of religious truth, that he declares next: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” This “pleasure” refers to God’s arbitrary will, bound by no obligation, and under no constraint.
As proof of this doctrine, Edwards outlines ten supporting points, or arguments, which he specifically numbers 1-10. These arguments are meant to bolster his point both substantively and rhetorically, and their force lies even more with their vivid imagery and metaphors than with their logical consistency.
First, he describes the limitless destructive power of God and the impotence of the sinners. Unlike the kings of the earth, God need not fight against the rebels. He can most easily cast wicked men into hell. There are two analogies for God and the sinners. The vast multitudes of enemies are as feeble before God as great heaps of light chaffs before a whirlwind, or as a worm before ourselves.
Second, sinners, because they are sinners, deserve to be cast into hell—in fact, justice demands that they be thus condemned. He describes a "sword of divine justice" which hangs constantly over the heads of the transgressors, held back only by the arbitrary mercy of God.
Third, their condemnation does not lie in the future, but has in fact already occurred. The “unconverted” are already bound for hell, even as he speaks.
Fourth, their state of condemnation means that they are already the objects of God’s wrath, that God is already just as angry at them as he is at those currently suffering torment in hell. Here, for the first time, Edwards makes explicit that his words apply to “many that are now in this congregation” as well, foreshadowing the full pivot to the accusatory “you” that characterizes the latter portion of the sermon.
Fifth, the devil is always ready and waiting, ready to fall upon them like "greedy hungry lions.” In their sinful state, they are in fact already the property of the devil, and if God were to permit it, "the old serpent" would swallow them immediately. Thus he heightens the horror, the sense of the omnipresent threat of hell.
Sixth, sinfulness is already latent in the souls of “wicked men,” ready to “kindle and flame out into hellfire, if it were not for God’s restraints.” No external corruption is even necessary to turn their soul "into a fiery oven." The corruption they already carry within them, though currently held back by God, is enough.
Seventh, unforeseen ways and means will bring their death and destruction. There is another world of eternity after death, which is out of the mind of irreligious men. “Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they'll not bear their weight and these places are not seen." But as there is no way to foresee when and where they might fall, every moment they remain unconverted they take an unimaginable risk of falling into eternal damnation.
Eighth, Edwards belittles and undermines his listeners’ sense of their own wisdom, pride, and precaution. The "prudence and care" of disbelievers cannot protect them from sudden death and damnation.
Ninth, human confidence and self-dependence are illusory. Anyone who plots to escape hell-fire actually deludes himself. Everything, except God's mercy, is nothing but a shadow. Who depends upon himself for his own security will go directly and undoubtedly to hell. And in hell, he will curse himself for his foolishness.
Finally, God has no obligation to shield sinners (as he has been doing) from the myriad threats and hazards Edwards has described—not even for even one more moment. And he has no obligation to offer them salvation. Only through Christ, the “mediator”, do they have any hope of being saved, but salvation is not by any means their right.
In the final section, Application, Edwards echoes the arguments, themes, and images of the rest of the sermon, and brings them to bear on the present moment and the congregation before him. From here on out, Edwards almost exclusively addresses the congregation before him directly as “you.” He tells them he has chosen such a subject for a sermon to awaken unconverted persons among his listeners. He reiterates that nothing but the mere pleasure of God is holding them up from the destruction lurking beneath, using language that evokes all of the horrific images he’s deployed throughout the sermon, which carry an added horror now that the listeners are forced to relate them directly to themselves.
Though it would be wrong to describe “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” as ending on a note of hope, the last section is as close to hopeful as Edwards ever gets in this sermon. "Now, you have an extraordinary opportunity," he says, to be redeemed. Christ, the Mediator, has opened the door of mercy to the poor sinners. You should run forward to wash all your sins, to purify your heart, and to rejoice in the glory of God, he tells them. Do not miss the opportunity, or you'll curse this day, and the day you were born. This hall, this congregation, he says, is no less cursed than the doomed city of Sodom. And he concludes with a quote from Genesis: "Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed."- Matthew 3:10.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a sermon, and sermons are meant to be spoken and heard. Sermons are also meant to be persuasive, and that message must be rhetorically conveyed to an audience in a manner that is more visceral than in a text meant to be read. Also important to keep in mind is that—just as today—many sermons during America’s colonial period were inspired or stimulated by contemporary events.
Such was the case here. Edwards possessed one of the most brilliant minds of his era; his body of literary works extends well beyond just sermons and religious essays. Within that realm, however, his mind was acutely attuned to broad philosophical and historical changes sweeping throughout Christendom on both sides of the Atlantic. The context in which this powerful and influential sermon was composed was the arrival of a progressive period within the Puritan movement. “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God” is a direct reply to the threat of liberalism which Edwards viewed as a threat to the purity of his church. In addition to a new wave of liberal theology, Edwards was also taking up arms against the spread of rationalism expressed in the works of philosophers like Spinoza and Leibnitz.
The focus of Edwards’ line of attack against liberal theology and philosophical rationalism is directly addressed in the title he chose. Few other written essays can be said to adhere as strongly and closely to the themes outlined in their titles as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards bypasses rational thought by appealing to the most primal emotions of his listeners: fear and hope. As for liberalism, the sermon is almost purely Old Testament-style fear-mongering about the wrath of God. Edwards makes a concerted and repetitive rhetorical plan for himself: build up the fears of God’s wrath to scare people away from even the temptation of sin. His angry god is also a withdrawn God who abhors his own creation and has rejected all obligations to ensure everlasting life.
Since this is a persuasive speech, essentially, the rhetoric is heavily weighted toward those literary devices which really “pop” when spoken. The sermon is positively overflowing with vivid, often horrifying imagery and metaphors, along with allusions to Biblical scripture that serve to put the full weight of religious authority behind Edwards’s words. He relentlessly repeats keywords like “wrath,” “hell,” “misery,” and—perhaps most importantly, “Christ.” It is that last word which represents the only rhetorical opposition to the anger of God against His sinners; the ultimate message turns out to be that while all men are sinners and God has basically terminated His contract with Himself to care about the damnation of His creations, salvation is still possible—but only through redemption by Christ. And although believing in Christ is no guarantee of making it to heaven, all who fail to accept Christ as their redeemer face the certain doom of eternal damnation.
It is with this point in mind that Edwards draws his last rhetorical sword in the sermon’s final paragraph, with an allusion to the devastation of Sodom combined not with a reminder that Christ can offset God’s wrath—but that His wrath is already targeting and on the way to those who have not yet accepted Christ as their savior.