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Sinners in the Hands of a Good God:  Reconciling Divine Judgment and Mercy

by David B. Clotfelter (Author)




 'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.

                                                                                                    --John Newton, Amazing Grace

                                       What is required [for finding theological answers] is a pure heart, eyes that have been opened,
                                       child-like obedience, a life in the Spirit, rich nourishment from Holy Scripture.…

                                                                                                   --Karl Barth[1]

          As a young teenager I used a simple argument to convince myself that God does not exist. A good, all-powerful

 God would never permit the evil and suffering we experience in this world. A being who was only good or powerful

—or one who was neither—would not be God. The simplest and most reasonable conclusion for a thinking person to

draw was that there is no God and that all that exists, including suffering and what we call "evil," is the product of 

mindless and amoral natural forces.

          I was in college before I began to seriously question this logic and in graduate school before God drew me, 

much astonished, into trust in Jesus Christ. But even then the problem of God's relationship to human suffering 

continued to dog me. I was no longer so troubled by the existence of suffering in general, since I could see that a good

God might well permit evil in the short run for the eternal good he could bring from it. Instead, what now bothered 

me was the evidence, from the Bible, that God himself brings suffering on people, and that in the case of the 

impenitent he intends to continue doing so forever. Worse yet, I found passages in the Scriptures that appeared to 

state that it is God who ultimately determines who will and who will not believe and be saved. This was staggering. 

Could it really be possible that God brings certain human beings into this world for the sole purpose of damning 

them? I had had a taste of God's goodness and a glimpse of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ; I knew that he is 

incapable of doing wrong. Yet there were times early in my Christian life when I was so horrified by the doctrines of 

hell and predestination that I found myself near despair. From that despair, God appeared a demon, human freedom a 

grotesque illusion, and life a charade. It took me several years to find peace.

          It is because of the intensity of my own struggle over the justice of God's dealings with human beings that I 

have chosen to write on this topic and to do so in a more personal way than is common for theological books. I do not 

wish to arouse doubts about God’s goodness in the Christian reader who has not already felt them; indeed, if what I 

have written thus far strikes no chord in your heart, I suggest you put this book aside and forget it. Again, the non-

Christian who thinks me a fool for even worrying about such matters would be well advised to return the book to the 

shelf and find something more interesting to read. But I know from my own hard experience that for the person who 

has wondered seriously about the goodness of God, essays that gloss over the difficulties do not bring satisfaction. 

The reader who struggles wants help from a writer who has struggled. If I can assist one such person to make 

progress in understanding the ways of God, I will give thanks for the privilege.


          While I discuss many authors in this book, two names are especially prominent. This is because the men behind 

them have for me come to represent two radically different ways of thinking about the justice of God. The first man, 

George MacDonald, may possibly be known to the reader as the author of many delightful novels and fantasies and 

the man whom C. S. Lewis viewed as his teacher, although he never knew him personally. MacDonald is justly 

acclaimed for his Christian fiction, but I encountered him first as a preacher and theologian, in an edited edition of his 

Unspoken Sermons[2] which came into my hands a year or so after my conversion to Christ. Because I loved C. S. 

Lewis, it was natural for me to turn with an eager and open heart to the man Lewis claimed to have quoted in every 

one of his books. The second man, Jonathan Edwards, is probably known to most people only as the author of the 

most famous sermon in American history, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” although among scholars he is 

also recognized as undoubtedly the greatest theologian and philosopher America has yet produced. I found my way to 

him largely through the writings of John Piper.

          George MacDonald despised the theology of Jonathan Edwards. In fact, as far as I know, Edwards was the only 

writer whom MacDonald censured by name in print:

                       I desire to wake no dispute, will myself dispute with no man, but for the sake of those whom certain                 

           believers trouble, I have spoken my mind. I love the one God seen in the face of Jesus Christ. From all copies               

           of Jonathan Edwards's portrait of God, however faded by time, however softened by the use of less glaring                   

           pigments, I turn with loathing. Not such a God is He concerning whom was the message John heard from                      

           Jesus, that He is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.[3]

Since Edwards died sixty-eight years before MacDonald was born, we have no rebuttal from his pen. But it is 

clear from the overall tenor of Edwards’ writings, as well as from the many places where he directly refutes opinions 

that would later be espoused by MacDonald, that Edwards would have been no more appreciative of MacDonald’s 

ideas than MacDonald was of his.

How Can We Understand God?

          My struggle to come to grips with the justice of God can be described as a long and difficult journey from 

George MacDonald to Jonathan Edwards. MacDonald introduced me to a God whose ways with human beings were 

understandable and reasonable. MacDonald's theological method was simple: he took any attitude or action that 

might be attributed to God and asked whether it seemed compatible with God’s self-revelation in Jesus or with the 

image of a heavenly Father. Would a good and loving father ever condemn his children to endless punishment? Of 

course not! Well then, neither would God. God might well punish people, but only out of love and in order to bring 

them to repentance; his sole concern would always be to draw his creatures out of their sins and into his embrace.

          Again, would a good father ever punish one child for the guilt of another, meanwhile letting the second go 

free? Heaven forbid! Well then, the traditional understanding of the atonement must be mistaken, for it portrays God 

as transferring the guilt of sinners to the sinless Son of God and punishing him for what he had not done. 

MacDonald’s way of constantly measuring traditional ideas against what he understood to be God’s revelation of 

himself in Jesus and in ordinary human behavior impressed me, and for several months I found myself a whole-

hearted follower of his method and of his theology.

          Soon, however, I ran into difficulty. As much as I liked MacDonald’s view of God, I couldn’t see that it really 

squared well with Scripture. MacDonald himself seems to have been convinced that he was interpreting the Bible 

correctly, but I increasingly found points of conflict. I wanted him to be right. Indeed, I wanted it so badly that for a 

while I preferred his sermons to the Bible. And I vastly preferred them to such a book as J. I. Packer’s Knowing God

which I read for the first time at about this point. MacDonald’s God was easy to understand; one had only to reason 

from human fatherhood or from the behavior of Jesus in the Gospels to know what he would or would not do. 

Packer’s God was complex; to know him one had to approach him from all different angles, looking at his attributes 

one at a time and accepting a considerable amount of apparent contradiction among them.

The Priority of Scripture

          The problem--the irritating problem--was that Packer’s view seemed more biblical. And in the end I knew that I 

could build a Christian life only on the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. As attractive as MacDonald’s ideas 

were, if they didn’t match the teaching of the Bible, they would have to go. After much turmoil and with great sense 

of loss, I laid aside my copy of his sermons and turned back to the Bible and the hard work of making sense of God’s 

justice in its pages. In this work many writers were of help to me, but none so much as Jonathan Edwards.

          Edwards’ work, like that of MacDonald or of any other thinker or writer, must itself be judged against the 

Bible. Edwards was certainly not infallible. But what came to impress me about him was the clarity of thought he 

brought to the problem of divine justice and his boldness in following the teaching of Scripture even when it led far 

from common human understanding. That is why Edwards represents the other end of the spectrum from MacDonald: 

not because their theology differs on every point (indeed it does not), but because their approaches to God were 

diametrically opposed.


          Although he would deny it, MacDonald sought to accommodate the justice of God to the sentiments of man. 

He was confident that he knew what a good God ought to do, and he was not greatly disturbed by the existence of 

biblical passages that contradicted his theories. Confronting such passages, his usual response was to insist that 

whatever they might mean, they obviously could not mean what they appeared to mean! Edwards's approach was 

quite different. He recognized that man’s sense of justice has not been completely destroyed by the fall and is 

therefore in some measure a guide to the ways of God, but he sought always to subordinate human reasoning and 

feeling to the teaching of Scripture. MacDonald told me to trust my instincts about God; Edwards told me to distrust 

those instincts and cast myself on the Bible.

          Because the tension between the theological positions of MacDonald and Edwards was so important in my own 

efforts to think through the justice of God, I have quoted both of them fairly liberally, especially in Parts I and III. I 

quote MacDonald because he states powerfully and memorably the positions I found I needed to reject, and I quote 

Edwards because he gave me the keys I needed to make sense of the Bible. Yet I do not assume that the reader has 

any prior knowledge of these writers, and I am not primarily interested in the contrast between them. My concern is 

with the teaching of Scripture; I bring MacDonald, Edwards, and other writers into the discussion purely as a means 

to the goal of elucidating the Bible’s own presentation of divine justice and mercy.

          I like to think that in heaven, at some point since the death of George MacDonald in 1905, MacDonald and 

Edwards have met one another and made peace. I envision MacDonald humbly asking Edwards’ forgiveness for 

maligning him. I also envision MacDonald admitting that Edwards’ theology was sounder than his own, and Edwards 

expressing appreciation for MacDonald’s superior imaginative powers. I see the two men embracing and joyously 

moving further in and higher up into the beatific vision. In heaven there are no more rancorous theological disputes. 

But that is heaven. Here in this world we continue to struggle to know the truth and to discard falsehood. And the 

stakes are high. Is there an eternal hell? Can a good God really send people there and leave them there? Doesn’t he 

have the power and the goodness to save all people? If so, then why doesn’t he do it? These are the concerns of this 

book. My answers are not new. The path I have traveled is old and well worn. But it is a path that each new 

generation of Christians must walk, and so I have tried to leave a few marks along the way to help those who may be 

just a few steps behind.


          I have already said that I am writing to help people who, like myself, find the biblical presentation of divine 

justice difficult to understand or accept. I must now add another purpose for the book. We evangelicals—and 

especially we evangelical pastors—yearn for revival. We have read of times when the church has been powerful, 

when conversions have occurred in the thousands and all of society has been transformed by the power of the gospel, 

and we want to see the same thing happen in our own day. And so we have, quite properly, focused much attention on 

calls to fasting and prayer.

          In addition, though, many of us have also entered into a frustrating and fruitless quest for the “key” to revival. 

We have attended conferences and learned to market our churches. We have imitated the cell-church movement. We 

have spoken in tongues, listened to self-proclaimed prophets, and pursued signs and wonders. We have changed our 

worship styles to cater to our culture’s impatience with doctrine and its desire for immediate emotional gratification. 

We have studied the art of communication and learned to craft sermons that provide well-balanced doses of humor, 

insight, and comfort. We have incorporated drama and multimedia presentations into our worship, taking at face 

value the claim that only by doing so can we minister effectively to modern, visually-oriented, television-conditioned 

church attendees.

          But it seems to me that there is one thing we have not generally done, and it is the most crucial thing of all. We 

have not, by and large, exerted great effort to make sure that the message we are preaching is really the gospel. We 

are good marketers and good moralists, but too often we are shallow theologians. We are fearful of preaching the 

doctrines that offend, in part because we don’t wish to drive people away and in part because we have never felt the 

power of those doctrines ourselves. God, as David Wells has argued, seems “weightless” in the modern world and 

even in the modern evangelical church.[4] His hatred of sin does not pierce us. His wrath does not terrify us. His     

sovereignty does not humble us. And so, instead of presenting his truth in all of its shocking angularity, we massage 

the gospel to smooth its way in our world. Instead of giving people strong doctrine, powerfully presented and closely 

applied, we give them tips for successful living. Instead of confronting them with the hard fact that they are headed 

for perdition, we flatter them that they are very fine people who lack only faith to make their lives full. And yet, in 

spite of this failure to understand and proclaim the gospel, we continue to hope that somehow, by means of some new 

insight or book or technique, we will “release” God’s power for revival.

No Key to Revival

          The truth is that there is no key to revival. Charles Finney and all who have followed him have been utterly 

mistaken: revival is not something we create or even something we “pray down”; it is a sovereign work of God, given 

in his timing and for his purposes and glory. We are more likely to produce rain by dancing than to produce revival by 

the use of our methods and techniques. If we really desire revival, we must turn to God. And that means both that we 

must pray to him earnestly and humbly, recognizing that there is no power in our prayers but only in the God to 

whom we pray, and also that we must be certain that it is the gospel we believe and the gospel we preach.

          When God has given revival in the past, it has generally been preceded and attended with preaching that 

sounded the depths of human sin and divine grace. During the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards discovered 

that it was his sermons on the sovereignty and righteous wrath of God that seemed to do most to promote God's work 

among his hearers. Decades later, in the Second Great Awakening, that same truth was rediscovered by a new 

generation of preachers.[5] We may be sure that if God chooses to send revival today, it will be both accompanied 

and encouraged by a greatly deepened awareness of his implacable hatred of sin and his astounding, free love for 

sinners. These emphases stand in complete contradiction not only to the spirit of liberal Christianity but also to most 

of what passes for evangelicalism, in which the love of God is often so sentimentalized as to be utterly devalued. Yet 

without these emphases, the gospel is not rightly known. The grace that is truly amazing is a grace first causes hearts 

to fear and then brings relief—not one that persuades them that there was never anything to be afraid of in the first 

place. The love of Christ as expressed in his death on the cross is a love that is inevitably misunderstood until it is 

seen against the backdrop of the crushing issues of sin, wrath, hell, and divine sovereignty.

          My hope, then, is that this book can make some small contribution to the efforts of Christians to come to grips 

with the holiness of God, and to the efforts of their leaders to do the kind of preaching that has historically been found 

most conducive to the revival of the church, the awakening of the lost, and the promotion of the Christian missionary 



          This is not a book for professional theologians, who will surely feel that I cover too many topics and cover 

them too lightly. Instead, I am writing for the ordinary believer who wants to see how the Bible’s teachings on divine 

justice may be brought together and harmonized. And so I make no apology for covering a lot of ground. That is the 

only way the job can be done! We can never be at peace about God’s ways with us until we have thought about a 

range of matters: God’s attitude toward our sin, his plan to punish the guilty forever, the relationship between his 

grace and our faith, the meaning of Christ’s death, the change in our status that occurs when we believe, and God’s 

original purposes in creation. At least in my mind, these issues are so closely related that they simply must be viewed 

together. It is that conviction that explains the structure of the book.

          Part I sets forth the truth that God regards us as guilty sinners and defends eternal punishment against the 

theories of universal salvation and annihilation of the lost. Part II takes up the topic of predestination: I first consider 

some alternatives to the Calvinistic view of election, and then explain why that view is the one most consistent with 

the Bible. Part III then examines the meaning of the cross in the light of our guilt and God’s sovereignty. I argue that 

by his life and death Jesus fully satisfied the justice of God for his chosen people, so that those who believe are not 

only forgiven but also given a title to eternal joy. The final chapter of the book attempts to draw all the threads of the 

discussion together by considering God’s ultimate purposes in creating the universe and establishing this strange, 

wonderful drama of salvation.

          A final word: the prayers at the ends of the chapters represent the cries and yearnings of my own heart as I have 

meditated on the topics discussed. I include them for just one purpose: to emphasize the truth that the study of 

theology—and especially the study of the vexing, soul-wrenching issues considered in this book—should never be 

undertaken without prayer. Unless the Holy Spirit enlightens us, we can never truly understand God's ways no matter 

how much we may study. And unless our growth in knowledge of God leads to a deepening of our love for him and 

for other people, it is fruitless. I hope that regardless of whether you agree with my theology, you will pray for greater 

light on the subjects discussed and for an ever-increasing hunger to know God and seek his kingdom.

          Father, you have graciously brought me to a point in life where there is nothing so important to me as to know 

you. I wish to give myself to you wholly and without reservation, and I want to trust perfectly in your perfect 

goodness. Give me courage to face hard questions about your ways with your creatures. Make me too tough-minded 

to settle for simplistic answers. Strengthen my powers of reasoning that I may make sense of your self-revelation in 

Christ and in the Bible. And grant that as I grow in knowledge of you, I may also grow in knowledge of myself. Open 

my eyes to my pride and rebellion; deepen my repentance, my humility, my dependence on your saving grace, my 

gratitude, and above all, my love. In Jesus' name, Amen.

[1] Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides Quarens Intellectum, trans. by Ian W. Robertson (Cleveland and New York: Meridian Books, 1960), 34.

[2]MacDonald, George, Creation in Christ, ed. Rolland Hein (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1976).

[3]MacDonald, p. 81. MacDonald's protest is reminiscent of a similar comment attributed to the poet John Milton: "I may go to hell, but such a God (as that of the Calvinistic teaching) will never command my respect" (quoted by Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics , Vol. II/2, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley et al., [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957], 13).

[4] David Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 88-115.

[5] My favorite author on the theology of revival is Iain H. Murray. See especially his Pentecost Today? The Biblical Basis for Understanding Revival (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998).


Sinners in the Hands of a Good God: Reconciling Divine Judgment and Mercy 

by David Clotfelter can be purchased at *Amazon.com.  

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and they will donate 0.5% of the price of your purchase to Chinese Christian Alliance Church.

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