‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’ is the title of a fairly well-known sermon preached by the American pastor, Jonathan Edwards, in 1741. Through the sermon, Edwards presses the point that there is nothing that keeps sinners, at any moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God. You see, on the one hand God is the one who rightly condemns sinners to everlasting punishment because they’ve sinned against him. They’ve broken his laws. However, on the other hand, it is God who, for the moment, is mercifully keeping sinners out of hell; and while he continues to preserve their lives, they have the opportunity to turn to Christ the Saviour. And so, through the use of really very direct and arresting and graphic imagery, Edwards warns unbelievers of the danger they are in, in order to urge them to turn in faith to Jesus Christ through whom we receive eternal life and not eternal condemnation.
Well, that sermon is an example of what is sometimes called ‘fire and brimstone’ preaching — preaching that is explicit and graphic about the coming judgment and the reality of the suffering of hell. And the phrase, ‘fire and brimstone’ comes from Genesis 19, for older translations of the Bible translate verse 24 as:
Then the Lord rained down fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah.
Fire and brimstone, burning sulphur: the disaster which fell on Sodom speaks to us of the coming judgment. What happened to the people of Sodom in Genesis 19 is a warning of what will happen again whenever Jesus Christ returns in glory and power to judge the living and the dead.
Now right away we have to face the fact that for many people today, the idea that God judges and condemns anyone is outrageous. It’s absolutely abhorrent to them. They cannot believe that God — if there is a God — would punish anyone. And ‘fire and brimstone’ preaching is considered out of date, because it’s assumed that no one could possibly believe that God would cause anyone to suffer. ‘That’s not the kind of God I believe in’, people will say. ‘The God I believe in is loving and gentle and forgiving.’ And so people will dismiss a story like this one in Genesis 19. They will say it was written by someone who did not understand what God is really like. Or they will say that, while the Old Testament picture of God is that he’s a God of vengeance, the New Testament God is a God of love and peace.
So what should we believe? How should we respond whenever people say that we can’t believe in a God who condemns? Well, if we believe in a good God — and nearly everyone who believes in God believes he must be good — then that means we must believe in a God who loves what is good and hates what is evil. How could we say that God is good if he just shrugged his shoulders at evil? How could we believe that God is good if he’s indifferent to wickedness? No, if God is good, then he must hate evil and he’ll want to restrain it and stop it. And in Genesis 18 and 19 we learn that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were utterly wicked. Look back to Genesis 18 and verse 20: the Lord said that the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah was so great and their sin was so grievous that he wanted to go and investigate it to see if what the people had done was really as bad as the outcry that had reached him. Do you see? The cries of their victims had come all the way up to heaven and God, being a good God, had to do something about it. He couldn’t stand by and do nothing when this great outcry was coming up to heaven. And then look at chapter 19. The angels arrive at the city and Lot greeted them. Now at this point their true identity was hidden from Lot and he assumed they’re just two travellers. And so Lot invited these travellers to stay at his home for the night. Now, it was the custom in those days to show hospitality to guests. But look at Lot’s reaction when the angels reply that they’re happy to spend the night in the city square. He wasn’t just being hospitable. He was urging them to stay with him. Look at verse 3: It tells us that he ‘insisted so strongly’ that they really ought to stay with him. Why did he insist so strongly? Well, we soon discover why: Lot knew that the guests would be not safe in the square, because the citizens of the city were so desperately wicked. Whenever the people heard that two visitors had come to the city, the people of the city gathered round Lot’s house and demanded that the strangers be brought out so that they could abuse them. And look what verse 4 says:
all the men from every part of the city, both young and old, surrounded the house.
Do you see? It wasn’t only some of the people who surrounded the house; it was all of them. All of them were desperately wicked. And the pressure they put Lot under was so great that he was forced to suggest this awful compromise that they should take his daughters instead of the guests.
Can God be good and then ignore what was happening in Sodom? Would it be right of God to turn a blind eye to this wickedness? Well, of course not: Since he is a good God, then he had to intervene and put a stop to this. Since he is a good God, who hates evil, he could not let this wickedness continue. And so, because of the outcry against the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord poured down burning sulphur, fire and brimstone, on them in order to destroy them.
And look, the passage is unapologetic: It clearly states that this was God’s doing. Verse 24:
The Lord rained down burning sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah — from the Lord out of the heavens.
Thus he overthrew those cities.
When the Lord destroyed the cities of the plain.
It’s making clear that this was not just a natural disaster. It wasn’t a freak earthquake or a volcanic eruption. This was God’s judgment on the people of those cities.
Think of a judge in a court of law. The case against the defendant has been made. The evidence has been brought out and explained. The crime has been carefully outlined and it’s clear to all that the defendant is guilty. Imagine then if the judge — having heard all the evidence, having heard the verdict of the jury — decided to let the defendant off. Well, there would be an outcry. And the papers would be full of this story. And the judge would be investigated, because the judge is meant to ensure that justice is done and that the guilty are punished and the innocent are set free. What an outcry there would be if a judge turned a blind eye to guilt. Well, if we expect our earthly judges to do right, then surely we ought to expect the judge of all the earth to do what is right. It would not be right for God to ignore evil. It wouldn’t be right for him to shrug his shoulders at it. He would no longer be a good God or a just God if he let the guilty off.
Or think of a wife whose husband has betrayed her and has had an affair. And she finds out what he’s done. Think of the pain she would feel. The sense of betrayal. Think of her anger as well. All those years that she loved him and cared for him and was devoted to him. And this is how he has repaid her kindness? How hurt and angry she would be. Well then, think of the Lord who has loved the people of this world, and cared for us and has been devoted to us, providing us with all that we need, day by day and year by year. Think of all the good things we enjoy which have come to us from him. And then think of how we have repaid his kindness, for we have consistently disobeyed him and refused to do his will. We have loved the gifts he has given us, but our love for him has been so small and so half-hearted. Think of all the years he’s been faithful to us and how often we have been unfaithful to him. And people are surprised to read in the Bible that God is provoked by our sin?
In Luke 17 the Lord Jesus was talking about what it will be like when he returns to earth. You see, he’s coming back one day to judge the living and the dead. And he compares that day to the days of the flood when Noah and his family were saved from the flood, but everyone else drowned. People were eating and drinking and getting on with their lives, blissfully unaware of the disaster that was about to come upon them when the heavens opened and the rain poured down upon all the earth. And then the Lord Jesus compared his coming to the days of Lot. Again, in Sodom people were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, getting on with their lives, when suddenly, unexpectedly, fire and sulphur rained down from heaven and destroyed them. And the Lord said:
It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed.
Do you see? No one can say that what happened in Genesis 19 was in the Old Testament and that the New Testament is different. The Lord Jesus warned us that what happened in Sodom is like what will happen again when he returns to judge the world.
But let’s look again at what happened to Sodom, because, of course, Lot was saved from the disaster. The reason the angels came to the city was in order to rescue Lot and his family. And they’re saved twice, of course. First of all, when the crowd turned on Lot in verse 9, the angels reached out and pulled Lot into the house and to safety. And then the angels saved Lot and his family a second time. They warned Lot in verses 12 and 13 about what was about to happen and they urged Lot to gather his family together and to flee. And then in verses 15 to 22 we see him escaping.
Now, there’s something really important for us to note here. I’ve already said that when the disaster fell on Sodom, the passage makes clear that it was God who sent it: he rained burning sulphur on the cities; he overthrew the cities. However, now we see that it’s God again — by means of his angels — who saved Lot. If it weren’t for these angels, sent by God, Lot would not have been saved. And the passage makes this clear. First of all, they warn him in verse 12 about what’s about to happen. Then in verse 15, they began to urge Lot to get a move on. And we can imagine them saying to him:
Come on, hurry up!
And then look at verse 16: for some reason, Lot hesitated. He lingered. And so, they had to grasp hold of him by the hand and pull him along. And again, they had to urge him the whole way:
Flee for it. Flee to the mountains.
And finally, when Lot complained that he couldn’t go any further, they agree to protect the town where he had stopped. Do you see? If it weren’t for these angels, sent by God, Lot would never have escaped. He was unaware of the danger. And then he was taking his time. And then he was lingering. And they had to grab hold of him. And so, finally, when he eventually reached safety, and saw what had happened to Sodom, he would have to admit to himself that the only reason he was safe was because of those angels, sent from God.
And isn’t that what we learn from the gospel? Since Jesus Christ is coming back to judge the living and the dead, what hope do we have that we will be saved? What hope do we have that we will receive eternal life and not eternal condemnation? The only hope we have is what God has done for us. And when we are finally standing before the presence of God in eternal life, we will have to admit to ourselves that the only reason we are safe is because of what God has done for us.
And he has done two things for us. First of all, he sent his Son to live the life we ought to have lived — one of perfect obedience — and he lived it for us. We’ve broken God’s laws, but Jesus Christ kept them completely, perfectly and continually, and he kept them for us on our behalf. And Jesus Christ not only lived the life we ought to have lived, but he suffered the punishment we ought to have suffered. The judgment that ought to fall on us because of our guilt, fell on Jesus Christ on the cross. And there, on the cross, he paid for our sin and our guilt completely and for ever, so that all who belong to Christ will never have to pay for our sins again.
That’s the first thing God has done for us. Without Christ’s life and death and resurrection, none of us could ever hope to receive eternal life. But the second thing is just as remarkable. In John 6 the Lord Jesus tells us that no-one would come to him if it were not for the Father who draws us to Christ. Not one of us would ever be capable of trusting in Christ for salvation, if it were not for God. Look: here was Lot in Genesis 19 and God wanted to save him. God wanted to rescue him from Sodom. And so he sent the angels to draw him away from the city to safety. And today, God the Father wants to save his people from the coming judgment and he wants to rescue us from eternal condemnation. So what does he do? He draws us to Christ. He leads us to the Saviour. He enables us to turn to Christ and to trust in him. And then, Sunday by Sunday, week by week, he works in us through the preaching of the gospel to strengthen our faith so that we will continue to believe in Christ and will not fall away or turn back or slip up. He continually strengthens us so that one day we will indeed enter into the rest and peace and safety of eternal life.
Do you see? What could Lot boast in? He couldn’t boast in his goodness, because look at his own sin and guilt: He offered to let the crowds abuse his daughters. How could he even have thought of it? And then in the last section of chapter 19, which we didn’t read, his daughters got him to drink too much so that they could sleep with their own father and produce heirs. There was nothing good or pure or impressive about these people. They couldn’t boast in their goodness. And they can’t even boast that they had the sense to flee, because if it were not for the angels, they would have remained in Sodom. And there’s nothing we can boast in, because we’re in the same position and none of us would have ever believed in Jesus Christ if it were not for the goodness and kindness of God who opened our hearts to believe in the Saviour who lived for us and who died for us so that we can have peace with God in this life and the hope of everlasting life in the life to come.
But, why did God rescue Lot and his daughters? That’s the next thing we need to think about this evening. Why did God rescue Lot?
We’ve already seen that it can’t be because of their goodness, because the passage makes clear that Lot and his daughters were far from being good. So why did God choose to save them? Well, look at what we’re told in verse 29:
So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe.
He remembered Abraham. Do you see? Why did God choose to save Lot? Because of Abraham. In other words, for the sake of someone else, Lot was saved.
And isn’t that what the gospel teaches us? Why does God save us? Why does he enable us to believe in Jesus Christ the Saviour? It’s not because of anything in us. It’s not because of anything we might do. It’s because of Jesus Christ. For the sake of Jesus Christ, who lived for us and who died for us, God now pardons our sins and promises us eternal life. It’s not because of the things we have done. It’s not because of the life we’ve lived. It’s not because of the sacrifices we may have made. It’s not because of our devotion or commitment. It’s not because of our zeal or enthusiasm. After all, even our best deeds are streaked through with sin and selfishness. There’s nothing in us to commend us to God. But when God looks upon his people, he no longer remembers our sin and our guilt and our failures and our mistakes. When God looks upon his people, he doesn’t remember those things anymore. Instead he remembers the Lord Jesus. And that means, for the sake of Jesus Christ who lived and died for us, we’re brought out of death into life, out of condemnation into everlasting peace, out of that endless effort to try to win God’s approval by what we do and into the true rest that Christ gives to all who rest in him.
Praise to God
From the story of Sodom and Gomorrah we learn that if it were not for the Lord who saves us, then there would be no hope for any of us. He’s the one who sent the angels to rescue Lot. And when Lot hesitated, the angels took him by the hand and pulled him to safety. And the Lord sends preachers into all the world to tell people everywhere the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Think of the people he sent into our lives: Godly parents perhaps. Sunday School teachers. Bible Class leaders. Ministers of the gospel. People who faithfully and patiently taught us the word of the Lord. He sent these people to tell us the news of salvation. But not one of us would have responded to the gospel message unless the Lord also took us by the hand, as it were, and pulled us to Jesus Christ. Every single one of us would have hesitated, and we’d still be in our sins and we’d still be facing condemnation if it were not for God’s grace and mercy towards us in sending his Spirit to make us willing and able to respond to the call of the gospel and to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, from time to time, we talk about our conversion as if it was all down to us. You know:
Here’s something I did. Here’s something that I decided to do.
And perhaps we look down on others and we boast about ourselves, because we’re the one who decided to follow Christ whereas those other people did not. And so, we make our conversion something to boast about. But we must never boast in ourselves and we must always ascribe all the glory and all the honour to the Lord God. And we must confess it clearly and loudly that we would never have believed if it were not for the Lord’s grace and mercy towards us. We would never have believed if he had not grasped our hands and led us to Christ and to everlasting salvation. From the story of Lot’s salvation, we’re reminded that we too would have hesitated if it were not for the Lord. And therefore we ought to humble ourselves and we ought to give all glory and honour and praise to him.
But let’s also pay attention to the warning we find in Lot’s wife. Like Lot, and like her daughters, she was led out of the city. She was being taken to safety. But look what happened to her: She looked back. The text doesn’t say why she looked back, but we can imagine her — can’t we? — looking back and longing for what she had left behind. Looking back, and regretting her decision to leave. Looking back, and wishing she did not have to give up her life in Sodom.
The Bible gives us other examples of the same kind of thing. Think of the Israelites in the days of Moses, for instance, who escaped from Egypt. But they found life in the wilderness to be hard, and so they wished they could go back to Egypt instead of going on to the Promised Land. Or, at the end of 2 Timothy, we read about Demas. Paul tells us that he loved this present world and therefore deserted Paul. For a while he followed Paul and helped him with his ministry. But, like Lot’s wife, he looked back. He looked back and longed for what the unbelieving world had to offer him. Or in 1 Timothy Paul mentions Hymenaeus and Alexander who shipwrecked their faith. Or what about Judas, who was counted among the Lord’s disciples for three years, but in the end, he turned away from the Lord and betrayed him.
And Lot’s wife also looked back. And what happened? The same fate that befell the people of that city fell on her and she became a pillar of salt. Well, this is a warning to all those who have responded to the gospel and made a profession of faith. We mustn’t become like Lot’s wife. In other words, we must be careful that we don’t look back and long for our old way of life without Christ. We must be careful that we don’t turn away from the Saviour and turn back from walking in his ways. It doesn’t happen all of a sudden. It happens little by little, and bit by bit. Slowly over time, our love for the Lord seeps out of our heart. We hardly even notice it, until one day, our faith for the Lord has gone. And so, we need to watch out that we don’t become like Lot’s wife.
But, of course, the Lord has been good to us. And he’s given us the preaching of his word, and he’s given us the sacraments, and he’s given us prayer, he’s given us the fellowship of his people, he’s given us elders to watch over us, he’s given us all these things to strengthen our faith in the Saviour, so that we will not be tempted to turn back, but will instead press on, and keep going, trusting in the Lord, walking in his ways, right throughout our lives. And so long as we continue to make us of these things, then we will not become like Lot’s wife who looked back and was destroyed.
Prayer for a lost world
And the final thing to say this evening is that this story about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah should drive us, once again, to prayer. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah points forward to the Day of Judgment when the Lord Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead and all who those who did not believe in him will be condemned for their sins. And so, we ought to pray that the Lord will send more and more preachers out into the world to preach the good news of the gospel and to call men and women and boys and girls to repent and to believe the good news so that they will be saved from the coming day of the Lord. And we ought to pray for the Lord to enable more and more of those who hear to believe the message.
We’ve met so many people who are like Lot’s sons-in-law who did not take the warning seriously. Or think about the people Peter wrote about at the end of his second letter who used to scoff:
Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation. The Lord is not coming to judge the living and the dead.
How many people have we met like that? And so, we must pray and pray and pray again, asking the Lord to bless the preaching of his word and asking him to make those who hear willing and able to respond to the gospel so that they will be saved. We need to pray that he will grasp them by the hand, and pull them to Christ for safety. And the wonderful good news of the gospel is that, for the sake of Christ who died for us, the Lord will pardon and accept whoever believes in his Son.