A 273 year-old letter to a new Christian begins with these words: “My Dear Young Friend.” It was the summer of 1741 and pastor Jonathan Edwards had just penned the aforementioned letter from his study in the town of Northampton, Massachusetts.
The letter was Edwards' reply to a young woman who had recently professed faith in Christ. She had written him from her home in Connecticut seeking his advice, inquiring as to how her new faith might be intentionally nurtured. Edwards, though a busy pastor at one of the largest churches in the colony, gladly obliged her humble search, for he felt inclined “to do any thing in [his] power to contribute to the spiritual joy and prosperity of God’s people.”
As usual, Edwards was thorough in his response. He enumerated his counsel in 17 specific charges, including how to hear a sermon, dealing with recalled sins, approaching God in worship, attacking the menace of pride, reckoning with doubts, taking a day for fasting and prayer, loving one’s enemies, and repairing daily to the cross.
But at the head of all his counsel stood a statement we might find more than a little uncouth: “I would advise you to keep up as great a strife and earnestness in religion, as if you knew yourself to be in a state of nature, and were seeking conversion.”
Is this the primitive brutish counsel of an enthusiast preacher? The young woman had escaped hell and now Edwards appears to throw her back into a sweatshop.
What should we make of this counsel?
Though his guidance is a bit oddly worded (but he was not wishing she think herself still unconverted), it is more than a bit wise. Wise, not because of the reputation of the man nor because of the antiquity of the era, but rather because of how closely it tracks with holy scripture.
In Luke 13:24 the Lord says: "Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able."
In Hebrews 4:11 the apostle says: "Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience."
And then, writing to the Philippians Paul speaks of his own striving:
But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Phil 3:13-14).
This is the thermal core of all true and sincere religion: believing on Jesus Christ.
But why strive and strain to believe once we have already made our profession of faith? Are we to hold our profession in perpetual suspicion? No, not at all. We are to strive and strain in believing - in seeing our faith increase - because our faith is the only Spirit-trained muscle we have to overcome sin and worldliness and all manners of earthly-mindedness, the things that will eventually lead us to be quite ashamed of Jesus Christ if we find them more precious and real than He.
So Edwards' counsel is not too strange. You have made your profession of faith? Wonderful! Praise God for the grace that brought you to this. But keep up your believing in Him with all strife and earnestness, "for everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (John 5:4-5).