When the New Year rolls around, people are inevitably looking to make a new start. Since January 1, I have run into all sorts of people looking to make a new start. The gyms are packed full of people looking to shed the fat and get into shape (until the lactic acid build up gets so painful, they quit). I had a conversation with a CPA last week who made a resolution to keep a twenty one day commitment (symbolized by wearing a bracelet) to not gossip, complain or speak negative words (based on a best-selling New York Times self-help book).
Her resolution was supposed to represent a new start based upon a positive outlook on life. Yet, after just a few days, she had already failed to keep the resolution (even during our conversation, she moved the bracelet from one wrist to the other as a reminder that she had just broken the resolution and was in need of a renewed commitment!).
By now, just nine days into the New Year, many have no doubt already failed to keep their resolution(s). Perhaps the more naturally inclined type-A, self-disciplined types are continuing to drive forward.
Whatever the case may be, this is the sad lot of many people in our culture today, including believers. In too many instances, believers allow their resolutions to become the driving force in their sanctification. Without fail, when the New Year comes around, sermons abound with ethical challenges, exhortations for new resolutions, renewed commitments, lists of actions steps for change, endless moral exhortations to love God, be holy, get serious, up your comment, etc…
One of the problems with resolution-driven living is that resolutions can and most often do become idols in our lives. They become our gods and take authority over our lives and begin to exert their stifling influence over us and rule us in a merciless manner.
Resolutions, self-discipline, vows, etc… no doubt have some benefit. I am well aware of Jonathan Edward’s massive list of resolutions. To refresh your memory, here are a couple:
3. Resolved, if ever I shall fall and grow dull, so as to neglect to keep any part of these Resolutions, to repent of all I can remember, when I come to myself again (Do we need to repent of things of which God has neither commanded or forbid? Must we subject ourselves to such a yoke of bondage, Gal. 5:1?).
5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
6. Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.
14. Resolved, never to do any thing out of revenge.
15. Resolved, never to suffer the least motions of anger towards irrational beings.
16. Resolved, never to speak evil of anyone, so that it shall tend to his dishonor, more or less, upon no account except for some real good.
20. Resolved, to maintain the strictest temperance, in eating and drinking.
Edward’s resolutions for a considerable period of time in my life seemed so admirable. To be sure, the seventy resolutions laid out by Edwards are indeed admirable qualities and would certainly have favorable results in a myriad of ways. I remember having the desire to follow Edward’s example (If only I can get to this point in my life…”). But, I inevitably found myself failing miserably to keep even one of his many resolutions!
Lists like this give the appearance of godliness. We greatly admire those who dare to give themselves in such full abandon to the pursuit of holiness and we wish that we ourselves could attain to such a “level” of commitment and sanctification. But, the truth is, no one, regardless of how humbly he or she may entreat God’s help, can live up to such stringent demands. We know in our inmost being that we are as John Newton wrote “a wretch.”
The fact is, when it comes to sanctification resolutions really have no place. Only one man has lived a perfectly resolute life, Christ! In Luke 9:51, I love what Luke says of Christ, “When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem…” One thing is for sure, no man has ever been as determined and resolved as Christ. Christ is the true promise keeper. He alone was fully resolved to do the will of His father (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38) The rest of us ragamuffins, as Brennan Manning has written, are fickle, promise-breakers to the core.
Walter Marshall, commenting on the role of vows in the Christian’s pursuit of sanctification, writes,
You may expect me to say something about vows. However, I will only say this about them. Do not think you will bring yourself to be a better person, or to good works, by vows and promises- as if the strength of your own law could do it when the strength of God’s law cannot do it. We tell children to make promises to change their ways, but we know how well they keep their promises! The devil will urge you to make a vow, and then break it, so he may frustrate you and torment your conscience all the more. (The Gospel-Mystery of Sanctification, p. 218).
This is not to say we should not seek to pursue holiness or lead disciplined, orderly lives. Rather, it is to say that we should seek to pursue holiness in the proper manner (i.e., we should be Gospel-driven rather than resolution- [law] driven). The Gospel, not resolutions, is what motivates a believer to pursue a life of holiness. The fact is the enemy of our faith will tempt us and encourage us to make resolution after resolution so long as he can keep us from seeing Christ and trusting in Him alone for our righteousness before God.
“The devil will urge you to make a vow, and then break it, so he may frustrate you and torment your conscience all the more.”
Resolutions, if not carefully kept in check, subtly take the place of Christ and His Gospel and begin dictate our thinking and decision-making, they shape our outlook on the Christian life, and begin to distort our understanding of our Heavenly Father, they corrupt our affections and ultimately destroy the peace our souls. As Marshall insightfully pointed out above, “The devil will urge you to make a vow, and then break it, so he may frustrate you and torment your conscience all the more.” Legalism stirs up and enrages the sleeping lion of our sinful flesh. Apart from the mercy and grace of God coming to us in the Gospel, believers will increasingly grow cold toward God because their consciences continually torment them for their failure. Such is the awful effects of legalistic doctrine upon fleshly hearts.
The god of resolutions is a harsh, unyielding, guilt-inducing task master. There is no mercy for failure only a reminder of failure. Their is no wind for the sail only a loud speaker yelling, “Row!” The Lord never intends for any of His people to place themselves under any unlawful expectations or obligations. Rather, the Lord’s invitation is, “28 Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. 30 “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
“The Gospel, not resolutions, is what motivates a believer to pursue a life of holiness.”
The Lord does not intend for His people to carry around self-imposed burdens or burdens imposed upon them from others (we don’t have to listen to the distorted reality of pop culture’s advertisements or the false promises of self-help gurus). Gospel-driven living is not burdensome and heavy, resolution driven-living is. Resolution-driven living is living according to the flesh rather than according to the new man. Resolution-driven living is the attempt to reform the old man (that is already dead!) instead of living out of the Gospel-rich resources of the new man!
Believers often yield to the usurped authority of their resolutions and as a result, their resolutions begin to wield great, paralyzing influence over their lives. Ultimately, one of two things happen. First, guilt and a sense of defeat sets in, thoughts of inadequacy and feelings of hopelessness take over these types of believers throw up their hands in self-despair and give up. Second, the more naturally self-disciplined type continues to press forward in self-deception, thinking that he or she is doing pretty well (whether it be holding to a new diet or exercise program or Bible reading program, daily “quiet time,” etc…). The end result for this group is hypocrisy. The focus is no longer Christ but my “faithfulness,” my “perseverance,” “my ability,” etc… Either way, both groups have one thing in common, self rather than Christ.
Here is the point: if believers are not careful, their resolutions and commitments end up driving their lives rather than Christ and His Gospel.
John, in 1 John 5:21, ends his letter with a short command which has profound implications for our lives. He exhorts, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” We must constantly be on guard against yielding our hearts to any influence other than Christ and His Gospel.
We must guard ourselves from idols precisely because they keep us from Christ. Idols drive our lives like a ruthless taskmaster who cracks the whip over our backs and demands that we make bricks without any straw (cf. Ex. 5:7-18)! But, the Gospel does not drive us like that. It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4) not the whips and terrors of the law. In the same way, it is the Gospel not resolutions that move our hearts to love and obey God and to love our neighbor.
The joy of Gospel-driven living, unlike that of resolution-driven living, is that the Gospel promises peace, acceptance, comfort and forgiveness to sinners (i.e., those who are failing to live perfect, holy lives and cannot live up to their own self-imposed laws, resolutions). Yes, we must live holy lives. We must pursue holiness. But, we must do so in a lawful manner.
Reflect carefully on the following hope-filled words of Walter Marshall,
Consider this also: the gospel freely promises peace and comfort to people who are not yet living holy lives at all. Those who receive the gospel will be transformed from sin to righteousness. When the apostles entered into a house, they were to say first, “Peace be upon this house” (Luke 10:5). When they preached to sinners, they told them of the good news of salvation in Christ, for everyone who receives it as a free gift by faith (Acts 3:26, 13:26, 32, 38, and 16:30-31). They assured people that if they would trust Christ for salvation, they would receive it- even if they were at the present time the chief of sinners. The whole purpose of the gospel is to proclaim the riches of God’s grace, for your spiritual benefit! God gives you gospel blessings both before and after you do good works, so that “you may know that he gives us everlasting comfort, and good hope through grace” (II Thessalonians 2:16)- not through our works, (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, p. 121).
Go ahead and make your resolutions if you wish. But just remember that when you break them and fail or if you succeed in keeping them through this New Year, neither your failure nor your success has anything to do with your standing before God, either in terms of your acceptance or rejection. You are not more holy because you resolve to follow a list of resolutions. And, you are not less holy because you do not.
A list of resolutions is not the point of focus, Christ is! As Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, ““I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God (not resolutions!-J.F.), who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”