At the turn of every new year, well-intentioned resolutions abound. Most will be broken within a week or two, except perhaps for the Type-A, highly disciplined personalities.
According to the USA.gov website, here are the most popular resolutions/goals in American culture:
Get a Better Job
Get a Better Education
Drink Less Alcohol
Quit Smoking Now
Reduce Stress Overall
Reduce Stress at Work
Take a Trip
Volunteer to Help Others
A study conducted in the UK tracked over 3000 people attempting to keep their resolutions. 52% of participants said they were confident of success. One year later, only 12% actually achieved their goal.
With the high failure rate of New Year’s resolutions, some secular researchers are now cautioning that deciding to turn over a new leaf in the new year could do more harm than good.
In an article that appeared in BBC News yesterday, one mental health expert commenting on the high failure rate of keeping resolutions made the following observation,
“We chastise ourselves for our perceived shortcomings and set unrealistic goals to change our behaviour, so it’s not surprising that when we fail to keep resolutions, we end up feeling worse than when we started…”
Though one may not agree fully with the article’s diagnosis or prescriptions, the mental health expert’s response is quite insightful.
When it comes to vows, resolutions, promise keeping, etc… in sanctification and the Christian life, caution is needed.
There is always the subtle yet all too common tendency to allow ourselves to drift into a legal mindset in our daily walk (see Gal. 1:6; 3:3).
Without a conscious, intentional, continual reminder of keeping the gospel paramount in our lives, we can quickly end up making our holiness or God’s favor dependent upon our resolutions rather than Christ. Walter Marshall warns, “You must also beware of making your holiness depend upon any of your resolutions to walk in Christ,” (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, p. 177).
When we drift into a legal mindset, we unconsciously or consciously measure our “success” based upon our ability or inability to keep our vows, promises or resolutions instead of living moment by moment by faith in the imputed righteousness of Christ.
“Resolution faith” consists of trusting in God to help you help yourself. God’s grace helps those who help themselves, right? This is how Marshall puts it,
“They (i.e., believers-J.F.) think that if they can only bring their hearts to resolve to do the best that is in their power, they will be able to conquer their lusts and do the most difficult duties. Many theologians and preachers stir people up to make this resolution to turn from sin to godliness by their own efforts. They do not think this is contrary to the life of faith at all, because they trust in the grace of God in Christ to help them keep their resolutions,” (Gospel Mystery, p. 176).
The problem with “Resolution faith” (i.e., Jesus-plus) is that the law (either ours or God’s) rather than good news becomes the motivating factor in our pursuit of sanctification. Thus, we end up being law-driven like slaves (slavish duty/performance based) rather than gospel-driven like beloved sons (heartfelt gratitude of joyful obedience).
We must pursue obedience, God’s favor, delight in Christ and growth in holiness not by trying to gain these things through what we “do” but rather as those who have already received them through our union with Christ (cf. Eph. 1:3-14).
Mark this: You cannot and never will obtain the forgiveness of sins, the favor of God, a new holy nature, progress in spiritual maturity, delight in Christ or happiness by works of the law.
Regrettably, many believers view the Christian life as a set of rules, standards, repeated surrendering and rededications as the way to measure their progress in holiness or the means by which they obtain God’s favor and blessing upon their lives (e.g., some of you reading this may recall the repeated weekly calls in church to “come forward and rededicate your life.”).
But, God has not called believers to orient their lives around resolutions, vows, promises, personal dedications, etc… as the means by which sinful lusts are purged from their flesh or the way in which they come into or remain in favor with God.
Trying to put remaining sin to death by resolutions or seeking to obtain God’s favor by “doing” is like trying to put out a forest fire with a cup of water.
“Resolution faith” is walking according to the flesh instead of the Spirit. “Resolution faith” is placing trust in the acts of one’s will (i.e., purposes, resolutions, vows, promises, etc…) instead of Christ and His imputed righteousness.
The problem with “Resolution faith,”according to Marshall, is that believers are trying to reform their old state and to be made perfect in the flesh (Gospel Mystery, p. 176). “Resolution faith” is trying to reform and cure the flesh by the flesh.
Walter Marshall counseled,
“Those who try to cure the flesh, and make it holy by their own resolutions and endeavors, act totally contrary to the purpose of Christ’s death. For, Jesus died, not to make the natural man holy, but to crucify it and put it to death (Romans 6:6). Christ died so that you might live to God, not to yourself. It is not Christ’s will for you to live on the basis of the power of your resolutions to do better. Christ wants you to live by Christ living in you, and by His Spirit bringing forth the fruits of righteousness in you…” (Gospel Mystery, p. 176).
Orienting our lives around vows and resolutions is to live unto ourselves rather than Christ; it is to live on the basis of our own self-righteous strength rather than by faith in our new state in Christ. In so doing, we nullify the grace of God and invalidate the death of Christ (Gal. 2:21).
God’s will is for the believer to orient his or her life around the gospel, as Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (emphasis mine).
The truth is, in our quest to be “promise keepers” or “resolved Christians,” we often chastise ourselves for our shortcomings because of our inability to change our behavior. Thus, as the mental health expert warned, it is not surprising that when we fail to keep our resolutions we end up feeling worse than when we started.
In similar fashion, in his discussion concerning living by the means of grace, Walter Marshall gives the following insight concerning vows,
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 do 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,” (Gospel Mystery, p. 218).
It is not the will of God for believers to live on the basis of the power of their resolutions (see David Mathis’s quote from Martyn Lloyd Jones at the DG Blog). Rather, it is the will of God for believers to trust and rest in Christ and in the power of His Spirit, who alone enables them to live far beyond their own natural strength.
The value of your resolutions remain only as you rest by faith in the Son of God, who loved you and gave himself for you. The moment you stop trusting and resting in Christ alone and begin thinking you gain spiritual blessings through what you “do” rather than who you trust, you have traded gospel faith for resolution faith.
If you want to make resolutions remember:
Don’t be resolution driven; be gospel-driven. Make resolutions. But, don’t make your holiness or God’s favor depend upon your resolutions. Make resolutions. But, do not let them become paramount. Instead, see to it that the gospel is paramount in your life!
Make resolutions. But, remember that it is not God’s will for you to live on the basis of the power of your resolutions. God wills for you to live out of your union with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit who brings forth the fruits of righteousness in you (Gal. 5:16-24).
24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!…8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Rom. 7:24-25, 8:1).