Editor’s note: This next month at GCD you will be seeing articles from our team of Staff Writers and other contributors on a handful of topics that Jonathan Edwards introduced in his own Resolutions. The aim of this series is to help you see how a gospel-formed resolution can help you flourish in your love for Christ and for others next year. Click here to see all articles in this series.
January 1 is a great day for introspection if you allow for it. Regardless of how you spent your final evening of last year, the clock has moved and today is a new start, a new year, a fresh beginning. In some South American contexts, the celebration of New Year’s gives a startling depiction of this transition. Life-sized models are stuffed with hay, newspaper, and an assortment of fireworks and other combustibles to be burned in effigy at the stroke of midnight. Often, masks representing particular political or cultural celebrities are placed on the doll to personify the year left behind. It’s a way of cleansing—burning away the previous year with its trials and difficulties and making room for a new, more hopeful year.
As the New Year comes into reality, there can be a sense of concern about the year ahead. What will the next 365 days hold for us? Will they be profitable? Will they be well spent? Will they hold joy and happiness, or despair and difficulty? Add to that concern a layer of shame that takes form in our hearts when we consider the missed opportunities, lack of progress, or downright failures we experienced in the year prior. I didn’t lose the weight I said I would, nor did I complete reading the Bible in its entirety. I didn’t pray. I didn’t give as much as wanted to. I didn’t defeat that habitual sin that has plagued my character.
Expressions like these squirm their way into my heart and mind every year. Usually, somewhere around mid-to-late December, I begin strategizing to tackle the year ahead differently. I develop a battle plan for things like personal Bible engagement and prayer. I stand on the scales and consider my overall hearth, and make a few dedications to drop the weight this year and exercise. I’ll even clean out my smartphone from all the excess applications and distractions so that I can be more focused and productive. I am willing to guess that many of us do similar activities. It has been a cultural phenomenon for years to make “New Year’s Resolutions.”
THE LAW OF THE RESOLUTION
I’ve wavered back and forth on the helpfulness of things like New Year’s Resolutions in my life. In some ways, we know they can be helpful and even formational for us as they give some definition and boundary to our lives. On the other hand, our resolutions can be disastrous when we fail to keep them. Those lingering feelings of guilt and shame are leftovers from last year’s failed resolutions. An even greater danger lurks in the heart of someone who has kept and accomplished their resolution—prideful self-righteousness.
Resolutions, some would argue, are essentially another form of legalism. They compile a list of “dos” and “don’ts” that limit the life of a follower of Jesus. Resolutions can become boundaries that limit the freedom of life in Christ with all its delights. The person who resolves to lose weight becomes a slave to food choices, exercise, and culinary asceticism. Those who resolve to undertake a spiritual discipline immediately become subject to the rituals of that discipline and sacrifice their freedom to appease the demands of the spiritual. Within the culture of any community, even the church, a group of practitioners or non-practitioners of any given resolution can quickly devolve into tribal gangs opposed to one another over such things as who does eat something, and who does not.
If this were the case, it would seem inherent to the freedom of human responsibility that resolutions should be left alone because they create an unnecessary legalism and separation. Even the danger of a legalistic following of a resolution can, within the church, destroy the bonds of unity and peace that the Spirit of God gives to his people. Resolutions, seen in this way, can be disastrous and therefore should be dismissed altogether.
JONATHAN EDWARDS’ RESOLUTIONS
But what if these types of resolutions were shaped and informed by the gospel? Could they then become some sort of meaningful and formative enterprise into which the Christian can find true growth and freedom? Could they be a means of development and joy, even grace, among a people of God? I believe so—as long as one understands and approaches resolutions from a posture of humility informed by the gospel.
Jonathan Edwards is a classic example of this sort of humble, gospel-centered resolving. Before he hit the age of twenty, Edwards found it important to create a set of governing principles to shape his character, practice, and piety. While one could imagine that Edwards’ resolutions were the product of a young and ambitious mind that never saw the light of practical day, it seems that these resolutions were foundational anchors to Edwards’ everyday life. His life exhibited growth in grace, temperance, and passion for the Lord.
But how did Edwards walk with these resolutions throughout his life? Was his resolve a product of mere white-knuckled willpower and obedience to a law he created? The evidence seems to point as far away from this perspective as possible. Edwards own introduction to his resolutions demonstrated the posture of his heart in achieving these resolutions:
“Being sensible that I am unable to do any thing without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him, by his grace, to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake”.
Edwards’ ability to live out his resolutions was not a result of an extraordinary capacity towards regimented and obedient life. They were birthed by a greater ambition that had come to him through the gospel. For Edwards, his life was all about living to the glory of God in all things. The very first resolution he makes states, “Resolved, That I will do whatsoever I think to be most to the glory of God.” Or, to say it another way, Edwards’ life was to be lived for “Christ’s sake.”
And yet, living for the sake of Christ and the glory of God fully required something deeper of Edwards: a clear understanding of his incapability of living that life apart from the supernatural enablement of the Spirit of God through the grace of God in Christ Jesus. He declared, “I am unable to do anything without God’s help.” It was clear in Edwards’ head that these resolutions were unattainable as goals for life apart from the power of God. Living to the glory of God, as desirable an end as that is, is unreachable because of our sin apart from God’s kindness towards sinners, which he displayed in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
This is where our own resolutions can be informed. I want to better glorify God in my own life this year. I know there are areas of my heart, mind, and body that need to come under the transforming power of the gospel. I know I am accepted by God because of the perfect life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and that I am gifted with the Holy Spirit as both a guarantee and down payment of my redemption. He indwells me in order to craft and cultivate character within my life that glorifies Christ. Therefore, I can resolve to practice—or not practice—certain things, not in an effort to earn my right standing before God, but so that I can be more in tune with and shaped by the holiness of God to be more like Christ.
I can say with Edwards, “Resolved, Never to do any thing out of revenge” and know that, if I do well in that regard this year, I am growing in Christ-likeness because I’ve tasted the goodness of God. I can also rest assured that if I fail (more like, when I fail) in this, I am still loved and accepted by the Father, and can confess and repent and resolve again with the power of God enabling me to get up and keep going.
In light of the gospel, these resolutions become tools by which we “make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness…” (2 Pet. 1:5). These resolutions are the vehicles that aim the trajectory of our lives to “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). They give tangible, personal particulars to the call to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12).
Gospel-formed resolutions can be a helpful means putting to death the old person so that we can put on the new person of Christ-likeness and grow into godliness. Perhaps the first resolution we should adopt is to make a stuffed mannequin of ourselves, burn them at the stroke of midnight, and resolve to embrace the gospel and all its hope and security for the year ahead. We could resolve with great ambition to live for the sake of Christ under the power and influence of the Holy Spirit all our days. How the world would change.
 Ibid., lxiii.
Jeremy Writebol is the Executive Director of GCD. He is the husband of Stephanie and father of Allison and Ethan. He serves as the lead campus pastor of Woodside Bible Church in Plymouth, MI. He is also an author and contributor to several GCD Books including everPresent and Make, Mature, Multiply. He writes personally at jwritebol.net. You can read all of Jeremy’s articles for GCD here.