What is certain in this New Year?

As we enter a new year, there are two things Paul says we can count on: First of all, we can “count ourselves dead to sin” and secondly, that we’re “alive to God,” Romans 6:11, both of which have been done for us by Jesus – the first one by his death, and the second by his life.

We do not travel through the new year, then, in our old body of sin. Jesus nailed it to the cross and rendered it powerless. We are free of it once and for all (verse 7). The typical human evils Paul talked about in chapters 1 and 2 “no longer have mastery” over us, just like they had no mastery over Jesus (verses 9-10).  

But that’s not all we can count on. We can also count on the fact that Jesus rose from the dead to lift us into a completely new life that’s just like the life he lives. And what kind of life is that? Simply put, Jesus “lives to God,” verse 10. And so can we, verse 11, because we’re “alive to God” too. 

It’s at this point a Christian may well ask, “But what’s our part in all this?” – because Jesus seems to have done everything for us. “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (4:25), so what’s left for us to do? We’ve already been credited with righteousness (4:24), we’re already at peace with God (5:1), we’ve already been saved from God’s wrath and reconciled to him (5:9-11), and now we discover sin has no power over us either, so now what? What part do we play in all this?

Paul has an answer: “Therefore,” Romans 6:12, now that we know we’re dead to sin and alive to God, “do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” It’s a nasty shock to discover that even though we’re walking in eternity with the living Christ, evil still exerts a strong influence on us in the here and now. It’s like the children in Narnia. They live in a wonderful new world, in which Aslan the great lion rules, but there’s also an evil witch in Narnia trying to thwart Aslan’s purpose, and the children still fall prey to their own desires and fears. It’s not a bed of roses for them; it’s a constant battle, but Aslan encourages them to keep pressing on, forget the mistakes and mishaps – count themselves dead to them – and be alive to him, because he is with them every step of the way and he will get them through.

And that’s just as certain for us too, all through this New Year.                 

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Are New Year’s resolutions in Scripture?

Where do New Year’s resolutions fit in with Christianity? Is willpower a part of our Christian walk? Is strict self-discipline a part we play in our sanctification? If so, wouldn’t the New Year be a good time to get a grip on ourselves, resolve some niggling problems at last, and make a determined effort at spiritual growth?

And wasn’t that what Paul was recommending in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27? He compares himself in these verses to an athlete preparing for competition: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training,” he writes in verse 25, and in verse 27, “I beat my body and make it my slave.” That sounds like a regime of strict self-discipline and bashing oneself into shape by willpower and resolve – like a New Year’s resolution, no less. And many Christians have interpreted these verses to mean exactly that too – that we must do our part in our spiritual formation by disciplining ourselves in various spiritual exercises, like prayer, meditation and Bible study.

But is that what Paul meant?

No, it wasn’t, as the context clearly shows. Paul’s talking about the job he’s been given of preaching the gospel, not describing life as a Christian. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel,” he writes in verse 16. And talking of bringing his body into slavery, it’s in the context of verse 19: “I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible,” and in verse 22, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

The context is clear, verse 23: “I do all this for the sake of the gospel.” And if we finish off verse 27, it says, “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” And what prize is he talking about? Verse 18, “What then is my reward? Just this; that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge.”

That was the prize he was “beating his body into submission” for. It was to get the gospel out effectively to win as many people as possible, without ever having to charge for it. He wasn’t talking about daily life as a Christian, nor was he even hinting at something like a New Year’s resolution as our part in our spiritual growth. Nor was he talking about strict self-discipline, or character-building exercises, or focusing on the strength of our own will to create changes in our lives. “The life I live in the body,” Paul wrote, “I live by faith in the Son of God,” not by human willpower, Galatians 2:20.

“Solving” Christmas in a multi-faith culture

One dreary November evening a small group of parents gathered at the local school to discuss Christmas, because children from many different religions had moved into the neighbourhood, none of whom observed Christmas as a religious holiday.

The school couldn’t ditch Christmas all together because it was still a “must-do” part of the school calendar. Somebody had suggested, therefore, that the name of Christmas be changed so the season could continue but include all the other religions too.

So the parents put their heads together to come up with a new name for Christmas. “How about a name that includes the names of all religions in it?” one parent asked. So they wrote the names of all the religions represented in their neighbourhood on the whiteboard. There were five main groups that they knew of: Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews. Since Christians were still the majority, they all agreed that the new name for Christmas should begin with the first three letters of Christianity: CHR.

After much playing around with letters from each of the other religions, one parent shouted, “I know, let’s call it Chrindubuddlimas.”

It had a nice ring to it, they all thought, until the one Jewish parent suddenly sat up and said, “But where is the Jewish religion mentioned?” Oh dear, she was right: Chrindubuddlimas included Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, but that was only four of the five religions in the neighbourhood represented, and it was sure to cause problems if other Jewish families noticed.

“How about Chruddhamuslindew?” another parent offered. And to her surprise there were nods of agreement. It certainly included all five religions. So they tried attaching “Happy” and “Merry” to it, and shortening it to “Happy Chruddamas” and “Merry Muslindew.” They liked it. It was fully inclusive, and with a bit of practice almost pronounceable.

So it was that the school solved the problem of Christmas in a multi-faith culture. It was nice too, because they could all indulge in the traditional Christmas festivities but have their own religious name attached to them, making the entire season their own holiday as well.

So on that happy note, the parents ended the meeting with a resounding cry of “Happy Chruddhamuslindew,” and even though only two of the twenty parents pronounced it correctly, it felt like a new wave of peace and goodwill had passed through them that dreary November night. Pity, one parent added, about the Scientologist, the Mormon family, three new Jehovah’s Witnesses and a Wiccan lady who’d just moved into the neighbourhood.

But one step at a time. For now Chruddhamuslindew would be the new culture-sensitive Christmas.

How does Jesus being born as a baby help us personally?

Years ago I accepted what Jesus’ birth meant, that he was born to save me from my sins, Matthew 1:21. But I still wondered how Jesus being born as a helpless human baby accomplished that. And how did the rest of Jesus’ human life make any difference to the life I’m stuck with now?

Well, for a start, I’ve lived long enough to know I can’t do much about my life. No matter what I say, do, or think seems to make any noticeable dent or improvement in who I am and what I’ve become. It’s too late to repair the damage done too. I’m so burdened down with addictions, inadequacies, phobias and worries that I’m clearly beyond the bounds of human help. Oh, I’ve tried with all my might to patch up the damage with good behaviour and a selfless life of serving people, but the effort left me frustrated and exhausted.

I felt like Paul when he said, “What a wretched man I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?” – because I couldn’t do anything about my exhausted wreck of a life either. So now what? Well, I knew that God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man” (Romans 8:3), meaning that Jesus in his human death dealt a death blow to my wreck of a life. But that only got rid of the mess of a life I’d already lived. How would his human life change my life in the future?

Well, Paul said we are “saved though his life” (Romans 5:10), which I took that to mean there was more Jesus would do in my life in the future, and his human life was the key to that too. But how? According to Paul it was through Jesus living the way he lived as a human being in me, which he could do through the same Spirit power that enabled him to be who he was as a human (Romans 8:10-11).

And what the Spirit did for Jesus in his human life was fix his attention on the Father every time his human frailty and weakness threatened to overcome him (Hebrews 5:7). Meaning that, when I need rescuing from my human weakness and frailty, that same Spirit stirs me to call on the Father too, so that I can experience in my life what Jesus experienced in his life. So in Jesus being born as a helpless baby, and later as a helpless adult too, I have the clue to my own helplessness: It is the Father helping me personally, just as he helped Jesus.

Is God into obligated giving?

I’ve read many articles that question the practice of obligated giving at Christmas. It creates so many problems, like having to give a gift to someone who gave a gift to you, or not receiving a gift of equal value, or receiving a gift you don’t like and having to say thank you, or knowing the gift you’ve received was probably a last minute purchase with little real thought behind it, and more than likely it was bought on sale.

The practice of obligated giving still continues, however, creating the usual mayhem of packed shopping centres, distracted minds while driving, the stress of finding gifts for people who have everything, and the far more serious problem of losing the understanding of what a “gift” actually is.

A gift by definition is something given willingly without anything expected in return. Christmas, however, has transformed that into something given by force of tradition and obligation with full expectation of something in return. In other words, you give with an agenda, to meet a requirement, and to get something back.

No wonder so many people view God that way, that if we meet his requirements we get something back from him too. So rather than viewing God as the great giver of all spiritual gifts that he lavishes on us purely because he loves us, God has to give us what we want because we give him what he wants from us. In other words, we obligate him to give because we fulfill his conditions. We make him into the Christmas god who gives because he has to.

Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:4-5, however, that God “chose us in him before the creation of the world…to be adopted as his sons…in accordance with his pleasure and will.” God’s great gift to all us humans was to make us his children, which he does purely out of love and pleasure on his part, and long before any of us existed. So it wasn’t because we gave something to him that he felt obligated to give something back. This wasn’t an exchange of gifts, nor was there any obligation, on his part or ours, to give.

And Christmas is supposed to be celebrating that, that everything God accomplished for us through his Son “showed his love among us” (1 John 4:9). He showed us what real giving is like, that it’s all done willingly with no strings attached, no expectations of a gift in return, and no requirements to fulfill. His kind of giving, in other words, is the total opposite to the giving we’ve created at Christmas.

(More still about) if Jesus had not been born

If Jesus had not been born we wouldn’t have the Spirit and without the Spirit we’d have no idea that God is our Father and no clue what our Father is up to: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit,” 1 Corinthians 2:9-10.

With the Spirit we do see what our Father is up to. We see Colossians 1:19-29, that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Jesus Christ), and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” We see how God our Father has been preparing the entire universe for eternity through Jesus Christ, where all eventually will be at peace – just as the angels promised in Luke 2:14 when Jesus was born.

But how is God bringing peace to the universe through Jesus Christ? It began with Christ’s death. Jesus was then brought back from the dead to ascend to heaven in triumphant victory, Colossians 2:15, so that he could become head of the church, Colossians 1:18, Ephesians 1:22-23, because it’s through the church that Jesus would start the ball rolling. The church would be the place where the work of bringing peace to the world would be done.

The evidence of that was soon obvious. Jews and Gentiles, ardent enemies outside the church, became equals and friends in the church. The change was remarkable. The reason, however, was clear, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,” Ephesians 2:14. Jesus was at work already, his clear purpose being “to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace,” verse 15.

It was in the church that the seeds of universal peace were being sown. It was only in the church though, because that was the only group on the planet responding to what Christ was doing, and the only group on earth capable of doing it. But this is why Jesus ascended to heaven, “so that the body of Christ (the church) may be built up until we all reach unity.” Ephesians 4:12-13. The church would be a wonderful place to be, because “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love,” verse 16.

Jesus was born to bring peace to the earth. He died and ascended to heaven to make it possible. And the evidence that he’s doing it is in his church today.

(More about) if Jesus had not been born…

If Jesus had not been born there would be no promised Spirit, and without the Spirit we would never know that God is actually our Father. And not knowing God as our Father we would never know what it’s like to be his child. And not knowing what it’s like to be his child we would never experience, or even know about, the two great gifts that God has for his children.

Those two gifts are grace and peace, Ephesians 1:2.

Grace begins with this little gem in verse 4, that “Before the world was made God had already chosen us to be his in Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him.” That’s God’s first gift to us, the understanding that our eternal future as his perfect, unblemished children was already done and dusted before the universe even appeared.

In other words, this entire plan for us humans was completely accomplished before we even existed. And from beginning to end it is all God’s doing too: He’s the one who chose us, he’s the one who makes us perfect, and he’s the one who provides us with Christ and the Spirit to make it all happen. God designed us in such a way, therefore, that everything about us and for us would be a gift. It would all be based on grace.

And because Jesus was born, that little gem is now being made known to us in the same way it was made known to Paul, that “everything in heaven and on earth will be brought into a unity in Christ,” verse 10, meaning it’s going to happen, it’s purely by God’s doing, it’s he who makes it all possible in Christ, because he’s our loving Father.

So where does that leave us? If it’s now dawned on us that it’s all by God’s grace that we become his eternally happy children, and all by God’s Spirit that we come to understand his “secret purpose” and “the plan he determined beforehand in Christ” (verses 9-10), and all by Jesus Christ being born as a human that everything is going to work out just marvellously in the end for the entire universe, who wouldn’t be at peace?

Exactly; because that’s the second gift awaiting God’s children when their eyes open to his plan: It’s beautiful, wonderful peace, that’s endlessly stirred and revived by knowing that no matter what happens to us in this life our loving Father has it all in hand. And he has it all in hand because of Christ. And because Christ was born, everything in our lives now is unfolding exactly as planned as well.

Grace. And peace.