As Christians do we need New Year’s resolutions or the rigorous practice of “spiritual disciplines” to make ourselves more spiritual? It sounds like we do in 1 Corinthians 9:27 when Paul says, “I beat my body and make it my slave,” and in 1 Timothy 4:7 when he tells Timothy to “train yourself to be godly.”
But if Paul was truly encouraging human resolve and the practice of spiritual disciplines for spiritual growth in those verses he’d be contradicting himself, because in 2 Corinthians 3:8-9 he says it’s the “ministry of the Spirit that brings righteousness,” and in verse 18 that we “are being transformed into his (Christ’s) likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
So, where does our spiritual formation come from? From the Lord.
And who is transforming us into Christ’s likeness? The Holy Spirit.
And whose ministry creates righteousness? The Spirit’s ministry.
There is no talk of us playing any part in our righteousness or transformation into Christ’s likeness. Our spiritual formation and growth are entirely the work of the Spirit. And for Paul to even hint that spiritual growth involves something we do would open him up to being challenged with the same question he challenged the Galatians with in Galatians 3:3: “Are you so foolish?” he asked them. “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”
The Galatians had been depending totally on the “miracle-working Spirit” (verse 5) for their spiritual growth – but now they were reverting back to depending on their own efforts.
But surely there’s some effort on our part required, isn’t there? Surely the effort of spiritual disciplines is necessary for “stirring” the Spirit, isn’t it? Won’t the Spirit work more effectively in our lives, in other words, if we’re doing our part better, like praying more, studying more and obeying more?
But that’s exactly what the Galatians thought and Paul took them to task for it in verse 2 with a very direct question: “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” Did the Spirit work miracles in their lives because of their obedience or their belief in the gospel – which? Oh, they knew which: It was their belief, and nothing more.
And that’s why I say “bah humbug” to New Year’s resolutions, or resolve of any human sort, because our spiritual growth is entirely the work of the Spirit, not human effort, and the only thing needed for stirring that miracle-working Spirit in our lives is belief in the gospel. It’s only foolish people (says Paul) who believe they can grow spiritually by their own resolve and willpower.