Is there any ‘resolution’ we make as Christians?

New Year’s resolutions seem like a good idea for pumping new life and energy into our Christian walk, but what exactly can we resolve to do when we’ve already got “everything we need for life and godliness,” 2 Peter 1:3? And what can we do to make gains spiritually next year when we “do not lack any spiritual gift,” 1 Corinthians 1:7? In fact, where does making resolutions come into the picture at all when we’ve already been “blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ,” Ephesians 1:3?

Surely it’s “by the Spirit” too, not our resolve, that we “put to death the misdeeds of the body,” Romans 8:13, and Paul even called the Galatians foolish for “beginning with the Spirit,” but resorting back to “human effort” in their resolve to be good Christians, Galatians 3:3.

So what’s left for us to “resolve” to do if we’ve already got everything we need, and it’s only by the Spirit, not our efforts, that we grow spiritually?

There’s a clue in 2 Corinthians 5:18 where Paul tells us God has “reconciled us to himself through Christ.” Paul assures us our relationship with God is firm, secure and complete forever because of Christ. There is nothing we did to make that perfect reconciliation happen, and nothing we do now either – like “inviting Jesus into our hearts” or praying a certain way – to make that relationship happen.

But if God totally reconciled us to him already, why did Paul then say in verse 20, “BE reconciled to God,” as if there’s something we do too?

Because there is: It’s opening our minds to, and accepting, God’s reconciliation. It’s all well and good hearing about it, that God has totally reconciled himself to us for nothing we did or do, but have we really clued into that yet and accepted it? It’s like a child receiving a Christmas present and his parents crying out, “Well, go on, open it,” because what’s the point of the gift if the child doesn’t see what he’s got and enjoy it?

When Paul says “Be reconciled to God,” therefore, it’s a plea to Christians to please, please, please clue in to what we’ve been given and believe it. Believe that God has made us his friends forever, purely because of what he accomplished for us in Christ, so that next year, instead of fretting about our relationship with God, we can live in, bask in, and enjoy the fact that HE made and makes that relationship happen. It’s “the Spirit (who) works miracles in us” – the miracles of love for and faith in God. And all Paul asks of us is to resolve to believe it (Galatians 3:5).


Bah humbug to New Year’s resolutions

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.

God’s double dose of first aid for the new year

Now that we’ve been saved from past sins by Christ’s death, is it up to us now to obey God? It seems like it is in Romans 6:12, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” That sounds like it’s up to us now to stop sinning.

Which is odd, because if we couldn’t stop sinning before, what suddenly makes us capable of stopping sin now? What changed? Well, in my experience, nothing changed. I’m still who I am. Sin still exerts a strong influence on me, just as it did before. It creeps up on me unawares, I obey its evil desires and, unfortunately, my body is often an “instrument of wickedness” still.

But something did change. Christ was raised from the dead. And the reason he came back from the dead was to lift us up with him, verse 8, so that we could “live to God” just like he does, verse 10. Jesus didn’t leave us on the sidewalk clutching his death as our only means of dealing with sin, he also gave us his life. As we travel through this life, then, we discover we have two first aid kits with us when sin does us damage, not just one, and both of them are with us wherever we go.

In one kit we carry the saving power of Christ’s death, and while we carry it, sin will never have mastery over us ever again. It doesn’t matter how many times we mess up, sin can never kill us. But sin isn’t dead, it’s still alive. It can’t kill us but it’s all around us every step we take. It’s like a wood full of blood-sucking insects constantly buzzing round your head. You can swat a hundred of them but a hundred more take their place. That’s sin. There’s no getting away from it, and it could drive us mad with frustration and despair – but that’s when we feel the reassuring handle of the other first aid kit, given to us when Jesus came back from the dead, because in that kit we carry the saving power of Christ’s life.

And while we carry that kit, we will always live to God. Even in our worst moments of weakness, when it looks like sin has total mastery of us and we’re the worst Christians on the planet, we’re still thinking of God, aren’t we? We can’t forget him. It might be only the tiniest spark, but we’re still “alive” to him, verse 11, and we hate what we’re doing. Well, that’s Christ’s life in us, our second first aid kit for the new year.          

What is the purpose of this temporary, finite, stressed out human life of ours?

To a Christian the purpose of this temporary life of ours is to be willing to go where we don’t want to go, because that’s what life was all about for Jesus. That’s how Paul phrased it in Philippians 2:5-11, that Jesus came as a human to do what God wanted and “God exalted him to the highest place” for doing so. And as Paul says in verse 5, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ,” and if it is then God will exalt us too.

We have our purpose clearly spelled out for us, therefore, as to why we’re alive in this temporary, finite, stressed out body of ours that one day dies. Simply put, it’s doing what God wants and he will exalt us. And that sounds great until you realize God also took Jesus in directions during his human lifetime that stretched him way beyond his comfort zone (Matthew 26:38, Hebrews 5:7).

But why did God do that to him? Because the test God put to us humans from the very beginning in the book of Genesis was: Would we go in the direction he wanted us to go?

If the answer was “Yes,” then God could proceed with the glorious and highly exalted purpose he had for humans as rulers and guardians of this planet.

If the answer was “No,” then that was the end of humans – unless and until a human existed who was willing to go in the direction God wanted, come what may.

And Jesus was the first to volunteer. He lived a life of going exactly in the direction God wanted, regardless of what happened to himself. As a result, God opened the door to anyone else willing to follow Jesus’ example, and to those who said, “Yes, I understand your purpose for this temporary existence of mine, and I’m going for it,” God promised he would provide all the help they needed to keep going, no matter how stressful life became, just as he provided that help for Jesus (Hebrews 5:7).

And as a Dad I understand how God must feel toward a child who is willing to go in directions he or she would rather not go. I believe there is nothing God is more proud of than a human who accepts that this is what this temporary, finite, stressed-out human life is for, and throws his lot in with God’s purpose, trusting God every step of the way to keep his head above water and keep on serving others as Jesus did, no matter how this life turns out, because he totally believes God will exalt him to a new, unending, thrilling life next.

Do we play a part in our spiritual formation and growth?

A New Year dawns and with it a determined resolve to get our spiritual lives in shape. Echoes of 1 Timothy 4:7 come to mind, perhaps, when Paul told Timothy, “Train yourself to be godly.” Ah yes, we say to ourselves, it’s time to get rid of those embarrassing spiritual cobwebs and get back into spiritual training again, back to the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible study, turn over a new leaf, make a plan for spiritual improvement and get serious about our spiritual growth, etc, etc.

But is that what Paul’s talking about in 1 Timothy 4:7?

No, it isn’t. There are many Christians of late who say it is, however, who use that verse to prove that spiritual disciplines are necessary for all Christians as our part in our spiritual growth and formation. But the context says nothing of the sort. In context, Paul is not issuing a general command to all Christians to discipline themselves for spiritual formation, he’s specifically advising a young minister, Timothy, in how to conduct his ministry.

He’s talking to Timothy, mentor to student, advising Timothy to “be diligent” (15) in both his life and teaching to help protect the people in his care from being deceived. He’s encouraging Timothy to be a “good minister of Christ Jesus” (6) by sticking to the “truths of the faith” and the “good teaching” he’d received to combat “deceiving spirits” (1) that were influencing people into believing and teaching “godless myths and old wives’ tales” (7).

This is an older minister’s personal advice to a young minister facing some real challenges in his churches. “So, watch your life and doctrine closely,” Paul tells Timothy in verse 16, “persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” – “save” in context here meaning protect the Christians in his care from deception by demons. Paul knows what Timothy is up against, so he’s encouraging Timothy to keep his life well-grounded at all times in the truths he’d been taught, because that’s what Timothy had been gifted as a minister for, to inspire the church by his example (12), his teaching (13) and his progress (15).

Unfortunately, 1 Timothy 4:7 – just like 1 Corinthians 9:27 – has been used to create the idea that we play a part in our spiritual formation and growth, and that it’s necessary for us to discipline ourselves to make ourselves godly. But that is not what Paul is talking about in either of these verses, and if it was it would contradict what he wrote in Galatians 2:16, “that a man is not justified by observing the law” – or any other discipline – “but by faith in Jesus Christ.”

It’s the journey that makes us grow

Jesus has us on a journey, just like Aslan the lion took the children on a journey in the land of Narnia, because it was the journey that grew them up. It wasn’t their efforts or their determination or “doing their part” that made them grow, it was simply what happened to them on the journey.

As we live in eternity with Christ right now, this is what happens to us too. It’s not our efforts that grow us up, it’s the journey. This is the stage where Jesus now saves us by his life. His death got the journey started for us, but “how much more shall we be saved through his life!” Romans 5:10. There’s a lot more to come, all of which brings us closer and closer to God, to the point we really begin to “rejoice” in him, verse 11.

That’s the journey Jesus now has us on, our very own “pilgrim’s progress.” His death began the journey but what follows grows us up. It’s like the children stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. Their journey had just begun; it’s what followed that did wonderful things to them. It was tough at times, yes, but they grew, and every bit of what happened to them served some aspect of Aslan’s marvellous plan for them, that one day they would be kings and queens in his kingdom.

The children had no idea at the start that this was Aslan’s plan, or that the journey they were embarking on would perfectly prepare them for what Aslan had in mind. Nor do we. We have no idea what Jesus “saving us by his life” means, or any previous experience of it. Paul does give us a clue, though, that there will be “sufferings,” verse 3, so the journey will be tough at times, but it’s just as much a part of our salvation, because it grows us up in “perseverance, character and hope,” verse 4, all of which are perfect preparation for what Jesus has in mind for us. We can, therefore, “rejoice in our sufferings,” verse 3, knowing that they’re all part of the journey that’s taking us to the exact point Jesus has planned for us to be at.

And like Aslan, Jesus keeps us encouraged along the way, pouring his love into our hearts (verse 5) so that we never stop hoping and believing in him, that through all this mess we have to go through, there’s a marvellous purpose to it all. And what part do we play in all this? The same part the children played in Narnia. They lived life as it happened, because it was the journey that made them grow.

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.