For many years, I made no New Year’s resolutions. My reasoning:
- Why make a big deal just because the planet has revolved around the sun to an arbitrary point in space?
- Why try to be a better persons on this one day when I should be doing it all the time?
- Are resolutions relevant to me, since I don’t need to quit smoking, drinking or gambling?
I’ve come to think differently, having taken another look at the Bible and paid closer attention to human behavior. For the past 5 years or so, I have made a single New Year’s Resolution on December 31.
The Word reveals to us that there are two methods for making resolutions.
Method A: “I will try really hard to be a better person in this area.” But don’t we all know what happens? The resolution comes unraveled, usually within a few days or weeks. “45 percent of Americans make resolutions, but only 8 percent keep them.” And so, red-faced, we push our noble plan to the back of our minds, at least until next year.
We Christians have the inside knowledge that the problem lies with the one who is doing the resolving. The words “carnal” or “fleshly” refers to “humanity as flesh is contrasted with Spirit, [it] is sinful, and without the aid of the Spirit cannot please God.” Yes, those outside of Christ can and do make resolutions. Nevertheless they will fall short, and for several fundamental reasons: they lack God’s wisdom concerning how they should alter their lives; they have not been born again and changed in the New Covenant; without the Spirit they might come to be relatively better persons, but they cannot alter their nature, please God or effect any real change (Rom 8:5-8). They launch the New Year with hopeful hearts, but their resolutions are fragile ice crystals that melt under the January sun.
The disturbing thing is that some of these people are Christians, who listen to their peers and reach for the same old bag of tricks for self-improvement. Oh, sure, they add religion to the mix: they might pray for strength; they may even have the Bible as their guiding star. Many (most?) of us Christians try to do a spiritual thing but in a “carnal” manner. For example, one famous preacher wrote about resolutions, but most of his advice is plain common sense, the sort of thing you might get from Reader’s Digest: Don’t start out assuming you will fail; be realistic; don’t be self-centered; take concrete steps; have an accountability partner; don’t get discouraged. Toss in a Bible verse and a word or two about prayer, and voilà – a way of life that bears a surface resemblance to the gospel, but at heart is the world’s system. It is putting new wine into old wineskins and it will lead to frustrated intentions and efforts, no matter how sincere they are (see Matt 5:17).
Let’s take a step backward and think for a minute: Is this the miraculous, paradigm-breaking new life promised to us in Christ: Be a sensible person, Be realistic, Take small steps? What happened to the Bible’s jumbo-sized promises of a life of dynamic, lasting change?
Method B – God steps in to make us like him, first when we are saved and then moment by moment. Yes, we take steps and put forth effort in faith, but God himself is the real agent of change. The Bible plan is that “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom 8:9). That means that any change in our lives must be spiritual (which in Paul’s language means “in and through the Spirit”), not through our efforts (the flesh, human common sense, without supernatural power).
Let’s unpack the Bible teaching with a “for instance”: If I resolve to be less selfish this year, and by next year, before God, I am authentically 25% less selfish, then my friends, we have witnessed a miracle, a work that only God can do. The yardstick of comparison would not be the success rate of the nicotine patch or Weight Watchers, but the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 or the healing of the lame man or even the creation of the stars, the sun, the moon. It will be the fruit of Almighty God’s involvement within us.
There is an excellent example in 1 Thess 4:10: “concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” Paul was looking back to the prophecies of the New Covenant in Jer 31:31-34 and Ezek 36:26, showing how the pagan Thessalonians were living in the miraculous love that is the “fruit of the Spirit.” He is also directly alluding to Isa 54:13, “I will make all your sons taught by God.” “Taught by God” is not just taking a class about love; it is his complete package for change from the inside out. To the extent that they are walking in the Spirit, believers find that they are being motivated, are thinking, acting and reacting differently than they used to. In modern terms, the Spirit has re-written their software.
The Israelites looked forward to the New Covenant, but did not claim to have experienced its wonders. How blessed are we! From Pentecost onward, each believer is a temple of the Spirit, a “new creation.” This means that Christians have a fundamentally different nature than those we see every day in the world.
But back to the Christians who don’t understand what God has done, and who attempt to do good in their own power, or even in their own power mixed with some prayer or with a couple of relevant Bible verses on their smartphone. In fact, anyone at all could memorize Proverbs 23:20-21 –
Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.
And that person might find good help; he need not even be a Christian; he could be a Muslim or atheist or nothing in particular. But in gospel terms, this method of change can be as “fleshly” as the one who does evil things for evil reasons. That is what was happening in Galatia, where the Judaizers were struggling hard to be the people God wanted them to be; not only did they fall short, but they plummeted below the level they had started from. Legalists, according to Gal 5:16-17, become ever more angry, judgmental, bitter, divisive, sexually out of control.
What an embarrassing failure for all who name the name of Christ but reject his plan for life. They crouch in the shadow of the Spirit’s massive power plant, but imagine it’s best to rub two sticks together. It’s fruitless, and it’s an offense to God who provided us a crucified Savior in order to give us the ability to perceive, dream of, desire, and follow the holy path that he lays out for us (Eph 2:10).
Those who focus on the New Covenant live better than those who formulate tons of rules. That doesn’t mean that we “go all limp” and make no decisions; on the contrary, it turns us into active agents, as we ask that our decisions be an expression of God working through us.
The Christian’s New Year’s Resolutions ought to begin and end with confidence in Christ, with the power of the Spirit, with the New Covenant that rewrites us spiritually and, if we want to use the terms, in the realms of the motivational, the psychological, the behavioral, the social.
So, getting back to me: for the past 5 years or so, I have made New Year’s Resolutions. One had to do with my devotional life; another with my less-than-kind-attitude toward a specific group of people. I prayed. But my prayers did not sound like “I’m trying hard, Lord, I promise to do better, give me a push toward accomplishing my goal.” Rather I prayed along these lines, on December 31 and continually from then on:
Lord, you say in your Word that I should walk like ___. Mere self-control or determination will do me no good. But I confess that you are the God of the New Covenant and that you have made me to walk in holiness in this area of ___. Thus I ask that you would continue to rewrite me and change me from the inside out, doing a miracle by your powerful Holy Spirit. I believe that this will result in me living for you in this area of my life, making decisions and taking action as you guide me.
Do New Covenant Resolutions work? Well – if they didn’t, there is no way I would be writing this post!
 The US government actually maintains a list of the most popular resolutions (click HERE http://www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/New-Years-Resolutions.shtml).
 G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 511.
And you can find my books here. Three are free. The Thessalonians commentary deals with our theme.
“New Year’s Resolutions or New Covenant Miracles?” By Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica