As this year draws to a close and the prospect of a new year reminds us again that time marches on, many will see the turning of the calendar as a their annual stimulus for personal change. Those who are stirred in this way will often try to make January 1st the day to make significant and hopefully lasting improvements in health or physical fitness, or in the area of personal or spiritual disciplines. We have come to call these annual commitments “new year’s resolutions.”
January 1st might be the day a person resolves to stop smoking, or over-eating, or watching so much TV. It might be the day someone resolves to start walking, running, or lifting weights. For the Christian, it might be the day to increase Bible reading, to begin to pray regularly, or to begin the regular practice of family worship. Many of these are noble pursuits, but do these new year’s resolutions really work? Do we find that we are frequently successful in making significant and lasting changes by means of this annual form of sincere commitment?
In asking myself these questions, I had to admit that I could not think of even one significant or lasting change in my life that had come as the result of such a calendar-driven resolution. Nor could I point to such a change in anyone I know. Some of you may have a different experience, but it seems the reality for most people is that new year’s resolutions are almost universally unsuccessful. Even allowing for isolated exceptions, if we were to put the overall success of new year’s resolutions into statistical form—like the batting average for a baseball player—everyone I know would be batting somewhere close to .000!
As Christians, such a miserable ratio of success to failure should cause us to examine the whole concept of the new year’s resolution from a biblical perspective. When we do this, we are immediately confronted with several obvious problems:
First, for the Christian to be driven or motivated toward personal resolution by a change of the calendar frankly seems a little superstitious. The Romans are the ones who established our current calendar, and they named the days and the months in honor of their pagan gods. And the actual tradition of making new year’s resolutions is said to date back four thousand years to the Babylonians. Since they believed that whatever you did on the first day of the year would establish your pattern of behavior for the whole year, they began the practice of making positive resolutions on that day.
We all know that there is nothing inherently evil about a calendar, no matter who developed it. We all use them as necessary tools in ordering our lives and coordinating events. But as Christians, to say that January 1st is somehow the best day to make personal resolutions is to pattern ourselves after two societies that were completely steeped in paganism.
Secondly, we know that when we are convicted of sin—in other words, when we come to realize through prayer and our study of the Bible that a particular area of our life is out of step with God’s revealed will—the conviction we feel is the working of the Holy Spirit in us. For us to then say that we are most significantly convicted of the need for change in the days or weeks leading up to January 1st is to say that the Holy Spirit is somehow constrained or motivated by the same pagan system of days that motivated the Romans and the Babylonians. But the Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit is like the wind—working where, when, and in whom He pleases. He is not bound or controlled by anything human (John 3:8).
Thirdly, as Christians we know that we are to live in a continual state of repentance, always being sensitive to the necessity for change, always pursuing holiness, and always seeking to obey Christ. To wait until January 1st, viewing it as the one time each year when we make what we hope will be the most significant of these changes is to say that they were not just as necessary on May 7th, or August 19th, or any other day of the year.
What does the Bible have to say about personal resolutions?
The English word “resolution” is the noun form of the verb “resolve.” When you resolve to do something, you have made a resolution. The word “resolve” can also be a noun. A person who makes firm resolutions, and keeps them, is a person who possesses a good deal of resolve. The adjective form of the word is “resolute.” A person who has resolve—one who makes and keeps firm resolutions—is a resolute person.
These three English words have a very limited use in the Bible. No form of this English word group is used at all in the New American Standard Bible. The various forms are used four times in the New King James Version, and only once in the King James Version. Clearly, the translators of these three respected versions of the Bible did not commonly find that this word group provided the best translation of the words used in the Greek or Hebrew texts. In contrast, the same Greek and Hebrew words are translated many other places in these versions as the different forms of the words “know,” “judge,” or “determine.”
The rarity of this English word group in Scripture should not lead us to conclude, however, that it is wrong to make personal resolutions. It simply leads us toward the fact that personal resolution is not seen in Scripture as the catch-all answer to our human faults and failures. In fact, where personal resolve is described in the Bible (even where the specific word is not used) the result is often shown to be failure due to personal moral weakness.
The classic example of this is Peter. The night before Jesus was crucified He said to His disciples, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night . . .” (Matt. 26:31). Peter’s determined, resolute response was, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.” As we all know, Peter subsequently stumbled, denying Jesus three times despite his personal resolution to the contrary. Another example is found in Romans chapter 7, where Paul seems to be a resolute man who nevertheless admits failure. He writes, “For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (v. 15). Certainly, Paul was speaking of the inadequacy of personal resolve when he lamented his own inability to do the things he willed to do, and to avoid the things he willed not to do.
But these examples of failure do not mean that we should never make personal resolutions. In fact, in Romans 14:13 (NKJV) Paul instructs Christians to make just such a resolution. In teaching us that we should not force certain personal convictions upon other Christians or judge them according to standards that are not specifically given in Scripture, he writes, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.” In these kinds of matters, Paul is saying, let us not make a determination as to how our brother should behave. Instead, let us make a strong and certain determination as to how we will behave. Let us resolve never to do anything that will cause our brother, who is convicted differently than we are in this instance, to stumble into sin.
So at least in this one instance, the idea of making a personal resolution—a personal and determined commitment to change or improve our own behavior—is given to us as a command. And nothing in the Scriptures would indicate that it is wrong in other cases to make such personal resolutions.
Job spoke of personal resolve when he said he had made a covenant with his eyes so that he would not look lustfully at a young woman (cf. Job 31:1). Psalm 119 is literally filled with personal resolutions. Numerous times the psalmist notes these personal commitments with statements like the ones found in verses 15-16: “I will meditate on Your precepts . . . I will not forget Your word.” This whole psalm, in fact, is an expression of love for God’s Word and of personal resolve to make it the very center of the psalmist’s life.
In the New Testament, even though the language of resolution is conspicuously rare, the concept is prevalent. In 2 Corinthians 5:9, Paul writes, “Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him.” The words, “we make it our aim,” are certainly meant to convey the idea of personal resolve. Though Peter failed in his resolve never to deny Christ, his impending death later caused him to resolve that his readers would be well taught even after he was gone (cf. 2 Pet. 1:12-15).
Since the Scriptures tell us in several places that the Christian life is a life lived by faith (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 2:20), some may feel that personal resolve and strenuous effort have no place. While no one should neglect or minimize the necessity of faith as it relates to Christian sanctification, no one should forget that Christian faith is not passive. Christian faith works itself out through personal resolve, self-discipline, and effort. As J. C. Ryle notes in the introduction to his classic work, Holiness, the same Apostle Paul who wrote, “the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20), also wrote, “I run,” “I fight,” “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection” (1 Cor. 9:26-27). Paul additionally instructs us to “cleanse ourselves” (2 Cor. 7:1), and to discipline ourselves “for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). John tells us that every true follower of Christ “purifies himself” (1 John 3:3). And the writer of Hebrews commands Christians to pursue holiness, “without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
Unquestionably, these are instructions for living the Christian life of faith by the means of personal discipline and unflinching resolve. Merely reading these passages should stir up a passion within the Christian to go out and do them. But as with Peter the night before Christ was crucified, there is a danger. We can easily forget that human effort is useless in and of itself.
Unless our resolve is the out-flowing of the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we, like Peter, will fail. As Jesus said to his disciples, “without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Paul’s words to the Philippians are particularly helpful as we seek to understand how human effort relates to divine power and providence.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).
First Paul tells them what to do. He tells them to “work out” their own salvation—to fulfill their intended purpose of obedience to Christ. Paul is telling them to resolve to live the way Christians should live. But then he assures them that the power, strength, and even the will behind their resolve and their success belongs to God.
Paul is telling us that in the visible and understandable realm of human experience, it is our responsibility to exert the effort and develop the essential disciplines of the Christian life if we are to become more like Christ. But as we resolve to discipline ourselves and to diligently pursue holiness, we need to know that there is a deeper truth underlying and empowering our experience—the powerful reality that God is the one enabling, compelling, and willing all that takes place. And He does it all “for His good pleasure.”
With this understanding, we should resolve to live as Paul commanded the Philippians to live. We should strive to be “blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation . . .” (Phil. 2:15). But we should never be fooled into understanding our personal resolve as something that comes ultimately from ourselves. Our effort, our self-discipline, and our resolve to live a holy life are creations of God—tools in His hands. He uses them, as they are guided by His Word and empowered by His Spirit, to accomplish His purpose.
Once we understand that everything is of God, that everything is according to His purpose, and that everything works together to bring Him glory (Rom. 11:36), we should try to be certain that our personal resolutions are compatible with His revealed will. In short, we should be biblical in making personal resolutions and we should be encouraged, knowing that God will accomplish those things which please Him. And we should never expect God to enable us to keep our resolutions when they are frivolous or contrary to His revealed will.
Perhaps one reason for the general failure of personal resolutions is our haste in making them. If we were to take some time to think, study, and pray before we hurry into another exercise in futility, maybe we would actually experience success. God promises that His people will ultimately be successful, not necessarily in worldly or vain pursuits, but in our pursuit of holiness. He has told us that we are being sanctified—we are being made like Christ (Rom. 8:29). But we also know that the main tool in our sanctification is not our own personal resolve, but rather God working in us through His Word (John 17:17). If the Bible is God’s best tool, we should make it ours as well.
A Few Considerations Before Making Personal Resolutions:
Before making any resolution, consider the Scriptures carefully.
Some matters for the Christian are clearly commanded or forbidden in the Bible (i.e. to love one another, to pray without ceasing, to gather with the church, etc.). In these matters, we need only to resolve that we will be obedient to Christ.
Other matters are not so clearly or specifically commanded or forbidden (i.e. what time to get up in the morning, how many chapters in the Bible to read daily, what kinds of places you will allow yourself to go, or what types of things you will allow yourself to view, read, or hear). It is in these areas where it is often profitable to make a specific personal resolution. For example, a Christian might make a personal resolution never to view or listen to any form of entertainment in which sexual immorality is treated as humorous or affirmed as proper behavior.
In such cases, where Scripture is not specific and detailed, we should seek the Lord’s will through prayer, through the careful consideration of related biblical principles, and in some cases, through wise and godly counsel (Psalm 119:130; Proverbs 3:4-5; James 1:5).
Before making any resolution, consider your other necessary duties.
As Christians, we have a number of pre-existing responsibilities that must take precedence over personal resolutions. It would be wrong to resolve to do something that would prevent you from fulfilling necessary duties. Before making any personal resolution, ask yourself how it will affect other essential things such as church attendance (Heb. 10:25), provision for your family (1 Tim. 5:8), or the biblical relation to your spouse (Eph. 5:23-27; Col. 3:18-19). For example, if a man resolves to rise so early in the morning for personal Bible study that he is regularly too tired to be biblically loving toward his wife, or to instruct his children in the Word of God, his resolution needs to be adjusted.
Before making any resolution, know that you are being watched.
We often have the tendency to immediately make our personal resolutions known to everyone around us. No one plans to fail when they resolve to do something, but like Peter we are weak and we do fail—all too often! Even among our family and in the church, this can cause others to lose confidence and even respect.
For example, if someone repeatedly resolves to rise early, but instead continues to sleep in, those who know of his resolution will begin to see him as undisciplined, if not dishonest. While the Christian family will forgive, the rest of the world is not so kind. Our boasting of a personal resolution as a Christian, followed by our failure to keep that resolution, can damage our witness or even lead to the name of Christ being mocked.
Before making a resolution, and especially before making it known to others, consider how your family, your church, and the reputation of Christ in a watching world will be affected, either by your faithfulness, or by your failure to follow through (Luke 14:28-30).
Before making any resolution, examine your motives.
Even our best plans can be marred by impure motives (cf. Jeremiah 17:9-10). As Charles Spurgeon once said, “Sin penetrates our holy things.” So before making a personal resolution, examine your motives by asking yourself a few honest and searching questions. You may think of others, but here are several to get you started:
1) Is it truly my goal in making this resolution to glorify God through obedience and self-discipline and to receive the praise that comes only from Him? Or am I trying to gain the approval and admiration of people? (cf. Luke 6:26; 1 Cor. 4:3-5)
2) Am I trying to appease my conscience by doing well in this one area in order to distract myself from conviction of another sinful behavior? (cf. Matthew 15:1-6)
3) Am I acting defensively, angrily, or in prideful response to criticism from another person? In other words, do I have a sort of “I’ll show them” motive for making this resolution? (cf. Phil. 2:3)
Before making any resolution, consider the cost.
We don’t generally need to resolve to do the easy things. The difficulty, discomfort, self-denial, and even sometimes persecution involved in the Christian’s pursuit of holiness are the very aspects that make personal resolution necessary. Consider these carefully, weighing them opposite the rewards. Then determine that by God’s strength you will endure, understanding the price you must pay, and knowing that what you are doing is good and right.
For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.
(1 Pet. 2:19-21)