by Jordan J. Ballor
Social scientists tell us that by the time February rolls around each year, the resolutions that so many people pledged to pursue in the New Year have largely been abandoned. It’s hard to know precisely how the pandemic influenced resolutions heading into 2022, but undoubtedly many of us entered this year with things we’d like to see changed, things we’d like to do differently, and vanishingly small margins for making that happen on our own. After past seasons of futility, many have even resolved to no longer make New Year’s resolutions.
Resolutions have a fascinating history, especially as it relates to the Christian church. The American theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was one of the more famous Christian resolvers. His weren’t New Year’s resolutions, however. Rather, a young Edwards was well aware of his failings and foibles, and in response penned 70 resolutions with the sober intention to follow Christ more faithfully throughout his life.
The preface to his resolutions captures Edwards’ clarity: “Being sensible that I am unable to do any thing without God’s help, I do humbly intreat Him by His grace to enable me to keep these resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to His will, for Christ’s sake.” Edwards’ resolutions ranged from the broad and spiritual, such as “to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general,” to the specific and mundane, such as “to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking” and “never to allow the least measure of any fretting uneasiness at my father or mother.”
The good news about abandoned resolutions is that the experience of failure is an unavoidable part of life, and especially the Christian life. Failure doesn’t have to be the end of the story. In fact, our failure is an unavoidable feature of our discipleship, just as it was for Jesus’ original disciples.
Consider how often the apostles Jesus called to be closest to him failed spectacularly, in matters both big and small. Perhaps Peter’s denial of Christ in the Caiaphas’s courtyard comes to mind. The disciples also failed to cast out demons, failed to stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane, and failed time and again to truly understand what Jesus was teaching them. But just as Christ came to Peter after his crucifixion and graciously inverted Peter’s denials into a renewed call to discipleship, Christ offers us a new opportunity to follow him faithfully every day.
The Christian call to holiness in following Christ is sometimes called “sanctification,” because it is the process of becoming more and more sanctified. Sanctification follows from God’s act of justification in Christ and the regeneration of the converted believer. Newly brought to life in Christ, the Christian is called to grow in holiness and righteousness through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Two aspects of sanctification are captured in what is called “mortification” and “vivification,” or the experience of dying to self and the living to Christ. This dynamic isn’t a one-time experience or event. It is, in fact, a consistent feature of the Christian life. It is to be something that we experience every day, and every new day is a new opportunity to die to oneself and live to Christ, no matter the successes or failures of the days or years that have come before.
Edwards’ full list of resolutions are worth considering, and one in particular has something to teach us about the perseverance that must mark the Christian walk. Edwards was resolved “never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.” Failures are a feature of fallen humanity, even humanity that has been redeemed in Christ. As long as we are in this life we will sin. But that sin is no reason to give up. Our failures should rather be a spur to continue, through Christ’s empowering spirit, to be “conformed to the image” of Christ (Romans 8:29), more and more every day.
So even if we decide that New Year’s resolutions aren’t worth the worry and struggle, let us never give up resolving to daily die to ourselves and live to Christ, and in that way be “renewed day by day” (2 Cor 4:16).
Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy. In addition, he is associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary, with interests including Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Ballor has published extensively over the course of his career. He has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series. Ballor’s research articles can be found in such publications as Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. In addition to his work at the CRCD, Ballor also directs the Kuyper Conference and is associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.