Resolved…

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken January 6, 2002

I generally do not make New Year's resolutions. This is probably because I am a Calvinist, and thus have a healthy respect for my own depravity.

The last time I can remember making anything like a firm resolution was in 1985. I had just attended Urbana, the triennial missions conference sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Full of zeal for the worldwide work of the gospel, I was determined to get up early five mornings a week to pray for missions, and also to attend a revival prayer meeting every Thursday. As it turned out, these were not realistic commitments to make, particularly for a college freshman.

The problem with most New Year's resolutions is that they are based on law rather than grace. We think that with a little more willpower, a little more self-effort, we can kick that old bad habit or practice that brand new discipline. It rarely lasts for very long. Surveys show that one quarter of all New Year's resolutions have already been broken by the end of January 2.

I didn't make any resolutions this year, either, although I am hoping to read through the Old Testament in the English Standard Version. If I were going to make any genuine resolutions, I would be tempted to borrow some from America's greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards.

Jonathan Edwards was the famous preacher, writer, and missionary who helped lead the First Great Awakening in New England around the middle of the eighteenth century. Edwards was born in 1703. Around the time of his twentieth birthday, he made a remarkable series of seventy personal resolutions. These have just been republished in an attractive booklet entitled Jonathan Edwards' Resolutions and Advice to Young Converts [edited by Stephen J. Nichols, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001].

In his resolutions Jonathan Edwards attempted to put down in writing what sort of man he wanted to become. But even before making any resolutions, he acknowledged his absolute dependence on God's grace and his absolute submission to God's will. Edwards wrote: "Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God's help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ's sake." As you can see, Jonathan Edwards was careful not to resolve anything contrary to the will of God. He was also careful not to even attempt to keep his resolutions in his own strength. This was not some kind of self-help program. Rather, Edwards was aspiring to grow in grace by the power of the gospel.

The best way to get the flavor of Jonathan Edwards' Resolutions is to read what he had to say on various topics. On man's chief end: "Resolved, never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God." On redeeming the time: "Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can." On giving to the poor: "Resolved, to be endeavoring to find out fit objects of charity and liberality." On caring for the body: "Resolved, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking." On reading the Bible: "Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of them." On guarding the tongue: "Resolved, never to say anything at all against anybody, but when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of Christian honor and of love to mankind, agreeable to the lowest humility and a sense of my own faults and failings, and agreeable to the Golden Rule." On repentance: "Resolved, to inquire every night, as I am going to bed, wherein I have been negligent, what sin I have committed." On sanctification: "Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be."

Obviously Jonathan Edwards was a serious young man—serious about living for Christ every day in every way. Another sign of his seriousness is that many of his resolutions were made against the backdrop of eternity. He resolved "never to do anything that [he] should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of [his] life," "to think much on all occasions of [his] own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death." He also made this resolution: "that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die."

In short, it was Jonathan Edwards' intention to live his whole life in a way that would be most for God's glory and his own spiritual good. One of his last resolutions reads as follows: "Resolved, very much to exercise myself in this all my life long, that is, with the greatest openness I am capable of, to declare my ways to God, and lay open my soul to him: all my sins, temptations, difficulties, sorrows, fears, hopes, desires, and everything, and every circumstance."

As far as I am aware, Jonathan Edwards never wrote any personal resolutions again. Perhaps this was because seventy resolutions are enough for one lifetime, especially if they are as searching and all-embracing as his were. Also, it was Edwards' intention to read through his resolutions at least once every week.

But there may be another reason Jonathan Edwards never made any other resolutions. Perhaps it was because, as a Calvinist, he had a healthy respect for his own depravity. Over the years he must have learned over and over again how hard it is to do anything that measures up to God's perfect standard. All our best efforts and all our most sincere intentions are corrupted by our own unfaithfulness. That is why I am resolved, whatever else I do this year, to depend on the mercy that God has shown in Jesus Christ to forgive all my sins.

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