Can you keep your New Year’s resolutions in 2008? Have you tried in past years? How did you do? Most of us give up long before January ends. It’s surprisingly difficult, isn’t it, to make a decision about our personal habits and stick with it. Can we actually improve ourselves?
The answer is no, we can’t. That may come as a surprise to some readers of a Thinking Christian blog, for you may think that Christianity is about improving ourselves: learning to do the right things, being more loving and kind, obeying the Ten Commandments, and so on. It’s not so, actually. People who have followed Christ for any length of time commonly say, “Living the Christian life isn’t hard, it’s impossible!”
We Can’t Do It Where It Counts
More specifically, it’s impossible to improve ourselves on the inside, where it counts. We may be able to set some goals and reach them. We may be able to adjust some behavior, or change some habits. But these changes are on the surface; they don’t get to the heart. And because they’re on the surface, often they are fragile. They break easily. We fail to keep up with our goals and standards.
That applies to New Year’s resolutions, certainly, and for that reason some Christian leaders recommend against making them. It even applies to the one standard that is unquestionably, consistently, a good one, the Law of God. It applies even to the best of us, like The New Testament leader and writer Paul, who said,
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members [parts of my body, see more here] another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
This is from the seventh chapter of his letter to the Romans (ESV). Even his perfect agreement with the law of God, and his intense desire to follow it, was not enough. It only showed what a failure he was.
This sounds terribly familiar to me–it’s a picture of my own experience at many times. How about you? Have you been made as painfully aware that you can’t live up to whatever standard you have thought was good and right? What then? Are we hopeless? Is there nothing we can do?
But It’s Possible In Christ
Paul goes on to say yes, there is hope! In the next chapter he writes,
For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Romans is a closely reasoned and complex letter, and his point may not be immediately clear, especially since I’m not quoting the whole. I’ll pick out just three main points here that I think will help.
Freedom From the Cycle
First, we can have freedom from this terrible cycle of sin (our failures) and death (the inevitable result of the cycle). That’s great news! But we do not free ourselves. We are freed by what God has done. He sent his own Son “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.” It’s his doing.
Founded on Christ
Second, this freedom is founded on Jesus Christ. He “has set you free in Christ Jesus.” Paul writes elsewhere in Romans (and it’s found throughout the New Testament) that we start by placing our faith in Jesus Christ, trusting him to free us from our sin. There’s a great explanation of this here. Here’s the mistake many make: they think they must get their lives straight in order to begin to follow Jesus Christ. No, he accepts us as we are, and he will do the work to free us from our failures.
By the Power of the Holy Spirit
Third, to experience this freedom day by day, we “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” The Spirit here is not some vague ethereal religious sense, but the Holy Spirit, who is God Himself dwelling with those who have placed their faith in Christ. Again I’m going to rely on another resource to explain how we can experience this daily walk with the Holy Spirit.
What is life like when we follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Paul wrote about this in another letter, too. In Galatians 5 he emphasized freedom again. It’s not a matter of gritting our teeth and going by willpower, but of simple following:
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
And the result is something that grows out of us naturally, like fruit. I don’t know what your New Year’s resolutions might be, but if you were to resolve to be more like this, and if it were really to happen, wouldn’t it be great? God says it’s not a matter of resolving but of walking in the Spirit:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
We can experience success; we can know freedom from failure and guilt! But we cannot do it on our own resources. Jesus Christ is the foundation for anything we do that is right (pleasing to God). The Holy Spirit is God’s provision for our experiencing this. Let your New Year’s resolution be to explore and learn all that this relationship with God through the Holy Spirit can mean. Let the Word of God guide your other decisions. Any other resolutions will take care of themselves.
Related: This post brought forth a question (see the first comment) that started a whole series on what Christ does for us, beginning here.