This post is modified from one that appeared two years ago on sbcIMPACT.
“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.”
Thus begins the list of Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions, written prior to his fame or the Great Awakening, at the end of his Master’s studies. I seldom if ever write out resolutions for the New Year. I fear I’ll give up or forget partway through January, merely calling criticism on myself for failing to complete what I’d started, even if the only critic is me. The Bible says, “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation (James 5:12, ESV).” Not being the sort of person who likes to fall under condemnation if I can prevent it, I try to avoid anything that even smells like an oath, resolutions being one of them.
But Edwards’ own resolutions challenge me to do something, and I think give me a work around for writing my own without violating the principle of James 5:12. As I did my own soul searching and probing of my life over the past year, I’ve found some areas that I see need improvement: evangelism, prayer, Scripture reading… and my school/work/home life balance. Perhaps if I were satisfied with these areas it would be worse than seeing my own deficiencies.
But Edwards’ introduction gives us an excuse for writing resolutions because it takes the oath right out of the equation. The problem with most oaths is that they devalue God’s sovereignty in the mind of the oath taker. It is no mere coincidence that James says earlier:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— (14) yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. (15) Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (16) As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16, ESV)
But the way Edwards introduced his resolutions actually emphasized God’s sovereignty and risked no dishonor to His name. His focus was on his own complete lack of ability to fulfill his resolutions. Any resolution that begins with a focus on what I want to accomplish from my plans is nothing more than an arrogant boast before the Lord, and James says, “All such boasting is evil.” James argues that we really ought to plan and act with the caveat that it will only happen “if the Lord wills.” The oaths that we make on New Year’s Eve ought to be made in like manner—recognizing that we can only complete them through God’s power.
Some of you may be thinking, “Okay, but what does it matter. It is only a fun game and doesn’t mean anything.” Perhaps you’re right. But there is a sense in which every step of our existence should be precipitated by an embrace of the sovereign will of God acting in and over our lives and a desire that our plans align with His. I am woefully aware that my attitude and practice do not always reflect my convictions in this matter.
Looking forward to the year ahead, I have so many plans, desires, and goals. But have I made room for God to act and move according to His purposes? As I prepare my resolutions for next year (which is new for me), I don’t want to just tack on “If the Lord wills” to each of my plans, desires, and goals. I want to trust in the truth of the verses in James, knowing that nothing can happen apart from God’s sovereign plan instead of setting myself up for disappointment when my plans don’t work out because of the greater purposes of God.
As I draft my resolutions, I may want to consider using some of Jonathan Edwards’. Having begun with humility and acceptance of God’s will, he endeavored to write out resolutions that mattered for eternity. Each of his resolutions flowed out of his commitment to glorifying God in his life. I, likewise, should endeavor not to get an A in my next seminary course, but to glorify God in my study habits and work/life/school balance.
Maybe you too are trying to come up with New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps this year could be the start of something bigger. Instead of writing a small resolution that focuses on yourself and on your abilities, you should write a big one that focuses on God’s glory and on you growing more and more into the image of Christ. If you’re like me and having some trouble with this task, consider borrowing some of Edwards’:
Resolution 1: “Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory and to my own good, profit, and pleasure … to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how ever so many and how ever so great.”
Resolution 8: “Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and to let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.”
Resolution 40: “Resolved, to inquire every night, before I go to bed, whether I have acted in the best way I possibly could, with respect to eating and drinking.”
Resolution 56: “Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.”
Resolution 70: “Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak.”
Jonathan Edwards’ resolutions can be found in Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions and Advice to Young Converts, edited by Stephen J. Nichols.