Making New Year resolutions may have once been a more serious practice. Reflecting the optimism of days past, people would see the start of the year as an opportunity for betterment by resolving to act or change. Things do not seem quite the same now. New Year resolutions have become the punchline in jokes—made in January, forgotten by February—for example. The question is no longer whether we would keep our resolutions, but how long before we break them.
Given how frivolously treated New Year resolutions seem to be, should Christians make any? To give the practice a fair trial, we should look beyond its present-day caricature.
In theory, making resolutions is a commendable instinct. It is the first step to putting the hand on the proverbial plough and reflects a desire to grow in some way. Christians are never to be content with drinking milk like infants, but to strive for maturity, contending for the holiness Christ summons us to.1
Without resolving to take certain actions or make changes in our lives, how can we achieve maturity in Christ? Resolutions are therefore necessary, and what is important is their substance. What are you resolving to do, and why?
It must be noted that not all resolutions are made equal. A resolution to sleep earlier cannot be considered akin to a resolution to pray daily (although the latter has sometimes helped with the former).
What then should our resolutions be? Scripture urges us to pursue and keep doing the things that are good, beautiful, and true, and these would be excellent criteria in discerning resolutions that are worthy of our time and energy.2 Discerning what is good, beautiful, and true requires a constant renewing of our minds, so that we define these qualities on God’s terms, rather than by the world’s ever-shifting standards.3
Resolutions that are worthwhile are thus resolutions that help us grow in holiness: to love and think like Christ, who is the embodiment of God’s goodness, beauty, and truth in the flesh. Christians are, after all, supposed to pursue perfection in love—not passively but actively with single-minded, relentless zeal.4
This requires courage to honestly confront ourselves and see where we are in our journey. If our resolution does not produce what John Wesley terms the “fruits of holiness” then we need to either revise our resolution or replace it with one that does lead to our growing in holy love.5 Otherwise we are no different from the world, wasting our energies pursuing that which will not last into the world to come.6
However, simply making resolutions that will sanctify us is not enough. Since the goal is holiness, we must also strive to keep these resolutions and bear fruit, lest we become like the disobedient son of Matthew 21:28.7 But we need not share the gloomy outlook on the futility of resolutions that the world feeds us.
Resolutions that help us grow in holiness have one key difference from the petty resolutions that the world makes—because they are made in obedience to God’s heart, we are given divine grace to keep them. Wesley firmly believed that the God who summons us to holiness is also a God who gives us the grace to be holy as he is holy. Every command of God in the Bible is at once both a summons to obedience, and yet also a promise that he would give us grace to obey.8
That’s the gospel! And this is the same faith and hope that undergirds the Watchnight Covenant Renewal Service that has become so distinctive of Methodists. The covenant we make is the one resolution to rule them all, a resolve to dedicate all our life in the year the one resolution to rule them all, ahead to the purposes of God, as the young Wesley did as a student in Oxford. Looking back on his life, he wrote,
Instantly I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts, and words, and actions; being thoroughly convinced, there was no medium; but that every part of my life (not some only) must either be a sacrifice to God, or myself, that is, in effect, to the devil.9
By the time this is published we would already be in the new year, but we do not have to wait till New Year’s Eve to renew our covenant with the Lord. Wesley himself conducted the covenant renewal service at various times of the year as he travelled, with the overarching emphasis on resolving to follow Jesus all the way. This year, will you make a resolution that counts?
A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition
I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you, praised for you or criticised for you. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service. And now, O wonderful and holy God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, you are mine, and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it also be made in heaven.
Public Domain, The United Methodist Hymnal UMH607
1 Philippians 3:14; Hebrews 5:12-14
2 Philippians 4:8-9
3 Romans 12:1-2
4 John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, 19.
5 John Wesley, Sermon 28: Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (Discourse VIII), 4.
6 John 6:27
7 In this parable, a man asks his sons to work in the vineyard. The first refuses, but subsequently goes; the second agrees, but does not show.
8 John Wesley, Sermon 25: Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (Discourse V), 2.3.
9 John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, 2.