Well, here we are at the end of another year. I think we can all agree that this one couldn’t have come too soon. Good riddance 2020, that’s what I say! Out with the old and in with the new! Time to get ready for 2021 and a whole new start! The new year is upon us, and you know that that means: New Year’s Resolutions!
In the past (perhaps even here on this jagged site), I would be one to decry the legalistic nature of New Year’s resolutions. Thinking that I can make myself a better person by taking up some sort of exercise regiment or starting a new prayer routine smacked of works-righteousness to me. It seemed so counter to the freedom we have in the Gospel as baptized Christians. You and I are entirely righteous in the eyes of God by virtue of His resolution to save us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus, who resolved to go to the cross bearing your sins on His shoulders, is the only one who ever kept a resolution perfectly and, as a result, has forgiven you and declared you righteous. You are righteous. You are free! All by His work alone. You are free from having to discipline yourself into salvation; free from having to make and keep resolutions to God. Christ has done it all for you! For freedom Christ has set you free! (Galatians 5:1)
This is all wonderful and true! This is the Gospel! But, lately, I’ve been rethinking resolutions a bit. It is a strange and dangerous legalism that says one should make a New Year’s resolution in order to become more righteous before God (and, for what its worth, a strawman as well…does anyone actually think that?). However, it is an even stranger legalism that suggests you should not work towards goals that may help improve this or that situation in your life because of the Gospel. Such thinking turns the Gospel into a Law that condemns someone for trying to have a better outlook on life. Strange indeed! What the Gospel actually frees us to do is pursue better courses of action in our life without fear of condemnation!
So, let me encourage you this year to consider a resolution. Try reading your Bible more. Will a resolution to read your Bible for ten minutes every day make you better Christian? Well, depends what you mean by that. Will it make you more righteous and holy in the eyes of God? No. Jesus has done that already. Will it make you a better Christian than your brothers and sisters in Christ who are too busy to read every day? Of course not. That’s the reasoning of the Pharisees. They’ve been died for by the same Jesus. He’s judged them fully righteous, just as He’s done for you. In these things, it will grant no improvement on your standing before God or the church. That’s Christ’s work.
However, will it make you a better student of scripture? Will it help you discern God’s truth from false teaching and the devil’s lies? Will daily time in the Word help you listen more closely to sermons and renew the way you think about your neighbor? Absolutely it will! Luther likens the discipline of reading scripture (meditatio, he calls it) to rubbing an herb. You pick it up and capture a scent. But as you rub that herb in your fingers, you begin to notice more nuances. The more the scents open up, the more you appreciate all that herb has to offer.
Luther says we should take up the scriptures and constantly rub them like an herb. Such reading of scripture will challenge you and, at times, attack you in your sin. It is the Word of God, after all. It is full of Law and Gospel. It will confront and comfort. Sometimes in the same reading! What’s more, resolving to study the Word will bring with it a resolution from the devil to attack your faith. Luther calls this the agonizing struggle every Christian will face (tentatio). This will drive you further into prayer (oratio) and back to meditating on the Word. In all of this, the Holy Spirit will be teaching you to trust Christ more.
So that, such a resolution most certainly could strengthen your faith. But, even here, it is not so much your resolution as it is the Holy Spirit working through His Word that would strengthen your faith. The idea that it would “make you a better Christian” in the New Year is not a helpful way of speaking. It renders such a discipline legalistic. But, to say that a regular practice of prayer, meditation on the Word, and wrestling with temptation will teach you to trust Christ more, well, that’s just simply true.
Yes, yes, I know. Of course you will fail at this. Of course you will drop the ball. But, the driving force for such an endeavor is the promise that there is no condemnation for you who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). So, enjoy your freedom! Pick up the Bible some more in the new year. Or, maybe, try going to church one more Sunday a month. You could find a theology book that is above your paygrade and commit to reading a section every day. Have some fun, find some joy in it! Against such things there is no law! (Galatians 5:23)