“What are your New Year’s resolutions?”

It’s a common question this time of year, and almost everyone is expected to have made some sort of promise for change in the year ahead. A new year is much more than a flip of a page on a calendar – it signifies a fresh start and clean slate, an unwritten page in which you can become your “best you” and let go of the disappointments of the past.

What drives our desire to make New Year’s resolutions? While it’s possible that too much of Grandma’s strawberry fluff and too many of Aunt Barb’s peanut butter bars could be to blame, resolutions are often characterized by what is lacking – time management, self control, personal accomplishments, discipline, feeling healthy, being healthy. Sure, there are times during the year when we can feel as though we’re doing well or at least good enough, but most times it just feels like a constant struggle to stay on top of our priorities and our quality of life suffers as a result. In the end, our only options are to buckle down and resolve to try harder this year, do our best to tolerate the problem a while longer until we can make the changes we need to, or hope things miraculously improve on their own.

A Christian’s faith life can often be similar. There can be times of joyful clarity, relishing the simplicity and extravagance of God's love personally, and appreciating and reflecting his love for all people. Our relationship with God can be undoubtedly solid. Sometimes it can be neither hot nor cold, perhaps taking his love and presence for granted while still finding glimmers of joy and hope through his promises and blessings. At its lowest points, that simplicity and joy of God’s love can seem like a distant memory, and feel as though there is a "veil" over the eyes of our heart, which causes a longing for that solid relationship to return.  Faith can feel like head-knowledge rather than heart-knowledge – and that's when it’s easy to notice what is lacking. 

 So, what do we do about this? How do we move closer to God when (like we do after too many of Grandma’s molasses cookies) we’re brought to the realization that we need to make a change? Is a “resolution” toward spiritual renewal the right answer?

The Struggle for Renewal

The “roller coaster” of faith is nothing new. It is one expression of the Christian’s struggle with sin since it first entered our history and created physical, emotional, and spiritual voids that every human experiences to this day. Perhaps our struggle is the result of neglecting time in the Word or worship in our search for “balance”; maybe we started going through the motions in our devotional and worship time. Sometimes doubts can surface, and rather than seeking God’s answers to our questions we can let them stand in the way and spend some time “figuring things out” on our own.

In any case, our sinful nature wants nothing to do with matters of the Spirit (Gal 5:17), while the devil and the world are proactively trying to pull us away and distract us from a relationship with God. At the same time, the “new man” God has created in us longs to serve God and walk in that relationship with joy and gratitude. Paul expresses the struggle with sin clearly in Romans 7, when he describes his desire to carry out God’s will and his inability to do so. He finally exclaims, “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (Romans 7:24-25).

The Resolution for Renewal

Spiritual renewal in our lives does depend on a resolution. Thank God it isn’t ours! This resolution was made in the Garden of Eden, immediately after the curse of sin entered our lives (Gen 3:15). God promised to send us a Savior from sin – and followed through on that promise by sending Jesus to be our perfect substitute in life, and to suffer our punishment in death.

Paul saw himself as victorious over his struggle with sin, despite the sin’s manifestation (and victories) in his life. How was this possible? He understood that he was justified before God – declared not guilty by God himself, because of Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection. The relationship with God we could not – and would not – pursue on our own, God freely gives to us! God has made us one of his own children. Even in our weak moments of faith, even when we’ve turned our backs on him – in Christ, we cannot change this status. Because of this, we can rejoice with Paul when he says “…thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Co 15:7).

The Power for Renewal

Our justification is done – a one-time event won for us on the cross. In Christ, we have been made new. Paul states simply that “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has gone, and the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). At the same time because of the struggle with our sinful nature, the life we live as a child of God – our life of sanctification – is one of constant renewal. Paul tells us as much when he writes, “You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge and in the image of its Creator” (Col 3:9,10). Taking off your old self and putting on the new self are things that have already happened. The new self, however, is also “being renewed…” This renewal is an ongoing process. This is often our struggle! How do we go about making progress?

Fortunately, this too is God’s work!  The Holy Spirit, who brought us to faith in the first place, gives us the will and has promised us the strength to live the new life we and God both desire. We are told that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Php 1:6), and “it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Php 2:12,13). He does this work through the Means of Grace – the gospel in Word and sacrament.

The gospel message is not only the source of our renewal, but also serves as the power for our new life in Christ. Our baptism serves as a daily reminder of our justification. In baptism God appropriates the blessings Christ won for us on the cross to us – personally, and completely. One author states that “Baptism is the giving of new life, and the new life is laying hold of baptism.” The Lords Supper assures us of our forgiveness – even for the times we’ve neglected the very means for our daily renewal.

Whenever we experience our spiritual lows, we have a resolution for renewal. Not our own, but the one God made for our sake, died to uphold, and for which he provides the strength we need. Through the Means of Grace, we see that the renewal we seek is already ours – and we will continue to be renewed through them until the day we see our perfection made complete in heaven. And so again we shout with Paul, “... thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”