Eph. 4 22 Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
It’s the time of year again for well-meaning people to look at themselves in the mirror and make resolutions to improve various aspects of their lives with which they are not happy. Truthfully, I’ve never been sure whether or not to be thankful for this annual activity. On the positive side, self-examination and resolving to do better is the closest many will come to “real Christianity.” (I’ll explain that comment below). On the negative side, it seems like a prelude to failure for many, maybe even the majority of people who make resolutions.
I can explain why the making of New Year’s resolutions often fails. It’s not hard for pastors to talk to people who are working on their resolutions and figure out fairly quickly why it didn’t work for them. The self-examination which goes into New Year’s resolutions is a good thing, a fairly holy activity. The solution which people arrive at from this self-examination, on the other hand, is missing one very important point. In fact, it’s the most important point for the Christian. It’s missing the grace of God for repentant sinners. A New Year’s resolution is, ultimately, a works-based attempt to save oneself from a particular sin. Grace is just plain missed in that equation. In a New Year’s resolution, a person tries to save themselves instead of seeking God’s grace for their self-improvement, their “salvation.”
For Christians who live in the grace of God for repentant sinners, this activity is not limited to a once-a-year frequency. It’s the daily life of the baptized child of God. When Luther penned The Small Catechism, he asked a question of Baptism which I often refer to as the “So what” question: What does such baptizing with water indicate? (Translation: “So what does my Baptism mean for me today”)? Answer (Part One): It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires. The self-examination which many only employ once a year is actually a daily activity for the Christian. Drowning our Old Adam (sinful nature) is a matter of self-examination leading to sorrow over sin.
Part Two of Luther’s answer reads, and that a new man should emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Dead in our sins, Jesus doesn’t look on our deadness and then say, “Now it’s up to you. Straighten up and fly right. Do better.” No. The new man cannot emerge without the water of Baptism. There is no new man who is not made new by the forgiveness of sins. God’s grace forgives those sins, removes them from us as far as the east is from the west. With those sins totally gone, the new man has strength to live the life of Christ. In fact, future editions of the Small Catechism should put a capital ‘N’ and ‘M’ on the words New Man so that the reader has no doubt who the New Man really is: the Christ of our Baptisms.
Now this does not guarantee that when we try to do better after forgiveness we will always succeed. The expectation that we will succeed, paired with it only being a once-a-year activity and the lack of God’s grace, is often what breeds failure in our New Year’s resolutions. Christ offers us the solution for all of our failures in the forgiveness of sins. In the same forgiveness, He gives the strength to live daily as “little Christs,” living in the rhythm of Christ’s own life, dying for our sins and rising again. Every day we die to sin and rise again to new life.
So, in this New Year, my prayer for you is not for success in any New Year’s resolutions you may wish to make. (I certainly want you to be successful). As your pastor, my prayer for you is to find your joys living in the daily repentance and forgiveness of your Baptisms. As that self-examination, sorrow, confession, and absolution become part of your daily lives, Christ Himself will make of you the Christian He intends for you to be. Lord, forgive our sins. Strengthen us as we live for you. Grant us a heart of wisdom. Be our Savior every day. AMEN.
The Lord bless you mightily in this New Year,