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  • « Important and Often Overlooked Fact | Main | Book Review: The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, by Walter Marshall »

    Resolved: To Remember The Gospel

    It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. Galatians 6:12-16

    Galatians being my favorite book of the Bible, you can imagine how alarmed I was when I read on the inside flap of Ryken's commentary that "Galatians was written for recovering Pharisees." A Pharisee is simply someone who thinks he or she can be "good enough," whether before God, others, or him- or herself.

    Galatians has to do with two big, churchy Bible words—justification and sanctification. Justification basically means "becoming right with God." Sanctification basically means "becoming a better person." (Theologians, please stay off my back for using simple terms we can all understand.) Pharisees are always mixing up justification and sanctification. Historically and practically most Christians have had great difficulty holding these two ideas in proper perspective. It would make my day if I could help equip you to do this just a little better.

    Jonathan Edwards, at the age of 19, made 70 resolutions. You may have read them, and even tried to imitate them. Here's a sampling:

    5. Resolved: never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can. 6. Resolved: to live with all my might, while I do live. 7. Resolved: never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life. 17. Resolved: that I shall live so, as I shall wish I had done when I come to die. 41. Resolved: to ask myself, at the end of every day, week, month and year, wherein I could possibly, in any respect, have done better.

    It's the perfect time of year to talk about Resolutions. So let's examine why we often make them, and whether or not we should.

    A common resolution among Christians at the new year is to have better quiet times (i.e., to read through the Bible in a year, to pray more frequently or longer, etc.). Most of us probably feel our current quiet times to be inadequate. We may think along these lines: "my life would be better if I spent more time in the Bible." Or maybe, "I would feel better about myself." Or worse, "I could tell my friends at church that I'm reading five chapters a day." Or, "I'd just be a better Christian if I were more serious in this area." Or, "God would think better of me." Other examples of common resolutions include: to stop using bad language; to start volunteering more; to start giving regularly at church; to spend more time with family.

    Frequently we are motivated to make these resolutions because we think we can become better people in order to feel good about ourselves, whether before God, others, or just ourselves. Even if we are often not conscious of our motivations, honest self-examination should reveal them to us. I know I often "look" into the future and think about when I'll finally defeat that nagging, addictive sin—THEN I'll feel good about myself. THEN I'll be able to relax and let people see me for who I really am. THEN I'll feel like God will really love me, when I don't have quite so much sin to confess. It's subtle, but it's there. "If I can just change my life, I'll feel okay about who I am."

    This is an attempt to justify myself by sanctifying myself; to gain acceptance with God based on my behavior; to become right with God by becoming a better person.

    How can I convince you that this happens a lot? Ask yourself this question: what happens when I fail to keep my resolutions? Am I disappointed? Do I want to hide my failures from my friends (to whom I boasted that I was reading five chapters a day from the Bible)? Do I make my resolutions easier next year, setting the bar lower so I can actually keep them, in order to feel good about myself?

    Again, we probably let our motivations drive us mostly without thinking about them, but when we make resolutions from the wrong reasons, we're basically saying, "Jesus Christ, I don't need you or your cross." He didn't have to die, or really do much for me at all, since I can take care of myself by just trying a little harder. If I can just keep these resolutions, I'll be good enough.

    But the Scriptures say that we can't be "good enough," no matter how hard we try to keep our resolutions. In fact, most of the time we can't even keep them.

    Resolutions are generally based on the Law of God (i.e. you would normally resolve to do good things rather than bad things). And the Scriptures say that "by the works of the law no one will be justified" (Gal. 2:16).

    The Galatians were being led astray in this, in their understanding of the gospel. Certain Jewish Christians had come along to this Gentile Christian local church, and basically said, "In order for you to be accepted by God and his people, you must become Jewish, you must keep the Law, you must become circumcised." By "helping" the Gentiles become Jewish, they were gaining recognition for themselves as proselytizers or "evangelists". They also did it so they wouldn't have to acknowledge the cross of Jesus Christ as the only way to be right with God—they were looking to avoid persecution for the cross (Gal. 6:12).

    You see, nobody wants to be told they have no hope apart from the cross of Christ. That means I'm in trouble because of who I am and what I've done. I'm confronted with my sin, and I can't help myself. No amount of good resolution keeping will put me in God's favor. Ancient Jews persecuted Christians for confronting them with their sins, and people do it today as well—we all want to escape being faced with our depravity, and we'll kill others to do it. But most of the time we'll just try a little harder to become a little better to deceive ourselves into feeling good about who we are... even though the Holy Word of God tells us that will never work.

    So what does work? If neither law-keeping nor law-breaking counts for anything (Gal. 6:15), what does count? A new creation. You don't scrape and claw your way into becoming a new creation by trying harder to be holier. You don't sanctify yourself to justify yourself before God. Circumcision was never a prerequisite for salvation, nor is any Law-of-God-abiding resolution you can think of. You become a new creation by grace alone, through faith alone, through the cross of Jesus Christ alone. Ryken says that "to understand this is to understand Galatians. More than that, it is to understand the gospel."

    "To boast in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal. 6:14) doesn't mean showing off your nice, shiny, silver cross pendant. It means to revel in, to glory in, to find joy in the gruesome and torturous and shameful death of the Second Person of the Trinity. It means that you only find hope and strength and solace and meaning and identity in Jesus Christ—in his life, death and resurrection. It means that you know your relationship with God and with his people depends only on the Son of God. It means that you can live with yourself only because of the Messiah. It means that you can only become a better person after you've become right with God through Jesus.

    Honestly, we're all going to make resolutions we can't keep, and for the wrong reasons. Sean Michael Lucas said about Jonathan Edwards, "he appeared to conflate his wholehearted pursuit of God's glory with right standing with God." To me his resolutions often seem driven by a desire to feel good about himself. Take another one for example, number 51, "Resolved: that I will act so, in every respect, as I think I shall wish I had done, if I should at last be damned." How can this be viewed in any other way than that he wishes to feel good about himself, about his conduct, even if he eventually finds himself in hell apart from God's grace? If Edwards did good things from bad motives, then I don't stand a chance. I surely will. You too.

    So we need to repent—not only of the bad things we've done, or the good things we've left undone, but of the good things we've done from bad motives in order to present ourselves to God apart from Christ. We need to make one supreme "resolution," to remember the gospel for ourselves daily, in order to grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to honestly examine ourselves to see why we're doing the things we do. In order to keep justification and sanctification in their proper places, with our holiness growing from our sure position in God's favor, we need to operate every day from a reliance on Christ and his cross for our righteousness. Resolve to remember the gospel.

    Posted by Eric Costa on January 11, 2007 01:54 AM


    I'm not sure if I am really understanding your position on Edward's and his resolutions, therefore, I am commenting as if you are suspicious that they came from wrong motives (self justification).

    While I can certainly see how one could view such statements as coming from a desire to "feel good about himself", can you see the possibility that he was resolving to do the things that would be most pleasing to the Lord, according to the grace and enablement of the Spirit, because he truly believed in the power of the Spirit that was in him, through Christ? In other words, I'm willing to believe that Edwards took very seriously the words of Christ when He commnads believers to be holy and perfect as He is. I'm sure you would agree that Christians are to pursue holiness and Christlikeness, knowing we will not attain it, yet pursuing it, striving after it, sacrificing and denying our flesh. Though this might seem contradictory to the unbeliever, the bible is assures us that it is not only possible but is the fruit of our conversion. This great work, our sanctification, is done through Christ, yet our efforts are really and truly necessary . Looking back to Edwards, I see his resolutions as simply the written form of what should be the desires of any Christian. Do you not inwardly yearn for the things he has resolved? We should desire to please Christ in everything we do. We should desire to use to the utmost every resource of time, strength, ability, wealth, for His purposes and great glory. We should seek to do all we do such that we will not have cause for regret at our deaths. And we should grieve when we fail in these, not because we look bad, but because we love Him and we failed to give all to the One who gave all for us. The fact that we well know that the sin that clings even to our redeemed hearts and taints our every good desire or work does not negate the rightness of our desire to always in every way do the thing that pleases our Savior. Now, if Edwards had resolved penance for himself for failure to achieve his resolutions, I would certainly agree with you, but as they stand, I am greatly challenged and encouraged by them.


    Of course I'm suspicious! I chalk it up to my view of total depravity. Is Edwards somehow more than human? Are the extra-biblical resolutions of a 19 year old puritan unquestionable? Is Sean Michael Lucas wrong to try to bring Edwards down to the level of "mere mortal"? Are we right to esteem Edwards so highly as not to doubt his motives in the least? I think the answers should be obvious.

    I will admit that someone who properly understands their justification before God may sometimes use such resolutions as a way to pursue God's glory. I just think that 85% of the time or so that's not going to be the case, even for the best of Christians.

    Ok, so it seems that we're agreed on this point:

    (you said)

    "I will admit that someone who properly understands their justification before God may sometimes use such resolutions as a way to pursue God's glory."

    So, I must ask you (and perhaps SM Lucas whom you quote) On what ground do you call into question Jonathan Edwards' understanding of justification (if you do). I think I would need to see a little bit of support for such a claim.

    Or, if you are simply saying that he presents a potentially confusing method of seeking to glorify God with our lives, are you not presenting and equally confusing method - one that could perhaps also be misunderstood.

    In other words, if Edwards presents a method that could lead many to pursue justification through works, could your critique of him not lead to some form of quietistic, letting go and letting God spiritual passivity?

    Don't misunderstand me. I believe what you said was well worth saying and the concern is important and needed. However, my request is that you would not merely seek to fight the battle against legalism, but also uphold the right pursuit of holiness and living our lives surrendered to God for His glory.

    I'm curious how you see my "battle against legalism" to be somehow at odds with, or even different from, "the right pursuit of holiness"...? The point is that we grow in holiness only by the grace of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ. I discuss this clearly enough in the post, I'd like to think.

    The problem is that most of our religious efforts, whether non-Christian or Calvinistic-Covenantal-Theologian-SuperChristian, are tainted by legalism or pharisaism. Not to address this frequently and from many different angles would be detrimental to true holiness. Holiness isn't just about living what looks like a good life—it's about real humility and forsaking of living of our own strength or for our own purposes. Pulling the pharisaical rug from underneath our feet is a very helpful way to instill true religious affections in the hearts of God's people, because it leaves them only with Christ for righteousness—imputed or practical.

    Regarding Edwards, I know from the word of God and experience that young men who are fervently religious are often very legalistic in their approach to holiness. Also, the above-quoted resolution number 51 seems to have no foundation whatsoever in the Scriptures, and I cannot imagine a good motivation for wanting to live a holy life even if God hated me forever for it. Again, most of these resolutions are fairly biblical, but the point I want to make is that keeping the Law (or good resolutions) is easily mistaken as a way to "be good enough."

    What I mean by your seeming to favor battling legalism and neglect a right pursuit of holiness is that your critique of JE seems to go right past warning of the possibility of legalism and straight to condemning him of the crime. Then on the other side, there's no mention of how one could rightly employ such a means, or that such desires are, in themselves, good and right. I can't say I see the value in imputing self-justifying motives to someone like Edwards for the sake of what some might make of his personal resolutions without giving him the benefit of the doubt and speaking not only to the worst case scenario, but also to the best. Soli Deo Gloria Brother!

    Hey, Eric, thanks for another good post. I'm a recovering pharisee, though I was never a very good one.

    Is it possible that in Resolution #51, Edwards was simply expressing the desire to live such an obedient life in every respect that there would be no room for regret?

    I wholeheartedly agree with your bottom line that we should resolve to remember the Gospel. It is the power of God for salvation to every one who believes-- power for our sanctification as well as our justification.

    At the same time, you seem to imply that resolutions are a bad idea because of the danger of legalism/Pharisaism. I would like to speak in their defense as a tool in the fight against the flesh. Should we not expect to see the godly resolving to be obedient? As Calvin said in his Institutes regarding the third use of the Law:

    “Then, because we need not doctrine merely, but exhortation also, the servant of God will derive this further advantage from the Law: by frequently meditating upon it, he will be excited to obedience, and confirmed in it, and so drawn away from the slippery paths of sin. In this way must the saints press onward, since, however great the alacrity with which, under the Spirit, they hasten toward righteousness, they are retarded by the sluggishness of the flesh, and make less progress than they ought.”

    In J. C. Ryle’s Holiness, he says the following about the difference between justification and sanctification:

    “In justification our own works have no place at all, and simple faith in Christ is the one thing needful. In sanctification our own works are of vast importance and God bids us fight, and watch, and pray, and strive, and take pains, and labour.”

    I see a lackadaisical approach to obedience being as great a danger as a legalistic one. And while recognizing that resolutions can be corrupted by self-justifying motives, I really doubt that they are wrong as much as 85% of the time.

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