January 3, 2013

Jonathan Edwards and Broken Resolutions (Reprise)

by Nathan Busenitz

In a previous post, we looked to the seventy Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards as an example of an eternal and God-glorifying perspective that all believers ought to emulate. They are an especially helpful reminder at the beginning of a new year, when everyone is thinking about the resolutions they will make for the upcoming weeks and months.

But let’s be honest. A list of spiritual goals compiled by one of church history’s greatest heroes can be a bit intimidating, especially when there are seventy of them. When we make similar resolutions — and later fail to keep them — it can be downright discouraging to compare ourselves to someone like Jonathan Edwards.

Well, here’s a nugget of encouragement for you. Even a notable Puritan theologian like Edwards struggled to keep his resolutions.

As historian George Marsden explains about Edwards:

It was one thing to make such a thorough and impressive list of resolutions; it was another to keep them. This we know from his diary, in which he reported his efforts fairly regularly for the next year or two. Although he noted the spiritual highs that he later recalled, his diary also records many days of lows, “decays,” and lengthy times of inability to focus on spiritual things. (A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards, 24)

Here is one such example from Edwards’s Diary:

The last week I was sunk so low, that I fear it will be a long time before I am recovered. I fell exceedingly low in the weekly account [regarding keeping my resolutions]. I find my heart so deceitful, that I am almost discouraged from making any more resolutions. — Wherein have I been negligent in the week past; and how could I have done better, to help the dreadful low estate in which I am sunk?

Sound familiar?

Like all believers, Jonathan Edwards experienced times of temptation, defeat, and discouragement. His ongoing fight against the flesh is reminiscent of the struggle Paul described in Romans 7. Edwards’s battle resonates with us because we wage that same war each and every day.

So, how did he overcome those times? Even after periods of failure and fatigue, what was the key to renewing his resolve?

The answer is as simple as it is profound. Jonathan Edwards realized that his resolutions failed when he tried to accomplish them in his own strength. They could not succeed unless he relied on God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit for their accomplishment.

In his Diary, Edwards explained that the key to his spiritual vitality was not the mere making of resolutions, but rather a full dependence on the Spirit and grace of God.

Here’s what he wrote:

I find, by experience, that, let me make resolutions, and do what I will, with never so many inventions, it is all nothing, and to no purpose at all, without the motions of the Spirit of God. . . . There [must be] no dependence on myself. Our resolutions may be at the highest one day, and yet, the next day, we may be in a miserable dead condition, not at all like the same person who resolved. So that it is to no purpose to resolve, except we depend on the grace of God. For, if it were not for his mere grace, one might be a very good man one day, and a very wicked one the next. (January 2, 1722)

Later that week, Edwards expressed his continual battle against sin with these words:

It used to appear to me, that I had not much sin remaining; but now, I perceive that there are great remainders of sin. . . . Without the influences of the Spirit of God, the old serpent would begin to rouse up himself from his frozen state, and would come to life again. (January 5, 1722)

Here again, Edwards recognized that his sanctification was dependent on Spirit’s power.

In an extended section, during a time of spiritual discouragement, Edwards reiterated this point with vivid language:

It seemed yesterday, the day before, and Saturday, that I should always retain the same resolutions to the same height. But alas! how soon do I decay! O how weak, how infirm, how unable to do anything of myself! What a poor inconsistent being! What a miserable wretch, without the assistance of the Spirit of God! While I stand, I am ready to think that I stand by my own strength, and upon my own legs; and I am ready to triumph over my spiritual enemies, as if it were I myself that caused them to flee: — when alas! I am but a poor infant, upheld by Jesus Christ; who holds me up, and gives me liberty to smile to see my enemies flee, when he drives them before me. And so I laugh, as though I myself did it, when it is only Jesus Christ leads me along, and fights himself against my enemies. And now the Lord has a little left me, how weak do I find myself! O let it teach me to depend less on myself, to be more humble, and to give more of the praise of my ability to Jesus Christ! (January 15, 1722)

Edwards recognized that, without the armor of Christ and the strength that God supplies, he could not win the spiritual battle. Apart from divine grace and the power of the Spirit, he could not make himself holy — no matter how many resolutions he made. As he wrote on April 7, 1722, “I know, O Lord, that without thy help I shall fall, innumerable times, not withstanding all my resolutions, how often soever repeated.”

That perspective is helpful for us to remember, especially in a season full of resolution-making. Yes, we are to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:8). That means that to make spiritually-minded, God-glorifying resolutions is a good thing! It also means that the Christian life takes disciplined effort on our part.

But we need to remember that, while we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, it is God who is working in us to accomplish His perfecting purposes (Philippians 2:12–13). Unless we rest in His grace and walk in His power, we are doomed to discouragement and defeat.

When we are led by the Spirit, prayerfully submitting ourselves to His Word, we can be confident that God is molding us into the image of His Son. In that context, making and keeping resolutions is a wonderful part of the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life.

But when we try to better ourselves in our own strength, we will inevitably experience frustration and failure no matter how many resolutions we make. None other than Jonathan Edwards knew that to be true.

* This article was originally published on January 5, 2012.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • kevin2184

    Very encouraging, Nathan. Thanks for writing it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/samvandyke Sam Van Dyke

    Thanks Nathan, I always wondered how well he applied his resolutions. I meant to thank for this blog in person 2 weeks ago Sunday, I saw you on Grace campus. Then I saw your parents on Christmas Eve at a church in Castaic. Thank you for your ministry in this way.