Many of us pursue moral improvement in a way that is not founded in the centrality of the gospel and the reality of the cross of Christ.
by Bob Lepine
Most resolutions like this are pledges of self discipline or moral improvement – in some cases, holiness. That’s a good thing. I’m for moral improvement.
Why? What’s right about moral improvement?
- It is God’s plan for you to grow more and more into the image of Christ
- It is the desire of every person who loves Jesus to want to know Him more and to be more like Him.
- Hebrews 12 says there is “peaceable fruit” that accompanies righteousness. You were created by God to live a holy life, and when you do, there is peace and joy that comes.
I think some today have rejected the whole idea of moral improvement or holiness as “legalistic.” You talk to some about living set apart, holy, blameless, upright, above reproach, morally excellent lives and they push back and tell you about their freedom in Christ.
Freedom in Christ is not freedom from holiness. It is freedom from slavery to sin! Freedom to obey and choose to live for God! Galatians 5:13 says that “You were called to freedom, but do not use your freedom to gratify the flesh, but in love, serve one another.” Then, in Galatians 5:16, “Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh!”
So I believe that for many, the impulse behind New Year’s Resolutions is a desire to live the way we were meant to live – holy, righteous lives that honor God and give evidence of His transforming grace in our lives. That’s a good impulse.
But I also want to suggest that many of us pursue moral improvement in a way that is not founded in the centrality of the gospel and the reality of the cross of Christ.
Here’s what is wrong with how we approach moral improvement.
- For some, it’s the trap of the Galatian church – the only church Paul does not commend at the beginning of an epistle. Even the morally bankrupt Corinthians get a commendation from Paul at the beginning of his letters to them. But the Galatians get this:
Galatians 3:1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Some New Year’s resolutions are a pitiful attempt to be perfected in the flesh – “I’m going to resolve to try harder to do better, to clean up my act, use the strength of my own will to live a more righteous life.
If Paul was here, he would say to us “you foolish person! Who has bewitched you?”
- This kind of pursuit of moral improvement begins with a confidence in self. And if it succeeds, it builds pride in self. If it fails, it breeds condemnation and shame. So either way, it brings not the peaceable fruit of righteousness. It brings bitter and corrupted spiritual fruit.
- To pursue moral improvement as a way to please God and win His favor is to pursue a false religion – a false gospel – that the Bible says will put your soul in danger of hell. Every world religion is a religion of moral improvement as a way of pleasing God. Everyone except Christianity. So if you are headed into the New Year with a renewed commitment to “get your life together” and if you think that in doing so, you will earn God’s favor, beware. You need to listen carefully to what I’m going to say to you this morning.
Instead of New Year’s Resolutions that focus on moral improvement, I want us to focus on making three gospel resolutions in the New Year.
I believe the three resolutions that need to mark our lives in the new year are these:
- To daily, consciously reaffirm the Lordship of Christ over our lives
- To daily, consciously repent
- To daily, consciously re-believe the gospel
I believe that if you want this to be a year of real change and real moral improvement, these three resolutions are the key.
These resolutions may sound simple and self evident. But to live them out as the daily, conscious focus of our lives will be, I believe, transformational for each one of us.
The first resolution – to reaffirm the Lordship of Christ over our lives – His right to rule and reign and call the shots.
This first resolution is built on an acknowledgement that there is a God, that He is our Creator.
And because He is our Creator, He has the right to rule over our lives.
He has made us for Himself. We are His. We are not our own.
Life is for Him, it’s about Him, that He designed it, that He rules over it, and that our existence belongs to Him.
He gives us life and breath so that we can do what He created us to do – to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever.
When we repent and believe the gospel for the first time – when we are saved or born again or when we become a Christian or give our lives to Christ – whatever expression you want to use for that – what happens is that our lives are re-purposed. We are re-aligned. We are getting our lives in alignment with what God designed us for in the first place. We are acknowledging that He is God, that we are not, and that life is all about Him and not about us.
When we reaffirm the Lordship of Christ over our lives each day, we’re doing the same thing. It’s the daily realignment.
When you reaffirm the Lordship of Christ over your life each day, you are acknowledging that the natural drift of our lives is away from the purposes and plan of God for us. That we need to daily re-acknowledge God’s right to rule and reign and hold sway over our lives.
It presupposes that we agree that the manufacturer knows best how our lives ought to be calibrated, and that we are submitting ourselves to Him.
So, resolution number one is to each day acknowledge the Kingship, the Ownership, the Lordship of Christ over your life.
We all say that, right? We confess that Jesus is Lord. But functionally, is that how we live?
Have you ever thought about the fact that in the NFL, before a play is run, a group of highly skilled millionaire athletes all get together in a circle, and the head millionaire – the quarterback – listens as a guy who makes a lot less money than him tells him what to do. And he tells the other guys. And they all go up to the line of scrimmage and do exactly what the coach tells them to do. They run the play. They do that 60-70 times in a three hour period. Before every play, they huddle up to find out what play they’re supposed to run.
- Do you acknowledge God’s right to call the plays?
- Do you huddle up – in the word, in prayer, with others who love Him – to find out how to live?
- Do you run the play? Or do you call your own plays?
Good morning God, this is Your day, I am Your Child, show me Your way.
Now, let’s talk about the second resolution - repenting every day.
I want to make sure you know there is a difference between confession and repentance. Both are called for in scripture.
Confession is agreeing with God that what He says is true is true.
- We can make a good confession or a confession of faith by stating that we agree with God about what is true.
- When we confess our sins, what we’re doing is not just admitting that we have sinned, but we are agreeing with God that what we have done is an act of rebellion against Him.
"Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen."
The first part of that prayer is confession. The second part is repentance. A change of mind that leads to a concurrent change in behavior.
The second resolution commits to turn away from these three forces that daily buffet and batter you:
- The culture around you which does not value or promote godliness or Christ centeredness (Romans 12:2 – do not be conformed, Col. 3:1 – set your mind on things above)
- The enemy of your soul who has as his primary objective to make you spiritually impotent and ineffective and who lies to you about what is important and has value and will bring you happiness
- Your own flesh which has as its natural appetite a desire, a lust, a longing for temporary, carnal, fading pleasures
Each day, our minds are enticed by these three. And repenting each day is the decision we make to change our mind again about what is true and right.
It’s the flip side of the realignment. Turn from sin. Turn to Christ as Lord.
Which brings us to the third resolution – resolving to believe the gospel each day.
The gospel is the power of God to salvation – that’s our justification and our sanctification. A life that is focused on Jesus and the gospel as the main thing is a life that grows in godliness.
Titus 2:11–15 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Titus 2 – the grace of God has come. It teaches us to say no to ungodliness. Grace – the gospel – is our teacher.
Meditating on God’s love and grace demonstrated in the cross of Christ is what trains us to say yes to righteousness and no to unrighteousness or ungodliness. It is the fuel that brings the moral improvement we need.
Meditating on God’s love and grace demonstrated in the cross of Christ is what trains us to live self controlled, upright and godly lives in a culture that does not encourage us to live self controlled, upright and godly lives.
Meditating on God’s love and grace demonstrated in the cross of Christ is what motivates us to become zealous for good works.
If you will join me in this resolution – to believe the gospel every day – here’s what you’ll be resolving to do:
1. Believe again what seems almost unbelievable – that in time and space, in real history, a man came back from the dead by His own power and demonstrated by that one act that He is truly God come to earth in human flesh.
This declaration of what we believe is, according to the Bible, foolishness to Gentiles and a stumbling block for Jews. If it is not true, we are to be pitied above all people. This one act separates our faith from every other major world religion.
The resurrection of Christ is at the heart of our gospel. And it seems basic to say that each day we ought to reaffirm our conviction that we believe this resurrection really took place.
There are major NY Times bestsellers that we can pick up in any bookstore that will tell you how crazy you are if you believe a myth like the resurrection. When asked about the resurrection, Richard Dawkins said:
Presumably what happened to Jesus was what happens to all of us when we die. We decompose. Accounts of Jesus's resurrection and ascension are about as well-documented as Jack and the Beanstalk.
But it’s not just atheists like Dawkins. There are many churches where people are meeting today – right here – where the people in the pews and the preachers in the pulpits don’t really believe that Jesus came back from the dead. In this rational and scientific age, they settle for the idea of a “spiritual resurrection” of Jesus – all that He lived for and modeled is resurrected in the lives of His followers and in our lives today.
That’s not what the Bible teaches. That’s not the gospel.
So, believing the gospel every day begins with re-believing that Jesus rose from the dead and that He is alive still today.
2. If you keep your resolution to believe the gospel again every day, you’ll be resolving to reconsider again each day the cosmic consequences of the cross.
- Believing the gospel each day means that you believe that on the cross, amends for your rebellion – past, present and future – have been made. All is forgiven. That’s atonement.
- Believing the gospel each day means that you believe that on the cross, the price was paid to buy you back from our slavery to sin. You don’t owe God anything anymore to pay for your sin. That’s redemption.
- Believing the gospel each day means that you believe that on the cross, the righteous wrath of God which was stirred up by your rebellion has now been appeased. God is not angry with you anymore. As we sing:
“Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied For every sin on Him was laid, here in the death of Christ I stand”
That’s propitiation and expiation.
- Believing the gospel each day means that you believe that as a result of death of Christ, your relationship with God has been restored. You are a friend of God. You are His adopted child. You are a joint heir with Jesus of the promises of God. That’s reconciliation.
- Believing the gospel each day means that you believe that on the cross, the power of sin and the power of Satan over your life was defeated. You are no longer a slave to sin. You are now free to be who you were created to be.
- Believing the gospel each day means that you believe that because of the cross, you have a hope. This life is not all there is. There is no sting or fear of death. There is victory over the grave. Again, we sing “death is crushed to death, life is mine to live.”
Let me just recap that for you, can I? Each day, as you reflect on the cross of Christ, as you believe the gospel each day, here is what you are believing again.
- God is not angry with you anymore.
- All is forgiven.
- You don’t owe God anything to pay for your sin debt.
- You are a friend of God. A child of God.
- As a child of God, you are an heir of the blessings of God
- You are free from the power of sin
- You have a hope for life beyond this life.
Why is all that true? Because that’s what the Bible tells us was accomplished for us at the cross.
3. Finally, if you keep your resolution to believe the gospel again every day, you’ll be resolving to reconsider again each day what 2 Peter 1 calls the “precious and very great promises” that are ours in Christ.
Believing the gospel means believing that what God says is true about you is actually true, and living as if you believe it’s true.
Here is not an exhaustive list, but just a few of the things that are true about you that you need to commit yourself to believe and to believe every day.
1. That there is no condemnation because of the cross. Romans 8:1
2. That His promise that He will never leave you or forsake you was validated by the cross. Heb. 13:5
3. That you are accepted in the beloved because of the cross. Eph. 1:6
4. That you are complete in Him thanks to the cross. Col. 2:10
5. That you have been transferred from the domain of darkness into the Kingdom of His beloved Son as a result of the cross. Col. 1:13.
6. That God is for you because of the work of Christ on the cross on your behalf. Romans 8:31
7. That He cares for you as demonstrated at the cross. 1 Peter 5:7
8. That He is working all things for your good as evidenced at the cross. (Romans 8:28)
9. That nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ thanks to the cross. Romans 8
How does meditating each day on the cross of Christ and the resurrection of Christ work to defeat sin in our lives? Why is it more effective than a self help, self determination plan?
Because the gospel is the power of God. The self help plan is the power of you.
And because when spend time each day reflecting on and meditating on the sufferings of Christ for you, what He bore
- that you might be redeemed and reconciled,
- that God wrath would be satisfied,
- that you would have forgiveness and new life and hope for the future,
- and when you consider the promise of blessing that has been made real for you at the cross,
It puts your desire for sin in perspective. It reorders your priorities and realigns your life.
You can make a list of New Years resolutions for moral improvement, but the most important resolution you can make is the resolution to keep the gospel central to every aspect of your life, and to let the moral improvement flow from that.
Keith Johnson has a helpful illustration that points out the difference:
He says “Imagine yourself in a large house in which those who are deaf and those who can hear are living together.
In one of the rooms, you see a guy sitting in a chair and listening to music on his iPod. Rhythmically, he’s tapping his foot, drumming his thighs, jutting his chin out, swaying to the beat, and pursing his lips like Mick Jagger or someone. His entire body moves in response to what his ears are hearing. It’s obvious that he’s enjoying himself and listening to a pretty good song.
A few minutes later, one of the deaf persons enters the room. Seeing the guy listening to the music and impersonating Mick Jagger, he thinks, That looks like fun. I think I’ll try that. So he sits down next to him and begins to imitate him. Awkwardly at first, he tries drumming his thighs, jutting his chin out, and swaying to the music just like the guy with the iPod. With a little practice, he begins to catch onto it. By watching and trying, he begins to mirror the other guy’s actions pretty closely.
But although he eventually gets better at keeping time, he concludes that it’s not as much fun or as easy as it initially seemed
(especially the chin jut—very difficult to do when you’re not actually hearing the music).
After a while, a third person enters the room and watches this scene. What does he see? Two people apparently doing the same thing, apparently listening to the same thing. Is there a difference?
Absolutely. The first guy hears the music and his actions are a natural response to the music’s rhythm andmelody. The second guy is merely imitating the outward actions. Being deaf, he’s not listening to anything.”
There’s an important spiritual parallel here. The dance (outward actions) represents the Christian life, while the music represents the grace of the gospel. Though we have come to know Christ through grace, we are often like the deaf man in the story who tries to perform the dance without hearing the music. Our spiritual life is reduced to a series of dance steps— external behaviors and activities—devoid of God’s animating and transforming power.
God’s desire is not to get us to do the dance but to get us to hear the music of the gospel, with the dance (godly actions, character, and activities) flowing naturally from it.
Do you hear the music?
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.
Look on Him and pardon me.
This post originally appeared on FamilyLife Today's website. Listen to FamilyLife Today every weekday morning at 11:00 on WRFD!