Jonathan Edwards' Resolutions: Fitting a Soul for Eternity with God

2014 is sure to be greeted with numerous attempts to turn over a new leaf.  Every year we hear the calls for New Year’s resolutions.  Since we are clearing the slate, desiring to make a new start, it makes sense that we would set out our goals for the new year.  We hope to shed a few (or more than a few!) pounds, tone up our flabby muscles, make new friends, or tackle a new job.  There is no end to the potential changes we aim to make to make life better.  The problem is that we often fail to achieve the goals set out in our New Year’s resolutions.  For many, if not most, of us, the resolutions lose their shine and glow by January 2nd.  One question we Christians must wrestle with is this:  Ought we to join our neighbors in the search for a better life now?

Christians, in fact can and ought to resolve, by God’s power and grace and in accordance with his Word, to live lives that are pleasing to him and this can take the shape of writing out a series of resolutions.  After all, it is not wrong to plan and organize our lives.  As you may have heard, “to fail to plan is to plan to fail.”  Or, “if you aim at nothing that is exactly what you will hit!”  To put it in more biblical and theological terms, this is a form of “endeavoring after new obedience” (to use the language of the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q & A 87). Christians in previous generations made a habit of formulating resolutions.  New England pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards is one whose early resolutions are well-known. 

Edwards penned 70 resolutions.  Approximately half of them, beginning with entry 35, are dated and were written down between 18 December 1722 and 17 August 1723 during his New York City pulpit supply and during the time he spent at home in East Windsor just prior to his receiving his MA from Yale University.  These are the product of a young Christian’s desire to live in a way pleasing to God, a hunger and thirsting after righteousness which could only be found in Christ.

George Glaghorn, in his introduction to the scholarly Yale University Press edition of the Edwards’ Resolutions (vol. 16 which is comprised of Edwards’ personal letters and writings) informs us that the resolutions were intended to fit a soul for eternity with God.  The resolutions are individually and collectively rigorous and decisively intentional.  Edwards penned his resolutions fully reliant upon God and cognizant of his sinfulness and need for Jesus Christ.  Christians steeped in the Scriptures will find no surprises here.  Edwards begins his Resolutions with these words, “Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him, by his grace, to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.”  As we’ve already noted, Edwards was intentional in writing down his various commitments to godly living and read and reread his Resolutions on a weekly basis as part of his grace-fueled efforts. 

One could argue that Edward’s Resolutions were his way of spelling out how he would fulfill Philippians 2:12-13, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (ESV).  These were not legalistic ways to earn or merit God’s favor but Edwards’ attempt to work out his salvation with fear and trembling while it was in fact God who was at work in him.  In other words, Edwards was lining out how to seek by God’s grace to bring his life into conformity to God’s will expressed in his Word. 

Here is a sample of some of the 70 resolutions that Edwards penned as a young man and to which he turned and returned over the years:

1.  Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to the glory of God, and my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my duration; without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved, to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general.  Resolved, so to do, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many soever, and how great soever.

8.  Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings, as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.

20.  Resolved, to maintain the strictest the temperance in eating and drinking.

38.  Resolved, never to utter anything that is sportive, or a matter of laughter, on the Lord’s day.

46.  Resolved, never to allow the least measure of any fretting or uneasiness at my father or mother.  Resolved, to suffer no effects of it, so much as in the least alteration of speech, or any motion of my eye; and to be especially careful of it with respect to any of our family.

53.  Resolved, to improve every opportunity, when I am in the best and happiest frame of mind, to cast and venture my soul on the Lord Jesus Christ, to trust and confide in him, and to consecrate myself wholly to him; that from this I may have assurance of my safety, knowing that I confide in my Redeemer.*

One could fairly summarize Edwards’ Resolutions as one man’s attempt to exemplify and embody the truth of the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:  “Q: What is the chief end of man? A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”  Even in the small sampling provided here we can see that Edwards’ context comes through in what he commits to and why.  Resolution 46 suggests that the young man Edwards may have found living with his parents between finishing his MA studies and receiving a pastoral call somewhat of challenge.  Resolution 20 reveals Edwards’ care in how he ate and drank.  It may be that he overdid this “moderation” in that we have contemporary descriptions of Edwards that suggest he looked frail and emaciated.  With regard to resolution 38, while it is right to remind ourselves of the solemnity of the Sabbath, it may go beyond Scripture to forbid any and all humor.

All of this is to say that Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions provide us with an example of how we may seek to pursue godliness.  It would certainly be going beyond Scripture to require that all Christians maintain a journal or spiritual diary or that we must pen resolutions like Edwards.  But there is much we can learn from Edwards about the necessity of endeavoring after new obedience once we have been justified by the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Is your soul fit for an eternity with God?

*Edwards’ Resolutions can be found on the web at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, as well as at other websites.  They are also located in vol. 1 of the Hickman edition of Edwards’ Works published by Banner of Truth and in vol. 16 of the Yale edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards edited by George Claghorn.  The Resolutions are also available in a handy little booklet edited by Stephen J. Nichols, paired with Edwards’ “Advice to Young Converts,” and published by P & R Publishing.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of theReformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington