A lot of Christians smirk about the making of New Year’s resolutions. They are notorious for their fleeting fragility: no sooner has the new year been rung in than they are forgotten in the pell-mell of life. But it is important to note that New Year’s resolutions may actually stretch back to a spiritual discipline characteristic of seventeenth-century Puritan and eighteenth-century Evangelical spirituality, namely the making of either a personal or a church covenant.
The personal written covenants from these two eras of church history generally fall into three categories: (1) those made at the time of a person’s conversion or those made later to mark this birth into spiritual life; (2) those made on the occurrence of natural birthdays or at the start of a new year; and (3) those made upon the occurrence of an event of special significance, such as ordination or entry into a new sphere of ministry.
None of those who drew up written covenants in this period were unaware of the two major dangers that covenant-making can involve: (1) legalism—thinking that it is the drawing up of a covenant that saves, whereas it is Christ alone who is our Saviour; and (2) spiritual complacency—viewing this formal transaction as henceforth ensuring that one’s spiritual life was guaranteed to be healthy and flourishing.
Moreover, our seventeenth-century Puritan and eighteenth-century Evangelical forebears well knew that there is no biblical injunction that a Christian must draw up a written covenant. Yet, they regarded written covenants as a helpful tool in reminding them what they had undertaken when they took Christ as their Lord and Saviour. These written documents, which were for their eyes only, could be meditated on at a later point in time and be a spur to spiritual renewal, “a more serious profession, a more watchful life, a more tender conscience towards God” (Gwyn Davies, Covenanting with God [Evangelical Library of Wales, 1994], 34).
If you are interested in actually writing out a personal covenant or resolutions at the start of this new year, the following covenant drawn up by Matthew Henry (1662–1714), the well-known English Presbyterian Bible commentator, around 1700 may be of interest and help as a model. Henry made a number of such personal covenants through his life. This one was specifically for the start of the new year:
This new-year’s day I have solemnly renewed the resignation and surrender of my whole self to God, as my God, deliberately, and upon good considerations. I have renounced the world and the flesh as knowing they cannot make me happy; and have devoted my whole self to the blessed Spirit, to be enlightened, and sanctified, and so recommended to the Son, as qualified for an interest in his mediation, according to the tenor of the gospel. I likewise devote myself, through the Spirit, to the Lord Jesus Christ, as my Advocate with the Father, and my way to him; by him to be recommended to the grace and favour of God the Father, relying upon Christ’s righteousness alone; for, without him, I am less than nothing, worse than nothing. I likewise devote myself, through the Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father, as my chief good and highest end; as the author of my being, to whom I am obliged in duty; and the felicity of my being, to whom I am obliged in interest. O Lord, truly I am thy servant. I am thy servant; may I ever be free in thy service, and never desire to be free from it. Nail my ear to the doorposts, and let me serve thee forever.