Welcome back to Two Ways News for 2023.
I’m flying solo for this first edition of the new year, and my subject is about starting afresh for the new year—although it’s really about why starting afresh is the essence of the Christian life. Hope you enjoy it.
A New Year’s repentance
Are you a New Year’s resolution sort of person? I can’t say I am, but I do quite like that clearing-the-decks and starting-again sensation that comes with the first proper work week of each year.
I usually take a day or three to clear out the bilge from the inbox — starting from the oldest unreplied-to email, and working forward. This in itself a cleansing experience. There’s some healthy humiliation involved as I apologise to those I should have replied to months ago (this year, the oldest was from August 2021—which is some kind of record, even for me.)
There’s also a nice sense of relief in other cases, where the subject matter is now so old or overtaken by events, that I can just delete it. (Sorry if that was you.)
It’s also the time of year when I take a look at my weekly routine and habits, and give them a tweak—my daily work patterns, the fantasies of how much exercise I’ll do, how much reading I will fit in, and of course my devotional habits.
I usually start a new prayer and Bible regime each January, because a year seems to be about the limit I can keep any one system going without it falling into ruin. I’ve found that if I give the system a major tweak or makeover each January, it keeps me going for most of another year, until I start all over again the following January.
Come to think of it, I suppose I am more into New Year’s repentance than New Year’s resolutions.
I know that whatever new plans I embark on this year will (at best) only half work, and will probably fall apart. Rather than unrealistically dream that I will become a different person all of a sudden—an incredibly disciplined machine who follows through on every plan—much better to recognize the inevitability of failure and to be ready to pick myself up and repent and start again when that happens.
Which brings me to Calvin and the fundamental nature of the Christian life (another tweak for 2023—read more old books). In the Institutes, Calvin suggests that repentance is at the centre of the Christian life.
We might be tempted to answer that ‘faith’ is the centre of the Christian life, and Calvin would also agree. Faith comes first, he says—we come to trust and rely on God and his promises in Jesus Christ, and are united to Christ by his Spirit. But what this faith in Christ immediately leads us to do, and never stops leading us to do, is to repent:
For since pardon and forgiveness are offered through the preaching of the gospel in order that the sinner, freed from the tyranny of Satan, the yoke of sin, and the miserable bondage of vices, may cross over into the Kingdom of God, surely no one can embrace the grace of the gospel without betaking himself from the errors of his past life into the right way, and applying his whole effort to the practice of repentance.’ III.III.1.
Interestingly (and brilliantly) Calvin then links repentance with both regeneration and self-denial.
From God’s side, our daily repentance is the daily progress of his work of regeneration in our lives . We are not just born again or made new once, at the beginning of our Christian lives, but constantly. Day by day, the Spirit not only gives us faith in Christ but leads us to keep killing off the vestiges and habits of our ‘old man’, and clothing ourselves in the ‘new man’, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of our creator. Or in the imagery of Galatians 5, we are in a ceaseless battle to fight off the desires of the flesh, and to follow instead in the footsteps of the Spirit, thus bearing the spiritual fruit that Christ has set us free to produce.
So repentance is the constant regeneration and renewal of our lives by faith. But repentance is also self-denial, because to turn to God is to turn away from our own sinful, perverse, self-centred selves. In fact, Calvin goes so far as to call self-denial ‘the sum of the Christian life’ (III.VII).
The texts that Calvin cites here are fascinating. We expect him to go straight to Mark 8—to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus—and he does get to that text eventually. But he begins with Romans 12:1-2 and 1 Corinthians 6:19. By the mercies of God, we are to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, which is the path to spiritual transformation. Our bodies are not our own; they were bought with a price, and so we should glorify God with our bodies, since through the gospel we’ve now come to see the truth—that our whole bodies and selves belong to God, not us.
This is what self-denial really is. Realising the truth about who we are, and turning our backs on the self-centred, self-ruling, self-concerned individual we used to be.
Among the many juicy quotes in this section, here’s a particularly good one:
This is also evidence of great progress: that, almost forgetful of ourselves, surely subordinating our self-concern, we try faithfully to devote our zeal to God and his commandments. For when Scripture bids us leave off self-concern, it not only erases from our minds the yearning to possess, the desire for power, and the favour of men, but it also uproots ambition and all craving for human glory and other more secret plagues. III.VII.1
The ‘yearning to possess’, and ‘the favour of men’—those two get me where it hurts. And I don’t even want to think about the ‘other more secret plagues’.
Of course, self-denial is the ultimate modern blasphemy. The supreme deity of the Western world is after all the liberated, autonomous Self.
As many have noted and written (most recently, Carl Trueman in his Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self) the contemporary Western world has given its own perverse and supercharged twist to what has always been the impulse of humanity: to pursue the satisfaction and fulfilment of the Self, in terms determined by the feelings, thoughts and instincts of the Self.
What are most New Year’s resolutions after all, but an annual renewal of the most important project of our lives, which is our Selves? What could I change this year to improve and satisfy, in whatever new way I can, my own precious Self. How could I be a better Me?
Self-denial is a rejection of this whole silly and doomed project. It’s a raspberry blown at the false god of the Self.
And the wonderful thing is, by blaspheming and rejecting the supremacy of Self, I actually discover who I really am as a creature and servant of the living God. By denying my Self, I’m set free to be a giver not a taker, a lover not a hater, a person who doesn’t foolishly seek to craft my own identity, but discovers it as it is given to me by God and the people he puts me in relationship with.
The killing of the sovereign Self is the path to genuine freedom. We rise on stepping-stones of our dead selves to higher things (which is a quote from Tennyson I think, but which I got from Bertie Wooster).
Now, the modern world has its rejoinder to all this. It casts ‘self-denial’ as a pinched, joyless kind of asceticism, a rejection of all pleasure and spontaneity and individuality. Think of Blackadder’s puritannical aunt, Lady Whiteadder, who dresses like a monk, eats only turnips and condemns alcoholic drink as urine from the last leper in hell.
It’s a misleading caricature, and a desperate one. The Self worries that by being tipped off its throne it will lose its joy and dignity and uniqueness. But this is the strange thing about the modern Self. Because it is really impossible for us to craft and maintain a sovereign Self—we were never created to and we don’t have the capacity—we not only submit ourselves to innumerable indignities in the foolish quest to ‘be ourselves’, but we end up finding refuge in communal identities and cultural cliches. These days the truly self-directed individualist, who charts his own course in the face of cultural orthodoxies, ends up being cancelled.
We are of course all different and unique—but the essence of that uniqueness or ‘individuality’ is that God made each one of us, and sees and knows each one of us, for the particular person we are. As Ps 139 describes so beautifully, God has searched us and known us completely and comprehensively, from the first moment he knitted us together in our mother’s womb, to the farthest reaches of creation to which we might travel, to the very end of our days, all of which are already written in his book. When, after all this, the Psalmist says, “How precious are your thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them!”, I think he is rejoicing in the fact that his own life is one of the thoughts of God.
What shall we repent of this year? The answer is the same every year.
Search me, O God, and know my heart:
Try me, and know my thoughts;
And see if there be any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.” (Ps 139:23-24)
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