By Hal Knight
As each new year begins, millions of Americans make resolutions, resolving to change for the better in the days ahead. But whether these resolutions have to do with relationships, lifestyle, growing the mind, or reducing the body, they have one thing in common: for the most part, after a few weeks or months, we no longer keep them. Our wills are not able to keep us on track, because our intentions are undermined by other desires, the business of life, and the seductive temptations of our culture.
John Wesley knew the problem, and believed there was only one real solution. We cannot change our own desires and motives, but God can and will. In fact, God has already taken the decisive step through Jesus Christ. In Christ God has loved us so much as to die for us on a cross, and when we encounter that love, through the Holy Spirit, we are reconciled to God and begin to love God and others in return.
Wesley’s Methodists did not begin each year by making resolutions they were unlikely to keep, but by recommitting their lives to God. They knew God was the only source of deep and lasting change. They did this through a Covenant Service in which they remembered God’s faithfulness, confessed their own unfaithfulness, and renewed their commitment to God.
Wesley has numerous accounts of these services. In his Journal he records “We met in the evening to renew our covenant with God. It was a glorious season. I believe all that were present found that God was there.” (April 17, 1758). On another occasion he writes “And at six in the evening we met at the church in Spitafields, to renew our covenant with God. It was blessed time. The windows of heaven were open, and the skies poured down righteousness.” (February 29, 1760).
Wesley’s Methodists began to hold these services at the beginning of the year. United Methodists today can do the same. We have in our Book of Worship a version of Wesley’s Covenant Service [#288]; we also have a service of the renewal of our baptismal covenant (The Baptismal Covenant IV in The United Methodist Hymnal).
But even without these, we can begin the new year with the prayer with which Wesley concluded his Covenant Service (607 in the Hymnal):