Thanksgiving as the Will of God for His People

By Doug Ponder    |    December 4, 2023


Editor’s Note: This post is part three of a three-part essay on thanksgiving and gratitude. (Previous Post)

In two previous articles (part one, part two), I argued that gratitude is redeemed humanity’s fundamental response to God and that the Scriptures were written in large part to teach us how to give thanks to the Lord. This is the inescapable conclusion that follows from understanding who the Lord is (Giver), what he has given us (everything), and how his grace enables our proper response (as Christians). Having discussed the first two elements, let’s conclude with a consideration of the third: the Christian life.

How Should We Then Live?

French artist Paul Gauguin is perhaps best known for his famous work, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? As the title suggests, the work is a meditation on human life. Notably absent is the question of how man ought to live in view of where we come from (our origin), what we are (our nature), and where we are going (our destiny). This oversight seems unthinkable to many Christians who are steeped in a moral tradition that emphasizes the commands, principles, and examples in the Scriptures. Such Christians are prone, if they are not careful, to commit essentially the opposite error of Gaugin. Never forgetting to ask how they ought to live, many Christians instead seem to have forgotten that how we live is not the starting point of the Christian life.1

Now, to speak of “the Christian life” is to enter the domain of ethics. Unfortunately, for everyone other than ethicists themselves, talking about ethics conjures images of moral legalists, office HR managers,2 or runaway trolleys about to strike one or five people (your choice). As I said, this is unfortunate because ethics is actually the discovery of how we ought to live in view of all that God has given. As Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer puts it, “Ethics is occupied with the question, ‘What should we do?’ Yet ethics does not begin with this question. It begins rather with the question, ‘What has been given?’”3 (And the related question, What kind of being can give so freely?)

Responding to the God Who Gives

The aforementioned starting point also helps us to see the Christian life as the pursuit of how to respond appropriately to what God has given: life and breath and all things (Acts 17:25), especially the ineffable gift of Christ himself (2 Cor. 9:15). Thus, this framework turns the abstract and frequently individualized question of “How should we live?” into a matter of how to worship all of Christ in all of life with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30).

Furthermore, by beginning with what God has given, we are continually reminded that the whole of the Christian life follows the pattern of redemption. Recall how the Lord rescued his people from slavery before he gave them the ten commandments (Exodus 12–14 comes before Exodus 19 and 20). Note again how the Lord Jesus announced the arrival of the kingdom (Matt. 4:17, 23) and the identity-altering blessings of God (Matt. 5:1–16) before he delivered his exposition of God’s moral law (Matt. 5:17ff). The order is significant: man does not work or serve in order to receive; man can only respond to that which God has already given. As one scholar summarizes, “Salvation does not follow service but precedes it; grace is first, and gratitude [or ingratitude!] follows after.”4

This means that everything we do in life is—and can only ever be—a response to God’s prior gift(s). The only question is whether our response will be recognition or rejection of the God who gives.

Two Roads Diverged in a Gracious Wood

Follow the logic. First, God is the giver of every good and perfect gift, especially salvation, and even the ability to respond to any of his gifts.5 Second, God’s gifts are undeserved, for undeserved favor is what makes them gifts. As Paul says, “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise, grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6). Therefore, man’s entire existence is lived on the receiving end of unmerited favor. As such, the only choice we have is whether to respond with gratitude—which entails the thankful acknowledgment of God’s grace and the appropriate reception of what God has given—or to respond with ingratitude—which entails the thoughtless disavowal of God’s grace and the misuse of his gifts.6

The appropriate Christian response all that God has given is thankfulness.”

—Doug Ponder

Yet I am afraid that the word ingratitude has been so watered down that we hear the former as a matter of impoliteness. On God’s reckoning, however, there is nothing worse than an ingrate. Indeed, the apostle Paul places ingratitude at the root of humanity’s problems: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21, emphasis mine). Following Paul on this point, Karl Barth wrote, “Radically and basically all sin is simply ingratitude—man’s refusal of the one but necessary thing which is proper to and is required of him with whom God has graciously entered into covenant.”7

Consider the alternative from David’s dedicatory prayer—an anti-Romans 1:21. David exclaimed, “Praise be to you, Lord, the God of our father Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all. Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.” (1 Chron. 29:10–14)

Gratitude: The Essence of the Christian Life

To paraphrase the late G.C. Berkouwer, if the essence of Christian theology is grace (and it is), then the essence of the Christian life is gratitude.8 Such a conception of the Christian life reveals the inherent folly of the disturbingly common question, “Why should I obey?” The same query was apparently common in Paul’s day as well (Rom. 6:1, 15), and his own answer is instructive. After reminding his readers of their new identity wrought by the grace of God (Rom. 6:1–11), Paul sets forth an ethic of gratitude, saying, “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the pattern of teaching that has claimed your allegiance” (Rom. 6:17).

In this way, gratitude is a foundational element to what Paul calls “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5). As John Frame explains, “[Gratitude] is not only a feeling, but a disposition toward actions which express that thankfulness. Those who are thankful to God will not bow to idols, take his name in vain, violate his day, dishonor their parents, and so on. Gratefulness and allegiance, therefore, are inseparable.”9

Thus, even to ask the question, “Why obey?” misunderstands both the nature of God and the gifts that God has given us, especially the gift par excellence, which is the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Frame continues, “If our salvation is the greatest gift anyone has ever received, the greatest gift imaginable, then how can we do anything other than give ourselves wholeheartedly to our covenant Lord? How can we be other than deeply wounded at the very thought of betraying him?”10 Indeed, the failure to have any discernible degree of gratitude for this gift would therefore entail the absence of any redemptive apprehension of grace.11

Thanking God Always and for Everything

Finally, seeing the Christian life as a matter of grateful response infuses our obedience to God with an indispensable flavor of joy (cf. John 15:11). As theologian Henry Stob rightly describes, “Appreciative of God’s mercy, thankful for His unspeakable gift, happy in His gracious conferments [sic], the Christian seeks with might and main to show forth His praises and to do His will.”12 To be sure, it is not that the commands of God cease to be commands. Rather, in Stob’s words, “[The law] is no longer contemplated as a code of perfection that no mortal can ever satisfy; it is now contemplated as a gracious prescription supplying a happy and thankful man with helpful directives concerning how to satisfy [God], whom it is his deepest desire to please.”13

In other words, the appropriate Christian response all that God has given—from his creation and salvation to his instruction and correction—is thankfulness. That is to say, “The Christian life in all of its dimensions is to serve as a witness to God’s grace by being a life of profound and pervasive gratitude.”14 Hence Paul writes, “[G]ive thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18). Or as he says in another place, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). For this what it means to live as a Christian: doing everything in the name of Jesus—for his honor and glory—as an act of thanksgiving to God.

Editor’s Note: This essay was first published on November 28, 2022.

  1. Trained ethicists will discern the categories of “revealed reality” and “revealed morality” here, which James M. Gustafson first articulated as distinct ways that Christian ethicists have developed their moral philosophies. The latter is more common among conservative Protestants, who tend to approach the Bible as a revelation of God’s will for man through commands, principles, and examples. The former (i.e., the revealed-reality approach) was championed by Karl Barth, who maintained that the Bible was given to reveal God and God’s activity in the world, not standards for human behavior. By approaching the Scriptures as such—and not as a collection of abstract laws scattered throughout the Bible’s story—Barth taught that humans would become responsible moral agents who know how to live appropriately before the living God. Gustafson saw these as utterly distinct and even competing ethical approaches; however, I stand with those who insist that the Scriptures were written to give us both revealed reality and revealed morality—and in that order, too. In this way, both reality and morality exist in mutually reinforcing relationship that enables Christians to respond appropriately (morality) to what God has given (reality). For an author who adopts a similar approach, see Mark D. Liederbach and Evan Lenow, Ethics as Worship: The Pursuit of Moral Discipleship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2021), 1–25. For more on the debate as Gustafson framed it, see James M. Gustafson, “Christian Ethics,” in Religion, ed. Paul Ramsey (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965), 309–16 and James M. Gustafson, “The Place of Scripture in Christian Ethics: A Methodological Study,” Interpretation 24, no. 4 (1970): 430–55.
  2. Think Toby from The Office.
  3. Bayer, “The Ethics of Gift,” Lutheran Quarterly 24 (2010), 447. Emphasis original.
  4. Henry Stob, “The Heidelberg Catechism in Moral Perspective,” The Reformed Journal 13, no. 8 (October 1963), 7.
  5. See Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 2:13, Jas. 1:17.
  6. More specifically, ingratitude is the refusal—whether by slighting, snubbing, stealing, misusing, or outright rejecting—any of God’s gifts.
  7. Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/4, trans. by G. W. Bromiley, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1969, 42. As Barth goes on to explain, “On the side of God it is only a matter of free grace and this in the form of benefit. For the other partner in the covenant to whom God turns in this grace, the only proper thing, but the thing which is unconditionally and inescapably demanded, is that he should be thankful. How can anything more or different be asked of man? The only answer to grace is gratitude.”
  8. Berkouwer said, “The essence of Christian theology is grace; the essence of Christian ethics is gratitude.” Cited in R. C. Sproul, The Righteous Shall Live By Faith: Romans (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 203. Sproul notes he heard Berkouwer say this in a live setting, though he cannot recall the specific occasion.
  9. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 335. Elsewhere Frame points out that, “Even on the human level, when someone gives us a large gift, we feel an obligation to please him” (The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 29).
  10. Ibid.
  11. Cf. Romans 1:21; James 2:14, 17; 2 Corinthians 13:5.
  12. Stob, “The Heidelberg Catechism in Moral Perspective,” 8.
  13. Ibid. This is the sort of truth that can also help us learn to stop worrying and love the law of God. For once we see that both law and gospel have their source in God, we then will see that both are gifts from him. They are not gifts of the same kind, having different ends and differing uses suitable to those ends (cf. Rom. 8:3). Nevertheless, receiving both law and gospel as gifts keeps us from seeing them as opposed to one another, thereby allowing each to fulfill its respective office in God’s economy for the total good of his people (cf. Deut. 6:20–24; 10:13; Ps. 19:7ff).
  14. Gordon S. Mikoski, “On Gratitude,” Theology Today 67 (2011), 388.
Doug Ponder

Doug Ponder is professor of biblical studies at Grimké Seminary and is a teaching pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, Va.

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