The Christian Life in One Word: Thankfulness

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I’m a lover of catechisms. Perhaps it’s because I picked up the Westminster Shorter Catechism as a newborn Christian, and I was struck by the beauty of doctrine. Wesley (founder of Methodism) and Pope (arguably the greatest Methodist theologian) frequently and positively cited the Westminster Shorter, though diverging from it at several key points (Wesley placed it in his library for preachers with a few revisions).

Another catechism, the Heidelberg, piqued my interest later in my spiritual journey. The opening question and answer, while less famous than that of the Westminster (“What is the chief end of man? To glorify God, and to enjoy him forever”), is equally beautiful: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

The second question in the Heidelberg Catechism sets up its three divisions: “How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily? Three things: First, the greatness of my sin and misery. Second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery. Third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption” (emphasis added). Thankfulness is elevated to the foremost characteristic of the Christian life.

Through my recent study of Scripture, I have become convinced that the Heidelberg is right: the whole Christian life is best summarized in this one word, and gratitude deserves more attention in our teaching on holiness.

The Heidelberg Catechism: Our Thankfulness

The third section of the Heidelberg (“Our Thankfulness”) begins by asking, “Since, then, we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we do good works?” Answer: 

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our Godly walk win also others to Christ. (emphasis added)

A person who is holy (renewed by the Spirit in Christ’s image) and happy (living and dying happily in the comfort of his redemption through Christ) is characterized by thankfulness. The whole Christian life is comprehended under this one word. Those who will not be saved, on the other hand, are those who refuse to “turn to God from their unthankful, unrepentant life.”

We must learn how to be thankful to God for our redemption if we hope to live and die happily in its comfort.

This emphasis on thankfulness in the Heidelberg is what initially prompted me to consider that I had given too little attention to the centrality of gratitude in the Christian life. But it was not until I took a closer look at 2 Corinthians 4, one of my favorite chapters in Scripture, that I began to see thankfulness at the heart of God’s whole redemptive plan.

2 Corinthians: Thanksgiving to the Glory of God

Chapter 4 of 2 Corinthians continues the theme of glory from Chapter 3, which establishes the superiority of the new covenant over the old: “what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it” (2 Cor. 3:10). Through Christ, the veil is lifted from our eyes so that we can behold the glory of God:

When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:16–18)

The fourth chapter begins with Paul pointing to this glorious gospel as his reason for pressing on in the ministry of suffering that he had been assigned by God. Those who rejected the gospel he preached were blinded by Satan who was at work to “keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4); “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

Preaching this glorious message came at a price: as Paul put it, “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:11). Despite his suffering, Paul was determined to press on. Verse 15 is key: “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15).

Paul took comfort in the thought that his sufferings would bring glory to God by giving people a reason to thank God. He preached the good news about Jesus to increase thanksgiving to the glory of God. God has graciously chosen to reveal his incomparable glory through Christ so that men might glorify him by their thankfulness; thankfulness is at the heart of God’s plan for his people.

Thankfulness is at the heart of God’s plan for his people.

Paul goes on in Chapter 9 to remind the Corinthians of a collection being taken for the saints in Jerusalem. In light of the Christ-gift, he calls them to be generous: “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (2 Cor. 9:11-12).

When given a gift by grace, there are no words except, “Thank you!” When handed a priceless treasure, there is only one way to respond: gratitude. After receiving an invaluable gift, all that one does is in loving response: it is a reaction rather than an action. This way, the gift-giver receives all the glory. Exceptional acts of thankfulness serve only to show the greatness of the gift and the worthiness of the gift-giver.

Because of God’s surpassing grace, he has revealed himself through Jesus. The one word that best characterizes the whole life of those who have seen God’s glory in Christ is thankfulness. Through our thanks-giving and thanks-living, we exclaim with Paul, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15).

Colossians: Thanks-giving and Thanks-living

The book of the New Testament that best expounds the Christian life as thanks-giving and thanks-living is Paul’s letter to the Colossians. N. T. Wright maintains, “If there’s one thing that marks out Colossians from all other writings in the New Testament, it’s this constant emphasis on giving thanks: Paul wants [the Colossians] to learn how to thank the one true God…to celebrate and give thanks because the Creator God is…revealed in Jesus” (emphasis added). While I expound this theme throughout my sermon series on Colossians, it’s worth summarizing here.

Colossians begins with Paul giving thanks: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you” (Col. 1:3). He goes on to report that in his constant prayers with thanksgiving, he asks for the Colossians to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” (Col. 1:10). How? By “giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:12–14). As in 2 Corinthians 4, we give thanks to the glory of God for the revelation of his glory in Christ. This prompts the Christ-hymn (Col. 1:15–20), itself a model of thanksgiving and praise.

A mature, stable, growing Christian is characterized by abundant thanksgiving.

Those who have received Christ Jesus the Lord are then called to “walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6–7). The way to persevere in holiness despite cultural pressures and false teachings is to maintain an attitude of gratitude. A mature, stable, growing Christian is characterized by abundant thanksgiving. Those who fail spiritually, on the other hand, tend to be ungrateful, feel entitled, and neglect to express thankfulness (see Romans 1:21 where unthankfulness is the first step to backsliding, as Timothy Cooley often points out).

When Paul calls the Colossians to put on the new self in Chapter 3, perhaps the most famous chapter on spiritual formation in all of Scripture, thankfulness is the goal and motivation:

15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In Paul’s final instructions to the Colossians, he calls them to “continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2). From start to finish, the Christian life is characterized by thankfulness. Holiness and thankfulness go hand-in-hand.

Holiness and Gratitude

Holiness-minded Christians, especially in the Wesleyan tradition, rightly place a strong emphasis on holiness of heart and life as the essence of the Christian life. But we must never forget that thankfulness is a driving motivation for the pursuit of holiness. Just a few verses before Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians to be entirely sanctified, he urges them to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18).

Thankfulness should be our main motivation for the pursuit of holiness.

In A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, a formative book in John Wesley’s life, William Law goes as far as to say that “if anyone would tell you the shortest, surest way to all happiness and all perfection, he must tell you to make a rule to yourself to thank and praise God for everything that happens to you.”

When we call others to “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1), we must remember that it is only “by the mercies of God.” Philip Brown, in his exposition of Romans 12:1, notes the oft-overlooked motivation implicit in this phrase which “points to all that Paul has discussed in Romans 1-11—God’s love, provided atonement, justification, freedom from sin, life in the Spirit, divine, intercession, grafting us into the olive tree, etc.” He concludes:

In view of all that God has done, in view of God’s abundant saving mercies, Paul calls Roman Christians to respond with grateful self-sacrifice. Paul doesn’t use the word gratitude, but “by the mercies” necessarily points to it. How could we not be grateful? How can we not dedicate what God has redeemed to Him as a living sacrifice? Giving to our Redeemer the life He rescued is the necessary response of gratitude.

We should emphasize the necessity of holiness, but we should also show its reasonableness: those who have received every spiritual blessing in Christ—and above all, seen in him the very glory of the invisible God—should want to be all that God wants them to be. Or as Paul puts it in Colossians, “to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” (Col. 1:10).

Countless other Scriptures in the Old and New Testament call us to thanksgiving and elevate it to a place of prominence in the Christian life (e.g., Rom. 7:25; 1 Cor. 15:57; Eph. 5:4, 20; Php. 4:6). Jesus and the apostles constantly find a reason to give thanks (e.g., Mt. 11:25, 15:36; 26:27; Acts 28:15; Rom. 6:17; 16:14; 1 Cor. 1:4; 14:18; 2 Cor. 2:14; 8:16; Eph. 1:16; Php. 1:3; 1 Thess 1:2; 2:13; 2 Thess. 1:3; 2:13; 1 Tim. 1:12; 2 Tim. 1:3; Phm. 1:4). We must learn how to be thankful to God for our redemption if we hope to live and die happily in its comfort. Indeed, the whole Christian life could be summarized in this one word: gratitude.

The Prayer of General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer (1979) is a fitting conclusion:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

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Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.