On this day we rightly pause to give thanks for the innumerable blessings we have received, both those common to all image bearers and those saving benefits particular to believers. Chief among the latter are saving faith and Spirit-wrought union with Christ through faith. On such an occasion we do well to consider how central thankfulness is to the Christian faith.
To put the importance of thankfulness into context, one of the most disturbing (theological) things I’ve heard in my adult life came in a telephone conversation in which someone said that the guilt, grace, and gratitude structure of the Heidelberg Catechism makes sanctification into a second blessing.
It is distressing to think that such a view of thankfulness might be widespread. One could hardly be more wrong about thankfulness and how it relates to the Christian faith. According to the Reformed confession, thankfulness is the integral to the Christian faith, it is the first, Spirit-wrought, response of the believer to grace freely given and a wonderful, God-given evidence of faith.
According to the Reformed understanding of Scripture a Christian must know three things to “live and die happily” in this life:
…the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 2).
For the Christian, a believer in Jesus Christ by God’s free favor alone, through trusting, resting in, receiving Christ alone for acceptance with God, thankfulness begins with redemption. It does not end there however. A believer also knows that he has been made in the image of God and that our heavenly Father, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, created and, “by his providence upholds all things.” That knowledge produces real benefits in the believer:
That we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father, that no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move (Q/A 28).
Note that thankfulness is listed second. It’s encouraging to note that the catechism says “patient in adversity.” I appreciate the realism here. I sometimes detect a note of triumphalism in the way some people write about suffering. Nevertheless, thankfulness is a benefit, a gift of God, to his people that we are learning to exercise in every circumstance.
Thankfulness is not only a benefit produced in believers by the grace of the Spirit but it is the antithesis of the so-called “second blessing,” the idea that there are two classes of Christians, one of ordinary believers and another of a higher class of believers who have received some secret knowledge or spiritual gift not given to other believers. Scripture knows nothing of a two-tier Christianity but such views have plagued the church since the Gnostics and the dualists peddled them in the 2nd century (and pre-Gnostic dualists did the same in the apostolic period. See 1 Corinthians and Colossians for example of Paul’s rather heated response to this error). According to Scripture all believers are united to Christ by the Spirit and have the same standing even though there is a diversity of gifts in the one body (1Cor chapter 12 and 13; Rom 12:4; 1Cor 7:7; 8:6; Eph 4:6; Gal 3:28).
As we understand the faith, thankfulness is essential to the Christian life. The believer says: I am called a Christian
Because by faith I am a member of Christ and thus a partaker of his anointing, in order that I also may confess his Name, may present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to Him, and that with a free conscience I may fight against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter in eternity reign with Him over all creatures (Q/A 32).
Thankfulness is a synecdoche (a part for the whole), a summary of the whole Christian life. The same (Pauline; Rom 12:1) language of “living sacrifice:”
43. What further benefit do we receive from the sacrifice and death of Christ on the cross?
That thereby our old man is crucified, slain and buried with Him, that so the evil lusts of the flesh may no more reign in us, but that we may offer ourselves unto Him a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
Sanctification, thankfulness, isn’t a second blessing. It is the (super)natural, ordinary (ordained) outcome of the Spirit’s work in us, the product of being made alive with Christ (regenerated) and united to him by the Spirit through faith.
In a sense we may even speak of the moral “necessity” of thanksgiving in that it necessarily flows from our free acceptance with God in Christ. Free justification does not make us “careless and profane” but rather
…it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness (Q/A 64).
It’s not necessary in order to be accepted by God but it logically and morally necessary for those who have been freely accepted. This is why we can say that we “must do good works.”
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 also 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 (Q/A 86)
We are renewed by the Spirit for a purpose: in order that we might show that we are thankful.
Finally, when we think of the (American and Canadian) Thanksgiving holiday(s) we think of bowing our heads in prayer. This is perfectly appropriate:
116. Why is prayer necessary for Christians?
Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us; and because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing beg them of Him, and render thanks unto Him for them.
The triune God who created us has also redeemed us who believe and shall bring to faith all those whom has known from eternity and unconditionally chosen in Christ. That God, to whom, both as Creator and Redeemer, we owe all, has ordained instruments and means by which he operates. If we are to be faithful to his Word we must affirm both and reject the temptation to let one swallow up the other.
Prayer is one of those instruments or means by which God has chosen to operate. That’s why Scripture exhorts us so frequently to pray: because that’s how God works in the world. He might have chosen to work in some other way but he hasn’t. He’s chosen to bind himself, as it were, to use our prayers to accomplish his mysterious purposes and that in itself is yet another of the countless reasons we have to give thanks today.
Happy Thanksgiving from the Heidelblog.