Most adults probably know by now that the story of the first Colonial Thanksgiving was a little more complex than that learned as a child. To catch up see Robert Tracy McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning From History (2013). There are young people, however, who have learned an equally simplistic (and even malevolent) story in which the colonists and pilgrims were genocidal maniacs. Check your child’s history books. If one of them is Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States your child is being taught one of those discredited narratives.
Apart from cultural and political arguments over American colonial history, however, Christians do well to appreciate the necessity and power of being thankful. Even among Reformed people gratitude as a motive for the Christian life seems to have fallen on hard times. One need not look far to see various alternatives being suggested. It has been said to me quite plainly that the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) is a “Lutheran” confession and that the old Reformed schema of “guilt, grace, and gratitude,” the three parts of the catechism (and arguably the outline of the book of Romans) are either passé or make sanctification a “second blessing.”
First, how to answer the objection, made seriously by self-identified Reformed and Presbyterians, that the catechism is Lutheran? The charge is absurd and to suggest that the Heidelberg was never Reformed is to adopt a definition of Reformed that is without basis in the history of Reformed theology, piety, and practice. The Westminster Divines received the Heidelberg as Reformed. No one in the history of theology has ever seriously characterized the Heidelberg as Lutheran, in the sense in which this allegation is being made, i.e., in the sense that is sub-Reformed or contra-Reformed. Perhaps it is best to say any definition of Reformed that excludes the Heidelberg is idiosyncratic at best.
Of course, there are Lutheran influences on the Heidelberg Catechism and in the Reformed faith more broadly. The framers of the Heidelberg would have thought absurd any attempt to understand, characterize, or define the Reformed theology, piety, and practice without reference to Luther, Melanchthon, and the earlier Reformers. Luther’s influence on the catechism to anyone who has spent even a modicum of time reading Luther for himself. Ursinus, the principal author of the catechism, was Melanchthon’s student for nearly a decade in Wittenberg. Olevianus read and was influenced by Luther as did their teacher Calvin.
The real problem with this allegation is that it not only lacks any genuine historical consciousness of the Reformation on its own terms but anachronistically reads nineteenth-century ways of thinking back into the 16th century. Not only is a dreadful way to read a historical text, it reveals a serious misunderstanding of the history of Reformed theology and piety.
Second, gratitude is neither out of date nor does it make sanctification (and consequent Christian obedience) a “second blessing.” As I suggested above, it is built-in to the structure of the Christian faith. We confess that there are only three things that a Christian must know in order to live and die in the comfort of the gospel: “…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” (HC 2). Thankfulness is just as basic to the Christian faith as sin and salvation. It is so basic, so essential that thankfulness is woven throughout the catechism. Some form of thanks or thanksgiving occurs 10 times in the Heidelberg.
It profits us to know that God created, upholds and sustains all things “[t]hat we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father…” (HC 28). I am called a Christian, in part, that I “may present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him…” (HC 32). One of the benefits of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross is that “we may offer ourselves unto Him a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (HC 43).
We confess that, contra the Romanist (and moralist) critique of the Reformation doctrine of justification, it does not produce licentiousness because “it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness” (HC 64). The critics should note two things under catechism 64. First, that we are said to be united to Christ “by true faith” and second, that we bring for fruits of thankfulness as a consequence of God’s grace. Good trees produce good fruit. By his grace, sinners are given new life, made good trees, given true faith and through it given union with Christ and out of that new life, true faith, and communion come the fruits of thankfulness.
The entire third part of the catechism is devoted to thankfulness so it is well beyond the scope of a single essay to address all of that. It must do to note how fundamental thankfulness is to the catechism’s vision of the Christian life. Believers are thankful people. We pray because we thankful (HC 116). Indeed, prayer is the “chief part of thankfulness.” We live as we live because we are thankful for the gracious, free redemption we have received from Christ our Savior. We do good works, we give witness to Christ, we love our neighbors all out of thankfulness:
86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we 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.
The most basic question the forgiven sinner asks is, “What can I do for you?” The answer is, live a thankful life, in union with the Christ who saved you. Thankfulness is no second blessing, no mere wishing, no empty hoping. It is the warp and woof of the life of the redeemed.