The Gospel at Thanksgiving

cross[An abbreviated version was previously posted on our church website.]

Before the Fall, Adam and Eve lived in a bucolic paradise. Everywhere they looked, beauty abounded. And in everything in creation became a source of thanksgiving. Though the world outside Eden lay untamed and ready for their kingly cultivation, the friendly confines of God’s Garden provided ample reason for giving thanks to their Creator.

This is why he made humanity—that we might subdue and rule (Gen 1:26–28), cultivate and keep (2:15) the very good world God created (1:31). Adam was commissioned to head a race of God’s children (cf. Luke 3:38) and Eve was to be his helper (Gen 2:20). Together they would glorify God by representing him on earth and offering endless praise to their Creator.

This is why he made you and me—to give thanks to God forever and ever! And all creation exists as a treasure chest to enjoy and exult in the God who made the world good.

Sadly, Satan slithered into the Garden, deceived the woman, enticed the man to rebel, and effectively turned God’s children from thankful servants to selfish ingrates. Instead of giving thanks for being made in God’s image, they sought to be like God. Instead of marveling at the limitless options of the Garden they lusted after one forbidden fruit. As Romans 1 puts it:

21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Instead of subduing and ruling, Adam capitulated to his wife’s error and his enemy’s wisdom. In claiming to be like God, he led humanity into folly—a way marked by arrogance, iniquity, and ingratitude. In its natural state, all humanity continues on this ungrateful path—a path that does more than make life unsavory. The way of ingratitude is a path that leads to death.

The Danger of Ingratitude

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he begins by proving the sinfulness of Gentile (1:18–32) and Jew (2:1–29) alike. He summarizes his findings with a catena of Old Testament verses in Romans 3:10–18 and the (in)famous conclusion in 3:23—“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

In Adam and in ourselves, sin plagues us. And because sin merits death (Rom 6:23) and reveals our deadness (Eph 2:1–3), the end of the matter is damning and depressing. Yet, deceived by sin, we may not see how our sin leads to death—and especially how habitual ingratitude is a mark of someone ensnared by in sin (Rom 6:16–19).

In Paul’s argument, sin begins with failing to honor God as God and refusing to give him thanks. As Romans 1 explains, Adam and his offspring exchanged the glory of God for a glory of their own making. Though men knew God, they did not give thanks to him for being their God. Instead, Satan led men astray by enticing them to chase created things. Idolatry, then, stands at the heart of sin, but ingratitude is what makes space for such idol-making.

This is why ingratitude is so dangerous: It leaves us defenseless against craving and crafting idols.

As Paul says in Colossians 3:5, “Put to death . . . coveteousness, which is idolatry.” He equates idolatry with coveteousness because he knows that the heart which incessantly thirsts after forbidden water will eventually take a drink. Ingratitude, therefore, clears the factory floor for the heart to produce all kinds of idols. If the end of sin is death, ingratitude is the nearly imperceptible beginning.

Thanksgiving in the Bible

Knowing the danger of ingratitude, God fills his Word with commands and reasons to be thankful. In the Psalms, giving thanks to God is both praised (“It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High,” 92:1) and commanded (“Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name,” 100:4; cf. 30:4; 33:2; 105:1; 106:1; etc.). In the history of Israel David calls us to give thanks (“Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! . . . Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever,” 1 Chr 16:8, 34). Ezra too records the praises of the people (“And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid,’” 3:11).

Likewise, the New Testament commands thanksgiving. Philippians urges prayer with thanksgiving in Philippians 4:6. Colossians 3:17 reads, “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.” And 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says we ought to “give thanks in all circumstances,” adding, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Moreover, Paul regularly expresses thanksgiving for the work of God in the lives of others (see 1 Cor 1:4; Eph 1:16; 1 Thess 1:2). In short, Paul models the importance of thanksgiving in the life of a believer.

Based on the danger of ingratitude outlined in Romans 1, it’s not surprising that thanksgiving is such a major theme in the Bible. Especially, when we remember God’s judgment on Israel when they grumbled in the wilderness. For those who have tasted and seen the goodness of God, ingratitude has no place. But this leads to the practical question: How do we cultivate thanksgiving when we don’t feel thankful? Is it enough to simply focus on thanksgiving like we do every November?

The Gospel at Thanksgiving

For too many Christians, confrontation with their own ingratitude leads them to produce a laundry lists of created things for which they are thankful. As a Thanksgiving discipline, I can see value in this. But it is not enough. Man-made lists of earthly things will not produce the kind of thanksgiving that God requires or that he deserves.

Were we still living in Eden, such an enumeration of God’s creation might be sufficient to fuel the praise he deserves. But we don’t live in Eden, and with our fallen natures, we deceive ourselves if the items we are tempted to idolize can be the exclusive source of our thanksgiving.

Living in a fallen world, creation cannot be the genesis of our thanksgiving. Rather it must be the Lord himself, and more particularly, it must be the cross of Christ. It is the cross which secures forgiveness for our ingratitude. It is the redeeming work of Christ that offers fresh praise to God. This is what the angels long to look into (1 Peter 1:12) and what the saints in glory never tiring of singing (Rev 5:9–14). The cross alone has the ability to lift our souls from the mire of this world and enable us to give God the thanksgiving he deserves.

Moreover, only the cross can purify our hearts so that we can thank God for everything in creation. First Timothy 4:1–4 instructs us to give thanks to God for food and marriage. The Psalms praise the Lord for redemption and creation. Because every good gift comes from our Heavenly Father (James 1:17), he deserves thanksgiving for his creation. Yet, such thanksgiving must be tethered to the cross. In seasons of plenty, we give thanks to God for giving abundantly more than we deserve. And in seasons of pain, we give thanks to the God that this world is not our home. Christ’s triumphant cross gives us confidence that he turn death into life and turn ruin into resurrection.

In fact, the cross alone can take you in your ungrateful state and lead you to a place of resurrection hope and spiritual joy. How? Because the cross liberates you to admit how deeply sinful your ungratefulness is. At the cross, you don’t have to veneer your sorrow with a paper mache list of happy thoughts. No. The cross calls to attention the glory of God, the sin of our failure to worship him with joy and give him thanks, and the hope that Christ died to put to pay the penalty for failing to worship God as God or give him the thanks he deserves.

Indeed, in a world filled with good things that lead us to give thanks, it is the cross of Christ alone that enables us to give thanks to God in the face of death, devastation, and disease. In fact, because of the cross, these terrible tragedies actually elicit greater thanksgiving—not for the pain they inflict, but because they show again the power and victory of the cross.

Indeed, to a world full of sinners, the cross calls us to stop trying to find gratitude in things that rust, moth, and cancer can eat away. It invites us to give thanks for what cannot be destroyed—namely the kingdom of Christ and the forgiveness and eternal given through our crucified Lord.

In this thanksgiving gospel, we find a reason to give thanks that transcends the season. And more we find a gateway to give thanks to God for all of creation, for the reason that Christ himself died to reconcile heaven and earth and make all things new.

Therefore, this Thanksgiving don’t neglect to thank God for family, friends, food, and football, but do it from the foot of the cross—the place where heaven touches earth and all good things were purchased by the blood of the Son.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds