“and he raised us up together and seated us together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus in order that he might demonstrate in ages that are coming, the surpassing riches of his grace in kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”
Here we have one of those instances where the Biblical authors speak of something that is yet to come as if it has already taken place and is a reality in our lives. In theological circles, it is what is often called a “prophetic present.” All of this is based in the realization that God is sovereign and he has ordained all things since before the foundation of the earth. And thus Paul can say that as Jesus has risen from the dead, so have we. We have not yet experienced that reality in its fullness, but Christ’s resurrection is an iron-clad promise that we too, who are in Christ, will rise. And further, that the regeneration that we have experienced in coming to faith — our sin dead spirit being brought to live — is a foretaste of something greater that is yet to come, but that will come in the ages that are coming.
Notice too, the language about the riches of God’s grace. This, we have spoken already above, but notice the context in which Paul is making this statement. Just in verse 5, he has spoken of being saved by grace. We did not earn God’s grace, it is free to us. Yet Paul wants us to see that God is no ordinary benefactor. Not only does God graciously save us, but that he pours out the blessings of his grace to us in Christ.
“In Christ,” though, is the operable phrase. Too many people over the ages have read this and thought of God having a storehouse of good treasures that he is waiting to pour into our lives if we just ask. They tell us of wealth and success and fame, and people fall for it over and over. No, my friends, these riches are riches that are found in Christ. They are the riches that come from a deepening relationship with him, not from earthly or worldly comforts that will be consumed or lost to time. God’s gift to us in Christ is one that grows and deepens every day of our lives, but if we are really going to enjoy the treasure that it is, it means we must nurture that gift with Bible study and prayer.
Yet, may I humbly suggest that is the way we ought to receive any gift, or at least, that is the way we ought to show our appreciation for the gift. That we treasure it, that we study it, and that we learn the character of the one who has given us such a gift. If we would naturally do that with earthly things, why do we disdain from doing so with heavenly things? How often we act more like spoiled children, believing that we deserve the gifts of our heavenly father rather than realizing that we deserve nothing but wrath and that He has instead given us Christ and offered us the riches of heaven which we will one day enjoy, ruling alongside of our Divine bridegroom and Lord.
You might be tempted to think that being thankful in times of prosperity is a given — an easy thing for believer and non-believer alike. You might be tempted to think that thankfulness during good times is quite natural. But, were this the case, the authors of Heidelberg would never have needed to ground faithfulness in a knowledge of God’s providential governance of his creation. So, perhaps genuine thankfulness is not as natural as we might initially think.
First of all, thankfulness, by definition, is a state of being grateful for thinks placed into your life. That sounds pretty benign at first glance, but it raises the question, “to whom” is that gratefulness supposed to be directed? The answer, of course, is that it is to be directed toward the one who brings the gift or blessing into your life. And, for most people, here is the rub. Yes, our neighbor might do us a favor and it is proper to thank him. Yet, God’s providence governs your neighbor’s actions. Yes, a relative might give us a gift and it is proper to thank them, but again, God’s providence governs the actions of our relatives — even of our pagan ones! Yes, good things may happen to me, but God governs all of these things. And, if God’s providence governs all things that take place in our life, then our gratefulness, in the ultimate sense, is to be directed toward Him.
You see, as Question 28 of Heidelberg points out, all things in our life are ultimately governed by God’s providence. So, when good things happen we ought to be thankful, but to be genuinely thankful, we must address that thankfulness toward God. The non-Christian does not naturally thank God — in fact, the non-Christian rejects thanking God for the good things and prosperity in his or her life. In turn, that means that they are not truly expressing thankfulness as they ought.
Yet, it is not just the non-Christian that often struggles with thankfulness, it is also the Christian. Often, thankfulness to God is our secondary response to good things in our life, not our first response. Often, we forget and have to remind ourselves to thank God for the events of the day and often we forget entirely to do so. Worse yet, often, when good things come into our lives, we assume them to be things that we have deserved or earned for ourselves. Yet, even the money paid for the labor of our hands (which is arguably earned) is something for which we must give God thanks for God has given us both the skills of our hands and the opportunity to use said skills in a productive way. All of this has been orchestrated and brought to pass by God’s providence, thus, again, we find ourselves needing to express gratitude to God.
Yet, often we do not express gratitude toward God in any intentional and meaningful way. We might say, “Thank you God for…,” but do we live in a way that demonstrates our gratefulness? Often we do not. As we continue to reflect on the catechism, do make a point of asking yourselves how intentionally you express your gratitude to God for all that takes place in your life…in this case, especially when it comes to times of success and prosperity.
Are you grateful for the things people have done for you and the blessings of common grace that God has instilled into your life? Be careful how you answer that question. Those of us in the west tend to take a lot for granted: running water that is safe to drink, flushing toilets, electricity in our homes, and adequate (if not abundant) food on our tables. Granted, I, like many Americans, know what it means to pinch pennies and what it means not to be able to pay all the bills, having to decide whether the phone bill gets paid or diapers bought. But most of us…the overwhelming majority of us in America, do not know true hunger and poverty. A brief trip to places in Africa or Central America will sear that reality into your mind. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans throw away about 133 billion pounds of food annually (a trip to a local buffet restaurant will testify to this). Yet, apart from asking God’s blessings on our provision at meals, most of us just assume that food is and will continue to be abundant and so I wonder, are we truly grateful?
Perhaps it is useful to define some terms. What does it mean to be “grateful?” Very literally, coming from the Latin word, gratus, it means to be filled with gratitude. The Oxford American Dictionary defines it as expressing our thankfulness for a kindness done for us. A distinction, then, comes to the surface within this definition. While we may appreciate the things that we earn (our salary, etc…) things for which we are grateful are largely those things that we did not earn, but were graciously provided for us by others.
Again, on this most basic level, there is much for which we ought to be grateful in America. We have freedoms that have been purchased for us by the blood of others; we have opportunities if we are willing to work hard and apply ourselves at a trade or in a business. One can still “work their way up” in America and create a better life for their families. Opportunities for Education still abound in America as do the technological advances of that education. Again, in many parts of the world there are good educational opportunities for the wealthy, but in America there is a fundamental belief that education ought to be available to all. One need only apply himself or herself to acquire that education — that is the beauty of America’s Public Library system. People can complain about not having advantages that others have had and in many cases, that is entirely true. Yet, for the one who is willing to work hard and apply himself or herself, the disadvantages we may have had can be overcome. Motivation and hard work is the recipe for doing so.
If we transition, though, from earthly things to eternal things, as Christians we have much for which we must be grateful…most significantly for the grace of God that exhibited itself in the sending of Christ to die in our place as God’s own. Here, there is nothing which we can lay claim to having participated in — it is God’s work from beginning to end. And the only possible response is a gratefulness that changes the way we live and think toward He who saved us. Thus, Heidelberg Catechism, in its second question, says that the third thing that it is essential for us to understand is our gratitude…or more specifically, how God wants us to live out that gratitude toward him.
You see, our gratefulness is not simply just a warm feeling of affection in our heart toward God who saved us. It is that indeed, but it is also a matter of how we live. James reminds us that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Truly, the works do not save us, but they testify to the salvation that has been worked in us. Further, God does not leave us to our own ends when it comes to showing him our gratefulness. In fact, He instructs us how He wants us to demonstrate our faithfulness. The third section of the Catechism, then, is designed as a matter of application…how do we show our thankfulness toward God?
The question remains, what of those who claim to be Christians but whose lives do not demonstrate their gratefulness? The answer is two-fold. First, all of us fall into sin at times and that sin demonstrates the fact that we are taking God’s grace for granted and are thus being ungrateful. Of this, we must repent and ask forgiveness of this. The second category are those who are truly ungrateful because they have not truly received the saving grace of God. They are unbelievers but they just don’t yet know it because God has kept their eyes blind and shut. To this group of people, we must say, “Repent and Believe.” If a deep-felt and lived-out gratitude for God is not your first response to His grace, then the question you must ask is ‘To which of these two groups do I belong?”
“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he looked and beheld a ram behind him caught fast in a thicket by its horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and went up to make a whole burnt offering of it instead of his son.”
Substitution is perhaps the word for the day when it comes to the redemptive work of God. God substituted the ground in the place of Adam and Eve when entering into the curse (Genesis 3:17), animals were repeatedly substituted for the sins of the people (see the book of Leviticus!!!), and ultimately, God would send his Son to substitute his divine person in our place. Justice must be done and rightful justice for sin is death eternal. God sent his Son to bear the weight of death eternal so that we might be given life eternal.
Here Abraham is given a substitute for Isaac but only because a greater substitute is coming. The blood of animals, in and of itself, cannot purify, but can only demonstrate to us the horrid nature of our sin. Think of how the blood flowed in ancient Israel — sacrifice after sacrifice made for millions of people. The blood of animals was but a pointer that there was a need for a perfect sacrifice to be made … not the blood of an animal, but the blood of a perfect man who could intercede for us. God was the only one who could substitute himself in our stead, which is why his Son took on flesh. And, soon after the sacrifice of Jesus the Temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. And there is no need for rebuilding as Jesus’ sacrifice is the perfect and final sacrifice for his people.
The ram was a reprieve for Abraham and Isaac, pointing to the great Lamb of God who would come. It might be a bit of a stretch to compare the thicket in which this ram was caught to the tree (cross) upon which Jesus was hung, though it is worth noting that in this very place, the King of Glory would one day come to redeem mankind and perhaps here, in the redemption of his son, Abraham and Isaac not only got a taste for the grief of God in the death of his Son, but the joy of salvation.
How often, as Christians, we take the offer of salvation lightly and for granted. Arguably that is partly because we have such a low view of hell and the realty thereof. There are even some who reject the whole notion of Hell to begin with, considering it an antiquated tool to keep rambunctious children in line with the rules of the community. But the Bible does not let us draw such conclusions, indeed the Bible trumpets not only the reality of the place, but the horrors thereof. And the Bible insists that the only way one can avoid hell as a destination is through faith in Jesus Christ…something we neither deserve or can earn by doing good deeds. It is a gift of grace to those God equips and allows to believe. May we who have been given a gift we did not deserve be grateful for that gift. There is no questioning the extent of Abraham’s gratitude at this point in his life; may those who know us also say that there is no questioning the gratitude we feel for the work of Christ on our behalf.