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?”
The word “Grace” shows up over 100 times in our English Bibles (and somewhat more frequently in our Greek and Hebrew Bibles). In the Hebrew Old Testamant, this is largely translated from the words חָנַן (hanan) and in the Greek New Testament, from the word χάρις (charis). In each case, the emphasis that is being placed on the word is of an unearned favor or affection being extended into the life of an individual or to a group of individuals. It is a kindness given that is unmerited and it is designed to produce both goodwill and a sense of gratitude in the life of the recipient. Hebrew literature and commentary understands this idea of grace to be an outworking of God’s חֶסֶד (chesed) — his covenantal faithfulness to his chosen people, a notion consistent with the New Testament principle that his grace is an outworking of his ἀγάπη (agape) love toward his elect.
As protestants, typically the aspect of grace that we appeal to the most is that of it being entirely God’s free gift to us. We did nothing to earn it and there is nothing in us that would or could merit it. God simply elected to show it to a body of people he chose in Christ before the foundation of the earth (Ephesians 1:4). Grace begins with God and ends with God and God constitutes all of the in-betweens. If we want to break it down even further, along philosophical lines, God’s Decree of Election is the Formal Cause, Christ’s work of Redemption is the Efficient Cause, and the Glory of God is the Final Cause. Man is the vicarious beneficiary of God’s grace.
What we often do not focus much upon is the effect of grace upon those who receive it. When my son was a small boy, I decided to teach him a little bit about the nature of grace. So, one day, after doing something worthy of discipline (I no longer remember the specifics of his particular sin), I sat him down as usual, and told him what penalty he deserved (in our home, punishment at that age usually meant 1,2,or 3 spanks). But then I spent some time talking about grace and did not spank him (though he deserved it). At first, it seemed to make an impact on him and he was genuinely grateful not to be spanked. Yet, the next time he did something wrong, his immediate response was to cry out to me, “Grace, Daddy, I want grace!”
On one level, a lesson was learned. At the same time, I wonder how many professing Christians have that same mindset as my young son did and see grace more as license to sin than as an infinitely gracious gift that has been bestowed upon them. Paul the Apostle raises the rhetorical question in Romans 6:1 as to whether we should sin even more so that God’s grace will abound in us. His answer in the following verse is crystal clear: “May it never be said!” He goes on to say that if we have died to sin in Christ, how can we still intentionally continue living within it? In other words, the grace of God should change the way we think and live in this fallen world.
I have said above that if one does not have a high view of the wretched nature of sin, they will not have a high view of grace. And, if we do not have a high view of grace, we will not live a life of faith and thanksgiving — we will not exhibit gratitude in our lives. Heidelberg Catechism, Question 2 reminds us very clearly that if we are going to live and die in the comfort of faith’s assurance, we must understand our guilt, God’s grace, and how to live a life of gratitude. Remember, it is this grace, when really received, that produces our gratitude — or, to use the philosophical categories above, it is God’s grace that is the Efficient Cause of our Gratitude. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude; if you break one link, the others lose their meaning and purpose.
Guilt is a funny thing. Even when we know that we are guilty, we don’t like to admit to it. As children, we try and pass off the blame on our younger siblings…or maybe onto the dog. As we grow older we get a little more sophisticated and direct the blame at those who are not present in the home; hence, they cannot defend themselves. How many times have you said, “What officer, I didn’t know that I was speeding,” or “But I thought I did come to a complete stop at that sign”? As a pastor, I do a fair amount of counseling and it always fascinates me how two different people can describe the same event and in each case, make the other person look like the guilty party.
We don’t like guilt nor do we like the feeling that goes along with being guilty of some great crime or error. And so, many people flee from places and contexts where they will be made to feel guilty of wrong-doing. Even many churches are catering to this perceived need and are only preaching the loving-kindness of God and not the wrath and punishment of sin. Yet, the Heidelberg Catechism says that our guilt is one of the things that we must know in life — it is an essential thing in the life of the Christian. Why is that?
The answer lies in an essential truth: if you do not come face to face with your sin and the vile and wretched state of your soul, you will never understand the grace of God in salvation. Or, to word it another way, the more you understand your guilt as you stand before God, the more you will appreciate the grace found in Christ’s work. In many ways, Christian faith starts with the old Greek maxim: γνῶθι σεαuτόν (gnothi seauton) — “know thyself.” Until you know yourself, you will not feel guilty regarding your sin and until you feel guilty over it, you will not repent and until you repent, you will never know the grace of God.
Some modern critics of the contemporary mega-church movement call the messages at such services “therapeutic, moralistic, deism.” But, if you refuse to deal with sin and the guilt of sin, just making people feel good about themselves — get a spiritual “recharge” for the week to come — then what more do you expect? Truly, the life-changing Gospel is meaningless in contexts such as these — how could it be? The Gospel begins with an acknowledgment of the greatness of God and the wretchedness of our human condition — they are being taught that God likes them just the way they are. Until you are crushed under the weight of sin, you will not understand your desperate need for grace and the greatness of the one who purchased it.
So no, guilt feels terrible, but it is a good gift of God that is designed to drive us to Christ in a spirit of brokenness and repentance. And that is a good thing…more than that, it is a necessary thing.
“For the sake of your name, Yahweh, forgive my iniquity, for it is great. Who is this man who is fearful of Yahweh? He will teach him in the way he chooses. His soul shall lodge in goodness and his seed shall possess the earth. The counsel of Yahweh is for those who fear him and his covenant he makes known to them. My eyes are continually on Yahweh for he will pull my feet from the net.”