A Theology of Thanksgiving

by Luke Wayne

"Give thanks to the Lord, call on His name. Make known His deeds among the peoples; Make them remember that His name is exalted," (Isaiah 12:4).

The Bible has a surprisingly large amount to say about giving thanks. Humble gratitude to God for all that He is and all that He has done is a resounding drumbeat of all of God's people throughout the scriptures. Exalting in God's mercies and the works of His hands is an essential aspect of biblical worship. Declaring God's goodness to others so that they too will honor God in thanksgiving is central to biblical proclamation. God's wonders and grace are abundant, and He rightly desires that the nations be thankful in their hearts and praise Him with their mouths. We have much to be thankful for, and God is worthy of our ultimate gratitude in all things. The Christian ought to be a thankful person.

Ingratitude and Sin

The Bible makes a direct connection between ingratitude and human sinfulness. Paul, for example, wrote:

"For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened," (Romans 1:21).

Paul then traces from this all sorts of sins that men and women are given over to in their blindness of their thankless hearts, (Romans 1:22-32). It is no wonder that we see Paul attempt to cultivate Thanksgiving toward the one true God as part of his gospel proclamations. For example, when the pagan men of Lystra mistook Paul and Barnabas for gods, Paul cried out:

"Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness," (Acts 14:15-17).

Paul appeals to the manifest goodness of God to persuade them to turn from their idolatry and to heed the gospel that he and Barnabas are preaching. Paul also explains to the Corinthians that one of his motivations in preaching the gospel is to glorify God by spreading thanksgiving:

"But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, 'I believed, therefore I spoke,' we also believe, therefore we also speak, knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God," (2 Corinthians 4:13-15).

Only in the grace of Jesus Christ can we return to a proper place of humble gratitude before the living God. Ingratitude, of course, is closely associated with pride. A haughty spirit is a thankless spirit, and this arrogant and ungrateful disposition is a central cause of all forms of sin and rebellion. Do we not see this today. Don't those who reject God also revile Him for all the suffering in the world while lacking the least of thanks to God for all the good? This is nothing new. The Book of Job bemoans:

"Because of the multitude of oppressions they cry out; They cry for help because of the arm of the mighty. But no one says, ‘Where is God my Maker, Who gives songs in the night, who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens?’ There they cry out, but He does not answer because of the pride of evil men. Surely God will not listen to an empty cry, nor will the Almighty regard it," (Job 35:9-13).

Even our rational ability to grapple with the meaning of suffering, our cognition that separates us from mere animals, is a blessing from God that such men take for granted and use only to despise and blaspheme the God who gave it to them. This should not surprise us. Wasn't the very first sin to look around at a beautiful and perfect garden of life-giving provision and, instead of being grateful for all God had given, to insist on having the one thing God had not given? Sin indeed flows out from thankless pride.

Gratitude and the Christian

God, in Christ Jesus, makes our hearts new and calls us by faith to a better way. Paul writes to the Philippians:

"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God," (Philippians 4:4-6).

And likewise to the Thessalonians:

"Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus," (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

God has graciously redeemed a sinful and ungrateful people and made us His own, and He calls on us to humbly be thankful to Him. Paul instructed the Ephesians:

"There must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks," (Ephesians 5:4).

And went on to tell them that they ought to be:

"always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father," (Ephesians 5:20).

The Author of the Hebrews similarly declares:

"Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name," (Hebrews 13:15).

"Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe," (Hebrews 12:28).

To be a Christian, then, ought to mean to be a thankful and humble person that glories in God's goodness, even in the midst of our troubles. What's more, our proclamation of the gospel ought to be filled with our thanks to God and aimed at cultivating a godly gratitude in those who would come to God through the finished work of Christ. Our gracious God is the source and the object of our gratitude, and we ought to make that known to every corner of the world! The Psalms, not surprisingly, are filled with grateful praise to God. Gratitude is central to worship. What might surprise you are the frequent promises to preach thanksgiving to the world! Note just a few examples:

"I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart; I will tell of all Your wonders," (Psalm 9:1).

"That I may proclaim with the voice of thanksgiving and declare all Your wonders," (Psalm 26:7).

"I will give thanks to You among the nations, O Lord, And I will sing praises to Your name," (Psalm 18:49).

"I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to You among the nations," (Psalm 57:9).

"So we, Your people and the sheep of Your pasture, will give thanks to You forever; To all generations we will tell of Your praise," (Psalm 79:13).

Thanksgiving is not just something we feel or something we say to God in private prayers or our worship with other believers. Thanksgiving to God is something we preach to the nations and call all people to particpate in. The grace of God is meant to be preached to all peoples, that they might repent of their sins and come to God in gratitude for His mercy in Christ Jesus. As we take this truth to the world, let us pray along with the hosts of heaven:

"Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen," (Revelation 7:20).