A Tribute to Gratitude

When I wrote Future Grace my aim was to show that, in the Bible, motivation for obedience to Jesus is never said explicitly to be gratitude. This is astonishing since many (most?) Christians list gratitude as the main motive for our obedience to Jesus.

My argument is that in the Bible “faith in future grace” not “gratitude for past grace” is the primary focus in motivating acts of love. (“You had compassion on those in prison...since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” Hebrews 10:34).

We read of “faith working through love” not “gratitude working through love.” And “work of faith” not “work of gratitude.” And “obedience of faith” not “obedience of gratitude.”

Nevertheless, gratitude is a beautiful, powerful, and necessary affection of the born again heart. It does, in fact, have a huge role in turning us into people who love each other. I paid this tribute to gratitude on pages 48-49 of Future Grace. I record it here in honor of Thanksgiving Day, and the God of all grace. Let everything that has breath thank the Lord!

A Tribute to Gratitude

Gratitude is such a great and wonderful thing in Scripture that I feel constrained to end this chapter with a tribute. There are ways that gratitude helps bring about obedience to Christ.

One way is that the spirit of gratitude is simply incompatible with some sinful attitudes. I think this is why Paul wrote, “There must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks” (Ephesians 5:4). Gratitude is a humble, happy response to the good will of someone who has done or tried to do you a favor. This humility and happiness cannot coexist in the heart with coarse, ugly, mean attitudes. Therefore the cultivation of a thankful heart leaves little room for such sins.

There is a sense in which gratitude and faith are interwoven joys that strengthen each other. As gratitude joyfully revels in the benefits of past grace, so faith joyfully relies on the benefits of future grace. Therefore when gratitude for God’s past grace is strong, the message is sent that God is supremely trustworthy in the future because of what he has done in the
past. In this way faith is strengthened by a lively gratitude for God’s past
trustworthiness.

On the other hand, when faith in God’s future grace is strong, the message is sent that this kind of God makes no mistakes, so that everything he has done in the past is part of a good plan and can be remembered with gratitude. In this way gratitude is strengthened by a lively faith in God’s future grace.

Surely it is only the heart of faith in future grace that can follow the apostle Paul in “giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20). Only if we trust God to turn past calamities into future comfort can we look back with gratitude for all things.

It seems to me that this interwovenness of future-oriented faith and past-oriented gratitude is what prevents gratitude from degenerating into the debtor’s ethic. Gratitude for bygone grace is constantly saying to faith, “Be strong, and do not doubt that God will be as gracious in the future as I know he’s been in the past.”

And faith in future grace is constantly saying to gratitude, “There is more grace to come, and all our obedience is to be done in reliance on that future grace. Relax and exult in your appointed feast. I will take responsibility for tomorrow’s obedience.” Or, as Jesus would say, “O ye of little faith. Do not be anxious” (Matthew 6:30-31, KJV)

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.