“Who has given a gift to [God] that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. (Romans 11:35–36)
When it comes to obedience, gratitude is a dangerous motive. It tends to get expressed in debtor’s terms. For example, “Look how much God has done for you. Shouldn’t you, out of gratitude, do much for him?” Or, “You owe God everything that you are and have. What have you done for him in return?”
I have at least three problems with this kind of motivation.
First, it is impossible to pay God back for all the grace he has given us. We can’t even begin to pay him back, because Romans 11:35–36 says, “‘Who has given a gift to [God] that he might be repaid?’ [Answer: Nobody!] For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.” We can’t pay him back because he already owns all we have to give him — including all our efforts.
Secondly, even if we succeeded in paying him back for all his grace to us, we would only succeed in turning grace into a business transaction. If we can pay him back, it was not grace. If someone tries to show you a special favor of love by having you over for dinner, and you end the evening by saying that you will pay them back by having them over next week, you nullify their grace and turn it into a trade. God does not like to have his grace nullified. He likes to have it glorified (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14).
Thirdly, focusing on gratitude as a motive for obedience tends to overlook the crucial importance of having faith in God’s future grace. Gratitude looks back to grace received in the past and feels thankful. Faith looks forward to grace promised in the future — whether five minutes from now or five centuries from now — and feels hopeful. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1).
This faith in future grace is the motive for obedience that preserves the gracious quality of human obedience. Obedience does not consist in paying God back and thus turning grace into a trade. Obedience comes from trusting in God for more grace — future grace — and thus magnifying the infinite resources of God’s love and power. Faith looks to the promise, I will be “with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9), and ventures, in obedience, to take the land.