Gratitude is a joyful emotion for worship, but a dangerous motive for obedience. We are commanded in no uncertain terms to be thankful. “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts ... and be thankful” (Colossians 3:15). “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). How can we not be thankful when we owe everything to God?
But 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.
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 future grace. Gratitude looks back to grace received in the past and feels thankful. Faith looks forward to grace promised in the future 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.
The biblical role of past grace—especially the cross—is to guarantee the certainty of future grace: “He who did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all (past grace), how shall he not with him freely give us all things (future grace)?” (Romans 8:32). But trusting in future grace is the motive and strength of our obedience. The more we trust in future grace the more we give God the opportunity in our lives to show the glory of his inexhaustible grace. So take a promise of future grace and do some radical act of obedience on it. God will be mightily honored.
Stepping forward onto future grace,