“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthains 15:57)
Christianity is foremost a religion of gratitude. Or so says C. F. W. Walther, developing an insight from Luther:
Luther says that the Christian religion is—in a nutshell—a religion of gratitude. All the good that we Christians do is not done to merit something. We should not even know how to acquire merit. Everything has been given to us: our righteousness, our everlasting heritage, and our salvation. All that is left for us to do is to thank God (Law & Gospel, Thesis X).
Few feelings affect us more profoundly than gratitude. It has the power to shock us out of the complacency of the social presumptions that all too easily lead us to treat our neighbors as little more than means to our selfish ends. Gratitude restores within us, if only for a moment, a sense of reverence for the other, for ourselves, and for all of life.
We All Are Grateful When People Do Us Favors
Of course, it is common enough to appreciate the small favors people do for us. Social life is filled with little kindnesses that differentiate friendship from mere civility. But such courtesies are rarely selfless. Many gifts are ultimately meant to be repaid. We give expecting to receive in return. And as Jacques Derrida has said, these are not gifts so much as debts, leading to an endless circle of giving and receiving tinged by the resentment of being obliged to give in return.
But when a gift is so extravagant that it defies repayment, and when it is made, not to put us in debt, but for our own good, then our appreciation ripens to gratitude. And in that moment of gratefulness, we experience a sense of transcendence that lifts us beyond the narrowly selfish concerns of our life, helping us take a wider view of its purpose, and we give thanks. For gratitude responds to goodness, and goodness speaks of spiritual realities unaccounted for by material existence. Gratitude gives us a taste of divine things.
How Much More Powerful Should Our Gratitude Be For the Free Gift of Everlasting Life?
And if that is true of gratitude in general, how much greater is Christian gratitude, which is the consummation of all such feeling? It weaves together all of our fleeting moments of thanksgiving and transfigures them, pointing to their true source in Christ. Christian gratitude has this effect because it is born out of the greatest sacrifice ever known, and the costliest gift ever given or received. It is born out of Christ’s own atoning death, and His promise to freely give us everything, including our everlasting heritage, simply by believing Him for it. And so, Christ’s gift speaks to the true purpose of our existence, which is not to wallow in the shameless hedonism of popular culture, but to live eternally with, in, and for God. Hence, the free gift of eternal life reshapes our earthly perspective in light of eternity. By this gift, believers know that our true purpose lies not in the here and now, but in the soon to come. Christ’s gift frees us from the cultural bondage of narratives that lament life’s futility, and despair of the pointless indifference of, to quote Tennyson, a nature gone “red in tooth and claw.” Gratitude refashions the believer’s mind because it proclaims the true purpose for which we were created. We were not meant for the violent strivings of social Darwinism, still less for the banal happiness of “pitiable comfort” (to use Nietzsche’s phrase) that so often exhausts our culture’s highest aspirations. Rather, we were meant to rejoice in wonder for all eternity at the boundless love of God in Christ. And so, armed with the assurance of Christ’s promise that having believed in Him we shall never perish (John 10:28), how can the believer not be animated by thanksgiving to God, grateful for all that He has done?
The Plague of Monstrous Uncertainty
Unfortunately, not everyone believes this. Many who preach in Christ’s name vociferously deny that eternal life is freely given, and insist instead that it must be earned by an aggregation of faith, grace, and good works. They teach their flock that God sent Christ to help them in their salvific endeavors, and that while God will mercifully forgive them if they stumble (via the unfailing panacea of sacramental confession and absolution), in the end, despite talk of grace, mercy, and love, the brutal reality is that such a gospel is one of human effort. These preachers do not deny that God’s grace is equally available to all, but the difference between the saved and the lost, they say, is found in each person’s synergistic efforts to faithfully cooperate with that grace. The damned fall short of God’s glory because their labors were too feeble to attain it. According to such teachers, we are ultimately saved by our own works, rather than by faith in Christ’s promise.
This idea of salvation radically changes the nature of gratitude. For wherever salvation is thought of as a human accomplishment, people will be grateful to God (assuming they are grateful at all) not for His free gift of eternal life, but for the bare opportunity to save themselves. But such so-called gratitude is nothing more than pride masquerading as piety. While it may eulogize the goodness of God, in reality, it belittles Him and mocks Christ. It makes God a miser by obscuring His superabundant generosity. And it mocks Christ by denying the finality of His work, and the freeness of His gift. Perhaps it’s possible for someone to be genuinely grateful for the bare opportunity to earn eternity, and some may even live in the hope of accomplishing such a feat. But every soul aware of its own sins will quickly find that kind of gratitude overcome by the monstrous uncertainty that arises whenever a sinner is faced with the monumental task of scaling the gates of paradise by the sweat of their brow. Such gratitude is a pale imitation of that which attends believing in Christ’s promise of eternal life.
What the world’s gurus, elders, and priests seek to gain through labor, the Lord Jesus Christ gives away freely to whoever believes His promise: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). No condition is attached to this promise, save belief. And for good reason. No human effort is worthy of the gift. No merit could earn it. No labor could repay it. Even faith itself is only instrumental. And so, God offers eternity without price, to those who have nothing to give in exchange. God’s generosity reveals our own spiritual pauperism. For the greatness of the gift reveals the destitution of the recipient. We are sinners entirely dependent on “the exceeding riches of His grace” (Eph 2:7), who, having been given everything, have nothing left to do but to thank and praise God in Christ with our hearts, our minds, and our lives. And for that too, we are grateful.