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“Thanksgiving is More Important than You Might Think”

Romans 1:21-23
Bob DeGray
November 18, 2018

Key Sentence

Giving thanks keeps God’s glory and goodness at the center of our lives.


I. The Sin of Thanklessness (Romans 1:21)
II. The Sign of Thanklessness (Romans 1:22-23)
III. The Blessing of Thankfulness


If I took a survey and asked people to share their favorite Thanksgiving verse, I’m pretty sure most would stick to what we might call, “the classics.” Like Psalm 100: Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! 2Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! 3Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. 4Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! 5For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Or Psalm 136 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. 2Give thanks to the God of gods; 3Give thanks to the Lord of lords; 4to him who alone does great wonders; 5to him who by understanding made the heavens; 6to him who spread out the earth above the waters; 7to him who made the great lights; 8the sun to rule over the day; 9the moon and stars to rule over the night, followed in each verse with the constant refrain, for his steadfast love endures forever. And the Psalm goes on to give thanks not only for what God has made, but for what God has done to provide for his people.

From the New Testament we might think of Paul’s command in 1 Thessalonians 5 Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Or maybe his words in Colossians 3: And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Those are great verses, encouraging us to give thanks. But I doubt anyone would, without a hint from me, pick the verses we’ll think about today, Romans 1:21-23. Yet these are verses that have struck me over and over in recent years.

The first chapters of Romans seek to prove Romans 1:16, that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” To do this Paul has to first convince us that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Romans 1, 2, and 3 present a fairly extensive catalog of sins and a strong argument that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, that “none is righteous, no, not one.”

But the very first sins mentioned are not sins of behavior, they are sins of attitude and intention. Back to Romans 1, verse 18 “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” They suppress the truth. That’s the first sin. If you want to disobey God the first thing you need to do is suppress the truth about God, deny his power, his love and especially his goodness. When Satan tempted Eve it was by denying God’s goodness, denying that the restriction God had placed on them was for their good. Yet it was. To have an experiential knowledge of evil would be – and was - a catastrophe for them.

Paul goes on to say that God’s power and his goodness and even his love continued to be displayed to all people through the goodness of creation. Verse 19: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” People see what God has made, and yet they deny the truth, they deny God’s power and deny his divine nature, his goodness and love which is evident in the way creation is designed to offer perfect provision and perfect beauty.

This first sin, denying God’s goodness, is joined by two more. Romans 1:21-23 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Verse 21: they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him. Of all the sins that Paul could have cited as being foundational to the wrath and judgment of God, the one he mentions is the failure to give thanks. Why? And how do we respond when our own hearts are often unthankful?

As I thought about this I googled the phrase “the sin of thanklessness.” One of the first hits was a blog by Bryan Jay, a missionary and pastor. He’s written some good stuff, and I want to quote him several times this morning. He begins by offering a definition of “giving thanks.” “We give thanks when we acknowledge the goodness of another as it is expressed to us in real benefits.” He says “When I first began to work on this definition, I used the term “tangible benefits,” but I changed that because “tangible” means we can touch them. What I am trying to communicate through the term “real benefits” is that thankfulness is not just a vague, general sort of thing, but is always related to some specific benefit or blessing that is very real and concrete. Forgiveness is not “tangible” but it is a very “real benefit.” Food to eat is tangible, and is also a very real benefit. Both are things for which we should be thankful.”

Several places in the New Testament led Bryan Jay to this definition. First, Jesus gave thanks this way. He gave thanks to the Father for the bread and fish before serving the multitudes. He gave thanks to the Father before giving the bread and wine to his disciples at the Last Supper. In Luke 17, the one leper of the ten who were healed fell on his face and gave thanks to Jesus for his healing. Paul often began his letters giving thanks to God for the church to whom he was writing. And in Revelation 11, the 24 elders fall on their faces and give thanks to the Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, “for you have taken your great power and begun to reign!” Do you see the pattern? Thankfulness is always expressed for something. For food, or for healing, or for other Christians, or even for Jesus himself and for the exercise of his reign.

But it’s also an important part of the definition that thankfulness is always to someone. For thanksgiving to occur, there must be something that one is thankful for, and there must also be someone that one is thankful to. If a child gets a gift for Christmas, he may love and enjoy that gift, and be really happy that he has that gift. There is something he is glad for, but if that gladness and joy isn’t expressed to someone, we reprimand the child for being thankless.

We give thanks when we acknowledge the goodness of another as it is expressed to us in real benefits. When Paul sees God’s wrath coming on those who don’t give thanks to God, he is saying first of all that there has been some very real benefit that are ignoring. When we study this passage, we often look at what it says about God being revealed in creation and say that people should have seen in the stars, the sun and the earth around them that there is a Creator God. That’s true, but Paul adds that not only should they have honored God, they should have given thanks to Him. Thankfulness has an added dimension that perception and even giving honor don’t. It recognizes the benefit received. Not only is God, God, but he blesses us tremendously.

So what benefits have all people received? Paul explains in Acts 17: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” God gives all people their very existence, their life, their breath. Everything they have, enjoy and experience comes from him. Paul is saying far more than simply that people should have recognized the existence of God through the creation. He is saying, “you owe everything to God, and you have not thanked him for giving you everything pertaining to your existence.” “But that still doesn’t seem to me,” Bryan Jay says, “to answer why their failure to give thanks resulted in God’s wrath.” He finds the answer in the first part of his definition: Thankfulness is expressed for something, but also to someone.

Appreciating blessings and benefits is meaningless if it isn’t directed to someone the right person. Some people fail to recognize the benefit, but more people enjoy the benefits while denying the goodness of the one who gave them. Remember what the Israelites did when they were in the desert on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land? It was bad enough when they complained against God because there was no food, but it was even worse when they complained against God after he had given them manna from heaven! They enjoyed the blessing but denied his goodness.

Now I loved Jimmy Stewart and most of the movies he made, but in the well-known movie Shenendoah he illustrates thanklessness in a particularly direct way. “Lord we cleared this land we plowed it. We sowed it and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn't be here, we wouldn't be eatin; it if we hadn't done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel but we thank you just same anyway Lord for this food we're about to eat. Amen.” You plowed the land, but who made the land? Who created the world and made it able to sustain life. You sowed the seeds, but who made the seeds? Who created life itself in all its variety and suitability for human nourishment? You plowed and harvested, but who sent the rain, who sent the sunshine? You worked dog-bone hard, but your work would be useless without God’s grace.

A thankful person isn’t just someone who is glad he has a benefit or a blessing to enjoy, rather he is one who acknowledges the goodness of the one who does the blessing. You can’t be thankful to your house for keeping you warm this past week. You can be thankful to God for giving you the house. God showed himself in creation, gave us the blessings and benefits of existence, so that we would see his goodness. To scorn the Giver of life and existence is to scorn his infinite goodness. So, Bryan Jay concludes “scorning an infinite God is an infinite sin, and one that is worthy of infinite condemnation!” Thankfulness is more important than you may think. It keeps God’s glory and goodness at the center of our lives. So beware, beware, beware the sin of thanklessness.

Paul goes on in verses 22 and 23 to reveal the most common sign of thanklessness. It’s idolatry. “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” We’ve talked about idolatry in recent years. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it now, except to remind us that idolatry doesn’t have to focus on images. Rather, idolatry is depending on anything other than God for your ultimate satisfaction and hope. If your hope is in material things, that’s idolatry. If your hope is in relationships, other than the one with God, that’s idolatry. If your hope is in the next pleasure to satisfy you and give meaning, whether from drugs or sex or power, that’s idolatry.

All these kinds of idolatry suppress the truth of one true God, fail to honor him as God and fail to give thanks to him and instead try to pretend there is someone else to be thankful to, or in the case of our idols, something to be thankful for without someone to be thankful to. We need to examine ourselves for anything we’re putting hope in apart from God and anything in our lives we can’t live without, especially if we know it would be wrong to thank God for. That’s the wealth, the alcohol, drugs, sex, power, or the abundance of possessions.

Thankfulness is more important than you might think. Keep that in mind this week. And recognize that putting our hope, our trust, our dependence in anything other than God is a sign that we are not truly being thankful to Him for all that he gives. But we also need to recognize that just as thanklessness is cursed, to also thankfulness is blessed. Bryan Jay says “Giving thanks is a blessing because the joy and gratitude and happiness that we feel when we are thankful isn’t primarily from the benefit that we have received, but from the goodness of the one who gives us that benefit.” This is the real blessing: thankfulness makes us consciously aware of the goodness of God. There is joy, happiness, satisfaction in witnessing daily the goodness of our wonderful God.

The question is, how can I begin to walk daily in the blessing of thankfulness? How can I experience that joy and satisfaction? Do I just go outside, look up at the stars, or at the autumn leaves, or at the glories of creation and thank God for my existence? You can do that. You should do that. But for the unsaved person even sincere gratefulness cannot undo the sins of suppressing the truth, not honoring God and not being thankful. The sin has already been committed. Because of the penalty we already deserve, we cannot become thankful people by making a list of blessings God has given. A lack of thankfulness condemns us, but thankfulness doesn’t save us.

There is only one way we can become thankful people, and that is through the cross of Jesus, where he took upon himself the wrath of God that we deserved. God himself took on human flesh and suffered the just penalty for our rejection of him. When God did this, it was a far greater display of his goodness than the creation of the entire universe. Through creation, His eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen, but through the cross, His justice and grace are seen.

Bryan Jay says “How can we experience the blessing of thankfulness? We do it by living a cross-centered life. I began a practice some time ago that should be second-nature to all of us as Christians, and that is to thank God every day for what he did for us at the cross. I’m sad to say that I don’t yet have this godly habit ingrained in my life like I wish I did, but by his grace, I will! May not a day go by that I don’t thank my Lord for his death for me on the cross.”

“I deserve hell,” he says, but I get heaven. I deserve separation from God, and instead he adopts me into his family and cherishes me as he does his only begotten Son. Imagine the difference it will make in your life if you meditate every day on the wonderful grace of Jesus expressed to you at the cross! And as I thank him for my salvation, may it remind me of what an infinitely good God he is!

Second, thank him for his gifts. Every good gift that comes into your life is due to the cross of Christ. When God blesses you as his child with anything, no matter how small, remember this. If Jesus hadn’t died on the cross for you, he would not be blessing you now with that meal, or that car, or that relationship, or anything. It’s all because of Jesus’ cross. You may wonder, “But what about those who are not followers of Christ? Where do the benefits in their lives come from?” The answer is the same, from the cross of Christ. Why? Because through the cross Jesus not only saved individuals, he saved the world from its condemnation and brokenness. That rescue is not full realized yet, but always, since the fall, it has been anticipated. God has given common grace to people across the world not because they deserved it but because of Jesus.

Bryan Jay goes on to say “Not only are the good things that come into your life through the cross of Christ, so are the difficult things. Peter said “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. God has promised us that our sufferings are not pointless. He promises in 2nd Corinthians that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” There is a often-believed lie in the church today that obedience and submission to God means that everything will go well for you, you’ll have material wealth, you’ll never suffer. But the promise of the cross is that we are blessed to share in Christ’s sufferings, and we can be thankful! Sometimes God removes his material blessing to show that the greatest blessing we have is himself.

So we focus on the goodness of the cross, we focus on the goodness of all that God gives, we continue to focus that way even in difficulties, and maybe, we work to rid ourselves of those things that are a distraction from the cross of Christ. The idols of our age are so compelling: entertainment, materialism, success, sex and other pleasures that don’t make time to live a cross-centered life. Even God’s good gifts can become idols in our lives if they keep us from God. Don’t expect to become a thankful person even by adding the cross to a life that in all other respects shows no desire to know God. The overall movement and direction of your life must be toward Jesus if you are to receive the blessings of thankfulness. When Jesus died on the cross he accomplished our reconciliation That is the gift he has given us–the way is opened once again for us to have fellowship with God.

Would you not agree that the greatest thanklessness that a person could express would be to fail to appreciate and use and enjoy the gift that they have been given? Which would be more painful for your child? When their brother or sister unwraps a toy they spent all their allowance to buy and immediately begins playing with it, but forgets to say “thank you”? Or when he opens it, and then casts it aside disinterested, looking for the next present? Do you want to be a thankful person? Enjoy the gift that God has given you, Himself.

I heard about a missionary wife who had been without her husband for 10 weeks as he toured in the churches. On the day he was to arrive home, a huge package arrived for this lady by delivery truck. It was from her husband. She was so disappointed. She didn’t just want a present, she wanted him. When she opened the box, out he popped! That’s what God has done for us. He has reconciled us to himself. He has given himself to us. He has shown us the ultimate goodness and deserves our grateful praise.