One of the characteristics of reformed or Calvinist Christianity is the emphasis it places upon doctrine. It is often a reproach made against us that we think too much and talk too much about doctrine" It is felt by some of our friends that doctrine is divisive, that it tends to produce barrenness, an intellectual faith, instead of a joyful and simple Christian life and experience.
Today, more often than not, the spirit of Christians is more akin to Bi1ly Sunday, the famous baseball player turned sawdust trail evangelist, who, at his examination for ordination in the Presbyterian Church USA, characteristically would answer questions on theology by saying: ‘That’s too deep for me’ or ‘I’11 have to pass that one up.’ He once said, ‘I don’t know any more about theology, than a jackrabbit knows about ping-pong, but I’m on my way to glory.’
But we think that this is a great mistake. Doctrine is only the teaching of the Bible. and all of the teaching of the teaching of the Word of God is of the most intensely practical importance, but especially its great themes.
- Now, to be sure, we have perhaps all known people who had a fascination for doctrine, but seem to be oblivious to its practical application–and there is nothing to be said for that!
- But in the Bib1e, doctrines have consequences; and the better these doctrines are learned and mastered, the more our lives will reflect that truth.
For example, the doctrine of justification by faith has a great consequence according to the Scripture. It is peace, peace of heart, before God and then before men. And the better one understands the doctrine of justification, the better he or she appreciates the truth of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us and of God’s declaration that in Christ we are righteous in his sight, the more that person will live in peace and at peace.
And the doctrines which are the special emphases of reformed faith, that is, which we wish to stress as the bible does, though many other Christians neglect them—these doctrines too have profound and important consequences.
I am speaking of the doctrines of sovereignty, of the sovereignty of God over all things—that absolute divine rule over and explanation of all things, which Abraham Kuyper expressed in such a breathtaking way, when in his address at the opening of the Free University of Amsterdam, he said: ‘not the breadth of a thumb exists in all of our life but Christ claims "it is mine."’
And also the doctrine of the sovereignty of divine grace: that salvation is from beginning to end, the work, the gift, and the achievement of God. That it was his plan, fashioned before the foundation of the world; that it is given to those whom he chose out of his mere good-pleasure and the mystery of his love; that this salvation was accomplished, that the last penny was paid for it by the Lord Jesus Christ, and that we are made partakers of it by the work of the Holy Spirit himself, applying to us the redemption which Christ purchased on our behalf. That we are from beginning to end the objects of divine grace and the recipients of the divine gift, and that we had no part in the obtaining of our own eternal life.
These doctrines, I say, are characteristic of the reformed faith; as they are characteristic, I dare say of Paul and the whole Bible; and these doctrines too have the most intensely practical applications and implications.
And one of the chief of those implications is that we who believe these things ought to be distinguished by our thankfulness, our gratitude to God. People who are around us ought to notice and comment upon the fact that we seem to be so grateful, so thankful for what we have received.
For, you see, our doctrine leaves us more to thank God for than other Christians; our doctrine requires us to be thankful to God for everything; absolutely everything: our salvation in its every part, and everything else–for we, of all Christians, understand that it all comes down from the Father of Lights.
In other words, a psalm like Ps 111 ought to be characteristic of us; of our private thoughts, of our conversation with one another, of our witness-bearing to those who are not Christians, and of our corporate worship. Thanksgiving ought to be writ large over our lives and thankful ought to describe us as well as any word in the dictionary.
It should be characteristic of Christians such as ourselves to be thankful people, always giving thanks to God, since we recognize that everything is from him; that in him we live and move and have our being; that our troubles and our blessings are all the gifts of his love and care; that he stands behind all that we know and all that we have.
In order that we might better cultivate this grace of thanksgiving, I want to urge upon you three steps which must be taken if we are really to put on the thankful spirit which God deserves from us and which our doctrine, deep and true and Biblical as it is, deserves from us.
- First, to be properly thankful, we must mark and notice God’s kindness, goodness, and generosity to us.
I think it will astonish you to realize what huge quantities of God’s goodness you and I consume every day without even a thought that all of it is our Father’s gift to us. We take it, somehow, for granted; as if it comes of its own accord.
But take note. Take note, for example, of the gifts God has given you, simply as a creature.
In v. 5, for example, we are reminded that it is God who feeds us. Often the Bible reminds us that, farmers and ranchers and supermarkets notwithstanding, the food we eat is from God, who hides himself behind these various means, but without whom no food would be grown or eaten.
But, do you stop to think about how much lies hidden in those simple words: ‘He provides food for those who fear him’–for the just and unjust alike, the bible elsewhere reminds us.
- What food? Well, he could have fed us, as he feeds many others of his creatures, on grass. But he has instead–simply because he delights to be good, and loves to shower his goodness upon his children–roast beef, fried chicken, iced tea, pizza covered with sausage, mushrooms, black olives; Coca Cola.
And what of such statements as ‘Great are the works of the Lord’ and ‘Glorious and majestic are his deeds’ and ‘He has shown his people the power of his works’. Stop and ponder these, as we are invited to do in v. 2. Ponder what they mean and all that they mean.
Think, for example, of the wonders which God has made in nature, which so ennoble and refresh and beautify and enrich our lives. You have so much of it here in the Southwest! It is all God’s work; his artistic genius! It is his gift to us to enjoy and to admire.
Or think of God’s greatest workmanship: man himself. And the astonishing and wonderful things which man can do and has done, all of which should only cause us the more to thank the God who made him and made him so clever and so wise.
What of Beethoven’s 6th symphony, or Haydn’s E-minor trumpet concerto–as Wynton Marsalis can play it—and Mendelssohn’s oratorio ‘Elijah’ and Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and Rembrandt’s ‘Jeremiah weeping over Jerusalem’ and Michelangelo’s ‘David’ and Einstein and David Hawking and computers and rockets and black holes and space stations, and jet travel.
What an amazing and wonderful world it is that we are privileged to live in; what a rich and interesting life we have been given to live; what fascinating things charm and mystify us. And our doctrine, that grand reformed doctrine teaches us to give thanks for it all to God, who stands behind it all as the giver of every good gift.
- And then take note of the blessings God gives you as one of his elect children. Oh, how guilty we are of taking these greatest of all privileges for granted!
If we could but for one instant look into hell and see what our destiny would have been had not God, in his unfathomable grace, intervened, why, we would not stop, we could not stop giving thanks to him so long as we lived in this world.
Or, as Thomas Brooks, the puritan once put it: ‘Oh, what would not a damned soul, that hath been but an hour in hell, give for a drop of that grace that thou hast in thy heart! Think seriously of this, and be thankful.’
“He provided redemption for his people,” we read in v. 9: and what a great universe of blessings are summed up in those few words: forgiveness, peace with God, heaven, eternal life, membership in God’s family, and so on.
- And then, take note of the blessings, the gifts God gives you in your life as a Xian.
How every day he showers us with fabulously wonderful benefits which we hardly ever even think of. Were he not to keep us and sustain us by his Spirit every day, we would long ago have slipped back into unbelief and death; were Christ not daily interceding for us, we would be easy prey for the Evil One. think of the Bible he has given us, and the promises he makes to prayer and keeps when we pray; think of the brothers and sisters he has given to us and the joy and pleasure of belonging to the Lord’s family and church. Our wives, our children, our homes, our jobs, our health, and all the rest…all of it, every single thing, God’s present to us.
Truly he has given us the land of other nations, as the psalmist says in v. 6: not, in this case, Canaan, but all that which worldly people seek, happiness, hope, love, satisfaction, he has given to us.
Oh, how much more sharp eyed we need to become; and how our doctrine of divine sovereignty should help us. Everything we see, we experience, we receive; take note that it is from the Lord and give thanks for the kindness and the wisdom which has fashioned this for us.
- The second thing we must do if we are to cultivate the kind of deep and abiding thanksgiving which ought to flow from our convictions about God and his sovereignty in creation, providence, and salvation, is that we must remember what blessings we have received.
How often we go wrong precisely here and our thanksgiving seeps out of our souls as if they had sprung a leak. We receive a blessing from the Lord and we are somewhat thankful for it sometimes; but we do not take care to fix it in mind, and do not therefore continue to be thankful or to extract from God’s great goodness to us anything like the thanksgiving which that goodness deserves.
This, I think is the burden of the psalmist’s remark in verse two: ‘Great are the works of the Lord,” they are pondered by all who delight in them. At least they ought to be pondered, and meditated upon, until they are fixed in the mind.
Israel often failed to do this. How often in the Bible do we find her spiritual defection from the Lord explained as a result of a lapse of memory, as a result of a culpable spiritual forgetfulness. For example, in Ps 78 we read: ‘Israel did not keep God’s covenant and refused to live by his law. They forgot what he had done, the wonders he had shown them.’
I too have often failed to do this. When my wife and I went off to Scotland for study after seminary, we had in mind that she would get some job clerking in a store or some such thing and that with our savings that would see us through. She had never had such a job and was frankly quite apprehensive about it. All she had prepared herself to do was teach violin, but, of course, there was no way of making money at that. The second Sunday we were in Aberdeen, she met in church a young man who taught piano in the public schools and he informed her that there was an opening for a violin/cello teacher. He arranged an interview for her and she was hired. In the three years we were there, there was not another opening for a violin teacher in the school system. We also learned that the kind of store clerk job we had thought she would find would not have provided sufficient income for us and we would have had difficulty completing our stay in Aberdeen. As it was, she was paid well–enough for us to take trips to Europe, etc.–; she got three years of work experience in her chosen profession; she made some splendid friends among her colleagues; and had a most interesting introduction to Scottish school life and society.
Now, you would think–I would think–that after such an intervention and blessing as that, I would never worry about the Lord’s provision for me and my family. You would think that every time of testing would simply bring such blessing again to mind and be a cause of thanksgiving for the certainty of the Lord’s provision as he has promised.
But, like Israel, I too have too often forgotten the wonders he has done.
Godly folk in the ancient epoch knew how prone they were to forget and to lose their gratitude and thanksgiving; and so they saw to remembering in very definite ways.
- Do you remember Joseph in Egypt? He had two sons there and he named those sons Manasseh and Ephraim.
- Manasseh means ‘Causing to forget’ because the Lord caused Joseph to forget his affliction by blessing him with such influence and position in the Egyptian court. And Ephraim means ‘twice fruitful’, because the Lord made Joseph twice as fruitful in the land of his exile, as he had been or would have been in the land of his birth.
He was ensuring that he would not forget what the Lord had done for him and that he would live out his days in perpetual gratitude. Just think of him leaning out the back door and yelling: ‘Twice fruitful’ get in here and clean your room like your mother told you to; or ‘Causing to forget’ that lawn has got to be mowed before you leave for youth group tonight! And he would catch himself and it would all come back to his heart again.
Or there would be guests for dinner and he would introduce his boys: this is ‘Twice Fruitful’ and this is ‘Causing to Forget’. And his guests would say; my those are intriguing names, and Joseph would answer: well, there is a wonderful story behind those names, and I’d like to tell it to you while dinner is being prepared; come into the living room and sit down.
Or the Israelites would build a monument to serve as a perpetual memorial of a great victory God gave them over their enemies, such as Samuel did near Mizpah, when he made the stone monument he called ‘Ebenezer’ stone of help, because there the Lord had helped Israel defeat the Philistines.
Brothers and sisters, how are you fixing in your mind the many great mercies the Lord has shown you? How many of those mercies should still be pouring thanksgiving into your soul, but are not, because they lie forgotten in some back corner of your mind.
When I consider the Lord’s goodness to me, I realize that he has built up over the years of my life, a great mountain of kindnesses, helps, provisions, lessons, deliverances, and so on; each one of which, if well fixed in mind, would be an engine generating thanksgiving for the rest of my days, and all together would make me a man very much like this Psalm writer who all the time and in every way, was constrained day after day and year after year to ponder the works of the Lord, his great kindnesses to him.
So we must note God’s gifts; and then we must fix them in the memory.
- But, finally, we must not only note and remember God’s kindnesses and blessings and gifts; we must actually practice thanksgiving; we must acknowledge those gifts both to God and to others.
This psalmist, thankful as he is when he rises up from pondering the works of the Lord toward himself, does not merely go about his business glad for the many blessings he has received: No he extols the Lord with all his heart and in the council of the upright and in the assembly.
He wrote this psalm out of his thanksgiving; he wanted to declare the praises of the one who had called him out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. He wanted to enumerate God’s kindnesses so others would admire the Lord and his goodness as he did.
This man, so moved and stirred as he is by the recollection of God’s great works toward him and for him, is under a sweet but heavy constraint. He would say of his life, as Calvin himself said of his when he was near the end of it:
And thus, like one of the heralds, I have endeavored to the utmost extent that my ability allowed, to do honor to Christ, riding magnificently in his royal chariot drawn by Four Horsemen.’
He saw his life now as simply a great long opportunity to give thanks, in his thoughts, with his words, and with his life, to give thanks and to declare the goodness and kindness and grace of the Lord.
And the only difference between Calvin and this psalm writer on the one hand, and myself on the other, is that they took note of so many more of God’s gifts than I do, and remembered those they noted so much better than I do; if I noted and remembered as they, I too would have a heart so crowded with God’s magnificent generosity to me, that I too could hardly think of anything else but how sufficiently to devote myself to gratitude and thanksgiving in every way, in thought, word, and deed; how sufficiently to devote myself to gratitude and thanksgiving in every way, in thought, word, and deed; how sufficiently to unburden myself of this altogether pleasant but mountainous weight of Divine goodness.
Not so long ago I read Wm Manchester’s magisterial biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. In that book he describes in painful detail the unhappy childhood of the great British leader, whose parents were much too busy with their own pleasures and interests and sexual misadventures to pay much attention to a little boy who craved their affection but rarely received it. Churchill was raised in largest part by his nanny, a Mrs. Everest, whom he called from his early days, “Woom.” It was Woom who loved him and cared for him and gave him a sense of worth, while his parents ignored him and played. Then the young Churchill was sent off to Harrow. Well, let Manchester tell the story:
‘Public school boys then were ashamed of their nannies. They would no sooner have invited one to Harrow than an upper-class American boy today would bring his teddy bear to his boarding school. Winston not only asked Woom to come; he paraded his old nurse, immensely fat and all smiles, down High Street, and then unashamedly kissed her in full view of his classmates. One of them was Seely, who later became a cabinet colleague of Winston’s and won the DSO in France. Seely called that kiss, ‘one of the bravest acts I have ever seen.’
Gratitude, love, thanksgiving, devotion drove Churchill to his brave deed.
We owe the Lord infinitely more than Churchill owed his nanny; and we ought to be more distinguished for our gratitude than was the great English statesman, uncaring of the opinions of anyone, if only we might have our opportunity to declare the praises of God and the greatness of his works, and the exceeding kindness of all his ways toward us.
Whether in the High Street or in the Assembly of the Upright, thanking the Lord ought to be the passion of our lives, and it will be, if prompted by our doctrine of God’s sovereignty in creation, providence, and grace, we learn to accept absolutely everything as the gift of God’s love, and to remember his kindness, fix them in mind, so that they will continue to feed a thankful heart for years to come.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!