The Protestant Reformed Churches annually observe the “National Thanksgiving Day” with a special worship service. They have bound themselves to do so by Article 67 of the Church Order, which states: “The churches shall observe, in addition to the Sunday, also [a list of eight days, and] the National Thanksgiving Day.” The observance of special days has a Reformed tradition which can be traced back to the church order adopted by the great Synod of Dordt, 1618-19.
We realize that there are differences within the Reformed camp on this matter. Even sister churches of the PRC do not observe all these days with special worship services. Other faithful churches officially reject having such regular special services. On the one hand, they desire to honor and maintain the Lord’s day as the official day of worship ordained by God. On the other hand, they are leery of the empty formality and superstition connected with a church calendar of special days that developed in the church in the Middle Ages. Reformers like Calvin and Knox insisted that the Lord’s day is the only day when believers should be required to attend official worship services. We respect this view.
Yet we believe that these special services may be allowed. Most of the special services listed in Article 67 commemorate an aspect of the saving work of Christ—His birth, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of His Spirit. Other special services have a different emphasis. Two of the special services required by Article 67 involve the significant matter of the believer’s daily bread—Prayer Day, when believers come together to ask God’s blessing on the labors exerted for earning their daily bread, and Thanksgiving Day, a service for thanking God for supplying their daily bread. It is the latter that we address in this editorial.
Let it be clear, first, that the Thanksgiving Day service is intended to be an opportunity for a congregation to worship and thank God for His earthly provision. It is not a time for thanksgiving generally. Of course, the Bible commands us, “In everything give thanks” (), and even that we are to be “giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” ( ). While it is legitimate for a minister to point out in his Thanksgiving sermon this calling of daily thanksgiving, that is not what this special service is about. It is specific thanks for God’s fatherly care in providing for the material needs of the congregation for another year.
It is entirely proper that the church give thanks to God in this official way for His provision. The church is to live in conscious dependence on God—not only for the spiritual needs and blessings, but also for the material. This is plain from the prayer that Jesus taught His people, which includes a petition for physical necessities—“Give us this day our daily bread.” The Heidelberg Catechism expounds the meaning of this petition in Lord’s Day 50:
…be pleased to provide us with all things necessary for the body, that we may thereby acknowledge Thee to be the only fountain of all good, and that neither our care nor industry, nor even Thy gifts, can profit us without Thy blessings; and therefore that we may withdraw our trust from all creatures and place it alone in Thee.
Whether congregations do this officially in this time of the year or not, the believer sins grievously if he does not acknowledge with sincere gratitude God’s fatherly provision of food, clothing, shelter, and all that the Lord gives day after day, year after year.
In the countries of Canada and the United States, believers by and large have very much material provision for which to give thanks. The economy in North America has been very good in the last year or so. Unemployment is down. Business profits are up. While not everyone enjoys the same level of prosperity, it is obvious that, economically speaking, the times are good. It is necessary that believers acknowledge God’s abundant supply. We have more than we need, much more.
But there is more to consider. For many, many years, the Lord has been providing for His church in North America at a higher level than the church in the rest of the world. One significant benefit for a believer travelling to different parts of the world is that he experiences the reality that believers in most countries struggle economically far more than most believers in North America. Recent visitors to the Protestant Reformed Churches from Namibia and South Africa observed that life in America was not a difficult one. Having visited both of those countries, I can only agree—life for believers there is far more difficult. Even in such prosperous countries as Northern Ireland, Germany, Singapore, and Australia, people do not have the disposable income that wage-earning Americans have. Food, fuel, clothing, housing, and energy costs are significantly lower in the United States of America. And, significantly, in those countries, as well as in Canada, the socialist systems can deduct as much as half the income of the average worker.
So, the question is, why? Why has God for many years, and even to the present day, given to the Protestant Reformed Churches the kind of material prosperity that we have, so that even the poor among us are rich by the standards of most countries? We must not conclude that riches equal blessing, and surely not a worthiness of blessing. John Calvin, commenting on Hosea 9:1 writes that we ought “not rejoice, though great prosperity may smile on us; but let us rather inquire, whether God has a just cause of anger against us.”
Rather, the answer is, that we may with these bounties seek the kingdom of God. This was Jesus’ command when giving instruction concerning the proper attitude toward and use of material things (). The Lord instructed the citizens of His kingdom that they are not to worry about their daily provision, for if God provides food for the sparrows and clothes for the lilies, how much more for His people. But the Lord also admonished them not to lay “up treasures for yourselves upon the earth” (19). And, as regards seeking material things, He warned, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (24).
As the serious-minded believer approaches Thanksgiving Day, he not only gives humble thanks to God for the material abundance, but he also faces the question of how he must use these material things. The guiding principle is “seek ye first the kingdom of God.” The key to this is seeking first. What does the Lord expect from His people?
“First” here is not simply a matter of chronology, that is to say, the first thing a man must do before he does the rest. That would be rather easy. If a man earned a paycheck of $1,000, he could simply take $100 (his ten percent), give it to the causes of the kingdom, and it is accomplished. The other $900 could be spent as he pleased. However, this is not what Jesus means.
Rather, “seeking first” demands that with each one of the dollars of his paycheck a man is seeking the kingdom of God. He must support the causes of the kingdom obviously, but he must also be seeking the kingdom of God in and through his purchases of groceries. He must seek that heavenly kingdom as he buys a hammer or a computer, a refrigerator or a minivan. Seeking first the kingdom of God is a total commitment of one’s life, not merely his money. But it has that practical application, and indeed the Lord spoke it, in the body of instruction on material things.
That principle of the use of money is only a small part of the greater, all-encompassing theme of the believer’s life and confession—I am not my own. The believer joyfully confesses that he belongs to God—chosen eternally in Christ, purchased body and soul with His blood, delivered from death and the bondage of Satan by Christ’s Spirit. John Calvin expressed it well:
We are not our own; therefore, neither is our own reason or will to rule our acts and counsels. We are not our own; therefore, let us not make it our end to seek what may be agreeable to our carnal nature. We are not our own; therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours. On the other hand, we are God’s; let us, therefore, live and die to him. We are God’s; therefore, let his wisdom and will preside over all our actions. We are God’s; to him, then, as the only legitimate end, let every part of our life be directed.1
Calvin later applies this to the “proper use of earthly blessings” (3.10.1). He reminds us that the Lord “tells us that to his people the present life is a kind of pilgrimage by which they hasten to the heavenly kingdom. If we are only to pass through the earth, there can be no doubt that we are to use its blessings only in so far as they assist our progress, rather than retard it.” In another place, Calvin states that “Scripture…reminds us, that whatever we obtain from the Lord is granted on the condition of our employing it for the common good of the Church, and that, therefore, the legitimate use of all our gifts is a kind and liberal communication of them with others” (3.7.5). Calvin further instructs: “And lest we should have omitted to perceive that this is the law for duly administering every gift which we receive from God, he of old applied that law to the minutest expressions of his own kindness. He commanded the first-fruits to be offered to him as an attestation by the people that it was impious to reap any advantage from good not previously consecrated to him” (3.7.5).
The Lord has given to the members of the Protestant Reformed Churches much. We receive it with thanksgiving. We must sanctify all with prayer. In the grace and providence of God, this abundance enables the small denomination of churches fully to support three missionaries to the Philippines and another domestic missionary. It has enabled the churches to support completely its own seminary—for over 92 years now. Material prosperity makes it possible for the members to establish and maintain twenty Christian schools at a cost of over $12 million annually, and to make plans for more. Members also support printing of books and numerous magazines, including this one. Other Christians around the world view all this with astonishment. How God has blessed us!
Let it be, then, that we live in the consciousness of our Father’s abundant provision. As sinners, we forfeit the right to a crust of bread. Yet as God’s children, we recognize His goodness in every gift we enjoy from His hand. We consecrate all to His service, praying that it may be accompanied with His blessing.
To God alone be the glory.
1 Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.7.1, tr. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., 1957). All quotations of the Institutes are from this translation.