The third part of the believer’s self-examination, which is requisite with a view to preparing one’s self for participation at the Lord’s Table, deals with the matter of gratitude. This is not some sort of appendix or an isolated part of the self-examination but it is inseparably related to the two parts we have thus far considered. The child of God who is spiritually aware of his deservedness of the wrath of God on account of his sin and who through faith is made the recipient of redemption by the blood of Christ is thankful. Thankfulness is not a work which we perform and on the basis of which God receives us at the table of His Son. On the contrary, thankfulness is the fruit of divine grace and, therefore, the evidence of it in our experience gives comforting assurance that we are partakers of the benefit, Even as it is not possible for those who are outside of Christ and therefore strangers to His redemptive work, to know the experience of true gratitude, so it is not possible for those who have received the gifts of His grace to fail to realize an awareness of thanksgiving.
Thus it is necessary that we examine ourselves also with respect to the matter of gratitude. In our Communion Form we are enjoined as follows:
“That every one examine his own conscience, whether he purposeth henceforth to show true thankfulness to God in his whole life, and to walk uprightly before Him; as also, whether he hath laid aside unfeignedly all enmity, hatred, and envy, and doth firmly resolve henceforward to walk in true love and peace with his neighbor.”
To this we shall come back presently but first of all we do well to bear in mind that the matter of gratitude is a special, spiritual something. It must not be confused or identified with a certain verbal utterance that is so meaninglessly spoken. We receive a certain gift or favor and traditionally we say, “Thank you.” But all too often that “thank-you” could as well have been left unspoken for it lacked the depth of sincerity and escaped our lips by no more than the force of habit. Does not this same thing characterize our prayers to God. We receive of Him each day the good things of life and, to be sure, we say our prayers giving Him thanks for these things but how often is it a heartfelt thanksgiving? Who will deny that these things are frequently done merely as a custom?
From this it may not be concluded that we advocate the abolishing of the prayers of thanksgiving. Not at all. The sole point we want to establish here is that we may not superficially conclude that-we are thankful Christians because in one form or another we tell God how thankful we are with our mouths. Although we certainly must also use our speech to tell the Lord’s praise with thanksgiving, the latter runs in a deeper vein than that of lip-service.
Are we thankful?
That is the question to which an answer must be found in our self-examination. We may not push it aside. It is of vital importance because without a true sense of real gratitude there is no place for us in the communion of the body of Christ. And it is not a question of whether we say “thanks” but rather, are we . . . do we have . . . is thankfulness a real part of us?
To answer this question necessitates seriousness and honesty. We must not tell the minister and elders on family visitation that we are thankful for the preaching of the Word, the societies of the church, the catechetical instruction of our children and all the other spiritual benefits received in the church while we manifest disinterest in these very things and neglect the opportunities that the Lord gives us. We must not say that we appreciate Protestant Reformed Christian Day Schools and are grateful for the dedicated teachers the Lord gives our schools while we give our children to be instructed by the world or by teachers whose views diametrically oppose the fundamentals of our faith. We must not say that we are thankful for theStandard Bearer and Beacon Lights while at the same time we have to admit that we don’t read either. Neither may we profess gratitude for the law of God and the precepts of the Gospel while our walk is manifestly contrary to them. Such a profession is obviously not the evidence of Christian gratitude but is deserving of the indictment of God’s Word: “This people honoreth me with their lips but their heart is far from Me.”
We establish then the truth that gratitude is more a living than a saying. It is more a matter of the heart than of the head. This, the paragraph we quoted earlier from the Communion Form, emphasizes when it speaks of an examination of the conscience, touching upon the matters of the whole of our life and particularly our relation to the neighbor. True gratitude is a singular facet of the love of God shed abroad in our hearts. Only when there is that purpose or determination of the heart to walk in love according to all the commandments of God can we say we are really thankful. The heart that is so motivated is one that God has regenerated and the fruit of that regeneration is manifest in the putting off of the old man of sin and the putting on of the new man in Christ.
In a lucid manner let us illustrate this practically. Suppose we think of a man with a family who is unemployed and therefore unable to provide the necessities of life for his children. The deaconate of the church is made aware of the circumstances and a couple of the deacons go to visit this man. Finding the situation to be a real case of need, they decide to leave a sum of money with this man. He tells them, not once, but many times over how thankful he is for this benevolence. But is he? When the deacons leave he takes this money and, instead of buying the essentials of food and clothing for his children, he uses or rather wastes this money on non-essential things for himself. Certainly there is no evidence of true gratitude here even though the man said over and over, “Thank you, thank you!”
Now let us use another illustration and leave out the material element. Suppose that one professes with the mouth to possess the glorious and rich salvation which God has wrought in Christ Jesus. Freely he professes that this salvation is God’s gift of grace and for this he is most abundantly thankful. However, he gives no evidence of that gratitude. He does not use the powerof that salvation which he professes to have in a way that evidences real possession of it. Salvation, wrought by God, is the deliverance from the power of sin on the one hand and, more positively, it is the walking in fellowship with God in the way of His holy commandments. Doing this is the way of showing true gratitude for that wonderful gift of salvation. Saying thanks is excellent but that verbal profession must be accompanied with concrete deeds of gratitude or it remains empty and meaningless.
This is certainly the emphasis in the part of our Communion Form that speaks of self-examination on the point of gratitude. It mentions, for example, “to show true thankfulness to God in his whole life”, and, “to walk in true love and peace with his neighbor”. Other things are also mentioned here as we may observe from the complete quotation that appeared earlier in this article but we have emphasized by underscoring the two words “show” and “walk” because the heart of the matter may be expressed thus: “To show God in our entire walk as related to our neighbor in the present world that we are truly thankful for His grace that enables us to live a new life.”
Although then gratitude is a subjective experience and we have to probe our conscience to find it, nevertheless, it cannot be present subjectively without there also being objective evidence of it. To be sure, the objective evidence of Christian gratitude varies in one individual child of God and another and we may hasten to add that it is very imperfect and practiced only in small beginning even in the holiest of them. Nevertheless, it is there and we must find within ourselves the sincere desire and determination to do in every circumstance what God would have us do or we cannot honestly say that we are thankful. Salvation means just that. It is in principle the renunciation of our own will in toto and the being brought into subjection to the will of God. It is to say and to do His will at all costs and that means something in a world that stands violently opposed to the will of God and denounces in wrath those that walk according to that will. In such a world then you will have to endure tribulations but you will even experience a joyous gratitude in that because you know that “it is given unto you not only to believe on him but also to suffer for His sake.” (Philippians 1:29)
This, we believe, is the reason the Communion Form speaks of showing true thankfulness to God in our whole life not only but also of walking uprightly before Him. These two are inseparably related. The latter is the evidence of the former. Showing true thankfulness to God can be done only by an upright walk. The unregenerate do not know gratitude even though they render pious prayers and audibly perform some kind of lip service. It is only the child of God in Christ who is led by the Spirit to live in obedience to the Word of God that consciously experiences the blessing of gratitude.
Very closely connected with this is the last part of the paragraph quoted from the Communion Form which speaks of our walk in relation to our neighbor. Though this “upright walk” is before God, it is lived in the midst of this world and concerns our relationship to one another. To be an upright walk means that it must conform to the requirements of the law of God which are all essentially contained in the singular word, “LOVE”. That love is mandatory for “he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (I John 4:20) The apostle John teaches us volumes of truth concerning the exercise of that love in his First Epistle. He shows us that this love is not some kind of sentimental or emotional nicety that people speak about today and by which social relationships are supposed to improve but that it is the emulation of God’s essential virtue. God is love! And the love of God is revealed! It is manifest in the sending of His Son into the world. In love God Himself seeks and saves that which is lost. Love is the Divine power that liberates the sinner from death’s prison and hell’s bondage.
When the power of that love motivates our life, we, in the words of the communion form, “lay aside unfeignedly all enmity, hatred, and envy.” That’s the negative side, of course. Positively, we seek one another in Christ. We labor in love to save! We strengthen the weak, we admonish the erring. We give unsolicited witness of the way of salvation in the midst of the world that lies in darkness. We call sinners to repentance and we encourage the faithful to stand. This is the character of love. As Rev. H. Hoeksema once wrote: “Regard for the truth certainly does not shun discussion. Love does not avoid the brethren.”¹ On the contrary, love invites discussion for the truth’s sake and it seeks the brethren for salvation’s sake.
“My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth. And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him.” (I John 3:18)
In the experiential confidence of that love we have the assurance that our lives are characterized by true gratitude to God for the grace given to and through which alone we are able to keep His commandments.
¹ History of Prot. Ref. Churches, p. 70 by H. Hoeksema