A national Day of Thanksgiving notwithstanding, giving thanks is not everybody’s business. Not even giving thanks for food, freedom, and family is everybody’s business. For this intensely spiritual (and rare!) activity, sound doctrine is necessary. The ground from which thanksgiving grows is not a fertile field of wheat, but a heart plowed, cultivated, and watered by the Holy Spirit with the Word of God. Many a farmer in the United States whose acreage and livestock produced abundantly this past season will miserably fail to give thanks to God next week (as many a Canadian counterpart failed to do last month), while some whose fig trees did not blossom, whose vines were fruitless, whose fields were barren, and whose flocks diminished rejoice in the Lord God.
Thanksgiving—precious fruit to God of His own labor of salvation!—depends squarely upon good, solid, Reformed doctrine.
None gives thanks to the true God except the man or woman who believes creation. “The earth is the LORD’s and the fulness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). Rain and sunshine, food and drink, health and job, marriage and government are creatures of God, made and upheld by the triune God, as the Belgic Confession says, “for the service of mankind.” The Creator deserves thanks for our use and enjoyment of His bounties. Denying creation, the evolutionist has no reason to give thanks, and no God to thank; for him, Thanksgiving Day is a day for self-congratulation, or a day to keep his fingers crossed. No small part of the iniquity of those in Reformed churches presently gutting the (Biblical) truth of creation is their destruction of the Reformed life of thankfulness with regard to earthly things.
The truth of creation promotes thanksgiving by enabling the believer freely to use and wholeheartedly to enjoy “the earth and its fulness.” The various elements of earthly life in this world, as creatures of God—beef, wine, music—are good, not evil; the getting and enjoying of them—work, business, money, eating, attending the concert—are lawful, not illicit; the ordinances of human life—marriage, family, labor, government, are to be received by the Christian, not shunned. A thankful use and enjoyment of all things earthly is the rule for the Christian life, not abstinence for them, in which case, of course, there could be no thanksgiving for them.
The error of a gloomy renunciation of earthly things and “fleshly” pleasures, parading itself as superior holiness, has plagued the church down the ages. The apostles had to contend with it, as is evident in I Timothy 4:1ff.: “. . . seducing spirits . . . forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused . . . .” The early church fell into it, regarding marriage with suspicion and disdain and extolling the virtue of the ascetic life of the monk. Always there is found in the church the mentality that is fearful of the enjoyments of earthly life; that nervously calls the membership to abstain; and that condemns those who eat and drink as gluttons and winebibbers. Luther resisted this error; and he did so on the basis of the doctrine of creation:
If our Lord is permitted to create nice, large pike and good Rhine wine, presumably I may be allowed to eat and drink. Similarly, Calvin, foe of all intemperance and champion of self-discipline that he was, refused to honor austerity as the Reformed way of life:
If a man begins to doubt whether he may use linen for sheets, shirts, handkerchiefs, and napkins, he will afterward be uncertain also about hemp; finally, doubt will even arise over tow. For he will turn over in his mind whether he can sup without napkins, or go without a handkerchief If any man should consider daintier food unlawful, in the end he will not be at peace before God, when he eats either black bread or common victuals, while it occurs to him that he could sustain his body on even coarser foods. If he boggles at sweet wine, he will not with clear conscience drink even flat wine, and finally he will not dare touch water if sweeter and cleaner than other water . . . .” (Institutes, III, XIX, 7, Battles edition).
No minor matter, this! The error, Paul damns as a “doctrine of devils” (I Tim. 4:l). Teaching the truth that “every creature of God is good’ is the mark of a good minister of Jesus Christ (I Tim. 4:6). Reformed preachers do well to put the brothers and sisters in remembrance of this truth on Thanksgiving Day. In so many respects, the doctrine of creation is fundamental to the Christian’s faith and life.
But the fall of man into sin may not be ignored! Thanksgiving is grounded also in the doctrine of the fall. Believing the fall, a man lives in the consciousness of his complete unworthiness to receive any good thing of the Lord, whether political freedom, or health, or his next breath of air. Receiving these things, though in the barest amount necessary to sustain life, he is grateful. Nothing is more destructive to thanksgiving than the popular, but profane, notion that men and women have a right to the earth and its fulness. Lacking anything, they are resentful; possessing everything in abundance, they are arrogant; never are they thankful.
The sinner’s right to this earth is precisely the same as his right to heaven: the grace of God in the blood of Jesus Christ. Basic to thanksgiving—thanksgiving for earthly necessities and physical comforts—is the doctrine of redemption. The atoning death of the Son of God gives me the right, through faith, to a slice of bread (indeed, to the universe), as it gives me the right to the Bread of life eternal. The unbeliever has no right to any of God’s creatures. When he eats and drinks, soaks up the sunshine, avails himself of the protection of the State, or embraces a wife, he is a thief, stealing the goods of the Owner of all—the Creator-God. Redemption brings the believer his daily bread with God’s blessing, so that he can eat and drink in good conscience before God. Without this blessing, not even God’s gifts can profit a man, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it in Question 125.
Creation, the fall, redemption—in these great truths embraced with a believing heart is gratitude rooted. From these doctrines the afflicted saints take courage to join in the giving of thanks. Not all Christians observe Thanksgiving Day in circumstances of prosperity. The past summer brought drought to many parts of the United States and Canada. This has meant disappointment and hardship to Christian farmers and their families; not only rain and sunshine, but also floods and droughts come to believer and unbeliever alike. Farmers who began this spring by calling upon God at the Prayer Day service have lost their investment in seed and cattle; their labor has been fruitless; their payments on land and machinery continue. Other men have lost their job, through no fault of their own, or have seen their business collapse. The burden of debt and of supporting the family weigh heavily on the man; his wife struggles to make ends meet.
Can they unite their hearts with the church at the Thanksgiving Day service to pray, “Father, we thank Thee for harvests and wages and return on our investments”? Can they lift up their voices to sing, “Give thanks to God for good is He/ His grace abideth ever/ Each creature’s need He doth supply/ His grace abideth ever”? If thanksgiving has its wellspring in an abundance of earthly things, they cannot. But because thanksgiving wells from hearts that believe that the Creator governs all that befalls them (for creation implies providence) and that He rules their life in the love that gave Jesus for them, so that drought as well as rain, poverty as well as riches, adversity as well as prosperity come to the people of God by the Fatherly hand for their good—because distressed saints believe this, they can give thanks.
Thanksgiving takes form in prayer and song.
Genuine thanksgiving will be the living of a life: no gluttony, no drunkenness, no immoderate use of the earth, certainly no idolizing of the creatures, whether field, or factory, or family; but devotion of our things and selves to the glory of God, “Who giveth us rightly all things to enjoy” (I Tim. 6:17). One specially important aspect of this devotion to God will be the use of our goods to help the poor. The deacons play a vital role in the thanksgiving of the church.
“It is a beastly way of eating,” Calvin wrote in his commentary on I Timothy 4:5, “when we sit down at table without any prayer, and, when we have eaten to the full, depart in utter forgetfulness of God.”
Thanks be to God for the doctrine that delivers us from such “beastly” eating, and such “beastly” living!