Receiving God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ should shape a grateful heart as much as it compels a forgiving spirit. Grace and gratitude go hand in hand. Liberated from slavery to sin, redeemed people are grateful people. Gratitude, thanksgiving, and praise are, therefore, central to worship. “It is good to give thanks to the Lord!” (Ps 92:1). “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Ps 118:1, 29). Even Jesus’ prayers often began with thanksgiving (John 11:41; Luke 10:21).
Thankfulness is a theological act and the product of good theology. One cannot praise and worship the Author of salvation without expressing thanksgiving. Reflecting on the attributes of God inexorably draws the worshipper into a sense of awe that this great God would love unworthy sinners. The more the redeemed mind appreciates the doctrines of redemption, atonement, justification, and salvation, the more the cleansed heart overflows with gratitude.
For the preacher, however, even more is at stake than the proper response to doctrine. Preaching saturated with the wonder of God’s grace inevitably will be fragrant with thankfulness as well. A wise pastor understands that gratitude, thanksgiving, and praise are also central to our relationships. Just as peace with God enables us to have peace with others, so gratitude toward God encourages and motivates us to express it to those around us, particularly toward those who sit under our preaching.
In addition to being instructive in maintaining church unity and finding joy in difficult circumstances, Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a master class in pastoral skill. He is not reluctant to leverage his personal relationship with the members of the church at Philippi to motivate them to honor Christ in specific ways. Before dealing with difficult divisions in the church or warning them about false teachers, Paul spends the opening section of the letter simply expressing gratitude to those he will soon correct.
As Paul gives thanks to God (Php 1:3), he makes it abundantly clear that he gives thanks for them, and not in some generic way, but specifically “because of [their] partnership in the gospel from the first day” to the moment of his letter. Paul’s words ooze with warmth and affection as he writes, “It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Php 1:7-8).
The apostle is not being merely sentimental. He is writing to motivate them to action. The bulk of the epistle will ask the Philippians for detailed and distinctive actions, but first, he takes the time to ingratiate them to himself, and the easiest and most direct way to do that is by expressing his gratitude for them and to them.
Sometimes pastors forget that the people they serve and digest doctrine much more easily when it is served on a plate of gratitude. Paul’s lovely expressions of personal appreciation for the Philippians in 1:3-8 and 4:10-20 serve as the parentheses of personal appreciation between which his doctrinal instructions and admonitions are expressed. His deliberate pastoral strategy is a crucial reminder that we cannot blurt out truth harshly and expect that people will respond to it correctly simply because it is true. Pastors who want to reproduce faithfulness and gratefulness in their people need to keep three things in mind.
First, you reproduce what you model. Churches will inevitably take on the personality and commitments of the pastor over time. Congregations rarely grow warmer, more loving, or more grateful than the pastor. The more frequently and freely he expresses his love and gratitude to them, the more freely they will do likewise. Paul’s letter to the Philippians begins and ends with an uninhibited articulation of his gratitude as a demonstration so that, in imitation of him (3:17), they, too, might know how to live and pray “with thanksgiving” (4:6).
Second, you reproduce what you honor. When pastors commend those who show thanksgiving and return that gratitude to them, they ensure that the church will continue to be a grateful place. People tend to live up or down to expectations and commendation. A wise pastor knows how to set a standard of gratitude by highlighting and honoring those who show gratitude rather than grumbling. By honoring the Philippians for their commitment to him
Finally, you reproduce what you sow. This principle reverberates throughout Scripture. You don’t just reap what you sow, you reap what you sowed in abundance. The pastor who liberally shares his grateful spirit will reap a harvest of gratitude in due time. He isn’t merely teaching the congregation; he is investing in them, and the dividends of faithfulness and gratitude will multiply themselves many times over.
Hershael York is Dean of the School of Theology and the Victor & Louise Lester Professor of Preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also the Senior Pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky.