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Growth by Gratitude?

The following is a transcript of a helpful question and answer session with Pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN. For more questions and answers, visit www.desiringgod.org.

Question: Is gratitude a bad motivation for obeying God?

Answer: It can be a bad thing if we conceive of acting out of gratitude as returning favors, like when somebody invites you over for dinner and out of gratitude you feel the need to invite them over to dinner. If that’s the way we’re thinking about our relationship and obedi- ence to God, it’s bad.

It’s going to be legalistic and devastating. And it’s going to dishonor God, because it says, “OK, God made a deposit in my life of some good and some kindness. Now, as I face the future and ponder what my motivation is for pleasing God or for doing good things that he commands, I must now do something good for him because of what he has done for me in the past.”

It’s that structure of thought that I think is so dishonoring to God, because when I turn to do something good for God, when I turn to take another step in the path of obedience, I need to not say, “God helped me in the past; now I must do something for him in the future.” Rather, I need to say, “God helped me in the past, and now I need his help for the very next moment of my life.”

We don’t give God anything, according to Acts 17:25, but God gives us life and breath and everything.

So when a person takes a step of obedience and thinks, “I am paying back to God what he has given to me,” they’re making a profound mistake. They’re not paying anything back if they’re living the way they should. They are depending on new grace to take that step, and therefore they go deeper in debt.

That is why I sometimes call gratitude-based obedience “the debtor’s ethic.” You shouldn’t think of obedience as a mortgage payment, trying to pay God back month by month until you get the debt paid off. Rather, we should think that obedience is going deeper in debt to God every moment, because it takes more grace to be obedient this afternoon than I had yesterday.

So I get more and more from God. I go deeper and deeper into debt, and that’s the best and happiest way to live.

We will never get out of debt to grace. And so the thought of gratitude ethic as a kind of payback ethic is devastating to increasing the glory of God’s grace in our lives. We go deeper into debt in grace, not pay it off.

“May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” (Colossians 1:11-12)

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