A Thankful Heart (Ephesians 1-3)
We sometimes don’t really appreciate our blessings until they are taken from us, if even for a moment. It takes bad health to make us appreciate good health. You get the air knocked out of you and you suddenly realize how precious oxygen is. You might complain about your job until you lose it.
It works the other way as well. When our curses are removed, we sometimes fail to remember just how bad they were when they plagued us, and therefore forget how great the blessing our deliverance is. The Israelites were not long in their exodus from Egypt when they began to pine for their slavery again. They remembered the leaks and the cucumbers but forgot the humiliation, the servitude, the pain, and the disgrace. They were not thankful for the blessing because they forgot the curse.
We all suffer from the same malady. Because of this, we are constantly in danger of failing to recognize the incredible blessings we enjoy from our salvation in Christ. The best thing about our salvation is the very thing that makes thanksgiving for it so easily forgotten. The great thing about salvation in Christ is that it can never be taken from us. We “stand” in grace; we don’t move in and out of it (Rom. 5:2). “For I am persuaded,” said the apostle, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). A grace which we could lose would not be very good. But because the people of God cannot lose their salvation, they are in constant danger of failing to appreciate the never-dying wonder of their deliverance and to forget the pit from which we were delivered.
And yet thanksgiving is necessary, from a spiritual perspective. For one thing, it’s a matter of obedience. The apostle Paul wrote, “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thess. 5:18). In chapter 5 of Ephesians, Paul will say that giving thanks is an expression of being filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:20).
God does not just command thanksgiving because we owe it to him. We do, of course. But more than that, he does so because at the bottom of mankind’s rebellion against God is a heart that is void of thanksgiving: “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1:21). A thankless heart is one step removed from idolatry. Those who are not thankful to God for who he is and what he has done for them will give the allegiance of their hearts to someone or something else.
It is also easier to become bitter against God when we lack thankful hearts. If our hearts are not full of gratitude to God for all that he has done for us, we will easily fall to disappointment and disillusionment when things don’t go our way. This is exactly what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness. Despite their miraculous deliverance and God’s continued provision for them, these things faded into the background of their minds and the problems with which they were faced became paramount. They failed to trust in God and turned to idols. At the bottom of their problem was the absence of a thankful heart: “they soon forgot his works” (Ps. 106:13, 21; 78:7, 11).
To become idolaters is to sabotage our true and ultimate happiness. This is what ancient Israel did when they abandoned the true God for false idols: “Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which doth not profit. Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye very desolate, saith the LORD. For my people have committed to evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:11-13). And this is what we do when we abandon God for the false idols of materialism, prosperity, sex, and fame. They promise us happiness, but they will eventually leave us empty, cold, and dead. Ultimately, idols are helpless: “They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: they have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: they have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them” (Ps. 115;5-8).
The battle for a thankful heart is therefore a battle against idolatry. And it is therefore also a battle for our spiritual well-being and our true joy. The Biblical command to be thankful is not a call to nostalgia. Nor is it an attempt to create in your heart the warm fuzzies. It is essential for the survival of your soul.
So, this morning I want to give you ammunition in this critical battle against ingratitude. And the way I want to do this is to review with you the spiritual blessings that the apostle has chronicled for us in the first three chapters of the epistle to the Ephesians. These blessings are described for us as “spiritual blessings” (1:3); that is, blessings which come to us through none other than the Holy Spirit in his ministry to us as he imparts to us the riches of Christ. They are called “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:8) since the blessings we receive through Christ are infinitely valuable. And they demonstrate “the manifold wisdom of God” in the salvation of his people (3:10). What are these blessings?
Before I proceed I want to remind you that these blessings are “in Christ” (1:3). Not everyone is in Christ. We are all “in Adam.” We share Adam and Eve’s fallenness. We are broken, selfish, godless sinners and rebels who are worthy of the judgment of God. Look around you. The world in which we live is man’s world. It is our world. It is the world man has created. All the injustice and hate and war and moral confusion that makes our world so ugly and depressing and dark is mankind’s signature upon human history. Sin is not a harmless or inconsequential pleasure. It is not just a “failing.” Its consequences are all around us, and it is sickening. And what we need to understand is that the darkness that is all around us is also within all of us. All of us. None are exempt. “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). Therefore, none of us deserve even the least blessing from God. When we ask why do bad things happen to good people, we forget that there aren’t any good people: “There is none good but one, that is, God” (Mk. 10:18). The only really perfect man who ever walked this earth was crucified 2000 years ago. We cannot expect a single blessing from God if we are expecting him to bless us because of who we are or what we have done. We can only expect to be blessed by God if he chooses to do so out of grace. But God is not only gracious; he is also holy. And the only way God can be both gracious and holy is if our sin is punished in Christ. All the blessings of salvation come through Christ, and through Christ alone. We receive them through faith in Christ, by looking away from ourselves and resting completely upon the sufficiency and merit of the Lord Jesus Christ. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
If you are in Christ, if you belong to him by faith, if you enjoy saving union with the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice on your behalf, then the blessings which the apostle records for us in Ephesians belong to you. And you should not only own them, you should reflect upon them until you feel your heart filling with thanksgiving to God. What are some of the things Paul calls to our attention?
First of all, he reminds us that in Christ we have been made accepted. This is one of the things that every human being craves. So many people go through the holiday season with deep sadness in their hearts because they feel alienated and alone. We all want to belong somewhere. We want to have relationships where we are not judged; where we are accepted. Paul reminds us that the believer has acceptance on a level that no earthly family or club or team can give. For the believer has first of all been accepted by God himself. He or she has been chosen by God (1:4) and predestined for adoption into the very family of God (1:5). God the Father has not just grudgingly accepted you. We all know what it is like to be included because people feel they have to include us in their group, even though they don’t want to. It is not a very enjoyable association. Instead, God has taken the initiative before you were born and chosen you to salvation. He chose you in love, and it is in this sense that “he that made us accepted in the beloved” (1:6). We need to remember that God’s choice of us is entirely of grace. It preceded our choice of him not only in time but also in terms of cause and effect. We chose him because he first chose us. His acceptance of us is therefore not dependent upon the vacillations of our souls but entirely upon the unchangeable love of God for his people. We ought to marvel at and be thankful for the goodness of God in whom we find perfect acceptance!
Not only this, but God has put his children in a family. He has created the church, where believers of every stamp can find acceptance. He has not only reconciled men and women to himself, he is also reconciling men and women to each other in the church. This is Paul’s point in 2:11-22. We love each other here because we all share in God’s love for us in Christ. God has created an institution in which we can grow spiritually and be encouraged and held accountable. The devil tries to mimic the church. But the church is the only place in which you can truly grow spiritually. And God your Father provided it for you, for your joy and blessing and good.
Second, the apostle reminds us that in Christ we have the forgiveness of all our sins: “in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (1:7). No one can completely escape the reality of guilt. We all have to deal with it. And there are basically two ways to deal with guilt. One way is to ignore it, harden your heart, and sear your conscience. Unfortunately, this is the advice that many mental health professionals give to people dealing with genuine guilt (though I am not denying that there is such a thing as a false sense of guilt). Guilt is not a bad thing, when it is the response of our soul to sin in our hearts and lives. It is a warning that something is wrong and needs to be dealt with. Ignoring that is like covering up cancer with a Band-Aid. You can bury it for a while, but it will eventually rise up against you in the day of judgment.
The other way is to acknowledge your sin and to try to make things right. However, we cannot make things right if we only try to work on the horizontal level. The most important dimension to sin is the vertical. We have sinned against God. And there is no way we can adequately right our wrongs against God. This is of course because since God is infinitely exalted above us, our sin is infinitely heinous and therefore deserving of infinite punishment. We have spent what we cannot pay back. We can never purge our sins. We are enslaved to the just claims of God’s judgment.
This is why the gospel is really good news. We should shed our blood from now until eternity and never pay the debt we owe to God. But the God-man, Jesus Christ, has come and shed his blood for us. In him we are delivered from our liability to God’s holy wrath against sin. Our mites can never pay the debt we owe. But in Christ, the riches of God’s grace came and paid the debt for us. There is truly no greater blessing than this. Everything else is in comparison but shadows and smoke. If we can claim this reality, then it does not matter what else happens to us, does it? For if your sin is paid for, if your debt is paid, then God is for us. And if God is for you, who can be against you?
Third, Paul reminds us that in Christ we have been given hope (1:8-14, 18). A lot of people have no idea what their place is in this world. Or they just have no hope at all. They believe that when they die, that is that. And so there is no future for them beyond the grave. The apostle’s description of those who are outside of Christ is that they have “no hope, and [are] without God in the world” (2:11). But in Christ we have been enlightened as to our future with him. We are told that in the fulness of times God will unite all things in Christ. He will take the discordant elements of the universe and finally bring harmony to our broken world. And will have a part in this, because he has given us an inheritance in the age to come. We know that our hope is sure because the one in whom we hope is the one “who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (1:11, ESV). Thus, we who “hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory” (1:12, ESV).
I cannot imagine what it would be like to live without hope. I don’t think you can live without hope. So it’s not like only Christians have hope. The difference is that the hope of the Christian is rock-solid and eternally meaningful. We have a hope that is like “an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil” (Heb. 6:19). Thank God for this hope. It is the light that shines upon our path, the lightness in our steps, the kindling for joy in the heart.
God your Father desires that you have this hope. It is for this reason that he has sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts as “the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory” (1:14). The word from without and the Spirit from within testify to us of the hope that we have in Christ.
Fourth, the apostle reminds us that in Christ we have been raised from a death in sins (2:1-10). If you are tempted to wonder why God is not doing something in your life, why he isn’t fixing a problem that you have, and if you are tempted to wonder if God is even interested in your life at all, remember this. There was a time when you were dead in trespasses and in sins. You were spiritually in no better shape than a corpse is physically. You were dead to the things of God. You were separated from the life of God. You were going your own way, away from God and away from eternal life. You loved the things you should have hated. You despised the things you should have loved. You were enslaved to the world, to the flesh, and to the devil. There is no reason why you should ever have considered the state of your soul and turned in faith to Christ. Why then, did you?
The answer is that God invaded your life. God came to the grave which was your heart and spoke life into it. He took away your blindness to the beauty and sufficiency of Christ. He took away your hardness of heart. He did it. You did not raise yourself from your death in sin. “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together in Christ (by grace ye are saved)” (2:4-5). You did not make yourself into what you are. No, you are God’s workmanship (2:10). Don’t forget God’s goodness to you in giving you the new birth and bringing you to faith and repentance. Thank him for the life that you have in Christ.
Fifth, Paul reminds us that in Christ we have been given the gospel of God through the apostles and prophets (3:3-11). It has come to us “by revelation.” God has “revealed [it] unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (5). The fact of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is a remarkable testimony to the goodness of God towards his people. The Bible is our burning bush. In it we hear the words of God. There is no learning more precious than this. You may go to hell with a head full of knowledge about math and physics and literature and history and languages. But you cannot go to heaven without the knowledge of the God of heaven, and you cannot know God apart from his word.
And to have the Bible in our own language is another remarkable blessing. We should never forget that men and women have given their lives for this privilege. More than that, we have amazing access to this word. Most of us have multiple copies of the Bible in our homes. And if someone does not have a copy, they can easily get one.
These are some of the blessings which the apostle invites us to remember. God – Father, Son, and Spirit – has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places. He has blessed us with blessings that are infinitely superior to any merely earthly gift. And not only that, but he is infinitely generous with his gifts. Over and over again the apostle speaks of God’s riches. “The riches of his grace” (1:7); “the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (1:18); “God, who is rich in mercy” (2:4); “the riches of his grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (2:7); “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:8); “the riches of his glory” (3:16). No believer is a beggar in Christ. God has lavished his gifts upon us with unbounded kindness.
Our earthly fortunes may wax and wane. Our riches may come and go. Our health will eventually give way. But there is no time in the believer’s life when any one of these spiritual blessings are not true. The one who is in Christ is always accepted and loved, and forgiven. We always have a reason to hope. The life that God has given to us can never be taken away. The word of God is always true and reliable. And so we, of all people, have a reason to be thankful. Remember God’s goodness toward you and do not forget. And let our thankfulness be appropriate to the blessings we have received.