Another excerpt of our new Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) book, this one comes from the “Fruits of Grace” section at the end of the book, our attempt to draw out some of the practical implications of the Gospel (without turning the message into a “means” to improvement/happiness/etc). The initial illustration comes from John Z’s Grace in Addiction, which adapts it from a talk by Rod Rosenbladt.

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Imagine you fall off the side of an ocean liner and, not knowing how to swim, begin to drown. Someone on the deck spots you, flailing in the water and throws you a life preserver. It lands directly in front of you and, just before losing consciousness, you grab hold for dear life. They pull you up onto the deck, and you cough the water out of your lungs. People gather around, rejoicing that you are safe and waiting expectantly while you regain your senses. After you finally catch your breath, you open your mouth and say: “Did you see the way I grabbed onto that life preserver?! How tightly I held on to it?! Did you notice the definition in my biceps and the dexterity of my wrists? I was all over that thing!”

Needless to say, it would be a bewildering and borderline insane response. To draw attention to the way you cooperated with the rescue effort denigrates the whole point of what happened, which is that you were saved. A much more likely chain of events is that you would immediately seek out the person who threw the life preserver, and you would thank them. Not just superficially, either. You would embrace them, ask them their name, invite them to dinner, maybe give them your cabin!

Gratitude is a natural response to salvation. It does not require coercion or encouragement; to the extent that the individual understands what has happened, gratitude will flow organically and abundantly from their heart. The precise form it takes will be different every time, but such is the nature of fruit.

737e0d7368a6585bb3916a65ffa7cb4bIn fact, what’s interesting about gratitude is its immunity to exertion. For example, we all remember our parents telling us when we were young to say thank you to our grandparents or teachers or friends. We may have said the words, but good manners were seldom, if ever, able to produce the feeling of gratitude itself. The same applies to preachers who instruct their congregations to give thanks (and in such-and-such a fashion). If the feeling isn’t there, no amount of pleading will engender it. It will likely backfire (Rm 5:20).

Gratitude also happens to be the closest approximation, emotionally, of happiness. In 2011, The New York Times reported that feelings of gratitude have “been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners.” The fruit bears fruit of its own, it would appear. No wonder the Times calls Thanksgiving “the most psychologically correct holiday.”

The Protestant Reformers, it turns out, beat the social scientists to the punch by nearly five hundred years when they underlined the importance of Law-Gospel preaching. Martin Luther himself saw the pulpit as the platform from which people hear, week after week, about the goodness of God’s grace in light of human failure and sin. In other words, church is the place where we get in touch with divine generosity, and therefore gratitude, on a weekly basis. Where the resentments and entitlements that build up throughout the week are squashed under the weight of the Law, and hope and faith are born afresh (and unbidden) as we unwrap the Gift anew. Which is not only what God wants for us, but also the best thing for us. Teaching, encouragement, guidance, wisdom, challenge (gulp!)—as important as those things may be, they are no match for gratitude when it comes to reviving the spirits and inspiring works of love. Thank God for that.

Grab your copy of L&G today!