The Gospel for Christians

Romans 1:18-25 Why is thanklessness a sin?

This post is based on a SERMON that is available by clicking here.

In the first chapter of Romans, Paul mentions a huge sinful failure that we too often overlook:  the failure to give thanks to God.  Romans 1:21

For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him…  

Why is the failure to give thanks a sin?  OK, we might accept it as a rather menial sin of omission, but in the context of Romans 1, Paul mentions this as part of his explanation for the wrath of God that is being revealed against all the godlessness and unrighteousness of men.  So what is the big deal about failing to give thanks?

First some background… In Romans 1 Paul talks about the sin of the gentiles and how their unrighteousness deserves God’s wrath.  In chapter 2, he moves on to the religious Jews, and shows how they too are under God’s wrath.  In chapter 3, he pulls it all together and in one tremendous passage concludes that there is no one righteous, not even one.  We are all deserving of God’s wrath–his righteous judgement of sin.

That is the overarching teaching of Romans 1-3.  We deserve the wrath of God because of our sin.  But as we look more closely at the individual facets of Paul’s argument for the justness of God’s wrath upon the human race, there is much we can learn about the different ways our sinful condition manifests itself in our lives.

And as I have meditated on Romans 1:21, I have asked myself this question:

Why does the failure to give thanks bring God’s wrath upon the gentiles? 

It really is amazing, that of all the sins that Paul could have mentioned here as being foundational to the condemnation of the pagan gentiles, he mentions the failure to give thanks. Why is this?  And what can I learn from this to apply to my own sinful, unthankful heart?

I think a good place to start in our understanding of this verse is to try to understand better what “giving thanks” is.  I read through the different places that this verb is used in the New Testament and came up with this definition:

We give thanks when we acknowledge the goodness of another

as it is expressed to us in real benefits.

When I first began to work on this definition, I used the term “tangible benefits”, but I soon changed that because “tangible” means that we can touch them.  But what I am trying to communicate through the term “real benefits” is that thankfulness is not just a vague, general sort of thing, but is always related to some specific benefit or blessing that is very real and concrete.  Forgiveness is not “tangible” but it is a very “real benefit.”  Food to eat is tangible, and is also a very real benefit.  Both are things for which we should be thankful.

Let me just quickly show you some of the occurrences in the New Testament that led me to this definition:

  • Jesus gave thanks to the Father for the bread and fish before serving the multitudes.
  • He gave thanks to the Father before giving the bread and wine to his disciples at the Last Supper.
  • In Luke 17, the one leper of the ten who were healed fell on his face and gave thanks to Jesus for his healing.
  • Paul often began his letters giving thanks to God for the church to whom he was writing.
  • In Rev. 11, the 24 elders fall on their faces and give thanks to the Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign!

Do you see the pattern?  Thankfulness is always expressed FOR something.  For food, or for healing, or for other Christians, or even for Jesus himself and for the exercise of his reign.

But it is also an important part of the definition that thankfulness is always TO someone.  This is fairly obvious, but for thanksgiving to occur, there must be something that one is thankful for, and there must also be someone that one is thankful to.

If a child gets a gift on his birthday, it is possible for him to be enamored with that gift and enjoying that gift and really happy that he has that gift….there is something that he is glad FOR… but if that gladness and joy is not expressed TO someone, then we reprimand that child for being thankless.

On the other hand, imagine that I am watching a documentary on TV about a wealthy man who has millions and has done all kinds of amazing things with his money.  I may be able to admire that man as someone fabulously wealthy, but it is meaningless to say that I am thankful toward him until he pays my mortgage!  If there have been no real, tangible benefits that have come my way from him, I can’t be thankful to him.  So, here’s the definition again…

We give thanks when we acknowledge the goodness of another

as it is expressed to us in real benefits.

When Paul condemns the pagan gentiles for their failure to “give thanks” to God, he is saying first of all that there has been some very real benefit that has come to them.

Often when we study this passage, we look at what it says about God being revealed in the creation and say that the gentiles should have seen in the stars and the sun and the earth around them that there IS a Creator God.  They should have recognized Jehovah as God.  And that is certainly true, but Paul adds that not only should they have honored God as God, they should have given thanks to Him.

Thankfulness has an added dimension that praise and giving honor don’t.  That added dimension is the benefit received.  Not only is God, God, but he blesses mankind tremendously.  The fact that Paul impunes them for their lack of thanks, implies that there were benefits that came to them.

So what benefits came to the gentiles?  Turn to Acts 17.  Here Paul is also speaking to pagan gentiles and there are lots of parallels between what he says in Rom. 1 about gentiles, and what he says in Acts 17:24-25 to them

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything…

That pretty much sums up the very real benefit that the gentiles had received from God:  their very existence!  their life, their breath… indeed everything that they have and enjoy and experience comes from him.  

So Paul is saying far more here than simply that the gentiles should have recognized the existence of God through the creation.  He is saying, “you gentiles owe EVERYTHING to God, and you have not thanked him for giving you everything pertaining to your existence.”

But that still doesn’t seem to me to answer why their failure to give thanks resulted in God’s wrath.  And that’s why we have to continue our analysis in light of the first part of the definition of “giving thanks”.  Thankfulness is always expressed FOR something, but also TO someone.  Appreciating blessings and benefits is meaningless if it isn’t directed to someone.  As the definition says:  We give thanks when we acknowledge the goodness of another as it is expressed to us in real benefits.

If the Gentiles had only failed to recognize the REAL BENEFITS, that would have been bad enough, but not only did they do that, they ENJOYED those benefits while denying the goodness of the one who GAVE the benefits.

Remember what the Israelites did when they were in the desert on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land.  It was bad enough when they complained against God because there was no food, but it was even worse when they complained against God after he had given them manna from heaven!  They were enjoying his blessing, but denying his goodness.  

A thankful person isn’t just someone who is glad he has a benefit or a blessing to enjoy, rather he is one who ACKNOWLEDGES the goodness of the ONE who does the blessing.

Did you ever stop to think that it is impossible to be thankful to something inanimate.  You can’t be thankful to your house for keeping you warm in the winter.  You can be thankful to God for giving you the house, but you can’t be thankful to the house.  The house isn’t keeping you warm because of its kind and benevolent character!

God showed himself in the creation to the Gentiles, and gave them the blessings and benefits of their existence, NOT just so that they could receive the benefits as an end in themselves, but so that they would see his goodness and his glory.   

When the pagan gentiles failed to honor God as God and failed to see that he had blessed them, they were denying the goodness of God!  Everything around us in the creation proclaims the infinite goodness of God!  To reject that and to scorn the Giver of life and existence is to scorn his infinite goodness.  Scorning an infinite God is an infinite sin, and one that is worthy of infinite condemnation!

The later post, The Blessing of Giving Thanks, continues with more thoughts from Romans 1:18-25

This post is based on a SERMON that is available by clicking here.

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