The Theology of Thanksgiving

Rich Gregory | November 20, 2018

This week, tens of millions of Americans will engage in holiday festivities around a national day of Thanksgiving.  As with many holidays, November 22 is deeply rooted in Christian theology and practice.  In the centuries since its inaugural celebration, the meaning of the holiday—and the heart of perpetual praise that it was originally meant to symbolize—has largely faded from public view in favor of football, fellowship, and food.  While these are fun trappings that traditionally go with this day of rest, they are not the heart that drives it.

In the hearts and homes of the redeemed, the focus of Thanksgiving must not be on traditions or limited to a single day in late November.  For us, Thanksgiving is to be a deeply spiritual exercise and is always ongoing.  It is to be an ever-present reality that naturally flows from a transformed heart.  In I Thessalonians 5:18, believers are commanded to give thanks.  The command in that verse is accompanied by the explanation that we are to engage in this activity because “this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”  If it is God’s will for us to be people who give thanks, then it becomes necessary for us to understand precisely how to do it correctly.  Psalm 100 provides the pathway by which we can be people with thankful hearts. The psalmist’s instruction is that we must give thanks for what God has done and for who God is.

Biblical historians believe that Psalm 100 was most likely composed by David, though the psalm itself doesn’t specify an author. It was written to be used in a processional march when the Israelites went to the temple to worship and make their thanksgiving offering as prescribed in Leviticus 7. It’s the only psalm in the Psalter with a title about thanksgiving attributed to it.

Here are the words the ancient Israelites proclaimed:

Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.
Serve the Lord with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful singing.
Know that the Lord Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.

Enter His gates with thanksgiving
And His courts with praise.
Give thanks to Him, bless His name.
For the Lord is good;
His lovingkindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations.
-Psalm 100

Give Thanks for What God Has Done

David gives us some very active and intense commands on how to give thanks in verses 1-3. But why should we do those things? As we break down this psalm, we are going to skip ahead a few lines because it’s important to understand the motivation behind these commands. He explains the motive, “It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” Simply put, He is the creator of all new life.

He has Redeemed us

God has redeemed us and created new life within us. The emphasis here in verse 3 isn’t so much on our creation out of dust or from nothingness, but rather upon our recreation. It’s a completely different kind of word. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” We give thanks because of the new life he has given us in Him. A life we can’t claim any level of credit for. Thanksgiving fundamentally, foundationally is theological in nature because it starts when you understand what God has accomplished in you.

He Sustains us

We are His people and the sheep of His pasture. We belong to Him in His home. It’s very personal. Furthermore, 1 Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession…” This verse shows the intensity with which He tightly holds us. He sustains us in every way. That is His work on our behalf.

He Cares for Us

We have been redeemed and sustained by a God who deeply cares for us. Peter goes on in verses 9-10, “…so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” The result of being part of that people for God’s own possession is that you proclaim His excellencies. I ask you, is your thanksgiving motivated by the glorious reality that you have been made and kept as one of God’s beloved children?

How to Give Thanks in Light of What God Has Done

My Mom always worked for days prior to Thanksgiving to prepare a true feast for our family. When Thanksgiving Day finally came there was food in the oven, filling the refrigerator, and dishes covering the counters. I remember as a young child, sitting at the table tormented by the spread laid out before me, yet unable to serve up a full plate. The reason for the delay was our family’s tradition that prior to the Thanksgiving meal, we would go around the table and give reasons why we were thankful. The problem with the tradition was that as our family grew, so did the time necessary to hear from each family member. I remember thinking, “Does anyone around this table think cold stuffing tastes good? Let’s get this done and get to the good part.”

In my youthful exuberance to fill my plate, I failed to realize the necessary importance of expressing the fullness of my heart.  You see, for the believer who has been redeemed from a life of destruction and transferred to the kingdom of Christ, giving thanks actually is the good part. In our haste “to get to the good part,” so often our thanksgiving tends to mindlessly toss out prosaic statements of gratitude such as, “I’m thankful for my house, I’m thankful for my job, I’m thankful for my family.”  While these are surely good things for which we can be thankful, they are meaningless if we fail to acknowledge the greater realities of what God has done for us.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be thankful for God’s good gifts. But are they the foundation for why we give thanks? A true sacrifice of thanksgiving goes far beyond that. The psalmist is trying to communicate that thanksgiving is not just mental assent. It’s not just assessment of where God has you right now. True thanksgiving is a fully orbed active worship. You can give thanks whether you are homeless and unemployed or living in a mansion in Bel-Air. The foundation of your thanks is based upon the theological realities of what Christ has done in you, in recreating, sustaining and caring for you.

Now that we’ve seen what God has done for us, we know why David gives the active commands in verses 1-3. We are to “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness; Come before Him with joyful singing. Know that the Lord Himself is God.” These are the practical responses of our hearts to the theological reality of what God has done for us. This is what it looks like to give thanks.

Give Thanks for Who God is

Psalm 100:5 teaches us to give thanks to the Lord because He is good. “For the Lord is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting and His faithfulness to all generations.” We are to give thanks not just for what God has done, but because of who He fundamentally is. God is good. That’s how you can basically sum up His character.

His lovingkindness is everlasting. This doesn’t just mean that He is kind or that He loves. It means He is faithfully loving over time. He is loyal to those whom He loves. These are words that remind us of His covenants both with His people Israel and with us as well. He has sworn by Himself, by His own good character. God, who cannot lie, has promised to bring us salvation. That’s the definition of His lovingkindness. It’s deep loyalty and mercy towards those who are undeserving.

The psalmist goes on to say that His faithfulness was to all generations. Because of who He is, there is no way that he would ever allow His love or His faithfulness or His redemption or His sustaining power to default towards those who are His own. Out of the fountain of His own goodness flows the life-giving river of His mercy into the vast unending ocean of His faithfulness. This is the truth for life that empowers your ability to offer Thanksgiving.

How to Give Thanks in Light of Who God is

We’ve already seen what to do in light of what He’s done for us, but here’s what we’re to do in light of who He is. Verse 4 says, “Enter His gates with Thanksgiving and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him, and bless His name.” There should be amazement at the impossibility of the command that we’re being given here.  Just think about this imagery for just a minute.

The temple wasn’t like a church where you can just go wherever you want whenever you want. There were very specific restrictions. There were gates and walled courts that were meant to keep people out who were not purified. This psalm isn’t addressed to the High Priest who was able to enter the holy of holies. It’s addressed to all the earth. All the earth is allowed through these gates and into these courts because of God’s mercy, kindness, and goodness—because of who He is.

In 2 Samuel 7:18, David the king, the highest man in the land, comes in and sits before the Lord, and he says, “Who am I, oh, Lord God, and what is my house that you have brought me in this far?” This should be our response to the invitation we’re given here. Who am I to enter His gates? Who am I to enter His courts? Who am I, unworthy to give Him thanks and bless His name? I’m one who’s been redeemed because of who He is, and therefore, I’m told I can come in. The gates have been thrown wide open. These courts are now available for me who has been sanctified with a desire to worship and give thanks. Why? Because the character of my God made this possible. Ultimately, it’s in Christ that the greatest expression of God’s character, this openness, was actually and finally completed.

So, let us give thanks, thanks both for what He has done and for who He is. Because that is what true thanksgiving looks like.


Rich Gregory avatar
Rich Gregory is the Senior Vice President for Administration at The Master's Seminary. He also serves as an associate pastor at Grace Community Church.

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