Piper on Gratitude as a Motivation for Obedience

Much is being made of the motivation for sanctification.  The way some people talk, you would think that gratitude was the only motivation for progress in sanctification. Thus, to talk about Christian duty or Christian ability is deemed “burdensome.” I have written elsewhere on some problems with this paradigm and received some negative feedback. One of the criticism that I received insinuated that my thoughts were radically divergent from Reformed thinking. My first thought was to reference the numerous quotes from Calvin in my post. However, I quickly remembered that many of the “resurgent” Calvinist (Re-Calvinist? I should start a conference with that title) have not bothered to read much of Calvin. So, for the benefit of my Re-Calvinists brothers (and that is what we are), let me quote from the ultimate Re-Calvinst authority, John Piper. Here is what he says:

Have you ever tried to find a Biblical text where gratitude or thankfulness is the explicit motive for obedience to God? Stories like the sinful woman (in Luke 7:36-50) and the unforgiving servant (in Matt. 18:23-35) come to mind, but neither speaks explicitly of gratitude as a motive.

Why is this explicit motive for obedience–which in contemporary Christianity is probably the most commonly used motive for obedience to God–(almost?) totally lacking in the Bible? Could it be that a gratitude ethic so easily slips over into a debtor’s ethic that God chose to protect His people form this deadly motivation by not including gratitude as an explicit motive for obedience?

Instead He lures us into obedience with irresistibly desirable promises of enablement (Jer 31:22; Ezek 36:27; Matt 19:26; Rom 6:14; 1 Cor 1:8-9; Gal 5:22; Phil 2:13; 4:13; 1 these 3:12; Heb 13:21) and divine reward (Luke 9:24; 10:28; 12:33; 16:9, 25; 10:35-36; Heb 11:24-26; 12:2; 13:5-6).

God takes pains to motivate us by reminding us that He is now and always will be working for those who follow Him in the obedience of faith. He never stops and waits for us to work for Him “out of gratitude.” He guards us from the mindset of a debtor by reminding us that all our Christian labor for Him is a gift from Him (Rom 11:35-36, 15:18) and therefore cannot be conceived as payment of a debt. In fact the astonishing thing is that every good deed we do in dependence on Him to “pay Him back” does just the opposite; it puts us ever deeper in debt to His grace.  “I labored eve more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor 15:10 NASB). Let us teach people that is exactly where God wants us to be through all eternity, going ever deeper in debt to grace.

Should we stop preaching gratitude as a motivation? I leave that for you to answer. But if we go on urging people to obey “out of gratitude,” we should at least show them the lurking dangers, and describe how gratitude can motivate obedience without succumbing to a debtor’s mentality.  (Brothers, We are Not Professionals, 34-35, bold emphasis added)

Let me make 4 observations:

1. I think that Piper is overstating his case on gratitude as a motivator for obedience. Gratitude is a legitimate motivator.

2. I agree when Piper says that ability & reward are legitimate motivations in the Christian life.  Paul consistently provides the indicative before the imperatives not only to show us that it was done for us, but also to show us that it was done in us and we now have the ability to obey.

3. Piper’s warning should be at least considered by those promoting the so-called “free grace” paradigm of sanctification. If you are not careful, the very thing that you are guarding against now (i.e. the motivation of paying God back) may be the very place people go with your paradigm.

4. See, I’m not a legalizing neo-nomian… unless, of course, that’s what you consider Piper to be.