The Colossian believers were filled to overflowing with thanksgiving and joy when they understood God’s forgiveness and began to live in His grace. Alistair Begg describes how natural gratitude is concerned with the tangible things in life, but gracious gratitude starts with God Himself. The life of the Christian believer should be characterized by gratitude that does not depend on circumstance, recognizing that God rules and reigns over all things and has made His children the objects of His fatherly care.
We’re going to read from the Bible in the New Testament in Colossians and in chapter 1 and beginning at verse 3. It’s page 833 in the church Bibles, which you’ll find around you, and if you would like to use one, then I commend that to you. I always like to open my Bible and look at it because if the fellow goes south, then at least you have the benefit of having the Bible to read, and ’cause you’re pretty well trapped. It’s possible to get out, but it is difficult. And so I commend you to the Bible.
Colossians 1:3” “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because [we’ve] heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love you have for all the saints—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that [you’ve] already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.
“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
And then just verses 6 and 7 of chapter 2: “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” Amen.
Let’s pray together:
God, with our Bibles open before us, we come humbly to you, asking that the Holy Spirit will so enable our minds, quicken our understanding, constrain our very being that we may turn to you in childlike trust and in believing faith. Help us to this end we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, I have just one phrase that I want us to take away with us this morning and that is the final phrase of Colossians 2:7: “overflowing with thankfulness”—overflowing with thankfulness. I think you would agree that it is in this particular week a matter of some import that we would pay attention to what the Bible has to say as it relates to the Christian believer and the matter of gratitude and a thankful heart.
Paul is writing to these Colossian believers who have come to faith in Christ, he tells us, as a result of the ministry of Epaphras, whom he mentions there in verse 7 of chapter 1. This dear fellow servant, this faithful minister of Jesus, has been the one who has established the church there apparently in Colossae. And now as Paul writes to them, he recognizes that because of all that Jesus has become to them, of all the things that should mark them, one of the key characteristics of the Christian is to be a grateful heart; and so he anticipates here in verse 7 of chapter 2, that when people, if you like, bump into the Colossian Christians, what will spill out of them is, in part at least, thankfulness. In the same way that if I go walking around with this glass of water, you bump into me unexpectedly and it spills, what is in, will come out.
And the picture is clear concerning our character. If we are filled with bitterness, if we’re filled with ingratitude, if we’re filled with envy and with jealousy, then it won’t take much of a bump for what is inside of us to spill out. And so, says Paul, “I want to ensure that you folks are marked by this thankfulness.” He actually mentions it again and again: in verse 12 of chapter 1, “giving thanks to the Father”; here in verse 7 of chapter 2; then in chapter 3 and verse 15, he ends with the phrase, “be thankful”; verse 16, singing “with gratitude in your hearts to God”; verse 17, “giving thanks to God the Father through him”; in chapter 4, verse 2, “devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and [being] thankful.” And in all of this, the overspill of these Colossian Christians is to be marked by this thankful heart. The word that he uses for overflowing is a fairly common word, but Paul uses it not infrequently. It’s a Greek verb that you find, for example, at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, which we studied a few Sunday evenings ago, where he says that he wants them in light of all that Jesus is to them by way of the resurrection to be abounding in the work of the Lord. And the word there translated “abounding” is this same Greek verb, perisseuo. It’s the word that is used here for overflowing. It’s the word that is used in 2 Corinthians 4, where he speaks about the grace of God overflowing in them and through them to the glory of God. And interestingly, it is the word that is used in John 10:10, where Jesus says, I have come that you “might have life and that you might have it more abundantly.” And the word there for “abundantly” or “more abundantly” is the same root as is used here.
So, let us be clear. The Christians in Colossae, as a result of their union with Christ, are to be overflowing with thankfulness. And so let us consider first of all the foundation, and then an important distinction, and then thirdly and finally, the expression of this thankfulness.
Well, he says, “just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord”—that’s verse 6 of chapter 2— that takes us back to chapter 1 and to what we read. We’re not going to expound it, but I want you notice it there, that in verse 6 of chapter 1, he says this gospel “has come to you,” and as a result of it coming to them, it has bore fruit within them, and this is ever since they heard it (we’re still in verse 6 of chapter 1) and they understood God’s grace in all its truth.
In other words, he is describing there the conversion of the believers in Colossae. He’s not describing a shift from irreligious to religious, but a far more fundamental change than that. Here were these individuals whose lives were going in a certain direction. Epaphras had come into town and had begun to tell them about Jesus of Nazareth: that he was the one who fulfilled all of the prophecies of the Old Testament; that he was despised and rejected by people and he hung upon a cross, and there on that cross, he was bearing the sacrifice of sin; and if men and women would turn to him in repentance and in faith, then they would know peace with God and the reality of God’s power at work in their lives. And numbers of people in the Colossian valley turned in faith to Jesus, and having understood this story, they went on to live in light of it.
I wonder this morning, have you understood this story? Do you realize that the good news of the gospel is the news of the fact that Jesus of Nazareth has come on our behalf, that he has lived the kind of life that we should live, but can’t, and that he has paid fully the penalty that we deserve for the life we do live, but shouldn’t, so that all of our confidence in the face of life and all of its vicissitudes, in the prospect of death and all of its solemnity is to be found in the Lord Jesus Christ?
Prior to this experience, prior to this encounter, these individuals, verse 21, were “alienated from God,” and they were “enemies in [their] minds because of [their] evil behavior.” It’s quite a trilogy that, isn’t it? “Alienated from God,” enemies intellectually, and this on account of “evil behavior.” By and large, the notion that is abroad is that men and women are pretty good on the main. The fact is that the television news and the reports in the paper contradict this consistently. If we’re honest, we know that our own hearts are unruly and out of control and we’re turned in upon ourselves and we prefer ourselves before we prefer others, and so on, if we’re deadly honest. And we sometimes think that if we were a little more educated, we would have fixed it, but we’re fairly bright and we haven’t. We thought that perhaps if socially things were different around us, then that would have taken care of it; but socially things are really not bad even when they are bad, and we’re still a mess.
And every so often, if someone turns us to the Bible, we discover this ugly truth about ourselves, but it is actually in some measure liberating to realize, “Oh, I get it now. The reason that I feel alienated from people around me, the real reason that I feel alienated from myself sometimes when I’m alone, is because the Bible says that I’m alienated from God, that God made me for himself, for a relationship with him. I’m alienated from him. My mind is turned away from him. I don’t think of him. I don’t love him. I don’t look for him. And frankly, my behavior isn’t very good either.” That’s exactly what he says to these people. But he says the good news is that’s what you used to be. You were alienated, but now you’ve been reconciled. Elsewhere, he says, you lived in a dark place, and now you’ve been brought into the light. Elsewhere, he says, you were trapped, and now you’ve been set free. Elsewhere, he says, you were dead and now you’ve been made alive with Christ.
I hope you understand this, because this is clearly not simply the description of those who have decided to revamp their lives. I meet people all the time who are telling me they’re revamping their lives. “Yes, I’m turning over a new leaf. I’m making a change. It’s wonderful. I’m going to be more thankful this year than I was last year.” Good! There’s nothing wrong with that at all. I’m sure your wife is thrilled to hear it for a start, and your children, too. That’s not the description here. The description is not of individuals who decided to revamp their lives, it is a description of those whose lives has been revolutionized by the saving grace of God, that they were once a certain way, and now they’ve been made another way. That’s what it means to be a Christian. That’s what it means to be converted. That’s what it means to know God, à la the Bible.
You see, ingratitude is one of the great marks of the unbeliever. When Paul writes in Romans chapter 1, he says that these people were ungrateful, that although they knew God, they neither gave thanks to him nor glorified him, but they worshipped the creature rather than the creator. By the time Paul writes his final letter to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3 and he says, you’re in for some tough sailing here, Timothy, before things get wrapped up. People will be lovers of the money, they’ll be lovers of themselves, they will be ungrateful, inhospitable, and so on, but ingratitude is in the heart of it. And one of the real indications that a person’s life has been touched and changed by Jesus is that they overflow with thankfulness. They’re just thankful! You see, thankfulness is the song of the Christian. Bitterness, complaining, anger, victimization, these are all part of the non-Christian’s wardrobe. And in Jesus, says Paul to these Colossian Christians, you don’t wear that stuff anymore. When you heard God’s grace in all its truth, when you turned to him in repentance and in faith, he forgave all of your sins and he came to live inside of you. He indwelt you. You are the dwelling place of God. Therefore, it is now incongruous for those of you who have been united with Jesus to go around wearing the clothes from your olden days.
As a small boy, with at least one of my sisters in Scotland, years and years ago, on boring Sunday afternoons when my father used to fall asleep listening to really boring Christian music on these long players—33 1/3, and that you could stack them sometimes six at a time—and we would knew we were in for a dreadful afternoon when he got those things out. The benefit was that it anesthetized him fairly quickly, and he was gone. We had no television, no video games, we’d read most of the books—what can you do? So, myself and my sister, we’d go in our parent’s closet and ferret around and find clothes that we thought looked absolutely ridiculous. And they did! And then we would put them on, and then we would come out and awaken them from their Sunday afternoon slumbers and parade before them dressed in some of their old gear and say, “Did you really wear this stuff?” And then I would always ask, “Is this from the olden days?”
Now what is Paul doing here? He says, “The olden days—if you want to see the olden days, go to chapter 3 and verse 5. Here is the wardrobe from the olden days.” What were the clothes from the olden days? That’s the things that belong to your earthly nature. Like what? “Sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, [greediness], which is idolatry.” It’s not impossible for these Colossian Christians to come out in this gear, it is incongruous for them to come out in this gear. It is not impossible for you, in Christ, to revert to wearing some of this stuff; it is incongruous. And the antidote to doing so is found in your union with Christ. It is because of our union with Jesus that we need not do this, and on account of our union with Jesus, when we do it, we need to drag the ugliness of it back to the place of our Christian conversion, the foot of the cross of Christ and say, “Lord Jesus Christ, this is ridiculous for me to be a bitterly complaining, immoral rascal. After all, you died for me. Forgive me, Lord Jesus. Grant that I might overflow with thankfulness.”
So, I want us to be very, very clear about this: that his call, that is Paul’s call to the believer, is on the basis of their union with Christ—it is on the basis of their union with Christ. If you don’t understand that, then what you will hear me say is something that I’m not saying: “Begg had a sermon on Sunday about how you’re supposed to find some way to overflow with thankfulness. And you’re to stop being ungrateful, and you’re to start being thankful.” I didn’t say that. It’d be silly to say that, because that’s not what Paul says, and I’m trying to say what Paul says. Paul says, “Since you heard God’s grace in all its truth, since you were reconciled to God although previously alienated, since you once lived in darkness and now live in light, since you were once trapped and have now been set free, since you were once dead and you’ve now been made alive, the dynamic for the gratitude that flows from you is the dynamic of the gospel itself.” So that as one of my friends recently wrote, “purposeful, perpetual thanks to God is absolutely central to Christian character.” Purposeful, perpetual thanks to God is absolutely central for Christian character.
Well, if that is the foundation as we discover it here in Colossians, are we then to assume that only the believing Christian is capable of gratitude? Well, that brings us to our second point and to the distinction which is an important distinction. It’s not found solely in Jonathan Edwards, but Edwards helps his readers in his book The Religious Affections to distinguish between what he refers to as “natural gratitude” and “gracious gratitude.” I’m not going to spend long on this, but it’s an important distinction. Natural gratitude is that of which anybody is capable. So, for example, in Peggy Noonan’s piece on Thanksgiving last week—it went under the heading, “Still Here after a Rough Year”—and she went through a whole litany of people and things for which people were thankful. A real estate lawyer in Washington e-mailed to say that “Let’s be thankful that our economy did not fall apart since last Thanksgiving.” And she says she’s very grateful for a lot: “I’m here, I’m drinking coffee, the sun is bright,” and so on. We understand that. That is natural gratitude. Everybody just by virtue of life has an appreciation for good gifts. Something’s gone wrong with you badly—you banged your head really badly or you’re suffering from a condition—when you’re no longer able to recognize that life, family, employment, leisure, freedom, a warm bed, a cold drink, sunshine, and so on, all of these things, make for the potential for a grateful heart. And, by nature, each of us is capable of such expressions of gratitude, not in the truest sense, but at least in some measure.
Edwards said … so there we have that. So just by virtue of existence, such gratitude is possible and observable. It is only by grace that the genuine gratitude expressed here may be discovered, because what Edwards referred to as gracious gratitude starts from a different place. Natural gratitude starts with the stuff, starts with the things that we’re given, starts with the benefits which accrue to us. Gracious gratitude starts with God himself. Gracious gratitude recognizes the character and the goodness and the love and the power and the excellencies of God himself, regardless of any favors or enjoyments. Now do you get that? Gracious gratitude recognizes I have reason to be grateful to God whether it’s a good day, a bad day; whether it’s raining or sunny; whether I’m employed or unemployed; whether I have cancer, or whether I am cancer-free. That is gracious gratitude. And that is one of the distinguishing marks of a believer. Not that the believer is thankful that there were enough turkeys, that Heinen’s hadn’t run out of buns, that whatever it is. That is natural gratitude. We all understand that. No. What is gracious gratitude starts with who God is, and it is one of the real marks of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. So, that not only in the words you say, not only in the deeds expressed, but in the most unconscious way, is Christ expressed.
And thinking along these lines, I went to look just to see whether William Jay in his book which he wrote for fathers in 1820 to help them guide their children and their wives in prayer on a daily basis in the morning and evening, I went to see if William Jay had any prayers for Thanksgiving Day, and he had one for the morning and one for the evening. And I said, “Well, I bet his prayer is going to be an expression of gracious gratitude,” and of course, I wasn’t at all surprised, and here is how his prayer begins. (I won’t give it all to you.) This is a prayer for Thanksgiving. Now just check how long it takes to get to the turkey and Aunt Mabel coming in from Minneapolis and her flight on time, OK? “Oh, God, you are very great.” I’ll change it from “thou” to “you.”
You are clothed with honor and majesty; You cover yourself with light as with a garment; You walk upon the wings of the wind. When we reflect on the glory of your majesty, we’re filled with wonder at the vastness of your condescension. For you condescend even to behold things that are in heaven. What then is man that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man that you visit him!
We rejoice that we are under the governance of a Being, who is not only almighty, but perfectly righteous, and wise, and good; and that all things in our world are appointed and arranged by your paternal agency; that your providence numbers the very hairs of our head, and that a sparrow falleth not to the ground without our heavenly Father.
Hitherto [has] the Lord helped us. We bless you now for personal mercies. If we are called, it is by your word. If we are renewed, it is by your Spirit. If we are justified, it is freely by your grace … It is in you we live and move and have our being. Your goodness has always been near to us …
And on and on and on he goes till finally he says,
[And] we thank thee for relative benefits.
“Relative benefits.” What is this prayer but an expression of gracious gratitude?
And that brings me to my final point, because the final point is well, how is this gratitude expressed—how is it expressed? Well, it’s expressed in all kinds of ways. Somebody just gave me their e-mail address about ten days ago, and the e-mail address is “luckydog at such‑and‑such, such‑and‑such.” And I thought about the person, and I thought about the address, and I said, “You know, I think that is a genuine expression of humility on this person’s part, that they’re saying, you know, ‘I have a tremendous amount to be thankful for.’” The distinction between them and William Jay here is that the individual who sees life as the unfolding of chance—and you may see life that way this morning—the individual who sees life as the unfolding of chance almost inevitably welcomes the events that are enjoyable and favorable and resents those that are unpleasant or objectionable. Makes sense, doesn’t it? “After all, we don’t know where we came from. We don’t know where we’re going. It seems that we’re in a bit of a pickle now, and I resent that. Oh no, it seems that the pickle has gone, and we’re now in a time of peace. Therefore, I’m very happy today.”
You see, that’s one of the distinctions, because a Christian—and this has come out in our singing this morning, it’s come out in our reading of the Psalms, it’s come out in our reading here from Colossians—the Christian recognizes that their life is not at the mercy of some arbitrary and impersonal force, that we’re not bobbing around on the sea of chance, that we’re not held in the grip of some blind deterministic power. But rather, as William Jay has said in his prayer here, all of the things that come our way in our lives are under your paternal guidance. In other words, you are our heavenly Father.
So, that is how thanksgiving or thankfulness overflows. So, when the news is overwhelming, the believer can thank God that God sits enthroned over all the military, political, social, and economic forces of our day. The Christian can face illness, disappointment, bereavement, unemployment, difficulty, sorrow, in the awareness of the fact that the God who has promised to look after the sparrow is profoundly involved in the life and circumstance of those whom he has made the special objects of his love. If that seems a mouthful, just go get a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and turn it up in your room, and allow the truth of Jesus’ words through that song, through that amazing voice, to drive this home. “Why should I feel discouraged?” Well, because of this and this and this and this. “Why should the shadows come? Why should my heart [seem] lonely and long for heav’n and home?” Well, for forty reasons. Ah, but Jesus is my captain, “my constant Friend is He” and “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”
That is the foundation and that is the expression of such gratitude. And this kind of overflowing gratitude will do a number of things. I don’t have time to expound on them, but let me tell you what they are. One, they will turn our gaze to God and away from ourselves and our circumstances—will turn our gaze to God and away from ourselves and our circumstances; and frankly, most of us could do with a solid dose of that to begin with. Secondly, such overflowing gratitude defends against the Devil’s insinuation to despair and to distrust. The Devil comes and says, “The whole thing’s finished.” The Devil comes and says, “You shouldn’t trust that Bible, you shouldn’t trust God, you shouldn’t really pay attention to that stuff at all.” Overflowing gratitude is an antidote for that. Overflowing gratitude thirdly, protects from pride—protects from pride. It will eradicate from our vocabulary this phrase, here it comes: “I deserve more than this.” And it will eradicate from our vocabulary this phrase: “I don’t deserve this.” And fourthly, it will allow us to rest in the realization that God’s loving purpose is being worked out in experiences that are not only pleasant and encouraging, but also in the experiences that are unsettling and painful. [MOU1] Because after all, expressions of gratitude for all that is pleasurable holds no surprise, cuts no ice. It is only by grace that we learn to overflow with thankfulness in all circumstances: in all circumstances. That doesn’t mean an inane grin. That does not mean the denial of that which is painful and difficult, but it’s still overflowing thankfulness.
Jonathan Edwards died as a result of receiving a smallpox vaccination. And when the news reached Sarah, his wife, she wrote to her daughter, “What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud.” First of all, notice the honesty in that. There’s no superficial triumphalism. There’s no, “Oh well, your dad’s gone. Big deal, you know. After all, let’s just sing a few songs and get on with life.” No. “A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud.” In other words, he was not taken out by chance as a result of a smallpox injection. A smallpox vaccination took him out under the overruling providence of God who, looking upon his servant, determined that this would be a fine way to bring him home to his eternal reward; and God always does what is right and never gets his time wrong. He “has covered us with a dark cloud, but he has made me adore his goodness that we had him”—namely your dad, Jonathan, my husband—“for so long.” He didn’t live very long, which is an indication of how thankful she is because he wasn’t around for a very long time. “But my God lives; and he has my heart. [And] Oh what a legacy your father, and my husband, has left to us. We are all given to God: and there I am, and [there I] love to be.” What a letter from your mom on the death of your dad. Where does that come from? Not from natural gratitude. Natural gratitude rails against it. Gracious gratitude says, “I am covered by a dark cloud, but …”
Let’s bow for a moment just in silent prayer. God, our Father, look upon us in your grace we pray. Help us to understand what Jesus has done in dealing with our alienation and our bondage and all of our turned-in-upon-ourself-ness. Unite us to your Son, we pray, so that out of our union with him, we might overflow with thankfulness. And then even when our days are covered with dark clouds, that we may learn to sing your praise. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
 1 Corinthians 15:58 (KJV).
 2 Corinthians 4:15 (paraphrased).
 John 10:10b (KJV).
 Colossians 1:21-22 (paraphrased).
 Romans 1:21, 25 (paraphrased).
 2 Timothy 3:1–5 (paraphrased).
 Ellen Vaughn, Radical Gratitude: Discovering Joy through Everyday Thankfulness (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 51.
 Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997).
 Peggy Noonan, “Still Here after a Rough Year,” Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2009, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704204304574546093616349588 (accessed July 15, 2016).
 William Jay, Prayers for the Use of Families (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 2002) 19 (paraphrased).
 Ibid., 198.
 Civilla D. Martin, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” (1905).
 Sarah Pierpont Edwards, in a letter to her daughter, Esther Edwards Burr, on April 3, 1758; quoted in George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 495.
[MOU1]Overflowing gratitude will allow us to rest in the realization that God’s loving purpose is being worked out in experiences that are not only pleasant and encouraging, but also in the experiences that are unsettling and painful.