If you were asked to write a note of thanksgiving about your church, similar to those with which Paul customarily began his letters to the churches, could you do it? Beyond the building, the location, the familiarity, and the friends, what about your church makes you thankful?
Without a habit of verbalizing gratitude, believers can easily develop a critical attitude toward the church. By contrast, thankfulness can set the tone for contentment and sacrificial participation with God’s people. For this reason, Paul wrote to the churches things like, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy” (Phil. 1:3–4). How can Paul be thankful for churches that, like ours, have significant problems?
The key to thankfulness in the church is a recognition that despite our massive faults, God is at work among his people. Here are three ways that God’s work can nurture gratitude in the church.
We Can Thank God for Gospel Fellowship
Paul thanked God for believers’ “fellowship in the gospel” (v. 5). The word for fellowship—koinonia—elsewhere translated as “partnership,” implies closeness and intimacy. The Philippians hadn’t just heard the gospel or even just believed the gospel; they had experienced profound communion with the essence of the good news: By his perfect life and sacrificial death Jesus has demonstrated a righteousness that now bears fruit in those who believe in him (Cf. v. 11). Nothing but the gospel’s reconciling power (2 Cor. 5:17–19) is strong enough to bind together people of different gender, age, ethnicity, education, personality, and socioeconomic status. As D.A. Carson has said, the gospel promotes “a precious God-centeredness” that we share with other believers.
Because of God’s saving work, his people also become promoters of the gospel—another reason to give thanks! The word “gospel” in Philippians usually denotes the activity of gospel ministry. In other words, Christian fellowship in the gospel is a tangible partnership, almost in a business sense, with those who labor in the ministry. God’s redeemed people become joint-partakers in grace and “in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (v. 7). In this sense Paul can say, “From the first day until now” (v. 5) the church has promoted the gospel through conversation, prayer, and financial contributions.
We Can Thank God for His Perseverance
Paul is also “confident in this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). He, and we, can give thanks that when the crucified and resurrected Christ returns, God will finish his ongoing work of rescuing his people from sin.
We have all wondered anxiously about whether we and our loved ones will finish well the Christian race. We know our weaknesses. To use language from the historic Canons of Dort, we are not free “altogether from the body of sin and from the infirmities of the flesh.” We are “drawn into great and heinous sins by the flesh, the world, and Satan” because of which we “very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound [our] consciences, and sometimes for a while lose the sense of God’s favor.”
This is all true.
But Paul reminds the church of the matchless promises of God: in the language of the Canons:
God, who is rich in mercy, according to his unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from his own people, even in their grievous falls; nor suffers them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption and forfeit the state of justification, or to commit the sin unto death or against the Holy Spirit; nor does He permit them to be totally deserted, and to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction. (Canon 5, Arts. 1, 4–6)
The workshop of God’s grace is not littered with cast-off projects. The blood of Christ is too precious for God to waste on unfinished enterprises. The book of Acts says that God purchased the church with Christ’s blood (Acts 20:28). The book of Revelation shows this blood-bought church safely reigning with God around his throne.
Our confidence and thankfulness in the church is not based on our faithfulness but on the faithfulness of the God who always finishes what he starts.
We Can Thank God for Genuine Love
According to Jesus, Jesus’ love is one of the unmistakable traits of Christian discipleship (John 13:35). Not surprisingly, the Philippians were “in Paul’s heart” (Phil 1:7); he greatly longed for them with the affection of Jesus Christ (v. 8), which the Holy Spirit had poured out into his heart (Rom. 5:5).
Sometimes we fail to love fellow church members because we feel spoiled with friendships, but, from prison, separated from his brothers and sisters, Paul lamented, “I have no one like-minded” (Phil. 2:20). For us and for Paul, in God’s family are the people who share with us the mind of Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Spirit. Grace knits believers together in love because they are inescapably conscious of God’s shocking affection for them.
God is at work in his church. He will make his adopted children to be like his one natural son Jesus. He is opening our hearts to each other so that we can partner together in a costly but joyful gospel partnership. These truths change how we work together and what we are willing to sacrifice for the cause of God’s reconciling work among us.
In his thanksgiving sections, Paul doesn’t actually command thanksgiving; he simply models thankfulness, but through his example God can powerfully work thanksgiving in our hearts as well.