“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Romans 12:1
Why should we do good?
That question has puzzled philosophers for millennia, and even the least philosophical among us have wrestled with it. Truly, whether they realize it or not, the ethics of every individual is governed by their answer to this question. A few radicals would answer that there’s in fact no moral obligation to do good: life is a free-for-all, and if you choose to do good it’s because you’re personally fulfilled by doing so. Many believe you do good in order for good to happen to you—a karma-esque view of ethics. Closer to the mark are those who believe, though perhaps can’t explain, that there’s some higher, transcendent authority or imperative that compels us to do good to others.
The Christian faith provides a different answer: We do good because we’re grateful. One ancient church teaching tool answered the question, “Why then should we do good works?” like this: “Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also renewing us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits.”
Have you ever noticed that the consistent motivator the Bible gives for obeying God and loving neighbor is gratitude? It’s our thankfulness for the gospel—the fact that Christ took our sin and hell for us—that should inform all we do. Consider what Paul writes in Romans 6:13–14, “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” The Christian is one whose every thought, word, and deed is controlled by the knowledge that God has brought him or her “from death to life.” Similarly, as quoted above, it’s the manifold “mercies of God” that undergird Paul’s call to us that we offer our entire selves in a holy manner before God (12:1). Paul knows, from personal experience, that mercy is the best motivator. Thus, as a 19th-century Scottish theologian once wrote, “in the New Testament religion is grace, and ethics is gratitude.”
Do you have a thankful disposition in your heart? The Christian calling is rendered an impossibility without it. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17). We might be able to have some semblance of moral uprightness if motivated by merit (the hope of earning something from God), but this can’t last. Even less stable is the motivation of fear. But the 12-century monk Bernard of Clairvaux taught us well that “the soul that loves God seeks no other reward than that God whom it loves.”
Gratitude is not an optional virtue, but a vital one that sustains the others. Only a grateful response to God’s gospel mercy can make us “obedient from the heart” (Rom. 6:17).
Heidelberg Catechism 86.
Quoted in John Stott, Romans (Downers Grove, IL: 1994), 321.
Quoted in Dan Doriani, The New Man (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015), 21.