Paul lays out two paths we can walk in: gratitude or ingratitude. We will either be people who give thanks or grumble. They are not simply destinations, a place (or practice) we eventually arrive at, but they’re the paths directing our steps either towards God or away from Him. Yes, gratitude is that important. Giving thanks is no cherry on top of the Christian life we toss in on rare occasions. It is the meat and potatoes, the heart and soul of following God.
Romans 1 and Romans 12 lay out two very different ways to live and what comes from each. Romans 1 characterizes the person far from God by their ingratitude, forgetfulness, idolatry (false worship), and disobedience, whereas Paul describes the godly person by their gratitude, remembering, worship, and obedience.
Romans 1 begins the lengthy theological treatise on justification (how we’re made right with God) going all the way through chapter 11. Romans 12 builds on that theology and transitions into five chapters focused on how we should live in light of God’s saving grace. But when we look deeper at Romans 12, we see how Paul picks up his language from Romans 1:18-32 and contrasts followers of God (Romans 12) to those who reject God (Romans 1). Central to this comparison is the role of thanksgiving. Gratitude leads to glorifying God and growing in godliness, whereas ingratitude yields ignorance of God and idolatry against God.
David Pao highlights the compare and contrast method of Paul in these two chapters.
“Significantly, in the call to true worship in Romans 12, Paul calls believers to reverse the false worship described in Romans 1. Instead of worshipping ‘created things rather than the Creator’ (Rom. 1:25), Paul calls us to be involved in ‘spiritual worship’ (12:1). Instead of degrading our ‘bodies’ (1:24), we are called to offer our ‘bodies’ to God (12:1). Instead of ‘sexual impurity’ (1:24), we are called to offer the sacrifice that is ‘holy’ (12:1). Once given over to a ‘depraved mind’ (1:28), the ‘mind’ will now be renewed (12:2). Once being ‘filled with every kind of wickedness’ (1:29), we are called not to ‘conform any longer to the pattern of the world’ (12:2). If Romans describes the ingratitude (cf. 1:21) that characterizes those who refuse to worship him, Romans 12 calls us to offer all of ourselves ‘as living sacrifices’ (12:1) to him who deserves all praise and thanksgiving.”
They key verse is Romans 1:21. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
Throughout the Bible, ignoring God through ingratitude is linked to idolatry, which takes place when people walk away from God and follow after false gods (see Deuteronomy 8:19). To be ungrateful to God and forgetful of God is to be foolish, and a biblical fool is always following a false god. “Forgetfulness and ingratitude go hand in hand.”
A failure to give thanks by ignoring God expresses a darkened heart and shuts a person in greater darkness. It’s a bigger deal than missing out on one of many spiritual disciplines. A life of ingratitude indicates someone is either ignoring or rejecting the knowledge of God.
Hearts full of grumbling, criticism, complaining, and ingratitude are not hearts full of grateful joy in God and the gospel. The longer we walk down the path of ingratitude the further we stray from nearness to Him.
If Romans 1 puts before us the fool who walks in ingratitude and walks away from God, Romans 12 helps us see how God’s followers choose gratitude as an avenue of worship and a path to obedience.
Compare Romans 1:21 (quoted above) to Romans 12:1. “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.”
You might think, I see similar language here contrasting worship to idolatry, and holiness to sinfulness, but where is gratitude in 12:1 corresponding to the ingratitude in chapter 1:21?
Thanksgiving is embedded in the language of a living sacrifice. It draws on the thanksgiving offering, or sacrifice, from Israel’s religious life and worship (Leviticus 7:11-16). The Old Testament thanksgiving offering transitions into a living sacrifice in the New Testament. We no longer offer animals, grains, spices, oils, or flours. We offer ourselves. Our offering is something dead but something alive. It’s not something apart from us but it is us.
In the OT, they worshipped God through a thanksgiving offering, but we express our worship through a life of thanksgiving, including obedience to God and joy in God (see Leviticus 7:11-16; 1 Chronicles 29:10-22; 2 Chronicles 29:31; Psalm 22:25; 50:14, 23; 56:12-13; 107:22; 118:27-29; Philippians 4:4-7; Hebrews 13:15-16).
Rather than offering ourselves to the world (which the idolater does in chapter 1), we present ourselves to God. Rather than having a corrupted mind that suppresses the truth of God by failing to give thanks, we renew our mind with truth by acknowledging God and His work through gratitude. Ingratitude comes from idolatry and creates more idolatry, whereas worship arises from gratitude and produces more gratitude. Which cycle do you want to get stuck in?
Are You a Romans 1 or Romans 12 Person?
In Romans 1, we see the person who rejects God, and ingratitude is listed as a central cause and symptom of a life of sin and frustration. In Romans 12, we see a person fully submitted to God, with gratitude again showing up as a central cause and symptom. There are two ways to live, grateful or ungrateful. Whichever one we walk in will either draw us near or distance us from God. We start down the path of gratitude, worship, and obedience by practicing giving thanks, one small step at a time.
What do you have from God? What blessings has God given you? Where has He shown you kindness, mercy, grace, love, and faithfulness? What trials and struggles has He carried you through? What has God taught you about who He is or who you are in Christ?
These are all opportunities to give thanks and continue down the path of Romans 12 that leads to more gratitude, right thinking, worship, and holiness (being more like Jesus).
David Pao, Thanksgiving: An investigation of a Pauline theme(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 102. Bold mine.
Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Choosing Gratitude(Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 54 on kindle.