By Rev. Lance Filio
Filipinos are well-known for their positive and negative traits. Positively, we are considered to be hospitable, fun-loving and caring people. As part of the larger culture in Asia, we are also known for our “honor-shame” culture – “Amor propio, Delikadesa at Pagtanaw ng utang na loob.” These values show the world that we are people of dignity and respect. However, Filipinos are also known for several bad traits. Negatively, we lack-discipline and “Lakas ng loob”. We exercise corrupt practices like “palakasan”. We are often considered as lazy people and practice “mamaya-na” habit. We do not allow others to get ahead over us like “crab” mentality and the list goes on.
Now I know there a lot of negative traits listed here and perhaps I should focus on any of them but I think what affect the mindset of Filipinos in terms of living the Christian faith is the positive trait of “pagtanaw ng utang na loob”. Gratitude or “pagkilala sa mabuting tinanggap at pagbibigay kapalit” is a Filipino cultural mindset that affects our understanding of the living a life in gratitude to God – our topic today. Simply put, gratitude for Filipinos have a different connotation compared to the what the mindset that comes with the Catechism that we will be studying today.
Today, we will be learning about the Lord’s Day 32. This Lord’s Day 32, questions 86 to 87 marks the beginning of the third part of the catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism has three major parts reflecting the three things we need to know and understand about our salvation namely – Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. Simply put, when our guilt was exposed by our inability to obey the God’s law, we are saved from our misery by grace through faith alone in Christ alone. Being delivered by grace, we respond in gratitude by worshiping God and serving others.
Now gratitude is an important concept in the catechism which why the author, Zacharias Ursinus defined what he meant by this term. He wrote, “True Christian thankfulness, therefore, which is here taught, is an acknowledgement and profession of our gracious deliverance, through Christ, from sin and death, and a sincere desire to avoid sin, and everything that might offend God, and to conform the life according to his will; to desire, expect, and receive all good things from God alone, by a true faith, and to render thanks for the benefits received.” However, I think culturally, the concept of gratitude as an “utang na loob” becomes problematic. Which I why I think, we need to clarify some things first before proceeding with our sermon points.
Utang na Loob (UnL) is part of our honor-shame culture. While often regarded as a positive trait, UnL is not without its abuses. Filipinos typically understand the concept of being indebted to someone who possesses more things compared to them. While this does not always entail monetary value, the incentive for having someone owe you is a recognition of superiority over the person who owes you something. “Loob” which literally means inside points to an internal rather than an external debt. We always feel obligated to settle a debt even though the payment we offer is not consummate to what we owe. Which why sometimes, we avoid any circumstance where we would owe someone something because later on, that person will get back to us for a payback. In Tagalog, “ayaw natin magkautang na loob”. UnL as a gratitude is a works-based system of paying back what we owe.
So the first point I would like to clarify is regarding the whole concept of gratitude in the catechism. In this context, It is not an arrangement to pay what we owe like an UnL. Rather, it is a spirit of thankfulness when we receive a gift which we do not deserve. Not having to give back anything tangible in return except for the response of glory and praise, we give our thanks to God. As Filipinos, we do not see how gratitude fits in a grace-based system but in order not to misunderstand what is being taught here, we need to exclude any idea of merit on gratitude – merit speaks of a reward commensurate to a work properly done. Secondly, gratitude is primarily a motivation rather than an action. Filipinos do understand that there is an internal motivation in gratitude just as in UnL but the motivation of gratitude is found in the attitude of thanksgiving while in UnL the motivation is an honor-shame – “ayaw mapahiya”. The former is gracious in nature while other is legalistic in spirit. We respond to God with an attitude of gratefulness in our hearts and not as an obligation that we have to settle but a “kusang-loob na pagsunod”. The third clarification we need to make is with regard to the subject to whom we owe something back. The problem with the Filipino mindset about God is the way we relate to Him in human terms. We treat God in a false manner by assuming he is different in nature. Rather, we perceive God as someone whose difference is only by degree. For us, God is like a man yet larger in magnitude. When we project gratitude to man as something we owe that needs to be repaid then our gratitude to God is also some we owe that we need to pay back but in a higher degree. But God is unlike any of his creation. Our gratitude in this sense is not a payment of what we owe because we as creatures owe everything to God so there is no point in paying him back in the same degree as we re-pay any man. In the same way, God does not need anything from us so giving back to him is not for his benefit as if he needs something from us. No, we are the one dependent on him and he is not dependent on no one. The distinction has to be made and Filipinos have a hard time making this distinction so I would like us to be mindful of it.
So, for our preaching this afternoon, we will hear about the Lord’s Day 32, questions 86 to 87. It deals with Christian’s life in gratitude to God. I will discuss two points: (1) The Godly Walk of a Believer; and (2) The Unchaste Works of an Unbeliever.
The Godly Walk of a Believer
What is the goal of the believer in this life? What is his motivation for living now that he received comfort from his misery when he was justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? What is kind of standard of living should he follow? These are the questions the author answered for us under this third and final topic of Gratitude or Thankfulness. The Question and Answer #86 answers the first two questions while #87 negatively answers the third question. Let us answer the first two questions by reading #86:
86. Since, then, we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we do good works?
A. Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, renews us also by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and that He may be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof, and by our godly walk may win others also to Christ.
The author now focuses our attention on good works. Good works are part of the Christian life. Anyone who denies this truth is an antinomian. To be an antinomian means to disregard the positive role of God’s law in the life of a believer. The Roman Catholics falsely charged the Protestant of being antinomians because of their belief in the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart of the works of the law. They consider this doctrine as unBiblical because it encourages unchaste living. However, what we will see later on that the opposite is true. Justification by faith alone is a comforting doctrine because contrary to anyone’s expectation, it encourages godly living rather than prohibits it. Why do we say so?
The primary reason Ursinus gave in his answer to the question of doing good works is grounded on the work of God in Christ and His Spirit. He explained that “Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, renews us also by His Holy Spirit after His own image”. He insisted that the redeeming work of Christ secures for us the performance of the good works in the believer’s life through the renewing work of Spirit. It is God’s work for us and in us. The work of the latter flows from the work of the former. Scripture points us to this reality when it speaks of regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, “..he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.. (Titus 3:5)”. We are not saved by the works done by us in righteousness, according to Titus. We are saved by his mercy and by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. So when Ursinus asked the question: why must we still do good works? Because salvation includes the renewing work of the Holy Spirit guaranteeing for us that fruit of thankfulness and gratitude in the believer’s life.
Notice that the response expected from the work of God for us (redemption) and in us (renewal) is not to repay God with our good works. That is not what is due. What was due in us is our response of thankfulness or gratitude. Gratitude is a re-orientation of our view with regard to good works. We do not do good works in order to merit a reward from God rather we do in gratitude and thanksgiving as a result of God’s renewing work in our heart. There is an internal quality expected in every good work that makes it a good work acceptable to God. First, it should flow out from God’s renewing work and second, it should testify to God’s glory. The goal of the believer’s life is to glorify God and his primary motivation for doing such a duty is the response of gratitude and thanksgiving. God deserves all the glory and praise because he has done all the work for us and in us!
Brothers and sisters in Christ, is this what motivates us in every good work we do? Do we recognize our work as part of the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in us? Practically speaking how will we know if this is so? Simply put, we can examine our work and understand ourselves if we are doing it as a burdensome work or a delightful duty? John made it clear that as Christians, we have the latter, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. (1 John 5:2-3)”. I know it is counter-intuitive for us to perform any duty as if we enjoy every minute of it but this is the spiritual reality that Scripture points us to. If the promise is true and our sinful tendency is towards burdensome, we know that whenever we perform any duty as a delight we assured that this fruit comes from God and not from us. I remember a quotation about work that is close to this reality, “Learn to love what you do and you will never work a day in your life.” The actual quote from the internet says: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” It was attributed to Marc Anthony. I don’t know if he is the actor/singer or the Roman Ceasar but either way, he speaks some semblance of truth. When I shared this with my wife, she commented that it would be impossible to love everything we do and that is true. Humanly speaking, it can be considered as sentimental optimism. However, the supernatural work overcomes every human obstacle that will enable us to perform our every sin a burden and every duty as a delight. We spiritual realists and we receive by faith every spiritual benefit in Christ, not only our justification or his redeeming work but also his sanctification or his renewing work. Westminster Catechism rightly asked and answered this question: What is the chief end of man? Answer.: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Yes, we will enjoy him forever. God will have his glory in us because we will perform all our duties before him in gratitude and thanksgiving.
The Unchaste Works of an Unbeliever
So we answered the goal (the glory of God) and the motivation (gratitude and thankfulness), how about the standard?
Ursinus was very careful to emphasize in his catechism that as Protestants, we are not antinomians. We do not reject the role of the law in the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. Which is why in his next question # 87, he pointed out negatively that unchaste person, those who are blatantly living immoral and sinful life will not inherit eternal life.
87. Can they, then, not be saved who do not turn to God from their unthankful, impenitent life?
A. By no means: for, as the Scripture saith, no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God
Simply put, an unconverted man is an unregenerate man who, as demonstrated in his life, proved to be an unbeliever. Any hypocrite, those pretending to be converted will be proven to be unregenerate when the fruit of his unthankful and impenitent life is demonstrated by his action. The author here is making a transition to the topic of conversion which we will discuss next Lord’s Day but suffice to say now no unconverted person will be saved. Conversion or the turning away from sin and walking towards a godly life is primarily a demonstration of one’s regeneration. And since we understand that regeneration precedes conversion, we are assured that anyone who was converted to faith and repentance will lead a sanctified life. Dying to self and living to Christ, a believer will not anymore live his life as if nothing has changed. He will begin his new life in Christ as the Spirit enables him.
Therefore, the standard of living for Christians did not change. The standard is still the law of God but his relationship to the law has changed. Because of the spiritual nature that now lives in him, it enables him to obey them positively and at the same time, negatively avoid living the life of the unconverted. We receive the law in the hands of Christ that give us the ability to perform our duty with delight.
Brothers and sister in Christ, do we consider the law as rule for living or simply follow our every desire? Do we love God and our neighbor only as sentimental feeling or do follow a standard of living? I think some of us maybe uncertain which law to obey and practice obeying. We may have been exposed to church or a mindset that obligated us to an endless list of dos and don’ts, got tired of obeying them all and simply gave up. I felt the same way in my previous church which is why when I heard the true gospel of Christ, I realized that was finally free to love him and express my gratitude towards him. But how will I show my delightful obedience to him? Soon I realized that the problem in my mindset is not only in relation to the gospel but also I was confused about his law. I was actually mixing God’s law with man-made commandments. Slowly, I had to re-orient myself with the Word of God and understand God’s moral law as his righteous requirements for godly living. I found out that most of the things I consider as a law was from man and those which are indeed from God I neglected to obey. So one by one I removed those which are man-made and started reinforcing those which have a direct command from God. I began by prioritizing to obey the 4th command and practice Sabbath-keeping. The Lord’s Day becomes the foundation head of my spiritual life. Everything flows from it. Slowly, I began to focus on serving other people in the church as the need arise. Rightly divided as law and gospel, I finally figured out what God requires from me. I discovered that “the law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul (Psalms 19:7).” The standard of the law of God properly understood in the light of God’s gospel is not burdensome but a delight.
ZCRC(Imus), we are called to live a life in gratitude to God. Our good works, as part of the renewing work of the Spirit in us, is a delight and not a burden. They are our response of thanksgiving and praise and we do them for God’s glory alone. The standards for living in God’s glory is the law of God. They are his righteous requirements for godly living. May we continue to hear God’s Word and respond in gratitude to Him. Amen.
Rev. Lance Filio is a minister of the Word and Sacraments at Zion Cornerstone Reformed Church (Imus). He finished his Bachelor Degree in Electronics Engineering at Mapua Institute of Technology and He is currently taking his Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS) at MINTS. He lives in Taguig City, Philippines with his wife and three children.