Sometimes the best way to define a thing is by identifying its opposite. How could we ever appreciate light without the experience of darkness? Would the comfort of warmth be so pleasant without the bitter experience of the cold?
Not only are concepts like light and warmth best understood in contrast to their opposites, but their opposites are absences, what one might call privations. Darkness is not a thing. It is rather the absence of light. Cold is not a thing but the privation of heat.
As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I find myself meditating on gratitude and its synonym, thankfulness. Many definitions could suffice for gratitude, but I propose that it is best understood in light of its opposite: entitlement.
Entitlement is an attitude of the heart that boasts of merit and achievement as the basis for receiving good things. The entitled heart says, “I’ve earned leisure because of my hard work,” or “I deserve love because I’m lovely.” The entitled heart believes that every good pleasure or tangible benefit is the just desert of personal merit. Entitlement is the opposite of gratitude; it is the privation of thankfulness.
Sadly, entitlement is the natural disposition of the heart for all people in this fallen world, but there is a cure for this disease: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
You may be thinking, “I’m already a Christian. I don’t need to meditate on the gospel.” But this would be a mistake. The gospel is the power of God for the entirety of our salvation (Rom. 1:16). It is not just a message for our entrance into salvation (new birth and justification by faith). It is a message intended to carry us through the progressive stages of our salvation (sanctification) all the way to the redemption of our bodies by which we will dwell in a new creation (glorification).
If the Christian life is an ocean, the gospel is its water. One can wade in the shallows at the beach and be legitimately in the ocean, but there are immeasurable depths and vast expanses to be explored. The Christian never moves beyond the gospel. Instead he moves farther out and deeper into the watery depths of God’s grace.
So, how does the gospel of Jesus Christ dispel entitlement and create gratitude? There are at least three ways.
First, the gospel exposes our sinfulness. As believers in Christ, we know that we need salvation because we’ve sinned against God. In stark contrast to a popular cultural message that promotes the inherent goodness of people, Scripture describes the condition of people in bleak and terrifying terms because of sin. In Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul describes the condition of all people apart from the saving mercy of God revealed in the gospel: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also.”
These are hardly flattering words. When Paul says that “we were by nature children under wrath,” those words crush our sense of entitlement by proclaiming that we are deserving of only wrath. Romans 6:23 reminds us that the “wages of sin is death.” And Revelation 20:11-15 gives us a terrifying apocalyptic vision of what that deserved death, the wrath of God, looks like.
The entitled heart is a heart that has either forgotten or has never known the truth of its own natural sinfulness.
Secondly, the gospel magnifies God’s mercy. We often hear grace defined as God’s unmerited favor, but people sometimes struggle to identify the difference between grace and mercy. Well, mercy is a certain kind of grace that is given to the desperate. I often say that “mercy implies misery.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that our desperate misery is owing to our sin. We are destined, by just deserts, for the full fury of divine wrath. But God is merciful, and He gave us His Son, the Lord Jesus, who died in our place, suffering the fullness of divine wrath for us.
In Ephesians 2:4-5, Paul follows the bad news of our sinfulness with the good news (gospel) of God’s mercy in Christ: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!”
And just in case we miss the obvious implication of God’s mercy in contrast with our sin, Paul makes it plain that we do not benefit from the mercy of God in salvation by any kind of merit on our part: “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). When a disposition of entitlement begins to make a home in our hearts, a healthy remembrance of the mercy of God in response to our miserable condition will expose the irrationality of such an attitude.
Finally, the gospel is the ground for our enjoyment of every good thing. James 1:17 reminds those who have received God’s saving mercy that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” It is not just the spiritual benefits nor just the eternal benefits that come down from our heavenly Father. It is every good gift.
Consider this in light of the gospel. Would a warm bed or a well-lit room or a loving embrace be truly good for us apart from the gospel? Those things are enjoyable to the unbeliever, and they fall under the category of common grace (God’s grace given to all, whether saved or unsaved). However, in a very important sense, it is only the gospel that can ground a full enjoyment of good things in this life.
If not for the saving mercy of God, then all of the “good” things of this life would ultimately serve as high court evidence against us on the Day of Judgment. Our enjoyment of God’s kindness would just be “storing up wrath for the day of wrath” (Rom 2:4) if we had not repented and believed in Christ according to the gospel.
So in reality, the gospel is the basis for the enjoyment of every good thing in life. It also, then, becomes the basis for maintaining joy in the midst of pain because you know that no pain in this life can compare to the wrath you deserve. Also, no pain in this life can compare to the glory of your destiny in Christ (Rom 8:18).
Entitlement is the opposite of gratitude; it is the privation of thankfulness. If you find yourself battling with the irrational and wicked disposition of entitlement in your heart, and you want instead
to have a disposition of thankfulness, then look no further than the old, old story of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As darkness gives way to light and cold to heat, so the truth of the gospel believed and remembered will cause entitlement to give way to gratitude.
Kyle Claunch is lead pastor of Highland Park First Baptist Church in Louisville and assistant professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.