Wednesday, November 01, 2006

God helps those who help themselves

I sent the below letter to the pastor of the church I'm currently attending. This past Sunday he did a sermon on tithing and the evils of laziness. It was hands down the worst sermon I've heard him give since I started attending back in May. It seemed very contrived and he seemed to have a "why won't you give more money?" or "why do I have to do this every year?" type of attitude. He never touched on the joys of giving, nor how this brings glory to Jesus Christ. Instead he used trite unbiblical phrases (see the title) and harsh language in an attempt to verbally beat everyone into giving more so we can all pay for his 6 figure salary, the big screen TV's and the new sanctuary. All of which I take issue with.

Anyway, here's the letter:

Dear Pastor,

I hope and pray you are having a great start to the week. I wanted to let you know that I have been blessed to hear many of your Christ centered sermons, since I started attending Shandon in May of this year. I moved to Columbia from Charleston, SC, where I lived for 2 years. I’m currently a member of East Cooper Baptist church in Mt. Pleasant and have been contemplating moving my membership; however, I’m not sure how long God will keep me in Columbia.

Anyway, I was in attendance this past Sunday and listened to your sermon on tithing. While I found much of it edifying and within scriptural context, much like every sermon I’ve heard you give, I was, however, particularly concerned about the use of the following phrase: “God helps those who help themselves”. I had the impression you intended this to be a serious biblical statement. However, in fact this phrase is not anywhere in the Bible. I did some research, referenced 6 different interpretations of the Bible, including NIV, KJ, NKJ & NASB, as well as an internet search on the phrase. This is what I came up with (I just learned this while writing this letter): this particular phrase was first quoted (the present version) by Benjamin Franklin in “Poor Richard's Almanack” (1733 – 1758), the 1736 edition. Specifically the quote states “God helps them that help themselves.” However, the earliest versions of this phrase (the writing of Aesop, 600 BC & Euripides) stem from blatantly pagan, sources.

My understanding of Benjamin Franklin is that he wasn’t a believer in the saving blood of Jesus Christ, but a deist. He was more of a believer in himself and man’s ability to be his own god. Yes he acknowledged God (as did most spiritually minded folks of his time), but I’ve seen no evidence which demonstrates he ever believed in Jesus Christ.

This above quote, from a theological perspective, in fact is contrary to the teachings of the Bible. Romans 5:8, John 15:5, Ephesians 2:5, Luke 10:30-37 (the Good Samaritan), to mention only a few; teach of our reliance on God and His loving kindness towards the helpless. He cares for those who can’t help themselves.

I realize you were mostly likely simply trying to convey a message concerning the evil of laziness and the importance of tithing, and there is no doubt these are important teachings, especially in the American church. The problem is this particular phrase can very easily be misconstrued as an encouragement to focus on works, that is self, rather then grace, that is Jesus Christ. I realize you probably didn’t intend this, but given the author of this quote, this was most likely at least part of the original meaning.

If I misunderstood you, then please take this letter simply as the ramblings of a man who is trying to work out his salvation with fear and trembling.

Please know I prayed before I sent this letter and I also prayed that God would encourage you in your heart to continue in your ministry of bringing the truth of Jesus Christ to His flock, as well as the unbelieving world.

May God bless you Pastor and may the words of your mouth continue to glorify our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
Isaiah 52:7 & Romans 10:15.


Sam said...

Wow- i'm blown away by the realization, yet again, that our culture is ingrained to think that this statement is true, or even Biblical. after reading this, i researched online myself- only to find roughly 5 websites dedicated to the question does 'God helps those who help themselves' being truly in the Bible or not. Also, i tried to go to shandon's website to download the sermon, but no luck.

your entire post is reminiscient of a cd i listened to once (maybe piper? don't remember) that discussed the imminent dangers of this line of talk. along with the Scriptures you referenced, i found Jeremiah 17:5 as a blatant opponent of this view. keep me posted on the pastor's response....

Dave said...

re: "God helps those who help themselves...".

Agreed, this phrase is not found in the Bible, per se. But I would disagree that much of its intent is indeed contained in the Bible (I realize I am writing this reply to your response over two years after your initial post on the subject in your blog).

For example, Peter said, "And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation.

(New Testament | Acts 2:40)"

James, the half-brother of Jesus (the apostle who wrote the epistle of James), and who was brought up in the same home with Jesus (so, his teachings are likely mirrors of things he heard Jesus say while the two were growing up together)—

14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

(New Testament | James 2:14 - 26)

Even Jesus declared that works are indeed necessary—

" their fruits ye shall know them.

21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

(New Testament | Matthew 7:20 - 21)

Even Paul, who is vastly quoted by "gracers" in 'Christendom' take the concept of "by grace are ye saved, and not of works, lest ye boast..." misunderstand Paul.

Here is a fuller version of the quote you gave from Ephesians—

5 Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)

6 And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:

7 That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.

8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:

9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.

10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

(New Testament | Ephesians 2:5 - 10)

Now, when you read Acts and all of the Pauline epistles, one does not get the sense that no effort is needed or required with grace. The point Paul makes is that by works ALONE we all fall short of salvation. But that does not mean by any means that he completely dismisses them. Even the verse from Ephesians quoted above contains the expectation that good works accompany, if not precede, the "grace" (forgiveness through Christ's generous atonement) of our sins. Certainly, we are saved FROM our sins (following repentance) and not IN our sins (sans repentance).

If I owe a billion dollars, and only am able to pay $100,000 back, the balance is paid for by Christ. So, can I take credit for the slate being wiped clean? (Absolutely not).

However, if I make no effort on my part, will the Redeemer redeem me?

Not hardly.

Peter, also an apostle, in fact, the chief apostle, asked this rhetorical question (I answer 'rhetorical questions')—

18 And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?

(New Testament | 1 Peter 4:18)

They will, as the scriptures clearly and repeatedly point out, be damned.

"Belief" in the merits of Jesus are not merely mentally ascended to. For, indeed, talk is cheap (and action is dear). But effort on the part of the sinner (and we are all sinners) must be made for grace to "kick in".

And, though we repent, like the prodigal son, and return, still, it is not our works, but the grace of God that saves us (so, wherein can we boast)?

Nevertheless, God will not deny his word. The gospel did not change between Golgotha and Galatians. Paul did not swallow up and counter Christ's doctrines and teachings.

Jesus was baptized "to fulfill all unrighteousness"—but we must each and all be baptized to enter the Kingdom of God.

I'm not defending the pastor you were critiquing. But I was pointing out that a concept need not be found in an exact form in scripture to be considered correct, or corresponding to or in alignment with the divine.

redeemed said...


Thank you for your thought-out & biblically referenced response.

Anyway, I think you may be missing the point of this particular post, or perhaps you haven’t read it all the way through? I was actually referring more specifically to a particular pitfall church leaders may fall into than to works and faith.

However, it seems you may be under the impression that I perhaps perpetuate a teaching of grace through laziness or slothfulness in worshipping our creator. That since we can do nothing of our own accord, with regards to saving ourselves, ascribing to holy living is utterly useless and we should all do whatever we feel like, as grace (bought with the blood of Jesus Christ) will continually pour into our lives. However, if this was the point I was trying to convey then I would be off, for God says to us in Romans 6:1-4 that this teaching is counter to holy living, in lieu of what Jesus Christ did. In too many numerous places in the Bible (some of which you have referenced) we are taught that holy practice is an outpouring of being saved. However, no action outside of Jesus Christ’s can save. That’s the important distinction. See also Paul’s harsh response to false teachers who believe an act we do can save (Philippians 3:2-3). Further these false teachers will be found out by their fruit Matthew 7:15-17.

So it would seem we agree holy living is an outward act of being saved, however, these actions do not save. Agreeing in this statement I would strongly encourage you, with as much encouragement as I can muster over the internet, to put aside any faith, confidence, reference or trust in any concept which was developed by non-believers (who may very well have been influenced by satan or at the very least the flesh). We, as believers, need to throw away concepts which were developed outside of the Bible, no matter how good they may sound or how biblical aligned we think they may be. “God helps those who help themselves” is a very good sounding & simple phrase. Just the type of phrase/slogan satan would love to use to bind us, especially in America where we believe the work of our own hands and the sacrifice of our own people, made this nation great. It is Jesus Christ who alone is worthy. It is by His hand alone that anything is good.

Really listen to the words in your head, scrutinize them, wash them with the word and you will realize how evil they really are. How about this: “God doesn’t love you unless you do something for Him. He doesn’t really love the world. You aren’t really dead in your transgressions. Christ didn’t really have to die for your sins. God just allowed this to happen to show us an example, that’s all, not really to save us. You really have the strength to get up on your own two feet and at least meet God halfway. God won’t do anything for you unless you bring Him something. Yes, yes Jesus died for you, but that was only the beginning. There’s much more. Other books which were written to instruct us, other acts we need to perform on God’s behalf. Now we must bring God what He desires in order to make Jesus’ sacrifice worth it. His sacrifice didn’t make us lovely enough to the Father. We’re still wicked and ugly and this is how He sees us continually. Now clean yourself off with the pure cloth of your own actions. It’s all up to you. It’s not your love and worship God desires, but the acts which you can perform in front on men to make yourself look great. Read your bible once or more a day, go to church once or more a week, give to the poor, help the needy and be sure to do this all in front of men so that you get the glory because I want what’s best for you. These things you do will save you.”

Being such a simple statement and concept, if this were a teaching God wished us to cling to He would’ve included this simple phrase in his Holy word, but He didn’t. If you scrutinize this phrase you will see it lacks the love and grace we see poured out by Jesus Christ upon us through His act (not ours) on the cross. I read this phrase and it sounds more like something I would say out of frustration with the lazy or out of my own pride in the works of my hands, a sinner, or even satan would say as a lie to discourage or bind us. However, I would encourage you rather to cling to a teaching which both conveys your beliefs and is found in the Bible: “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Throw out the human rubbish and cling to the teachings we know were inspired by the Holy Spirit and we know are true, living words.

When a lazy man comes to you, you encourage him towards good works. If he refuses and states that he’s saved by grace, then lovingly encourage him that there is a better way, a better path towards joy. The lazy believer is the discouraged believer. He doesn’t necessarily need to be beaten up by the bible (though he may need to be told he’s wrong), but he does need the truth lovingly & persistently poured on him. Clinging to Jesus Christ, repenting of sins, taking up our cross daily, dying to self, these are the instructions towards joy. Jesus is the only way to the father. Good works are a path towards joy while we remain here and are evidence of the glory of God, not us. Good works (include giving & tithing) are intended to be acts of worship. If we are inspired, by the Holy Spirit, to engage in holy practice, then obeying this inspiration/calling will help in conforming us more to the likeness of Jesus Christ. Still these acts do not save. Jesus Christ saves and following in His teachings brings joy. This is not to be confused with fleshly happiness, as true joy is seen through trials and suffering. Doing a good work under extreme duress is a far weightier witness of the existence and character of Jesus Christ than words.

However, with all this stated above, my answer to your question: “However, if I make no effort on my part, will the Redeemer redeem me?” is yes. Absolutely! Again it is not my actions which save me, but Jesus Christ alone. It’s false and unbiblical to believe otherwise. I believe this is a subtle path to hell (for those who believe human acts can save) or at the very least a hindrance to joy (for believers who bind themselves with this burden). These are those who may very well be cast away as they never knew Jesus, even though they preached in His name and performed acts and miracles in His name. This was the primary point Paul was often trying to communicate. We must all (myself very much included) take the entire bible into account and not just a few verses which we can use to leverage our personal beliefs. Anything which has ever been written or said can easily be taken out of context. This is one of the pitfalls I was referring to in my original post.

I would encourage you to read Colossians 2:12-14, and not just these verses, but the entire letter. I would then encourage you to reread Ephesians 2 and not just this chapter, but the entire letter. These letters were I believe intended to be seen through the lens of Jesus Christ, his teachings conveyed through the entire Word. They weren’t intended to be stand alone letters or stand alone verses. Of course verses were added well after the fact.

Grace means unmerited favor. This means we don’t deserve it or we can’t earn it. Although I don’t like to often reference outside of the bible, I would also encourage you to read one of Jonathan Edwards sermons: All True Grace in the Heart Tends to Holy Practice in the Life. A word of caution though, he is very long winded, but I feel he communicates essentially what I’m trying to convey, but with many more words.