Comedian Jay Leno once conducted a “man-on-the-street” interview by asking random people to name one of the Ten Commandments. The most common response was something that wasn't even on God's original list—“God helps those who help themselves.” That phrase, which is often used to emphasize a get-your-act-together approach to salvation, is often attributed to the Bible. In fact, according to a recent Barna poll, eight out of ten Americans believe that the saying, “God helps those who help themselves” is Biblical.
But the phrase is more closely tied to non-biblical sources. In a first century A.D. Greek fable, a wagon falls into a ravine, but when its driver appeals to Hercules for help, he is told to get to work himself. One of Aesop's fables has a similar theme. When a man calls on the goddess Athena for help during a shipwreck, she tells him to try swimming first. Both of these stories were probably created to illustrate an already existing proverb about helping yourself first.
A French author from the 1600s once said “Help yourself and Heaven will help you too.” But it was the 17th century English thinker Algernon Sidney who has been credited with the now familiar wording, “God helps those who help themselves.” Benjamin Franklin later used it in his Poor Richard's Almanac (1736) and it has been widely quoted ever since. A passage with similar sentiments can be found in the Quran, Chapter 13:11: “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”
The idea that “God helps those who help themselves” is not merely extra-biblical; it is unbiblical. It’s the polar opposite of the Gospel. It’s an enemy of grace. The Bible insists that God helps the helpless. This is the great offence of the Gospel. We can have no part to play in earning or meriting God’s forgiveness. Perhaps, the clearest verse on this is Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” As Augustine famously said, “Grace can only be accepted with empty hands.”
Humanity has a real difficulty in accepting grace because it runs counter to our sense of pride. As Erwin Lutzer explains, “God’s grace is difficult for two different kinds of people; first, those who are awash with guilt: drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, and the like. They think, God is so mad at me that there is no way that He would accept me. When we explain God’s grace to them, they feel too unworthy to accept it. A second class of people who find it difficult to accept grace are the self-righteous people who do volunteer work, who have never been in trouble with the law, who pay their bills and keep their noses in their own business. The hardworking folks who are basically honest, who can look around and see a dozen people who are worse off than they are, find God’s grace offensive. The very notion that they cannot contribute to their own redemption is an insult to their sense of accomplishment and wellbeing.”
When it comes to salvation, God always takes the first step. Why? Because before Christ arrives on the scene we are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1), fallen in own depravity (Jer. 17:9), blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4) and a slave to sin (John 8:34). The dead cannot raise themselves any more than a prisoner can loosen his chains. Our contribution to salvation is do what Lazarus did; respond when God calls us. The idea that we can help Jesus out by doing good works is an insult to the Cross. We must merely believe and receive.