In broadly Reformed circles there are many theological catchphrases that are mocked and ridiculed for being theologically perverse. But on a little closer reflection, the phrases have a fairly solid Reformed pedigree and it is only the recent weakening of Reformed theology that has caused us to totally reject statements that are capable of being understood in an orthodox manner. Consider the following well-known statement that is still very much alive, which is both loved and hated, in evangelical Christian circles:
“God helps those who help themselves.”
This statement has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but this is only because he popularized the statement, not because he invented it. It goes back to Aesop’s fables – a pagan source – which isn’t necessarily a problem for a Reformed theologian.
If we take this statement to mean, “God helps those, who are non-Christians, who, out of their own strength, help themselves,” then the statement is obviously false. For, apart from the power of God and Christ, people cannot do anything, even help themselves.
But this statement can be taken in an orthodox way and actually comes from the pen of the famous Bible commentator, Matthew Henry. Henry writes,
“God will help those that help themselves. Vigilantibus non dormientibus succurrit lex—The law succours those who watch, not those who sleep.” (Commentary on Joshua 5:13-15).
In another place, Henry writes: “He gives strength and power to his people, and helps them by enabling them to help themselves…He will help the willing, will help those who, in a humble dependence upon him, help themselves, and will do well for those who do their best.” (Commentary on Isaiah 40:27-31).
This “facientibus quod in se est, Deus dat gratiam” (If man does what he can, God will grant him grace) motive is not always wrong, as long as it is used in the context of the Christian life, not as a means for being justified before God. The phrase, in and of itself, does not commit one to a specific theological soteriology.
Thus even Martin Luther will argue, “So long as you keep your pledge to God, he in turn gives you his grace” (LW 35:34). This is, in essence, to say, “God helps those who help themselves.” Later, the brilliant Bishop John Davenant claimed: “We admit fully that God preserves and increases the gifts of grace in those who apply themselves to good works…”
This theological axiom can be proved fairly easily with a little bit of thought and common sense.
God helps those who help themselves =
God helps those who [go to worship with God’s people on the Lord’s day and listen and eat and drink (the bread and wine) to the glory of God].
God helps those who [keep his commandments] by loving them and manifesting himself to them (John 14:21, 23).
God helps those who [say ‘give us this day our daily bread’] by giving to them because they ask.
God [gives grace] to [the humble].
There are both unconditional and conditional promises offered to us in the Scripture. Unconditional promises are necessarily always fulfilled because they do not depend on human action, though they may involve human action. Conditional promises do, however, depend on human action, which means they are sometimes unfulfilled. Even within the Christian life there are certain conditional promises made to us that remain unfulfilled because we do not help ourselves (i.e., we do not ask).
We sometimes do not have because we do not ask (James 4:2-3). For example, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” In other words, God will help (i.e., give wisdom) to those who help themselves (i.e., ask God for wisdom). If you do not ask for wisdom, when you need it, can you expect God to supply what he commands you must ask for? Ask, and it will be given!
In the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 91) the divines ask, “How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?” The answer involves human response: by the blessing of Christ and the power of the Spirit, those who by faith receive the Lord’s Supper will be helped by God. God does not eat and drink for us; we must apply ourselves to the sacraments and receive from God all that we can lawfully receive.
The important point in all of this is to understand that the sanctified life involves our daily, living response to God. If we desire to be blessed and helped by God, we must apply ourselves to God and all of his appointed means of grace.
To deny the value of the concept that God helps Christians who help themselves is actually to fall into a type of “Hyper-Calvinism” whereby human responsibility is jettisoned for a type of Islamic fatalism. As with most theological slogans, the problem is not in the slogan itself, but in how we understand the slogan.
So, with Matthew Henry, John Davenant, and Joel Osteen, I believe it is sound and orthodox to say, “God helps those who help themselves.”
Even so, we must also affirm that God very often helps those who can’t help themselves. He does that in bringing a person to Christ, but also Christians are frequently at the daily mercies of God and receive blessings from him that they never asked for. God helps those who help themselves and God also helps those who cannot and do not help themselves. He is the God of grace.