You’ve no doubt heard the saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” Perhaps you believe, like many Christians do, that this is in the Bible (it’s not). Or, maybe you think, as do 84% of Christians, that this is a Biblical concept (it isn’t). However, this is the type of thinking that existed in the Middle Ages, prior to the Reformation (and, to some extent, exists today). Essentially, this teaches that while man is not perfect, we do have it within our power to do something to save ourselves.
At the time of the Reformation, the Catholic church taught that men are saved by God’s grace, but also that men have free will, and that we must “cooperate” with God’s grace in order to be saved. As Michael Horton notes, a popular medieval phrase was, "God will not deny his grace to those who do what they can.” More technically, the Catholic church officially (and “infallibly”) taught the following:
“The holy council declares first, that for a correct and clear understanding of the doctrine of justification, it is necessary that each one recognize and confess that since all men had lost innocence in the prevarication of Adam, having become unclean, and, as the Apostle says, by nature children of wrath, as has been set forth in the decree on original sin, they were so far the servants of sin and under the power of the devil and of death, that not only the Gentiles by the force of nature, but not even the Jews by the very letter of the law of Moses, were able to be liberated or to rise therefrom, though free will, weakened as it was in its powers and downward bent, was by no means extinguished in them.”
“It is furthermore declared that in adults the beginning of that justification must proceed from the predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ, that is, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits on their part, they are called; that they who by sin had been cut off from God, may be disposed through His quickening and helping grace to convert themselves to their own justification by freely assenting to and cooperating with that grace; so that, while God touches the heart of man through the illumination of the Holy Ghost, man himself neither does absolutely nothing while receiving that inspiration, since he can also reject it, nor yet is he able by his own free will and without the grace of God to move himself to justice in His sight.” (Source: The Council of Trent, Session VI, Decree Concerning Justification, my emphasis)
As you can see, the Catholic church taught (and still teaches) that God’s grace is necessary for salvation, but that man must ultimately make the decision to believe or not, as he has the free will to reject God’s grace. Sadly, there are many Christians that teach this same lie today.
Relying solely on Scripture, the Reformers rejected this teaching. Instead, they taught that Scripture makes clear that man is saved by God’s grace alone. With respect to the necessity of God to provide His grace in order for one to be saved, the Reformers wholeheartedly agreed, for that is what Scripture teaches. They rejected the notion that man has the ability in himself to reject or accept God’s salvation in Christ. This is why there is a sola gratia.
This doctrine is not only about God and His grace towards sinners, but also about the nature of man. Try asking this question to your Christian friends: “Are people basically good?” You’ll be surprised at how many will say yes. This is at the heart of sola gratia. Is there enough “goodness” left in after Adam’s fall that we have the necessary ability to either accept or reject God’s grace in Jesus Christ? Those who say yes believe man still has the ability (i.e., free will) to be good, limited as that may be (as the Catholic church teaches). Those who say no believe that man’s nature as a result of Adam’s fall was so great that we are totally depraved, with no power to do that which is good (as the Reformers taught).
Now, this does not mean that all people are as bad as they could be. Clearly, some are worse than others. It also does not mean that people cannot do “good” in human terms. It does mean that we are not capable of doing true good, that is, doing good with a heart to glorify and please God. Apart from faith in Christ, no one is good. Jesus made this clear when He said, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18) Then we read in Romans 3, “10 as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; 11 There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; 12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.” Finally, Hebrews 11 tells us, “6 And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”
Why is it that we cannot do good, are not capable of being righteous, and do not seek after God? The reason is that when Adam sinned, he spiritually died. Because of his sin, all mankind is spiritually dead. This is why the Reformers taught that we have no free will with respect to do what is truly good, and that includes the ability to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior, even with God’s grace as the Catholic church taught. Ephesians 2 perhaps explains our plight best: “1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” When we read we are “dead”, it can only mean spiritual death, because, obviously, we are physically alive. We don’t like to think of ourselves this way, but God tells us quite clearly that we were children of wrath, we followed the devil and the way of the world. We were dead to God.
So, our problem is that we must be born again. Our Lord explains this clearly to Nicodemus in John 3:3, “Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”” Again, Jesus here is not speaking of physical birth, but spiritual birth. The question, then, is how is this accomplished? We agree with the Catholic church that God’s grace is necessary. But the Catholic church goes further and says that man must also act before he can receive justification, just as we read above. The problem the Reformers had with this is that a dead man can do nothing! If you bring a man who was shot to death to the operating room of the hospital and tell him, “Okay, I brought you this far, now just get yourself up on that table and you’ll be alright”, what do you think he will do? Absolutely nothing, because he’s dead. Likewise, if the gospel is given to someone, unless by God’s grace they are born again, they cannot believe.
How is one born again? Solely by an act of the Holy Spirit, apart from any action on man’s part. Jesus elaborates for Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” This is made clear in Ephesians 2 as well. After Paul tells us the bad news of our death, he follows up with the great news of our life: “4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Notice what the Lord teaches us here. God made us alive. Salvation is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God. If man has free will and can decide to believe or not believe, then by definition it is a work and not a gift. Some will argue that we always have the choice to receive or reject a gift in human terms, so why not with God? The reason God saves us this way is so that no one may boast. If I choose to believe and someone else rejects the gift, then there is room for boasting. If salvation is all God’s decision, then He alone will receive all the glory. And God makes clear that He shares his glory with no one: “I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images.” (Isaiah 42:8) The only thing we bring to our salvation is our sin, which is why we require a Savior in the first place.
The saying that God helps those who help themselves is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but most likely had earlier origins. Given that we are dead in our sins apart from Christ, praise God that He helps us who cannot possibly help ourselves. Even more, God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The man God rose up to begin the Reformation, Martin Luther, put it this way: “We receive absolution and grace at no cost or labor on our part, but not without cost and labor on the part of Christ.” May we live in such a way as to bring glory to God as we give thanks for His amazing grace.
Soli Deo Gloria!