“When I was a kid, my grandfather was a preacher
He’d talk about God, yeah he was something like a teacher
He said God only helps those
Who learn to help themselves
He was a million miles from a million dollars
But you can never spend his wealth”
It has happened more than once that a well-meaning friend or preacher has said to me, usually in the context of fighting sin, “God helps those who help themselves.” It is an all too common saying. The other day when listening to the song “Preacher” by OneRepublic, I was struck by the sad experience of the person speaking in the lyrics. He is reflecting on his preacher grandfather who was never rich in money but was rich in many other ways. He reminisces on the essence of his grandfather’s message and sadly, as well meaning and sweet as its sounds like he was, his message was not the good news of the Bible, instead it could be the tag line of almost any other religion in the world. It is the subtle Pelagianism that has infiltrated the church over and over again as long as it has existed. Paul, Augustine, and Luther were not the first to battle such teaching and they won’t be the last. There is a reason for that, a reason that is an echo of that horrific day in Eden when man fell, the day Adam decided that God’s perfect provision was insufficient – that he wasn’t entirely dependent on his Creator. The idea that “God helps those who learn to help themselves” is not just inconsistent with the message of Scripture, it is the opposite of it.
The glorious message of Scripture is that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 ESV) and God “even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— (Ephesians 2:5 ESV).
The entirety of Scripture stands as a testament that God doesn’t help only those “who learn to help themselves”, but he helps only those who have come to learn that they can’t help themselves. (Mark 2:17, Luke 8:13-14). In OneRepublic’s defense, from a business standpoint, I will acknowledge that a song about a preacher who preached that wouldn’t have been very popular, because oddly in our sin we don’t want to hear that we can’t help ourselves. But I am saddened that the character in this song, representative of many real-life preachers, settled for something so sinfully pedestrian while discarding the glorious gospel of God’s overwhelming grace because it casts man in such a weak and helpless light. But the Bible teaches, and experience shows, that we are weak and we are helpless and I pray that the world will come to sing not of sweet old preachers who preach a false Gospel, but will sing of a God who doesn’t wait for our token effort to act, but comes to us and saves us while we are dead in sin, enemies of him, and utterly unable to help ourselves.