Pithy preachers proclaiming perplexing epigrams: on preaching, the pulpit, and Thomas Guthrie’s “Christ and the Inheritance of the Saints.”
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
It’s a turn of phrase that I’ve seen around the Internet and various other places in the past, but only recently has it been actually uttered to my face. I wouldn’t have thought much of it but it was said twice in a few short days and it got me to thinking about how prevalent the sentiment is despite its inherent falsehood and treachery. I am, of course, referring to the oft-quoted statement, “God helps those who help themselves.” No doubt you’ve heard this expression before, more than likely from a well-meaning person. Though iterations of this proverbial phrase appear in some ancient Grecian dramas, the first appearance of the now familiar wording — “God helps those who help themselves” — stems from political theorist, Algernon Sidney in 1698.1 Interestingly enough, this statement is often erroneously attributed to Benjamin Franklin. My first run-in with this expression, though, is actually from the pen of Scottish divine, Thomas Guthrie.
Thomas Guthrie was a prominent Scottish minister and philanthropist throughout the 19th century, and was considered to be one of the most popular preachers of his day. He was heavily involved in social affairs, with his most enduring legacy continuing to be his association with the Temperance Movement and Ragged Schools. His popularity grew as a speaker primarily for his giftedness at picturesque oratory. I too have grown fond of Guthrie’s writing for much of the same. His words are pregnant with beautiful imagery and metaphor that serves to give you vivid portraits of life and Scripture. I’ve read three of his works and each are permeated with animated illustrations and descriptions, making the text come alive.
In the face of that, though, when reading through Guthrie’s Christ and the Inheritance of the Saints, I was first alarmed when Guthrie wrote, “Believe me, that the only proof that God has chosen us is, that we have chosen him.”2 I, here, vehemently disagree with Guthrie. There’s no choosing God on our part, as if we somehow came up with the scheme of redemption on our own. Yes, we can choose to listen to him. We can close ourselves off to the Spirit and ultimately quench his urgings on us. (1 Thes 5:19) But we don’t choose God. It is God who chooses us. He is the first and last moving cause in the order of grace. Our only hope of life in salvation is that God has ordained our deliverance before time even began. (Eph 1:3–14)
Guthrie, though, continues circling around this man-centric approach to the Christian faith, making it abundantly clear what he’s talking about when he writes, “God helps the man who helps himself.”3 That’s just flat false. Again, if I wasn’t already, let me be clear: This statement is adamantly untrue. It twists the gospel into a moralistic, humanistic message that puts all the onus of deliverance squarely on the shoulders of the messed up delinquents that have no ability of ever saving themselves. This sentiment is slavery and puts all those that adhere to it into bondage. It’s man-centered and wholly fictitious. God helps those who can’t help themselves. The mercy of Christ runs to those who keep slipping in the pig sty, covered in the crap of their own rebellion and religiosity. His grace forever falls on the prodigals who can’t help but run away and who always end up stumbling.
What befuddles me as a reader, though, is that Guthrie’s pen also wrote, “The dead can do nothing to help themselves.”4 How the same writer integrated both of these phrases in the same work is astounding. Both are opposite of each other and operate at vastly different ends of the Scriptural spectrum. (Eph 2:1–5) Yet, the juxtaposition of these expressions prompted me to think about the place where confounding idioms like “God helps those who help themselves” are most often heard: the pulpit.
Perhaps the most sinister issue with modern Christianity is the absence of purity in the pulpit. I’m not talking about the purity of the preacher but the purity of his message. We’ve forgotten what the pulpit is for and bastardized it with perplexing epigrams and pithy sayings that dilute the message of the gospel to shallow self-help. Many of these “sermons” are nothing more than contrived sermonettes or motivational talks that have nothing to do with God or his grace. The travesty of the pulpit lies in a pastor’s commitment to appeal to the whims and “itching ears” of his congregants to the neglect of the Main Thing. (2 Tm 4:3–4)
As a writer, I’ve made it my chief aim to exalt Christ and magnify his gospel of grace upon grace above everything else. (Jn 1:16) Notwithstanding the passage or topic, my mission remains making a beeline for cross. And as a pastor, my mission is the same. Pastors have the critical duty of lifting up the name of Christ every time they step behind the pulpit. They’re not there to shout their opinion or convince you of their personal standard. The pastor’s primary task each Lord’s Day is to be Moses for his church, raising the brazen serpent for all the people to see. (Num 21:4–9; Jn 3:14–15) They’re there to show you the Savior. The pulpit is never a place for the pastor to lead you in his footsteps. Sadly, some pastors are failing in this charge of being Christ-centered and cross-focused in their sermons. Mostly because the message of grace has been grossly misconstrued.
Because of the radicality of grace, we are so easily ensnared by the devil’s lie that grace is too good to be true. Once this deception becomes reality, we immediately go about castrating the gospel by putting it in a cage. We’re so timid at the concept of free salvation that we end up moralizing it and putting provisos on it. Pastors do their congregants a hellish disservice when they think that this news must be softened, curtailed, and commingled with anything else before it leaks into their ears. Operating out of the dread of what some might do with the freedom of the gospel should never move you to abandon that freedom altogether. The pulpit ought to be reserved for the preaching of pure, undiluted mercy, 200-proof grace — deliverance for sinners on the rocks.
The right Sunday sermon is the one that turns our gaze to the crucified Christ. (1 Cor 2:2; Gal 6:14) The pulpit is a place for sinners to hear only of Jesus’s blood spilled for them. And in the crimson mud of Golgotha’s cross, sinners find their rest. The chief mark of gospel preaching is a daring trust in the free grace of God. Trusting that it is true. Trusting that it is necessary. And trusting the Spirit to do his work in the aftermath of grace proclaimed. When it’s anything other than this, we’re leading the blind into a ditch. (Mt 15:14) A telling example of this can be found in the OneRepublic song, “Preacher,” in which frontman Ryan Tedder sings about growing up with his grandfather who was a preacher. The track itself is impactful and has the typical poise you come to expect from Tedder’s vocals and arrangements. But it leaves a bad taste in your mouth once you realize the message Tedder took away from his grandfather’s ministry.
When I was a kid, my grandfather was a preacher
He’d talk about love, 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.
I can’t really speak to the preaching ministry of Tedder’s grandfather. I don’t know if this was his main thrust of preaching or if Tedder just wasn’t paying enough attention to grasp what his grandad was really saying. My gut tells me it’s the latter. Nevertheless, the song “Preacher” preaches to me. Because for every congregant like Tedder, there are hundreds of others whose lives are changed by sermons that are delivered by abject failures. Actually, I’d say that’s God’s modus operandi — working through fools and failures to build his family. God does wonders through stutterers, murderers, adulterers, thieves, and commoners. Some of the best sermons in Scripture come from an ex-terrorist and former betrayer of Jesus himself.
So, no, God doesn’t help the man who helps himself. He helps those who can’t help themselves . . . yes, even pastors who are misconstrued by their parishioners. The preacher’s charge is simply answering the request from John 12:21: “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” Preacher, give the people what they want — perhaps what they don’t even know they need. Give them the grand news of the Creator delivering his creatures who’d never be able deliver themselves. Give them Christ crucified. And regardless of how crisp your delivery was or how muddied their interpretations are, sleep well preacher, because there’s One who is always right. And he’s for you.
Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: G. Hamilton & J. Balfour, 1750), 298.
Thomas Guthrie, Christ and the Inheritance of the Saints (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1859), 18–19.