God Helps Those Who Help Themselves?


“God helps those who help themselves.” Do you remember the first time your heard this “truism”? I first heard it in a church!

Why I remember the sermon I can’t say, but I do remember as a young Christian hearing those words roll right off the pastor’s tongue. No proof was offered, no biblical text cited. The truth seemed self-evident. And I must not be alone. According to George Barna, 68 percent of born-again Christians agree with this statement, and 75 percent of Americans at large.[1]

I have always been suspect of “Christian” polling, so I decided to conduct my own poll at work. I asked ten people, five men and five women, all who claim to be Christians, whether they agree with the statement. The results? Eight out of ten—that’s 80 percent, for the mathematically challenged—agreed with the statement!

Of those eight, four are professing evangelicals, three of whom go to Southern Baptist churches, while the other attends a Christian church. Of the remaining four who agreed but who do not classify themselves as “evangelical,” two are professing Roman Catholics, one is a Methodist, and the other is non-denominational. The two who disagreed? A Reformed Baptist (no surprises here), and an evangelical Episcopalian.

What this means is, four of the six (67 percent) evangelicals agreed with the statement (compared to Barna’s 68 percent). As a Southern Baptist, I sadly observed that all my denominational friends agreed, one of whom is the wife of a husband in ministry. Perhaps Barna is right after all.


Where does this idea come from? It doesn’t come from the Bible;[2] it comes from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. And Franklin and his contemporaries adapted it from one of Æsop’s fables—Hercules and the Waggoner (6th century BC). In the story, a waggoner’s heavy load becomes bogged down in mud. In despair, the waggoner cries out to Hercules for help. Hercules replies, “Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel. The gods help them that help themselves.”[3] It’s rather ironic that a polytheistic tale appealing to Greek mythology has now made its way into what believers think is in the pages of Scripture.

What’s the significance of all this? It reveals how most Christians conceive of their relationship with God. To paraphrase, “If I put my shoulder to the wheel, then God will help me.” My preaching professor used to call this sola bootstrapsis theology. I first move to reform my life, then God will—and perhaps is obligated to—respond and cooperate with me. Which means our relationship with God is both conditional and synergistic.

As Christians considering the topic of conversion, we might ask whether this is how we should appeal to non-Christians? “Put your shoulder to the wheel of salvation, and God will then come to your aid?” Do we summon them to self-activity, where “there is no road to deity except by way of human activity?”[4]

What exactly is our role and responsibility, and what is God’s role and responsibility, in the process of conversion?


Protestants have historically considered this question in the ordo salutis (Latin for the “order of salvation”). The ordo salutis “describes the process by which the work of salvation wrought in Christ is subjectively realized in the hearts and lives of sinners. It aims at describing in their logical order, and also in their interrelations, the various movements of the Holy Spirit in the application of the work of redemption.”[5] It simply seeks to answer those questions that drove Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Namely, how do I find a gracious God, and how do I obtain the benefits of grace acquired by Christ?

Biblical scholars point to passages such as Romans 8:30, “and those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” for biblical evidence.[6] The ordo received extensive treatment by the Protestant Scholastics.

Some scholars today eschew the whole discussion, fearing that it turns salvation into a mechanistic process more akin to Aristotelian philosophy than the biblical witness. Though this critique is not without merit, the ordo salutis is still helpful. One must simply keep in mind that salvation is a unitary process intimately connected with our union in Christ. “Regeneration, faith, conversion, renewal and so on, after all, here frequently do not denote consecutive components on the road of salvation but sum up in a single word the whole transformation that takes place in humans.”[7] All the benefits are given to the elect at the same time. The emphasis is not primarily chronological, but logical and causal.


Critical to the ordo salutis is the state of man’s condition. The old axiom presents our options: speaking in moral terms, Pelagianism says that man is well, semi-Pelagianism that he is sick, Augustinianism that he is dead. If man is morally well or only partially impaired, then he can cooperate with God’s grace to save himself (Roman Catholicism). But if man is dead in trespasses and sins (cf. Eph. 2:1–3, 12), vitiated and impaired not in part but the whole, then he lacks the ability to save himself. Salvation must not be understood as synergistic but monergistic. God alone must take the initiative. He must impart spiritual life, replacing hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (cf. Ez. 36:26). Put plainly,

all men are conceived in sin, and born the children of wrath, indisposed to all-saving good, propense to evil, dead in sins, and the slaves of sin; and without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit, they neither are willing nor able to return to God, to correct their depraved nature, or to dispose themselves to the correction of it.[8]

Reflecting upon the human condition it was Cicero who said, “Man is a disaster.” In the historic Protestant understanding, salvation has always and only been a work of God’s wonderful, sovereign, and unmerited grace (cf. Eph. 2:8–9).


Given man’s perilous condition, the ordo salutis must originate with God. “The cause . . . is not to be ascribed to the dignity (or worthiness) of one nation above another, or to the better use of the light of nature; but to the most free good pleasure and gratuitous love of God.”[9] He is the efficient cause.[10] “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots” (Jer. 13:23)? Obviously not, therefore, “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:44). The biblical refrain is that “salvation is of the Lord” (cf. Jonah 2:9). God initiates salvation, and he does so on the basis of his love. That is, his love is the moving or impulsive cause. It is solely to the grace, favor, mercy, good will, and “gratuitous love” of God in Christ that we owe our salvation.[11]

If God is the author of salvation, the Holy Spirit is the agent of salvation uniting us to the person of Christ and applying his work to us. “The activity of the Holy Spirit is therefore nothing but an applicatory one. The order of redemption is the application of salvation (applicatio salutis).”[12] Just as the Son came to glorify the Father, so the Holy Spirit in turn glorifies the Son, “and he does not stop his activity before he has made the fullness of Christ to dwell in his church and the church has reached ‘the measure of the full stature of Christ’ (Eph. 4:13).”[13]

The instrumental cause or means by which we know salvation is the gospel, the Word of God. Salvation comes through the Word. Though natural revelation teaches us about God, it alone is insufficient for saving faith (cf. Rom. 1–3). We must encounter Christ personally through his Word (special revelation) and place our trust in the objective promises of the gospel (cf. Rom. 10:14–17).


Any discussion of the ordo salutis must deal first with the topic of election. Election is a biblical term, so the question is not “do we believe in election,” but what does the Bible mean by the term. First, the overwhelming evidence is that God has “elected” or “chosen” a people for himself. This is seen in the Old Testament, “To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the LORD set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today” (Deut. 10:14–15; cf. Ps. 33:12). God’s electing of persons is clearly taught by Jesus in the New Testament, “For many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14), and “you did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit” (Jn. 15:16; cf. Lk. 18:6–8).

Second, God’s election of individuals occurred before the foundation of the world. “For he [God] chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:4–6).

This then prompts the question that continues to divide some Protestant circles—namely, is God’s election of individuals conditional or unconditional? Does God peer down the corridors of time and elect us on the basis of our foreseen faith (conditional), or is our election unconditional and granted to us apart from any foreseen faith or goodness in us? In the former, repentance and faith (i.e. conversion) are fruits of the human will (perhaps aided by prevenient grace) that lead to our election. In this scheme, God’s election of people ultimately hinges on what the individual does, not what God does. God makes possible the salvation of all men, but has actually guaranteed and secured the salvation of no man. In the unconditional scheme, God takes the initiative to elect us and declare us as his own. Apart from this, we have no hope.

The biblical evidence supports unconditional election. Who is Israel in the Old Testament? The people the Lord “has chosen . . . for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deut. 7:6). God uniquely and specifically chose Israel out of all the nations to be his treasured possession. Why? Was it conditioned on the basis of Israel’s faithfulness, goodness, or strength? The following verse gives the answer: “it was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you” (Deut 7:7-8ff). The reason given for Israel’s blessed relationship with God . . . is God. He chose to love. He chose to set his affection upon Israel “above all peoples” despite her weak and meritless condition (cf. Deut. 10:14).

In the New Testament, Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn. 15:16). We love because he first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19). Contrary to human love that depends on the worthiness of the object, God’s choice was not based upon any faith or goodness in us, the objects of his love. Why was Jacob chosen over Esau? Paul writes, “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call” (Rom. 9:10–11). And if any doubt remained about the unconditional nature of election, we read of God “‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (v. 15–16).

Scripture simply never speaks of faith as the ground, or reason for God’s choosing us. All we know is that his choices, inscrutable as they often are, function to magnify his grace (cf. Rom. 9:18, 2 Tim. 1:8). Rightly understood, unconditional election in Scripture never leads to despair but encouragement for the believer (cf. Rom. 8:28, Eph. 1:11, 2 Thess. 2:13). It is an overwhelmingly gracious act that highlights the goodness of God (Matt. 1:25–30; Eph. 1:3–11). Justice demands all die, but in the mercy of God he has chosen to do for men what he did not do for rebellious angels—electing and redeeming some to eternal life. In summary, election is unconditional, gracious, and grounded in eternity past. It is the foundation from which we are now able to discuss the work of redemption in human lives.



Logically, the application of Christ’s redeeming work begins with calling. This is first presented through the gospel call, which is “the offering of salvation in Christ to people, together with an invitation to accept Christ in repentance and faith, in order that they may receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.”[15] The gospel call is a general or universal call, for it is made equally to all. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30; cf. Matt. 22:1–14). It is also a genuine call seriously offered by God. Jesus sincerely weeps and mourns over Jerusalem’s stubborn rejection and refusal of his message (Matt. 23:37). God truly desires that all come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9), so that they might receive rest (Matt. 11:28; cf. Jn. 1:11–12; Rev. 3:20).

This raises the rather thorny question of why some believe, and others do not. “Ay, here’s the rub!” Hamlet would say. Synergistic systems teach that either individuals are inherently capable of producing initial faith (Roman Catholic view) to which God necessarily responds in grace, or that God provides all people with an enabling or prevenient grace (Arminian/Wesleyan) that overcomes the effects of the fall. Armed with this prevenient grace some then choose to respond in faith. In other words, prevenient grace is a sufficient grace that only becomes efficient when the sinner cooperates with it. We might say prevenient grace is really nothing more than “the democratization of saving grace.”[16] In either the Roman Catholic or Arminian system, the power to believe or not to believe finally rests with the individual.

Monergism sees God’s election of some as the explanation for why some believe, and others do not. “For many are called (the gospel call), but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). In our fallen condition we are unwilling and unable to accept the gospel, “for the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:8; cf. Rom. 3, Eph. 2:1–5). God therefore must work effectually in us, willing us to believe. Monergists, therefore, distinguish between a gospel call and an effectual call. In the effectual call the Spirit works through the Word to “confirm,” “attest,” and “make manifest” God’s election.[17] For the monergist, to say God’s call is conditionally effectual upon man’s exercise of faith is “tantamount to saying that it is intrinsically ineffectual.”[18] Yet in Scripture, the call of God is effectual upon the elect. “Those whom God called, he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:44). It is an effectual call to salvation that brings us into fellowship with Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:9).

The teaching of an effectual call is not without opposition. First, if God’s call upon the elect is effectual and irresistible in that all who are called actually come, why bother with the outward preaching of the gospel call? This is a common objection, but the Bible reminds us that God ordains the means as well as the ends. God in his infinite wisdom and goodness has ordained that the gospel message, preached by human voices and accompanied by the Spirit, is to be the instrument of redeeming grace (cf. Rom. 10).

Second, some ask, does not the teaching of an effectual call suggest that God relates to us in an impersonal way? If God is the “cause” or our salvation, and our faith is merely the byproduct or “effect,” in what sense is this relational? Process theology and open theism all level this charge against an effectual call. Love, they argue, does not operate by mere principles of cause and effect, as a matter of God unilaterally turning the will. Love must be mutual, reciprocal, and non-coercive. God must woo his people, not with causal power but with the power of love and persuasion. Though some in classical theism have drifted into a depersonalized Aristotelian Prime Mover conception of God, evangelical Protestants have steered clear. God may bend and determine the will, but never in any way that is incongruous with human nature. God “can and does draw them, by the powerful influence of his grace upon them to himself and to his Son, and this he does without forcing their wills; he sweetly allures, by his grace, to come to Christ and his ordinances; he powerfully persuades.”[19] Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer helpfully reminds us that God’s effectual call is one of both energy and information. It is not merely a causal but a communicative act. In the effectual call God communicates to us through Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. The effectual call is a speech act, and is thus deeply personal.[20]

Third, some argue that an effectual call contravenes human freedom. It is manipulative and coercive. Open theist John Sanders goes so far as to call it divine rape, for God forces his will upon the elect. Yet there is no biblical account of one being forced to accept the gospel against his will. No one is brought kicking and screaming into the kingdom. There is nothing violent when the ears of the deaf are miraculously opened so they can hear the sweet voice of the Savior calling them by name. To use another biblical metaphor, God graciously makes the blind see. Is this a malicious, violent act? It is the case that the one illumined is both passive and active. Being made to understand, an individual understands and lovingly embraces the truth. This embrace is hardly compatible with the notion of divine rape. In summary, “the application of salvation is and remains a work of the Spirit, and is therefore never coercive and violent but always spiritual, lovely, and gentle, treating humans not as a block of wood but as rational beings, illuminating, persuading, drawing, and bending them.”


Whereas calling, particularly effectual calling, is a word image of God’s re-creative activity, regeneration is a renewal image. In many respects, they are different metaphors for the same work of uniting dead men and women to a living relationship with Christ. Regeneration speaks to our need to be born again, to be renewed and restored. For only in being born again are we able to see the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3). It is not optional, but the need of us all: “you must be born again” (Jn. 3:7). This birth is not physical, but a spiritual rebirth prophesied in the Old Testament that renews the inner man after God’s law (cf. Ez. 36).

Just as we are passive in our physical birth, so we are in our spiritual birth. In other words, regeneration is solely a work of God. John says the children of God are those “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13). Similarly, Peter writes, “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3). In regeneration God replaces our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh so that we who were spiritually dead become spiritually alive. It is obvious, then, that regeneration must precede conversion.[21]

At the Synod of Dort, the early Protestants beautifully summarized God’s radical, instantaneous, and supernatural regenerating work.

When God performs his good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, he not only provides that the gospel should be outwardly preached to them, and that their mind should be powerfully illuminated by the Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand, and judge what are the things of the Spirit of God, but he also, by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, penetrates into the innermost recesses of the man, opens his closed heart, softens his obdurate heart, circumcises his uncircumcised heart, infuses new qualities into his will, makes that which had been dead alive. . . . And that this regeneration . . . a new creation . . . which God without us (that is, without our concurrence) worketh in us. . . .  This by no means . . . remain in the power of man . . . regenerated or not regenerated, converted or not converted; but it is manifestly an operation supernatural, at the same time most powerful, and most sweet, wonderful, secret, and ineffable in its power . . . so that all those in whose hearts God works in this admirable manner, are certainly infallibly, and efficaciously regenerated, and in fact (actu) believe.[22]


The result of God’s regenerating work is belief, shorthand for conversion, where the sinner repents of his wrong and turns to Christ in faith. Without regeneration, conversion would be impossible. Lydia’s conversion provides a prototypical example. “The Lord opened her heart” (regeneration), the result being that she believed the gospel (conversion), and was then baptized (Acts 16:14).

Though conversion is distinct from regeneration, the distinction is not so much chronological as logical. In Scripture, there is not a category for one who has been regenerated by the Spirit, and yet becomes converted some time in the future. The two happen effectively at the same time, and yet God’s work logically precedes our response to him in repentance and faith. “The relationship between regeneration, and let us say faith, is like that between turning on the light switch and flooding a room with light—the two actions are simultaneous.”[23] John Gill summarized it well:

Regeneration is the sole act of God; conversion consists both of God’s act upon men, in turning them, and of acts done by men under the influence of converting grace; they turn, being turned. Regeneration is the motion of God towards and upon the heart of a sinner; conversion is the motion of a sinner towards God. In regeneration men are wholly passive, but by it become active.[24]


First, we must keep the Word as the focal point of our ministry. It is the divinely appointed means of salvation. It is through the proclamation of his Word, not the size of our buildings or budgets, that the Spirit becomes active. Together, the Word and the Spirit join in the effective work of salvation. To divorce the Spirit’s work from the Word is to begin the aimless trek toward inclusivism and dead orthodoxy.

Second, we ought to be confident in our assurance of salvation “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).[25] What is more comforting, to rest our salvation upon the power of our choice, decision, and faithfulness alone; or to rest it on the sacrificial work of Christ graciously applied to us by the Spirit? Synergistic systems “make everything wobbly and uncertain—even the victory of the good and the triumph of the kingdom of God—because it hangs everything on the incalculable arbitrariness of humans. Standing up for the rights of humankind, it tramples on the rights of God and for humans ends up with no more than the right to be fickle.”[26]

Lastly, we must make personal appeals! We are the God-ordained messengers of salvation. In our appeals there always must be the three necessary components of: presentation, invitation, and promise. We must be clear on our presentation (God, man, Christ). We must boldly call for a personal response. And we must honestly hold out the promise of eternal life. In the promise we must always remember that the ground of our eternal life is found in Christ’s work, not our decision or a prayer. Our confidence that his work has been applied to us is the evidence of spiritual fruit in our lives (cf. Jn. 15:8, 1 Jn. 2:3–6).


Humans always want to be their own saviors. But what distinguishes biblical Christianity from all other world religions is that Christianity is not autosoteric. In Islam, redemption is not a gift but an act. In Buddhism, it consists in mortifying the desire for existence, and “being your own light.” Through prayers, sacrifices, ceremonies and right ethical conduct, Pharisaical Judaism and Catholicism present meritorious schemes whereby we earn God’s favor.

Christianity knows of no such schemes. Salvation is of grace, from beginning to end. According to the good pleasure of God, the basis of Christ’s work, the agency of the Spirit, and the instrumentality of the Word, God elects, effectually calls, and regenerates. We are commanded to repent and believe, but this is all in vain if God does not first work in us. That is why faith itself is even called a gift of God (cf. Eph. 2:8).

God helps those who help themselves? If so, we are to be pitied above all men. Never has heaven appeared so far away.

* * * * *

[1] http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=66

[2] Boxing fans may remember that Evander Holyfield proudly appealed to the biblical wisdom this statement in an interview after defeating former heavy-weight champion Mike Tyson. He actually went further and said God can’t help you if you won’t help yourself. http://www.wie.org/j15/holyfield.asp?page=3

[3] http://www.bartleby.com/17/1/61.html

[4] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics – Vol 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 566-7.

[5] Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, Reprinted 2000), 415-16.

[6] Murray, John. Redemption – Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 98-105.

[7] Bavinck, 589.

[8] Synod of Dort, 294.

[9] Synod of Dort, 296.

[10] Contra Demarest (46), this is certainly not an affirmation of hyper-Calvinism, but rather the recognition that if man is dead in trespasses and sins God must first work to effect our salvation.

[11] John Gill, A Body of Doctrinal Divinity, The Baptist Faith Series, Vol. 1 (Paris: The Baptist Standard Bearer, Reprint, 1839), 551.

[12] Bavinck, 572.

[13] Bavinck, 572.

[14] In the following sections, I am indebted to my former theology professor Dr. Stephen Wellum. My framework has been informed by his work, which itself is a reflection of thoughtful Protestants throughout the past centuries.

[15] Hoekema, 68.

[16] Kevin J. Vanhoozer. First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2002), 103.

[17] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559 Edition, ed, by John T. McNeill, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 932-47,

[18] Vanhoozer, 104.

[19] Gill, 550.

[20] For a thorough and enlightening discussion see Vanhoozer, “Effectual Call or Causal Effect?” in First Theology, 96-124.

[21] See also Tom Schriener “Does Regeneration Necessarily Precede Conversion?” Accessed on 9Marks website at https://www.9marks.org/article/does-regeneration-necessarily-precede-conversion/.

[22] Synod of Dort, 299-300.

[23] Hoekema, Anthony. Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 14.

[24] Gill, 546,

[25] Note Phil. 2:12 “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” follows the indicative of their existing union with Christ and the Spirit (2:1). But even there in v. 12 Paul goes on to ground the imperative by saying, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and work for his good pleasure.”

[26] Bavinck, 573.

Brad Wheeler

Brad Wheeler is the Senior Pastor of University Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

9Marks articles are made possible by readers like you. Donate Today.