“Grace Changes Things”

Scripture:  Galatians 2:11-21 

God Helps Those…

“God helps those who help themselves.”  How many of you are familiar with that scripture passage?  Who can tell me where in the Bible it can be found?

You might be surprised to know that it actually doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible.  Go ahead and look all you want – you won’t find it.  Although the concept can be found in many Greek tragedies dating from before the New Testament was written, it isn’t included in the Bible.  For example, it was Sophocles who wrote, "No good ever comes of leisure without purpose; And heaven never helps the man who will not act."  Another Greek playwright, Euripides, wrote, "Try first thyself, and afterward call in God; For to the worker God himself lends aid."

The first time the familiar English version that we all know, “God helps those who help themselves,” first appeared in the year 1698 from political theorist Algernon Sidney, and was later quoted by Benjamin Franklin.  And as they say – the rest is history.

But don’t feel bad if you thought it was in the Bible – You can rest assured that a significant portion of Americans are in the same boat.  You might be familiar with the “Jaywalking” sketch on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno where Leno goes to the streets of Burbank, California asking people simple questions about things that should be common knowledge.  There was one segment in which Leno asked random people to name just one of the Ten Commandments.  The most common response was, “God helps those who help themselves.”  In 1997, a poll found that 75% of American teenagers believed that it was the central message of the bible. [1]  And it continues to rank fairly high among the most well-known scripture passages – all while not actually being a scripture passage.

God Simply Helps

While it is possible that the Apostle Paul may have been familiar with this concept, I can say with confidence that he didn’t agree with it.  It is simply impossible to reconcile the idea that God helps us only when we first take action on our own behalf with the gospel that Paul preached and taught in Galatia and elsewhere.  Throughout his letters, Paul is constantly reaffirming that our efforts are useless when it comes to receiving God’s help.  It is God’s grace, not our efforts, which can lead to salvation and transformation.  Paul would never say, “God helps those who help themselves.”  His message is simply, “God helps.”

But it’s so easy to see why it is such an appealing idea that it has been integrated so deeply into our collective thinking that many of us have mistaken it as a biblical truth.  We tend to view the Christian faith as if it were some sort of economic system where we pay a certain price or perform a certain action in order to receive something in return. 

The Galatians were told by a group of missionaries that, in order to be fully integrated into the faith community, they must start adhering to some of the basic tenants of the Jewish Law – To be circumcised, to observe some of the holy days, and to follow the Jewish dietary restrictions.  They were told that they were welcome to join, but they needed to do just a couple of things in order to look and act the part.

Like many situations that are mentioned in the Bible, where we have the benefit of hindsight, it’s tempting for us to look on as 21st Century readers and condemn the Galatians.  “C’mon, Galatians, get it together!”

But the truth is, we’re not as different from the Galatians as we might like to believe.  The situation that unfolds in the passage isn’t all that different from situations that we find in our own lives.  Let me offer an illustration from a contemporary context – though it doesn’t have the weight or eternal implications of the Galatian controversy, I think it can still shed some light on the passage.

Imagine that you are have just joined a sports team, and everybody on the team has a uniform.  Except you.  And a few of your friends who have just joined the team with you.  At first, you might feel a bit self-conscious, but there’s this one guy on the team named Paul, and Paul says to you, “Don’t worry.  Even though you don’t have a uniform, you’re a legitimate, valued member of this team.”  But you notice that some of the other teammates – the ones with the uniforms – haven’t been passing the ball to you.  One of them even says to you, “I’m glad you’re here, but if you really want to be a part of this team…  Well, you don’t necessarily have to have the entire uniform, but you should probably at least get a jersey.  That way, the coach will know that you are really taking this whole thing seriously.”

If you found yourself in that scenario, what would you do?  I know that I would be rushing off to get myself a jersey!  “I hear what you’re saying, Paul, but I’d really feel better if I just went ahead and got myself a uniform...  Then I will know for sure that I’m included.”

We want that assurance that we are included.  We want to be sure that we are doing everything within our control to improve our current situations, our social standings, and every element of our lives.  The proof of this is all around us, incorporated into everyday life.  We live in the age of “Self-Help” and “Self-Improvement.”  In fact, those are a couple of the largest sections of any American bookstore.  We even have a TV network called the “Do-It-Yourself Network.” One of the first phrases that many children learn is, “I can do it all by myself.”  We have 24/7 access to resources that help us to become increasingly independent, so that we don’t have to rely on or trust anybody else to help us get by.

This desire to be in control of our own destiny extends even to the realm of eternal life.  We want to know for sure that we are doing everything that we possibly can in order to be included and counted as righteous before God.  Surely, there is something that we can do to make sure that God looks upon us favorably! It’s as if we’re frantically searching for the perfect “do-it-yourself” guide for assuring that we will receive eternal life.

That’s the reason that the Galatians were tempted to become strict observers of the Biblical Law.  They were enchanted by the promise that If you follow these three simple steps, even you can be saved!  And it’s the reason that we talk about somebody being either a so-called “Good Christian” or a “Bad Christian” based on how often they go to church, how much money they give, or how often they reach out to people in need.  Perhaps you can think of other things that might be included in a “how-to” guide to salvation?  For some reason, we feel the need to try to establish these things as a scale to let us know where on the spectrum of righteousness we, and others, fall.

Grace Alone

But that’s not how it works.  Sure – Some of those things might be good things to do anyway.  There is no doubt that being a follower of Christ certainly makes us responsible for showing love to God and neighbor.  But no action that we perform on our own behalf can ever bring us closer to salvation.

Paul tells us repeatedly that it is through the grace of God alone that we are made righteous before God.  He takes our self-help theology and throws it out the window.  He writes here in Galatians: “We know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Christ.  We ourselves believed in Christ Jesus so that we could be made righteous by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the Law…I don’t ignore the grace of God, because if we become righteous through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:16, 21 CEB).

Friends, grace changes things.  In fact, grace changes everything.  Grace changes the way that we approach God, and the way that God approaches us.  Everything that God does on our behalf comes solely out of God’s love for us, and not as a reward for anything that even the most pious people do.  It doesn’t matter how good, how privileged, or how obedient we think we are – every one of us comes to God by grace, which means that not a single one of us is valued any more or any less than another believer.

When we try to help ourselves, we will fall short.  Period.  That’s just the way it is.  Forgiveness, reconciliation, salvation, and wholeness are actions of God, not of humanity.  Henri Nouwen summed this up well when he wrote, “A human being is not someone who once in a while makes a mistake, and God is not someone who now and then forgives.  No!  Human beings are sinners and God is love.”[2]

When we stop striving to earn righteousness, we can instead accept that we already receive it through the grace of God and the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.  THEN we can shift our focus to how it is that we receive and respond to that which is freely given.

[1] Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_helps_those_who_help_themselves

[2] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living A Prayerful Life, Compiled & Edited by Wendy Wilson Greer. 1999. p. 158, 159.  Originally quoted in With Open Hands. 1974.