It is often thought that “God helps those who help themselves” is a quote from the Bible or perhaps that it is a biblical teaching. It is neither. Even though “God helps those who help themselves” is not biblical, it is a very old error. Before the Reformation, the common belief was that “God will not deny his grace to those who do what is in their power” – another way of saying God helps those who help themselves. This manner of thinking was and is connected with a certain way of reading and understanding the Bible.
Before the Reformation, in the Medieval church, it was common to think of the Bible in terms of old law and new law. In the Old Testament, there was old law, where there was no grace and therefore no hope for salvation. In the New Testament, one could find a New Moses, Jesus Christ, and a new law. The difference between the old law and the new law was that God gives more grace so that believers can obey. Believers do everything they can and then God adds his grace so that there is even more obedience. This obedience contributes to one’s righteous standing before God. God helps those who help themselves.
This way of thinking continues to be popular, although today we might more aptly describe this way of reading the Bible as hard law and law light. A very popular author found in Christian bookstores tells readers that we just have to do our best and then God will give us his grace. According to this writer, God looks in our hearts and he sees that they’re basically good and we’re trying to do the right thing. He comes with steps to follow to have “your best life now” or “become a better you.” By living a certain way, you can tap into God’s power and receive all sorts of blessings. In an interview with 60 Minutes, he was asked why he never speaks about Jesus Christ. He just answered that that’s not what he does and that he wants to help a wide variety of people to live better lives. You’ve probably guessed the author I’m speaking about. Joel Osteen is just one example of the modern tendency to preach law light.
What we need today is simply what was needed and rediscovered at the time of the Reformation: a proper distinction between the law and the gospel. Martin Luther rejected the old law/new law scheme after he carefully studied 2 Corinthians 3:6. That passage clearly speaks about the law as a killing letter. Instead of old law/new law, Luther saw that the proper way of understanding the Bible, particularly when it comes to salvation, is to see it in terms of law and gospel. Not very long after, John Calvin followed in his footsteps, also clearly distinguishing between law and gospel when it comes to our salvation.
That being the case, it shouldn’t surprise us to find this distinction found in the Heidelberg Catechism as well. In Lord’s Day 2, we discover that we know our sins and misery from the law of God. That law is summarized with Christ’s words in Matthew 22. Later, in Lord’s Day 6, we confess that we know the revelation of Jesus Christ as our Mediator from the holy gospel. The words here were chosen very carefully and if you ever read the commentaries of Ursinus and Olevianus on their Catechism, you’ll see that the distinction between law and gospel was critically important for them.