I've heard it uttered dozens of times. Friends, family members, and strangers have looked at me, a Presbyterian pastor, and said, "Well, you know what the Bible says, 'God helps those who help themselves.'" I politely smile, but inside I've just died a little. If you find that phrase in your Bible, it is only because it's on the other side of your bookmark with the poem about the footprints in the sand. But if you're reading a website like Ref21, you probably already know that.
A majority of Americans believe that this is a biblical phrase. Even those who know it isn't a biblical phrase usually attribute it to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack includes this phrase in it. But Franklin was not the originator of it. Some would point back to early Greek and Roman folklore or Aesop's fables where versions of this saying are found. Versions of this saying also appear in George Herbert's poetry in the early 17th century. Others see it as originating in Algernon Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government (1680). But the form in which it usually appears today most likely originated with the Reformed and Puritan Bible commentator, Matthew Henry--yep, that Matthew Henry.
Matthew Henry was one of the most published and widely read authors in the early 18th century. At that time, it was common that if you had three books, you had the Bible, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and Henry's Exposition of the Old and New Testaments or The Complete Commentary. Spurgeon, Whitefield, and Wesley all commended Henry's commentary. It was noted that Whitefield read through it four times, the last time on his knees. And Spurgeon said, "Every minister ought to read it entirely and carefully through once at least."1 Matthew Henry's writings were thoroughly saturated and filled with Scripture.
Henry's commentary on Joshua 5:13-15 reads, "God will help those who help themselves." In his 2015 Twin Lakes Fellowship lecture on Matthew Henry, Ligon Duncan speculates that one reason people think this phrase is in the Bible is because Henry's writings were so thoroughly biblical, if he wrote it, it might as well be in the Bible. People began to assume that it was actually in the Bible; therefore, it entered into popular biblical vernacular.
But the way Henry intended this phrase is most decidedly not the way most people use it today. Michael Horton has pointed out repeatedly that this phrase is usually used in an entirely unbiblical way. The broadly evangelical use of this phrase is usually freighted with American exceptionalism, a healthy dose of what Christian Smith calls "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," and Arminian theology. The result is something that means do better and try harder. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. God will work out everything for those who try hard. Do your best and God will do the rest. In salvation, it tends to mean that at the end of time, God will pull out the cosmic scales of justice. He'll empty out all of your good works on one side. He'll empty out all the bad things on the other side. And then he'll place his thumb on the good side to give everyone a healthy nudge in the right direction. God is going to grade on a curve. Get yours and God will work it out.
Perhaps this fit well with Franklin's deism. Do good and God will intervene when necessary. If Matthew Henry meant the phrase in this way, then he was most certainly wrong. But this was not how Matthew Henry intended it. Henry was certainly no Arminian or deist. Duncan pointed out that Henry mentions over 40 times in his commentary that we are unable to help ourselves toward salvation. We are spiritually dead. We do not initiate, assist, or respond to something before regeneration and then God responds to our work by saving us. Salvation is thoroughly and completely monergistic.
So what did Henry mean when he said, "God will help those who help themselves?" In this passage Henry points out that just before the city of Jericho was conquered, Joshua was "by Jericho." It was here that Joshua met the Commander of the Lord's Army. Joshua was in Jericho by "faith and hope, though he had not begun to lay siege to the city. He was in it in thought and expectation." Joshua went through the front line and up to the enemy city to pray, plan, and prepare. Without fear Joshua stood by Jericho knowing that soon those walls would fall and the city would be taken.
"There he was meditating and praying; and to those who are so employed God often graciously manifest himself." Joshua was there because the Lord had promised victory. He was sure of that victory. He had no fear. He knew what God was going to do. And yet, he went up to the city to prepare, because Joshua also knew that God uses means. God executes his will through means, and sometimes we are those means. God uses us as his instruments to affect his will in this world. And when he does, God will help us accomplish those ends. God will graciously manifest himself to us as we seek to see his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. God will help us as we do what he has called us to do. "God will help those who help themselves. Vigilantibus non dormientibus succurrit lex - The law succors those who watch, not those who sleep."
This is a very Reformed understanding of God's providence and sovereignty. God will bring His sovereign will to pass and he will so orchestrate all of human history in such a way as to use us to accomplish his purposes. As we help ourselves in doing these things, God will help us succeed. Trust in God's calling on your life. Do the things God has called you to do. And God will help you in those works. God helps those who help themselves.
1. Samuel Macauley Jackson and Lefferts A. Loetscher, eds., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. V (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1953), 229, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/encyc05/Page_229.html.