In psychology, it’s known as the illusory truth effect: If you repeat a statement often enough, it will seem more likely to be true.
There are statements we Christians make that are not in the Bible, but because they’ve been repeated so often, they are believed to be accurate. So, I thought it would be interesting to explore some statements we regularly hear from Christians that have become believed to be true, although they’re not.
“God helps those who help themselves.”
The origins of this phrase go back to ancient Greece. The English version was first penned by Algernon Sydney, an English politician, in the 1600s. The idea in this statement is that if you want God’s help, you first have to show initiative. But the assertion falls over at the first hurdle.
Consider the very essence of the Christian gospel, which emphasises people’s inadequacy to “save” themselves by human effort. The law was powerless to save anyone because no one could obey the law all the time. And so, God took the initiative by working in Christ to reconcile the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19).
People can do nothing to help themselves out of sin and its consequences. It took a divine act of unconditional love to achieve salvation, restoration, and forgiveness for all humanity. God didn’t help those who helped themselves because no one could. God helps those who realise they can’t help themselves.
The church has not done a great job of conveying this wonderful truth. Instead, the communication that rings out loud and clear is invariably a moralising message. We’ve told others what’s wrong with them and what they should not do. So much so that many people reason they’ll have to get themselves right first before they come to God (or church). This is the very antithesis of the Christian message.
The statement, God helps those who help themselves, makes us the source of help and strength. God is secondary and will surely appreciate our efforts, and then he will help us. But the Christian is to live a life of reliance on the grace of God and the Holy Spirit as our advocate.
The flip side is that God’s help doesn’t remove our responsibility. Praying and asking for God’s support doesn’t mean you sit on your blessed assurance staring into the heavens. Relying on grace and being empowered by the Holy Spirit, we use our initiative and God-given wisdom. For example, if you need employment, pray about it BUT THEN go out and look for work, knock on doors. God’s help does not remove our responsibility.
“We are sinners saved by grace.”
I heard this statement again today on a new worship album from a megachurch. “Lord, we’re just sinners saved by grace.” Nowhere in the Bible are Christians referred to as sinners, let alone as sinners saved by grace.
Someone may say, “well, the apostle Paul viewed himself as a sinner…” and they’ll quote 1 Timothy 1:15, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” But if you read on, you’ll discover that Paul was referring to his life before he became a Christian.
Paul wrote something similar to the Corinthian church: “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” In the next verse, the apostle proclaims, “But by the grace of God I am what I am.” That is, by God’s grace Paul was no longer a sinner; he was now a saint. He did not deny that he was a sinner (past tense), but he lived in the reality of what Christ had made him (a saint). And this is what we’re called to do.
We could rewrite this phrase more accurately: “We were sinners, but we were saved by grace, and so are sinners no longer.” That doesn’t mean we’re perfect; far from it. But the New Testament Scriptures declare followers of Jesus to be saints and not sinners. A saint is a person who has been born into God’s family and is “set apart” as belonging to God. They then live a life befitting a person who belongs to God.
Christ-followers are to see themselves in the light of this truth because how we live our lives is determined by how we see ourselves. As Neil Anderson rightly asserts, “No one can consistently behave in a way that is inconsistent with how he perceives himself.” If I view myself as having the righteousness of God in Christ, I am more likely to behave righteously.
Jesus came to change sinners into saints.
“Love the sinner and hate the sin.”
Christians quote this as if it were a Bible verse right next to “cleanliness is next to godliness,” a well-known saying by John Wesley. But neither statements are in the Bible.
Each part of “love the sinner and hate the sin” is valid – God loves sinners and hates sin. But as a collective statement, it’s not correct.
The problem with “love the sinner and hate the sin” is that it is rarely meant. It is just a Christian-sounding platitude aimed at people whose behaviour we struggle with, whose sin we hate, and people we don’t love if we are brutally honest. This statement salves our conscience and makes us feel like we’re being Christian when we display unchristian attitudes towards others.
Of course, we can only know if we love the sinner by spending time with them and helping them when they’re in need. How do we feel about the drug addict with needle scars and missing teeth? What is our attitude towards homeless people who haven’t bathed or changed their clothes for weeks? Do we love the gay man or woman at work (or in our family), or do we merely tolerate them? Do we pretend to love people but then say derogatory things about them behind their backs? We only know the true nature of our hearts when confronted by someone with whom we struggle. And let’s be honest about our struggles rather than hide behind clichés like “love the sinner and hate the sin.”
Another reason this saying is so wrong is that the sinner and the sin are often inseparable. In other words, someone’s behaviour often defines them as a person, so when we say we “hate the sin”, the person hears “I hate you.” The Bible talks about loving people, period.
The statement “Love your neighbour as yourself” is found nine times in the Scripture – divine emphasis for a purpose. In Galatians 5:14, the apostle Paul says that this truth sums up the entire law. In James 2:8, this command is called “The Royal Law,” the preeminent truth that reigns over all truth.
Jesus illustrated how we are to love our neighbour as ourselves by telling the story of The Good Samaritan. Samaritans were hated and despised by Jews in Jesus’ day. The Samaritans were mixed-race Jews because they had intermarried with Gentiles and were considered worse than gentiles – the lowest of the low, the greatest of sinners. Jesus could not have found a more powerful illustration to prove His point. He didn’t teach “Love the sinner and hate the sin.” He taught, “Love the person like they were you.” May this challenge us to the core of our faith!