Often, in preaching and in teaching, I have stated that the most quoted verse in the Bible isn’t John 3:16, but rather it is, “God helps those who help themselves.” The only problem is this verse is not in the Bible. Go ahead, look for it.
I bring this up because I think this is the attitude that many people, including Christians, bring to the concept of salvation. Call it the castaway mentality. In the movie Castaway, Tom Hanks’ character is marooned on a deserted island. While he waits to be rescued, he learns to sustain himself on the island: starting a fire, building a shelter, learning to fish, and eventually even constructing a rudimentary calendar to track days and months.
But his rescuers never come.
And so Hanks and his best friend Wilson (a volleyball) decide to save themselves. He constructs a make-shift raft with a metal sail to get past the sea surge and heads out to sea. After a few days at sea, and near death (and with a wicked tan), Hanks has successfully brought himself to his rescuers so they can save him.
Many people think this is what we do for God. If I can start the process in my life; if I can be good enough; if I can purify my thoughts; if I can perfect just a few virtues in my life, then I will be ready for God to save me.
In Psalm 6:4-5, David tells us plainly and simply that this is not how God works.
Insights from the Septuagint
4Return, Lord, rescue my soul;
save me because of your mercy.
5Because in death no one remembers you;
and in Hades who will praise you?
I would like to focus briefly on the word I translated “rescue” (translated “deliver” in the ESV). It’s really going to help the discussion below. The definition of the word in Greek is, “to rescue from danger, with the implication that the danger in question is severe and acute.”
This is an intense prayer and plea on the part of David. He recognizes that the spiritual state he’s in is dire. By using this word, there is a confession that he has found no hope for deliverance except in God alone. He’s not even going to attempt to save himself. Keep that in mind.
Law & Gospel
To begin at the beginning, we have to ask ourselves the question, “How would one go about saving himself?” Strike that. That’s not the beginning at all. The real beginning is, “What does it mean to be saved?”
Since this post isn’t exactly about soteriology (the study of salvation), I’ll be brief. What salvation entails is approval from God. At the end of life, we’ll all be judged (Matt. 13:24-30). At the judgment we’ll either have God’s approval and get to spend eternity in heaven with him, or we’ll be condemned to eternity in hell.
So, in actuality, the question, “How would one go about saving himself?” is closely related to the question, “How would one earn God’s approval?” A common answer to that question is “through my good behavior” or some other similar variation.
Good behavior must necessarily be measured by a standard. Since in judgment, we are trying to meet God’s approval, the standard must be God’s standard. God’s standard is declared to us and spelled out for us in the words of the Law, of which the Ten Commandments are primary.
What does the Bible tell us about our ability to please God through obedience to the Ten Commandments? “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” (Rom. 3:23). Okay, so maybe I’ve broken one or two (or three or four) of the commandments. But I know I’ve never murdered anyone, and I’ve never stolen, and I’ve never slept with anyone else’s wife. That’s got to count for something.
But as we dig deeper, we run into passages like Matt. 5:21-30, and we find we no longer have a leg to stand on. In addition to all that, even if we were able to successfully keep even one of God’s laws, James is kind enough to tell us, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it,” (James 2:10).
Perhaps it would have been easier simply to turn to Rom. 3:20 and read, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” You see, the Law informs us of God’s holy and perfect will. But because it is God’s holy and perfect will, it does nothing for us but reveal our sins and our failures.
It is designed to take us to the exact place where David found himself when he wrote Psalm 6. We can’t meet God halfway when it comes to salvation. Nor a third of the way, or even a sixty-fourth of the way. We’re stuck where we are, desperately in need of a Savior.
And so we echo with King David, “Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love.” In spite of our sin and rebellion, God does not remain a God of wrath, even though he would be justified in doing that. He is also a God of steadfast love, and to that we run.
If sin and death were the end of things, David would not have been able to pray in verse five, “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” But this is an announcement that in God, in his steadfast love, there is life! Life in Jesus Christ (John 14:6), who took our place on the cross and bore the punishment we deserved.
Salvation is from the Lord (and only from the Lord)!
 Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, vol. 1, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible societies, 1996), 240.