He Doesn’t Need Your Help: The Truth You Must Understand
June 21, 1998
Those who listen to me preach on a regular basis know that whenever I find a good idea, I like to repeat it over and over again. Last year I happened to stumble across a spiritual truth so profound that I titled it the First Rule of the Spiritual Life. Even though I’ve mentioned it many times, I’d like to begin this sermon by repeating the First Rule once again: He’s God and we’re not. All spiritual reality begins with the recognition that there is a God who rules the affairs of men and nations, and that he is truly God and we are truly not. Once you accept that truth, you can advance in the spiritual life, but until you recognize it, you will be stuck forever in spiritual kindergarten.
That leads me to suggest the following truth: The gospel begins with God. It doesn’t begin with Jesus or with us. The divine plan of salvation begins with the God who designed it. If you are wrong about God, you are bound to be wrong everywhere else. If you are right about who God is, you will likely be right everywhere else.
In the spiritual realm everything starts with God. That’s why the Apostles Creed begins with these familiar words: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. Until you know who God is, you can hardly begin to understand anything else in the Christian faith. This has profound implications for evangelism. People must know who God is before they can enter into a right relationship with him. This is fundamental to all gospel preaching.
It is precisely at this point that we encounter a major challenge in our attempts to reach this generation with the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is evident even to a casual observer that most Americans have only a rudimentary understanding of the Christian faith. Pollster George Barna (in his new book The Second Coming of the Church) paints a bleak picture of the profound misunderstanding most Americans have regarding spiritual issues. Listed below are the percentages of people who agree with each erroneous statement:
81% “God helps those who help themselves.”
61% TheHoly Spirit is not a real Person—only a force or power.
60% Satan is not a real being.
55% If a person does enough good things, he will go to heaven.
53% All people pray to the same God under different names.
44% Jesus Christ committed sin when he lived on the earth.
44% After death, all go to the same place regardless of personal belief.
40% Jesus did not physically rise from the dead.
38% It doesn’t matter which religion—all teach the same things.
34% The Bible is not wholly accurate.
Two weeks ago Dr. James Dobson delivered the closing message to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (meeting this year in Salt Lake City, Utah). He announced that all the various Focus on the Family publications would begin adding a new section called “Fundamentals of the Faith” in order to combat the appalling biblical illiteracy of this generation. He quoted a 1994 survey in which 10% of those polled said that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. We might add that other surveys report that most Americans don’t know more than two or three of the Ten Commandments, can’t name the four gospels, have no idea what the Beatitudes are, and can’t identify more than one or two of the 12 apostles. In the words of one writer, there is an “intellectual black hole” in our culture caused by a generation that has been completely cut off from even the most basic rudiments of biblical faith.
Let me quote George Barna directly: “The Bible knowledge of most Americans is astoundingly limited. … The spirituality of Americans is Christian in name only. We desire experience more than knowledge. We prefer choices to absolutes. We embrace preferences rather than truths. We seek comfort rather than growth. Faith must come on our terms or we reject it. We have enthroned ourselves as the final arbiters of righteousness, the ultimate rulers of our own experience and destiny.”
Some writers use the terms “Post-modern” and “Post-Christian” to describe the current spiritual climate in America. I prefer the term “Post-Biblical” because it describes a situation in which a society that once relied on biblical principles has almost wholly departed from its heritage.
This has direct impact on our evangelistic efforts. Forty years ago most lost people in America could be approached with the certainty that they knew some of the foundational truths of the Bible. Many of them knew they didn’t know God—even if they didn’t know where to find him. That simply is no longer the case. We are now dealing with people who don’t know that they don’t know God. That’s a much more difficult challenge.
Paul Begins With God
All of that brings us to Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 to the intellectual leaders of ancient Athens. As he stood on Mars Hill and addressed the Areopagus, he faced a predicament remarkably similar to the one we face today. His hearers were highly educated, extremely religious, and biblically illiterate. They didn’t know what they didn’t know.
Where do you start in dealing with people like that? I find it very instructive that Paul begins by introducing his hearers to the concept of the true and living God. He doesn’t assume they know who God is. To the contrary, he assumes they know nothing about the true God. He starts with what might be called “Theology Proper”—the study of God—and then proceeds from there to the truth about Jesus Christ.
This is crucial for us to consider. Sometimes we mistakenly assume that the unsaved know what we mean when we use words like God, Son of God, sin, salvation, justification, and eternal life. All too often they either don’t have a clue or their ideas are entirely wrong. We must begin where people are. We must not force them to begin where we are.
Let’s take a look at how Paul introduces the men of Athens to the God of the Bible:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. (Acts 17:24-25)
In just two verses we have a remarkably detailed yet succinct explanation of who God is. Since the gospel begins with God, we should give careful attention as the Apostle Paul describes him in five different ways.
First, he is …
I. The Creator of All Things
“The God who made the world and everything in it.” This is Genesis 1:1 all over again. You might say that Acts 17:24 is the New Testament equivalent of the first verse of the Bible. Paul begins by declaring that there is One God and only One who created all things. This statement demands a Personal God (it was God who created—not some impersonal force) and a Purposeful God (the universe originated not by chance but by divine design). This brief statement rightly understood refutes the following heresies: Atheism, Deism, Materialism, Evolutionism, Polytheism, Fatalism, and Pantheism.
Some of you may remember how the late Carl Sagan began each episode of his immensely popular Cosmos series on PBS: “The cosmos is all that was, all that is, and all that ever will be.” Against that statement of pure naturalism, the Bible tells us that God is the origin of all that was, all that is, and all that ever could be. Nothing comes into being apart from him.
Paul starts here because this is fundamental to everything else in the Bible. If you can believe in God the Creator, you can believe everything the Bible says. Doubt this, and you’ll end up doubting everything else. To those who question the existence of God, I simply say, “Look around you. How did all this get here?” The world as we know it did not come into being by accident or chance or fate. Creation demands a Creator. “The heavens tell of the glory of God. The skies display his marvelous craftsmanship” (Psalm 19:1 NLT). Light from God streams in on every side. You have to willfully shut your eyes in order to miss the evidence for God’s existence. That’s why only a fool would say, “There is no God” (Psalm 14:1).
This is our God-given starting point for evangelism—that God personally and purposefully created all things. It is also the logical ending point of Christian worship. Romans 11:36 reminds us that creation leads to doxology: “From him and through him and to him are all things.”
This truth means that God has not left himself without a witness. To summarize Romans 1:18-21 in one sentence, everyone is guilty because everyone knows about God. Something about God “gets through” to every person born on planet earth. To say it another way, there are two “books” that teach us about God. One is the Book of God’s Truth—the Bible; the other is the Book of God’s Creation. Both books are open for all to read.
II. The Lord of the Universe
“The Lord of heaven and earth.” Paul next draws the logical conclusion that if God is the Creator, he must also be the Lord of the Universe. Because he is the Creator, he owns what he has made, and therefore is the absolute Master of all things. This means that A) He has an absolute claim on your life because he created you, and B) He has the right to do what he wants, when he wants, and he doesn’t have to consult you in advance. Lordship means that God is perfectly free to do whatever he deems best in every situation without consulting or informing any of his creatures in advance.
Recently I talked with some friends who felt very frustrated about the misbehavior of a person they had once respected. What could they do about it? Answer: Not much, because none of us has the power to control another person in the ultimate sense. The question came again and again, What can we do? Finally, I said that we should take a vote and decide who is going to be God. Either God could be God or they could be God, but you can’t have two people being God at the same time. My friends smiled at that suggestion because in the end, lordship means recognizing that God is God and we are not.
III. The God Without Limits
“Does not live in temples built by hands.” I’m sure we don’t feel the force of these words like the men of Athens did. After all, they lived in a city with 30,000 altars to 30,000 gods—deities of every variety springing up on every corner. Athens was the “god capital” of the ancient world. In one brief statement Paul declares that idolatry isn’t just wrong, it’s a foolish waste of time. Why try to contain God in any manmade structure? It can’t be done.
The pagans actually thought they were feeding their gods with the fat of their animal sacrifices. But that only demonstrates how debased their religion had become. Contrast this with the words of Solomon at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). If this is true (and it is), then idolatry is truly foolish. No statue, image, painting or icon can convey the essence of who God is. For that matter, no church building can contain God’s presence. If we think that God somehow dwells in our sanctuaries in a sense different from his presence anywhere else in the world, then we have made the same mistake as the idol-worshippers of ancient Athens. He is the “God without limits” and therefore cannot and will not be contained by any physical structure.
IV. The King Without Needs
“He is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything.” This is a remarkable statement. The word “needed” in Greek is therapeuetei, from which we get the English word therapeutic, which means rendering service to a sick person. How does that apply in this verse? Answer: God isn’t sick! If you will pardon the expression, he’s never felt better than he feels right now. He’s in perfect health (which is why he is called “The Lord who Heals” in the Old Testament, Exodus 15:26) and doesn’t need anything from anyone.
Here are two words that describe God: Self-sufficient and Independent. What he is, we are not. We are insufficient in ourselves and completely dependent on God for everything we need.
Let me suggest two important implications from this truth:
A) He doesn’t require any help from us.
B) He doesn’t profit from anything we do for him.
If you doubt that statement, consider the words of Psalm 50:9-12, “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.” I love that last sentence because it teaches us that if God is hungry, he won’t ask you to run out to Burger King and pick up a Double Whopper with Cheese. He can make all the hamburgers he wants without any help from anyone else.
If God doesn’t “need” us, where does our worship, prayer and praise fit into the picture? The answer is that God is honored by our worship and service but he doesn’t “need” it in order to fill up any lack in his own divine Person. He welcomes our prayers, invites our praise, and commands us to worship, yet in the end he can survive without it. After all, he was just as much God before creating the universe as he is now. He didn’t create us in order to fill something lacking in himself. We pray because we need to pray, not because God needs our prayers.
When Paul says that God is not “served by human hands,” this is both bad news and good news. It’s bad news for the self-sufficient, self-made people of this world who believe in self-reliance as the answer to all things. If you are one of those people who think that you can get along with just a little help from God, then you are sadly mistaken. Deluded would be a better word. It’s possible to spend your entire life doing good, going to church, and trying your best only to discover that those things don’t matter at all to God. It’s like spending months studying for a final exam in geometry only to discover the test is about geology. To be partly wrong on this point is to be entirely wrong.
But this is also good news to the weak people of the world. If you’re not feeling so hot about yourself right now, then you are an excellent candidate for salvation. If you are willing to admit that you can’t do anything without messing it up somehow, then this is the news you need to hear.
You can’t impress God. Don’t even bother trying. He made the Milky Way Galaxy by waving his pinkie finger. Millions of stars and he doesn’t even work up a sweat. And you think God is impressed with your new car? And what about those degrees after your name? Big Deal. His degree is C.U.—Creator of the Universe. Can you top that?
V. The Source of All Life
Paul’s final description of God touches the core of human existence: “He himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” There are three categories here that would appear to be entirely exhaustive of the human experience.
A. Life—the fact that we are alive and not dead.
B. Breath—that fact that we continue to be alive moment-by-moment.
C. Everything else—anything else we could ever need.
Take a deep breath. Now exhale slowly. Where did that breath come from? God. How do I know? If God hadn’t given you that breath, someone would be calling the paramedics right now.
One note from the Greek text. This is a present tense which means he keeps on giving and giving and giving. Do you remember the first line of the doxology? “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” How fitting that we should acknowledge God as the source of every blessing. Psalm 104:27-28 reminds us that “these all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.” This is called “common grace”—the blessings God gives to all creatures and to all people everywhere. Jesus teaches the same thing in Matthew 5:45 when he says that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous.”
Let no one boast of what you have, for what you have was given by God. Are you the architect of your own fortune? Perhaps, but God gave you the materials with which to work, and the mind to conceive the plan, and the energy to carry it out. All that you accomplish comes ultimately from Him. Nothing good comes from us. If it’s good, it comes from God.
Dobson Once Again
Let me wrap up this sermon by saying that I think James Dobson is right. We live in a day of enormous spiritual confusion. We desperately need to recover the fundamentals of the faith. I think the Apostle Paul would tell us that God is the first fundamental. If we are to reach this generation, we must know the truth about God ourselves, and we must patiently share it with others because the gospel begins with God.
Who is our God? Our text answers this all-important question. He is the …
Creator of all things
Lord of the Universe
God Without Limits
King Without Needs
Source of All Life
If this is our God, should we not worship him?
If this is our God, should we not adore him?
If this is our God, should we not obey him?
If this is our God, should we not proclaim him?
Sinner, if this is your God, should you not trust in Him? If he truly has no needs, then he is fully able to save you. If he created you, he knows you through and through. If he is the Lord, then you should bow before him. If he has no needs, then his only purpose in saving you is to demonstrate his amazing grace.
Here’s the shocking good news: God doesn’t need us but we desperately need him. He moved to meet our need by sending his Son as the all-sufficient payment for our sins. We can’t serve him but he sent his Son to serve us (see Mark 10:45). This is the heart of the gospel. The question is, Will we believe this? Will we receive this? Will we trust in this great truth? Or will we keep on going our own way, trying to impress a God who cannot be impressed by anything we do?
Last night at a wedding reception someone told me that if you buy a carton of Chicken McNuggets at MacDonald’s, you will see a phrase like this written on the side: “Run, don’t walk to buy some more.” If we take that into the spiritual realm, it becomes very good advice. Run, don’t walk to the Cross of Jesus Christ. Lay down your pride, your self-reliance, your high opinion of yourself, let it fall into the dust where it belongs. Having let it all go, you can come to God claiming nothing but the blood of Jesus. When we come to God that way, he will never turn us away.
Heavenly Father, save us from the folly of trying to impress you with our meager efforts. Grant the gift of faith that we may truly believe that because of Jesus we are fully accepted and righteous in your eyes. Amen.