Here is a lengthy excerpt from Thomas Boston’s famous book – the part where he explodes the myth that since sinners are so sinful as to be unable to save themselves, therefore there is no need to concern ourselves about our own salvation. He clearly explains that we must have a care for our own souls, and that we must express that care by making use of the ways and means that are provided in the gospel for sinners to draw near to God – particularly, reading the scriptures and praying for help.
Objection 3: But all this is needless, seeing we are utterly unable to help ourselves out of the state of sin and wrath.
Answer: Give not place to that delusion, which puts asunder what God has joined, namely, the use of means and a sense of our own impotency. If ever the Spirit of God graciously influence your souls, you will become thoroughly sensible of your absolute inability, and yet enter upon a vigorous use of means. You will do for yourselves, as if you were to do all, and yet overlook all you do, as if you had done nothing. Will you do nothing for yourselves because you cannot do all? Lay down no such impious conclusion against your own souls. Do what you can; and, it may be, while you are doing what you can for yourselves, God will do for you what you cannot. ‘Understandest thou what thou readest?’ said Philip to the eunuch; ‘How can I,’ said he, ‘except some man should guide me?’ (Acts 8:30-31). He could not understand the Scripture he read, yet he could read it: he did what he could, he read; and while he was reading, God sent him an interpreter. The Israelites were in a great strait at the Red Sea; and how could they help themselves, when on the one hand were mountains, and on the other the enemy in pursuit; when Pharaoh and his host were behind them, and the Red Sea before them? What could they do? ‘Speak unto the children of Israel,’ said the Lord to Moses, ‘that they go forward’ (Ex. 14:15). For what end should they go forward? Can they make a passage to themselves through the sea? No; but let them go forward, saith the Lord: though they cannot turn the sea to dry land, yet they can go forward to the shore. So they did; and when they did what they could, God did for them what they could not do.
Question: Has God promised to convert and save those who, in the use of means, do what they can towards their own relief?
Answer: We may not speak wickedly for God; natural men, being strangers to the covenants of promise (Eph. 2:12), have no such promise made to them. Nevertheless they do not act rationally unless they exert the powers they have, and do what they can.
For, 1. It is possible this course may succeed with them. If you do what you can, it may be, God will do for you what you cannot do for yourselves. This is sufficient to determine a man in a matter of the utmost importance, such as this is (Acts 8:22), ‘Pray God, if perhaps the thought of thy heart may be forgiven thee.’ (Joel 2:14), ‘Who knoweth if he will return?’ If success may be, the trial should be. If, in a wreck at sea, all the sailors and passengers betake themselves each to a broken board for safety, and one of them should see all the rest perish, notwithstanding their utmost endeavor to save themselves, yet the very possibility of escaping by that means would determine that one still to do his best with his board. Why then do not you reason with yourselves, as the four lepers did who sat at the gate of Samaria? (2 Kings 7:3-4). Why do you not say, ‘If we sit still,’ not doing what we can, ‘we die;’ let us put it to a trial; if we be saved, ‘we shall live;’ if not, ‘we shall but die?’
2. It is probable this course may succeed; God is good and merciful; He loves to surprise men with His grace, and is often ‘found of them that sought him not’ (Isa. 65:1). If you do this, you are so far in the road of your duty, and you are using the means, which the Lord is wont to bless for men’s spiritual recovery: you lay yourselves in the way of the great Physician, and so it is probable you may be healed. Lydia went, with others, to the place ‘where prayer was wont to be made;’ and ‘the Lord opened her heart’ (Acts 16:13-14). You plough and sow, though nobody can tell you for certain that you will get so much as your seed again: you use means for the recovery of your health, though you are not sure they will succeed. In these cases probability determines you; and why not in this also? Importunity, we see, does very much with men. Therefore pray, meditate, desire help of God, be much at the throne of grace, supplicating for grace, and do not faint. Though God regard you not, who in your present state are but one mass of sin, universally depraved, and vitiated in all the powers of your soul, yet He may regard prayer, meditation, and the like means of His own appointment, and He may bless them to you. Wherefore, if you will not do what you can, you are not only dead, but you declare yourselves unworthy of eternal life.
Thomas Boston, Human Nature in its Fourfold State. First published Banner of Truth