Jim Elliot Was Not the First to Say It

Reprinted with permission from As I See It, which is available free by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com.

“He is no fool who gives away what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”

That quote is universally associated today with the name Jim Elliot, one of five American missionaries who were martyred in South America in the 1950s. He had indeed written them in his journal, and they convey a profound truth. But they did not originate with Elliot. Almost those precise words were spoken and written centuries earlier.

To find the original (or perhaps yet one more preacher who borrowed these words from someone else), we must go back almost 300 years, to the mid-1600s, to the life of Philip Henry (1631-1696), father of Matthew Henry (1662-1714), the famous Bible commentator. In Matthew Henry’s biographical account of his father’s life, he notes his father’s practice while pastor in Worthenbury, England (1658-1662) to set aside a tenth of his income for charitable purposes, notably the relief of the poor. Matthew then states regarding his father,

To encourage himself and others to works of charity, he would say—”He is no fool who parts with that which he cannot keep, when he is sure to be recompensed with that which he cannot lose.” (The Complete Works of the Rev. Matthew Henry [his unfinished commentary being excepted], London: A. Fullarton & Co., 1855 [reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979], vol. II, p. 634)

Matthew Henry being famous and his works well-known (at least to former generations), it is quite possible that Jim Elliot read these words himself, found them quoted in a book or heard them in a sermon—with or without ascription—and adopted them as a personal motto.

Every preacher is to some degree, consciously or unconsciously, a composite of every teacher he has ever had, every sermon he has ever heard, and every book he has ever read, infused with a substantial proportion of his own thoughts and ideas. Adopting and committing to memory pithy sayings, aphorisms and quotations is part and parcel of the preacher’s stock in trade. And while Jim Elliot clearly did not originate this statement (he may in fact not have known where it came from), we can be grateful to him (and his late widow Elizabeth Elliot) for directing our attention to these thoughts, which are truly worth remembering.

All this leads me to affirm once again that it is a worthwhile, and lifelong, endeavor for preachers, Bible teachers, writers, and for that matter anyone who engages seriously in intellectual pursuits (or just wants something interesting to say in conversation) to formally collect and record in a journal or file any especially striking or well-turned quotes or statements he comes across, even including those that are absurdly stupid or misguided (for illustrative purposes), reporting the source with full documentation, if possible. Over the years, I have accumulated many hundreds of such quotes, and regularly consult my accumulated stores, to employ them in some message or to forward them on to someone else. Now one more fully sourced quote is added the collection.

(The fact that Philip Henry was the originator of these famous words was brought to my attention by Mrs. Connie Nelson, a member of my Sunday Bible class, who discovered this fact on p. 72 of Refining Fire by Tracie Peterson, a book otherwise unknown to me. It took me the better part of an hour to locate the actual words in the 161-page, doubled-columned biography of Philip Henry.)

Douglas K. Kutilek Bio

Doug Kutilek is the editor of www.kjvonly.org, which opposes KJVOism. He has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a BA in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College and a ThM in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). His writings have appeared in numerous publications.

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Drake TP's picture

This reminded me of a comment I entered into my notes some years ago (emphasis added):

All our pieces of gold are but current to the grave; none of them will pass in the future world. Therefore as merchants when they travel make over their monies here, to receive them by bills of exchange in another country; let us do good with our goods while we live, that when we die, by a blessed bill of exchange, we may receive them again in the Kingdom of heaven (Luke 16:9). To part with what we cannot keep, that we may get that we cannot lose, is a good bargain. Wealth can do us no good, unless it help us toward heaven.

Thomas Adams

A Puritan Golden Treasury, compiled by I.D.E. Thomas, by permission of Banner of Truth, Carlisle, PA. 2000, p. 250.

[This strikes as so similar to Jim Elliot’s quote, I wonder if he had heard or seen this quote. DT-P]

Since Adams lived 1583-1652 and Philip Henry lived 1631-1696, perhaps Henry adapted the comment from Adams. Also, I should note that Jim Elliot cites Luke 16:9 as his basis for the quote--the same text cited by Adams.

You may see Jim Elliot's journal entry here.


Ron Bean's picture

I attended a well-known Christian University where the sayings of the founder were in every classroom. I noticed that many of these wonderful bits of wisdom (and they were good pieces of advice) were "borrowed". I sensed that pointing that out was not beneficial.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

David R. Brumbelow's picture

It is also possible for two or more people, completely independently, to come to the same thought.

I came up with a thought, as far as I know, completely and honestly on my own.  Some time later I found that one of the Church Fathers had “stolen” my great thought over 1500 years before. 

On the other hand, after 2,000 years of preaching and study of the Bible, are there really any original thoughts left?  Ultimately only God can sort it out. 

Also, often a quote is made by “unknowns,” then heard and quoted by a famous person.  The famous person is then given credit.  The unknowns’ quotes may not have ever even been written down. 

I do believe, when possible, we should give credit where credit is due. 

David R. Brumbelow

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