The phrase “there but for the grace of God go I” is a powerful and thought-provoking statement that has biblical origins. In essence, it conveys the sobering truth that anyone could find themselves in difficult, unfortunate, or even condemned circumstances if not for God’s grace and mercy.
Origin and Meaning
This expression comes from the words of British preacher and reformer John Bradford (1510-1555). As Bradford watched criminals being led to execution, he would remark “there but for the grace of God goes John Bradford”. This was an acknowledgement that he deserved the same fate as the condemned, but it was only by God’s grace that he did not.
The core meaning behind the phrase is that all people are deserving of judgment and condemnation, but it is only through God’s unmerited favor and intervention that some are spared and able to live freely. There is a humility and somberness conveyed – that those who avoid misfortune should be grateful rather than prideful. The phrase reminds us that we are no better than others who suffer; indeed, our circumstances could easily be reversed if not for God’s grace.
A Biblical Worldview Reflected
This perspective reflects some key biblical principles:
1. All People Deserve Condemnation
Scripture affirms that everyone has sinned and falls short of God’s perfect standards (Romans 3:23). The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Without Christ, all would perish eternally. We are all worthy of condemnation apart from God’s mercy.
2. Salvation Comes Only by Grace
The Bible teaches that redemption cannot be earned through good works or human effort. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Salvation is an unmerited gift.
3. Humility, Not Pride
When we recognize that our standing before God is only by His grace, it cultivates humility and gratitude, not pridefulness. We did not deserve or earn mercy. Christians should have modest, sober estimates of themselves (Romans 12:3).
4. Compassion for the Lost
Those who have received mercy should now show mercy. Remembering that we too were unworthy sinners saved by grace compels us to feel compassion and urgency toward those who do not know Christ. As Jesus taught in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35), we should extend to others the grace we have received.
Reflecting on the meaning behind “there but for the grace of God go I” can inspire several aspirational attitudes and postures:
Gratitude and Humility
As we consider that our comfortable lives could easily be upended – were it not for God’s protection – it fosters gratitude and humility. We did not earn or deserve His mercies. Recognizing our complete dependence on God’s grace should squash any pride.
Compassion for the Hurting
Remembering that we too could be in dire straits – physically, financially, spiritually – were it not for grace should make us sympathetic to those who are suffering. We are called to comfort others as we have been comforted (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Responsibility to Live Thankfully
Since we have been spared condemnation and loss by God’s hand, we are called to live purposefully and thankfully. Our time, abilities, and resources should honor Christ and advance His kingdom (1 Peter 4:10-11). We must live intentionally in light of God’s grace.
Urgency in Evangelism
If we truly believe that those without Christ face eternal judgment, then we should urgently plead with them to be reconciled to God. We are ambassadors, bringing the merciful message of the gospel to the lost (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). who deserve condemnation, but can receive forgiveness through faith.
Examples and Applications
“There but for the grace of God go I” is a pensive phrase that can be applied to many real-life situations and experiences:
Disasters and Accidents
When we hear of others going through natural disasters, terrible accidents, or fatal catastrophes, we can humbly acknowledge that we easily could have been affected or killed – if not for God’s protection.
Severe illnesses, diseases, and health conditions plague millions. Why are some spared? We must thank God for every day of health we are granted. It is not deserved; it is a gift.
Poverty and Want
Seeing homeless individuals or families struggling financially can prompt us to remember that we could be in the same position. Economic stability, food, and shelter are not rights but blessings God has given – and can take away.
Mental Health Challenges
When we encounter those wrestling with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or other mental health conditions, we can consider that our minds too could be afflicted if not for God’s protection according to His will.
Substance addictions and destructive compulsions hold millions captive. Our propensities could easily lead each of us into similar traps apart from God’s merciful intervention. We could be enslaved too.
For the imprisoned, their captivity could be our potential fate too – if not for the restraining grace of God in our lives. We are all lawbreakers before a holy God and worthy of eternal imprisonment (Romans 3:9-20).
Seeing people endure the pain of divorce, separation, or betrayal reminds us that apart from God’s grace no relationship is immune from the damaging effects of sin. But for His help, our lives could be filled with the same.
Cautions When Applying This Phrase
While “there but for the grace of God go I” can foster humility, compassion, and urgency, we must be careful in how we use it. Here are some cautions:
Avoid Pride or Judgment
We must ensure we are not using this phrase to mask feelings of superiority or thankfulness that we are not “like those people over there.” We too are undeserving sinners saved by grace. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.
God’s Providence Varies
We acknowledge God’s hand of grace over our lives. But His providence and will also allow difficulties for His glory and our growth. We must avoid assuming better earthly circumstances mean more grace. God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours.
Sensitivity to Those Hurting
When interacting directly with someone experiencing misfortune, take care to avoid platitudes or facile applications of this phrase which could seem insensitive if applied wrongly or simplistically.
While we recognize our dependence on God’s grace, we must still take personal responsibility where appropriate. Balance God’s sovereignty with human accountability. We should not be passive or defeatist.
No Excuse for Inaction
God’s grace is not an excuse for remaining idle or indifferent to suffering. We are called to serve, help, and compassionately care for those experiencing difficulties as God leads – not sit in complacency.
Several passages illustrate or reinforce the principle behind the statement “there but for the grace of God go I”:
The Thief on the Cross
In Luke 23:39-43, two criminals were crucified alongside Jesus. One mocked Christ while the other repented and appealed to Jesus for mercy. One died in his sin; the other was forgiven and inherited paradise that very day though he was worthy of condemnation.
The Apostle Paul (formerly Saul) confessed that he was the worst of sinners as a blasphemer and persecutor of the church (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Yet by God’s grace he was saved, transformed, and commissioned as Christ’s ambassador.
The Prodigal Son
In Luke 15:11-32, the prodigal son took his inheritance and squandered it in wild living. Broken and unworthy, he returned home ready to be a servant. Yet the father graciously welcomed him, restored him, and celebrated his return. We too were once lost but have been found by grace (Luke 19:10).
The Woman Caught in Adultery
Though the Law demanded she be stoned, Jesus showed her grace and forgiveness, charging her to leave her life of sin (John 8:3-11). Like her, we stand condemned by the Law, yet Christ offers us mercy if we repent and follow Him.
Saul and David
David also committed grievous sins, yet was spared from death and continued his reign (2 Samuel 11-12). Saul, by contrast, faced God’s judgment for his disobedience despite having been Israel’s king (1 Samuel 15, 31). God sovereignly dispenses both mercy and justice.
Relevant Bible Verses
Here are some additional Bible passages that relate to the meaning behind “there but for the grace of God go I”:
– “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
– “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:4-5)
– “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
– “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
– “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:10-11)
The saying “there but for the grace of God go I” powerfully captures a biblical perspective about the human condition, the nature of grace, and our duty in response. All people stand condemned before a holy God because of sin. But it is only by God’s unmerited favor that some receive salvation and new life in Christ. Those who have experienced such mercy must now extend it to others – loving the lost, serving the hurting, giving to the needy, and living thankfully. When grasped rightly, this pithy phrase can inspire humility, compassion, responsibility, and urgency in the lives of Christ’s followers as they seek to live out His gospel of grace.