What Does 'There but for the Grace of God I Go' Mean?
- Stephanie Englehart stephaniemenglehart.com
- 2021 19 Aug
A little over a year ago, statewide shutdowns began in the United States due to the novel Coronavirus. Today, we’re still experiencing effects from all that ensued in the year of 2020. In certain areas the economy hasn’t come back, mask mandates are still in place, a new variant is in the air, and people are still struggling from grief, loneliness, and lack of normalcy. Looking at the current state of our world, we could all be saying ‘there but for the grace of God I go.’ But is that phrase really biblical? Is it Scripture, or is it just something some old English guy said?
Where Does the Phrase 'There but for the Grace of God I Go' Come From?
Based on all my research, there is not one specific source of where the phrase comes from. Most widely known sites attribute the phrase to a 19th-century tradition of John Bradford, where he utilized the phrase as an expression of humility and reliance on God’s grace, rather than his own morality. Apparently, as he saw a criminal being led to execution, he would exclaim "there, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford”.
Outside of John Bradford, the second most compelling originator is most likely Richard Baxter. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attributed the phrase to Richard Baxter, as he wrote Sherlock Holmes, The Boscombe Valley Mystery. In it he quotes:
“Why does fate play such tricks with poor, helpless worms? I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter's words, and say, "There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.”’
What Does ‘There but for the Grace of God I Go’ Mean?
Both John Bradford and Richard Baxter provide similar contexts for the meaning of the phrase—if it weren’t for God’s grace we would be in an unfortunate predicament. In other words, because of God’s grace, we get to continue on, when danger and disaster may be all around us. As John Bradford put it, this phrase expressed a dependence on God’s grace rather than luck or merit. However, the most modern meaning of the phrase is found in the Collins English Dictionary, where it is defined as luck to not be in someone else's sad shoes. This means that another’s unfortunate circumstances gives you both gratefulness for where you are, and sympathy for them. Although it is good to be grateful for the blessings God has granted you, the Bible does not use this phrase or either of these definitions.
Does the Bible Ever Say, 'There but for the Grace of God I Go’?
Although it is good to be grateful for the blessings God has granted you, the Bible does not use this phrase or either of these definitions. Instead, the Bible talks about God’s grace as unmerited kindness. It is His love and unmerited favor that saves us once and for all (Ephesians 2:8). This means that there is both God’s initial saving grace and His ongoing enabling grace that works in our lives. God’s initial saving grace accepts us into the family of God through belief in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Whereas God’s enabling grace empowers us to please our heavenly Father no matter the circumstance. This kind of grace is not held within the bounds of good fortune, but it is a grace that surpasses both ease and hardship in life.
When we consider the provided meanings of the phrase, we must note that both seemed to leave out God’s grace applying to the seasons of hardship. However, based on 2 Corinthians 12:9—and quite simply, Jesus and the Apostle Paul’s life—I would argue that God’s grace applies just as much, if not more, in our seasons of complexity than in our seasons simplicity. As it was through the very hardship of the cross that we were given God’s grace at all. Jesus endured beating, mocking, and crucifixion in order to render us free from the wrath of God, and grants us belonging into His family. The more we understand the depths of love and forgiveness—the grace—that Jesus has bestowed on us, the more we will be able to freely give and rely on that grace in our daily lives.
How Can We Apply This to Our Daily Lives?
God’s grace is the enabling power in which we can withstand suffering, struggle, and hardship to the glory of God. In 2 Corinthians 12:1-13, Paul has just finished boasting in grand visions he’s received from the Lord when he says:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2 Corinthians 12:9
Paul's earthly struggle and weakness became the platform for demonstrating God’s great power and grace. It was not in Paul's ability to lead people to Christ, his visions, or his title as apostle where he found Christ’s sufficiency. It was in the midst of shipwrecks, persecution, and imprisonments that led him to boast in the grace of God.
Although “There but for the grace of God I go” is a famous phrase, I think we can lay it to the side. Instead, let’s seek to grow in our gratitude and good works.
Grace Leads to Gratitude
As we experience God’s grace in our lives—both his initial saving grace and enabling grace—the natural outworking of that grace is gratitude. Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 tells us to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”. Having gratitude for God’s grace means we rejoice in the work of the Lord in our lives, without taking credit for the effects of His grace. When we give thanks in all circumstances, we point to Jesus as the hero of our story, rather than ourselves. It is God’s grace that we are alive and well now, just as it would be God’s grace if we were sick in bed with the Coronavirus. For God uses all things for our spiritual good, and provides all the strength and grace we need to endure hardship (Romans 8:28, Philippians 4). Therefore, we thank Him for every good and perfect gift we receive, and we rejoice even more so in trials (James 1:17, 1:2-4).
Grace Leads to Good Works
God’s enabling grace does not lead to passivity, but to hard work for the advancement of the gospel, and growth in our holiness. The more we experience God’s grace in our lives, the more reason we have to point people to our good Father who gives good gifts (Matthew 7:11). Romans 5:1-5 speaks to this as the grace in which we now stand leads to the boasting of God’s glory and growth in godly character:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
As we rely on the sufficiency of Christ’s grace in our lives, we actively trust and work towards perseverance, character, and hope as grace grows within us. This means we believe that, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work (2 Corinthians 9:8). Whether that be financial giving, taking care of the poor, widowed, and orphaned, sharing the hope of Christ with a neighbor, or simply praying that God’s grace wound abound in spite of our weakness. Let us do all things to the glory and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And as we move deeper into this grace, let us consider this prayer written by Martin Luther as he observed 2 Corinthians 12:9:
“Dear heavenly Father, praise and thanksgiving be unto you that I, miserable man, and though I were a thousand such as I am, could not withstand a single devil, yet, by the help of your holy angels, I do withstand them. There is in me not a drop of wisdom, while the crafty Evil One has a whole ocean full, yet shall he not know how, nor be able to harm me. My foolishness and great weakness put even his wisdom and power to shame. For all this, O gracious God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, I owe gratitude unto you alone; for it is of your glory that you show forth your wisdom and power in my unworthiness, foolishness, and weakness.”
Photo Credit: © Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio
Stephanie Englehart is a Seattle native, church planter’s wife, mama, and lover of all things coffee, the great outdoors, and fine (easy to make) food. Stephanie is passionate about allowing God to use her honest thoughts and confessions to bring gospel application to life. You can read more of what she writes on the Ever Sing blog at stephaniemenglehart.com or follow her on Instagram: @stephaniemenglehart.