There, But for Grace


In the early 1500s, a reformer and martyr in the church of England, John Bradford is attributed an oft-repeated quote. Upon seeing a group of prisoners being led to execution, he said “But for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” 

I have heard it in many sermons and testimonies — “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Intended to be a statement of humility, the sentiment is such that without God’s grace I could be, or maybe even would be, in the same situation as this poor, sin-laden person. Sometimes though, to me, it feels like false humility. Almost like the Pharisee in the temple pounding his chest and praying, “Thank you, God that I am not a sinner like these other people” (paraphrase from Luke 18:11).

What keeps me from being a sinner just like those other people? 

The answer, you would say, is the grace of God, the unmerited favor of God. When God gives me what I do not deserve — that is grace. Something about the quote still seems lacking. If I were one of the sinners in Bradford’s line, I might think I could turn it around — if only I had the grace of God and then I wouldn’t be in this mess.

The problem I have is that I am not the only one who has been offered grace. Those other sinners have been offered the same amount of grace. So what makes me different? Why am I not in the queue of condemned sinners? We have all been offered grace.

The quote is not found anywhere in the Bible, but Bradford was quite possibly thinking of Paul in I Cor. 15:10 where he said: “By the grace of God, I am what I am, and His grace given me was not in vain.” My amplified version says “…His grace toward me was not without effect.”

We have all been given grace. Paul told the Ephesians, “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph. 4:7). What makes the difference is what you do with the grace you have been given. Paul recognized he was not worthy to be an apostle and not worthy of the favor and blessings of God. As a result, he said: “In fact, I worked harder than all of the apostles, though it was not I, but the grace of God with me” (I Cor. 15:10 AMP).

Our society has a problem with individual accountability. There is a generation that wants to blame others for mistakes and wrong choices. Playing the victim is so much easier than admitting when you are wrong. Perhaps you may even blame God for not being gracious enough — if only I had the grace of God, then I wouldn’t be in this mess.

Once you recognize the gift of grace, you must choose what kind of effect this gift will have on you. Will grace be a one-time gift you leave on the shelf? A pretty package you never open? Or will you tear open the gift box and use grace to season every decision, every thought and every action you make?

With all due respect to John Bradford, there, but for accepting and applying the grace of God… but for yielding my own will to His grace… but for allowing His grace to change my heart… but for embracing my new life in Him, go I.