There but for the grace of God go I

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull, Pantonian Professor of Divinity, writes:

It is John Bradford (1510–1555) who most likely coined the phrase, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. Bradford may have been paraphrasing St Paul: ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am’ (1 Cor. 15.10a). A devout Reformer, priest and martyr, Bradford was acutely aware of and thankful for God’s grace. His pithy statement is oft-repeated today in the sense of being lucky, lucky as in not being in a pickle when others are, although that is not what he meant. Bradford appreciated, perhaps better than we do, that grace—and only grace—makes for true happiness in this life and the life to come. As Paul reminds us, it is ‘by grace [we] have been saved through faith. And this is not [our] own doing; it is the gift of God’ (Eph. 2.8). Yes, we are lucky, though neither to the detriment of others nor in any worldly sense. Indeed, we are not merely lucky, we are saved. By grace we are already well on our way to eternal happiness with God!

Yet, it is easy enough to think that the gift of God’s grace is an add-on, an accessory of sorts, that enhances a beneficent human nature, when in fact grace is the sine qua non, the without which not, of our happiness and our salvation. It is by Holy Baptism that we are made living members of Christ’s holy Church, for without it we would be dead in our sins rather than alive in Christ (Eph. 2.1–7). Baptism cleanses us of original sin and opens a life of grace nourished by Holy Communion. Nonetheless we kick against the goad. We sometimes fail to see that goodness is without us rather than within us, save by God’s grace. 

It is a perennial problem. Back in the fifth century Pelagius, a devout priest, mistakenly maintained that we are all born righteous, that is, at least in theory. Pelagius saw us as capable of living our lives free from sin by our own grit and determination. Now, none of Pelagius’s writings, nor those of his immediate disciples, like Caelestius, are extant. We know ‘Pelagianism’ as we find it in the writings of St Augustine and St Jerome. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Carthage in 418. In fact, St Augustine, whom we commemorate each year on 28 August, is nick-named the ‘Doctor of Grace’ because of his extensive teaching on human nature and divine grace. Augustine explained that God’s grace is free. Grace is a gift. On the one hand, we cannot earn it; on the other hand, it is necessary for our salvation. One of Augustine’s most prominent works, On Nature and Grace, written in 415, is an argument to encourage us, to wake us from the darkness of relying on our fallen human nature instead of the light of grace wrought in the Redemption.

Fifteen hundred years later we still slip-up believing we need God’s grace neither to be good, nor to be saved from the second death (Rev. 2.11; 20.6; 20.14; 21:8), that grace is a decoration and the Dominical Sacraments rites of passage. We believe we can be good all on our own and salvation is a sure thing to which we are somehow entitled. This, despite fifteen hundred years to prove the opposite. Our inhumanity to ourselves in the past and in the present confirms our need for grace!

And God’s grace is the very thing we have been given! Thanks be to God we need not rely on our grit and determination. We rely, instead, on God. It is Jesus who says, ‘Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing’ (Jn 15.4-5). Our greatest solace in this life is the blessed assurance of God’s grace dwelling in us, sanctifying us, saving us despite our sinful selves and leading us to the life to come. God’s grace prepares us for salvation, particularly in Baptism and Communion. Each one of us can withstand the vicissitudes of this world. Wherever we go, we can confidently say, along with John Bradford, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’

The Reverend Canon Professor Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is also Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.