There but for the grace of God, go I

Continuing my thoughts on the topic of grace, particularly the idea that God’s grace provides strength and power, not just favored status, I’d like to look at the common phrase, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

Several websites confirm an understanding of this phrase that is more-or-less the way I have normally understood it.

For example, The Phrase Finder defines the meaning as “I too, like someone seen to have suffered misfortune, might have suffered a similar fate, but for God’s mercy.”

Adrian Room, writing in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, says that the phrase (normally uttered upon observing the disaster or disgrace that has befallen someone as a result of their actions or misdoings) “implies that most of us have committed the same follies, sins etc., but have been fortunate enough to escape the consequences.”

The Free Dictionary has an entry explaining the phrase to mean that, “I would likely have experienced or done the same bad thing if God had not been watching over me.”

Finally, here are the definitions provided by Wiktionary:

  1. A recognition that others’ misfortune could be one’s own, if it weren’t for the blessing/kindness/luck bestowed by fate or the Divine.
  2. Man’s fate is in God’s hands.
  3. More generally, our fate is not entirely in our own hands.

Each of these definitions is true. It’s not my intention to dispute these definitions, but to provide an alternative mindset for thinking about this phrase. The standard thought behind this phrase is that we are passive. I am attempting to change my thinking about the grace of God to include an active element.

“There but for the grace of God, go I,” not because I passively managed to avoid (by luck or by providence) what befell someone else, but because God granted me grace to live a different life.

I still recognize that, in my own power, I could not keep myself from the same behavior and the same results, no matter how hard I try or how much I want to. However, through God’s grace, I don’t just experience different circumstances. My life is actually different. I am a different person. “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift,” his exceeding grace, which is in us (2 Cor. 9:14-15, ASV). Quoting Matthew Henry again, this grace “enables and inclines” our hearts to do what we could not (if we wanted) and would not (if we were able) do on our own.


In one of my more recent posts, I wrote about the difficulty of repentance, and the empowering work of grace.

It is only through God’s grace that we can repent. Grace isn’t the overlooking of faults. Grace isn’t expressing appreciation of someone undeserving. Grace is the power to do what we could not do in and of ourselves. (Hard times come again more and more)

The common definition of grace as “unmerited favor” is perhaps a little misleading, at least the way we tend to understand favor. My tendency, at least, is to think of “favor” as simply to “look at someone” with a “favorable attitude,” or to ultimately reward someone despite the fact that they don’t deserve it. While this definition captures the “unmerited” nature of God’s grace, I don’t think it sufficiently captures the fact that grace doesn’t just mean an “award,” but it delivers an “ability.”

Matthew Henry states this dual aspect of grace better than I could have, in his commentary on Romans 7.

“We are under grace, which promises strength to do what it commands, and pardon upon repentance when we do amiss.”

I see a lot of focus on the forgiving nature of grace, but not much mention of the fact that grace is not just a status; it is the ability to accomplish what God intends for us.

Hard times come again more and more

Don’t you know by now why the chosen are few?
It’s harder to believe than not to
(Steve Taylor)

Steve Taylor wrote a song called “Harder To Believe Than Not To.” That song comes to my mind now and then, especially when people try to “sell” Christianity as a six-step process for life enrichment. The Apostle Paul implied that the Christian life is not one you would want to live if it weren’t for the fact that in Christ we have eternal life to look forward to (I Cor. 15:19).

So, what is it about being a Christian that is hard? Is it holding our tongue, being kind to others, helping others in need, and things like that? Sometimes those things can be hard, but I don’t think those things are what make the Christian life hard.

I want others to like me, so it’s not that hard to be kind to them. Sure, sometimes it’s hard to be kind to someone who is annoying or mean-spirited, but in general it’s not that hard to be kind.

I don’t like to see other people suffering, so it’s not that hard to offer help to people in need. Sure, sometimes I am too protective of “my time” or “my stuff,” and it can be hard to find motivation to help someone who continually makes poor choices, but for the most part, it’s not that hard to extend a hand to those in need.

High moral standards aren’t what set Christianity apart. Sometimes it’s hard to consistently maintain high moral standards, but that’s not what makes the Christian life hard. The world understands “good behavior.” The world understands the “golden rule.” What sets Christianity apart and makes the Christian life hard to live, is something that doesn’t occur to the world.

Repentance is hard

The hard thing about the Christian life is repentance. Repentance is hard. Not just confession. Confession isn’t that hard. Sure sometimes pride gets in the way of confession, but it’s not that hard to say, “sorry, I messed up.” It’s not that hard to say, “I see now that what I did was wrong.” “I knew it was wrong, and I did it anyway.” “I broke the rules.” The world understands confession. It also understands what is left unsaid after most confessions. “Now, cut me some slack.”

The hard thing is to not only confess, but then say, “I will change. I will not be like that anymore. I will live my life differently than I used to.” It’s hard for a couple of reasons. One, because often we don’t really want to change. We want to continue with what we know, avoiding the major failures, but not really changing our life. Second, because despite our best intentions we know that we’re likely to fail again. It’s hard to say, “I will stop doing that,” when we aren’t sure how long it will be before we do it again. The most challenging thing about repentance, the root beneath all areas of weakness in our lives, the thing that we are least willing to do, is relinquishing control of our lives. We want to be in control of our money, our happiness, our safety, our image, etc. The result of trying to be in control of our lives is greed, laziness, fear, pride, etc. We need to repent of living life on our own terms.

Ultimate Repentance: putting an end to the usurpation of our lives

The essence of sin and separation from God is living outside of God’s authority. When we sin, we live under our own authority (or so we think; we actually are enslaved to sin). We put ourselves on the throne of our lives. We aren’t actually ruling (we’ve actually turned ourselves into puppets), but we’ve lifted up an idol of ourselves, thinking that we know best. Repentance is acknowledging that our life belongs to God, and letting him take the reins.

The rich young ruler in Matthew 19, Mark 10, and Luke 18 kept the commandments. But he wanted to keep living life on his terms. He wanted to keep his wealth. Jesus said that if we try to hang on to control of our lives, we will lose our life (Luke 17:33). The key to life is to turn our lives over to the rightful owner.

Giving up your life is hard.

Grace: the power to repent

The truth is, we won’t repent; we won’t relinquish control of our lives. Not of ourselves anyway. Everything in our flesh clings desperately to ownership of our lives. It is only through God’s grace that we can repent. Grace isn’t the overlooking of faults. Grace isn’t expressing appreciation of someone undeserving. Grace is the power to do what we could not do in and of ourselves.

In 1 Cor. 15:10, Paul makes it clear that grace doesn’t just free us from the past, it is the enabling power behind our new creation. Grace has an effect. It makes us into something we couldn’t be without grace. In 2 Cor. 9:8, Paul reminds us that the power to do good works is a result of grace. Grace isn’t just an idea or an emotion. It has legs. It does stuff in our lives. As Hebrews 4:16 says, grace helps us. It is by grace that we saved (Eph 2:8).

Grace makes it possible for us to do the hard work of repentance.