The origin of the saying there but for the grace of God go I is unknown, but it has been in use since at least the 1700s. It is sometimes shortened to there but for the grace of God or but for the grace of God.
However it is expressed, there but for the grace of God go I is a statement of humility and gratitude that acknowledges one’s own sinful nature and the need for God’s grace. One of the earliest attributions of the saying is to John Bradford, an English Reformer, who supposedly said it as he watched people led to execution for their crimes. In a sense he was saying, “That could have been me but for God’s grace.”
In a more secular use, there but for the grace of God go I can mean something like, “I’m glad that didn’t happen to me.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used a version of the saying in one of his Sherlock Holmes stories and attributes it to Puritan leader Robert Baxter (The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1., Klinger, L., ed., W. W. Norton & Co., 2005, p. 101).
In a way, the attitude of “there but for the grace of God go I” is an antidote to judgmentalism. When we see someone who is down and out, who is suffering hardship, or who is reaping unpleasant consequences, we can respond in two basic ways. We can say, “He deserves it and should have made better choices,” or we can say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The first response is what Job’s three friends ultimately chose; the second response shows empathy as we acknowledge the kindness of God toward us and extend that kindness to the one in trouble.
At the heart of the saying there but for the grace of God go I is an idea very much present in Scripture. The apostle Paul describes God’s grace in 1 Corinthians 15:9–10: “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
Paul was under no delusions that he had any special qualifications or attributes that made him worthy of the calling of apostle. In fact, before Paul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), he was systematically arresting Christians, and he was party to at least one murder (Acts 7:57–58). To go from killing those who believed in Jesus to proclaiming the good news of Jesus can only be a work of God’s grace.
Like Paul, we have no special qualities that make us worthy of salvation. Before God saved us, we were “dead in [our] transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). God forgave our sin in Christ and raised us to newness of life (Romans 6:4). There is nothing in us, about us, or done by us that can earn grace from God. We simply receive it through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9).
When a Christian says, “There but for the grace of God go I,” he or she is expressing thanks for “the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us” (Ephesians 1:7–8) and at the same time confessing his or her nature and the bent we all have toward destruction. It is the gracious, preserving power of God that strengthens us in temptation, sustains us through difficulty, and keeps us from utter ruin.
Paul admonished us to maintain a humble spirit: “For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Romans 12:3). And he chose daily to live under the grace so freely given: “But by the grace of God I am what I am,” he wrote. And so are we.