It is a common phrase, and I am sure you have heard it many times over: There but for the grace of God go I. You may hear it especially frequently when a scandal erupts. We look at the person whose life or family or ministry has imploded and say softly, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
It is a phrase of humility, isn’t it? It is a phrase acknowledging that only God’s grace keeps me from experiencing the deepest, ugliest scandal. God has extended his favor to me and I am the joyful beneficiary of this sin-defeating grace. But I don’t much like the phrase. I will grant that there is a sense in which it describes the truth. There is a sense in which I am completely dependent upon the grace of God so that if God does not continually extend his gospel grace to me, I will go completely off the rails. It is all of God’s grace.
But the sanctifying grace that God gives is not a standing-still kind of grace. It is not expressed only through a sovereign and monergistic act of God. There is a kind of surrender in the saying that negates or neglects the simple fact that I am called to battle sin. I am not to passively rely upon the grace of God, as if that grace alone, without any action on my part, will protect me from all sin. God does not confer scandal-busting grace each morning that I just sit back and receive, hoping it is enough to defeat the day’s sin. Rather, he calls upon me to receive his grace and to be obedient to his Word. He gives the grace to obey. This is not a grace I receive passively, but a grace I act on and act out.
The phrase admits a level of defeat, as if the subject of this scandal was doing everything right and then, in a moment, God removed his grace, and left the man crashing to the ground. But that’s never the way these things work. Look closely at any scandal and you will see a long relaxing of standards, a long pattern of declining holiness and increasing sinfulness. The scandalous man had stopped obeying God. In some part of his life he had stopped caring about obeying God.
I don’t want to model my life after a “There but for the grace of God go I” kind of person. I want to model my life after a man who battles hard against every appearance and manifestation of sin. I want to model my life after a man who receives and revels in the grace of God and then exerts every effort in actively, tenaciously putting sin to death. I want to model my life after the kind of man who can humbly say, “That sin is unthinkable to me.”
I know that the root of that sin, whatever the sin, is somewhere within me. I know that without God’s grace I could not only fall into it, but dive headlong. And yet I am not intimidated by the sin because I am fleeing from it, I am putting the very first traces of it to death, I am acting on God’s grace as he so kindly extends it. I am calling out for his help and joining him in this battle, in this war.
There but for the grace of God go I? Yes and no. There I would go if God did not extend his gospel mercy. There I may go if I do not take hold of his holiness-motivating, sin-battling grace.
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