Nothing anyone can do will change it. We can spend all night in prayer, curse God, home the homeless, deny God’s existence, worship the almighty dollar, sacrifice time as a volunteer to wherever; but no matter humankind’s works and words of omission and commission, God consistently “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45 ESV). The Creator will go right on giving sun and rain, the two pillars necessary to sustain life. Nothing anyone does or doesn’t do can earn or deserve this sustentative gift of God, for it is common grace.
“There but for the grace of God go I” is a proverb. Not from the Word of God, however. Its source has been attributed to Richard Baxter (English theologian and poet), John Newton (writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace”), Saint Philip Neri (1515-1595), but most commonly to John Bradford. An English reformer, he supposedly often said of criminals being led to execution, “But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford.”
While the jury is still out on who gets the credit for “There but for the grace of God go I,” the Bible clearly credits the apostle Paul with saying, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10 ESV). What grace of God? It was not common grace; for while Paul, at his worst, relentlessly hunted down and persecuted Christians as far as the death sentence, God still sent sun and rain. No, Paul is claiming a different grace–a personal grace.
As he explained to a fledgling minister: “ For the grace of God, which can save every man, has now become known, and it teaches us to have no more to do with godlessness or the desires of this world but to live, here and now, responsible, honourable and God-fearing lives. And while we live this life we hope and wait for the glorious dénouement of the Great God and of Jesus Christ our saviour. For he gave himself for us all, that he might rescue us from all our evil ways and make for himself a people of his own, clean and pure, with our hearts set upon living a life that is good” (Titus 2:11-14 Phillips). The grace Paul delineated is saving grace.
Saving grace soaked John Bradford’s soul in 1555 when he burned at the stake for his Protestant faith. Did anyone in the larger-than-expected crowd witnessing his body engulfed in flames dare say, “There but for the [saving] grace of God go I”? Bradford, affectionately nicknamed “Holy Bradford,” was widely respected for his dedication to God and pure unselfishness. He was not a murderer or a thief. The saving grace of God in his life had thwarted such designs and evil intents of the heart. Because John Bradford had received saving grace, he was able to promise his fellow martyr chained to the post with him, “We shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night!”
Anyone can have this saving grace willingly given by God. “For it is by free grace (God’s unmerited favor) that you are saved (delivered from judgment and made partakers of Christ’s salvation) through [your] faith. And this [salvation] is not of yourselves [of your own doing, it came not through your own striving], but it is the gift of God; Not because of works [not the fulfillment of the Law’s demands], lest any man should boast. [It is not the result of what anyone can possibly do, so no one can pride himself in it or take glory to himself.]” (Ephesians 2:8-9 AMP).
God does not force His free gift of saving grace upon anyone. Each person has the choice to receive it or refuse it. Imagine delivered to you the most beautifully wrapped present you have ever seen. Unless you accept it, you can’t own it. Will you leave it on the doorstep or open it and receive what’s in it for you?