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There but for grace

April 19, 2011

The adage, there but for the grace of God, go I, is commonly attributed to John Bradford,  an English Christian reformer during the 16th century. While a prisoner in the Tower of London it is said he remarked, “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford,” upon seeing a criminal heading to execution. The attribution has been questioned and any grace of God afforded to John Bradford seemed to have evaporated when he was burned at the stake for heresy.

The meaning of the adage is what confounds me.

I have been accused of picking at nits when I ask whether the person who uses the statement, there but for the grace of God, go I, is suggesting that the person to whom they are referring is devoid of God’s grace while they are the fortunate recipient of such grace.

Customary usage seems to suggest that the speaker is remarking on a common experience that had a positive or neutral outcome for the speaker, and a dire outcome for another.

Does it mean that the speaker has God’s grace in his corner? Does it mean that the other person does not, and if he does not, how does the speaker know that? Why does the speaker have God’s grace, when the other person does not?

Would it be fair to suggest that a person who experiences a negative outcome from a common experience would say, in reference to others who had positive outcomes, “There but for the lack of God’s grace, go I?

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