You have no doubt heard, indeed have very likely used, the expression “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” Tradition attributes this quote to the sixteenth-century English evangelical John Bradford, who is said to have uttered the words when he saw a condemned man led to the scaffold, and who with these words disavowed any grounds for personal pride in the fact that his own neck was not about to be snapped. As there is no written testament, some naturally doubt the tradition, but a man such as Bradford might have expressed such a sentiment if he beheld such a scene.
It appears that the story of Bradford’s pious ejaculation was first published in Edward Bickersteth’s Treatise on Prayer (1822), a popular work that went through many editions in England and North America. Bickersteth was a student of the early Reformation, and elsewhere published many of Bradford’s letters and sermons, so if he invented the anecdote, he did so as an honest paraphrase of the sentiment of personal unworthiness that runs through Bradford’s literary remains.
For instance, when he was imprisoned and awaiting execution by fire in 1553, Bradford wrote:
“For albeit my manifold sins, even since I came into prison, have deserved at the hand of God not only this temporal, but also eternal fire in Hell; much more then my former sinful life—which the Lord pardoned for Christ’s sake.”
Whether we take Bradford’s celebrated line as paraphrased or verbatim, we must assume that it did not express gratitude that John Bradford had not, by God’s grace, fallen into sin like the wretched rogue whose neck was about to be snapped. John Bradford believed that he had fallen into sin, and that God therefore had ample reason to snap his neck, along with the necks of every other man on earth. In other words, Bradford was not thanking God that he was innocent; he was thanking God that he was pardoned.
It is very difficult to sustain this high Calvinism, so we should not be surprised to find that subsequent generations palliated Bradford’s notion of gratitude for unmerited pardon into the more agreeable notion of gratitude for unmerited innocence. Bradford saw himself as a sinner who had, by God’s mercy, been spared from punishment. The men who later quoted Bradford believed they had, by God’s mercy, been spared from sin.
Shortly after Bickersteth popularized the story of John Bradford in the early nineteenth century, evangelicals began to say that the story illustrated the lesson of 1 Corinthians 10:12.
“Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”
The context of this verse is Paul’s teaching that Christians should eschew extraordinary temptations and occasions of sin. They should not, as Paul puts it, drink from “the cup of devils” or dine at “the table of devils” (10:21).
The evangelicals who quoted Bradford with this verse in mind were, unlike Bradford, expressing thanks that they had not, by the grace of God, sipped from that cup or supped at that table. While this is, no doubt, a cause for thanksgiving, it is not what John Bradford was talking about when he said “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” Bradford did not believe that he remained upstanding by God’s grace. He believed that he remained saved in spite of his not remaining upstanding. He believed that he had drained the devils’ cup and known the pleasure of the devils’ table, but that he was saved for all that.
As the nineteenth century advanced, even Paul’s teaching was distorted by the new sociological doctrine that the lower classes were oversupplied with devils’ cups and devils’ tables, and that poor men and women were therefore far more liable to “fall,” no matter how “heedful” they might be. If rich men and women were relatively upstanding, this was said to be an unmerited innocence that resulted from “fortunate circumstances.” Thus, whereas Paul advised the Corinthians to avoid bad behavior by avoiding bad company, the sociological Christians saw bad company as an excuse for bad behavior.
The new doctrine is nicely summarized in a book titled Social Christianity, published by a Methodist preacher named Hugh Price in 1889.
“Let us not take too much credit to ourselves for the position we occupy. We own a great deal more to our circumstances, to our social privileges and safeguards, than we sometimes imagine . . . . We—society at large—must take a big share of the blame for the sin and folly of those who break the law.”
Needless to say, Price quotes John Bradford in support of this doctrine, perhaps under the impression that the old Puritan theologian was a progressive sociologist in disguise. The path Price blazed is now well-worn, since Bradford has ever since been quoted as if he were an advocate of relativism, tolerance and permissive empathy. John Bradford would be appalled by the use to which his words have been put.
John Bradford’s ashes had been cold for nearly two centuries when the sociological doctrine of proportional peccancy first appeared. Among its earliest advocates was the old castaway Robinson Crusoe, who gave this early testament of moral relativism in 1719
“Sometimes necessity makes an honest man a knave, and a rich man an honest man because he has no occasion to be a knave.”*
When a man quotes Bradford today, he has Crusoe’s meaning in mind. The grace of God for which he give thanks is the grace of the “fortunate circumstances” that have spared him all temptation to knavery. Or so he fondly supposes. John Bradford would tell him things are otherwise than he supposes, and if he understood what Bradford meant by his line, he might hear what Bradford has to say.
*) The line varies slightly from one edition to the next, and appears in the excursus “Of Honesty” in the section entitled “Visions of the Angelic World.” This section has been omitted from all editions since 1830.