There But for the Grace of God Go I
Over the last few days, an opinion piece by Kyle J. Howard has made its rounds on social media. It’s a critique of a common phrase many “Christian leaders” have apparently used in their reaction to Ravi Zacharias’s fall: “There, but for the grace of God go I” (or other versions of this saying).
According to the article, there are “multiple ways” in which statements like this “serve to perpetuate the systems that have allowed spiritual abuse to fester.” Mainly, the sentence in question betrays a “profoundly flawed view of sanctification” and represents a “false humility.” Since I use this phrase quite often, I was curious to see what were the grounds of these allegations.
I want to clarify from the start that I have no intention to comment on Zacharias’s actions. I only want to discuss the validity of Howard’s censure of the phrase “There, but for the grace of God go I” and some of other people’s responses to his article.
According to Howard, those who believe that only God’s grace can keep them from committing heinous sins don’t have a proper view of sanctification. In their comments, others echoed his concern: “If God’s grace is what keeps us from sinning, what happens when people like Zacharias commit sins like this? Did grace fail? And if so, are we placing the blame of the sin on the lack of God’s grace?”
These are interesting questions. As it often happens, they are also not new. They go back in time and were discussed, in their basic form, at the 1620 Synod of Dordt (the first ecumenical Reformed council), particularly in the Fifth Head of Doctrine of the Canons, regarding the Perseverance of the Saints.
The Canons remind us that Christians are “free from the dominion and slavery of sin,” but “not entirely [free] from the flesh and from the body of sin as long as they are in this life.” For this reason, they have
“...continual cause to humble themselves before God, to flee for refuge to Christ crucified, to put the flesh to death more and more by the Spirit of supplication and by holy exercises of godliness, and to strain toward the goal of perfection, until they are freed from this body of death and reign with the Lamb of God in heaven.”
Howard recognizes this battle. In fact, he refers to Romans 6 as a proof that Christians are supposed to fight against sin. But his conclusions – if I interpret them correctly – seem to infer that this battle proceeds in a linear path from victory to victory. “If someone is a Christian and yet a mere grace misstep away from falling into the extremely scandalous sin of sexual predation or abuse, what of their sanctification?” he says. According to Howard, there are “forms of wickedness that are not to even be named among the people of God, especially in the realm of sexual immorality.”
If this is so, what happened to David? What of his sanctification? And what about Peter, who denied Jesus three times? Isn’t that a form of wickedness that is not to be named among the people of God? Jesus even prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail. So, what happened? Did God’s grace fail? Or did God allow Peter and David to fall into sin for his just purposes, while preserving their faith, granting them repentance, and restoring them to himself?
“The power of God strengthening and preserving true believers in grace is more than a match for the flesh,” the writers of the Canons of Dordt state,
“Yet those converted are not always so activated and motivated by God that in certain specific actions they cannot by their own fault depart from the leading of grace, be led astray by the desires of the flesh, and give in to them. For this reason, they must constantly watch and pray that they may not be led into temptations. When they fail to do this, not only can they be carried away by the flesh, the world, and Satan into sins, even serious and outrageous ones, but also by God’s just permission they sometimes are so carried away - witness the sad cases, described in Scripture, of David, Peter, and other saints falling into sins.”
According to the Canons, then, it’s not God’s grace that fails. Believing sinners fail, but God’s grace prevents them from falling and restores them when they do.
Howard goes on to explain his censure of the phrase “There, but for the grace of God go I” by saying, “The Holy Spirit converts and sanctifies, but if God’s grace is the only thing keeping you from becoming a notorious sexual predator, then you are not working out your salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12); you are still in bondage to sin.”
Since he considers himself a Reformed evangelical, Howard must know that both the Shorter and the Larger Catechism in the Westminster Standards define sanctification as “a work of God’s grace.” In fact, what is this “fear and trembling,” if not a humble recognition that, without God’s grace, we could never manifest our salvation?
That’s why, right after telling the Philippians to work out their salvation, Paul reminds them: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
In commenting on this passage, John Calvin says,
“It is God that worketh. This is the true engine for bringing down all haughtiness - this the sword for putting an end to all pride, when we are taught that we are utterly nothing, and can do nothing, except through the grace of God alone. I mean supernatural grace, which comes forth from the spirit of regeneration. For, considered as men, we already are, and live and move in God.”
According to Calvin, it is the Papists, “as Pelagians of old,” who ascribe half of the work of sanctification to God and half to men. “It is God that calls us, and offers to us salvation,” he continues. “It is our part to embrace by faith what he gives, and by obedience act suitably to his calling; but we have neither from ourselves. Hence we act only when he has prepared us for acting.”
We work because God works in us. We love because he generates love in our hearts. I am profoundly aware of that whenever I respond in love in a situation where I would normally snap out in anger, or when I put up with something with a patience I rarely display.
All of salvation is by God’s grace, from start to finish. The Book of Common Prayer is full of petitions to God to keep us from sin. It’s almost a constant repetition, knowing that we can’t do it on our own.
“The call isn’t merely to reflect on your sin nature,” Howard says, “but to place your faith in Christ and experience the chains of sin being broken as you are crucified with Christ and raised with him again as a new creation (Romans 6).”
And he’s right. In Romans 6, Paul reminds Christians that they are no longer slaves to sin and challenges them to live in light of this freedom. But I am grateful that Romans 6 is followed by Romans 7, where Paul balances his exhortation with a realistic view of the daily Christian life:
“I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21-25).
His answer, at this point, can only be, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
As Luther said, all Christians are simultaneously righteous and sinners. We live in the already and the not-yet, when God’s new realities are already ours but not completely. In this odd stage, it’s easy to emphasize one aspect over the other and live with either an over-realized or under-realized eschatology.
It would be wrong for Christians to live with a constant feeling of doom, emphasizing the not-yet, the weakness of our age, and our incapability of doing anything without God’s grace to the point that our Christian life becomes stunted. If this is the impression Howard got from the phrase, “There, but for the grace of God go I,” then he would be right in issuing a warning.
But it would be equally wrong for Christians to live in a state of over-confidence in the power we have in Christ over sin, underestimating the fact that sin is always crouching at our door, and over-confidence can lead to neglect, with disastrous consequences. My previous pastor had a sign in his office: “Sin makes you stupid.” A friend compared it to “a narcotic that draws one through the weaknesses of the flesh.”
Confession and Compassion
I understand that Howard was ultimately concerned for the victims of abuse. In his view, saying “There, but for the grace of God go I” normalizes heinous sins. After all, he says, if every Christian feels that he is only a step away from sexual abuse, wouldn’t that make that abuse normal?
I am not sure if this reasoning holds water on a purely rational level, but I can speak from experience – an experience Howard may or may not have shared.
In my church, we have a public confession of sin soon after the start of weekly worship. We read God’s law and are reminded of the nature of sin as a heinous offense and rebellion against God. Hearing this verdict, week after week, accompanied with the joyous announcement of the gospel, creates a sense of the horror of sin – every sin – and gratefulness for God’s mercy. It causes us to be appalled by our human tendency to normalize even small sins. Augustine of Hippo had a similar experience when he realized how he had normalized his youthful bravado of stealing pears from a neighbor.
Most of us try to keep up this confession of sin in our daily prayers, with a consequent, painful awareness of the frequency and persistence of our sins. If I say, “There, but for the grace of God go I,” I really mean it. It’s not false humility. It’s realism. I have seen what I am capable of doing. I know how flippantly I can dismiss God’s commandments, even when my conscience screams the loudest.
Some people might find the statement “There, but for the grace of God go I” rather odd. But is it harmful? When people read some news about a Christian who has fallen into some terrible sin and say, “Oh, that’s terrible, how can anyone do that?” they will get lots of people to agree, but will anything change? I have seen it done countless times before. The outrage usually lasts only until the next scandal that catches our attention.
Outrage can be good. There is a time to speak out against evil, after we know all the facts. But public outrage ebbs and flows, and what is left for most of us is the daily struggle with our ow hearts and our personal lives and spheres of influence. On the other hand, when we search our hearts and, appalled by the persistence of our sinful nature, desperately cling to Christ, his promises, and his gospel, a true change can happen, both in ourselves and in the way we relate to others.
Far from distracting our minds from the suffering of the victims, a recognition of the power of sin, our human frailty, and utter dependance on God’s grace makes that suffering all the more relevant. If I think that, apart from God’s grace, I could have been causing as much pain in people’s lives as someone who is now in the news, that pain hits home more than ever. When Rembrandt painted himself as one of Jesus’s executioners, I can only imagine the sufferings of Jesus became more real to him, prompting greater repentance and greater commitment.
That said, I was told that some people may use the phrase “There but for the grace of God go I” in a way that might sound hurtful to others. This can happen with any sentence. There are countless examples of that, and we certainly need to be careful with our words.
It would be inconsiderate and unwise to tell a victim of abuse, “Well, what happened to you is not unusual, we could all be the next Ravi Zacharias." If Howard has witnessed such a situation, he could have addressed it as such. Instead, he chose to condemn the phrase “There but for the grace of God go I” altogether, no matter how it is used, as an indication of a “seriously flawed view of sanctification” and of “false humility.” And this might confuse some people.
I have seen comments from readers who seemed to discount the role of grace in sanctification. I don’t know if Howard’s article prompted such thoughts or confirmed previous beliefs. In any case, I thought it needed some clarification, or at least a new set of questions, from the perspective of a sinner who trembles at the thought of what she could do or be if it were not for God’s grace.
Simonetta Carr is a mother of eight and a homeschool educator for twenty years. She has also worked as a freelance journalist and a translator of Christian works into Italian. Simonetta is the author of numerous books, including Weight of a Flame and the Christian Biographies for Young Readers series.
Sanctification, a series at Place for Truth:
"The Spirit's Influence" by Jeffrey Stivason
"Different From Justification" by Tim Bertolet
"The Definitive Aspect" by David Smith
"Singing Praise to God" by Stephen Unthank
"Eschatology" by Stephen Unthank
"Glorification" by Martin Blocki
"Keep Advancing!" by Joel Wood
The Doctrines of Grace, with Sinclair Ferguson, Philip Ryken, Derek Thomas, Richard Phillips, Robert Godfrey, and Eric Alexander
The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel by James Boice and Philip Ryken
 Kyle J. Howard, “Ministry leaders’ rush to empathize with Ravi Zacharias is beyond alarming,” Religion News Service, February 19, 2021.
 Canons of Dordt, Fifth Head, Article 1 (www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/canons-dort)
 Canons of Dordt, Fifth Head, Article 2
 Canons of Dordt, Fifth Head, Article 4, emphasis added
 Shorter Catechism, 35; Larger Catechism, 75.
 John Calvin, Commentaries, Philippians 2:12-13, (biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/philippians/2.htm)