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Monday, July 14, 2014

‘There , but for the grace of God, go I.’ : The History and Meaning of the Phrase ( or What Do Sherlock Holmes and Charles Spurgeon Have In Common?)

Recently, I have been thoroughly enjoying “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” by Arthur Conan Doyle.  This book contains the first 12 stories of Doyle’s great, yet flawed, detective ever to be published.

As I was finishing up one of the stories, “ The Boscombe Valley Mystery” , I was surprised and pleased to read this passage of Holmes dialogue with Watson - just after a bittersweet case had been solved and one of it’s main characters had left the room:

“God help us!” said Holmes after a long silence. “Why does fate play such tricks with poor helpless worms? I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, “There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes”.

I, probably like you, have heard this phrase before. For me it was always been in regards to a story regarding the great 19th century preacher, Charles Spurgeon. Although there are variations and I have not been able to verify if this story did indeed happen, it goes something like this:

“Mr. Spurgeon and a friend were walking down the street when they came upon a drunken homeless man prostrated on the street. After Charles’ companion makes a snide remark about the poor soul, Charles quickly rebukes him and with tears running down his face says “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

The meaning of the phrase here being that even a preacher of Spurgeon’s status is prone to the same sins and poor decisions of the drunken man, if it were not for God’s grace guiding and aiding him.  It was an ackowedgement of humility, compassion and utter dependence on God.

As I sunk in to do a little research on the phrase I found that, according to Rev. James F. Rigney, the “Baxter” referred to in Arthur Conan Doyle’s book is Richard Baxter, a 17th century puritan author.

Richard Baxter was born in 1615 in England. Wikipedia notes:
Because of his father’s gambling habit and inherited debts, and his mother’s poor health, Richard lived with his maternal grandparents for the first ten years of his life. When his father was converted through “the bare reading of the Scriptures in private,” Richard returned to his parental home, and later acknowledged that God used his father’s serious talks about God and eternity as “the Instrument of my first Convictions, and Approbation of a Holy Life” (Reliquiae Baxterianae, 1:2-4).”
Although I myself could not find a specific instance of Richard Baxter saying this, it is most likely he did as the phrase was already known by that time and Conan Doyle, writing over a century ago,  was likely aware of the specifics.
The first reference to this iconic phrase though was in regards to an English Protestant Reformer and martyr named John Bradford.

Bradford in prison with bishops from “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs”

Bradford was born in Manchester in 1510. He later became a Protestant Bishop under Edward VI but was soon to be persecuted by the following monarch – the Roman Catholic, Mary Tudor.
For no crime besides his faith, he was sealed in the infamous Tower of London along with fellow Anglican,  Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and reformer Hugh Latimer. There he continued studying the Bible and writing and, as Wikipedia states:

At some time during his imprisonment it is said that Bradford witnessed a group of prisoners being led to their execution and remarked, "There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford." The phrase has survived in common parlance in its variant, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

But now back to Spurgeon for a moment. Although the little story I told earlier could not be verified, Spurgeon did utter this phrase or something very much akin to it.  We read it out of his  personal diary:

“Fair Day. – Spoke to Mr. R. How can a child of God go there? “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Forgive him Lord, for so forgetting his high calling! I too should be there, but for the grace of God.  I have the seeds of all evil in my own heart; pride is yet my darling sin, I cannot shake it off. Awake, O my Lord, against the mighty, for I shall die by his hand if Thou do not help me. And lead me on to triumph! Leave me , ye vain thought!  I have nothing but what I received; it is the Lord’s goodness that I even have my reason.    (from  ‘Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers’By Lewis A. Drummond)”

So what does the phrase mean for us today?

In Bradford’s case, it seemed he was saying that he was thankful for one more day alive on this earth – even if it was in the Tower of London. That is not to say that when his time for execution came that he thought God’s grace to be gone. It is clear that He understood the day would most likely come and , if I may speculate a little, knew that God’s grace would be sufficient for even that terrible death of burning at the stake.

This notion is reinforced as we read Thomas Fuller’s comments on Bradford’s martyrdom. He wrote that he endured the flame  "as a fresh gale of wind in a hot summer's day, confirming by his death the truth of that doctrine he had so diligently and powerfully preached during his life."

Sherlock Holmes and Charles Spurgeon seemed to have something a little more internal in mind, reflecting on their own broken natures and tendencies to do evil ( Sherlock was a cocaine addict you may remember).

We often find it hard to think of ourselves as having a sin nature – a bent towards ill behaviour of some sort. Although sometimes I think we are keenly aware of it. To recite Spurgeon again, “I have the seeds of all evil in my own heart; pride is yet my darling sin, I cannot shake it off. Awake, O my Lord, against the mighty, for I shall die by his hand if Thou do not help me. And lead me on to triumph!”

In the seventh chapter of Romans, Paul, a man who knew well the evil tendencies of human nature, wrote this:

18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. 19 For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. …. 22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 I thank God--through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.    Romans 7:18-24

It is, I believe, when we are most keenly aware of these dark seeds, of the complete inability of our own “flesh” to perform good always -  that we are most honest and most humble and most thankful and most open to God.

And that is the most valuable thing we can learn from this age old phrase.


 “A man must completely despair of himself in order to become fit to obtain the grace of Christ.” -Martin Luther (1483-1546)

“When the mask of self-righteousness has been torn from us and we stand stripped of all our accustomed defenses, we are (then) candidates for God's generous grace.” -Erwin W. Lutzer 

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