In 1550, when John Bradford was chosen to be a personal chaplain to King Edward VI, no one was surprised. As a deacon in the Church of England, he had travelled all over preaching the gospel. Even in his school days, he was so revered among his friends for his selflessness and piety that he was nicknamed, “Holy Bradford.”
Once when he was passing by a local tavern with a friend, they heard some drunks laughing and swearing loudly. The friend was embarrassed for “Holy Bradford” to be hearing such talk. He tried to usher him along quickly but John Bradford stood in front of the tavern and prayed to God quietly saying, “Forgive me Lord, for I have a drunken head and a swearing heart.”
When they had gone a little further, they saw a hardened criminal with a sack on his head, being led in chains to his execution. Bradford’s friend looked on with disgust at the man being taken to the gallows to be publicly hanged, no doubt for some wicked and terrible crime.
“I guess he’s getting what he’s got coming,” he sneered.
But his holy friend, with a sorrowful expression on his face, pointed at the criminal and said, “But for the grace of God, there goes John Bradford!”
“There but for the grace of God go I…” has become a proverb of humility in modern times. Do we really understand that it is grace, not our moral superiority that separates us from those we may consider to be sinners far worse than ourselves? If we did, we might be far less likely to judge others. Holy Bradford seemed to realize that the sin in his own heart made him a drunkard, a curser, and a criminal. It was only the grace he received as a free gift from God that made him anything else. This central realization is at the heart of discipleship: “Freely you have received, now freely give…” God’s boundless love frees us to live lives of holiness. Were it not for the way of Jesus, we might find ourselves on a very different path.
Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…