Trinity 9: Completely & Continually Dependent upon the Grace of God

Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right; that we, who cannot do anything that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The Epistle: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
The Gospel: St. Luke 15:11-32

Historical Note

This is one of the 7 oldest collects in The Book of Common Prayer, dating from the Sacramentary of Pope Leo I (Bishop of Rome 440-461 A. D.).[1]  Our present form of the collect is substantially unchanged from that of Pope Leo’s, though there are two Reformation era alterations that are worth mentioning.  Both of these revisions affected the wording of the Doctrinal section of the collect.  A literal translation of the Collect’s original Latin form is: That we, who cannot be without thee, may be able to live according to thee.

Archbishop Cranmer made the first revision in 1549, changing may be able to live according to thee to may by thee be able to live according to thy will.  Cranmer’s revision was obviously very restrained – he made just two small changes: adding the phrase by thee and substituting thy will for to thee.  These changes do not alter the meaning of the original, they merely make more explicit that which was only implicit before.  By adding by thee to the phrase by thee be able to live, he explicitly identified God (as opposed to one’s self) as the source of our strength to live the Christian life.  A little later (in 1661) Bishop Cosin replaced able with enabled, introducing the only other modification to this phrase.

The second revision affected Leo’s phrase who cannot be without thee.  Cranmer had left this untouched and thus this was the Collect’s form in the first 2 prayerbooks (1549 and 1552).  At the revision of 1661 however, Cosin rewrote the phrase as cannot do anything that is good, thus shifting the emphasis away from the more ethereal concept of depending upon God for our very existence to the more concrete thought that our only hope for performing any good deeds/works rests upon God’s grace allowing us so to do. Cosin’s revision refocuses the main doctrinal concept of the collect, making the link with Augustinian theology all the more apparent (St. Augustine was Bishop of Hippo, d. 430).  

Commentary on the Collect

We . . . who cannot do anything that is good without thee.  The central thought of this Collect is that though apart from God’s grace we cannot do anything that is good.  God has graciously provided means through which his people may accomplish his will (in righteousness).  The means, as we shall see, is the indwelling presence of his Holy Spirit within us.

The doctrine that man (in his own strength and apart from Christ) is unable to please God is found throughout both the Old and the New Testaments.  This is perhaps most succinctly and forcefully stated by St. Paul in the epistle to the Romans in which he quotes Psalm 14 to make the point that apart from the grace of God all men are justly condemned as sinners – “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God . . . no one does good, not even one” (3:10-11, 12b). 

Grant to us . . . the spirit to think and do always such things as are right.  As this Collect makes clear – mankind’s lack of righteousness (apart from the grace of God given in and through Christ) affects not only our actions but also our minds.  Our problem is not simply that we do not act in ways that are righteous, but that our very minds are corrupted by sin.  For this reason we ask God for the Spirit both to think and to do such things as are right.  God requires righteousness in both spheres.  Thinking right things but not acting upon them – as when we feel compassion towards someone but then do not act compassionately towards them – is not the religion that is pleasing to God (see James 1:27).  Neither is it pleasing to him for us to do “right things” but for the wrong reason(s).  Intent matters to God.  And so, we must make our Petition:

Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit.  One of the results of the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ is that the promised Holy Spirit has been given to the Church.  Therefore, those who are united to Christ may with confidence beseech God to grant us his Spirit – without whom it is impossible to please God.  The Spirit is he who: convicts us of sin (John 16:8), gives us spiritual life (John 6:63; Romans 8:11), dwells within us to make us holy (John 14:17; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Peter 1:2), guides us into truth (John 16:13; cf. 1 John 5:6), equips us to serve God (1 Corinthians 12) and unites us to Christ (Romans 8). 

The request for the gift of God’s Spirit so that we might think and act righteously is a fitting prayer in light of today’s Epistle.  Paul reminds us of the Israelite’s sin (in thought and in deed) so as to set before us an example, “to the intent (that) we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted.” 

Paul reminds us about the sin of the Israelites as a warning to us, lest we follow in their footsteps – “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.”  The surest way to sin like the Israelites is to reject the doctrine of this collect and therefore attempt to withstand temptation by means of our own strength.  As Paul warns: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” 

It is pride (not the Spirit) that leads us to believe that we are able to please God (in our thoughts or actions) in our own strength.  And so, ironically perhaps, an essential aspect of living in a way pleasing to God is to acknowledge that we cannot live to please God – not apart from his Spirit that is.  Whatever righteous thoughts, desires or actions we may at times have are the result of the grace of God being operative in and upon us.  And likewise, whatever success we may have in withstanding temptation (whether the temptation be mental or physical) is also the grace and faithfulness of God being put on display in us – as we read in today’s Epistle: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

The Rev'd Jason S. S. Patterson, Rector (St. Mark's Chruch)


[1] The other 6 Leonite collects are those for the 3rd Sunday after Easter, and the 5th, 10th, 12th, 13th, and 14th Sundays after Trinity.

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