Grace And Our Response to It


Many people, including my past self, say the word grace without knowing exactly what it is or what it does. We sometimes think of it as a kind of nebulous thing that God gives us when we’re forgiven, but we cannot seem to put our fingers on a precise definition of it. So, this article will explain what grace is, what it does, our response to it, and the two major types of grace – sanctifying grace and actual grace.

Grace Definition

The Catechism defines grace as “favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (par. 1996). I should add that grace completes and perfects our human nature, which is why God clothed Adam and Eve with grace when He created them.

Unfortunately, when Adam and Eve sinned, they chose to reject grace and become more like nonrational animals. This is why God then clothed them in animal skins after they sinned (St. Augustine of Hippo).

Anyway, grace means favor. And if you favor someone, you help them to accomplish the thing for which you favor them. For example, if you favor someone to win a race, you give them the tools to compete and win. So, humans can extend personally created, natural graces to others by favoring them. Notice that this favor is not passive. Rather, you actively help the other person in some way.

In this example, even cheering for an athlete is a grace aimed at helping the person win. Just keep in mind that only God can give the kind of grace, which is supernatural, that brings a person into right relationship with Him. This short explanation will help us to understand the two major types of grace, actual and sanctifying. But, before we discuss these graces any further, we need some basic information about grace in God.

Grace and God

First, God is grace. He is favor. Grace belongs to Him primarily and substantially. We can have His grace in our souls, but He is grace. Similarly, we know, love, and have power. But God is Knowledge, Love, and Power.

God creates all creation in grace and holds creation in existence by His grace. But this does not mean that God designed all creation with the capacity for supernatural grace that leads to an eternal relationship with Him.

Grace and Nonrational Creatures

When it comes to nonrational creatures, God favors them for temporal rather than eternal purposes. Observation and common sense affirm this. Since God did not create them with the purpose to be with Him for eternity, God’s favor toward these creatures does not move them toward eternal truths and an eternal relationship with Him. For more about nonrational creatures, please read this two-part article.

Grace and Rational Creatures

Let us turn to grace in rational creatures. Humans, and even angels, require grace to 1) pursue holy actions out of supernatural love for God and 2) to exist in a filial (Father-child) relationship with Him. Accordingly, we divide grace into two major categories. Grace that helps us to act out of love for God is actual grace, and grace that makes us God’s sons and daughters is sanctifying grace.

Although all grace is simply grace in God, since He is not composed of parts, it accomplishes different things in creatures. So, we classify the types of grace according to the things it achieves in us.

In a previous article, I wrote about how God moves us with grace without harming, but rather perfecting, our free will (click here to read it). However, I did not spend much time reflecting on this supernatural help. So, before continuing, please understand that the natural (e.g., humans) cannot reach the supernatural without the supernatural first condescending to us to help us do so.

Accordingly, we need grace to have grace. Actual grace helps us to do a great many things out of love for God as situations arise, whereas sanctifying grace is a habitual quality that keeps us in a holy relationship with God. By God’s actual grace, we receive power to seek and attain sanctifying grace.

Occasions for Grace

There are numerous times in our lives in which we face decisions that have spiritual consequences. To begin with, actual grace helps us to desire a loving relationship with God, repent of our sins, receive baptism, and become God’s sons or daughters.

Catechism paragraph 2010 states, “Since the initiative [of conversion] belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion.”

We have a special name for this actual grace that first helps us to turn (or return) to God. We call this grace prevenient because it precedes and accompanies acts of the human intellect, will, and affections to help us receive a saving knowledge of God and act on it by seeking and obtaining justification. In other words, prevenient grace moves us toward sanctifying grace. It is supernatural help to obtain a supernatural connection to God, who is our supernatural end.

As I mentioned previously, without actual grace, rational creatures would have to somehow reach the supernatural by purely natural means. This would be an impossible task because God is above and beyond nature. Therefore, God must reach down to us and help us grow ever closer to Him.

Grace After Justification

After God gives us prevenient grace, we turn to Him in baptism, an act of faith, which washes away our sins and infuses us with sanctifying grace (1 Peter 3:21, RSV-CE). At this very moment, we enter a filial relationship with Him. But our journey toward being a perfect image and likeness of God is not over. In fact, it’s just the beginning. (To understand why baptism is not a human work but, rather, a supernatural gift, please read this article.)

After justification, God calls us to grow in holiness, the goal of which is complete sanctification and heavenly beatitude. Again, actual grace comes to the rescue. Even in a state of sanctifying grace, we encounter temptations to sin and occasions for holy actions. Actual grace helps us to reject these temptations and embrace these holy actions out of love for God as they come along.

Consequently, the more we reject sin and embrace virtuous behaviors out of love for God, the more disposed we become to sanctifying grace and the more we grow in it. Actual grace and our cooperation with it help us become full of sanctifying grace. When a person is full of grace, he/she habitually functions as God made them. They reject all sin and embrace the good works to which God calls them, and they do so with joy in their heart.

Greater Moral Responsibilities

Since God makes us for grace and gives us this free gift that makes us His sons and daughters, He calls us to behave accordingly. St. Paul writes that God saves us by grace in Christ Jesus “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). And Jesus commands us to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

In fact, the Church, in Lumen Gentium section 14, reminds us,

All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word, and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.

Returning to the race analogy above, if I sponsor a runner, I clearly favor him/her to compete in a race. By devoting a portion of my money to the athlete, I expect him to do his best and use the gift I have given for its intended purpose. If the runner does nothing with the gift, he thereby rejects it, and I have every right to retrieve it from him.

Similarly, if we refuse to use grace to seek forgiveness, moral perfection, and do the good works God calls us to do, we, by our slothful behavior, reject the grace God gives us. Jesus explicitly tells us that the righteous will enter Heaven precisely because they fed, clothed, and visited the hungry, naked, sick, and imprisoned while in a state of grace. They used His grace. Therefore, we must treat this gift with the utmost care and respect because of what it is and does.

Holiness and Grace

At this point, we should clearly see that grace precedes, establishes, and fortifies the entire Christian life from our desire for God and conversion to our complete sanctification and heavenly entrance. Therefore, we cannot do one holy thing without grace helping us to do it. In fact, without grace, we cannot do what is holy at all because grace is the very thing that turns a natural deed or desire into a supernatural action performed out of supernatural love for God.

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This article first appeared at Catholic Stand.