What is Grace?

The word “Grace” is probably one of the most used words in the Christian world, but probably one of the terms that people understand the least. I’ve heard people who have been going to church since more than 20 years ask me “what does it means that Jesus died for us”, or “I believe in Jesus but I am still not into all that Grace thing”, and I bet the majority of Christians keep using the word Grace with very little knowledge of what they are talking about. Because it is the very core and foundation of the Christian message, I think it is incredibly important to shed some clarity on what Grace is. We cannot defend the faith if we have no idea of what the faith is and Grace stands at the very core of the faith. Some analogies in this article may not be perfect and so in case of any doubts, the Truth about Grace is to be found in Scripture, the Holy Tradition and the teachings of the Church.

First of all, we have to understand that we humans do not deserve a life of eternity in absolute joy, happiness, communion with God and the full satisfaction of our deepest longings. How can we deserve it? We can’t possible merit on our own what God wants for us. To say the truth, what we actually merit is punishment for our sins, for we continually rebel against God’s plan of love for us through sin, so we merit to be separated by this holy and perfect God. Grace is what God does to close this gap between us and Him. It is offered to everyone[1], though many refuse it[2].

Grace is one “thing”, but there are many types of Graces and ways in which it is applied to man. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Grace as the “favor, 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”[3] and as the “participation in the life of God”.[4] Grace permits us humble creatures that in ourselves merit nothing to be “introduced to the intimacy of the Trinitarian life”.[5] Grace, we could say, is this desire of a loving Father to bring us as adopted children into his family. The first and simplest way to receive this Grace, this favor, this participation in the life of God, is to be baptized. Baptism we could say is the process where this loving father goes to the orphanage and adopts you, a sinful, rebellious, stinky kid.

Ok, we understood what Grace is, but what does it concretely do in my life?
The first and foremost effect of Grace is Justification. We could say that Justification is that first hot bathtub or shower that your loving Father, once you get to your new home, makes you do in order to clean you from that stinky orphanage smell and dirt. The Catechism explains this by stating this: the grace of the Holy Spirit [God] has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through Faith in Jesus Christ” and Baptism.[6] So by being baptized, you receive God’s Grace and therefore you are justified, cleansed.

Justification is twofold, “it detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God and purifies his heart from sin”[7] and it constitutes “the acceptance of God’s righteousness”[8]. We could say that what we are talking about is Conversion. With Justification (the primary effect of God’s Grace) the supernatural virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity are literally infused in our souls. Our Father infuses in us wonderful things that constitute our true good, Faith in Him, Hope in His plans of salvation for us, and true burning ardent Charity/Love for Him and our fellow human neighbors.

So this is what Grace does, it radically changes you, from a sinful creature detached from God to an adopted son of God, justified, cleansed from his sins, converted and now with His righteousness; always cooperating with your freedom (this means you can refuse Grace). Grace closes the huge gap between you and God and radically changes you transforming you into a new creature (Galatians 2:20).

And who pays for all of this? Who pays for the father who takes a day off to go look for you in the orphanage? Who pays for the offer he gives to the orphanage to bring you home? Who pays for that warm shower, the soap, all the meals that transform you from a skinny, dirty, nasty kid into a new creature? It is all merited by the blood of Christ. The Catechism states “Justification [what Grace primarily does to you] has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men”.[9] This is called the atonement, and we will probably explain it in another article, for now just remember that everything Grace does to you is thanks to the blood of Christ.

We just saw what Grace is and what it primarily does. Now we will analyze the different types of Grace in theology. It is perfectly ok in fact to say “By God’s Grace (favor) today we have a wonderful day”, or “I received the Graces I asked for in prayer”, or “Grace is really pushing me, it’s moving my desires toward repentance and confession”, or “by God’s Grace I am becoming more holy”, or “I received so much Grace in the sacraments” and so on. You will soon have a better understanding of how Grace applies to all of these scenarios.

We saw how the way to receive God’s Grace is through Baptism. Yes, this is true. But Grace is also the thing that leads someone to seek Jesus before baptism and to desire to be baptized or pushes the parents to baptize their child. Some (most) people are baptized, then lose their faith or start sinning gravely, hence falling away from Grace. But then Grace is what brings the people who want it back to God. Grace is what enables a soul to be faithful to its baptism, that means it allows and empowers you to avoid and fight sin. When we sin and betray God and our baptismal vows it is Grace that leads us to desire to restore our relationship with God, it is Grace that makes us day after day into saints striving for virtue and growing in prayer. So we can lose Grace by committing a grave sin (a mortal sin), but Grace can go look for us and bring us back to God (if we let God do it). Grace is necessary for every salvific good act that a Christian does. Even the very first desire of God in the human heart is planted and stirred up by Grace. So receiving Grace is not just a one in a life thing through baptism, there are many ways to receive it and keep receiving it, but of course, the main turning point of transformation is the sacrament of Baptism. After we will analyze the different types of Grace you will understand all of this a bit better.

Uncreated Grace: “God himself as the origin and fount of all gifts, God himself indwelling in the souls of the righteous, God as the gift of Himself in the Beatific Vision of Heaven.”[10]

Created Grace: “the act of giving the gifts, the act of indwelling in the souls of the righteous, the Beatific Vision are created graces, but they all give uncreated grace (God himself). It is a supernatural gift distinct from God.”[11]

God is making Himself a gift to humanity, the greatest gift possible, the source of Being, Justice, Goodness, Beauty, Peace, Truth, Tenderness. The gift itself is uncreated, God is God, He didn’t come into existence, He always existed, therefore the content of the gift (God) is said “uncreated grace”. Of course the act of God giving himself in different ways to us is created.

External Grace: “it is any benefit of God for the salvation of humanity which is out of man. Some examples of external grace are Revelation, Scripture, the example of Christ’s life, homilies, sermons, the sacraments, a testimony, a witness of virtue.”[12]

Internal Grace: “it grasps onto the soul and its powers and literally influences them. Some examples of internal grace are sanctifying grace, infused virtues, actual grace. External grace is ordered towards internal grace.”[13]

So external graces are all those gifts that are given to us but are not in use, like the Bible. Such grace is a wonderful tool, a gift from God, that brings about in us internal grace, like, perhaps, motivating us to pray. So the Bible itself is an external grace, while the motivation from reading to pray is an internal grace.

“Gratis Data” Grace: “that Grace that God gives to certain people for the salvation of others and doesn’t depend upon the moral condition or collaboration of the person. Some examples are the extra-ordinary gifts like the power of certain disciples to speak in tongues, the power to perform (through God’s power) miracles, or also ordinary gifts such as the power of jurisdiction, of keeping order and so on.”[14] It literally means “free given grace”, it is a special ability that a person has to sanctify others. It is ordered to sanctifying grace, therefore it is inferior to it.[15]

Gratia Gratum Faciens (Sanctifying Grace): “this Grace is destined to all human beings and is given for personal sanctification. It makes the soul appreciated in the eyes of God”[16] (that is what the Latin literally means). It makes the soul just, holy, it defeats vices and encourages virtue, it is the motor of the process of becoming a saint. This doesn’t mean that all human beings turn out like this, the ones who do not are the ones who reject God’s call.

A “gratis data” grace can be the special speech ability of a priest or of a Christian who is evangelizing, the intelligence of an apologist, the gift of healing of a saint, it can also be the authority of a police officer that helps keep society ordered (and therefore contributes to building God’s Kingdom). All of these are ordered towards sanctifying grace, their purpose is to assist sanctifying grace. The special ability of a preacher given freely by God to him (gratis data), helps you repent of your sins or motivates you to do an act of love towards your neighbor (sanctifying grace).
There are two further distinctions to make regarding Grace, Habitual Grace and Actual Grace.

Habitual (sanctifying) Grace: “it is a supernatural quality that stays in the soul and that sanctifies man interiorly and makes him just and acceptable to God”[17]

Actual Grace: “it is a supernatural influx of God in the soul so that a man can do a salvific act that is ordered to gain habitual grace”[18]

Having habitual grace is basically having continuously God working in you, transforming you day by day with ongoing conversion, sanctifying you and making you into a saint. You are like a vase, and God is the artist (Isaiah 64:8), having habitual Grace is being formed continuously by God. Actual Grace is a singular act of God, not a permanent forging and forming of your soul, but a single act of God that wants to bring you into His hands, so that then he can start making you into a wonderful piece of art. An example of actual Grace is that desire that you have to repent and confess your sins when you fell away from a state of Grace with a grave sin. Another example of actual grace is maybe being brought one night to an adoration chapel and falling in love with Jesus in the Eucharist, it becomes habitual Grace when you start going to that chapel every week letting God transform you.
Actual Grace can be “prevenient” or “Concomitant”.

Prevenient (actual) Grace: “if it comes before the free decision of the will.”[19]

Concomitant (actual) Grace: “it assists you and sustains you during the decision” [20]

An example of prevenient grace is an inspiration to start praying. So you are a very lukewarm Christian, but something strikes you and you feel the urge to start praying, that is prevenient grace. Actual Grace can also be “concomitant”, that means it assists you and sustains you during the decision to pray, so it gives you the strength and the disposition and the humbleness while you are praying to relate to your heavenly Father. You can receive actual grace also if you are already in habitual Grace, it may be given to boost your journey in the faith and bring you to a more radical choice of love for the Lord, like the inspiration to become a missionary (prevenient), and the strength to do it that assists you while you make that wonderful choice (concomitant).

So we saw how wonderful Grace is. It truly is the Good News! God wants to close the gap between us and Him. But it needs our freedom to accept it, like every love relationship, it wouldn’t be love if it were forced. Of course a soul by ceasing to believe or by committing a grave (mortal) sin like adultery, fornication, murder, blasphemy, drunkenness, one can say to God “I don’t want you anymore” and go towards the path of eternal separation from Him, which is damnation. But remember that God goes and looks for that one sheep that leaves the 99, in order to bring it back home, and now you know that He does it first with prevenient actual grace and then concomitant actual grace to help you during that first step, maybe through a gratis data grace of someone you know in order to bring you to Habitual Sanctifying Grace and then to heaven.

Ed Da Pra


[1] CCC 851

[2] Matthew 7:13

[3] CCC 1996

[4] CCC 1997

[5] CCC 1997

[6] CCC 1987

[7] CCC 1990

[8] CCC 1991

[9] CCC 1992

[10] Ott, Compendio di Teologia Dogmatica, Editrice Icthys, p 365 (paraphrased)

[11] Ott, Compendio di Teologia Dogmatica, Editrice Icthys, p 365 (paraphrased)

[12] Ott, Compendio di Teologia Dogmatica, Editrice Icthys, p 366 (paraphrased)

[13] Ott, Compendio di Teologia Dogmatica, Editrice Icthys, p 366 (paraphrased)

[14] Ott, Compendio di Teologia Dogmatica, Editrice Icthys, p 366 (paraphrased)

[15] Ott, Compendio di Teologia Dogmatica, Editrice Icthys, p 366 (paraphrased)

[16] Ott, Compendio di Teologia Dogmatica, Editrice Icthys, p 366 (paraphrased)

[17] Ott, Compendio di Teologia Dogmatica, Editrice Icthys, p 367 (paraphrased)

[18] Ott, Compendio di Teologia Dogmatica, Editrice Icthys, p 367 (paraphrased)

[19] Ott, Compendio di Teologia Dogmatica, Editrice Icthys, p 367 (paraphrased)

[20] Ott, Compendio di Teologia Dogmatica, Editrice Icthys, p 367 (paraphrased)

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