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Grace: What It Is and What It Does

If you took your parish’s catechism classes when you were growing up, you at least remember that there are two kinds of grace, sanctifying and actual. That may be all you recall. The names being so similar, you might have the impression sanctifying grace is nearly identical to actual grace. Not so.

Sanctifying grace stays in the soul. It’s what makes the soul holy; it gives the soul supernatural life. More properly, it is supernatural life.

Actual grace, by contrast, is a supernatural push or encouragement. It’s transient. It doesn’t live in the soul, but acts on the soul from the outside, so to speak. It’s a supernatural kick in the pants. It gets the will and intellect moving so we can seek out and keep sanctifying grace.

In its natural state, your soul isn’t fit for heaven. What you need to live there is supernatural life, not just natural life. That supernatural life is called sanctifying grace.

If sanctifying grace dwells in your soul when you die, then you can live in heaven (though you may need to be purified first in purgatory; cf. 1 Cor. 3:12–16). If it doesn’t dwell in your soul when you die—in other words, if your soul is spiritually dead by being in the state of mortal sin (Gal. 5:19-21)— you cannot live in heaven. You then have to face an eternity of spiritual death: the utter separation of your spirit from God (Eph. 2:1, 2:5, 4:18).

Spiritual Suicide

You can obtain supernatural life by yielding to actual graces you receive. God keeps giving you these divine pushes, and all you have to do is go along.

For instance, he moves you to repentance, and if you take the hint you can find yourself in the confessional, where the guilt for your sins is remitted (John 20:21–23). Through the sacrament of penance, through your reconciliation to God, you receive sanctifying grace. But you can lose it again by sinning mortally (1 John 5:16–17).

Keep that word in mind: mortal. It means death. Mortal sins are deadly sins because they kill off this supernatural life, this sanctifying grace. Mortal sins can’t coexist with the supernatural life, because by their nature such sins are saying “No” to God, while sanctifying grace would be saying “Yes.”

Venial sins don’t destroy supernatural life, and they don’t even lessen it. Mortal sins destroy it outright. The trouble with venial sins is that they weaken us, making us more vulnerable to mortal sins.

When you lose supernatural life, there’s nothing you can do on your own to regain it. You’re reduced to the merely natural life again, and no natural act can merit a supernatural reward. You can merit a supernatural reward only by being made able to act above your nature, which you can do only if you have help—grace.

To regain supernatural life, you have to receive actual graces from God. Think of these as helping graces. Such graces differ from sanctifying grace in that they aren’t a quality of the soul and don’t abide in it. Rather, actual graces enable the soul to perform some supernatural act, such as an act of faith or repentance. If the soul responds to actual grace and makes the appropriate supernatural act, it again receives supernatural life.

Really Cleansed

Sanctifying grace implies a real transformation of the soul. Recall that most of the Protestant Reformers denied that a real transformation takes place. They said God doesn’t actually wipe away our sins. Instead, our souls remain corrupted, full of sin. God merely throws a cloak over them and treats them as if they were spotless, knowing all the while that they’re not.

But that isn’t the Catholic view. We believe souls really are cleansed by an infusion of the supernatural life. Of course, we’re still subject to temptations to sin; we still suffer the effects of Adam’s Fall in that sense (what theologians call “concupiscence”); but God has removed the sins we have, much like a mother might wash the dirt off of a child who has a tendency to get dirty again.  Our wills are given the new powers of hope and charity, things absent at the merely natural level.

Justification and Sanctification

We’ve mentioned that we need sanctifying grace in our souls if we’re to be equipped for heaven. Another way of saying this is that we need to be justified. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).

The Protestant misunderstanding of justification lies in its claim that justification is merely a legal declaration by God that the sinner is now “justified.” If you “accept Christ as your personal Lord and Savior,” he declares you justified, though he doesn’t really make you justified or sanctified; your soul is in the same state as it was before, but you’re eligible for heaven.

A person is expected thereafter to undergo sanctification (don’t make the mistake of thinking Protestants say sanctification is unimportant), but the degree of sanctification achieved is, ultimately, immaterial to the question of whether you’ll get to heaven. You will, since you’re justified; and justification as a purely legal declaration is what counts. Unfortunately, this amounts to God telling an untruth by saying the sinner has been justified, while all along he knows that the sinner is only covered under the “cloak” of Christ’s righteousness. But, what God declares, he does. “[S]o shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:11). So, when God declares you justified, he makes you justified. Any justification that is not woven together with sanctification is no justification at all.

The Bible’s teaching on justification is much more nuanced. Paul indicates that there is a real transformation that occurs in justification. This is seen, for example, in Romans 6:7, which every standard translation—Protestant ones included—renders as “For he who has died is freed from sin” (or a close variant).

Paul is obviously speaking about being freed from sin in an experiential sense, for this is the passage where he is at pains to stress the fact that we have made a decisive break with sin that must be reflected in our behavior: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1-2). “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:12-13).

The context here is what Protestants call sanctification, the process of being made holy. Sanctification is the sense in which we are said to be “freed from sin” in this passage. Yet in the Greek text, what is actually said is “he who has died has been justified from sin.” The term in Greek (dikaioo) is the word for being justified, yet the context indicates sanctification, which is why every standard translation renders the word “freed” rather than “justified.” This shows that, in Paul’s mind, justification involves a real,  experiential freeing from sin, not just a change of legal status. And it shows that, the way he uses terms, there is not the rigid wall between justification and sanctification that Protestants imagine.

According to Scripture, sanctification and justification aren’t just one-time events, but are ongoing processes in the life of the believer. As the author of Hebrews notes: “For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). In regard to justification also being an ongoing process, compare Romans 4:3; Genesis 15:6 with both Hebrews 11:8; Genesis 12:1-4 and James 2:21-23; Genesis 22:1-18. In these passages, Abraham’s justification is advanced on three separate occasions.

Can Justification Be Lost?

Many Protestants go on to say that losing ground in the sanctification battle won’t jeopardize your justification. You might sin worse than you did before “getting saved,” but you’ll enter heaven anyway, because you can’t undo your justification.

Calvin taught the absolute impossibility of losing justification. Luther said it could be lost only through the sin of unbelief; that is, by undoing the act of faith and rejecting Christ, but not by what Catholics call mortal sins.

Catholics see it differently. If you sin grievously, the supernatural life in your soul disappears, since it can’t co-exist with serious sin. You then cease to be justified. If you were to die while unjustified, you’d go to hell. But you can become rejustified by having the supernatural life renewed in your soul, and you can do that by responding to the actual graces God sends you.

Acting on Actual Graces

He sends you an actual grace, say, in the form of a nagging voice that whispers, “You need to repent! Go to confession!” You do, your sins are forgiven, you’re reconciled to God, and you have supernatural life again (John 20:21–23). Or you say to yourself, “Maybe tomorrow,” and that particular supernatural impulse, that actual grace, passes you by. But another is always on the way, God never abandoning us to our own stupidity (1 Tim. 2:4).

Once you have supernatural life, once sanctifying grace is in your soul, you can increase it by every supernaturally good action you do: receiving Communion, saying prayers, performing corporal works of mercy. Is it worth increasing sanctifying grace once you have it; isn’t the minimum enough? Yes and no. It’s enough to get you into heaven, but it may not be enough to sustain itself. The minimum isn’t good enough because it’s easy to lose the minimum.

We must continually seek God’s grace, continually respond to the actual graces God is working within us, inclining us to turn to him and do good. This is what Paul discusses when he instructs us: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (Phil. 2:12–16).


NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004

IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004

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