BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (184): What is grace?

Rev José Mario O Mandía

We have seen that the aim of the moral law is not only to show us how to be “nice” and “decent” people. It shows us the way to holiness. Holiness, however, requires an input of help from God. It is God who justifies us; He is the one who makes us holy.

What do we mean by justification? “Justification is the most excellent work of God’s love. It is the merciful and freely-given act of God which [a] takes away our sins and [b] makes us just and holy in our whole being. It is brought about by means of the grace of the Holy Spirit which has been merited for us by the passion of Christ and is given to us in Baptism. Justification is the beginning of the free response of man, that is, faith in Christ and of cooperation with the grace of the Holy Spirit” (CCCC No. 422). Note the two-fold aspect of justification: it requires the act of God who takes the initiative and man’s response. In order to understand what grace does for us, it is necessary to review BST 52 (In what way are we God’s image and likeness?), which explains how man is constituted. A person who wishes to understand how a certain drug works on the human body has first to understand how the body works. He has to know some anatomy and physiology. Similarly, if we want to fully appreciate the action of grace, we need to understand human nature, in particular, his spiritual soul, his intellect, his will, and his freedom.

What is grace? In general, grace is a supernatural gift from God. This definition has two elements: (1) it is supernatural; and (2) a gift. Let us explain each one.

(1) It is supernatural, meaning it is above our natural capabilities and dignity. When we say it is above our natural capabilities, we mean that, as the CCCC (No. 423) explains: “[it] surpasses the abilities of the intellect and the powers of human beings. It therefore escapes our experience.” This does not mean that it replaces our natural capabilities. Rather, it enhances them.

When the Catechism says that grace “escapes our experience,” it means that grace is not something that one can feel – it is beyond the grasp of our senses because it is supernatural. It “escapes our experience” means we cannot see, feel, touch, taste, or hear grace. Being in the state of grace does not mean finding oneself on an emotional high. Thus, the CCC (No. 2005) teaches: “Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved (cf. Council of Trent, 1547): DS 1533-1534). However, according to the Lord’s words ‘Thus you will know them by their fruits’ (Matthew 7:20) – reflection on God’s blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us and spurs us on to an ever greater faith and an attitude of trustful poverty.”

The same point of the CCC adds: “A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St Joan of Arc to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: ‘Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: “If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there”’ (Acts of the trial of St Joan of Arc).”

(2) It is a gift, and therefore free and undeserved, an entirely gratuitous initiative of God (cf. CCC 1996). We should always remember what Saint John said, that love was God’s idea: “he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), simply because “God is love” (1 John 4:16).

Let us now tackle the different kinds of grace.  To understand the differences, we can say that grace is either (1) life, or (2.1) light and (2.2) love (strength).


Sanctifying grace is grace that affects our being (and is thus technically called an entitative habit. The word “entitative” comes from the Latin “ens” which means “being”).

This grace gives life. Its purpose is to enable us to participate in the intimate life of the three Divine Persons. The CCCC (No. 423), “That grace is the gratuitous gift that God gives us to make us participants in his trinitarian life and able to act by his love. It is called habitual, sanctifying or deifying grace because it sanctifies and divinizes us.” Sanctifying grace “upgrades” us creatures to the level of the Creator.

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