Grace is a word we hear a lot of in the context of our Christian faith. We know that God bestows His grace on us and we often ask for just that. However, sometimes it may seem to be an abstract concept. Most Christian religions all agree that “Grace is favor, the free and underserved 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” (CCC #1996). In other words, being the sinners that we are, we do not deserve or somehow earn God’s favor and help, rather, it is something He gives to us simply because He wants to help us on our path to salvation. While most of us do agree that grace is a free gift of help from God, the Catholic faith has a much deeper understanding of grace, even going so far as to identify different types of grace. Let’s examine what the Magisterium teaches us about grace.
“Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life” (CCC #1997). Because it is a participation in the divine life, the Church refers to this grace as supernatural. This is the grace we receive at our baptism as God draws us in and marks us as His own. It is the gift from God that powers our vocations, leading us to our eventual sharing in the supernatural life of the Trinity for eternity (cf. CCC #1978).
The grace that we receive in Baptism is specifically referred to as sanctifying grace. “…the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it” (CCC #1999). In order for us to get to heaven, we must be sanctified and this is the means by which it takes place. We understand this infusion with the Holy Spirit to be a pouring out of God’s grace into our very selves, making it more than simply love or help. Scripture also tells us about this infusion, or pouring out of the Holy Spirit. “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy”
(Acts 2:17-18). “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). We can see in scripture that this pouring out of grace into our souls is directly tied in with our vocation, which is ultimately the means of our own personal sanctification. The unique spiritual gifts you received at your Baptism are the vehicles for sanctifying grace in your soul.
Going back to the understanding that grace is a free and undeserved gift from God, given in love, let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine there is a person who loves you more than anything on this earth and buys you a car with no strings attached. This person only wants you to be able to get where you need to go safely. Imagine thanking that person and then locking that car away in your garage, never using it to help you on your daily errands, opting instead to walk the hardest paths possible, all on foot. We can see that this is not a good use of this gift. Likewise, sanctifying grace is a gift that gets us to where we need to be, but we need to use it and maintain it, just like a car. The Church calls this habitual grace. Habitual grace is, “the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s call…” (CCC #2000). So, the more we practice a life of virtue as a habit, the more efficacious the sanctifying grace within us becomes as it keeps us in line with God’s will.
There is one thing that can kill God’s spiritual life – His sanctifying grace – within us, and that is mortal sin. “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life – to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death” (1 Jn 5:16-17). I have written previously on the difference between venial and mortal sin, but the short answer is that mortal sin is very serious sin that separates one entirely from God. Anyone who is in a state of mortal sin does not have sanctifying grace within his or her soul and is therefore spiritually dead. This is the worst state of being for a soul, but thankfully Jesus provided a solution for it. By experiencing conversion and repentance, one can receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and have that grace restored. If you know you are in a state of mortal sin, please go to Reconciliation as soon as possible. If you are unsure of your current state, you can make an appointment with a priest, or seek counsel within the confessional.
Another type of grace is called actual grace, which is to be distinguished from habitual grace. Where habitual grace is an ongoing state of having sanctifying grace within you, actual graces “refer to God’s interventions” (CCC #2000). As you go about your day-to-day life and receive answers to your many prayers, these are God’s interventions and therefore, His grace. The more you look for these moments of grace, the more you become attuned to them when they occur. You will find that God is very generous in bestowing His actual graces.
Finally, the Church defines two other types of grace: sacramental graces and special graces (cf. CCC #2003). Sacramental graces are the graces proper to any of the seven sacraments a person receives. For example, in Reconciliation you receive healing grace, and in the Eucharist you receive the grace of spiritual nourishment, etc. Every time we participate in the sacramental life of the Church we participate in the divine life of the Body of Christ and we receive grace as part of that participation. Special graces are another word for charisms and are the specific gifts each individual receives from God in order to fulfill their calling. “Charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church” (CCC #2003). Thus, these particular special graces are unique to each and every one of us in order that we might do our part in building up the Kingdom of God here on earth.
Think about all of these different types of grace and what they each bring to our lives. When God gives you these beautiful gifts, how do you respond? Do you accept them with an openness of heart and tremendous gratitude, or do you lock them away? Do you allow moments of grace to change you for the better? In what areas of your life could you be more open to allowing God’s free gift to penetrate your heart a little more deeply?