Sunday, November 27, 2011

Understanding the two kinds of grace

This is a bit of a rerun. What follows is the modified answer to a Doctrinal Quiz Show from back in February (omitting the fun stuff like the bonus question and Bubble Awards!). It's a good prelude to my next (half-written) post that, God willing, will be fully written before you all forget there ever was such a thing as a Little Catholic Bubble! Okay, here we go….

There are two kinds of grace: sanctifying grace and actual grace.

Sanctifying grace is the very life of God (let that sink in!). It is interior grace, which dwells in the soul and transforms it, making it holy. The ordinary way we receive sanctifying grace is through the sacraments.

Actual grace is supernatural help from God (like nudges). It is external grace, working on us from the outside only; it does nothing to change the state of our soul. Everyone receives actual grace, and it comes to us when we need it. We have the free will to cooperate with it or ignore it.

Let's go into a little detail about each.*

Sanctifying Grace

I'll start with an analogy that was very helpful to me: We all know that our human nature is not equipped to live in the ocean. We will die there unless we have something outside of (or above) our nature to sustain us. Scuba gear is the apparatus that allows us to transcend our human nature and live underwater. Similarly, our human nature is not equipped to live in Heaven. Sanctifying grace is the "apparatus" that allows us to transcend our human nature and live in Heaven. We need sanctifying grace, for in our merely human state, we are simply not equipped to live in the presence of God.

When God created our first parents, Adam and Eve, He immediately infused them with the extraordinary gift of sanctifying grace (i.e., a sharing of His divine life). This undeserved gift elevated them above their own human nature and allowed them to live in the direct presence of God. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve threw away this supernatural gift when they "fell from grace" by choosing to sin. Without sanctifying grace, they were now separated from God, and Heaven was closed to them.

Since the Fall, humans are no longer given the gift of sanctifying grace at their creation. However, thanks to Jesus Christ and His atoning death, we are able to receive the gift of sanctifying grace through the sacraments of His Church. At our baptism, our souls are infused with sanctifying grace (God's very life!), and we become fit for Heaven. Assuming we continue to live in God's friendship and not commit mortal sin, this grace can continue to grow in our souls throughout our lives (through our prayers, acts of mercy and love, penance, etc.), making us increasingly holy. We hope to die in a state of grace.

Actual Grace

Actual grace is like little nudges from God. These nudges can take many different forms and come to us from many different places (and people). Actual grace could come in the form of your mother reminding you not to miss Mass on Sunday, or a friend telling you that you should get to confession. It could be a catastrophic event which leaves you on your knees before God, when before you wouldn't have gone near Him. It could be the promptings of your own conscience when confronted with your sins. It might be a class you took or a book you read which compelled you in the direction of justice or righteousness or humility. It could be the unexpected presence of a holy person or the feeling of awe you get when you look at a coastal sunset. It could be just about anything which moves you closer to the Lord.

Actual grace can be acted on or it can be ignored; but just like a train, there will always be another "nudge" coming around soon. God never abandons anyone, and every human being on the planet receives as much actual grace as is necessary to prompt one to seek out salvation. Unlike sanctifying grace, actual grace does not touch the interior of a person, but only works from the outside. Actual grace does not change the state of a person's soul, but is merely the agent that pushes a soul to seek out and receive sanctifying grace.


*When I taught myself the Catholic Faith in the mid-90s (before I had internet), I bought a great set of little tracts from Catholic Answers. They were chock-full of practical, easy-to-understand information, and much of what you are reading here is from those tracts. You can find all of that today on their website.


  1. I love love love love Catholic Answers... such a great apostolate!

    Can't wait for more posts!!!

  2. this is beautiful...I love looking back at the little graces I received which eventually brought me back to my faith. God is so merciful, even though we don't deserve it.

  3. Note to self: pay attention to actual grace.

  4. I'm ashamed to say that I didn't really understand what sanctifying grace really means...I'm going to start printing out your posts so that I can read them to my family! You are so very simple and clear that it's easy for any age to understand...

    Keep the simple stuff coming! :-)

  5. YES YES and YES!! Love your underwater/scuba analogy. I used to tell my first graders it was like looking at the sun. It's so bright it will blind you! You need super-special glasses that allow you to be in the presence of such a bright light- like the SON!!!

    Great post, Leila!

  6. You know, I have a third kind of Grace that I'm trying to understand! LOL!

  7. Very interesting! However I am a quibbler :-p While the SCUBA analogy works, SCUBA is also a device that is external, so you could make a similar analogy for Actual Grace, no?

    But also... Is it really that Sanctifying Grace was needed first? Weren't Adam and Eve created in the image and likeness of God, already prepare, so to speak, for that? And it was the fall that left them (and us by extension) bereft? Such that Sanctifying Grace is actually a restoration rather than an external graft (so more giving us gills than a SCUBA tank)?

    And what about the Tree of Life?

  8. Ha ha, hi Quibbler!

    Well, my first thought is that we don't really have an exact analogy to the Life of God within us (sanctifying grace), so it was more about needing something that takes us above our nature.

    However, I will work with you:

    Think of the inactive SCUBA gear as the actual grace, if you will… the thing that gets you to the point of actually (by your own will) activating the gear. It is external and can't save you on its own, but gets you ready and in a position to receive the "interior". Using the gear, you then flip the switch and put the gear into action. Now, you can survive in the ocean, with a "living" gear which also works internally. Not like the unactivated gear which is helpful and necessary, but cannot in itself save you.

    Does that work? Ha ha. I actually don't know how you turn on SCUBA gear, so you might quibble with that, too. :)

    You said:

    Weren't Adam and Eve created in the image and likeness of God, already prepare, so to speak, for that? And it was the fall that left them (and us by extension) bereft? Such that Sanctifying Grace is actually a restoration rather than an external graft (so more giving us gills than a SCUBA tank)?

    Nope, that is a Protestant position, not a Catholic one. Catholics believe that sanctifying grace is in no way intrinsic to our full human nature, but is a pure gift, over and above our human nature. We in no way are entitled to it. That we were made in the image and likeness of God is a reference to our intellect and our will (which we have with or without sanctifying grace).

    Does that make sense?

    Not sure what you are asking, about the Tree of Life?


  9. Makes sense... And by Tree of Life, I mean the reason for the scourging! I don't have my Catholic Bible handy, but IIRC it pretty much goes Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and then they get hit with a full host of punishments, banished, they set up the flaming sword Angel guy to guard the place... and then that is pretty much explained to ensure that the Adam and Eve who have now tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge do not have access to the fruit of the Tree of Life. (Genesis 3:22 via an online version at

    I get your position... But what confuses me then is that Original Sin is irrelevant? If Adam and Eve still required Sanctifying Grace pre-Apple, then nothing really changed? Except we have clothes? :-p

    I also quibble with some of your Actual Grace examples only insofar as I am personally loathe to call someone's personal tragedy "grace" but I can see where you are going with that.

  10. Great explanation! Thanks! :)

  11. This is such a great post! You have such a way in writing that makes things like this understandable. Thank you so much for giving us readers these simple lessons!!

  12. Thank you, guys!

    ha ha, Nicholas, I am so sorry… I have meant to give you an answer to your questions! By tomorrow, for sure! It's been crazy around here. :)

  13. I remember simple things. I think of sanctifying grace as changing this tendency I have in my very being, to focus on things of earth, and on me. Without this grace, how could I overcome this tendency, and instead tend to grow in holiness?

    I think of actual grace as help to avoid specific actions from my tendencies, to remind me to love others in actions versus loving only myself. By myself, without this gift of grace, I would freely choose hell, and think it is a good thing. It is sooo easy to only do things which benefit me.

    Btw, when I think of grace in general, I think of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus' garment, and He felt healing go out. I think of grace as going out from me/through me when I love another, and so it needs to re-charged through the sacraments. In fact, missing confession for a couple of months makes me feel like I'm "a quart low"!!

  14. Nicholas, I still don't get your first question, about the Tree of Life.

    As for Original Sin. It is the fall from grace that resulted from a willful choice. We don't know what it would have been like for Adam and Eve if they had not received (immediately upon their creation) the gift of God's very life in their souls, but we do know that God's very life is not "natural" to humans. It is pure and only gift. Adam and Eve were blessed with it from the moment of their creation, and they threw it away. Original Sin is the cause, now, of our "exile" from God. And the concupiscence that comes with it.

    If you don't see why God could allow (key word) evil to be used as the catalyst to save us and draw us to holiness and union with him, then you need to read more conversion stories. ;) It is often when we are brought to our knees that we finally agree to turn towards God. You are a parent, and you can imagine that, right?

    As for tragedies that are beyond a person's control, we have to trust that God always brings a greater good out of evil. I always remember my twenty-month-old screaming at me and asking (in his limited way) for my help while grandpa and I held him down as the doctor in a cold room used a huge needle to stitch up his face. He was begging us to make the guy stop, and we were holding him down, aiding the doc! I cannot tell you the look of betrayal and horror on his face. Why would we allow and even seem to help him be tortured? What he could never know from his perspective, of course, was that we were allowing this out of love, and for his own healing and good. We are children and we can never, ever understand the mind of God in these matters, but we can and should TRUST. He's our Father and He loves us infinitely, with no taint or imperfection.

    Hope that helps some.


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