One teaching of our Catholic faith that helps us to understand our complete dependence on God in living the Christian life, is the Church’s teaching on actual grace. Catholic theology tells us that “all creatures are dependent on God, not only for their creation and for their conservation in being . . . but also for their every action, their very operation and motion and movement. Divine assistance, divine movement is absolutely necessary if the creature (man or angel) is to do anything, to inaugurate any action and carry it through to a successful conclusion.” (The Christian Life, F.L. Cunningham, O. P. p. 258).
Statements like the above we may find hard to comprehend, because we know so little about man and even less about God. Yet the above statement is true both in the natural order and the order of grace. In the natural order we do not give life to ourselves; that life comes from the divine source of all life—who creates the soul at the moment of conception. So too, in the supernatural order, the divine life of grace is infused into the soul by the Holy Spirit.
What about our activities? In the natural order we get things done, we work, we study, we walk, we think, etc. But we do not do any of these actions alone. They are our actions; but we are only the secondary causes of those actions. Their primary cause is the Supreme Being who gave us existence, conserves us in being, gives us the capacity for action, and activates that capacity. SANCTIFYING GRACE gives us supernatural life, and the infused virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit give us the capacity for supernatural action; but ACTUAL GRACE is necessary to bring that capacity into action. This is, actual grace is necessary for each and every act of any Christian virtue.
The Church herself assures us of this important fact: “Concerning the assistance of God: It is a divine gift when we both think aright and restrain our steps from falsity and injustice; for as often as we do good, God works in us and with us, in order that we may act.” (Council of Orange, Can. 9).
Some of the above statements may seem to involve a problem, even a contradiction. How can man be free in his actions, and be responsible for them, if God is the primary cause of those actions? We have to state clearly that we are dealing with a mystery that never in this life will we fully comprehend, for we are dealing with the action of an infinite God. Yet, God has created the human will such that He, and only He, can move the will from within without destroying its freedom. Theologians speak of our dependence on God in this matter in this way:
In a word, God not only enlightens the intellect and strengthens the will; it is God who sets these two faculties within us into activity without taking away our freedom. Yet, as we will see, man can resist or ignore those divine helps.
In every meritorious act God enters by His grace in moving the will towards good and enables man to do the good act whatever it may be. This is simply a transient influence, a divine impulse, that leaves the will perfectly free to act or not act. God never compels action, nor interferes with freedom of choice. But the fact that our free deliberate acts are “co-produced” by the grace of God and our free will, is clear from the Council of Trent which speaks of the repentant sinner returning to God “by freely assenting to and cooperating with grace.” (Denz. 797) And St. Paul, writing to the Philippians, reminds them of this dependence, “for it is God who of His good pleasure works in you both the will and the performance.” (2:13)
One who is a non-believer and without sanctifying grace, can do nothing of himself to receive that divine gift. Of his own natural powers alone he can do nothing to prepare his soul for grace. God must take the initiative by means of actual grace which precedes the act of the will on the part of man. “No one can come to Me,” said our Divine Savior, “unless the Father . . . draw him.” (Jn. 6:44) With the help of that initial grace, however, man can prepare himself to receive sanctifying grace. As Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange explains, that initial grace “first enlightens the intellect, then touches the will and causes a sudden desire for the object proposed through the representation of the intellect, and this is the inspiration that ‘opens the heart’ as the heart of Lydia was opened to attend to the things said by St. Paul.” (Acts 16:14)
For the sinner who has lost sanctifying grace through mortal sin, a similar situation exists. By his own natural powers alone he can do nothing to bridge the infinite gap between the natural and the supernatural. He cannot even turn to God in prayer unless he first is moved by actual grace to recognize his sorry state of existence, and to desire to return to friendship with God. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except in the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:3) But here again God takes the initiative and prepares the way with actual grace. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.“ (Lk. 5:32) Even the hardened sinner will not be denied the necessary actual graces to return to God. Whether or not he cooperates with those graces is another matter.
The return of the sinner can involve a series of actual graces — which can be accepted or rejected. For example, God enlightens the mind of the sinner so that he sees the evil of what he has done. That first grace is a free gift of God. The sinner did not seek it. He can accept that first grace or reject it. He can admit to himself that he has done wrong, or he can justify his conduct and ignore the grace received. In this series of actual graces, one begets another. If he accepts the first grace, further graces will not be wanting . . . graces strengthening the will . . . moving to repentance, etc. Each step of the way back is preceded by and aided by an actual grace.
One who possesses the gift of sanctifying grace with the infused virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit has the basic capacity of meriting an increase of that grace, but he needs further help from God in the form of actual graces to perform virtuous acts that bring that increase. (For a detailed account of the increase of grace, see “Light & Life” Vol. 40, n. 4). Each time any of the Christian virtues or gifts of the Holy Spirit are activated, God enters in by His grace enlightening the mind as to what is good and true, and moving the will to seek that good by performing the good act in question.
A household example might help here. An electric light bulb has the capacity of giving light, but it will not give light until the electric current is turned on. Similarly, while the soul in the state of grace has the capacity of supernatural virtuous acts, it will not activate that capacity without an added help from God. That is, every supernatural act on the part of man, be it a thought of the mind, or a decision of the will, must be set in motion by a previous actual grace on the part of God, leaving man free to cooperate with that grace or reject it. “God is at work in you, both to will and to act.” (Phil. 2:13) Fr. Antonio Royo, O.P. speaks of this in his “Theology of Christian Perfection:”
As we have seen, by means of divine grace, God shares with us His own divine life and His own divine activity. By means of actual grace God acts in us and with us. While he is the primary cause of the good we do, he requires (of all who have the use of reason) that we cooperate with His action. “God does not act in us,“ says St. Augustine, “as if we were lifeless stone or irrational creatures without free will.”
Because of our human freedom, we can resist that grace, we can turn away from the light, we can let the desires of the flesh and of the ego overshadow that light —causing us to choose our will rather than God’s . . . our plan rather than His. Yet, God so values human freedom that he will never take it away, even when man uses it to his own destruction. Because of this human weakness St. Paul warned: "We entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.”Cor. 6:1 )
our own indifference, or sloth, or resistance we can fail to cooperate with, or not remain open to, the operation of God’s grace in the soul. We do not mean that God cannot overcome our resistance if He so wills. For at times our human will is carried along by His grace in such a way that unfailingly we do what He wills, and yet we do it freely. Theologians refer to such actual graces as efficacious graces. When that actual grace is resisted or ignored, it is called sufficient grace. It was sufficient to dispose one to perform a meritorious act, but since that actual grace was resisted, that meritorious act did not follow.
We can see from all this the importance of cooperating with God’s grace, and of praying for the grace always to be open to God’s action in the soul. When we say that every person that comes into this world receives sufficient grace for salvation, it is sufficient in the above sense. Each person is given sufficient interior divine lights and impulses to judge what is right and to do what is good, sufficient to bring him to the proximate disposition for action, i.e. to the point where action is immediately possible to us . . . awaiting only the cooperation of the will. So if it is rejected, we have only ourselves to blame.
We have said that God is the primary cause of our good acts. What about our sinful acts? Is God the cause of those too? As we pointed out, God so values man’s free will that He allows man to choose his own destiny—even if that means his own eternal damnation. (What a frightening thought in today’s “pro-choice” society!) When man rejects grace and chooses something sinful, God—the Creator—preserves him in being, and even moves him according to his own choice . . . enabling the sinner to carry out the sinful action. But God in no way is the cause of the sinful choice — which is the sin. In fact, God gave him sufficient grace to choose otherwise. In every sin that man commits he rejects an actual grace offered by God to draw him to, and enable him to choose, the good. Sin is the one and only thing of which sinful man is the total cause. After repeated rejections of God’s grace, the sinner’s heart can become hardened, and his mind blinded to the lights and inspirations received. Then only a special gift of God’s mercy will penetrate that blind resistance. “But with God all things are possible.” (Mt. 19:26)
We need actual grace not only to recover sanctifying grace lost by grave sin, and to activate the infused virtues (as we have seen), but also to resist temptation. It is common Catholic teaching that one in the state of grace —with the help of actual grace—can avoid all mortal sins; but that no man—without a special privilege from God such as was given to the Blessed Mother—can avoid all venial sin. This was defined by the Council of Trent (Sess. Vl on Justification, Can. 18). It is also common teaching that one who loses the state of grace through grave sin, and deliberately remains in that state, cannot remain long without committing additional grave sins, for as St. Gregory the Great says, “a sin not at once taken away by repentance, by its weight drags us down to other sins.” (Cf. St. Thomas: I II, 109,8) “Consequently, due to the weakness of our nature — our weakened will and clouded understanding, along with the rebellion of our lower nature against reason—no man, relying on his natural strength alone, can observe the commandments of God for any length of time and avoid all serious sin.” (ibid. a. 4)
Once one receives the gift of sanctifying grace, he needs (because of the weakness of human nature, and the many sources of temptation) the frequent help of actual grace to remain in the state of grace and persevere in the practice of virtue. And a very special gift of God is needed—over and above sanctifying grace—for the grace of final perseverance. The reason for this is that sanctifying grace does not do away with the weakness of the will. “However just and however perfect a man may be,” says Fr. Antonio Royo, O.P., “he is a/ways able to sin, and for that reason needs, over and above the infused virtue of perseverance, the special grace of final perseverance which the Council of Trent calls ‘that great grace.”’ (ibid. 472)
When we face God on the day of judgment, one of our big surprises will be to discover how much God’s grace was the cause of the good we did and the evil we avoided . . . how much was accomplished by God’s helping hand. We will be amazed at how continually and completely God’s enlightening and strengthening graces have surrounded and accompanied us all through life. At times, no doubt, we were aware of some special help from God; but we will discover on judgment day that for every time we recognized God’s help, there were countless hundreds of times it remained hidden and unrecognized.
For this reason, we are tempted at times to take the credit ourselves for jobs well done, for patience in trials, for fidelity to duty, etc. On the day of judgment we will see how much God’s grace was the motivating and strengthening force behind it all . . . graces which we did not resist or reject. Every person who comes into this world receives not only sufficient grace for salvation, but sufficient grace for sanctity. “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” (1 Thes. 4:3) “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48) God is continually, through actual graces, seeking to provide means for our spiritual growth; but so many of His invitations go unheeded. So many times our pride, our selfishness, our sensuality get in the way. If we had accepted with faith and resignation that trial, that disappointment, that set-back which God permitted for the purpose of providing us with the opportunity of practicing virtue, we would have made real progress. But by giving way to anger or resentment, by protesting and complaining, we failed to cooperate with the graces that accompanied that trial.
The more we understand the Church’s teaching on divine grace, the more we see how completely dependent we are on God, both for what WE ARE, and for what WE DO. God’s gift of SANCTIFYING GRACE is responsible for all that we are—that is pleasing to Him, and his countless gifts of ACTUAL GRACES are the principal cause for all that we do that is pleasing to him. Would that we could say with St. Paul: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace in me has not been fruitless.” (1 Cor. 15:10)
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