In my opinion, some of the most beautiful paragraphs in the Catechism are the ones about grace. I will give snippets within this post, but highly recommend reading them in their entirely (CCC1996-2005).
The clearest definition of what grace is from the Catholic perspective is found in CCC1997 – “Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life.” The previous paragraph (CCC1996) says this about grace – “Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved 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.” In its essence, grace is God’s very life extended to us.
You will sometimes see within Protestantism a debate about whether grace comes first, or faith. The Catholic view is clear – it’s grace. CCC2001 says that “The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity.” We see this affirmed in Sacred Scripture – “When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed.” (Acts 18:27) Due to our fallen human nature, we are totally dependent upon God’s grace to enable us to receive the gift of faith. And the “collaboration” or “cooperation” we provide for our salvation is also only made possible by God’s grace.
Some other key snippets from the Catechism:
CCC1998 This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature.
CCC1999 The grace of Christ is 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.
We come here to the topic of “infused” versus “imputed” righteousness. Protestant theology is heavily centered around the idea that Christ’s righteousness is “imputed” to us – “reckoned” or “credited” — somewhat as a transaction that occurs. This is an understanding that God sees us as perfect because we are cloaked with Christ’s righteousness – he “covers” our sins in a sense. They point to Sacred Scripture when St. Paul refers to Abraham – ‘That is why his faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” But the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 4:22-24)
This is an area where Catholic theology has more of a “both/and” perspective rather than an “either/or.” We would not disagree that Christ’s righteousness is “credited” to us in a sense, but our view would be that is based upon God’s foreknowledge that we will indeed allow sanctification to occur in our lives to bring us to perfection. And that sanctification occurs by an infusion of God’s grace into our soul by the Holy Spirit in order to “heal it of sin and sanctify it” as the Catechism teaches. So from the Catholic perspective we see justification as less of an idea that Christ has “covered” our sins but rather more of an understanding that God sees that Christ truly does dwell within us.
This concept is clearly supported in Sacred Scripture. One of the most striking passages is found in Matthew 23:25-26 when Christ tells the Pharisees that “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” To Catholics, this points clearly to the idea that Christ is not impressed with an outward appearance that would “cover” our sins but rather is focused on the actual condition of our soul. It is the transformation of our inner nature that will ultimately present our “outside” as righteous before God.
We see the reality of grace as a participation in the life of God portrayed in Sacred Scripture in passages like these:
Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me;
Romans 8:9 But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you.
2 Corinthians 13:5 Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?
1 John 4:4 for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
1 Corinthians 3:16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
As a result of Christ dwelling within us, we are enabled not only to believe, but also to grow in charity (sanctification). We also receive the divine help that enables us to help others. CCC2003 tells us that “Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church.”
This is why St. Paul can state in 1 Corinthians 9:22 that “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” and earlier in his letter told them that “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9). He is utilizing the gifts he’s received by grace that enable him to collaborate with Christ in the salvation of others and in growing the Church.
We then come to CCC2010, which contains the concept of “merit” in relationship to grace. When viewed through the lens of Protestantism, the concept of “merit” causes many to bristle. It can be seen as an affront to Christ’s “finished” work on the cross. As Catholics of course we have a different view of how the cross of Christ saves us, and this foundational difference will impact the ability for many Protestants to understand a Catholic view of “merit.” In the Catholic view, everything that Christ does for us, he also does with us.
CCC2010 says that “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God’s wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.”
While I have italicized all of that paragraph for improved readability, the Catechism italicizes (and stresses) the phrase “no one can merit the initial grace“ of forgiveness and justification. Church teaching is clear that our salvation is totally dependent upon God to both provide the grace that enables us to believe, and the grace that sustains us as we “strive… for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). The Catechism quotes St. Therese of Lisieux in this regard – “Everything is a grace because everything is God’s gift.”
But we also see the idea that once we’ve received the initial grace of justification, “we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.” The idea that we can “merit” anything at all is a concept that is very foreign to most Protestants. We need to be clear how this is possible though – “Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity.” Even our ability to “merit” something is totally dependent upon God’s grace enabling our participation is His work. If we were to try to act on our own strength and of our own volition, we would be stepping outside of grace and into the work of man rather than participating in the work of God, and our efforts would be useless to ourselves and others.
And while using the term “merit” to describe this may be foreign to many Protestants, I’m not sure that the concept is as unfamiliar as one may think at first glance. You will often hear that someone may be praying for the salvation of another person, or witnessing to them about Christ. While they may never use the term “merit,” they do believe that by their actions — prayer and/or sharing the Gospel — they can help to bring another person to Christ and to salvation. Their actions indicate they believe that they can be the instrument that God uses to provide the grace for another’s conversion. As the Catechism says “Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.” And when you consider the Catholic view that our ability to participate in God’s saving work, or to “merit” anything is totally dependent upon God’s grace sustaining us, I’m not sure that this is as large of a problem as it seems once the Catholic view is correctly understood.
Before closing the topic on grace, we also need to understand that Catholics view God’s grace as being of two “types” in the way it works. We refer to both “actual grace” and “sanctifying grace.” I put together this small visual for my class to help describe the difference.
“Actual” grace can be seen as the grace that is working outside of us to move us towards God. It can come in many forms – those prayer warriors in our lives, the people God brings across our path, the circumstances God allows to occur, reading Sacred Scripture or hearing the Gospel. It initially is what brings us to conversion and by actual grace we experience the natural virtues of faith, hope and charity. It gives us the desire to become “in Christ,” and so leads us to Baptism where we received infused into our souls the gift of “sanctifying” grace and the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity. These are “supernatural” because they are the result of Christ now dwelling within us, enabling us to grow in charity which is the essence of our salvation. In contrast to “actual” grace which is working outside us, “sanctifying” grace works within us to conform us to the image of Christ.
In the case of an infant being brought to Baptism, the “actual” grace is the faith of their parents. Some Protestants of course would disagree with the Catholic view of Baptism, and that will be addressed in other posts at a later time.
The “key” takeaway from our understanding of grace is that God’s grace is everything in the Catholic understanding of salvation. That will be most important as we move on to a discussion of “faith” and “works.”