The word grace can mean many things. It can be a beautiful name for a lady, or a prayer we offer before meals. It can also mean the elegance and refinement of polite society. Speaking theologically, grace is a kindness, a favor or gift from God. Our Church tells us that there are two kinds of grace. Both are supernatural. We cannot observe these realities under a microscope, but they are nevertheless real, and they draw us towards a supernatural life. Without grace, the supernatural life to which we are all called would be impossible. These two graces are actual grace and sanctifying grace.
Actual grace is what urges us towards goodness. It helps us to “act” in a good way and moves us towards the goal of sanctity. It nudges us towards the good. Actual grace is something like waves that come constantly, one after another, like a divine nag. We can resist these promptings, but if we yield to this grace, then we will move closer towards goodness. For example, perhaps I have felt an urge to confess a sin that I have never declared. I know I need to confess it, but will I? This is actual grace. It is urging me to act in a good way, or in a way that will draw me closer to the good. By not confessing that sin, I continue to sin, and so do I dampen the gift of grace, and I can become numb to grace, and resist it.
In some ways just being alive is something of an actual grace, because this gift of physical life is yet another chance to choose the good and to move towards God. The skeptic might balk at this, but the philosopher cannot explain the reason for his own existence outside of the goodness that grace urges us towards. Let us admit that our human natures can become quite brutal, cutthroat, and graceless. If we live in a world of violence, bitter hate, revenge, and grave darkness, then we are not living in grace. In that sense, humans, divorced from grace, can create gulags, death camps, intifadas, and neighborhoods controlled by drug cartels. Thus, the question becomes, “Will I spend my life moving in grace, or will I willfully deny grace and run from God and goodness?” We need grace to elevate our fallen and base human natures. And if we understand life as having a purpose, we need grace to get to the goal.
So this actual grace also urges us towards sanctifying grace. The actual grace that urges me into the confessional allows me to receive the sanctifying grace of the Sacraments that brings me into Communion with the Lord. Whereas actual grace is something like divine nudges towards the good, sanctifying grace is more a state of being. This sanctifying grace is more of an abiding grace. It is transformational grace. It justifies us before God. It is what we receive through the Sacraments of the Church. It is the grace that claims us for God, and sets us aside as “holy” to Him, and makes heaven even possible to us. By sanctifying grace, we radically belong rightly to God. We can still divorce ourselves from this grace, but to do so is spiritual suicide.
Just as there are different definitions of grace and different kinds of theological grace, there are also different understandings of grace among Christians. For Protestants, the idea of grace and justification are considerably different than for Catholics. Their founders saw grace as kind of like a snowfall that could cover a depraved and sinful man. As such (they would argue), the Lord could declare that person justified. Other Protestants saw grace as something that happened in some moment of a past conversion. One of the most popular hymns in the English language is “Amazing Grace” and it finds its way into many Catholic hymnals, though it represents this more Protestant view of grace. Protestants imagine that justification and sanctification are one-time events that happen in a saved person’s life. Their founders argued that this gift could not be lost in the believer, no matter how sinful a life he lived.
As Catholics we understand that anyone can all too easily fall from grace. This is what our best novels teach us, but also our Bible and our Catholic Church. Sanctification or justification is an ongoing process in a person’s life. It is true that this process begins in the past. But as long as we are alive, we can deny grace, or we can accept it and continue “being sanctified.” The fact is the spiritual life is ongoing. So perseverance in faith, hope, and grace is essential. The Apostle Paul tells us this. He talks about the spiritual life as a race, and he coaches us to run the race to the end. St. Paul warns us we must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philemon 2). It is grace that urges us on towards the finish line. Let us live in that grace, that pushes us more and more towards the good.