Grace is perhaps the most misunderstood concept in Christianity. Both Protestant and Catholics often do not comprehend the full significance of this wonderful reality.
Protestants usually define grace as "God's unmerited favor towards us in Christ". Though not incorrect, this definition is incomplete, for grace also includes the divine gifts which flow from this favor, such as our new life in Christ, God's indwelling Presence and the ability to bear spiritual fruit.
Sacred Scripture says that grace is Jesus' Incarnation (2 Corinthians 8:9), by which He took on our poor human nature in order to fill us with the "riches" of grace (Ephesians 1:6). Grace is more than mere divine favor, it is sufficient power in our weakness (2 Co 12:8), it strengthens us (Hebrews 13:9; 2 Timothy 2:1), enables us to stand firm (Romans 5:2; 1 Peter 5:12), and helps us in time of need (He 4:16).
The Bible also states that grace is manifold (1 Pt 4:10), that God lavishes "grace upon grace" on us in Jesus Christ (Jn 1:16; Eph 1:7), and that we can "grow in grace" (2 Pt 3:18). It even says that our words can give grace to those who hear them (Eph 4:29), for our edifiying words can draw others to God.
Finally, grace is the Beatific Vision of the Trinity which we will enjoy for eternity when Our Lord returns (I Pt 1:13; Eph 2:7).
So Scripture clearly presents grace as something beyond mere "unmerited favor". It is a reality which embraces and permeates every aspect of our life in Christ.
Many Catholics also have an impoverished view of grace. They have been taught that grace is something you "get more of" by receiving the Sacraments. This is rather unfortunate, for it gives the false impression that one somehow "earns" grace by performing religious duties. In fact, grace is a gift from God which one cannot possibly earn. Nor is grace a static possession which one accumulates like coins or stamps (1).
"Getting more grace" is a poor expression for what Scripture calls "growing in grace" (2 Peter 3:18). When we attend Mass, receive Communion, go to Confession, etc, we draw closer to God, deepen our friendship with our Maker, and allow grace to permeate and transform our entire life. So we do "get more grace", but in the sense of a growth and deepening of our spiritual life-not the accumulation of a collectable!
It is a shame that so few Christians really understand grace, for it is the very heart of Christianity. To understand it is to experience a profound transformation in ones spiritual life!
Types of Grace
God Most High is Infinite, Eternal, boundless. We are finite, limited creatures. While we can quite naturally relate to our fellow creatures who are "on the same level" as ourselves, Infinity remains beyond our grasp, above our limited natural perception. So we are unable to naturally perceive God.
(This in no way demeans our creaturely state. Everything we are and have is a gift from our Creator, including the very desire to seek God! As we cannot create ourselves for sustain our own existence, so we cannot seek the Most High by ourselves.)
We can deduce the existence of an infinite Creator solely by the use of our natural reason and by observation of creation (Ro 1:17). Yet we cannot see this Deity with our natural eyes (Jn 1:18; I Ti 6:16), nor know Him personally by our finite powers, nor take the initiative of establishing a relationship with Him, for such things would entail us exalting ourselves to a Divine level, which we simply cannot do.
Does this mean that we can never know our Maker? No, for the Lord takes the initiative which we cannot. Because we cannot choose God, God chooses us (Jn 15:16) and draws us to Himself (Jn 6:44), elevating us above our natural limitations to experience supernatural fellowship with the Most High. This merciful condescension of Divine Love towards our created weakness is called Grace.
Grace is, in essence, a gift. God bestows it freely; we have no "right" to it. The greatest Gift of all is our Maker's Self-Gift to us, which is called Uncreated Grace. All other gifts, apart from God Himself, are created graces.
Theologians generally speak of three forms of Uncreated Grace: the Hypostatic Union (Jn 1:14; 17), in which the Second Person of the Trinity unites with a human nature; the Indwelling Presence of God in the just soul (Jn 14:17) and the Beatific Vision (I Pt 1:13). Some add to this list the divine plan for our salvation, God's love for us, the Eucharistic Presence of Jesus' Divine nature, and the Presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, for these are other aspects of God's manifold Self-communication to us.
In a sense, every gift of God is a "grace". So we sometimes say that physical life, food, etc. are "natural graces". But the term more truly applies to the supernatural gifts which establish and deepen our union with God.
Sanctifying grace is a supernatural quality which the Sacrament of Baptism confers on the human soul. It sanctifies the soul (hence its name) and elevates her beyond her mere natural abilities, thus enabling her to commune with God. This grace is permanent unless forfeited by mortal sin. Thus sanctifying grace is sometimes called habitual grace, for it is "habitually" (or constantly) present in the soul.
Actual grace is a temporary supernatural aid from God (2 Co 12:9). It enlightens the human mind and strengthens the will (2 Ti 2:1; He 13:9) enabling us to carry out a specific good work according to the Divine Will (Eph 2:10).
Cause and Effect
Though distinct, Uncreated Grace and created grace are related as Cause and effect. Each Self-communication of God to humanity produces a corresponding created grace.
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