Question: What is Grace? (P.L., Chicago)
Answer: In the most general sense, grace is a supernatural gift, given freely by God to His rational creatures, to facilitate their salvation through their good acts or holiness. This definition bears some analysis:
Grace is supernatural. It is not something that can be duplicated through natural activity. One of the great Modernist errors, "Existentialism," suggests that man creates grace through his own natural efforts. In reality, no natural effort can produce true grace. Grace raises man above his nature and tends to perfect his natural gifts.
Grace is a free gift of God. God may choose to give this gift more freely to some and less freely to others. It is believed that God bestows grace on everyone in some degree.
Grace is given to angels and men; rational creatures possessing intellect and will. Only such creatures have an immortal soul to be perfected through God's supernatural action. Rocks and flowers, for example, have no need of grace in that they are not capable of being perfected beyond their natural existence.
In order to perfect us for salvation, grace moves us to good deeds or good behavior, and to holiness of life. Grace perfects the things we do, and allows us to take pleasure in drawing closer to God in the spiritual life.
Grace may take several forms:
Actual grace is a temporary gift of God, spiritually moving him to perform a good action. It enlightens the understanding and strengthens the will. When actual grace prepares man to make a good act of the will it is called "preveniant" (coming before) grace. An example is the grace that prepares one to accept the Faith when it becomes known. God also grants "consequent" grace to strengthen the good acts of free will. While man is capable of doing things that are morally good even without grace, such good actions accrue merit before God only when in the state of grace.
Sanctifying grace makes us holy. It makes us the adopted children of God, enabling us to call on God as "Abba, Father." It gives us title to heaven; a right to inherit eternity with our eternal Father. It is mutually exclusive with mortal sin. We speak of being "in the state of grace" when we have not soiled our soul with the stain of serious sin since our last sacramental Confession. In this sense, sanctifying grace is called "habitual grace," in that it persists continuously if we do not sin. Sanctifying grace enables us to gain merit in the eyes of God for our good works. Without the supernatural grace of God nothing we do, no matter how carefully done, no matter how noble the motive for doing it, would be of value for our eternal salvation.
Sacramental grace is a form of actual grace that enables us to fulfill the roles that we receive in various sacraments, and a title to receive additional actual graces when they are needed in this connection. For example, in Confirmation we receive grace to help us defend the Faith and to profess It publicly when needed.
Substantial grace is the indwelling of God Himself in the soul. Through this grace we are said to be "temples of the Holy Ghost." Sometimes we speak of "uncreated grace," as substantial grace is the effect of the uncreated Creator upon His creatures.