Lesson 8: The Necessity of Grace

Read: Summa Theologiae, I-II, 109.

No question has occupied more debate in the history of the Church than the necessity of grace. This question spawned several major heresies, especially Pelagianism and Jansenism. The answer to this question demands several distinctions. The most important is the distinction between the Condign or Integral Nature of man before the Original Sin and the Fallen Nature of man after the Original Sin.

When St. Thomas treats this question he begins with the necessity of grace to know truth. He makes an analogy between physical nature and spiritual nature. In the physical world, God gives the form to every determined kind of being and so his action is necessary for that being to act according to its nature. God's interest and support, his movement is absolutely necessary as the ultimate source or first cause of any natural movement. In the same way, the action of the Holy Spirit is necessary for man to know any truth at all. This is because the natural light of reason is a participation in the very light of God Himself. This is what makes man a being willed for his own sake.

But man is called to know truth, which is God Himself. He is called to an end by nature he cannot attain by nature because of the exalted character of the end. Thus, though God's action is necessary to know any truth, no special movement on His part is necessary to know those truths about God and the world which are accessible to reason alone. But God must enlighten the mind in a special way, by a special action of the Holy Spirit, if man is to know those truths which are beyond his capability to know by natural reason. So man must have grace to know about the Trinity and the Incarnation, but not to know about the fact that God exists. God could instruct some by faith and grace concerning His existence if their reasoning powers were not acute enough to discover this by themselves, as is the case with most of the human race after the sin. Still, God's grace is not absolutely necessary for this.

As for doing good, man in the state of Original Justice can do goods which are proportioned to his nature without sanctifying grace. He can do all the works of the virtues without the further need of a supernatural elevation. But he cannot do those works which are necessary to inherit eternal life, to go to heaven, without an interior change in his soul in which he is elevated to participate in God's own life. This is because there is no means in human nature left to itself by which man could obtain a relationship of equality with God. Man's acts have no proportion in and of themselves to the nature of God. So even in the state of Integral Nature without the presence of sin, man needs grace to go to heaven and to do the works by which he tends to heaven while on earth. There is no power in the human will sufficient to will supernatural goods. Man also needs the divine aid of actual grace to support him in willing and carrying out all goods of both sorts.

In Fallen Nature, man needs sanctifying grace to do both sorts of goods: those proportioned to heaven and those of which he is naturally capable. There is no such thing as a secular humanism in which man is able to be perfect, even in the natural grace without the healing of sanctifying grace. This is because man is now in a state in which he has fallen down from what he was to be by nature. He still needs grace to do works proportioned to heaven, but also needs grace for his nature to be healed. Actual grace is needed here also for both experiences. Man can do many good works without the aid of sanctifying grace; but he cannot do all the goods proportioned to his nature. St. Thomas uses the image of a sick man who can perform some healthy actions, but not all of them. He could walk, but not eat for example.

Man does not need grace in the state of Original Justice to love God above all things. Every nature, each in its own way, is called to love God above all things. Man can do the goods proportioned to his natural powers without the further aid of sanctifying grace in Original Justice and this includes loving God as the beginning and end of the world. In Fallen Nature, man needs grace to love God in this way.

God, however, has called man to love Him in a deeper way than all the rest of nature. Man is called to love God the way God loves Himself, as an object of communion with whom man shares life and blessedness, the final good of man. Grace is needed in both integral and fallen nature for man to love God in this way. This is the love of fellowship, of koinonia. This love is the special love to which man is called. In both states and in both loves, God's aid with actual grace is needed.

Man could do the works of the Law without grace in Integral Nature, but not in Fallen nature. He could not do these works in either state with the proper interior intention of charity without grace.

Man, therefore, cannot merit eternal life without grace because there is no power in the will or the soul to do so. No one merits grace. Grace is prior to merit and necessary in order to merit. Even Jesus Christ did not merit the grace of the Hypostatic Union. This was a sheer grace given to Him and he merited our salvation in light of this prior grace.

"No one comes to the Father, unless the Father draws6 him" (John 6:44).

God gives actual grace to aid man in his preparation to receive sanctifying grace. For a person to receive sanctifying grace, he must be turned or converted to God. The person must be open to the turning, but while he is open or preparing himself, God Himself is turning. So, no further grace is needed to receive the interior aid which God gives a person to turn themselves to Him. But the fact that they are prepared to receive sanctifying grace is due to God turning them. They receive the experience. This is not a passive reception in the sense that it is inert. But it is passive in the sense that it is received as befits a reasoning and free being. The great Scripture text, which expresses this, is: "Restore (Convert) us to thyself, O Lord, that we may be restored (converted)!" (Lam. 5:21 quoted in CCC n. 1432)

A person remains radically free not to prepare himself. He can simply not allow his will to be moved or turned by the Lord. Sufficient preparation consists in man being displeased with sin and having affection for God insofar as his lights allow him to do so.

One in sin cannot arise from sin without grace. This is because sin is an offense against God and when the act of sin ceases, the stain, the fault and the punishment still remain. Since grace is the beauty of the soul, the stain of sin is the loss of grace. Only God can give grace back to the soul. The fault is a disordered appetite and we can only finally turn from this if God gives us the power. Sin deserves eternal punishment and so no act of man can resolve for this punishment. Only God can do this. When the act of sin ceases, the debt (reatus) remains. Only God can resolve for this.

In the state of Original Justice man could avoid sin without sanctifying grace, but not without actual grace. In the state of Fallen Nature, man cannot avoid sin without sanctifying grace. He can avoid mortal sin if he is given grace, but not all venial sins, even after the reception of grace.

Some people believed that grace was given to man so that he no longer needed God's aid to live the life of grace. Man could avoid sin and do good by his own power without the aid of a further actual grace to sustain and support him. The Pelagians thought this was true in Fallen Nature. The Jansenists thought this was true in Integral Nature. Both were wrong. The first grace elevates man to participate in divine life and begin by his acts to merit heaven. This is such a sublime and supernatural activity that God's aid and the assistance of actual grace are constantly needed for the daily life of infused virtues, which this grace entails. This is because no created thing can act without divine motion and support. Also because it is not possible for us to know ourselves fully and direct our actions perfectly. God's grace which is union with His divine nature is not given to us so that we can then act on our own without it. Even the saints in this world pray every day, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." The Divine Office begins most hours with the psalm verses which the monks of the desert were accustomed to recite all day as we recite the Rosary, "O God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me."

Finally, when one receives grace, he receives the habit of mind by which he can stand firm in virtuous practice in the face of sorrow and fear and also the habit of perseverance. But that he actually perseveres in each and every daily act in living the life of grace demands further actual grace, divine aid and assistance. No more habitual or sanctifying grace is needed for this, but God's aid and assistance is. Grace is given to some, to whom final perseverance is not given. One who has grace must continually pray for final perseverance, for "Many are called, but few (that is, less) are chosen."


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