The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 46, No 1, Jan-Feb 1993

Theology for the Laity

Sanctifying Grace

By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

God has created humans in such a way that no created thing or things can bring them true and lasting happiness. Nothing short of the Creator Himself can completely and lastingly satisfy the heart of man. St. Augustine expressed this centuries ago: “Our heart is made for Thee, O God, and it will be restless until it rests in Thee.”

The goal or end for which man was created is eternal happiness with God in heaven. Yet, that is a goal that man could never reach, nor could ever know, by his natural powers alone. That is because that goal is a reality of the supernatural order, an order infinitely higher than the natural order of things. In the divine scheme, that infinite gap between the natural and supernatural orders is bridged by a free gift of God called grace.


Divine grace is a free gift of God which elevates and perfects human nature, giving man a participation in the very nature of God, and making him capable of acts which merit the eternal beatitude of heaven for which he was created. Although the supernatural gift of grace does not belong to human nature, man was created in the beginning in the state of grace. He possessed, too, certain preternatural gifts (i.e. gifts not pertaining to human nature) which were lost along with sanctifying (or habitual) grace, by the sin of our first parents.

The gift of grace was restored to mankind by the redeeming sacrifice of Christ, but not the “preternatural gifts,” (e.g. immunity from suffering and death, perfect subjection of bodily inclinations and appetites to reason, etc.) That left man with a wounded or fallen nature, with an intellect whose judgments were obscured, a will that was weakened, and an inclination to seek his own will rather than God’s.

All this shows the plight of man without sanctifying grace. Not only could he never attain his final end without grace, but grace is needed to heal the wounds of his fallen nature (e.g. an inclination to pride, avarice, lust, etc.) and to restore the order and harmony that was lost by original sin. Such a restoration is the work of grace in one who faithfully strives to live the Christian life.


Through baptism man’s nature is partially healed by sanctifying grace, which removes sin and makes one a child of God. However, the restoring of divine life to the soul is not enough. The soul must be moved in order to perform supernatural acts. That is, sanctifying or habitual grace must express itself in action; and for this man needs additional helps called actual graces. So man depends on God for his supernatural life through SANCTIFYING GRACE, and depends on Him for his supernatural acts through ACTUAL GRACE.

Let us look further at the relationship between our human nature (a mysterious composite of body and soul) and divine grace. As the soul gives human life to the body, so sanctifying grace gives divine life to the soul. We will see how the spiritual powers of the soul (intellect and will) are perfected by parallel gifts of God in the order of grace.

Sanctifying grace resides in the essence of the soul, elevating and perfecting it, bringing a share in the very nature of God. The infused virtues (theological and moral) and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit reside in and perfect the powers of the soul (intellect and will), elevating them to an infinitely higher order, making them capable of supernatural and meritorious acts. The infused virtues and Gifts, however, merely give the capacity of supernatural acts. Actual graces are needed to activate the infused virtues. So while sanctifying grace makes one a child of God, one will never act as a child of God without actual grace. St. Paul refers to this when he says: "He is not far from any one of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:27)

In these reflections we will be concentrating on sanctifying or habitual grace. Actual grace will be examined in the next issue.


  1. Adopted Children of God: The Scriptures frequently refer to the fact that through sanctifying grace we are “begotten of God" (1 Jn. 3:9). Only Christ, the Divine Word made man, is begotten of the Father by natural generation, possessing the same divine nature as the Father, and equal to the Father in all things. We, on the other hand, are children of God, not by natural generation, but by adoptive generation or filiation.

    By the gift of sanctifying grace we are admitted into the family of the Divine Trinity, as children of the Father, and brothers and sisters of Christ. But this is much more than being adopted into a family in the human sense. Adoption as we understand it in our society confers on the one adopted into the family the rights of a legitimate child, but does not confer on such a one anything resembling a blood relationship, any sharing of one’s own natural qualities or characteristics with the adopted child. Yet, one who is adopted into the family of the Divine Trinity through sanctifying grace shares in a mysterious way in the nature of God Himself. As St. Peter testifies: “We are sharers in the divine nature.” (2 Pet. 1:4) It is a spiritual birth, a true begetting on the part of God that makes us truly children of God. “See what love the Father has bestowed on us in letting us be called children of God. Yet that is what we are.” (1 Jn. 3:1 ) It was because of this that St. Leo the Great exclaimed: “Recognize your dignity, O Christian, and having been made the participant of the divine nature, do not desire to return to the baseness of your former condition.”

  2. Heirs of God: The Christian looks forward to heaven as his final inheritance, for he remembers that in life he is but a pilgrim on the way to his true homeland. He sees it not merely as a place of happiness he hopes to reach, but as that complete and eternal happiness for which his whole being yearns. Beyond the trials and hardships of this life he looks forward to a homecoming where he will be welcomed by an infinitely loving and merciful Father.

    Yet, for the present he must fight the good fight and keep the faith, and accept the sufferings that might be his lot, for he recalls St. Paul’s reminder of what it means to be co-heirs with Christ:

    The heritage, then, that will be ours as adopted children of God is the beatific vision and the eternal happiness that accompanies it. As we saw, we could never attain it by our own efforts alone, but with the help of divine grace we can merit heaven. Without sanctifying grace, even the most heroic works or deeds would never have any value whatever for eternal life. (1 Cor. 13:1-3) Without grace the soul is spiritually dead, and the dead can merit nothing. How important it is to appreciate the importance and value of sanctifying grace in the soul, to thank God for it, and to strive to avoid whatever would cause one to lose It.

  3. Makes the Soul Beautiful and Pleasing to God: St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that divine grace in the soul is already the beginning of the glory that will be ours in the life to come. (II 11,24,3,ad 2) In the next life our faith will no longer be needed but will give way to the face to face vision of God. The virtue of hope will give way to the actual possession of what was hoped for. But charity (love of God and neighbor) will remain. It will come to full bloom, for then we will see God as He is, and our whole being will be inflamed with love—of that LOVE, and TRUTH, and GOODNESS, and BEAUTY that is God. Here and now—through sanctifying grace and the infused virtues and gifts—we share in God’s life, (i.e. His love, truth, goodness, beauty, etc.) in the measure that grace has grown in the soul. We are told by some of the mystics that the soul in grace has a beauty that cannot be expressed in human terms; and at the same time that the soul deprived of grace has a hideousness that cannot be adequately described in human language.

    An example from nature might give some idea of this, but it will fall far short of the reality. We have all seen breathtaking sunsets, where the sun shining on the clouds makes them glow with combinations of gold, red, orange and yellow hues that make us gaze in awe at the beauty of God’s creation. Yet those same clouds after the sun sinks further beneath the horizon take on a dull and ugly gray, a colorless mass that is anything but attractive. They are the same clouds, but what a difference. If we could multiply that contrast of beauty and ugliness a thousand times over, we might have some vague concept of the human soul with and without sanctifying grace. We have seen hideous figures depicting the devil. He is a spiritual being without grace. Hideous as those figures are, they do not adequately depict the utter wretched being that he is. Yet, before his fall, as his name indicates (Lucifer—meaning “Light-bearer”), he was among the most beautiful and brilliant of God’s creatures. This beauty which grace brings to the soul is not a mere external and transitory beauty like that of the body, but an interior and spiritual beauty, for it makes the soul in grace an image of God who is infinite beauty.

    Men will pay thousands, and at times millions of dollars for a work of art, and yet the soul in grace is worth more than all the man-made treasures combined. Just as we could never put a price on the Precious Blood of Christ, neither can we put a price on sanctifying grace which brings divine life to the soul. And yet, how lime, at times, is it valued. How readily is it sacrificed for some passing satisfaction.

  4. Temples of God: Another wonderful effect of sanctifying grace, is the indwelling presence of the three divine Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is of this mysterious presence that Christ says: "If anyone love Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.” (Jn. 14:23) Already by grace is begun that intimate union between God and the soul that will be consummated in glory in heaven.

    Spiritual writers refer to indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the soul, even though, as we saw, all three Divine Persons are Guests of the soul in the state of grace. This is because the divine indwelling is a work of love and the effect of divine friendship, manifesting in a special way the personal character of the Holy Spirit, Who is the Love of the Father and the Son. For this reason the divine indwelling is attributed to the Holy Spirit, even though the three divine Persons live the inner life of the Trinity in the depth of the soul, namely, that eternal procession of the Son from the Father by way of knowledge, and the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son by way of love.

    Thus one who seeks God and His will is never alone, no matter how abandoned, or desolate, or lonely he or she may feel. For we have dwelling within us one who is our advocate in time of sorrow and misfortune, one who makes known to our soul the deep things of God, one who is the source of all the virtues and fruits bestowed on us by the Holy Spirit. And because of the union of body and soul, even our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and must not be defiled by sins of the flesh. “Do you not know that your members are the temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you . . .?" (1 Cor. 6:19)

    Yet, how often the Divine Persons are forgotten Guests. The whole idea of recollection in the Christian life is basically a striving to be mindful of the Divine Persons dwelling in the depth of our being. We must avoid, at all cost, whatever would force the withdrawal of these Divine Guests from the soul. As we are encouraged to visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, so we should frequently inwardly visit and converse with the divine Persons present in each soul in the state of grace.

    One who loves another seeks to be near the one loved. And God who is infinite Love, has devised a way to be united with the soul in grace, that is more intimate than any union we know of in the natural order of things. It is a love, as we said, that will reach full bloom in heaven.

    Though God is personally present in the soul, He is not directly perceived. He is known only by faith, which by nature is usually obscure. Hence awareness of the God Who dwells within the soul is not a matter of feeling something, or of the emotions. Yet, as one makes progress in the Christian life, and friendship with God grows with the growth of grace, there is a growing sense of God’s presence, and of His will to be done in the duties of life, and to be accepted in the trials and crosses of life.


Today we live in a society imbued with militant secularism that seeks to explain man, his nature and goal in life, independently of any supernatural revelation. All too often the supernatural is identified with superstition. In a society such as this where Christian concepts of faith and morals are progressively being rejected, the Christian finds more opposition than support in his attempt to live his faith and strive for the supernatural destiny to which he is called.

In this atmosphere it is easy to lose sight of that higher supernatural life that we receive at baptism, that we know only by faith, and that must be sustained by living what we believe. Sanctifying grace, the source of our supernatural life received at baptism, is not something merely to be preserved, but to be increased and diffused. This is clear from the parable of the man who buried the talents entrusted to him. He was rebuked, not for having lost them, but for not using them profitably. (Mt. 25:14-30)

Regardless of the sins of one’s past life, one who is repentant of past failures should dwell on the dignity and wealth that is his—in possessing the gift of grace. While we can never be absolutely certain that we are in the state of grace, St. Thomas Aquinas states that one can have a certain assurance of the state of grace by certain signs, namely: “Anyone may know he has grace, when he is conscious of delighting in God, and of despising worldly things, and is not conscious of any mortal sin.” (I 11,112,5,ad 3)

Mortal sin, which destroys the supernatural life of the soul, is the greatest evil that can befall man in this life, for it robs us of “the one thing necessary.” (Lk 10:42) Sanctifying grace is the “precious treasure” in the field of the soul, for which we must be willing to sacrifice everything in order to possess. It is the “pearl of great price” which must be esteemed more than all earthly treasures. (ibid. 13:46)

Yet, how little awareness and concern regarding this precious gift there is on the part of many. Their main concerns have to do more with worldly needs: physical health and well being, financial needs, worldly satisfactions and success, etc. Yet the most important question of our existence is whether or not we possess the divine life received at baptism. Our whole eternity depends on it. And it is important not merely to remain in the state of grace, as we said, but to strive for the growth of that precious gift by the faithful living of our Catholic faith. The extent of that growth determines the measure of our sharing in the glory of Christ for all eternity. Our Blessed Lord could well say to each of us what He said to the Samaritan woman at the well. “If only you knew the gifts of God.” (Jn. 4:10)

Back to Light & Life Page | Way Back to Rosary Center Home Page