We often use the word “grace”. But, do we really know what it means?
The English word “grace” comes from the Latin “gratia”, which means “free gift” or “favour”. This is because grace is a supernatural gift from God to us. Now, since we are nothing by ourselves, everything we have and are as human beings (our human nature) is a gift from God. However, Grace is a supernatural gift because it is a gift which adds something even more than our human nature (which is already in itself a gift of God).
But, even though we use this one word – Grace – to speak of the supernatural gifts which God gives us, it covers several different types of supernatural gift. The two main types or categories, however, are Actual Grace and Sanctifying Grace.
Actual Grace is a supernatural help from God which assists us in avoiding sin and doing the good which leads us to heaven. We can imagine it as a push or a nudge from God, which sets us in motion. It is supernatural because heaven is a supernatural goal, and the means have to be suited to the end – if you want to go to the moon, you need to take a rocket; if you want to go to heaven, you need the supernatural help of actual Grace. It is called actual because it is there to help us to do good acts. As a result, once a particular act is finished, the actual Grace is gone. So, if I see a poor person in the street, God can give me the actual Grace to offer them money or food. Once I have given the money or food, the actual Grace disappears.
We need actual Grace for every single good act we do. However, it does not force us. God offers His help, but we can either refuse it or accept it. If we accept it, the good act is really ours, even though we have only been able to do it with the help of God. We must ask God for these actual Graces in our prayers. As a good Father, He will give them to us if we really want them.
The other main type of Grace is Sanctifying or Habitual Grace. Sanctifying Grace is also a supernatural gift, but it is completely different to Actual Grace. It is something permanent in the soul, which is received at Baptism. It is called sanctifying because it makes the soul holy (Sanctus is the Latin for holy) and pleasing to God. It makes our soul holy because it makes us sharers in the nature of God Himself. It is the true life of the soul.
Because it makes us sharers in the nature of God Himself, Sanctifying Grace also makes us the adopted children of God (and therefore heirs to heaven) and Temples of the Holy Ghost. Unlike natural human adoption, when God makes us His adopted children through Sanctifying Grace, it is not just a legal statement, but we really do receive an infusion of His life and nature, which make us physically like Him.
We can get an increase in this Sanctifying Grace through prayer, good actions and the Sacraments, but we can also lose it through mortal sin. If we lose it by sin, we can recover it by a good Confession. But, if we die without it, we cannot go to heaven; we can only go to hell. This is because only God’s children are heirs to heaven.