The word “grace” is a major word in the Christian vocabulary. Having said that it has an interesting presence in the Bible. In St. John’s Gospel when he explains that Jesus is full of grace and truth the apostle is referring to our Lord’s divine nature. When St. John writes that from our Lord’s “fullness” we have received grace upon grace here the apostle is referring that from our heavenly Father through Jesus we receive grace.
This grace allows us to participate now sacramentally and in Heaven fully in God’s divine nature. St. Peter writes that the Father… “has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.” (2Pe 1:4 NAB)
The apostle John writes:
- And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John 1:14 RSV)
- And from His fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. (John 1:16 RSV)
- For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17 RSV)
St. Paul uses the word “grace” frequently as does St. Peter in his two letters. In the Book of Common Prayer, as in many ancient liturgies and prayers, the word “grace” is used to refer to God’s “favor” or for man who is seeking God’s “favor” or “loving-kindness.” In our liturgical prayers we find reference to God’s gifts of “actual” and of “sanctifying” grace. An example of a prayer seeking “actual” grace is found in the Collect for the first Sunday of Advent.
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and forever. Amen BCP 159
An example of a prayer seeking “sanctifying” or “habitual” grace is found in the concluding prayer immediately following baptism.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen. BCP 308
God’s grace: His favor and loving kindness and His divine nature and powers are available to every person in an external way partially and to the baptized in an internal and complete way. In Ephesians 4:7 St. Paul writes (about the baptized) that “to every one of us is given grace, according to the measure determined by Christ.” In this passage St. Paul makes reference to both notions of grace. As Christians we receive the plenitude of grace in baptism in that we have received Christ who is the fullness of grace and truth. But Christ also “measures” out for us the actual grace we need to fulfill some task He has called us to.
Actual grace is as the name implies. It is a particular grace that God gives. It is not just given for the baptized, but it’s given to all persons. God provides prevenient grace so everyone can see the truth and strive to do good. Anglican theology accepts St. Augustine’s teaching that prevenient grace cannot be resisted. God, as a loving Father, offers this grace to all souls to ensure the potential of salvation for every man, woman, and child. The non-baptized can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church. What is needed from such folks is that they sincerely seek God (as they understand Him) and are moved by grace and by their deeds, to do what God will’s. All of this is done within the crucible of a person’s conscience. The bottom line with regards to actual grace is that God does not deny the helps necessary for salvation, because without blame on someone’s part, they have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and are able to with His grace strive to live a good life. God is rich in mercy. Which means that God intervenes always, whether it’s at the beginning of a persons conversion or in the later course of a Christian’s life to deepen their conversion day-by-day.
- Actual grace does not “make us” see the truth not does it “force us” to choose the good. Actual grace simply makes these possible, if we want to cooperate with God. For example, if we feel the temptation to steal something, God can give us the grace to overcome that temptation. Sometimes we experience that “moment (or gift) of grace” as an interior energy, a burst of “divine energy” that helps us to confirm (to be strengthened) the good and do what is right.
Sanctifying grace is the other type of grace that God’s gives specifically to the baptized. Sanctifying grace stabilizes our soul, disposes us to supernatural gifts from God that we might be in communion with God in this world and act by His influence and love. As St. Paul would say, it is the advantage of living “in Christ.” St. Paul opens his letter to the Church in Corinth saying, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours…” (1Cor 1:2 RSV)
- Sanctifying grace does not come and go, like actual grace does, but it is “stable” in the sense that it remains with us, increasing within us and we grow in faith. Sanctifying grace is sometimes called “habitual” grace because this grace is a “habitual” gift from God, given to us at baptism to help sanctify our natural abilities and elevates us above our natural tendencies. You can also say that sanctifying grace “perfects the soul” by giving us the ability to be connected to God, so God can dwell in us and we can act in harmony with Him.
But just like actual grace, the effectiveness of sanctifying grace depends on us freely choosing God and His will. God does not force Himself upon any one or any situation. Our heavenly Father is rich in mercy with His loving arms outstretched calling us to His loving embrace.