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History and Theology of Grace

Chapter VII

Grace and Free Will

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

God’s loving care extends to all His creatures, with a special predilection for man. In keeping with His providence, which is the world-plan in the mind of God, we believe He is directing us at every moment to our ultimate destiny in the possession of him for eternity.

But does He seriously desire all men to reach heaven? What of the evident difficulties that everyone experiences in the service of God and what seem to be insurmountable obstacles to salvation for many people? Though we answer in the affirmative, [1] we know the issue is filled with mystery and not fully soluble by human speculation. We do not know why some people will not realize the goal of their existence in spite of the fact that God wants all mankind to be saved.

We know that somehow man’s destiny involves two kinds of freedom: his own and that of God. In examining the dialectic between the two, we keep in mind that from the divine side God “will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of truth,” but from man’s side there is power to follow or resist the loving intentions of God.

Universal Salvific Will of God

Our immediate purpose is to examine whether and in what sense God offers ample grace of salvation to all persons who have reached the age of reason, on whose acceptance or rejection depends their heavenly lot. However, an antecedent problem must first be cleared, regarding God’s purposes towards the millions of children who die before reaching mental maturity and without the saving waters of Baptism. It is common teaching in Catholic theology that the divine salvific will includes also infants, even though they are not the direct object of actual grace offered to them for cooperation.


If we ask how God may be said to desire the salvation, of infants, the explanation must be that He offers them the possibility of justification by wanting them to be baptized. This is beyond question since He instituted the sacrament of regeneration as the necessary means of salvation for all people, and prescribed its reception as the channel of sanctifying grace. Since He wants the merits of Christ to be applied to all infants through baptism of water (or blood), [2] God surely desires all of them to enter heaven.

Many children die without Baptism, which implies that the divine salvific will towards them is not absolute but conditional; it depends on a variety of secondary causes that can either negatively or positively stand in the way of a child’s being baptized. Consequent on the divine prevision of these factors, whether physical or free, which culpably or inculpably prevent Baptism, God does not will their salvation; His salvific will in their favor is antecedent to the foreknowledge of such obstacles. A minority school holds that no child dies without Baptism except through someone’s negligence or fault; certainly the element of culpability need not be found in those immediately responsible for a child’s welfare. Once we get into the huge arena of the non-Christian world with its high rates of infant mortality, the question of assigning guilt becomes impossible, except on the broadest and least tangible terms.

Might not God have given the children who die without Baptism some other means of obtaining sanctifying grace, which would not be dependent on the conduct of adults? He might have. He was not obligated to do so. And children are not responsible for their conduct. The supernatural life of grace is gratuitous by definition, and when adults die without sanctifying grace, they suffer positive eternal punishments. Infants are merely deprived of a higher kind of beatitude but without undergoing any pain. “They are unaware of their deprivation and therefore experience no sorrow on that account.” [3]

Catholics believe as a matter of faith that after the Gospel has been promulgated Baptism is the unique remedy of original sin, necessary for the salvation of infants and adults by a necessity of means, i.e., strict necessity determined by the will of Christ. [4] No one can be saved unless he receives this sacrament in reality or desire. [5] The solemn promulgation of the New Law was made on Pentecost Sunday the days after the Ascension of the Lord. However it is still an open question whether the Gospel has been sufficiently diffused throughout the world to make the law absolutely binding on all members of the human race.

Most theologians believe that sufficient diffusion has been made to invoke the general law, which then binds everyone in Christian and non-Christian lands. The few who think otherwise appeal to the facts of history and point out how oblivious of Christian revelation are the peoples of China, India, and Japan, except for a small fraction who have had the Gospel preached to them.

If Christian revelation has not yet been fully diffused, a “sacrament of nature” is postulated as a substitute. This so-called sacrament is the kind of remedium naturae we attribute to the Old Law for the Gentiles who had not received the Mosaic Covenant. It might be a sensible sign, some sort of religious rite by which parents (or others) manifest their faith in God and their desire of salvation for the child. The ritual could be an act of oblation, and invocation, a blessing or purification.

Similar, and less satisfactory, theories have been formed to avoid the painful consequences of saying that all children, whether in Christian countries or not, must be baptized to obtain sanctifying grace. Some have proposed the illumination theory, according to which dying children receive a sudden enlightenment that enables them to receive Baptism of desire by making an act of perfect love. The classic exponent of another theory was Cajetan (1469-1534), who said that infants dying in the mother’s womb may be justified by the prayers of the parents. A blessing of the unborn child in the name of the Trinity, he thought, would secure salvation. Disapproved at the Council of Trent, the opinion was ordered by St. Pius V to be expunged from the writings of Cajetan.

Another effort was the opinion that when children die before the age of reason, they suffer a type of martyrdom and are saved in virtue of this “Baptism of Blood,” because their death is a faint imitation of the passion of Christ. This theory was condemned by a Roman decree in 1898, which called it “a bold and temerarious manner of speaking.” A compromise opinion would have it that while children do not, in deed, receive sanctifying grace if they die before Baptism of water, the original sin on their souls is somehow removed at death and their condition in eternity is that of our first parents before the fall, in the state of innocence and corresponding happiness. While more ingenious than probable, the theory is not untenable since it does not question the necessity of Baptism for infants to attain the beatific vision.

The accepted teaching has been stated by Pius XII, when he declared that a child receives the supernatural life “When it is baptized.” He explained that “under the present economy there is no other way of giving this life to the child who is still without the use of reason. The state of grace at the moment of death is absolutely necessary for salvation; without it, no one can attain to supernatural happiness, the beatific vision of God. In the case of a grown-up person, an act of love may suffice for obtaining sanctifying grace and making up for the lack of Baptism. To the child still unborn or the child just born this path is not open.” [6] Accordingly the cooperation of human freedom with divine grace for infants must be a vicarious act on the part of adults whose faith in the necessity of Baptism prompts them to confer the sacrament of regeneration on a physically helpless child.


We have already seen that God is solicitous for the salvation of those in His friendship, surrounding them with helps of all kinds to sustain their supernatural life, tiding them over difficulties, and finally (provided they do their part) giving them the gift of final perseverance.

At first sight it would seem that people living in personal mortal sin would be excluded from a comparable salutary providence. We read in Scripture how God blinds the sinner and hardens the heart of those who despise His law. On the other hand, all that we know of God’s mercy assures us that the Lord does not withdraw His grace completely even from the most obdurate. When He is said to confirm the evil man in his ways, the fault lies always with the sinner, who obstinately resists the call of grace. No doubt the greater and stronger graces are withheld from those who persistently reject the divine mercy, as a punishment for their malice—but even they are not completely deprived of all supernatural aid.

Time and again in the Bible, sinners are urged by God to repent and are assured of His pardon. “As I live, says the Lord God, I desire not the death of the wicked, but that he should turn from his way and live.” [7] And according to St. Peter, “The Lord does not delay in His promises, but for your sake is long-suffering, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should turn to repentance.” [8] The parables of the prodigal son, the Good Shepherd, the Pharisee and publican; the story of Mary Magdalen and the good thief; in fact the whole message of Christ’s life on earth is a thematic affirmation that no sinner, no matter how abandoned by human calculations, is ever truly abandoned by God.

Christian tradition clearly distinguishes between ordinary sinners and the obdurate. The former are living in grave sin but also aware of their condition and have some desire to get out of this state; while the latter have become inured to estrangement from God, are oblivious of their plight and only with the greatest difficulty could be recalled back to virtue. Yet even in these extreme cases, the situation is not hopeless and grace is still available. “God gave them over to a reprobate mind,” St. Augustine quotes the Scriptures, “for such is the blindness of the mind. Whosoever is given over to it is shut out from the interior light of God; but not wholly as yet, while he is still in this life. For their is an ’outer darkness,’ which is understood to belong rather to the day of judgment; so that only he is entirely without God who, while there is time, refuses correction.” [9]

The kind of actual grace that sinners are offered is at least remotely sufficient to bring them justification. It would be proximately sufficient if the internal light or inspiration directly and without any other means led the sinner to make his peace with God. Persons in grave sin can expect remotely sufficient grace from God, because they are urged by supernatural impulse to pray or perform some equivalent action that at least implicitly calls upon the divine help. Fidelity to this primary impulse, which Augustine called the “initial or little grace,” will insure the “great grace” that brings infusion of supernatural life.

Two principles underlie this assurance, and both derive from the justice and goodness of God. He does not enjoin impossibilities, but in His injunctions counsels us both to do what we can and to beg His assistance in what we cannot do. Every divine law, we may be sure, carries with it the grace by which it may be observed.

Of course we have the sobering reminder that God may permit a man to be tempted to the limit of his powers. He may do this to prove to us our deficiency. Yet He always gives the grace to pray for the help to observe what, without such prayer, would be above endurance. “When man has not sufficient strength to overcome temptation, he has at least the common grace of prayer to obtain the additional help that he needs.” [10] St. Bernard asked, “Who are we, or what strength have we? But God wished this to make us see our limitation and that we had no other aid, in order that we should run to His mercy with all humility.” [11]

It is certain that God is less generous with those estranged from Him than with those in His love. But even the worst sinners are not cut off from His saving mercy. They also receive the inspiration to pray and ask for the grace that would put them back into divine friendship. Some rigorists have held that eventually God withdraws this indirect help altogether from people who are obdurate in their vice. The accepted teaching is more lenient. No matter how sunk in bad habits or far from the practice of virtue, everyone receives—at least now and then—enough grace to be converted. It may be on the occasion of some personal tragedy, like the death of a loved one, or on being the object of an act of heroic generosity, that the urge to call upon God occurs. If the sinner responds, God will restore the soul to spiritual life.

The main purpose of the sacrament of Penance is to afford sinners the opportunity to be reinstated in grace. Christ said that He came to call sinners to repentance, and He instituted a sacrament to continue His work of mercy. When the Albigenses claimed the contrary, the Lateran Council decreed that “if after receiving Baptism, anyone shall fall into sin, he can always be restored by true contrition.” [12] The Council of Trent compared the divine stimulus to a sharp excitation. “Those who have received the grace of justification but have lost it through sin can be justified again when, awakened by God, they make the effort to regain through the sacrament of Penance and by the merit of Christ the grace they have lost.” [13]

Yet not only members of the household of the faith but all men, whether in the Christian tradition or not, are given sufficient light and inspiration to find their way to God after they had strayed from His law. As everyone is obligated to trust in God’s mercy and hope in His forgiveness, so no one is denied the promise of divine grace to return “to His Father’s house.”


The historical origins of Catholic teaching on God’s’ providence regarding unbelievers stem from the Reformation. Luther and especially Calvin were adamant towards the unregenerate, which followed logically from their concept of selective predestination of some for heaven and of others for hell.

We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which He determined with Himself what He willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.
As Scripture clearly shows, we say that God once established by His eternal and unchangeable plan those whom He long before determined once and for all to receive into salvation, and those who, on the other hand, He would devote to destruction. We assert that, with respect to the elect, this plan was founded upon His freely given mercy, without regard to human worth; but by His just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgment He has barred the door of life to those whom He has given over to damnation.
Now among the elect we regard the call as a testimony of election. Then we hold justification another sign of its manifestation, until they come into the glory in which the fulfillment of the election lies. But as the Lord seals His elect by call and justification, so, by shutting off the reprobate from knowledge of His name and from the sanctification of His Spirit, He, as it were, reveals by these marks what sort of judgment awaits them. [14]

According to Reformed theology, therefore, those whom God foreordained for damnation never came to the faith because He never gave them the first grace of invitation to believe in His name. He “shuts them off” from revelation and thus marks them already in this life as predestined to be lost.

The Jansenists accepted this version of God’s salvific will and, without changing any of the essentials, pushed its implications to their limit. “It is Semi-Pelagian,” Jansenius professed, “to say that Christ died or shed His blood for all men without exception.” [15] His followers were later censured for saying the same thing in different words.

Christ gave Himself for us as an oblation to God, not for the elect alone, but for all and only the faithful.
Pagans, Jews, heretics and others of the same kind received no influence whatsoever from Jesus Christ. You may therefor rightly conclude that they have nothing but a bare and helpless will without any sufficient grace. [16]

Pasquier Quesnel refined the doctrine to its climax. “Faith,” he claimed, is the first grace and the fountain head of all graces. There are no graces given except through faith.” [17] So absolute is God’s antecedent will against those to be damned that they receive no grace whatever, whereas man predestined to glory are first led to faith and through faith to all the riches of divine love.

Besides the Church’s censure of Jansenism, the Catholic mind on God’s providence towards unbelievers was expressed at length in two documents of Pius IX, both directed to meet the crisis of indifferentism which claimed that one religion is as good as another, and that a man can be saved if he just follows the dictates of reason with no concern for faith in a supernatural revelation.

The day after his solemn definition of the Immaculate Conception, Pius IX gave an allocution to the several hundred bishops who had assembled in Rome for the occasion. After exhorting them to oppose the teaching of those who claim that human reason can penetrate the mysteries of God, he admitted that another error was threatening the welfare of Christians. Its thesis was that no connection with revealed truth is necessary for salvation, but only a purely natural form of religion. After refuting this naturalism, he went on to explain that we may not establish limits to the divine mercy but “hold it as certain that those who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if that be invincible, will never be charged with any guilt on this account before the eyes of the Lord.” [18]

Against the background of this possibility, that people who are invincibly ignorant of the true faith can be saved, the Pope published a second statement which explicitly declared the operation of grace among those who are unbelievers by the standards of Judaeo-Christianity.

Those who labor in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion and who, carefully observing the natural law and its precepts, which God has inscribed in the hearts of all, and being ready to obey God, live an honest and upright life can, through the working of the divine light and grace, attain eternal life, since God, who clearly sees, inspects and knows the minds, intentions, thoughts and habits of all, will, by reason of His supreme goodness, never allow anyone who has not the guilt of wilful sin to be punished by eternal sufferings. [19]

The unbelievers of whom the Pontiff spoke and whom we are inquiring are negative infidels because their unbelief is not due to a culpable rejection of the true faith. A preferable term might be “a-fidelity,” since infidelity implies a culpable refusal to believe. This corresponds to what patristic tradition called perfidy or positive, not merely negative, unbelief.

Since people in this condition represent the majority of mankind, it is more than academically important to examine how they can be saved. The fact is admitted in Catholic theology, but the full explanation is still in dispute. Ultimately the problem is how such persons acquire the supernatural faith without which no one can be justified. A broad range of theories has been stimulated by the legitimate concern for the destiny of millions of these nominal pagans.

One theory argues that only habitual but not actual faith is necessary for adults to be saved. If a man does what he can to follow his conscience, God will give him the infused virtue of faith and dispense with the need of also actually believing in supernaturally revealed truths. But this is pure speculation and quite contrary to Christian tradition, since to reach heaven “the act of faith as well as habitual faith is necessary for those who can exercise their free will.” [20]

Cardinal Billot also evaded the problem by suggesting that infidels may be rational enough on the lower level of secular knowledge, but they are moral infants on the higher plane of religious culture. They are consequently not responsible for their actions and God will treat them as children, with the prospect of going to a species of limbo after death. Not many authors are sympathetic with this solution, mainly because it seems to contradict the known moral development of non-Christian peoples and raise a possible exception to the status of a normal occurrence.

A daring suggestion would have God accept the pseudorevelation of a false deity as the equivalent of the true faith, and infuse sanctifying grace as a result. But that idea is untenable because it allows God to confer justification on the strength of two objective errors: intellectual assent on the word of a legendary god, and belief in the attributes of a deity who does not exist.

The most widely held solution of where the infidels get their faith begins with the established fact of a primitive revelation at the very dawn of history. Although heavily obscured in the centuries of transmission, this primordial speaking of God to the human family has been sufficiently diffused and substantially preserved throughout the world to become the basis of religious faith, distinct from the propagation of Judaism and Christianity.

We speculate as to when and how God gives the first actual grace to such an infidel, which, if he accepts, will lead him to the “great grace” of justification. Some say he receives the initial impulse shortly after reaching the age of reason; others delay the gift to later in life. Its form might be almost as inspiration to acknowledge God and one’s dependence upon Him, with a corresponding desire to invoke His aid. If he cooperates with this “beginning of salvation,” he will receive further related impulses until he receives the gift of salutary faith—believing at least the minimum truths necessary for salvation as revealed by the word of God. Acts of faith will lead to hope, and hope to charity, with the infusion of sanctifying grace if an act of perfect love is made.

Process of Justification

Catholics take for granted that for an adult to be justified he should personally contribute to the process. Basic to his contribution is the belief in certain truths of revelation on which he builds the structure of his faith and without which justification is impossible. Until the Reformation no one seriously questioned these principles. In the words of St. Augustine, “He who made you will not justify you without you. He therefore made you unknowing, but He justifies you willing.” [21]

Augustine’s faithful disciple St. Fulgentius was equally explicit. “Faith,” he wrote “is the foundation of all good. It is the beginning of human salvation, and without it no one can obtain a place among the children of God, because without it no one can obtain the grace of justification in this world or possess eternal life in the next.” [22] What Fulgentius meant by faith is clear from his commentary on the Creed, which follows this prologue.

With the advent of Protestantism, however, a new concept arose of how we become justified. Since human nature was said to be completely deprived of its spiritual powers for good, nothing a man could do prior to justification would affect his relationship with God. A composite statement of this doctrine was framed in the Formula of Concord, originally written in 1576 and published at Dresden in 1580. Its position is clear. Man is unable to contribute anything to his regeneration.

The understanding and reason of man in spiritual things are wholly blind, and can understand nothing by their proper powers. We believe, teach and confess that the yet unregenerate will of man is not only averse from God, but has become even hostile to God, so that it only wishes and desires those things, and is delighted with them, which are evil and opposite to the divine will.
We repudiate, therefore, the teaching that, although unregenerate, man, in respect of free-will, is indeed antecedently to his regeneration, too infirm to make a beginning of his own conversion, and by his own powers to convert himself to God, and obey the law of God with all his heart; yet if the Holy Spirit, by the preaching of the word, shall have made a beginning, and offered His grace in the word of man, that then man, by his own proper and natural powers, can, as it were, give some assistance and co-operation, though it be but slight, infirm, and languid, towards his conversion, and can apply and prepare himself unto grace, apprehend it, embrace it, and believe the Gospel. [23]

Negatively, then, man cannot offer anything to the oncoming grace of God, to meet it with his untrammeled will and thus, together with grace, predispose himself for conversion. Positively, though, there is something whereby he apprehends his justification, in the sense of recognizing God’s infinite mercy. This absolute trust in the merits of Christ and the confidence that they are applied to him is the fiducial faith which alone justifies. “It is a great thing,” said Luther, “to hold and believe in sincere faith that my sins are forgiven and that through such faith I am righteous before God.” [24]

Concretely fiducial faith is the answer to man’s tortuous quest for peace of soul. The righteousness of Christ, which I lay hold of and trust has been imputed to me, with no works or deeds on my part, is “our whole being.” The fundamental postulate of this theory is the familiar Reformation concept of conversion by grace alone (sola gratia). Modern confessional Lutherans use two terms to describe those who teach any kind of human cooperation in conversion; they call them Semi-Pelagian or synergistic (syn, together, and ergon, work) and spare no effort to expose what they consider hostile to the Scriptures. “Synergism of all shades turned the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith into the Roman, the pagan, doctrine of work-righteousness, even though the term sole fide be retained. Luther was right in declaring that Erasmus, the champion of the liberum arbitrium (or the facultas applicandi se ad gratiam), was defending the very foundation of the Papacy.” [25]

If feeling on the subject can run so high in the twentieth century, it must have been higher in the sixteenth. It was. And that is why the Council of Trent devoted large sections of its decree on justification to this single topic, stressing three elements impugned by the Reformers: that adults must somehow vitally prepare themselves for the grace of conversion, that their preparation includes real dogmatic faith (assent of mind to revealed truths), along with other acts of the will under the impulse of grace, and that the fiducial faith on which Luther and his confreres placed so much emphasis was inadequate of itself to restore the soul to divine friendship.

Trent went to the heart of the issue by focusing attention on the will and insisting that the volitional faculty was not inert but quite capable of collaborating with grace. It censured those who said that “the free will of man, moved and awakened by God, in no way cooperates with the awakening call of God by an assent by which man disposes and prepares himself to get the grace of justification; and that man cannot dissent, if he wishes, but, like an object without life, he does nothing at all and is merely passive” [26]

The actual method by which a man turns from sin to God was outlined in a lucid paragraph that summarizes the whole justification process, with its inclusive accent on grace from the side of God and voluntary effort from the side of man.

Adults are disposed for justification in this way. Awakened and assisted by divine grace, they conceive faith from hearing and they are freely led to God. They believe that the divine revelation and promises are true, especially that the unjustified man is justified by God’s grace “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” Next, they know that they are sinners; and, by turning from a salutary fear of divine justice to a consideration of God’s mercy, they are encourage to hope, confident that God will be propitious to them for Christ’s sake. They begin to love God as the source of all justice and are thereby moved by a sort of hatred and detestation for sin, that is, by the penance that must be done before Baptism. Finally, they determine to receive Baptism, begin a new life, and keep the divine commandments. [27]

It is immediately apparent that the start of justification is belief in God’s revealed word or, as Trent has it, “faith is the beginning of man’s salvation, the foundation and source of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God and to be counted as His sons.” [28] For unless a man first believes with the mind, he cannot logically trust and still less love with the will. This antecedent acceptance of revelation is the sine qua non condition for that hope in the divine promises which the Reformers stressed to an extreme.

One remarkable feature of Trent’s handling of fiducial faith is that it never questioned the need for confidence in the divine goodness. Undoubtedly a sinner must approach the throne of mercy with implicit hope that God will forgive his sins; but first comes faith, which, according to St. Paul, is “the substance of things to be hoped for.” Yet even faith and hope alone are not enough; they must be supported by sorrow and animated by charity to fructify in justification. What may not be held is that “justifying faith is nothing else than confidence that divine Mercy remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is confidence alone which justifies us.” [29] This is tantamount to claiming that man has nothing of his own which can be offered to God to dispose himself for conversion. It also denies what the Scriptures are eloquent in affirming. God wants the sinner to turn to Him in a voluntary acknowledgment of his guilt and a readiness to do penance for the sins of the past.

Sufficient Grace

Closely associated with the idea of fiducial faith as the unique source of justification was the Reformation theory on sufficient grace. In the system of Luther and Calvin all grace was intrinsically efficacious, that is, it never failed of its effect but always produced the results intended by God. This means that man, for his part, is too weak (in fact impotent) either to cooperate and merit or to resist the divine impulses received in the soul. And this leaves no alternative but that God on His part has foreordained some for heaven, to whom only efficacious grace would be given, and others for hell, on whom no real graces are conferred.

As with justification, the Council of Trent spelled out the existence of actual graces that are truly and yet purely sufficient to perform salutary acts. Their true sufficiency is evident from the fact that “no one should say it is impossible for the just man to keep the commandments of God,” because “God does not command the impossible; but when He commands, He cautions you to do what you can, and also to pray for what you cannot do. His providence is unfailing, “for God does not abandon those who have been justified by His grace, unless they abandon Him first.” [30] Conversely, however, people are liable to sin, and not only through infidelity. “The grace of justification, once received, is lost not only by unbelief, which causes the loss of faith, but also by any other mortal sin, even though faith is not lost.” [31]

The same set of correlatives pertains to people who are not in the state of grace. It cannot be said that “the free will of man, moved and awakened by God, in no way cooperates with the awakening call of God,” as though “man cannot dissent if he wishes,” and refuse to cooperate with the divine invitation. [32]

Accordingly help is certainly given by God, either to persevere in divine friendship or to obtain it. Therefor the grace received is truly sufficient. On the other hand, in both cases a man may turn his back on the help proffered and either lose justification or fail to reach it, in which case the grace was purely sufficient and not efficacious.

Jansenius followed in the wake of Reformation thought. The first of his five basic propositions stated that “there are some of God’s commandments that just men cannot observe with the powers they have in their present state, even if they wish and strive to observe them; nor do men have the grace which would make their observance possible.” [33] This is a diplomatic way of saying that when a man sins he did not have truly sufficient grace. Then the Bishop of Ypres went a step further. “In the state of fallen nature,” which is our present lot, “internal grace is never resisted.” [34] Again a euphemism for claiming that all grace is efficacious.

In condemning Jansenius, the Church revindicated the existence of divine aid which God seriously intends man to cooperate with and produce salutary acts while giving us free will to reject and consequently render sterile God’s offer. Of course God foresees that the benefit offered will be spurned, but that is clearly not His purpose in conferring the gift. He really wants it to be received and fructify in use. We also admit that God might have given an efficacious grace with which the same man would have cooperated; but the fact that He did not grant the greater benefit does not prove that the grace offered was not a true gift and was so intended by God.

Behind the existence of purely sufficient grace stands the reality of human freedom. Deny freedom while admitting some kind of special divine help and grace becomes invariably efficacious. Both the Reformers and Jansenius had only necessitating grace, although in somewhat different ways. With Luther and Calvin, grace was never resisted because man’s freedom was extinguished in spiritual matters. He was physically incapacitated either to reject or (freely) to cooperate and thereby merit. With Jansenius, free will was so weakened that concupiscence invariably dominated, unless grace came along. When it did, there was no resistance because of moral impotence to do anything but follow the lead of the infused “conquering delight.”

Efficacious Grace

The subject of efficacious grace is so involved, that some preliminary clarification of terms seems necessary to avoid further complicating what historically is one of the most vexatious areas of theology. Efficacious grace may be understood in a popular or in a technical sense. Popularly conceived, all grace is efficacious because it has the power (virtus) to procure a given effect, which is to terminate in a freely placed, salutary action. In this way even purely sufficient graces are efficacious, since otherwise they would not deserve to be considered grace.

In a more restricted sense, however, grace is efficacious in what theologians call first act (actu primo) or in second act (actu secundo). There is nothing mysterious about the distinction. It is better to reverse the sequence and begin with graces that are efficacious in second act, which means insofar as they actually flow into salutary acts. In other words, when the grace de facto obtains salutary consent from a man’s will, it is said to be consequent upon freedom and efficacious in second act.

But that is not the only kind of efficacy they enjoy. Graces may also be efficacious because they will infallibly produce salutary acts, so that their efficacy is prior to the consent of the will. This kind of grace is said to be efficacious in first act, and is the focus of our discussion.

If we scrutinize the efficacy we find it can be equated with a certain kind of infallibility. Before a man consents to a grace which God sends him, it had a threefold infallible connection with the salutary act that was produced. Objectively it is true that this grace would produce this salutary action; knowledgeably God infallibly foresaw that this grace would produce this given act; and affectively God freely willed to give this grace, which He also foreknew would have this salutary effect.

This triple infallibility is indispensable to understand God’s salvific will. On the first level it means that efficacious grace is infallibly connected with a forthcoming consent of the human will; in terms of knowability it is the assured and unthwartable instrument in the hands of the Creator’s goodness towards his creatures, on whom He confers these favors of benevolence. It should be noted that this is no mere possible contingency. It is a condition that results from an actual decree of God, by which He chooses out of a multitude of gifts that He might bestow an efficacious grace instead of one that would have been inefficacious.

Notwithstanding the infallibility prior to consent, an efficacious grace does not take away internal liberty. We are not compelled to accept it. And although a deep mystery shrouds the explanation of how this is possible, the fact is absolutely certain. Indeed it was exactly on the crucial problem of how to safeguard human freedom, while admitting antecedent certitude of consent in the knowledge of God, that conflicting theories of efficacious grace arose in Catholic theology.

As early as Pelagian times, the Church declared that while “God is the author of all good desires and deeds, of all efforts and virtues, with which from the beginning of faith man tends to God,” nevertheless “free will is not destroyed by this help and strength from God, but is freed; so that from darkness it is brought to light, from evil to good, from sickness to health, from ignorance to wisdom.” [35] Centuries later the same affirmation of man’s liberty under the influence of grace was made to meet the challenge of the Reformers and Jansenists.

Yet, along with our liberty to consent is always the prior infallibility that such consent will be given. St. Augustine strenuously defended human liberty, observing that “the freedom of the will is not taken away, because it is helped; but it is helped because not taken away.” [36] But against the Pelagians his accent was on the infallible certainty that comes from the eternal divine decrees. “If the sacred Scriptures are carefully examined,” he said, “they show that the wills of men are to such an extent in the power of God that He makes them turn where He wants and when He wants.” [37]

St. Augustine’s teaching was the common possession of the Fathers, and found expression in all the major pronouncements of the Church. “God so acts in us that we both will and do what He wills,” was directed at the Pelagians. [38] The same insistence was made when the ascetical Semi-Pelagians questioned man’s complete dependence on God, antecedent to the first whisperings of grace.

If anyone argues that God awaits our will before cleansing us from sin, but does not profess that even the desire to be cleansed is accomplished through the infusion and workings of the Holy Spirit, he opposes the Holy Spirit speaking through Solomon, “The will is prepared by the Lord” (Proverbs 8:35). He also opposes the apostle’s salutary message, “It is God who of His good pleasure works in you both the will and performance” (Philippians 2:13). [39]

Both elements are therefore kept intact in the Catholic system. For it is inconceivable that grace, which is bestowed to perfect man’s nature, should destroy that nature by denying the freedom of will that is connatural to an intellectual being. Whatever subtleties later entered the controversy about efficacious grace, Catholics were at one in believing that human liberty exists and is not, as Luther said, a mere fiction, and that God is the ultimate master of man’s destiny through the efficacious graces He confers according to His eternal decrees. In the relative stress on either truth arose different schools of thought within the Church, yet never a doubt that “God certainly wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, but not in such a way that as to take away from them their free will.” [40] Grace without freedom would make us pawns of a blind Fate, and freedom without grace would erase the supernatural order and remove God from the providential care of His own creatures.


[1] CCC 74.

[2] CCC 1250.

[3] St. Thomas, De Malo, 5, 3; CCC 1261.

[4] CCC 1257.

[5] CCC 1258-59.

[6] Pius XII, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 43 (1952), 84.

[7] Ezekiel 33:11; also Wisdom 11:24.

[8] 2 Peter 3:9; also 1 Timothy 4:10 and 1 John 2:2; CCC 1037.

[9] St. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 6, 8; CCC 1859.

[10] St. Alphonsus Liguori, Exposition and Defence of the Faith (Dublin: J. Duffy, 1846), 6:113.

[11] St. Bernard, Lenten Sermons, 5.

[12] DS 682; CCC 1428; cf. Lumen Gentium

[13] DS 1542; CCC 1468.

[14] Calvin, Institutes, III 21, 5-7.

[15] DS 2005; CCC 74; cf. Dei Verbum 7.

[16] DS 2304-5.

[17] DS 2426-27.

[18] DS 1646. See Sources of Catholic Dogma (Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 2002). Also cf. Lumen Gentium 16; cf. DS 3866-72 (for English translation of latter, see Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 360-62.

[19] DS 2866.

[20] St. Thomas Aquinas, III Sententiarum, 25, 2 1.

[21] St. Augustine, “Sermo 169,” MPL 38:923; CCC 1847.

[22] St. Fulgentius, “De Fide, ad Petrum,” MPL 65:671.

[23] Formula of Concord, art. 2.

[24] Luther, Werke, Vol. XIII, 2495.

[25] Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1950), 2:509.

[26] DS 1554; CCC 1993.

[27] DS 1526.

[28] DS 1532.

[29] DS 1562.

[30] DS 1536.

[31] DS 1544.

[32] DS 1554; CCC 1993, 2002.

[33] DS 2001.

[34] DS 2002.

[35] DS 248.

[36] St. Augustine, “Epistola 157,” MPL 33:677; CCC 1742.

[37] St. Augustine, Treatise on Grace and Free Will, 41; CCC 155, 1949, 2022.

[38] DS 248.

[39] DS 374; CCC 308.

[40] St. Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter, 58.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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