Actual Grace and Sanctifying Grace

I was recently asked to explain the difference between actual grace and sanctifying grace, so I went in search of some language that would help explain these realities in a meaningful way. I have to tell you, most of what I found was not at all helpful. We fall into the habit of using such “churchy” words that have little or no connection with daily living. In fact, most sources I looked at simply regurgitated the stock definitions offered by the Baltimore Catechism. These definitions may be accurate and free of doctrinal error, but they are just not helpful. They rely on words such as extrinsic, intrinsic, transient, supernatural, confers, merits, dispenses, and bestows, to name a few. I’m sorry, but these words do not resonate with the lived experience of most human beings, especially children.

Here’s what I came up with. Let me know what you think and PLEASE point me to any resources that explain these realities effectively!

Relationships don’t just happen; they require work. Sometimes, a friend “nudges” us to deepen the relationship we have with him or her. They may dress a certain way to catch our eye, say something to provoke us, or do something to get our attention. Whatever it may be, the intended message is, “I’m the one you should be paying attention to!” In a similar way, God sometimes nudges us to get our attention so that we might enter more deeply into relationship with him. In such moments, we are experiencing actual grace—a grace that compels us to take action in our lives to put God first.

Once we commit to a deeper relationship with someone, we think to ourselves, “How could I ever have lived without him/her?” The relationship sustains us daily and in an ongoing way. In a similar way, when we find ourselves rooted in a relationship with God, we recognize that this relationship sustains us and we want nothing more than to keep this relationship healthy. When we are living from within this relationship, we are experiencing sanctifying grace—a grace that sustains us and compels us to do everything we can to keep it that way. We experience this sanctifying grace (and it is sustained) through the ongoing life of discipleship: receiving the sacraments, performing works of mercy, and maintaining a life of prayer.

About Joe Paprocki 2748 Articles
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press, where, in addition to his traveling/speaking responsibilities, he works on the development team for faith formation curriculum resources including Finding God: Our Response to God’s Gifts and God’s Gift: Reconciliation and Eucharist. Joe has more than 35 years of experience in ministry and has presented keynotes, presentations, and workshops in more than 100 dioceses in North America. Joe is a frequent presenter at national conferences including the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the Mid-Atlantic Congress, and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. He is the author of numerous books, including the best seller The Catechist’s Toolbox, A Church on the Move, Under the Influence of Jesus, and Called to Be Catholic—a bilingual, foundational supplemental program that helps young people know their faith and grow in their relationship with God. Joe is also the series editor for the Effective Catechetical Leader and blogs about his experiences in faith formation at

13 Comments on Actual Grace and Sanctifying Grace

  1. I like this. It makes me think of Marriage. I would add to this that in the Sacrament of Marriage God is within that Sacrament. And “sanctifying grace” is there in a way it sort of blesses the couple… despite things not always being perfect/disagreements we receive grace to grow in that Sacrament.
    I think Sacraments might be a great way to explain sanctifying grace. As a kid I knew of the Sacrament of Marriage as a Sacrament and that is it. Now as an adult as I learn about the Sacrament of Marriage, I’m like God is in that! It’s more than the woman and man… it’s God within that.

    I’m not sure I totally understand the difference between actual grace and sanctifying grace though.

    • Hi Jenn and thanks for your thoughts. My understanding is that actual grace is more “occasional” – it is given to us when needed in order to prod us while sanctifying is more of the ongoing sustenance that we draw from. Perhaps we can say that actual grace prods us to enter/re-enter/deepen the relationship that God offers while sanctifying grace is the grace we feed off of from within the relationship we have with God.

      • That ‘prodding thought’ … it is to keep us AWARE… that THE UNSEEN GOD is REAL … in a world that
        only see’s on the natural level. Saying such words as “won’t happen” “impossible” and other doom and
        gloom words to make us GIVE UP the journey of faith. YES?

        Mary our Spiritual Mother was given Sanctified Grace of a SPIRITUALLY PURE soul (sinless) Then, was
        given the ACTual grace to hear from an angel named Gabriel (angel…a mystical creation not seen by
        all eyes) MARY her Gabriel PLAINLY because of that initial cleansing of direct from God. (as we have
        Baptism) She heard plainly and responded with a YES… I WILL SERVE …GOD’S WILL.

        A protestant friend said Mary could do nothing but say yes to God if she was sinless. Well, yes… that’s
        the point… WITHOUT GOD’S INTERVENTION ‘first’ into our lives WE CAN DO NOTHING. We can’t
        hear how we are to go, what we are to do. She’s correct but I think she was doubting Mary’s sinless
        by grace stature. Without Sanctifying Grace … Actual Grace ‘can be passed up’ or said NO to.
        MISSED OPPORTUNITY to ‘work out our salvation’ How’s that sound?

  2. The prodigal son was moved by actual grace to realise his sinful state. He co-operated with that Grace and walked back to the father’s house.
    He was given new robes, sandals for his feet and ring which can be taken as cleansed of all sins and new robes given ,sandals…slaves wore no sandals but only sons so it can mean sonship restored and ring means authority …all that was lost due to original sin is restored and we are once again made children of God and given the authority to participate in divine life..That’s sanctifying grace.

    • Interesting that you write slaves worn no sandals. Interesting observation I never considered. Yet, Jesus was known to wear sandals …because, he was ‘slave’ (servant) to His Father in heaven.

      … but why is it in those days, a slave did not wear sandals, or is it obvious that one could not work effectively
      in open shoes? What did slaves wear on the feet?

  3. ACTUAL GRACE is explained with the word ACTual … the GRACE (favor) given an individual TO ACT to the GO(O)D way of living his or her life. It is ‘supernatural intervention’ that comes ‘naturally’ … to my understanding. The ‘hearing of a call’ to pursue a certain vocation or profession and then … miraculously hearing of a school that will teach such near to where one lives, or a job opening that seems to just POP in front of the person’s eyes on a bulletin board or in classified section of paper (or internet)

    I believe as you…that THE OPPORTUNITIES to do good for others and thus reap BLESSINGS to ourselves is based on our adherence to the POWER OF THE SACRAMENTAL LIFE of the Catholic Christian Church. We live IN FAITH of CHRIST’S words and with FAITH… we receive THE GRACE (favor) of HIS HELP in all we should be doing and how we should be living. The root of Discipline is DISCIPLe… staying close to the discipline of Prayer, Fasting, and Alms Giving (charity to others, tithing to church and general life) always comes back 100 fold in some manner. (Mystery it is) The natural world of flesh will never make a person (W)HOLY… but with understanding we are BODY (in the natural world) and SOUL (part of God’s Divine life as received by the waters of Baptism that cleansed us SPIRITUALLY…IE sanctified US … made us on the road to ‘THE PERFECT WORLD’ we are to aspire to… we STICK CLOSE TO THAT DIVINE LIFE ‘CHURCH’ … The BREAD FROM HEAVEN … feeding us spiritually (as much as the natural groceries feed our fleshly body) The blessed oils … that refresh the Spirit with HIS REAL PRESENCE who had the oils poured over him to be refreshed from his journey, the PRESENCE of Christ represented in ministerial priest when we are ‘nudged’ by THE HOLY SPIRIT to ‘confess’ and ask forgiveness for our ‘ignorance’ in how we acted or RE-acted … out in that world filled with TEMPTATIONS to ‘slide’ … YES, BY OUR FAITH IN THE UNSEEN LORD GOD who is WITHIN THOSE SACRAMENTS we are BEING MADE HOLY ‘right here and now’ and getting a taste of heaven… a PEACE even as others in the world are losing their peace and acting ‘as children’ … pushing, shoving, name calling, cursing, being ASsertive in wrong ways and of course gaining no ground but falling closer to that SLIPPERY SLOPE…

    WE, with FAITH, are being RAISED UP ever so slowly to our final destination… and given the ACTual grace to ‘work out that salvation’ received when we were baptized into CHRIST’S life. WORK OUT our salvation… those OPPORTUNITIES to ‘do good’ and SHOW GOD we love Him … who loved us first. Mystery and subtle ACTual Graces come… an unexpected job interview we didn’t think would happen, a new place to live that is affordable to the budget at hand, the acceptance to some post high school higher education to become educated in a specific ‘call’ heard ‘down deep’ and KNOW we must pursue. ACTUAL GRACE is not just coincidence… but THE SIGN OF GOD who is THERE HELPING US who KEEP THE FAITH in HIS HOLY CHURCH

    GOOD begets GOOD … it is both ‘supernatural intervention’ and ‘natural’ (being in right place at right time) GOD AND MAN … ‘together’

    * Not that sometimes ‘bad stuff’ doesn’t happen to GOOD persons. We are still part of ‘a natural world’ … of human persons who are ‘NOT’ with Him and even those within the Holy Church are in ‘degrees’ of understanding His Mysterious Sacramental Life… The difference, those with STRONG FAITH … will carry whatever ‘cross’ may come knowing that THE CROSS is temporary… and only serves to make us even more
    spiritually strong.

  4. My Baltimore catechism says that actual grace is “…a supernatural help of God which enlightens our mind and strengthens our will to do good and avoid evil. All the special helps that God gives us are actual graces. He gives us these helps when we need them and as long as we need them.”

    That’s not hard to understand, even for a child.

    • Matt – I am preparing a lesson on actual and sanctifying grace for 5th graders. I really like this explanation and will use it to help explain. I’m also introducing the sacraments with this lesson and hope to construct a lesson plan that makes actual and sanctifying grace as well as sacramental grace much clearer for both the students and me! Thank you for this help. ☺️

  5. I love this explaination! It is simple, easy to understand and explain to others, and easy to apply to one’s life. I appreciate all the ‘churchy words’, but, often they end up confusing the seeker.
    Thank you Dr Paprocki.

    • You’re welcome, Catherine! “Churchy words” often get in the way of real understanding! That’s why I like to find ways of explaining things in everyday language. Thanks!

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