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.