How would you answer the following question?
How does God’s grace work?
A) God offers me his grace, but it’s up to me to accept it.
B) God offers me his grace and himself gives me the grace to accept it.
Choice A is a tempting choice and does in fact represent a view that is shared by many Catholics. God offers me grace, and it’s up to me to say Yes. But this is not how God’s grace works, and this misunderstanding creates a great deal of trouble for one’s relationship with God. The truth is choice B: even to accept God’s grace requires grace! Our Lord tells us, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). Or does he give the exception for accepting grace? Does he mean that apart from him we can do nothing except for accepting his grace, which we can do by our own strength and freedom? But who cannot see that this is false? Apart from him we can do nothing, and that includes even making the movement to accept his grace.
Perhaps it is faith that allows me to accept God’s grace? Ah, yes, but from where does this faith come? From myself? No, but from God! Faith itself is given by God. Christ says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn 6:44). St. Paul writes, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). And our own Catechism states, “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him. ‘Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and “makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth”‘” (153).
So one may ask, “Then where is the room for free will”? But freedom is bring set free from slavery to sin in order to serve the good: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:36) and “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6:17-18). Freedom is from God; his grace makes us free. The elect in heaven, who cannot sin but love God for all eternity, enjoy the greatest freedom of all. St. Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, writes, “The first liberty of the will [of Adam] was to be able not to sin; the last will be much greater: not to be able to sin” (On Rebuke and Grace 33).
It is vital that we believe in and promote this understanding of grace, which is the true Catholic doctrine, lest by pretending that we of our own power respond to the Lord’s grace we have some reason to boast, but “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor 4:7). Rather, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord” (1 Cor 1:31). An erroneous conception of grace causes pride, in that I may attribute something of my own salvation to myself, since it was I after all who supposedly let the Lord work in me. It also causes the anxieties that go along with such a pride, for with this misconception of grace I am trusting in myself to respond to God; but how may weakness ascend of its own accord to power if it is not raised by that same power?
The Holy Apostle tells us, “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). Do you see this? God is at work in us both to will and to work. Or do you think that we can even have good desires and thoughts apart from his grace? But even these are from him: “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (2 Cor 3:5). Even good thoughts come from God, even the thought of responding to his grace, even the desire to do so.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is perhaps the greatest confirmation of divine grace and illustrates this very point. We believe that the grace of the immaculate conception was given to the Virgin Mary, that is, that she was preserved from all stain of original sin, in order that she would accept in faith the message of the angel. Or could Mary have said Yes by her own power? Of course she needed to be “full of grace” to accept in faith something so extraordinary as to give birth to the Son of God. And do we hold that there was some deed on Mary’s part prior to her conception that merited such a grace? But who cannot see the folly of attributing merit to one who does not yet exist? Did she “accept” the grace of her own immaculate conception? Of course not! She was not yet conceived! So it was freely given through God’s great mercy. And the merit of bearing the Son of God in her womb was itself the work of God’s grace.
Just in case any more scriptural proofs be required, one more from Ezekiel should prove definitive: God promised us, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. You shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (36:26-28). You see? The Lord promised us that by giving us his Holy Spirit he would cause us to be holy.
Thus we should pray always and fervently that we might receive grace to be pious and to cast all our anxieties upon the Lord, admitting our incapacity for any good apart from him.