God’s Free Gifts

Grace (Latin gratia; Greek charis) is a gift. A gift is something gratuitously bestowed. The giver is free to offer the gift; the receiver is free to accept or to reject it. If either the giver or the receiver is compelled, it is not a true gift, for a compulsory exchange implies a duty, which is a matter of justice, rather than of mercy. In Book II of his treatise De Peccatorum meritis et remissione (On the Merits and Remission of Sins), St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) discusses issues relating to the gratuity of the various graces God offers to us.

As to how gratuity relates to a person’s salvation, one might wonder “Why, however, He helps one man, but not another; or why one man so much, and another so much; or why one man in one way, and another in another.” The answer to this, St. Augustine notes, is that “He reserves to Himself according to the method of His own most secret justice, and to the excellency of His power.” (II, 6)

In the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-16), Christ illustrates this principle by telling us of certain vineyard workers who each agreed to accept whatever wage the foreman would give them, but who, at the end of the day, complained because those who had worked less hours received the same wage. But, the bottom line is this, said the foreman: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” (Matt 20:15).

St. Augustine elaborates: “As to the reason why He wills to convert some, and to punish others for turning away,—although nobody can justly censure the merciful One in conferring His blessing, nor can any man justly find fault with the truthful One in awarding His punishment (as no one could justly blame Him, in the parable of the labourers, for assigning to some their stipulated hire, and to others unstipulated largess), yet, after all, the purpose of His more hidden judgment is in His own power. So far as it has been given us, let us have wisdom, and let us understand that the good Lord God sometimes withholds even from His saints either the certain knowledge or the triumphant joy of a good work, just in order that they may discover that it is not from themselves, but from Him that they receive the light which illuminates their darkness, and the sweet grace which causes their land to yield her fruit.” (II, 32)

Hence, the admonition of St. Paul: “What hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now, if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Cor 4:7) (II, 28)

Quotations from A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. V, ed. Philip Schaff (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1886).

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Doing Our Part

Pelagians asserted that God would not command man to do “what was impossible for human volition.” To this, St. Augustine (354-430) in Book II of his treatise De Peccatorum meritis et remissione (On the Merits and Remission of Sins) replies: “But they do not see, that in order to overcome certain things, which are the objects either of an evil desire or an ill-conceived fear, men need the strenuous efforts, and sometimes even all the energies, of the will. . . . The Lord, therefore, foreseeing that such would be our character, was pleased to provide and endow with efficacious virtue certain healthful remedies against the guilt and bonds even of sins committed after baptism,—for instance, the works of mercy,—as when he says: ‘Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven; give, and it shall be given unto you’ (Luke 6:37, 38).” (II, 3) Thus, God does not command the impossible, but neither does He command that we work without the assistance of His grace.

Furthermore, God wants us to do our part in cooperation with His grace. St. Augustine writes: “God is said to be ‘our Helper’ (Ps 40:17; Ps 70:5); but nobody can be helped who does not make some effort of his own accord. For God does not work our salvation in us as if he were working in insensate stones, or in creatures in whom nature has placed neither reason nor will.”

St. Augustine calls our attention to the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Pharisee in this story is a person who, by all outward appearances, is good and upright, and who, in his heart, gives God the glory due to Him by expressing his gratitude for the gifts he has received. Yet, he is found lacking. St. Augustine explains: “Although he erred in thinking that he needed no addition to his righteousness, and supposed himself to be saturated with abundance of it, he nevertheless gave thanks to God that he was not ‘like other men, unjust, extortioners, adulterers, or even as the publican; for he fasted twice in the week, he gave tithes of all that he possessed’ (Luke 18:11-12). He wished, indeed, for no addition to his own righteousness; but yet, by giving thanks to God, he confessed that all he had he had received from Him. Notwithstanding, he was not approved, both because he asked for no further food of righteousness, as if he were already filled, and because he arrogantly preferred himself to the publican, who was hungering and thirsting after righteousness.” (II, 6) One can only marvel at the value God places on the virtue of humility.

Quotations from A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. V, ed. Philip Schaff (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1886).

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Grace in Action

Pelagius (355-425) taught that we possess an inherent ability to overcome sin, perform good works, and merit our salvation; and he denied that divine grace is necessary for salvation. Pelagians believed that grace facilitates salvation, but that salvation does not require it.

St. Augustine (354-430) in Book II of his treatise De Peccatorum meritis et remissione (On the Merits and Remission of Sins) complains that an inevitable consequence of the assertion that we require no divine assistance is that it obviates the need to pray that we be not “overcome of temptation, either when it deceives and surprises us in our ignorance, or when it presses and importunes us in our weakness”; and it causes us to think that the petition “Lead us not into temptation,” is “a vain and useless insertion” to the Lord’s Prayer. (II, 2)

He elaborates: “For the commission of sin we get no help from God; but we are not able to do justly, and to fulfil the law of righteousness in every part thereof, except we are helped by God. For as the bodily eye is not helped by the light to turn away therefrom shut or averted, but is helped by it to see, and cannot see at all unless it help it; so God, who is the light of the inner man, helps our mental sight, in order that we may do some good, not according to our own, but according to His righteousness. But if we turn away from Him, it is our own act; we then are wise according to the flesh, we then consent to the concupiscence of the flesh for unlawful deeds. When we turn to Him, therefore, God helps us; when we turn away from Him, He forsakes us.”

Before God gives the grace that helps us to perform good works, “He helps us even to turn to Him.” This help we call prevenient grace, which helps us to ask for His assistance. (II, 5)

St. Augustine makes this plea: “Let us then drive away from our ears and minds those who say that we ought to accept the determination of our own free will and not pray God to help us not to sin.” (II, 6)

Quotations from A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. V, ed. Philip Schaff (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1886).

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Charity and Lust

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in Book Three of his treatise De doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine) distinguishes between charity and lust: “I mean by charity that affection of the mind which aims at the enjoyment of God for His own sake, and the enjoyment of one’s self and one’s neighbor in subordination to God; by lust I mean that affection of the mind which aims at enjoying one’s self and one’s neighbor, and other corporeal things, without reference to God.”

According to this definition, he can assert that “Scripture enjoins nothing except charity, and condemns nothing except lust, and in that way fashions the lives of men.” Furthermore, “Scripture asserts nothing but the Catholic faith, in regard to things past, future, and present. It is a narrative of the past, a prophecy of the future, and a description of the present. But all these tend to nourish and strengthen charity, and to overcome and root out lust.”

He then shows how lust leads to vice and crime: “What lust, when unsubdued, does towards corrupting one’s own soul and body, is called vice; but what it does to injure another is called crime. And these are the two classes into which all sins may be divided. But the vices come first; for when these have exhausted the soul, and reduced it to a kind of poverty, it easily slides into crimes, in order to remove hindrances to, or to find assistance in, its vices.”

He shows how charity conduces to prudence and benevolence: “In the same way, what charity does with a view to one’s own advantage is prudence; but what it does with a view to a neighbor’s advantage is called benevolence. And here prudence comes first; because no one can confer an advantage on another which he does not himself possess.”

St. Augustine concludes: “Now in proportion as the dominion of lust is pulled down, in the same proportion is that of charity built up.” (III, 10)

Quotations from A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. II, ed. Philip Schaff (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1886).

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The Universality and Inequality of Actual Grace

Father Geiermann concludes his discussion of the five properties of actual grace by elaborating upon the universality and inequality of actual grace.

Concerning the universality of actual grace, he writes: “Grace is universal. God gives sufficient grace for salvation to every one. According to the parable in the Gospel, He gives every servant at least one talent. Man is ordinarily prepared for this talent by parental influence and the ministry of the Church. Where this external assistance is wanting God brings man to a knowledge of the truths necessary for salvation by the special guidance of His Providence, and stimulates his mind and will by actual grace. If man, then, follows the dictates of his conscience in all sincerity, the influence of grace and the dispensations of Divine Providence will conduct him eventually to the knowledge of the truth and the possession of all the other blessings of a child of God.”

“By the special dispensation of His Providence God makes the circumstances of time and place favorable at least once for even the most hardened sinner to accept the grace to pray, and follows this up with the grace of conversion in proportion as the sinner cooperates. . . . To the unbeliever God gives at least the grace to pray. . . . Even for the children that die without Baptism either from some natural cause or through the fault of parents God had prepared sufficient grace. For ‘God wills all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim 2:4) and ‘Christ died for all’ (2 Cor 5:15).”

Concerning the inequality of actual grace, note that “God gives actual grace in sufficient measure to be truly and relatively sufficient for all to keep out of mortal sin. ‘God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able’ (1 Cor 10:13).” Yet, grace is given in different measure to each. Father Geiermann explains: “The inequality in the distribution of grace arises from a twofold source, the inequality of glory to which God has destined persons, and the inequality of good will with which different persons and nations co-operate with grace. As there are various choirs of angels in heaven, so God has destined souls to different degrees of sanctity and glory.”

“Practically speaking, however, the inequality of good will in mankind accounts most for the inequality in the distribution of grace. . . . The fact is that the best of us have squandered enough grace to make saints out of the worst of us if they had eagerly received and cooperated generously and perseveringly with it.” God might well ask us: “What is there that I ought to do more to my vineyard, that I have not done to it?” (Isa 5:4)

Quotations from Peter Geiermann, The Narrow Way (New York: Benziger, 1914).

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The Gratuity and Efficacy of Actual Grace

Father Geiermann continues his discussion of the five properties of actual grace. We have read his comments on the necessity of actual grace. Now we read of the gratuity and efficacy of actual grace.

Concerning the gratuity of actual grace, he writes: “Grace is always a gratuitous gift of God. ‘It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy’ (Rom 9:16).” Why is it called grace? St. Augustine answers: “Because it is given gratis.” And why is it given gratis? The same saint answers: “Not because your merits precede it, but because the blessings of God precede you.” Geiermann concludes: “From this we see that even the good dispositions whereby we submit ourselves to the influence of grace are not to be ascribed to our natural good will, but to a preceding grace which has enlightened the mind and inclined the will toward God.” He calls this preceding grace “stimulating grace.” Others call it prevenient grace or preventing grace, from the Latin gratia praeveniens.

Concerning the efficacy of actual grace, he writes: “The efficacy of grace likewise corresponds partly to the special design of God, as in the conversion of St. Paul, and partly to the special co-operation of man to a previous grace, as in the conversion of St. Ignatius Loyola. . . . God does not grant an efficacious grace to a person whose mind is insincere, or whose will pertinacious. . . . The good thief was evidently sincere and of good will. . . . If St. Augustine, St. Bernard, St. Ignatius, and countless others, whom God had destined to a prominent position in His plan, had turned against the stimulating influence of the first grace they received, even as Pontius Pilate deliberately turned away from the truth, they might have become reprobates, instead of great saints with a special mission on earth.”

“Efficacious grace in no way destroys free will, but perfects good will by giving ‘the increase’ (1 Cor 3:6), by crowning the sincere mind and honest effort of man with efficient and infallible success. As grace always harmonizes with nature, efficacious grace influences man morally by enlightening his mind so clearly on the truth, the goodness, and the beauty of a particular virtuous action, and by stimulating his will so palpably towards it through his innate desire of happiness, through fear of the Lord, through hope of reward, through esteem for virtue, and through love for God, that his sluggish will embraces it with a determination that overcomes all obstacles and is crowned with success.”

Quotations from Peter Geiermann, The Narrow Way (New York: Benziger, 1914).

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The Necessity of Actual Grace

Father Geiermann mentions five properties of actual grace: necessity, gratuity, efficacy, universality, and inequality. He says that actual grace is necessary for four reasons:

First, “Man needs the light of grace to find the truth. Though he can learn many things in the natural order by persevering application, he needs the help of God to master all human science. ‘For the corruptible body is a load upon the soul, and the earthly habitation presseth down the mind that museth upon many things’ (Wis 9:15). In the supernatural order actual grace must enlighten man’s mind and prompt his will before he can accept the truths of divine revelation. ‘No man can come to Me,’ says the Saviour, ‘except the Father, who hath sent Me, draw him’ (John 6:44).”

Secondly, “Man needs actual grace to do good. It is true that in the natural order man can of himself do some good, but he can not keep the entire natural law without the grace of God. Much less can he of himself do good supernaturally, that is in a way meritorious for heaven. For the Saviour says: ‘Without Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).”

Thirdly, “Man needs the grace to overcome temptation. By his unaided strength man can overcome the lesser, but not the graver temptations of life. . . . Hence, man needs the help of actual grace to avoid mortal sin, and though he can avoid some venial faults of himself, he requires the most special help of God to avoid all deliberate venial sin.”

Fourthly, “Man needs the grace of God to persevere in doing good. Perseverance may be considered as temporal and as final. In either case grace is necessary to persevere.”

“Final perseverance, or perseverance in the grace of God till death, is a special favor which can be obtained only by persevering prayer. Three things unite to produce final perseverance: sanctifying grace, the special dispensations of Divine Providence, and a chain of actual graces. Man obtains the first through Baptism, sacramental absolution, perfect contrition and perfect love of God. He secures the second by embracing the state in life to which God has called him, by fulfilling the duties of his state in life, by submitting to the guidance of Providence, and by obeying the inspirations of grace.” As for the chain of actual graces, Father Geiermann notes that “though man can never merit a single grace, much less the chain of graces necessary to persevere in God’s friendship until death, he can obtain this priceless grace by fidelity and persevering prayer.”

Quotations from Peter Geiermann, The Narrow Way (New York: Benziger, 1914).

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