• Amy MacKinnon

How To Teach Grace

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Why Do We Need Grace?


If you’re teaching anyone about grace, that’s the first question to ask. One thing to point out is that since even Jesus needed the grace of God, so why would we think that we don’t?


No, I’m not denying the divinity of Christ. Jesus was (and is) fully human and fully divine, but He was showing us something very important about this in the Garden of Gethsemane.


Garden of Gethsemane


Jesus never sinned, but He still asked the Father for the grace He would need in His time of trial.


He didn’t need the grace as God because He was—and is—God. It’s because He’s also fully human that He needed grace. He was showing us that since we're not God, we need His grace.


While in the Garden of Gethsemane, He was also reminding us of another man who was tested in a garden, but that man didn't ask for God's help and tried to do it on his own. Of course the temptation was too great, and he gave in to it—that's why he needed God's help to overcome that temptation and remain in a state of grace.


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Different garden, and different response.


Jesus was showing us that even though Adam and Eve had been created without sin, and had sanctifying grace (the life of God within them and temples of the Holy Spirit), they still needed God’s help.


You can’t get to Heaven on your own, but you can certainly reject it, and that’s what Adam and Eve did. We don’t know what the specific sin was (it wasn’t just eating an apple. If it were, then every time someone ate an apple, it would be a sin), but it was a grave (serious) matter.

Every time we commit a mortal sin, we’re committing a sin with similar consequences: we’re knowingly and willingly rejecting God.


To keep from committing mortal sins, and to get into Heaven, we need God’s grace.

How do we do that?


THAT is what Jesus was showing us in the Garden of Gethsemane—we have to ask for it, and we have to receive it.


We can ask for His help ANY TIME.


Do we always receive it?


It depends on the type of grace.


If grace is just God’s help with something, then sure. Ask and you shall receive!


It may not always look like what you asked for, and sometimes you don't see its effects until later, but it's there.


But if it's the type of grace that is the life of God within us, then it’s the type of grace that Adam and Eve lost at the Fall. Since we live after the Fall, just wanting it isn’t enough (when I post about baptism, I’ll explain that a little more). We still need to want it, but we also have to receive it properly.

What Is Grace?


Grace in Hebrew, Greek, and the Bible


Seeing where the word in English comes from will help a little more with this. The word grace comes from the Greek. When we use it in English, it’s not translated—it’s transliterated. That means we take the letters in Greek (and Latin) and use English letters to make the word:

  • In Hebrew, it’s chen

  • In Greek, it’s charis

  • In Latin, it’s gratia

  • In English, it’s grace


The meaning of "grace" in Hebrew, chen, is God’s help or blessing (these two sites: here and here; have more background on the meaning of the Hebrew word).


In Greek, it can be help or blessing, just as it is in the Old Testament use of the word, but in the New Testament, God builds on what He's already revealed and elevates it. That's what we see when the Archangel Gabriel addresses Mary in Luke 1:28:

Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women*

The text in Greek is: Χαῖρε κεχαριτωμένη


If your browser won't allow you to read the Greek letters, I copied them from this site, so clicking that link may allow you to read them.


Using English letters, it's Chaire, kecharitōmenē


There are three things to know about this:

  1. Gabriel's words are a pun (charis is the root word for both of the words in the greeting)

  2. The verb tense used in Greek does not exist in English

  3. The word used here in Greek (chaire) and Latin (gratia) is used to create the word "grace" in English

A very literal translation of that phrase by Gabriel, based on the Greek and Latin versions would be:

"Grace to you who were in the past, are now,

and continue to be filled to overflowing with grace."


If grace is something that fills you, then it’s having an internal effect, not just an external effect of helping you through a specific situation.


This is where the different interpretations of the effects of the Fall are really important.


Martin Luther and John Calvin taught that the intellect and will were destroyed at the Fall—you can’t know what is true, and you can’t choose what is good because you don’t have free will. This is why you need God’s grace to cover you, but that grace doesn’t transform you; it just helps you.


Some Christians today still believe this, others believe it in part but not entirely.


Catholics believe that when Adam and Eve rejected God and committed their original sin, they lost the life of God within them, but they weren’t completely evil (partly because pure evil doesn’t exist). When God created in Genesis 1, each time He declared His creation to be “good.” When He created human beings, He declared that creation to be “very good.” This is why Catholics believe that human beings are still good after the Fall, but we’re fallen: our intellects are darkened, our wills are weakened, and our passions/desires now override our intellect and will.


We need God’s grace to “rightly order” the intellect, will, and passions (to see how this is modeled in fictional stories, click here and here to read my previous posts on this).


We can still know what’s true and good, but we don’t always know, and even when we know, we don’t always choose the true and good.


What we definitely can’t do, is go to Heaven on our own. And for that, we don’t just need God’s help, we need a different type of grace. We need the life of God within us that makes us temples of the Holy Spirit.


That’s why we make distinctions between the types of grace.



The Catechism of the Catholic Church


What is the Definition of Grace?


The definitions in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) are:

  • Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us (CCC 2003)

  • Favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life (CCC 1997)

  • Participation in the life of God (CCC 1998)

All grace comes from God, but we use different terms to talk about it based on the effects that His grace has on us, and where that grace leads us. In my posts on the sacraments, I'll go through some of the effects in more detail. For now, I'm just giving definitions and a quick overview of the types. The definitions here are taken directly from the CCC and can be found by clicking here.


What Are the Types of Grace?


The types of grace are:

  • Sanctifying

  • Habitual

  • Actual

  • Sacramental

  • Prevenient


Sanctifying Grace

An habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love.


Habitual

The permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God's call


Actual

God's interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification


Sacramental

The gifts proper to the different sacraments which give us the grace we need to reach the end or goal of a sacrament


Prevenient

This isn't a type of grace in itself. The word comes from the Latin, “venire” which means “to come” and “pre” which means before. So prevenient grace is any grace that comes before another grace.


This is why the hymn, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” has this line:

Venite Adoremus: O Come, let us adore Him


Prevenient grace describes how Mary was able to receive grace before the Incarnation of Christ. Sometimes we’ll say that the grace she received was “in anticipation” of the grace that poured out from Christ on the Cross, which means the same thing. The grace she received at her conception came before the grace from the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.





*The phrase, "Blessed are you among women" in Luke 1:28 is in some ancient versions of the Bible, but not others. The words have always been included in the "Hail Mary" prayer which is derived from this passage, Elizabeth's greeting in Luke 1:42, and the belief that the demons are always trying to get us to reject God, and will greatly increase their efforts during the moments before we die ("now, and at the hour of our death"). This is why we ask the "woman clothed with the sun" in Revelation 12:1 who is the mother of "those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus" in Revelation 12:17 to pray for us, and why we call her our mother.

Blog Series: Teaching Grace, the Sacraments, and the Church


How to Teach the Sacraments

How to Teach Grace (this post)

How to Teach the Sacrament of Baptism

How to Teach the Sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation

How to Teach the Sacrament of Confirmation

How to Teach the Sacrament of Eucharist Part 1: the Bible

How to Teach the Sacrament of Eucharist Part 2: Sacred Tradition

How to Teach the Sacrament of Marriage

How to Teach the Sacrament of Holy Orders

How to Teach the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick

How to Teach About the Catholic Church

How to Teach About Sacramentals

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