Thomas Asks: What is Grace, Anyway?

by Gerard DeAngelis


What exactly is grace? We often claim to be in someone’s “good graces,” or we might sit behind Grace in Calculus. Luckily, in the “Prima Secundae,” or “First Part of the Second Part,” of his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas gives an answer. In Question 110, getting ready to present his treatise on the theological virtues, St. Thomas turns his attention to what grace is—what he calls its “essence.”

St. Thomas starts by answering with something basic: how we normally speak of grace. He identifies three different ways. First, we can be in someone “good graces” if they show love towards us. Second, we can receive a gift (which is free or “gratis,” mirroring the word for grace in St. Thomas’ original Latin). Finally, the third way involves being grateful towards someone (“grateful” also mirrors the Latin “gratia”).


Before digesting this information, St. Thomas makes a beautiful observation about how these three “modes” of grace are all interconnected. The second mode necessarily depends on the first, because you would not have received a gift if you were not loved in some way by the giver. Further, the third ought to (but doesn’t necessarily) proceed from the second, because someone who has received a gift should be thankful.


Notice how St. Thomas, even while wearing the hat of a theologian, never ceases to also be a spiritual director. He subtly tells us that, although God has given us a free will that makes gratitude optional, it is nonetheless in accordance with the proper order of things to be grateful. Therefore, we ought to never cease, with King David, to “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his course with praise” (Ps 100:4).


In the next paragraph St. Thomas continues to define grace by pointing out how in the last two conceptions of grace, something happens in the receiver because of the love of the giver; in the second conception, the giver gets a gift; in the third. the giver becomes grateful. So, is grace a gift from God, similar to how we might give a gift to a friend?


As usual, St. Thomas has a distinction to make. When we give a gift to a friend, our giving is only possible because we first love something good in our friend that we did not give him. It is only after perceiving this good that we can love him and then give a gift to add to the goodness he already has. When God gives, however, he must first give us existence (or being) before it is even possible to give a gift. This being from God gives us goodness in the first place—Thomas’ famous maxim “ens est bonum” (or “to be is good”) equates the two.


Existence then allows God to give us even more. This makes God’s grace the most actual, the most “gratis” (or free), and the most gracious of all gifts given to us. The Apostle—the name St. Thomas likes to give to St. Paul—was truly right when he said it is “He [who] first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19).


Therefore, from our perspective, there is a twofold division in grace: God’s love towards “all things that are” (Wis 11:25) by granting them their being, and also a “special love” whereby God gives us good gifts in addition to our existence. These effects in us—our goodness by the fact of our existence, and the gifts of God’s other special graces—are what St. Thomas properly calls “grace.”


St. Thomas shows us the beauty of this “special love” that goes over and above what we get from just being created. This teaching deserves to be quoted in full:


“[In His] special love…[God] draws the rational creature above the condition of its nature to a participation of the Divine good; and according to this love He is said to love anyone simply, since it is by this love that God simply wishes the eternal good, which is Himself, for the creature.”


In short, God was not content with creating us to enjoy the small sandbox of human, natural goods—health, prosperity, natural virtue, for example. Rather, He opened up the human race to share in His own Divine good, which is above anything we could naturally acquire or even desire. God wishes to give us Himself. Amazing grace, indeed! 


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