Talk to me about grace

April 19, 2010 | 54 comments

I often hear people make the comment, “We can do nothing without God’s grace.” It occurred to me recently that if an atheist friend asked me to explain what Christians mean by that, I probably couldn’t do a very good job.

I know that the fact that we have an opportunity to be reconciled to God and be with him for eternity is all thanks to grace, i.e. there’s nothing we could do to earn it on our own. As I’ve said before, I know that it’s because of God’s grace that I’m a better person now that I’m a Christian. I know that when people like the great saints reach the spiritual echelon of having truly love-filled, utterly selfless lives that shine the light of Christ on everyone they meet, it is the result of their cooperation with God’s grace, not the result of them just willing themselves to be good people, all of their own power.

Got all that. Where I get confused is when people say we can do nothing without God’s grace.

Obviously, we all know folks who are good people who don’t believe in God. Even I was a fairly decent person when I was a militant atheist (most of the time). So I’m not exactly sure what that statement is getting at. Is it a reference to the fact that all goodness ultimately comes from God, i.e. that even nonbelievers who do good are letting God work through them? Or is it not meant to be taken literally?

You guys always have such great answers for questions like this (remember that discussion about the Psalms? — awesome), so I thought I’d get your input:

If someone were to ask you, “What do Christians mean when they say ‘we can do nothing without God’s grace’?” how would you respond?


  1. cheryl

    Catechism answer?

    2001 The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, "since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it:"50

    Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing.51

    In short, no one is without grace.

  2. Sara

    well, one of the things to be aware of is that Protestants and Roman Catholics actually mean pretty different things when using the same word–it's one of the reasons we talk past each other . . . because we think we understand each other at time because we're using the same words while meaning different things by them. So what Protestant will say and mean in response to that question adn what a Roman Catholic will say could be pretty different things. Which isn't a direct answer to the question, but I do think it's an imiportant caveat.

  3. Monnie

    I would say that, yes, those people who are naturally good (as opposed to supernaturally good) are at least passively allowing grace to guide some of their actions… but I think that the phrase, "We can do nothing without God's grace" refers more to the merits of our actions.

    I think of it more in terms of "We can do nothing (that amounts to anything) without God's grace." A person can do something naturally good (e.g. giving someone else something to drink when they're thirsty), but if they're not in the state of sanctifying grace OR (they are but) they did it for the wrong motives, it will not count on the supernatural level. On the other hand, if someone in the state of grace performs the same action and gives someone thirsty a drink for the love of God (rather than to make a good impression on a bystander or something), then the action becomes supernaturally meritorious.

    Grace can refer to the actual graces we get – those inspirations to do something virtuous – or it can refer to the bigger picture in which grace is the animating principle of the soul and of the spiritual life. The different nuances may cause some confusion…

    That is my response, off the top of my head, to "What do Christians mean when they say, 'we can do nothing without God's grace?' "

  4. Fred

    I didn't make myself or the world, so my existence and everything that exists is a gift. The creation of the world is not a remote one-time thing but the work of One who continually sustains all things. Recognizing this gratuitous foundation, everything I do is a response to this gratuity…

  5. Anonymous

    It is necessary to address both kinds of grace in this kind of discussion. Sanctifying (God’s supernatural life in us) and Actual (God’s nudges and inspirations) both are free, unmerited gifts, both we are free to reject or ignore.

    Good people who are not friends with God (like you in your militant atheist days) while they lack sanctifying grace may be moved to good works, motivated by brotherly love, but this is a gift of actual grace. God is love and when he showers actual graces on a soul, He is giving an unmerited gift of Himself.

    Of course the ultimate goal of this showering is first to bring that soul to Himself (to have us respond to love with love) and second to bring good and service to those for whom the acts of charity are performed.

    For a variety of reasons, not everyone will respond to God’s call to Himself through grace, but He is in every good act, whether we do it because we love Him and respond to Him or whether we respond for ourselves while rejecting Him.

    God causes the sun and the rain to fall on the unjust as well as the just. Likewise he showers his graces on all those whom He loves (which is everyone!), whether that love is returned or not.

  6. autumnesf

    The definition of grace as I know it is: the desire and power to do God's will. It's not natural to us. You don't have to have grace to do good…you need grace to do the kind of good that you would not do otherwise. Does that make any sense at all?? As an example, I know people that are not Christians but have a heart for the homeless and help in any way they can. I've also known a woman that would not be caught dead working with those dirty, gross people. Then she found God. After that she was convicted that she needed to work with the homeless and became a big hands-on person in the shelters and under the bridges. She claims she never would have done this without God. That is the definition I was taught for grace.

  7. Heather

    I come from a fundamentalist background, so my answer to this question is a bit different. When I have heard "We can do nothing without God's grace" in the past, it is taken to mean that we, as sinful humans, continue to exist day to day because of God's grace. If we were to get what we deserved, we would have been instantly killed the moment of our first offense.

  8. Stephanie

    In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a Protestant (a Presbyterian, at that), so obviously my approach may be a little different from yours.

    Even so, St. Augustine talked about two different graces: common grace – the idea that we are all made in the image of God, believers and non-believers alike, and a special grace (I don't know the formal name for it) extended specifically to believers.

    If you want to read more about grace, I would look into St. Augustine.

  9. Christina

    How I might answer:

    Catholics believe that God is love and we believe that this Love is the source of order, understanding and goodness. Because God wants us to be in a relationship with him (and not just mindless robots) he has given us the ability to accept or reject his love. When our first parents rejected God's plan they rejected order, light and goodness. By doing this they introduced disorder within themselves and between themselves, darkenss in the inability to see what is true and began seeking after things that were not good.

    God so loved us that he didn't leave us like this but sought to bring us healing. Healing from the brokenness and darkness due to sin and thus the ability to fully know and be known by another, to fully receive the gift of God's life within us.

    Grace is that life of God within us giving us life, order, understanding and the ability to choose the good. We can do nothing apart from God's grace because apart from His Grace we would be Nothing. Our cooperation with His Grace enables us to do good, and even if we do not understand we are drawn to the good.

    This might be heresy, but if the non-baptized have a "natural" grace and the baptized have a "supernatural" grace. Using "natural" to describe the desire for good, order and happiness, whereas "supernatural" would be that understanding given to KNOW what is Good, Ordered and will bring Joy.

  10. EE

    There's a verse that says "our righteousness is as filthy rags." When Christians say we can do nothing without grace, what they mean is that all our own efforts at attaining the grace of God are futile. The grace of God is unmerited favor. And He is not a respecter of persons.

    I think what Christians also mean by we can do "nothing without grace" is that we can do nothing of ETERNAL SIGNIFICANCE without grace. Yes, even the most militant atheist might be civil and polite–perhaps even act more "Christian" than many Christians (I've met and befriended atheists like this). However, this does not impress God nor do our good efforts accrue merit with Him. In other words, saying please and thank you does not give us a pass at ignoring the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

    Indeed, sometimes saying "well, I'm a pretty good person" can be a sneaky coverup for the worst sin of all: pride.

    Ultimately, the question we all must answer is the question Jesus asked HIs disciples: "Who do you say that I am?"

  11. Young Mom

    If a Calivinist Protestant says "we can do nothing without Gods Grace" They literally mean nothing. Calvinists believe that salvation is not a cooperation between God and the human will, but a 100% God's action. Humans are not capable of doing anything good in and of themselves. Hence, whether you are saved or not depends on whether God was pleased to save you, it has nothing to do with your response to God.

  12. Devin Rose

    The Called to Communion guys made a post on the contrast between Catholic and Protestant doctrines on justification, and this issue comes up:

    "Regarding the paragraph from the homily on justification, what needs to be distinguished are good deeds done in agape, and good deeds done without agape. Can a pagan be generous to his children? Sure. Is that a good deed? Yes, but if it is not done in agape, i.e. out of supernatural love for God, then it is of no benefit to him with respect to getting to heaven. So the pagan’s act of generosity is good in one respect (i.e. in the natural order), but it is not ordered to a supernatural end (i.e. heaven)."

  13. Josephene

    Perhaps when someone says that, he or she is speaking from his or her personal experience of knowing that his or her life is full of God and that she or he recognizes that he or she can't do anything without God's grace. It seems that this statement is an expression of someone in a state of understanding how weak and ineffectual he or she is, without God and that all that he or she does (good) is God's work. It's an expression of humility and a kind of wisdom.

    Another side. I think it is St. Augustine who says that the Holy Spirit works in those who are not believers. Consider Plato/Socrates. It would be foolish, I think, to believe God only works good through those who believe in Him. He is crazy in love with all of his children and will work grace through each and every one of us (to different degrees).

  14. Sister Lynn

    I am not a huge fan of Ann Lamott but this quote of hers on grace is on the mark.

    "I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us."

  15. Will Duquette

    I think the statement is to some extent hyperbole. By nature (which is certainly God-given) we can do quite a lot: be born, grow, learn, work, marry, have children, and so forth. And because our nature is damaged by original sin, we can also sin quite a lot. We are designed to have God as our true end, and consequently we naturally seek out the good, the true, and the beautiful (though our perception and selection of these things is often marred by sin). Thus, even pagans before the coming of Christ could pursue virtue in the natural order. None of these things can happen without God's aid, in the sense that He sustains all things in existence and gives them their natures; but they happen in the order of nature rather than the order of grace.

    But to make serious progress toward God, toward holiness, toward union with Christ (who draws all things unto himself on the cross), we require grace, that is, God's help. The previous comments on the catechism's answer, and on the difference between Sanctifying and Actual Grace are helpful here.

  16. Bonnie

    I've loved reading others' responses!

    When I've said the phrase, I've always meant it in the same way that James tells us we should say, "if God wills it."

    Today I will load the kids in the car, drive to the next town over, buy groceries, and come – if it be God's will!

    But now I see that how I've always used it is slightly different than what it might actually mean.

    Thanks for posing this question, Jen!

  17. Kris

    I have nothing to add, because everyone said it all. Except I had to smile at Stephanie – Protestant, yet sends everyone to St. Augustine! 🙂 For a non-believer, Grace is the goodness of God that allows to remain here on earth. Even if you don't believe in God, He believes in you, and is there, waiting for you to torn to Him, until the very moment of your death. His greatest desire is for us to love him freely and without reservation. That, to me, encompasses grace, because he doesn't "need" us at all.

  18. Thou Art Jules

    Love this post! I'm loving all the comments and can't wait to read the ones to come. I posted something on my blog a while back very similar as I have always struggled with understanding grace.

  19. Sara

    That is definitely a tough question. I'm not sure I have the "right" answer, but to me it means that without God's grace, we cannot do anything that will mean something in eternity. As Christians, God wants our lives to be of use to him in bringing others to him. Without his grace, we could not do that. God's grace allows us to be his prophets and witnesses. It is by his grace we are saved and are given the blessing of being his adversaries. It's such an abstract statement, I think. I understand it because I'm a Christian, but I don't think I can explain it, as you have said.

    Wow, what a tough question! I look forward to everyone's answers! Thanks for bringing this up.

  20. Kristy

    My understanding of that phrase is similar to Heather's – that it is the grace (unmerited favor) of God that allows us to continue to live and function without experiencing the full effects of our sin – either immediate punishment, or living in a world overrun by sin. It is because of his grace that we continue to live to do any act, whether we classify that as good or bad.

  21. Sara

    On another note: Yesterday's sermon at church was about grace. The pastor noted that grace is opposed to earning, but it is not opposed to effort. Also a great passage, Matthew 7: 24-27–
    24 “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: 25 and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.
    26 “But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: 27 and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.”

  22. David

    I think all but one of the answers provided so far falls dreadfully short of the mark. Some of the commenters here are attempting to shrink the scope and power of the statement in question by adding various qualifications. So for instance, a couple of people said something like, "Well, we can do a lot of things without God's grace, but we can do nothing of eternal value without it." There was only one person here, Fred, who seemed willing to affirm the statement at face value.

    Well, like, Fred, I say that I am, without exception, dependent upon God for everything. There is nothing I can do for which I do not require God's active assistance. Without God, I cannot enter Heaven, cannot do a good deed, cannot forgive, cannot blow my nose, cannot breathe, cannot blink. But it doesn't end there. No, if God were to forget me right now, I would cease to exist. We are forever on the threshold of annihilation, and God is all that stands in our way.

    How can we put limits on the statement Jennifer asks us to clarify? What nerve we have to qualify it! God is the origin of everything. Nothing existed before God. But some of us would suggest there are some things we can do without God, and a few important things we can't do without Him. No! We can do nothing without God.

    "Without God's grace, I can do nothing." There is no sense in which this statement is false. It is true in every way I can imagine. I am quite literally nothing apart from God – without Him, I cease to exist. So let's not diminish the power and extent of this statement; let's not back down from it; let's not accuse it of being "hyperbole." There is no hyperbole involved here. It is a pure expression of truth. Everything that exists is gift, everything, without exception.

  23. Luke

    I think I'd start answering that question by pointing to how God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (a good thing in agricultural societies). God's grace enables us to exist. His kindness, which provides for us, should inspire us to be kind to those around us.

    Of course, that's only one way to start the conversation. The phrase is rather unclear and I'd go different places if I was talking to a someone from the "total depravity" view or someone who believes man is basically good.


  24. Meika

    I'd offer that what is meant likely depends on the Christian. In my mind, the "correct" answer would be along the lines of what @Stephanie offered above with regards to common and special grace. So to an inquiring nonChristian, perhaps I'd say…

    "Absolutely everything that is good in any way flows from God's kindness – that's basically what Chrisians mean when they talk about grace. Without God's grace people are pretty rotten, but his influence in the hearts of every person – even those who don't follow him – is what allows us to love the people around us as well as to love him."

    On a side note, I've recently watched a few documentaries on WWII and been floored by the depth of evil exhibited in those years. It occurred to me upon reflection that perhaps that is how things look when God stays his hand and pauses in his restraint of evil. I don't know if this ties in in anyone else's mind, but to me it speaks to the great unseen work of God in this world, and what depths we would fall to without this work.

    This, by the way, from a Reformed respective in the Continental tradition. 🙂

  25. Liz

    This might be really simplistic, but I would say that it is His grace that sustains life, and that there is no good thing apart from Him.

  26. Ruth Ann

    What do we mean when we say, "We can do nothing without God's grace?"

    I think Fred came closest to what this statement generally means when he said, "I didn't make myself or the world, so my existence and everything that exists is a gift."

    Regardless of whether I believe something or nothing, God created all and God continues to keep all in existence. Without life, itself a grace, as in gift, we—all of us—can do nothing.

  27. Jennifer

    Grace = God's life in us. We receive the gift of sanctifying grace at baptism and again and again when we receive Communion or participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To deny ourselves these sacraments, to neglect prayer, to sin without repentance – these things all deny God's life in us and render us incapable of receiving the benefits of that grace. When we live as Christ taught us, following the commandments and participating actively in the sacraments, we allow God's grace to blossom within us and guide our actions.

    Not sure if I quite answered your question – but this is the explanation I give to my 2nd Grade CCD students – though in obviously simpler terms.

  28. Robyn

    The fast answer: They are talking about actual grace.

    The rambling answer: I'm reminded of a Q&A from the old Baltimore Catechism:

    Q. Who is God?
    A. God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, who made all things and keeps them in existence. (emphasis added)

    So God's active will at every moment keeps creation from disappearing into nothingness. In that since, we (believers and non-believers alike) can literally do nothing without God.

    Grace is one of those slippery terms that can have a number of meanings depending on both context and the theology and level of catechesis of the person speaking. I think in the broadest sense, it can mean any activity of God. It's used both technically and non-technically.

    I think when a Catholic says "We can do nothing without God's grace," it's a non-technical use, but maybe akin to the technical term of actual grace. I think the idea most people have is (a) that God is the ultimate mover in the universe as well as our personal guide, and (b) out of faith they want to give credit for everything to God. I think, in other words, the statement can mean as much about the speaker as it does about God.

    Check out 2 Cor 12:5-10, in which St. Paul mentions grace that seems to fall in this broad category. In Romans 6:23 is another mention of grace that seems to be the specific type called sanctifying grace. So even in Scripture it can get confusing.

    I found the Baltimore Catechism online (thanks Google), and this Q&A may help:
    116. Is actual grace necessary for all who have attained the use of reason?
    Actual grace is necessary for all who have attained the use of reason, because without it we cannot long resist the power of temptation or perform other actions which merit a reward in heaven.

  29. jrbaab

    Admittedly, I want to post the one comment that incorporates all the truth on this subject and mezmerizes every reader. Too bad, I'm unable to do that. I think one thing I would say about this is that once you've met and come to know God (which is a grace in itself) you begin to realize just how helpless and incapable you are of doing anything good or true or loving without God. So when I say "nothing can be done without grace" that's what I mean. Not to say that in the secular world, you didn't do anything but that you realize that all of those goods, done seemingly without Him, were indeed through Him, with Him and in Him. For me, it's even more so when you meet Jesus. What a great question.

  30. ohhowhappy

    I'm simple (and not Catholic, so maybe this isn't what you're lookin' for) and this is what I teach my kids: (G) God's (R) riches (A) at (C) Christ's (E) expense. If you can explain things to a child, you can usually explain things to an adult and using simpler terms often solves our communication issues.
    Having said that, I also explain to my kiddos that Grace is getting something you don't deserve because of Who God is. As opposed to Mercy, which is not getting a punishment or consequence you deserve because of Who god is. I'm no Einstein and I'm sure my theological discussions will deepen as my children age, but this definition works for the 4 of them (ages 1-8) and for me (age 37) 🙂

  31. Sue

    I am with David (and Fred) on the real meaning of the phrase "I can do nothing without God's grace." I don't know that all Christians use it with that full scope in mind in conversation, though.

    I think it's a phrase we often say to show humility (as a couple of other commenters also mentioned). I am thinking of one friend, in particular, who never accepts a compliment with a "thank you," but always says, "it's all God's grace." When used in that sense I think what we are really saying is, "I can't do anything good without God's grace," or, "whatever good you see in me is all God."

  32. Will Duquette


    I agree, I am dependent on God for my very existence from moment to moment; I can do nothing without him. But I'm drawing a distinction between nature and grace. We are all human; we each have a human nature, and we can do certain things because of it. That nature is God-given. Then there are the specific graces that God gives us, which are essential for our salvation. I claim that all three of the following statements are true:

    1. Apart from God we can do nothing.

    2. Apart from grace, we can do quite a bit.

    3. But apart from grace, we cannot be saved.

    Not every good that God gives us is by means of grace.

    Calvinists believe in total depravity, that without God's grace we can do nothing but sin. But as a Catholic, I'm not a Calvinist. (Note to any Reformed readers–if I've mischaracterized the doctrine of total depravity I apologize.)

  33. CM

    I don't have time to read all of the comments right now, so maybe someone's already brought this up, but here's what I was thinking. What makes you think that your natural goodness as an atheist was not the grace of God at work? Just because you did not acknowledge Him at the time does not mean that His grace was not at work in your life from the very first moment. Just a thought! 🙂

  34. shouldknowbetterbynow

    God is the creator of all and giver of all. Unless he gives it we have nothing.

    I think it boils down to how you view the sovereignty of God and the free-will of man.

    I'm still not sure really.

  35. Monnie

    @ CM – I think you make an excellent point… that is especially likely in Jennifer's case, as she has said that she was baptized (though for cultural reasons) as an infant. God is not unfaithful to any of his creatures, least of all a baptized soul!

  36. Dawn

    Funny, I was just pondering this question of grace yesterday because of the wonderful homily by my priest at Mass. He was asking if we recognize that the only way we can do anything from the tiniest thought to the biggest thing is only by the grace of God. Without God we can do NOTHING—nada, zip, zilch!! It's only with, by, for and from God that we can do everything. Jesus said, "without me you can do nothing, with me all things are possible."

    This led me to start thinking about my days "before God," before coming home to the Church and learning all of this amazing truth. Even when I never thought of God, or knew to think of God, he was there leading my every thought, step, movement and action. It was only by the gift of God's love, his grace, that I was existing and living this life though I knew him not. I am always trying to remind myself of the definition of true love that I read a while back. True love is a complete selfless self-giving. It is giving of yourself without counting the cost. That is how God has given to me all along, even and especially before I ever even gave him a thought. Now that's grace!

  37. Kate

    I think the "we" in "We can do nothing without God's grace" refers more to society at large rather than an individual person. The purpose of God's grace is to reconcile a rebellious people.

    Also, non-believers can do good things that benefit themselves and others but if you do not have faith God is not fully pleased with your efforts. Of course God offers grace to non-believers but in the end it all amounts to nothing if they continue not to believe. And when I say nothing I am referring to the lack of a relationship with God…His ultimate desire, He created us because we are part of His is not enough for us just to think about how He is part of our story. I try to think about it as if we are of Him, He is not of us.

    Hope this helps.

  38. Lana

    Jen F.: I am not sure that you will get the answer you are looking for here. There is a huge Protestant-Catholic divide on this issue, even though some within both "camps" draw on Augustine.
    I believe that the greatest difference is between Calvinists and Catholics, but I am a former-Calvinist-turned-Catholic, so what do I know? 🙂

    At any rate, here's my attempt to complicate things even more: the passage that your question made me think of was this one, from Galatians 2:20:

    "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

    I am realizing that I have no idea what it means, but I would love to.

  39. elizabethe

    Hi Jen,

    This is one I've decided I'm not smart enough to think about. Here's the problem for me. If I can do nothing (or even nothing to get me saved) without God's grace, then how truly free is my free will? I talked about this over and over again with my sponsor when I went through RCIA and I was insistent that God did everything to effect my salvation. Nothing I did or thought would have turned me to God without God also giving me the grace to turn to Him and accept him. I said God started me turning towards Him, God turned me, God saved me. But she insisted (and she is much smarter than I) that the Catholic view is that I had the free will to turn towards God or turn away. God gave me the grace to accept him yes, and I couldn't have done it without him, but I also had to accept grace.

    So, it's true I can do nothing (or even nothing to save myself) without God's grace, but that doesn't mean I am absolved of all responsibility. I still have to do something and that something comes from my free will, which is something I do without God's grace because it has to be free. Right? I mean, can I sin without God's grace, right? Or does sin equal nothing? Or else why doesn't God just give everyone the grace to accept his grace and be done with it? Right? I don't know. I think I'm thinking about these things wrong, but not so differently than most people might think about them.

    I'd just rather meditate on Mary and what it meant for her to be full of Grace.

  40. Scott Johnston

    Wow, looks like lots of interesting comments. Sorry, I too can't read through them right now. So I apologize for any repetition.

    First off, grace is a mystery, the full comprehension of which we are not capable of. It's the stuff of the very inner core of the living, constant, active relationship between God and man. Words fail even to properly name it, except that "grace" (latin gratia) is appropriate for it means "gift"–in this case, a totally free gift of God. And when God gives a gift, it is always perfect. And the most perfect gift possible, is God Himself. So grace involves God, in some way (the particulars of which vary depending on the person, circumstance, etc.) giving Himself completely freely, in love, to His creatures whom He loves. But, of course, doing so in a way that preserves our authentic freedom as persons.

    All grace, in some way, leads us to further embrace in freedom the fullest possible fulfillment of our own (and others') human lives. And this, ultimately, is loving communion with God. We are made able by grace to fully flourish with a life that is not only more fully human, but is elevated to a context beyond nature alone. It is supernatural life flowing within us. "Springs of living water" that sustain us, even partially in this life, on a supernatural journey. This grace completes us as persons, yet without smothering our human nature, and without making us into inhuman supermen.

    Among the most primal and universal graces that all people receive (but must choose in some way to accept and then to act upon), is the grace to pray for whatever else we need from God. Every person, genuinely opening himself up willingly to God, somehow and in some way, turns to God in prayer and asks for further light, gifts, guidance, from God. This is the sort of grace that is continually, softly offering itself to us.

    But, also, there is a real sense in which all of existence is a grace–everything that exists is created by God and sustained in existence by Him at every moment. Without His active presence to His creatures in their very existence, we would cease to exist. So, to say we can do nothing without grace, in this way, is quite literally true.

    God is also present universally to all persons by our fundamental orientation to pursue the good. This too, is a grace, even if we don't recognize its divine source.

    But, perhaps for me the most poignant and personally relevant way in which to think about what it means to say we can do nothing without grace, is the presence of a quiet urge to pray in every honest, sincere heart. And without this, we can go no further in our quest for the bliss of communion with our divine Father.

  41. Marie

    It means God is sovereign.

  42. Christopher Lake


    Respectfully, I would say that your sponsor only gave you part of the picture of Catholic theology, when it comes to the relationship between grace and free will (possibly because, as well-informed and intelligent as she is, she might only be *aware of* part of the picture).

    There are actually two views of grace and free will that are permitted by the Church within official Catholic theology. One is the "Molinist" view, which seems to be the view held by your sponsor. This view acknowledges God's grace in our existence itself, and in our conversion, but it also tends to put a great emphasis on the freedom of our will in moving *toward* God's grace.

    The second view is the "Thomist" view, which seems to be closer to the one that you hold. Saint Thomas Aquinas did not deny a *certain* sort of freedom of the will, but he tended to put a much greater emphasis on the primacy of God's grace (at least in conversion) in *moving the will* toward God than did Luis de Molina (father of the Molinists).

    If you want to read more on the Molinist-Thomist "debate," go here: Again, the Church permits Catholics to hold either the Thomist or the Molinist view.

  43. Patricia

    What do Christians mean when they say, "We can do nothing without God's grace?" My friend Penny and I have been discussing this question all afternoon and now it's midnight. This has not been easy and we have debated much. Here are our thoughts.

    Because there are thousands of different denominations of Christians who disagree on at least one point, there are likely thousands of differing interpretations of this statement. But, we must remember, our thoughts of an Infinite God are beyond our finite minds. Grace is truly a mystery.

    With that said, we found the following thought-provoking quote from Kenneth J. Howell in the March 2003 edition of This Rock Magazine. "The (Catholic) Church teaches that salvation is the process of becoming holier and holier through time. All of this is a work of grace that God performs in our hearts through faith. Works done in faith are the natural completion of believing in Christ. As we trust and do God's work, he instills within us more grace so that we may become holier and so be ready to meet him at the end of our life."

    The believers good works spring from his faith in God; the non-believer's good works do not spring from any faith. ". . . without faith it is impossible to please God. . . " (Hebrews 10:6) This speaks to your question about the non-believer who is doing good. He cannot possibly be in God's grace because He needs faith in God who is the Fullness of all Truth.

    David, you might consider that God gave us all a free will. It's true that God sustains us, however, He gave us a free will to accept or reject His grace offered as a gift. In our acceptance of it, we become a "new creation" and His Divine life dwells in us.

  44. Ray Ingles

    I asked a question and included a link yesterday, but apparently it was rejected. Too bad, because it was sincere.

    When people say things like "we can do nothing without God" or "our righteousness is as filthy rags," It genuinely confuses me.

    We're completely worthless and undeserving, but God loves us anyway? Why didn't God just make something worth loving?

  45. eaucoin

    I love this post, and will be joyfully returning to read the witness given by others here. Grace is the manifest love given by God out of mercy to fill whatever is lacking in us. Since He loves all His creatures, He pours it out over all. To those of us who are not naturally gifted, He pours it out so generously that in our greatest need it will surpass our own capacity and glorify him wonderfully. To those followers of Christ who are weak–those St. Paul would refer to as His cracked earthenware vessels–His grace will leak out of all the cracks (weaknesses) in our nature. (I believe that a person denigrates God when he/she refers to someone as a crackpot as if that were a sin–I'm pretty sure that's why the bible exhorts us not to call anyone else a fool.) And as far as the good done in the name of secular humanism, the problem won't be so much with what's done as with the revenge of unintended consequences (take for example the bus ad campaign– the one that put these words on buses "There's no God, so stop worrying!" Consider this, of the people who were worried before, more will be upset at the suggestion that there is no God than will be comforted by it. Secular humanists (or anyone who thinks we don't need God's help) cannot see the big picture like God can and can do real harm even as they struggle to do good. I like the line, "If you take the God out of good, you will have o (nothing) left."

  46. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary

    I asked a question and included a link yesterday, but apparently it was rejected.

    Hi Ray – Sorry, I meant to mention that. Fair enough question; I only rejected it because it wasn't directly related to the subject at hand.

    I'm really interested in delving into the subject of the role of grace in the Christian life, so for the purposes of this post I wanted to assume that God and grace are real. If we start going into questions about whether God exists at all, then it would turn into an atheism/theism debate and we'd completely abandon the original subject (as has happened many times before on this blog). I'm more than happy to have that discussion, but just didn't want it to be in this thread.

    Thanks! And thanks for all the other great comments! I'm really enjoying reading them.

  47. Robyn


    I hope Jen does not mind me drifting off-topic a bit…

    First, I don't think it's a Catholic view to say we're totally worthless and undeserving. Some Protestants hold to this view, and I am no expert in their theology, so I can't elaborate on that. But to Catholics, we are essentially "good" because we are created by God and in the image of God.

    We are, simultaneously, imperfect, because we are not God. On top of that, our very human nature is damaged by original sin, which is what is meant by the term "fallen nature." Any reference to us being "undeserving" refers to our imperfect, fallen nature. We are "undeserving" simply because we are not God.

    However, God himself is all-loving. It's his very nature to love; you can even say that "God is love" (and Jen has, in this blog). So all his creatures are loveable to him, and especially we who are made for him in his image.

    The expression "our righteousness is as filthy rags" is another way of saying "we can do nothing [good] without grace." Anything that comes from us alone is imperfect because we are imperfect; it is self-serving and twisted. Anything good that comes from us comes with the help of God. God's righteousness is beautiful; it's only when we try to be little gods (read Jen's awesome recent post) and be righteous of our own merit that it is "filthy."

  48. Wendy

    I am definitely not the person to come to when one needs a good explaination of deep theological concepts. However I do have my 2 cents to add to this discussion.

    The way I think about grace most often changes my behavior dramatically, because suddenly its more about me allowing God to work through me rather than about what I would like to do in any given situation.

    I once heard in a homily something to this effect. " You are the primary conduit God uses to administer Grace to your spouse". That changed everthing for me. Suddenly my desire to do what would please me, or be stubborn to prove a point or my selfish desire to be demanding was now an impediment to God and what he could do for my husband. As of of the guys said in our CFM group at church "I pretty much figure that whenever I try to 'stick it' to my wife ultimately I am sticking it to God."

    I also cling to the Sacraments as being one of the many ways God gives his grace to us and try to participate in them as much as I can. My husband and I were once talking about how amazing we feel whenever we watch someone get baptized and we like to say its as if the waters pouring over them splash out onto all of those in the assembly and we all abound in his grace.

    I am sure the debate about exactly what God's grace is will rage on. All I know is it helps me to think of it very concretely and that my interaction with it is as both a recipient and conduit. Then at least I have a clear picture of my role in the process, even if I cannot put into words exactly what grace is.

  49. Tereza Crump aka MyTreasuredCreations

    hi…I have enjoyed your blog. i don't have the time to comment on Grace although I would love to. My comment would probably be like the others: very very long. 🙂 so I would like to suggest that you read a book called Destined to Reign by Joseph Prince. Don't let the name of the book or the cover fool you. This book is packed with God's Truth and I believe it's a NOW word. Most churches have a mix of Law and Grace but Jesus came and died for us so that we could truly know and enjoy God's grace, and not live under law anymore. Being good, doing good is trying to justify yourself and living under the law. Real Grace is Jesus living in and through you. it's effortless because it's all God. Most people are not enjoying it. Most churches mix law and grace. They talk about it but really don't understand what it is. Take time to read the book. it will revolutionized your life – it will give you new revelation of the Word of God. It blessed my life. Blessings, 🙂 Tereza

  50. Roxane B. Salonen

    Well, Jen, I don't think you really need my thoughts. You have a small booklet here to read and you might not even get to this one. Also, I read quite a few but not all of the responses, coming late to the party as I am. But I was drawn to the post title the other day (when I didn't have time to stop by) because grace is something that has become so much more real to me in the last couple years. I GET it. Explaining it to others, that's another thing entirely. But I have become VERY aware of how grace is bestowed upon us, and how, when it is, we move through this world in a way that would be impossible without it. Perhaps that is a clue to this saying with which you grapple. I also might take it to infer that we cannot overcome the really BIG things without God's grace. We can suffer through the death of a loved one and continue on somehow without acknowledging God and receiving His grace, yes, but we are not fully living. Living fully in light of suffering happens only because of grace. I don't know…some meandering thoughts, not nearly as eloquent as some I've read here. LOVE the question though because grace is such an awesome thing when you realize it's been given and has affected how you've responded to something difficult. Wow! Powerful stuff, that grace.

  51. WhiteStone

    Well, you already have 52 comments and I'm not going to read them all. ;-D
    However…to me, that phrase means that it is God who holds all things together, all of the entirety of creation. And it is by His grace, His goodness, His power, that we even exist in the first place, have air to breathe, food to eat, etc. Everything pertaining to life itself is a gift from God…grace, if you please. Our very existence is utterly dependent upon His good will towards us.

  52. Anonymous

    "I asked a question and included a link yesterday, but apparently it was rejected. Too bad, because it was sincere.

    When people say things like "we can do nothing without God"
    "I think all but one of the answers provided so far falls dreadfully short of the mark."…

    or "our righteousness is as filthy rags,"
    "genuinely confuses me."


    "We're completely worthless and undeserving, but God loves us anyway?"

    "Why didn't God just make something worth loving?"

    NOW one last statement about "why didn't God make something worth loving"
    If we understand God made Adam and Eve fully worth loving
    and Adam and Eve of their own free choice wanted something else and goofed
    this is the original sin
    thumbing their noses at God Adam and Eve then marked all of us with the original thumb nosing.
    God gives us all grace to seek Him and accept His help and this takes us back to the beginning of Jen's post and the comment string.

    God Bless Mary

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