Monday, October 21, 2013

Efficacious and Sufficient Grace

Confídimus in Dómino Iesu, quia, qui coepit in vobis opus bonum, perfíciet usque in diem Christi Iesu.
We confide in the Lord Jesus, since He who has begun a good work in you shall bring it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)

These words of St. Paul, which were read this last Sunday in the traditional form of the Roman Rite, are taken by St. Thomas Aquinas as a reproach against the Pelagians. For they held that the beginning of our conversion and salvation is from us, but God brings it to completion. On the contrary, the Apostle says, God has begun the good work in us. And He shall perfect it, that is bring it to completion. Both the beginning and end of salvation is from God.

In pondering these words, I am reminded of the connection between sufficient and efficacious grace in the Thomistic understanding. Sufficient grace is the ability to perform some salutary, or grace-filled action. Efficacious grace is the actual work itself. God is, at least, prepared in Himself to give all men sufficient grace. But efficacious grace is not given to all. For not all men come to grace to begin with, but resist. And others, who have come to God's grace, fall away and therefore do not persevere. They were able to persevere, they had sufficient grace, but they did not. They lacked efficacious grace.

The Molinists generally hold that the difference between these graces is only extrinsic. In actu secundo. That is, sufficient grace is efficacious grace when the will consents. They object to the Thomist view which states that not only are these two graces different in themselves, but one who does the salutary act does it because he was given efficacious grace, and the one who does not do so was not given efficacious grace.

Blaise Paschal, though motivated by Jansenist concerns, places the objection very bluntly. He reports a conversation with a Dominican:

“But tell me, Father, is this grace given to all men sufficient?” “Yes,” he said. “And yet it is of no effect without efficacious grace?” “That is true,” he said. “That means,” I said, “that all have enough grace, and all do not have enough; that this grace suffices, although it does not suffice; that it is sufficient in name and insufficient in fact.” (The Provincial Letters, Blaise Pascal. Letter II. Translation for Penguin Books. ©1967)


I am not here prepared to offer a full account or defense of the Thomistic doctrine. Rather, I mean only to bring up one aspect of the solution. "He who has begun a good work in you, shall bring it to completion." One does not sharpen a pencil unless he intends to write with the pencil. God does not act in vain. He does not bestow sufficient grace without there being a real connection between it and efficacious grace. As sharpening a pencil imparts an ability to the pencil to be an instrument of writing, so sufficient grace imparts an ability upon the created free agent to be an instrument of God's grace.

Still, even among the just, even among those elect, there are sins and failings. There are times when sufficient grace is given, not efficacious grace. We may respond, that though we sharpen a pencil in order to write with it, still we may omit writing with it if there is some fault in the pencil, such as if the tip breaks. Likewise, it is only on account of such a fault in us, our resistance to the good work, that sufficient grace is not brought to completion; that efficacious grace is denied. We must conceive the order in the person whom grace acts without impediment as- sufficient grace, efficacious grace, salutary act. The consent itself is from efficacious grace. But in the one who resists, we find that God has permitted (not caused!) the man to posit some resistance and only on account of that resistance, God denies efficacious grace. In the just, the grace causes the free consent. But in the sinner, it is not the denial of the grace that causes the resistance, but the resistance that causes the denial.
Although someone through the motion of his free choice is neither able to merit nor call upon divine grace, still he is able to impede himself lest he should receive it...And since this is in the power of free choice, to impede or not impede the reception of divine grace, it is not unjustly imputed to him as fault who presents an impediment to the reception of grace. For God, as much as He is in Himself, is prepared to give grace to all, for he wills all men to be saved... but those only are deprived of grace who present in themselves an impediment to grace. (Summa Contra Gentiles lib. 3 cap. 159)

So why is St. Paul so confident? If indeed God permits some to resist and thus denies completion to the good work? St. Paul justifies his confidence in the verses following the one at the top of this post.

And I have the right to feel so about you all, because I have you in my heart, all of you, alike in my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel, as sharers in my joy. For God is my witness how I long for you all in the heart of Christ Jesus. And this I pray, that your charity may more and more abound in knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the better things, that you may be upright and without offense unto the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of justice, through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

It is because St. Paul prays that they be upright and without offense "until the day of Christ." And he has confidence in the object of his prayer because this is a good work begun by God. His confidence is wholly in God throughout, and this is why he may state so confidently that God shall bring the good work, to completion.This same and complete trust in God is echoed in the Thomist doctrine. St. Thomas, in the Summa Contra Gentiles passage, does not say it is in his power to "consent or reject." He says "to impede or not to impede." The sinner posits a contrary act, he rejects. But the just man rests on God. He does not need to posit some act in order for God to do anything. He merely must be docile to God, and in this docility he obtains true freedom and his will is brought to freely act in grace.


  1. So taking the pencil analogy up, while recognizing that the pencil is not a pencil but a person:

    Would you say that sufficient grace is (in the reality depicted by the analogy) like the preparation of the person for some meritorious work, but is something which we can reject by not being given efficacious grace to move our free will to actually do it?

    In the analogy this would be the pencil being sharpened but not being used -- yet this would make God responsible for sin if the analogy was one-to-one. I am assuming that free will is where the frustration of the good renders it such that we receive sufficient grace (given to all who NEED it) but not efficacious grace (in that we do not DESIRE it, as evidenced in our rejecting the act)?

  2. It is not that we reject the meritorious work "by not being given efficacious grace" it is that we are denied efficacious grace because we reject the meritorious work.

    As far as the pencil analogy- no analogy is perfect. The human will is more than an instrumental cause, like a pencil. It is a free cause, though secondary in relation to God. But I had tried to make the analogy better. The pencil is not used because it has some defect in it that impedes its use (a brittle tip perhaps).

    The difference is, of course, that any human will can defect away from the good and thus posit resistance. In one case, God permits the human will to such defect. In another case, the will is preserved in the good through His case.

    It is hard to grasp because the two cases are not the same sort of thing, just as neither is the relation of a good act to God the same as a sinful act to God.

    God grants sufficient grace
    God grants efficacious grace which ensures infallibly free consent

    In the other,
    God grants sufficient grace
    (He permits the human will to fail, due to its inherent defectibility. This is not a cause of the defection)
    The human will defects
    God denies efficacious grace on account of the defection.

    The difficulty is seeing that not-resisting is not on the same, causal level as resistance. We still want to sneak in something that makes the two cases one-to-one. But they are not.

    As far as desiring efficacious grace; he to whom efficacious grace is given will infallibly do the salutary act. It is not given because we desire it. That would, again, be to try and render the case of good acts and sins on the same level. We desire, because we are given by grace to desire. All good from God. That is the main principle here.


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