Grace is God’s gift to us of himself and of his friendship. Being a gift to us, this friendship is supernatural because it is beyond what we are naturally capable of attaining. All grace is given to us by means of Jesus Christ and his Church, since by Christ’s death and Resurrection, the grace lost by Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden was restored and men and women were given the chance once more to live with God. But grace does not come to us “automatically”. Christ tells us that, “Very truly, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3,3). When we are baptised, and so become Christians, the life of grace begins in us. Catholics are ‘born again’ in their baptisms.
By means of grace, God allows us to participate in his own divine life. The Christian is destined for heaven; yet even on this earth, as his adopted children, we can “live the life of grace”. We have natural gifts which become nourished and strengthened by the gifts of grace, preparing us for the eternal bliss of heaven.
Sanctifying grace is the grace given at baptism. Through it, the Holy Spirit is given to us, “poured into our hearts” as Saint Paul says (Romans 5,5). Our sins are forgiven and we become entirely new creatures, able to know and love in a new way. We are given the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit are given us.
Mortal sin causes the loss of sanctifying grace, cutting us off from the life of God and depriving us of eternal life. The life of grace is restored only through the sacrament of Confession (sometimes called reconciliation).
It is worth noting that the means of forgiveness sometimes called ‘general absolution’ is not usually possible. God has given us the sacrament of confession as the ordinary means for the forgiveness of sins. If this is available (which it always is in the UK) then general absolution is explicitly forbidden by the Church. Indeed even the rules about general absolution require the penitent to seek individual absolution in Confession as soon as possible. So in a service of general absolution, the absolution does not in fact take place, despite the intention of the priest who gives it, or the people who come to receive it.
Actual grace is a specific impulse from God that enlightens our minds and strengthens our will, prompting us to do good and avoid evil. We receive actual grace so as to be able to respond to God in daily life.
The moral law is the law that shows us the ways and rules of conduct that lead us to eternal life. It is inscribed by the Creator in the heart of every person, allowing him or her to participate in the wisdom and goodness of God. Our basic ability to discern right from wrong, truth from falsehood, is based in this moral law. Hence there are many men and women of good will who have not yet come to know Christ, who follow the moral law given them by God. The moral law is fulfilled in the life of grace given by Christ, and so our natural ability for good is utterly transformed when the gift of grace is given us at baptism.
The reality of sin, however, limits our capability of discerning the moral law, so the Ten Commandments lay the foundations for human behaviour so as to enlighten us on our paths back to God. Through a combination of the gift of grace and our efforts at responding to the moral law inscribed in our hearts, we are able to live lives that correspond to God’s will for each one of us.