Grace: Commentary on the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas, Chapter Nine
Rev. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.



After considering the end of grace, or its necessity for our final end, the essence and divisions of grace, St. Thomas next examines its cause, particularly its efficient cause (article 1) , and at the same time the disposition for grace on the part of the recipient (articles 2 and 3); this leads him to ask whether grace is equal in all men (article 4) and whether a person may know that he possesses grace (article 5).


State of the question. It refers directly to habitual grace and indirectly to actual grace, according as it is a motion toward habitual grace to which it disposes. Furthermore the question concerns only the principal efficient physical cause; because the humanity of Christ and the sacraments are instrumental causes of grace; cf. IIIa, q.62, a. 5. The principal meritorious cause is, of course, Christ, as will be explained later, q. 114, a. 6.

The reply is: God alone can be the principal efficient cause of grace. 

1. Proof from Sacred Scripture. “Who can make him clean that is conceived of unclean seed, is it not Thou who only art ?” (Job 14:4); “The Lord will give grace and glory” (Ps. 83:12); cf. Isa. 43:25; Jer. 31:18; Lam. 5:21; Rom. 3:30; 8:33; II Cor. 3:5; Phil. 2:13, John 14:16. In all these texts it is declared that God alone can remit sin by justification. Cf. also the Council of Orange, can. 7, 9, 10, 14, 15, 20, 25; the Council of Trent, Sess. VI, chap. 7, on the justification of sinners.

2. Proof by apodictical theological argument. Nothing can, by its proper power, effectively produce anything of a higher order than its own. (Briefly: more is not produced by less.) But grace is of a higher order than any created agent since it is a participation in the divine nature. Therefore no created agent, but only God Himself, can be the principal, efficient, physical cause of grace.

Observe as to the minor that St. Thomas says: “grace surpasses every created nature,” and not only, as in the case of miracles, all the powers and requirements of created nature. Grace transcends the miraculous; by the miracle of resurrection, natural life is restored supernaturally to a corpse whereas, on the other hand, grace is essentially supernatural life.

Confirmation. Just as fire alone can ignite, so God alone can deify, or bestow a participation in His intimate nature and in like manner a right to eternal life.

Objection. But a just man who already possesses grace can produce it in another.

Reply. If he possesses divine nature as he does human nature; granted; but he has only a participation in the divine nature, and thus, although he can enjoy it himself, he cannot communicate it to others, just as an adopted son cannot adopt. Nor can we produce intelligence in another unless, positing the ultimately apt disposition in the embryo for the reception of the intellectual soul, God creates it.

An angel cannot generate another angel, since an angel can be produced only by creation, that is, by God. And grace, as we shall presently see, cannot be drawn forth except from the obediential power of either a soul or an angel; but God alone can draw anything forth from the obediential power.

Reply to first objection. The humanity of Christ is the instrumental cause of the production of grace, acting, that is, by the power of God, the principal agent. Thus Christ, the head of the Church, infuses into us the grace which He obtained for us by His infinite merits. (IIIa, q. 8, a. I.)

Reply to second objection. Likewise the sacraments cause grace only as instruments. This answer should be read; it is not limited in its application to the intentional power alone, in the sense of practically significant power.

Reply to third objection. An angel purifies, enlightens, and perfects a man by means of instruction, as does a spiritual director, not by infusing grace.

Doubt. With reference to this article Thomists ask whether grace is created or drawn forth from the obediential power of the soul. The answer generally given is that grace is neither created nor concreated but is educed from the obediential power of the soul.

I. This answer is based on many texts of St. Thomas, especially Ia IIae, q. 110, a. 2 ad 3, and q. 113, a. 9, where it is stated that “creation from the mode of operation, that is, out of nothing, is a greater work than justification; although on the part of the thing produced, justification is greater than the creation of heaven and earth.” Again, in De veritate, q. 27, a. 3 ad 9, and the question on the virtues in general, a. 10 ad 2 and ad 13, St. Thomas teaches that supernatural habits are brought forth from the obediential power of the subject.

3. Theological proof. To be created is to be produced from no presupposed subject, whereas to be brought forth from the obediential power of some subject is to be produced dependently from this subject through a supernatural cause. But grace as an accident inhering in the soul is produced dependently from the substance of the soul through God, the supernatural cause. Therefore grace is not created but is brought forth from the obediential power of the soul. 

The major contains its own definition both of creation and of education, but for a clear understanding of what is meant by eduction from the obediential power, it would be well to recall just what the obediential power is; we have treated the subject at length in De revelatione, I, 377. There is in any subject a passive power which is not natural, since it does not affirm an order to a natural agent, but is a passive power that affirms an order to a supernatural agent which it obeys so as to receive from it whatever it may wish to confer. Cf. IIIa, q. II, a. I; q. I, a. 3 ad 3; De virtutibus in communi, a. 10 ad 2 and ad 13; Compendium theol., chap. 104; De potentia, q. 6, a. I, ad 18, and Tabula aurea, under “Potentia,” no. 10. Thus even in the natural order the form of a statue is educed from the potentiality of the wood, inasmuch as the wood obeys the carver, or the clay the potter. 

Minor. Grace is an accident inherent in the soul; therefore it depends on the substance of the soul in being, and hence likewise in becoming, inasmuch as becoming is a step toward being. Whence to be created is proper to a subsistent thing which possesses being independently of any subject. Therefore the conclusion follows.

It is conceded, however, that God, by His absolute power, could create grace independently of any subject, just as He can cause the Eucharistic accidents to exist independently of the subject; but this mode would be miraculous, and neither connatural nor according to His ordinary power in the supernatural order, of which we are now speaking.

It cannot be said that grace is concreated as we say that the soul of the first man was concreated with his body; for in fact, as has been said, grace as an accident of the soul is made dependently upon it, whereas the intellectual soul is not educed from the potentiality of matter, like the souls in brute beasts, but is independent of matter in its becoming, just as it is intrinsically independent of it in its being and operation, whence it follows that it is immortal.


First objection: In Sacred Scripture grace is said to be created: “Create a clean heart in me, O God” (Ps. 50:12); “…in Christ Jesus…a new creature” (Gal. 6:15); “…created in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:10).

Reply. Here is meant: created morally, not physically: morally, because it presupposes no merit; not physically because it presupposes a subject.

Second objection. It is concerned with the difficulty of rightly defining obediential power so as to safeguard at the same time both the absolute gratuitousness of grace and its conformity to the nature of the human soul.

For that which is eminently fitting to human nature cannot be absolutely gratuitous. But elevation to the vision of God is eminently fitting. Therefore it cannot be absolutely gratuitous. In other words, if grace is in conformity with, or becoming to, our nature and perfects it, it seems that the obediential power must be more than a mere non-aversion to accepting from God whatever He may will. But if this obediential power is more than a non-aversion, it is a slight entity distinct from the essence of the soul and its faculties, and hence is a positive ordination toward the life of grace and accordingly is at once something essentially natural as a property of nature, and something essentially supernatural specified by a supernatural object to be known and loved. And thus we are led to a confusion of the two orders.

Reply. We have examined this difficulty at length in our De revelatione, I, 399-402. The Salmanticenses also discuss it in connection with the present article.

There is certainly given to the human soul an obediential power to receive ever higher supernatural gifts, indeed, for the very hypostatic union, and even, in the most holy soul of Christ, for the greatest degree of the light of glory which God, by His absolute power, can produce. Wherefore St. Thomas declares in several places that the obediential power cannot be satisfied perfectly; for it is a capacity for receiving from God whatever He may will, and God can will and produce anything that is not contradictory. Therefore the obediential power, by its formal reason, is not a positive ordination of the nature of the human soul or its faculties toward a supernatural object, and signifies nothing more than a simple non-aversion, or capacity, to receive whatever God may will. However, by reason of its subject and materially, it is completely identified with the essence of the soul and its faculties, whether passive or active, which can be elevated to the order of grace. Hence the obediential power or capacity for being elevated regards immediately, not the supernatural object known and loved, but the supernatural agent which it obeys, that is, God who can elevate us, gratuitously and with perfect freedom.

Thus by its formal reason the obediential power signifies nothing but a non-aversion. However, God, by conferring His supernatural gifts does indeed perfect thereby the nature of the soul, raising it to a superior order. Thus these gifts of grace are, at one and the same time, completely gratuitous, in no sense due to us, and perfectly becoming to our nature, with a fitness which is not, however, natural but supernatural, at once most sublime, most profound, and gratuitous. Wherefore, with regard to the objection: that which is eminently fitting with a natural fitness cannot be gratuitous, granted; but with a supernatural fitness, denied. And this is the very mystery of the essence of grace, which is simultaneously something freely given and something which renders us pleasing.



State of the question. We are here concerned with the disposition toward habitual grace, for it is certain that no preparation on the part of man anticipating, so to speak, divine help, is demanded for actual grace; rather any preparation that may be found in man is produced by prevenient actual grace; cf. question 109, a. 6, above, and what is repeated here in the body of the article. With respect to the disposition for habitual grace, theologians generally agree that it is required on the part of man, but some insist that this disposition is only moral and of divine institution, not physical.

The conclusion of St. Thomas is: for habitual grace the preparation of another grace is prerequisite on the part of an adult in possession of his mental faculties. And this disposition is a motion or act of the free will in God.

First proof. By the authority of the Council of Trent, Sess. VI, chap. 6, (Denz., no. 798) and can. g (Denz., no. 819): “If anyone should say that by faith alone the wicked man is justified so as to mean that nothing else is required for cooperation with the grace of justification and that it is in no wise necessary to prepare or dispose himself by a movement of his will, let him be anathema.” This definition is based on Holy Scripture: “Prepare your hearts unto the Lord” (I Kings 7:3) and “Turn ye to Me…and I will turn to you” (Zach. 1:3).

Second proof, from theological argument. A perfect and permanent form is not introduced into a subject, under ordinary providence, unless that subject is predisposed. But habitual grace is a perfect, permanent form. Therefore it is not introduced into a soul unless the soul is predisposed by the preparation which becomes its nature, that is, by a free act toward God, for man is free by nature. (This refers to adults.)

The major is always verified in the natural order, whether it is a question of substantial or of accidental form. Proportionately, and for the same reason, however, this must be true in the supernatural order. Thus the beatific vision requires that the intellect be disposed by the light of glory for union with the divine essence. Right order demands that from one extreme to the other, that is, from an utter privation to a form, the transition should only be made through certain means; hence, according to St. Thomas, no form can exist except in predisposed matter. Otherwise a monstrosity would result. And so some professors produce a monstrosity, proposing the loftiest doctrine without preliminary dispositions, so that then it is not understood and results in dangerous theory, for example, predestination as interpreted by Calvin.

Reply to first objection. St. Thomas observes that the imperfect preparation, which frequently precedes, in time, the infusion of habitual grace, is not meritorious, for habitual grace is the principle of merit. On the other hand, the preparation which is simultaneous with the infusion of habitual grace proceeds from it, and is therefore meritorious not of grace but of glory. Cf. q. 113, a. 8: The infusion of grace precedes, by nature, but not in time, this preparation, in which resides the primary act of charity and living faith. 

Reply to second objection. The preparation which immediately precedes, in time, the infusion of grace, is generally made gradually, under the influence of actual grace, but it may be effected suddenly. 

Reply to third objection. God, as an agent of infinite power, “requires no preparation which He does not Himself produce.” And according to the usual order of providence, He produces this preparation in adults by actual grace, although He can, by His absolute power, confer habitual grace upon one who is not disposed for it, for instance, a person who is asleep, but then the sleeper does not receive it as a man, that is, not as possessed of the use of reason and free will. 

Doubt. Whether acts of the free will, thus supernaturally moved by God, only dispose a man for grace morally, by divine institution, or physically, by nature, and furthermore, whether physically in the efficient or only in the predisposing sense.

The reply generally made by Thomists is that these acts dispose a man for grace, not morally only, but physically, in a predisposing way, not however an efficient way. The proof is divided into parts. 

1. Not morally only, since an act of free will supernaturally moved by God is a certain beginning of the order of grace, for its relationship to habitual grace is that of motion toward its term. But a beginning is not merely a moral disposition by divine institution, but it is physical by its nature to the perfecting of motion in its term. Therefore these acts dispose not morally only, but physically toward grace. 

2. Not, however, physically in an efficient sense, but only as a predisposition. First proof: from the Council of Trent, Sess. VI, chap. 7, where, in describing the causes of justification, no other efficient cause is recognized but God as principal cause and the sacraments as instrumental cause. And in the preceding chapter, the Council, referring to the act of free will, ascribes it to the disposing cause which it distinguishes from the efficient cause. Second proof: St. Thomas also makes the same differentiation in De veritate, q. 28, a. 8 ad 2 and ad 7: “The motion of free will is not the efficient cause of the infusion of grace; thus contrition is not the efficient cause of the remission of sins, but the power of the keys, or baptism.” Thirdly, the theological argument is: Habitual grace is not an acquired but an infused habit “which God operates in us without us,” according to the words of St. Augustine in his definition of infused virtue. If, on the contrary, our acts concurred efficiently in the production of habitual grace, this grace would be called an acquired rather than an infused habit. Moreover, it is contradictory that an act should cause an active power of which it is properly and connaturally the effect; for instance, it is contradictory that the act of intellection should produce the power of intellect. But supernatural habits have the reason not only of pure habits but also of powers, that is, they confer the first connatural power in the supernatural order.

Corollary. In the same way it may be said of the increase of grace and of the infused virtues: our supernatural acts dispose for this increase not morally only (that is, meritoriously) but physically, not efficiently, however, but as predisposing; for the reason of the increase of infused habits is the same as of their original production. (Cf. IIa IIae, q. 24, a. 4, 5, 6: On the increase of charity.)



State of the question. St. Thomas has already shown in question 109, a. 6, that man cannot prepare himself for habitual grace without actual grace, without the supernatural help of God, for the order of agents must correspond to the order of ends, and he thus generally explained the axiom: “If one does what lies in one’s power (with the help of actual grace), God does not deny (habitual) grace.” No preparation is required for actual grace which itself, by anticipating us, prepares us for justification. But now St. Thomas shows the infallible connection which justification has with this preparation. As we shall presently see, he does not, like Molina, have recourse to any pact entered into between Christ and the Father, by reason of which God would never refuse grace to anyone who does what in him lies by his natural powers.

The conclusion of St. Thomas is: Man’s preparation for grace infallibly leads to justification, not as it proceeds from free will, but as it proceeds from God moving him efficaciously.

1. Proof from Sacred Scripture. “As clay is in the hand of the potter, so are you in My hand” (Jer. 18:6). But clay, however much it may be prepared, does not of necessity receive a form from the potter. Likewise the twenty-third and twenty-fifth canons of the Council of Orange may be cited, which declare that the will is prepared for grace by God, and the Council of Trent, Sess. VI, chap. 6 (Denz., no. 798) as follows: “Adults are disposed for justice when, excited by divine grace and assisted, receiving faith by hearing, they are freely moved toward God, believing…trusting...and they begin to love God.”

2. Theological proof, each of the two parts being treated separately. First part: that is, such preparation, according as it is from free will, does not infallibly dispose one for grace, since the gift of God exceeds any preparation within human power, for it is of a superior order, and the order of agents corresponds to the order of ends. Moreover, as said in answer to the third objection: “Even in natural things the predisposition of the material does not of necessity obtain the form, except by virtue of the agent who causes the disposition.” But, as stated in the answer to the second objection, if we cannot of our-selves prepare ourselves infallibly for grace, nevertheless “the first cause of a deficiency of grace comes from ourselves,” since it is only through our own defect that we resist prevenient sufficient grace and are therefore deprived of efficacious grace.

Second part: that is, man’s preparation, as it comes from God moving him efficaciously, infallibly leads to justification. This is not proved from scientia media or the foreknowledge of our consent if our will is placed in certain circumstances, but from the intrinsic, infallible efficacy of divine decrees and of the actual grace by which the execution of these decrees is effected.

The reason for this is that “God’s intention (efficacious or a decree of justification for this man) cannot fail.” And this is the teaching of St. Augustine when he says (De dono persev., chap. 14): “Whoever are liberated are most certainly liberated by the beneficence of God.” Cf. above, Ia, q. 19, a. 6: Whether the will of God is always accomplished: “Whatever God wills absolutely is done, although what He wills antecedently may not be done”; ibid., ad I. Hence neither St. Augustine nor St. Thomas speaks of mediate knowledge; the inventors of mediate knowledge were the Semi-Pelagians who declared:

God, from all eternity, foresaw that in certain circumstances these particular men would be apt to have a beginning of faith or salvation, and He therefore decreed to give them grace on account of this natural beginning of good will. The Molinists hold some of this doctrine, but avoid heresy by having recourse to a pact between Christ and God.

Doubt. Whether it is possible to reconcile with this teaching of St. Thomas the opinion of those who maintain that “of two sinners equally tempted and equally assisted toward the continuation of attrition, at some time or other, one sets up an obstacle which the other does not, and consequently the latter receives by the mercy of God on account of the merits of Christ grace which is now efficacious for an act of perfect contrition and of justification.”

Reply. Reconciliation is not possible for, according to this theory, the distinction between the two men, equally assisted, would arise not from any difference in help received, but from their free will alone; hence the man who did not himself set up an impediment would be disposing himself negatively but infallibly for justification and would thus be distinguishing himself. Infallible preparation would proceed from man, and in foreseeing this distinction God would remain passive, as a spectator, not an actor. But there cannot be passivity in pure act. Again, the divine will would be willing this difference, not before the man’s faithfulness, but after it (further passivity in pure act). With respect to the foregoing distinction, God would not be predetermining but determined. Moreover, it would not be explained how, without an infallible decree, this future contingency rather than the opposite would be present in divine eternity, and would be there as a necessary, not a contingent, truth; nor would the transition be explained from a state of possibility to a state of futurition.

Finally, grace is efficacious only with regard to what it effects here and now. But with respect to what it effects here and now, it is infallibly efficacious as the consequent will of God (Ia, q. 19, a. 6 ad I). Therefore grace is not efficacious unless it is infallibly efficacious, otherwise it would be possible for it to be efficacious sometimes with respect to something which it would not effect.

It only remains to say that grace which is termed sufficient with regard to a perfect act, for example, contrition, may be efficacious and infallibly so with regard to another act, imperfect to be sure, such as attrition. Grace which is efficacious for attrition is sufficient for contrition.


Reply. Sanctifying grace may be greater in one man than in another, not from the standpoint of its end, but with relation to the . subject participating to a greater or less degree in this gift of God; and the first reason for the diversity is on the part of God, who distributes His graces in a variety of ways.

I. Proof from Scripture. “To everyone of us is given grace, according to the measure of the giving of Christ” (Eph. 4:7); cf. St. Thomas’ Commentary. Then there is the parable of the talents: “And to one he gave five talents, and to another two, and to another one, to every one according to his proper ability” (Matt. 25:15), concerning which St. Thomas writes in his Commentary: “He who makes the greater effort obtains more grace; but the fact that he makes a greater effort demands a higher cause.” He says as much again in the body of the present article. And this principle is contrary to the theory of Molina as we shall presently explain. Cf. also the Council of Trent, Sess. VI, chap. 7: “We are truly called just and so we are, receiving justice into ourselves, each according to his measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to each according as He wills (I Cor. 12:11), and according to the proper disposition and cooperation of each.”

2. Theological proof, treated in parts. First part: Grace cannot be greater or less from its end, since it could not be ordained to a greater good, for it ordains us to the supernatural intuitive vision and love of God. Second part: With regard to the subject, grace is greater or less according to the subject’s degree of participation in this gift of God. See the answers to the second and third objections. Third part: The primary reason for diversity is on the part of God who distributes grace in various degrees. To be sure, the proximate reason is on the part of man preparing himself, so far as he makes greater or less prepa-ration. But since this very preparation proceeds from the motion of God, the primary reason for diversity is on the part of God, distributing His gifts variously, that the Church may be adorned with that beauty which variety produces in the universe.

Cf. ad I and Ia, q. 23, a. 5: “What proceeds from free will is not distinct from what proceeds from predestination, any more than what proceeds from a secondary cause is distinct from what proceeds from a primary cause.” This is a reiteration of what St. Paul says in the text here quoted, and is demanded by the principle of predilection: “No one would be better than another were he not better loved by God. Cf. Ia, q. 20, a. 3 and 4. “The will of God is the cause of the goodness in things, and hence they are in some respect better because God wills greater good to them. Thus it follows that He loves better things more.”

First corollary. This doctrine is contrary to what Molina writes in his Concordia (p. 565): “One who is aided by the help of less grace and perseveres in his obduracy.” Moreover, it would be opposed to St. Thomas’ teaching to hold that sometimes one person, with the same amount of help, persists in an easy act conducive to salvation, whereas another, equally tempted, does not persist. If this were true, man would distinguish himself, and the lie would be given to St.  Paul’s words quoted here: “To every one of us is given grace, according to the measure of the giving of Christ.” We should have to say: according to the effort made by man. It is therefore not to be won-dered at that the Congruists were always eager to dissent from Molinism in this respect, by admitting a distinction between congruous and other grace. 1

Second corollary. Since it is true that “God resisteth the proud and giveth His grace to the humble,” an inequality of natural conditions is frequently compensated for by an inequality of supernatural conditions, according to those words of our Lord: “I confess to Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to little ones.” And “blessed are the poor…blessed are the meek…blessed are they that mourn…blessed are they that suffer persecution.” Herein appears the wonderful but deeply mysterious harmony in the divine distribution of natural and supernatural gifts with which the parable of the talents is concerned. Hence it sometimes happens in a religious community that it is the humblest lay brother who has the greatest degree of charity in his heart and is loved most by God — a St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, S.J., or a Blessed Martin de Porres, O.P.



The state of the question appears from St. Thomas’ objections: It seems to be so, since: 1. the soul knows experimentally the things which are present in it; 2. the believer is certain that he has the faith; 3. a person can know certainly that he sins, therefore, with still greater reason that he is in the state of grace, for light is more perceptible than darkness; 4. the Apostle says: “But we have the mind of Christ” (I Cor. 2:16). On the other hand: “Man knoweth not whether he be worthy of love or hatred” (Eccles. 9:1); and there are many similar texts quoted below from the New Testament. 

It should be observed that, with reference to the preceding texts, the Lutherans and Calvinists taught: 1. that man could know, by certain and indubitable faith, that he is in grace; 2. that the faithful, or the just man is bound to believe this of himself, otherwise he is neither just nor faithful; 3. that by this faith alone men are justified.2

Reply. Except by special revelation, no one can be certain that he is in grace, with an absolute certainty which excludes all fear of error, but the just man can know this only conjecturally, although indeed with very marked conjectural knowledge.

I . Proof from authority. The Council of Trent (Sess. VI, chap. 9, Denz., no. 802) declares: “No one is able to know with the certainty of faith, in which falsehood cannot be concealed, that he has obtained grace.” Again (can. 13 and 14, Denz., nos. 823 f.): “If anyone should say…that man is bound to believe this of himself,…and that no one is really justified unless he believes himself to be so, let him be anathema.” This definition is against the Protestants; it does not condemn the opinion of Catharinus as heretical. But as we shall see from what follows, the latter is dangerous and contrary to the general opinion of theologians. This is also true of the theory proposed by Vega.

The doctrine of the Church, however, is based upon several texts of Sacred Scripture: “There are just men and wise men, and their works are in the hand of God: and yet man knoweth not whether he be worthy of love or hatred” (Eccles. 9:1). This does not refer to the wicked, for a vicious murderer can indeed know that he is worthy of hatred; it is a question of the just and wise, and hence the meaning is: no one even of the just knows whether he is worthy of love or of hatred. Again, “Be not without fear about sin forgiven” (Ecclus. 5:5); “With fear and trembling work out your salvation” (Phil. 2:12); “Neither do I judge my own self. For I am not conscious to myself of anything, yet am I not hereby justified; but He that judgeth me is the Lord. Therefore judge not before the time; until the Lord come who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness…. (I Cor. 4:3-5). (Cf. St. Thomas’ Commentary on I Corinthians, chap. 4.)

In his book De perfectione justorum (chap. 15), St. Augustine thus explains the foregoing words of St. Paul: “However much justice a man may be endowed with, he should not consider anything in himself which he does not see may be found to be blameworthy.” This is especially on account of indirectly voluntary acts by reason of which a man may be a sinner because of culpable ignorance, that is, when he acts in ignorance of what he ought and is bound to know; for example, a doctor who kills his patient because of culpable ignorance arising from his own sloth. (Cf. St. Thomas on ignorance as a cause of sin, Ia IIae, q. 76.)

It is particularly by reason of indirectly voluntary acts that Holy Scripture declares the human heart to be “unsearchable” (Jer. 17:9 and Prov. 25:3); for instance, on account of the subtlety of intellectual or spiritual pride. Therefore do we read in Job 9:21: “Although I should be simple, even this my soul shall be ignorant of,” and in Ps. 18:13: “Who can understand sins?”

This is confirmed by the testimony of the saints. There is the reply of St. Joan of Arc to her judges, who asked her if she was in the state of grace: “If I am not, may God place my soul in that state!” Regarding souls that have almost attained perfection and are in the passive purification of the spirit, that is, in the sixth mansion, St. Theresa writes: “They know not whether they are worthy of love or of hate, for they see more and more clearly, in the darkness of faith, the sublimity of the sanctity of God and their own misery.” This was true of the holy Curé of Ars, and of St. Thomas as well, at a time when he was almost in doubt and received from the Blessed Virgin Mary the assurance that he was in God’s grace.

2. Theological proof, treated in its several parts.

First part: except by special revelation; for God sometimes does reveal this as He did to St. Paul, assuring him: “My grace is sufficient for thee” (II Cor. 12:9). Such was the certainty possessed by the Blessed Virgin Mary to whom the angel declared that she was “full of grace” (Luke 1:28); likewise, in the case of the paralytic and of the woman who was a sinner, to both of whom Christ said that their sins were forgiven (Matt. 9:2-7; Luke 7:37-50). But we are now dealing with the ordinary way.

Second part: Ordinarily, no just man possesses absolute certainty in this matter. The proof is as follows:

Absolute certainty is that in which no falsehood can be concealed, excluding all fear of error, such certainty as is obtained by revelation or theological reasoning or by the self-evidence of the matter. But in the ordinary way, no just man can be thus certain that he is in grace, that is, neither by general revelation, nor by theological reasoning, nor by self-evidence of the matter or experience. Therefore there can be no absolute certainty in this regard.

The major is itself a definition of absolute certainty. 

The minor is proved in parts; merely natural knowledge is excluded since it cannot know supernatural grace.

a) Not by general revelation, which does not concern itself with my justification so far as it is mine.

b) Not by theological argument for the reason which is thus proved by St. Thomas in the body of the article:

To arrive at this knowledge by discursive theology one would have to know the principle of grace. But the principle of grace is God (in His intimate life), unknown because of His surpassing excellence, and the presence or absence of whom within us cannot be known with certainty, according to the words of Job 9:11: “If He come to me, I shall not see Him: if He depart I shall not understand.” Therefore man cannot with certainty judge whether or not he is in the state of grace.

It should be remarked that this lack of certainty proceeds from the supernatural excellence of God and His grace and from His dwelling in inaccessible light which seems to us to be darkness, as the sun seems to the owl. Cf. ad 3: “The object or end of grace is unknown to us on account of the immensity of its light.” Some may immediately object: But it is established by faith that grace will be given to one who sincerely loves God and is truly penitent. This is true, but in the ordinary way no one possesses absolute certainty that he sincerely loves God, not merely naturally but supernaturally, above all things, and that he is truly penitent. It must always be feared that some hidden sins may lie concealed in the soul, pride, for example, or presumption. “Who can understand sins?” (Ps. 18:13.)

c) Nor by the experience of grace itself or of charity (cf. ad I ); for we cannot know supernatural grace by any natural experience.  And if it is a question of supernatural experience, other than a special revelation, it does not confer absolute certainty in this matter, that is, certainty excluding all fear that one’s interior peace or joy may not proceed from a merely natural cause, as will presently be explained in the third part. “For the acts of the infused virtues have a very great similarity to the acts of the acquired virtues,” as St. Thomas declares, De veritate, q. 6, a. 5 ad 3; q. 10, a. 10 ad I and 2.

Third part: the conclusion. This may, however, be known conjecturally and with marked conjectural knowledge. The proof is as follows:

Conjectural knowledge is that which rests upon very weighty signs and indications, yet not so solid but that, even morally speaking, it may be false.

But man has three signs of the state of grace so far as “he perceives 1. that he takes delight in God, 2. that he despises earthly things, and 3. that he is not conscious within himself of any sin.”

Hence we read in the Apocalypse (2:17): “To him that overcometh, I will give the hidden manna …which no man knoweth, but he that receiveth it,” that is, by a certain experience of sweetness. And this suffices for a man to approach the sacraments of the living.

Thus it is written in Rom. 8:16: “The Spirit Himself giveth testimony to our spirit, that we are the sons of God” by the filial affection which He inspires in us. Moreover, these signs are increased if a man is ready to die rather than offend God, and if he is humble, for “God…giveth grace to the humble” (Jas. 4:6). Cf. IV Sent., d. 9, q. I, a.          3; qc. 2; Contra Gentes, Bk. IV, chaps. 21, 22. But these signs are not absolutely certain, as St. Paul admits: “For I am not conscious to myself of anything, yet am I not hereby justified” (I Cor. 4:4).
The experience of sweetness can sometimes proceed from a natural cause or from the devil, and no one can be sure that he is truly humble; in fact, he has not begun to be humble until he fears that he is proud. Confirmation of the conclusion. Herein appears the gentle disposition of divine providence, excluding both presumption which might arise from absolute certitude of our justice and anxiety of soul which would result from lack of a weighty conjecture which may be called certainty under a particular aspect. There is produced, on the contrary, a synchronizing of firm hope and filial fear, hope founded on the help of God who forsakes no one unless He is first forsaken, and a fear of sin or separation from God. “Permit me not to be separated from Thee!”



First objection. We read in I Cor.2:12: “Now we have received not the spirit of this world, but the Spirit that is of God; that we may know the things that are given us from God”; and again in I John 4:13: “In this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us: because He hath given us of His spirit.”

Reply. The foregoing criteria do not apply to individual members of the faithful taken singly, but to the congregation of the Church, in which it is certain, with the certainty of divine faith that some members are in grace. Moreover, everyone is assured of these gifts on the part of God who promises them, although he does not know certainly that he possesses the conditions by which such gifts are merited.  This is the explanation given by the Salmanticenses. 

I insist. On the contrary, every just man can be certain of this, for the testimony of the Holy Ghost cannot be false. But it is written in Rom. 8:16: “The Spirit Himself giveth testimony to our spirit, that we are the sons of God”; and this especially through the gift of wisdom whereby we have an almost experimental knowledge of the presence of God in us. Therefore.

Reply. The testimony of the Holy Ghost cannot be false, but we can err by mistaking for the testimony of the Holy Ghost what is really not so. This knowledge is called “quasi-experimental,” since it does not attain immediately to God Himself present within us, but to His effects, such as a filial affection for Him and works of virtue, nor can we distinguish with absolute certainty between supernatural acts and their natural counterparts. Hence, as the Salmanticenses de Clare: “The Holy Spirit renders testimony to our spirit, not indeed by revelation, but by producing the effects already mentioned, from which a certain moral certainty and security arise.” Likewise St.  Thomas comments on the Epistle to the Romans, chapter 8: “He renders testimony, not by revelation but by the effect of filial love which He produces in us.” And this knowledge is not infallible.3

I insist. But St. John writes (13:35): “By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love one for another.”

Reply. But we cannot be absolutely certain that we love our neighbor with true charity and not from cupidity or natural affection. 

Final objection. But a person may possess absolute certainty of his attrition and of the validity of the absolution by which he is subsequently justified. Therefore.

Reply. Of supernatural attrition we can have and do have a valid and more probable confidence from the testimony of a good conscience, from application to good works and a prompt will to obey God. However, the heart of man is inscrutable and there is always reason for him to fear lest hiddm sins lie concealed therein (on account of the indirect voluntary) or his sorrow for sin be insufficient, or some disposition be lacking for the reception of the sacrament. So Billuart maintains.

First doubt. Whether one of the faithful can have absolute certainty of at least having the faith.

Reply (ad 2). Yes, since this is not comparable to grace and charity; for “It belongs to the reason of faith that a man should be certain of those things which he believes; and this because certainty pertains to the perfection of the intellect in which knowledge and faith reside. Therefore anyone who possesses knowledge or faith is sure that he does. But the reason is not the same for grace and charity and other gifts of this sort which perfect the appetitive power.” In other words, charity, first of all, does not include certainty in its reason, as faith and knowledge do, and, secondly, charity resides in the will, which is not a faculty of cognition or reflection. Many theologians, Billuart among them, admit that a man can be certain of his hope, since he is certain of his faith, and hope follows upon faith; nor is it destroyed except by an act of despair; but a man can be certain that he has never fallen into an act of despair.

Objection is raised, however, to the absolute certainty of the existence of supernatural faith in us on the grounds that this faith might be acquired faith, such as the demons possess.  supernatural quality of the act or habit whereby he believes. But he I
Reply. Cf. Salmanticenses, no. 17, on the present article. It is probable that one of the faithful cannot have absolute certainty of the has twofold certainty of his faith: 1. of the object believed, at least so far as it is materially possessed, and 2. of the act of believing, abstracting however from the question of whether or not it is supernatural. For it is nowhere revealed that I have infused faith, although there is a very strong conjecture and practical certainty of it. Moreover, for a supernatural act of faith there is required in the will a pious disposition to believe, which pertains to the affective side of man.

Second doubt. Whether in the mystical state there is absolute certainty of the state of grace.

Reply. This does not belong to the essence of the mystical state, or infused contemplation, which persists even in the passive night of the soul wherein the soul thinks itself to be far from God, and feels that God is, as it were, absent from it. But, as we observed in Christian Perfection and Contemplation, p. 450, no. 2, according to many theologians, the altogether supreme grace conferred in the state of transforming union, in St. Theresa’s seventh mansion, is equivalent to a special revelation of one’s own state of grace and even of predestination. This opinion is held by Philip of the Holy Trinity and by Scaramelli. St. John of the Cross thinks that the transforming union is not bestowed without confirmation in grace and some certainty of this confirmation.

Third doubt. Whether we can have a moral certainty of the state of grace which excludes prudent doubt, or only a marked conjectural knowledge.

The reply is twofold.

I. The Salmanticenses answer (no. 8): “Except by the privilege of a special revelation, man cannot have moral certainty in the first degree but only in the second.” Cf. no. 2: Moral certainty in the first degree is that which excludes all fear of error since, for example, it is founded upon the testimony of a great number of men, such as the certainty of the existence of Rome for those who have not been to Rome. Moral certainty in the second degree does not exclude all fear of error, but does exclude prudent doubt; for instance, the certainty which we have of being baptized, or that Peter, whom we see celebrating Mass, is a priest. And there are also differences of degree within this division.

2. Gonet and some other Thomists deny that a just man can have moral certainty properly so called, of his state of grace, but hold that he can have only a marked conjectural knowledge, since moral certitude properly so called excludes all fear of error. Now a man can swear to what he knows with moral certainty, for instance, to being a priest; whereas he cannot swear that he is in the state of grace. Perhaps, as the Salmanticenses declare, the discrepancy is not so much in the matter itself as in the terminology. I agree with Gonet’s opinion.

1 Cajetan is sometimes quoted whenever he seems not to retain altogether the last part of St. Thomas’ conclusion with respect to the supernaturalness of imperfect preparation for grace. But even if this were true, Cajetan would not deny what St. Thomas says about the infallibility of this preparation, which comes from God; for Cajetan maintains (Ia, q.22, a.2) that even general providence is infallible in its own reason with respect to all that actually happens, since it depends upon the consequent will.

2 Beside the heretics, Catharinus among Catholics contends that man can be sure he has grace with absolute certainty, not immediately by faith, but mediately by theological reasoning; Vega holds that man may arrive at moral certainty which excludes all fear, like the certainty of thc existence of the city of Rome in the mind of anyone who has never been to Rome.

3 Cf. IIa IIae, q.97, a.2 ad 2: “Knowledge of the divine will or of goodness is two-fold. One is speculative whereas the other is an affective or experiential knowledge, as when a person experiences within himself the savor of divine sweetness and complacency in the divine will.” Again, St. Thomas explains the words of Dionysius (De diu. nom., chap. 2) “patiens divina” as: “not only receiving divine knowledge into the intellect, but also enjoying union with it by the affections.” We have explained this at length in Christian Perfection and Contemplation, p. 271.


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