Actual grace is a concept in Roman Catholic theology of the bestowment of God’s favor and power to those who perform good deeds. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines it as “a supernatural help of God for salutary acts granted in consideration of the merits of Christ” (Pohle, J., Robert Appleton Company, 1909).
The Bible clearly teaches that we are saved by grace. Grace essentially means “undeserved favor.” Both Protestants and Catholics agree about the general meaning of grace; however, they often mean something very different by the words saved by grace.
When Protestants speak of salvation by grace, they mean that our works do not in any way contribute to our salvation. God saves us while we are in our sin and in spite of our sin. God is the One who justifies the ungodly. “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:4–5).
Protestants believe that the sacrifice of Christ on behalf of the sinner is all that is needed for God to justify the sinner. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:23–26).
Although Roman Catholic theology affirms salvation by grace, it also cautions that God cannot simply justify someone who is a sinner, for that would be unjust. There must be a sufficient reason for God to justify the sinner. Even though the sinner never “deserves” it in an absolute sense, he must show himself to be on the right trajectory so that ultimate salvation would be warranted. It is in this context that Catholic theology talks about “actual grace.”
Catholic theology teaches that a Roman Catholic must cooperate with the grace of God in order to achieve salvation. This grace comes many times throughout each day, encouraging the individual to do things that will ultimately warrant salvation. The urge to read the Bible, go to church, resist temptation, do a good deed, etc., are instances of actual grace from God. According to Catholicism, when the individual embraces that grace and follows the promptings, he or she is then on the way to attaining salvation “by grace.” This concept preserves “salvation by grace” in name but places the final attainment of salvation upon the sinner to warrant it—which is not in fact salvation by grace.