Understanding the Roman Catholic ‘state of grace’

Understanding the Roman Catholic ‘state of grace’

The word ‘grace’ is a simple word; it means getting something good that you don’t deserve. You experience grace when someone gives you a gift. Grace is not something you earnt or worked for; it was simply given to you by someone who loves and cares for you. The concept of grace is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

Yet words can sometimes mean entirely different things to different people. The word “grace”, when heard by someone who has grown up in the Roman Catholic Church, is understood to mean something entirely different, and rather more complicated, than when it is heard by someone used to the kind of definition I gave in the last paragraph.

In Roman Catholic doctrine, when Jesus died and rose again, he won a storehouse of grace for his people. This storehouse of grace is distributed to believers through the ministry of the priests. As you take part in the sacraments, you receive grace from the storehouse Jesus won.

Now, that’s quite different from the simple Biblical description of grace. That’s because this doctrine is not only derived from the Bible, but it is the result of various scholars and Popes over the centuries adding to the simple Biblical teaching.

Related to this ‘storehouse of grace’ idea is the concept of a ‘state of grace’. The Roman Catholic doctrine is that we are born sinful, but when we are baptised in the church, we have our sins washed away and enter into a state of grace. That means that if we were to die after being baptised, we would be OK with God. Baptism is not seen as permanently removing your sin, however. As you continue to sin, you can drop out of a state of grace and be under God’s judgement once more. You return to a state of grace by going to confession, doing whatever penance is necessary, and then regularly taking part in the mass. All of these are seen as sacraments; all of them are ways in which you receive grace from the storehouse Jesus won through the priests and the sacraments. Just before you die, ideally you would receive the last rites (seen as another sacrament) which would return you to a state of grace before you stand before God.

This means, in practice, that a committed Roman Catholic would need to attend mass consistently, regularly go to confession, and even then they might be worried that they are not in a state of grace. How much is enough? The result can be a sense of duty and religion and not a lot of joy in what Jesus has done. The focus shifts from what Jesus has done to all the sacraments and religious duty you have to do to be OK with God.

Grace should be simpler than that. Jesus died for your sins if you trust in Him. This is a gift you receive by the kindness of God (Eph 2:4). There is no middle man. You don’t need to take the sacraments to remain in a state of grace. It is all to do with what God has done for you in Jesus, not what you do through your religion. What Jesus won for us is applied to our hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit, not a priest.

Understanding grace is a freeing thing. If we know that it is all about what God has done, and not what we do, that means we should be joyful. We should be confident about our status before God because it cannot be ruined by our lack of religion or our mistakes. We should want to be involved in church as a response to Jesus’ work, not to remain in God’s good books. Grace, rightly understood, will truly change your life.