Grace Does Not “Build On” Nature

Giotto, Birth of the Virgin

Giotto, Birth of the Virgin

This Monday is the Feast of the Nativity of Mary (Mary’s Birthday). It is a nice time to reflect on the adage, “grace perfects nature.”

The phrase is often incorrectly paraphrased, “grace builds on nature,” and understood to mean something like, “God helps those who help themselves.” Someone might say, God will “perfect” your virtue, but “grace builds on nature,” so you need to take the first steps.


This understanding of “grace builds on nature” is a heresy, called semi-Pelagianism.

Pelagius was a British (or perhaps Irish) monk in the early 400s. He went to Rome, where he was known for his saintly life and theological writings. But sometimes a saintly life goes with bad ideas – because one’s saintliness is not as great as it appears, or because one’s practices are better than one’s description of them.

On the practical level, Pelagius argued that holiness was ours for the taking. God has done his part. You just need to “try harder!”

On the theological level, he argued that original sin is not really an infection, but more like a bad example. The Gospel, then, heals us only by teaching us how to try harder. We need a better example, but we don’t need our souls to be healed.


St. Augustine and others responded with concern – based on both better self-knowledge and better knowledge of Scripture.

We need more than good example. We need grace. Pelagianism became understood as the heresy of denying the need for grace.

But the controversy went on for several years, allowing the argument to become clearer, and giving the Church the chance to think through more carefully what Scripture and the Tradition really taught about grace.

“Semi-Pelagianism” refers to various attempts to modify the Pelagian account so that grace plays some role. But these attempts are called “semi-Pelagian” because they don’t take grace seriously enough to account for the Christian faith.

So the Pelagians said, “nature is grace!” Our ability to just try harder is grace – and then it’s up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that.

“Scripture is grace!” God gives us the gift of his teaching – and the rest is up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that.

“Plus, faith is grace!” Knowing that Scripture is the example we should follow is a gift – and the rest is up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that. This is all still “semi-Pelagianism.”

Grace does not “build on” nature. Grace is not something that God gives us to get us started, nor is grace something God gives us after we get ourselves started. Grace goes all the way through.


Grace does not “build on” nature, it perfects nature. To understand this, think of the birth of Mary. What are we celebrating here?

We are celebrating promise. This little child has the possibility of union with Christ. She has the potential for Christ to be conceived in her womb. – human nature is such that Christ can be united in it.

And she has the potential to be Queen of Heaven. Grace will not do away with this person, will not replace her with something else. It will perfect her. In this child we see the possibilities of human nature.

Here the “nature” in “grace perfects nature” is not Mary’s natural effort. It’s her self. To say that grace perfects nature is to say that it is she herself who will be fulfilled by grace: her human desires and potentialities.

To celebrate the baby Mary is to think that this creature, who has not yet done anything, is the kind of thing that can become Queen of Heaven. It is to see the promise built into human nature.


Celebrating the birth of Mary also points us backwards nine months, to the Immaculate Conception. We see that before she has made any effort at all, already God is at work in her, healing the wounds of original sin and leading her to the life of heaven.

Thus the birth of Mary points both backward, to the work of grace that precedes her natural effort, and forward, to the artwork that grace will bring about in her.

But it also points to the present: to Mary herself, as the human being in whom grace operates. The “nature” in “grace perfects nature” points to that reality: her, herself.

It is here that human effort comes in: not that our effort adds anything to God’s grace, but that it is precisely in our personal transformation, in our nature, that grace happens.

How could you better meditate on the awesome work of God’s grace?



  1. We can emphasize how Pelagius was wrong and forget how danger can swing in other direction – God will give, I just have to be pasive amd wait for the grace to come. If grace acomplishes everything, if it preceeds everything, where is there room for human activity, work, effort? Where is responsibility? If grace is all in everything, then one can sa y “oh, I am a sinner because God doesn’t give me His grace” The same goes for Mary – easy for her, not to sin, she was safe from sin because grace made her like that. But I am not like Mary, God did not give me that grace, I cannot follow her example because WE ARE different, she got special treatment, did God love her more just like that or was she a new creature?
    I am not saying Pelagius was right, but I don”t think he was the bad guy, he put too much emphazis on humab effort, but one can also put too little emphazis on human effort.
    That sort of Grace man comes to resent because in that view, he is always an object before God. But God made human a subject, not object. Human has autonomy and if he has autonomy, he has free will, if he has free will, he must put effort, he must enter dialogue with God even if he does not have initiative. God is the one who always says “you” first but it must be man who responds “you” to God so that it can be “you and me, togehter.”
    Otherwise, God would only loce himself in the man, and that would be selsfiah and narcissist God.

  2. I have the same difficulty as Marlow concerning grace vs.human effort. I cannot express myself as does Karlos, but I amailed confused as to where grace “ends” and human nature (effort) is necessary for sanctification.

  3. First, this is not an easy issue. I hate to respond in a comment, because obviously it’s not going to be a sufficient answer. All I can do is point to the deeper complexity.

    I think modernity pitches us this question as if it were an easy answer, as if we could name where grace ends and human nature begins, or as if our subjectivity were easily defined as the absence of God. The relationship between God and us is much more mysterious than that.

    Heresy, someone said, is like juggling. You only have two hands for three balls. The moment you grab hold of two of them, you drop the third. The answer to this question is in keeping alive something we cannot grasp.

    That something is God. God is not like other things. If I took over your will, that would deprive you of your freedom. But God is on a different plane of being, beyond being. It’s not that somehow it’s “fair” when God takes over your will–it’s that this is totally different from if I took over your will. The best we can do to define God is with creation (which doesn’t define God). Somehow, creation is only God’s work–and the result is the reality of the creature. It’s not 50/50, that’s not how God and his creation are compared. In every other relation we know, the activity of one must be the passivity of the other. In this relation, the activity of God brings about the activity (or actuality) of the creature. He doesn’t get in the way of our reality, he brings it about.

    So too here, all I can say is that grace is nothing but human effort. It’s not that there’s grace acting “over there,” and so I don’t have to act “over here.” The only thing–the only thing–that grace does is bring about my action. I can’t sit back and say, “well, God is not making me act.” All I can do is act, because that’s what grace is, my action–as creation is my existence, nothing else. That’s not how other relations work, but that’s what we mean by God.

    The concern that people say, “well then, God just doesn’t give me grace” is a valid one. We do have to avoid that, and if the way I put things makes someone think that they should sit around saying, “God doesn’t give me grace,” then please, throw away my way of putting things. But don’t replace it with some simplistic thing about “where grace ends” in order to establish human autonomy. Calvinism (or at least, when Calvinism turns to heresy, which at it’s best, it doesn’t) sees grace as happening somehow outside of me, as if my salvation is independent of my action. Catholicism says grace happens nowhere but in my transformation, my action.

    The flipside–what I tried to refer to in this post, very briefly, with the reference to Augustine’s personal experience–is that those of us who have experienced the wonders of our own autonomy are the first to say, the last thing I want is to be free from God. God help me! The Christian prays, “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me,” not, “Alright, God, I’ve got this, I’m in charge now.” The Christian is one who knows that when I’m in charge, it’s always a disaster. I don’t want to be in charge. I want God to work in me. The emphasis can’t be “we don’t have to.” The emphasis is, “God is at work in us.”

    Finally: approach this question from a different angle. Perhaps I confused issues in this post, but my intention was to write about what “grace perfects nature” means. That’s a pretty good dictum, and it’s the one Thomas Aquinas uses to play out this whole dynamic. Grace doesn’t tack something on, above or beneath, my human action. Rather, human nature, and human action, is where grace happens. There can be no grace that doesn’t happen within my humanity. There can be no grace that doesn’t happen within my freedom, since that is an essential part of my humanity. Grace doesn’t move my hand while my will resists. Grace is my choosing, my free decisions, my healing, and my being ever more and more human. Anything that makes me sound less human, anything that contradicts my nature, is not grace. God created my being and my nature, and God works only within my being and my nature. Grace does not destroy nature, grace perfects nature.

  4. Here is what I have read directly from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1999-2000-2005):
    1999 -The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it (incidently, when I was reading your words I got from it that Our Blessed Mother that she needed healing from Oringinal Sin. Our faith teaches us that she was without original sin so why would Our Blessed Mother need healing from it?). It is the ‘santifying grace’ or ‘deifying grace’ recieved in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification.
    Therefore if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed
    away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ
    reconciled us to himself.
    2000- “Sancifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. ‘Habitual grace’, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s call, is distinguished from ‘actual graces’ which refer to God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of santification.
    2001- The ‘preparaton of man’ for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, ‘”since he who completes his work by cooperation with our will began by working so that we might will it:
    Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing.”‘
    2002- God’s free initiative demands ‘man’s free response’, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him. The soul only enters freely into the communion of love. God immediately touches and directly moves the heart of man. He has placed in man a longing for truth and goodness that only he can satisfy. The promises of eternal life respond, beyond all hope, to this desire:
    If at the end of your very good works…, you rested on the seventh day, it
    was to foretell by the voice of your book that that at the end of our works,
    indeed ‘”very good”‘ since you have given them to us, we shall also rest in
    you on the sabbath of eternal life.
    2003- Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church.

    Other graces are ‘sacramental graces,’ special graces, charisms, graces of state (explanations can be found in 2003-2004 of the Catachism).

    Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace ‘escapes our experience’ and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved. However, according to the Lord’s words—“Thus you will know them by their fruits”—reflection on God’s blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us and spurs us on to an ever greater faith and an attitude of trustful poverty.
    A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St. Joan of Arc to
    to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: “Asked if she
    knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: “‘If I am not, may it please
    God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.'”

  5. Grace actually “builds on” nature. The word “perfects” is actually synonymous to “builds on”. To “build on” could mean to be founded upon human nature. It builds on nature meaning that God gives it freely based on our intrinsic characteristics (in terms of “good” and sinful) as humans. Look at it this way: I believe God will not give the graces that are specifically meant for angels (eg. Controlling the weather) to humans. This is not to say that one can’t pray for God to change the weather on special occasions. Furthermore, that is why, I can say things like “By the grace of God, I’ll come to Bible Study.” It doesn’t mean that God does all the work while I sit back, but attests to the fact that, without God’s grace, I won’t be alive in the first place to get there. In other words, I can only control certain few variables, and God has control over all the variables. Look at the apostles for instance, God used them in spite of their different personalities, and didn’t make Peter become John, nor did John become Peter while doing the Work/Will of God.
    To God and our Father be all the glory both now and forever. Amen

  6. Human freedom…God will not take the place of our own responsibility. As grace perfects our human nature from being broken (ex opere opera-to), the same grace needs human cooperation and proper disposition for it to work in us ( ex opere operantis)..thus, at the same time, grace works through nature.

  7. We have free will, given to us because He loves us, and He loved us first. Christ is the gift to all humanity, but in that free will, we still need to do our part. We need to stretch our hands and accept the (free) gift. As long as we are able to stretch out our hands, to receive the Gift, God will require us to stretch our hands. God will always meet us at the end of our efforts, but it must be at the end of our efforts. Where man comes to his end (to the end of his rope), there God begins. Why did Christ asked the blind man to go AND wash in the pool of Siloam after putting mudd over his eyes? For this miracle to take place, as the blind man was able to do, Christ told him to go and wash, in effect, if he had faith, by doing so, the blind man was essentially stretching his hands to receive the promised gift, the miracle of seeing. After going and washing, there Jesus “met” him at the pool and the miracle was completed. In this instance, the blind man was still able to do his part, as asked of him, to claim what was promised to him, and how he obeyed according to his faith. As Jesus often said, “Let it be done according to your faith.” We still need to do work, as God requires us to do, keeping in mind that our faith is manifested in our works. We are also instructed to “with trembling and fear continue to work out your salvation.” Grace in us is the work of the Holy Spirit and always acts in truth. As Christ always pointed to his Heavenly Father, so the Holy Spirit, in truth, always points to the Son. So then, the Kingdom of God is built by His grace. For we know that apostle Paul was Christ’s chosen instrument, and relied heavyly on the sufficiency Christ, through grace alone.

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