God’s Salvation: Law and Grace

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The moral law, rooted in divine wisdom and written on the human heart, is fulfilled in our life with Christ

by Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori

Bishop William E. Lori

Bishop William E. Lori

The 29th installment of Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori’s faith formation program addresses questions 415-433 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

When public figures defend a moral truth, they are likely to be accused of imposing their religious beliefs on others — as, for example, when a politician defends unborn human life from the evil of abortion. It is true that religious faith may clarify moral teachings and allow us to see their importance in this life and in the life to come. Nonetheless, many — if not most — moral teachings are accessible to human reason. How can this be? The answer lies in a correct understanding of the moral law.

As the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, the moral law is not simply a set of human rules but “a work of divine Wisdom” that shows the way to true happiness and teaches us to shun those things that lead us away from God (415). St. Paul teaches that the demands of the moral law are written on the human heart by the Creator (see Rom 2:15). This share in God’s wisdom is called “natural law,” which gives us an inherent sense of right and wrong and forms the basis for the rights and duties of individuals and communities (416).


Because of sin, not everyone clearly perceives the natural law (417). For this reason, St. Augustine said, God “wrote on the tables of the law what men did not read in their hearts.” The Ten Commandments summarize the moral teaching of the Old Testament, also known as “the Old Law.” In this context, “old” does not mean outmoded, useless, or no longer true. Rather, it means that the moral teaching of the Old Testament was the first stage of the revealed law, which in turn was completed and fulfilled by the Gospel.

The Ten Commandments express moral truths known naturally by reason, thus verifying the natural law. In laying the foundations for the human vocation to love God and neighbor, they are “a privileged expression of the natural law” (Catechism, 2070; Compendium, 418). In teaching unchanging moral truth, they are also a “tutor” that prepared the way for the Gospel. The Old Law, however, remains imperfect. While it teaches moral truth, it does not provide the strength of the Holy Spirit (419).

“The New Law,” which can be found in the New Testament, especially in the Beatitudes, was both proclaimed and fulfilled by Christ (420-421). Here the word “new” does not indicate a rupture with the Old Law. Jesus said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but fulfill” (Mt 5:17). The Gospel is new because it originated in the person of Christ, the incarnate Son of God, whose teaching, death and resurrection fully revealed the Father’s love. Through the Holy Spirit, believers share in Christ’s risen life, are drawn into intimacy with the Father and are enabled to love others as they are loved by Christ (420).

Indeed, Christ came to “justify” us in the power of the Holy Spirit. Justification is God’s mercy at work to make us holy by granting us remission of our sins and a share in his goodness. We are justified by the grace of the Holy Spirit, which Christ won for us by his death and resurrection. God freely gives us grace, a share in his divine life that enables us to respond to his love and to live in his friendship. This is called “sanctifying” or “deifying” grace because it makes us participants in the life of the Trinity. This gift is supernatural because it cannot be learned or earned; it can only be received from God. Sanctifying grace is “habitual” because we are to remain in the state of grace throughout our lives (423).

In addition, there are “actual” graces that help us do God’s will in the various circumstances of our lives. Each sacrament also confers a special grace on us (424). Ultimately, God’s grace does not infringe on our human freedom but frees us to fulfill our deepest yearnings to share his life and love (425).


Although we cannot earn or merit eternal life, we can lead virtuous lives through God’s grace. In other words, once we are in the state of grace, God freely grants us his reward for a life of virtue. We are to strive for virtue not only for ourselves, but to strengthen the entire Church (426-427). All the baptized are called to holiness, that is, the fullness of love brought about through intimacy with Christ (428).

The Church helps us attain holiness by teaching the truth of Christ and leading us to share in his saving love through the sacraments. Filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, we can come to see morality not as a grim duty, but as a response of praise to the God of love. Among the Church’s teachings are precepts that help us understand what it means to be a practicing Catholic. These include: attending Mass on Sunday and holy days of obligation, as well as refraining from work or other activities that might prevent us from worshipping on those days; confessing one’s sins and receiving the sacrament of penance at least once each year; receiving holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter season; observing the Church’s discipline with regard to fasting and abstinence; and helping to provide for the material needs of the Church according to one’s abilities (430-432).

When our lives reflect the truth, goodness and beauty of Christ’s love, people around us are drawn to the Gospel and to the person of Christ (433). Indeed, all of us are called both to holiness and to the work of evangelization.