Living and dying in the grace of Christ is final perseverance. The simplicity of this description has a twofold merit. It bypasses, as exceptional cases, the situation of the baptized who never reaches the age of reason and the situation of the sinner who finds reconciliation with God only at the hour of death. It stresses the two essentially related elements that constitute the grace of final perseverance. The first is a certain continuance in grace. This depends on God's special help. The second is the fact of death in the state of grace. This depends on God's special protection. St. Thomas combines these elements in defining final perseverance as "the abiding in good to the end of life" (St. Thomas, Summa theologiae, 1a2ae, 109.10). The Council of Trent speaks of "the great gift of final perseverance" [H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer (32d ed. Freiburg 1963) 1566] and links it with the mystery of predestination:
No one … so long as he lives in this mortal life, ought to be so presumptuous about the deep mystery of divine predestination as to decide with certainty that he is definitely among the number of the predestined, as though it were true that, because he is justified, either he cannot sin again, or, if he does sin, he should promise himself certain repentance. [H. Denzinger, ibid., 1540; see, for tr. of this and subsequent passages, J. F. Clarkson et al., The Church Teaches (St. Louis 1955)]
It is important to distinguish between perseverance and final perseverance. Many receive grace who do not persevere in grace to the end of life (St. Thomas, Summa theologiae, 1a2ae, 109.10). It is likewise important to distinguish between the power to persevere in grace and actual perseverance. Every just man receives the grace of potential perseverance [H. Denzinger, ibid., 1536]. It does not follow that every just man actually perseveres in grace until death. These distinctions become clear when the mystery of final perseverance is placed in its proper theological context. This is the task of this article. At the end, attention is given to the question, how does the just man obtain the all important grace of final perseverance?
Special help of God. Theologians commonly teach that the justified adult, who has made a fundamental option for God and is habitually disposed to the avoidance of serious sin, has the need of special help from God—if he is to persevere in justice. As early as the 5th century, it was the authentic teaching of the Church that "no one, not even he who has been renewed by the grace of Baptism, has sufficient strength to overcome the snares of the devil and to vanquish the concupiscence of the flesh unless he obtains help from God each day to persevere in a good life" [H. Denzinger, ibid., 241]. The Council of Trent speaks of "the special help of God" in this regard (ibid. 1572). This canon is open to various interpretations [see A. Michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. A. Vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50) 12.1:1283–86]. Sacred Scripture, by teaching that man's life is warfare (Eph 6.11–17) and by insisting on the need for prayer (Mt6.13), makes men very much aware that sanctifying grace, while making them God's sons, does not remove the weaknesses of fallen nature. Special help from God is a moral necessity. While the Church has never defined this special help with any precision, theologians usually speak of it in terms of God's providential protection in the external order of a man's life (see St. Thomas Aquinas, C. gent. 3.155) and the actual graces that illuminate the intellect and give inspiration to the will. Whatever its nature, this special help is given to all the just. St. Paul writes, "But the Lord is faithful, who will strengthen you and guard you from evil" (2 Thes 3.3; cf. 1 Thes5.23–24; Rom 8.31–33; 1 Cor 10.13). The Church also authoritatively expresses this teaching by quoting St. Augustine: "God 'does not abandon' those who have been justified by his grace 'unless they abandon Him first"'[H. Denzinger, ibid., 1537].
Death in the State of Grace. So much for the grace of potential perseverance, a great benefit from God. Theologians speak of an even greater benefit, the grace of final perseverance. This grace, inestimable because of the utter seriousness of man's hour of death, is the coinciding of the state of grace with the hour of death. It is the watchful protection of God, who so arranges—in the inscrutable mystery of His providential designs—the events of a man's life that the moment of death comes while he is persevering in the grace of Christ. Dying in the state of grace is no accident. It is God's most special gift, most special because it is distinct from all other graces and benefits, and most special because it is had only by those who are saved. One is face to face here with the mystery of God's grace and man's liberty. If a man dies in the grace of Christ, the thanks belong to God. If a man dies in serious sin, the fault is his own. Theologians disagree in their ultimate explanations of this mystery because of differing views on predestination and the mystery of efficacious grace. However, all Catholic theologians agree that final perseverance is a greater benefit from God than the grace of potential perseverance. The magisterium of the Church has never solemnly defined the matter. It is the common teaching of Catholic doctrine.
The Bible contains no explicit teaching on the grace of final perseverance. The doctrine, however, is an expression in theological categories of the biblical theme of divine election. The question developed in the consciousness of the Church at the time of the struggles with the Pelagians. As the theologian reflects on this doctrine at the present time, it is a theological conclusion that flows from the mystery of divine predestination and efficacious grace.
How does the just man obtain the grace of final perseverance? Does he merit this conjoining of grace and death? The answer is in the negative. The good works of a man in grace are gifts from God. They are also the good merits of the man himself. According to the Council of Trent, good works merit an "increase of grace, life everlasting, and, provided that a man dies in the state of grace, the attainment of that life everlasting and an increase of glory" [H. Denzinger, ibid., 1582]. As this text illustrates, final perseverance is not an object of merit. Rather it is the condition for meriting the attainment of everlasting life. St. Thomas gives us the explanation [Summa theologiae, 1a2ae, 114.9]. The object of merit is the term of a good action, not the principle. Final perseverance depends on God's action that inclines the just man to good works until death. This motion from God is the principle of the good action. Thus, final perseverance cannot be merited. It is the very ground for meriting the attainment of eternal life. How, then, is the just man to persevere to the end, if such a grace is not the object of merit? The answer is prayer. The Scriptures give assurance that God infallibly hears the prayers that seek the true well-being of the just man (Mt 7.7; Mk 11.24; Lk 11.9). The theologians have discussed the conditions necessary for such infallible prayer [see St. Thomas, Summa theologiae, 2a2ae, 85 ad 2]. The grace of final perseverance is the supreme object of the just man's prayer. The just man will receive this grace—if he assiduously seeks it in true prayer.
See Also: death (theology of); grace, articles on; predestination, articles on.
Bibliography: a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50) 12.1:1256–1304. k. jÜssen, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65); suppl., Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und Kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 2:123–124. thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1a2ae, 114.9. j. jaroszewicz, De dono perseverantiae finalis (Kielce 1932). s. gonzÁlez, Sacrae theologiae summa, ed. Fathers of the Society of Jesus, Professors of the Theological Faculties in Spain, 4 v. (Madrid 1958–62); Biblioteca de autores cristianos (Madrid 1945– ) 3.3:60–70. h. lange, De gratia (Freiburg 1929).
[j. j. connelly]