Merit

Our friend from over at 1517 has relocated to the area.  Welcome.  In perusing his fine website, I ran across the following statement:

In the sixteenth century, Luther stood his ground where Paul, many centuries earlier, had done so. Despite the light that the New Perspective claims to have cast on Paul’s doctrine, I am still persuaded that Luther actually got it right and that Paul thought about justification as the church, following Luther, has always judged that he did and not as the New Perspective now imagines. The Judaizers then and the medieval in Luther’s day alike thought that by the keeping of the law, salvation could be merited. Paul first, then Luther later, rejected this, and Luther rejected it because Paul had done so. The reason, quite simply, was their far deeper, far more realistic, and, indeed, far more biblical reckoning with the depths of human sin, its pervasiveness, and the innate corruption it has wrought throughout human nature. How, then, are humans to render up an obedience to the law which is not itself corrupt? The apple of our best works, while rosy and attractive on the outside, is always inhabited by a worm that has destroyed it from within.

It is true that some medievals thought that salvation could be “merited”.  In fact, non-medieval contemporary Catholics also believe that salvation can be “merited”, since it is what the Catholic Church teaches.  And also happens to be what the Catholic Church has always taught, at least from the time of St. Augustine.  And that is because it was the teaching of St. Augustine, the Doctor of Grace himself, that salvation could be “merited”.  The current catechism has a short section on merit, quoting St. Augustine, the Council of Trent, and St. Therese of Lisieux.

So, is it true then that this means that Luther and Paul were more “biblical” than the Medievals and Non-Medievals (MaNoM)?  Well, the first course of action would be to check out what the Catholic Church actually teaches about merit.  More precisely, does the Catholic Church teach, as the above quote certainly implies, that our works are good enough to get to heaven on our own steam?  Let us peruse that short section on merit, then, shall we?

First, the section starts of with a quote from St. Augustine, which pretty well sums up the entire Church teaching on merit:

You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts.

The Catholic Church does teach that God “recompenses” (i.e., rewards; cf. CCC 2006) our actions with “the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life” (cf. CCC 2010).  Oy.  That does sound really bad.  It almost warrants reckless throwing of the P-word.  But wait!  There’s more to the story.  Our Protestant friends usually miss the next part of the story.  A series of caveats, if you will, that significantly alter the shape of the story.

Caveat 1: With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator (CCC 2007).

That’s really pretty self-explanatory and obvious.  God is, you know, the eternally self-existent entity from whom we have received our entire being.  We have no rights, in the strict sense, for we have received everything as gift.  I think this statement by the catechism really gets to the root of the charge that is brought against the Catholic Church in the above quote.  I think our interlocutor really does think we think that we can place God in our debt.  The idea that we can is ludicrous.  And the notion that we think that is equally so.

Caveat 2: Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion (CCC 2010).

This is also a pretty significant statement, seen as it establishes that our salvation is entirely dependent upon God’s “initiative”.  This is the catechism referring to “operative” grace, that which precedes any cooperation on our part.  Without it, we would remain dead in our sins.  Without the prevenient operation of God’s grace in our souls, we would perish. This again undercuts the vague implication above that Catholics are unaware of the “biblical” data concerning man’s rotten state of affairs.

Caveat 3: [T]he merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit (CCC 2008).

This is the part where the fullness of St. Augustine’s teaching is captured.  “In crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts.”  According to Augustine and the Catholic Church, man’s merits are “due to God” for they are his “gifts”, from the work of the Holy Spirit in predisposing us for and assisting us in our works (cf. Eph 2:10).

Caveat 4: The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace (CCC 2008).

Having established that there is no “strict right” to merit on man’s part, and that God’s grace precedes all merit, the Church then goes on to say that God nevertheless “freely chooses” to work with us.  We are God’s co-workers (cf. 1 Cor 3:9).  In his grace, he chooses to work with us.  And thus our merits are his gifts.  In other words, our merits do not bring us to God, but they flow from a freely-given relationship with him.

Really, what the teaching of the Church about merits is seeking to preserve is the “biblical” understanding that God rewards his children.  It seems strange to think that the Bible teaches us that God rewards us for what we do.  But it does.  The Synoptic Gospels are littered with promises of God rewarding us:

  • [Y]our Father who sees in secret [i.e., that you have given alms in secret] will reward you (Mat 6:4)
  • [W]hoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward (Mark 9:41)
  • [L]eap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven (Luke 6:23)

If Jesus taught us about our rewards, certainly St. Paul does too:

  • Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward (Col 3:23-24)
  • If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward (1 Cor 3:14)
  • [W]hoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Heb 11:6)

And St. John too:

  • Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward (2 John 1:8)
  • The nations raged, but thy wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, for rewarding thy servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear thy name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth. (Rev 11:18)

OK.  So, granted that the notion of reward is “biblical”.  God rewards us for our works.  But how do we understand this “reward” if we are also told, as we are, that our works are as “filthy rags”, or that “without me you can do nothing”?  The simple solution, and it is the one that St. Augustine worked out and the one that the Catholic Church has held since then, is that, apart from God’s “predispositions and assistance” (i.e., the working of the Holy Spirit), our works are “destroyed from within” (to quote our interlocutor).  However, endowed with the mighty power of the Holy Spirit working within us, our works are worthy of being rewarded.  Which is to say, our works “merit” a reward, “for God is at work in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (cf. Phil 2:13).  This Catholic understanding of merit is really the only way to do full justice to the biblical data that our works will be rewarded, even though (without the power of Christ) they are “dead”.

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~ by Rob on December 20, 2008.

One Response to “Merit”

  1. Dude, you keeping getting better at this. What a well composed response.

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