What the Church Means by “Merit”

For most of my Evangelical family of faith (I am an Evangelical who entered the Roman communion in 1987), the very word “merit” as a theological term is as sinister as it is (for most lay Catholics) unintelligible and disused. At best, many Evangelicals feel a sort of uneasy truce with Catholic belief since it appears to them that merit “went out with Vatican II” and is therefore no longer really taught by the Church (a misperception abetted by lay Catholic ignorance of the Faith). But the truce is very uneasy. For the fact that merit was ever taught at all by the Church is a cause of deep misgiving and suspicion. And the sickening revelation that merit is still taught by the Church can often cause an Evangelical with a certain guilty attraction to Rome to bolt (telling himself as he runs that he has had a narrow escape). Thus, an apologist for the Church, speaking to Evangelicals, ought to be aware beforehand that any discussion of the Church’s claim to teach salvation by grace through faith will surely run into an objection from someone concerning merit. If the objector is friendly, they will generously assert that, once upon a time, the Church taught salvation by works (meaning merit) but has, under the lash of Protestant criticism, recently returned to its senses (though it must abandon its claim to infallibility on the ash heap of repentance). If the objector is not so friendly, he will point out that the Church, still teaching merit as it in fact does, is stiff-necked and apostate since it preaches a gospel of works righteousness specifically cursed by St. Paul (Galatians 1:8).

I know these objections personally. And now that I am a Catholic I still encounter this deep suspicion of merit among my Evangelical friends, most recently on the Internet. There I was, having a fine discussion with someone about the Church’s insistence on the necessity of God’s grace for salvation (contra Pelagianism). I had written, “I certainly do not believe that we earn grace by having faith or doing nice things” when suddenly a fellow netter (we’ll call him Martin), replied with what he took to be a zinger from the Council of Trent:

“Canon 32. If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory, let him be anathema.”

Martin concluded from this, “It appears that those justified get (‘merit an increase of’) grace for doing nice things.”

Now this deserves a straight reply since it touches on the nerve of what Peter Kreeft calls the most important question in the world: What must I do to be saved? It appears to many Christians that this teaching of Trent says “We get our salvation the old-fashioned way: We earn it.” And if it does, then as a Christian, I quite agree with them that Trent falls under the curse spoken by Paul against “anyone, even an angel” who preaches a gospel other than the one the Apostles preached.

But… does “merit” mean “earned grace?”

In answering such a question, we must remember that if we are to use words properly we must know what the speaker means by them, not simply react viscerally or interpret anachronistically. After all, words change in meaning. A man announcing (in the 1870s) “I am gay!” did not mean the same thing as a man making a similar announcement today.

Likewise, we must remember that “merit” has changed in meaning from the way classical medieval theology understood it. On the lips of the Council of Trent, merit does not mean “earned grace” or “do it yourself salvation.” Nor does it mean “good deeds to supplement Jesus’ inadequate saving work.”

What then does the word “merit” mean in 1990s terminology? In the words of one of the foremost Catholic theologians of the 20th Century (Hans Urs Von Balthasar), the best modern equivalent for what the medieval and renaissance Church meant by merit is “fruitfulness.” (A term Evangelicals are abundantly familiar with from John 15 and other Scriptures.) Now “fruitfulness” (as all Evangelicals know) refers to the outworking of God’s grace in our lives, both in changing us into the image of Christ and in “bearing fruit for the Kingdom” by, say, winning hearts for Christ, feeding the hungry, caring for the needy, etc. None of this (as I learned long ago in Evangelicaldom) is “works salvation” but is simply the way in which we participate in the divine life, go “from glory to glory” and cooperate with the sanctifying power of Christ. With that in mind, let’s now look at the Trent quote above and see what we can make of it.

The Council says that “the gifts of God are also the good merits of him justified.” Is this saying “Salvation means God does half and we do half?” No. It is saying something far more radical. It is saying that God does it all and we do it all. Following Paul (who urged the Philippians to “work our your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose”), the Council asserts that the fruit borne by the believer is real fruit which is really and truly given by God and therefore really and truly a part of the believer’s life. Instead of seeing salvation as “snow on a dunghill” (a mere legal decree of righteousness which gets us to heaven yet which leaves us unchanged in our inner being), the Council sees salvation as a process which really changes us in our inner being and conforms us to the image of Christ.

So who could disagree with that? Well, nobody–in practice. Least of all Evangelicals who are quite enthusiastic about the inner transformation which the Holy Spirit is working in us and which we work out by our active cooperation. Yet, curiously, I have talked to numerous Evangelicals who speak as though some sort of inner theological switch is thrown in their brain when the Catholicese topic of merit and our good works is raised. Then, as in the case of my Evangelical friend “Ted,” the belief suddenly reverts to saying (in his words, “Grace IS alone and apart from our deeds BY DEFINITION. (see Romans 4:4-6)”. And this in flat contradiction to James 2:24 which says that faith (by which we apprehend grace) is dead apart from deeds. What is the confusion here?

I believe the confusion is that, though Evangelicals practice and understand it at an experiential level, there is nonetheless a wide failure to grasp the meaning of the Incarnation at a theological level. The above statement (and countless others I have heard from well-intended Evangelicals) speaks as though the Incarnation is for all practical purposes non-existent when we are discussing theology. In saying “Grace is alone” (contra the Catholic demand for deeds) many Evangelical believers unfortunately end up speaking of the new life of Christ as though it were a sort of Bic lighter flicked in the soul at one instant in a believer’s life which now burns eternally in a perfect and immortal bubble somewhere deep inside. Nothing else matters. What you do doesn’t matter. Whether it has any effect on the rest of your being doesn’t matter. Whether you cooperate with the transforming grace of God doesn’t matter. Oh sure, you should and any Evangelical worth his salt does (often with a zeal that should shame a lot of us Catholics). But despite this wisdom of the heart, the theological head says that if you don’t incarnate grace, you’re still, in some Pickwickian sense, “saved.” And such a non-incarnational view of the faith has consequences–particularly for Evangelicals trying to form a coherent theology. Thus, Ted goes on to say, “According to RCC doctrine, grace is apportioned to us through the seven sacraments, whereas the Protestant position flows from Galatians 5:5 which states that ‘we await this justification we hope for and only faith can yield it.'”

In other words, for Ted (and thousands like him) “faith” and “grace” and all other “truly spiritual” things are (intellectually at least) pitted against “unspiritual” physical things (like sacraments and human beings and human good deeds). Now contrary to popular myth it is not Christianity but gnosticism which slices the universe up in the categories “spiritual=disembodied=good/unspiritual=physical=bad”. But Ted nevertheless holds that the words “only faith” imply that human good deeds (whether sacraments or helping little old ladies across the road) necessarily oppose the gift of faith since this is to add a physical embodiment to the “spiritual” (read “disembodied”) faith he gnostically equates with purity.

In reply, the Church points out that following this wrongheaded division between physical and spiritual to its logical conclusion pits Ted against the Incarnation itself. For Catholic theology sees God continually manifesting grace through his creatures. And that is because the purest and most fundamental expression of grace is Jesus of Nazareth, the spiritual Word made very physical flesh. Following this spectacular display of spiritual grace in physical form, the Church (in obedience to Christ) has always seen grace embodied, love enacted, faith incarnate in deeds. Thus, like the great Protestant writer, C.S. Lewis, Rome believes that separating faith and works and pitting them against each other is like asking which blade on the scissors does the cutting. As Ted believes, so also does Rome believe that “all is grace.” But grace is and must be made flesh.

Trent, then, insists that salvation is incarnational. Just as the Word is made flesh, so (in us) grace is enfleshed in real, solid, tangible change and the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). For the very essence of the saving gospel is that it is to really bear fruit in our lives and become kneaded into our full humanity. Thus, what the Council means is that our good fruit (or merits in 16th Century speak) really are ours as well as God’s great gift. When we, under grace, do a good thing it is really we who do it… because God willed that we do it. (A truth my Evangelical friends believe as much as Trent–when they are not arguing against Rome.)

The Council then goes on to teach that “the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, truly merits an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory.” This is the real core of Evangelical worries. Especially the bit about “meriting an increase of grace.” So let’s unpack this dense language for a moment.

First and foremost, the Council teaches quite plainly that every good work done is performed “by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is.” Now the basic conclusion to which guys like Martin and Ted jump is “Merit=justification by works apart from grace.” Yet this is Pelagianism, a position repeatedly condemned as heresy by the Church. As the Second Council of Orange says: (Canon 9): “As often as we do good God operates in us and with us, so that we may operate,” (and Canon 20): “Man does no good except that which God brings about and man performs.” In other words, the Church affirms as strongly as Luther, Calvin and my Evangelical pastor that God’s grace is always prior to our good works (or “prevenient” to use theological technobabble). For Trent (as for Evangelicals, fruit (or its Catholicese equivalent “merit”) is always the result, not the initiator, of grace. As Paul says, “We are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” Or as our Lord said, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

But what happens when we bear much fruit? It is to this question that Trent addresses itself in the passage Martin quoted. Essentially, Trent is saying that grace, incarnate in us, has real, tangible and eternal effects on us and our relationship with God according to our cooperation with it. Like the Parable of the Sower, the seed of the word bears fruit depending on the kind of reception we give it. If we freely respond to grace and do good, this changes us and makes us able to respond to more grace (which God, who is still prior) seeks to give. (Repeat steps 1 and 2 as necessary till sinner is perfected and glorified.) We do indeed bear fruit for eternal life. We are indeed rewarded for what we do. Yet it is all the work of grace.

Now so far from being a mere “Romish dogma” this phenomenon of grace, cooperation, growth and further grace is also a fact many great Protestant writers have long recognized. It was, for instance, Lewis again, not Rome, who taught me one of the cardinal principles of discipleship: namely “Virtue, even attempted virtue, brings light. Indulgence [of sinful inclinations] brings fog.” This statement from one of the greatest Protestant writers of 20th Century is, at bottom, indistinguishable from the 16th Century teaching of Trent quoted above. For Lewis says, just like Trent, that grace-induced meritorious actions (there are no other kinds of meritorious actions) lead to an increase of grace. And this fits the biblical witness. For it thoroughly illuminates all the biblical language about God’s rewards for our good deeds (as in the parable of the talents and of the sheep and the goats). Yet it leads us a million miles away from the Pelagian notion that we can put God in our debt. Both Lewis and Rome say (to paraphrase Pascal), “God has instituted, not only prayer, but all good deeds in order to lend his creatures the dignity of being causes.”

And Evangelicals, when they aren’t worrying about Catholic doctrine, are perfectly at home with all this as a matter of lived experience. That’s why countless Evangelicals write books with titles like Faith is a Verb or admonish us to remember (as I was told in dozens of sermons) that “Faith is a muscle.” In short, classic Evangelical practice is essentially Catholic on this point. For it operates on the truth that your relationship with God, like a muscle, gets stronger as you exercise your faith in real and practical ways. Following St. John, both Catholics and Evangelicals believe that love, to be real, must be lived (1 John 4:20). Both (when they are not engaged in debate with each other) believe, like St. James, that faith without real deeds of love is dead (James 2:24-26). And both believe, following the Parable of the Talents and St. Paul, that the more you live out the grace of faith, the deeper and more vibrant it becomes (Matthew 25:21 and 23; 2 Corinthians 3:18). That, and nothing else, is what Trent means when it says that meritorious (or fruitful) works done under grace “truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and… the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory.” This is simply a fancy and nuanced Latin way of saying what St. Paul says in a simple Hebraic way: Sow to the Spirit, reap of the Spirit. Do good, reap good. Sow little, reap little. (Galatians 6:7-9; 2 Corinthians 9:6). For as Jesus says, we will be rewarded according to what we have done. Our actions will have real (and eternal) effects on us and others (Matthew 25:31-46).

And Evangelicals, to judge by their actions as Jesus told us to do (Matthew 7:20), again believe likewise. Which, in the end, is cause for great hope and celebration. For when Catholics take the time to offer a translation of their terminology; when they articulate in Evangelicalese the significance of the Incarnational Principle; when they make clear that separating faith and meritorious works springs from exactly the sort of mentality that wants to split Jesus into the “spiritual” part and the “merely human” part; when they make clear that separating “purely spiritual” faith from the “flesh” of our actions is gnostic, not biblical; then Evangelicals usually drop their quarrel with Rome and say (as many people on the Internet did), “Hey! That makes sense!”

And that is good news. For it means that it is not necessary for Catholics to be ashamed of the supposed sinister or embarrassing implications of Trent’s teaching on merit. Nor is it necessary for Catholics to concede a failure of the Church’s charism of infallibility or some sort of Vatican II “backpedaling” on the matter. What the Church taught at Trent, it teaches still (though not, God be praised, as polemically). Yet happily, on the Evangelical side, it also not necessary for our separated brothers and sisters to give up much in the way of their traditional teaching and practice. For Trent is simply using three dollar words to say pretty much the same sort of stuff I learned from my Protestant mentors about faith as a muscle, virtue bringing light and reaping what you sow. Thus, under the guidance of the Spirit it is really possible for Catholics and Evangelicals to say, concerning faith and merit, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity.”


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