The Doctrine of Merit: Feingold, Calvin, and the Church Fathers

Nov 14th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

It has been said that “the reformation was mainly a struggle against the doctrine of merit.” Protestants such as Luther and Calvin denied the possibility of merit, whereas the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent taught that believers in a state of grace can merit eternal life, if they persevere in faith until death. Two weeks ago Professor Lawrence Feingold of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology and author of The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas and his Interpreters and the three volume series The Mystery of Israel and the Church gave a lecture on the subject of merit, to the Association of Hebrew Catholics. This lecture builds on earlier lectures in this series, including “Nature, Grace and Man’s Supernatural End: Feingold, Kline, and Clark,” “Lawrence Feingold on Original Justice and Original Sin,” and “Lawrence Feingold on Sanctifying Grace and Actual Grace.” The audio recordings of the lectures and of the following Q&A sessions, along with outlines of each, are available below. All the mp3s can be downloaded here.

Martyrdom of St. Paul
Giotto di Bondone (c. 1330)

Here I will first present Prof. Feingold’s lecture, and Q&A following the lecture. Then I will examine John Calvin’s position on the subject of merit. Then I will give a brief survey of the Church Fathers’ teaching on merit, the teaching of Scripture on the subject of merit, and a summary of the Catholic teaching on the subject of merit.


I. Lawrence Feingold Lecture on Merit
II. Questions and Answers Following the Lecture
III. John Calvin on Merit
IV. Church Fathers on Merit
V. Scripture on Merit
VI. Catholic Teaching on Merit
VII. Conclusion

Lawrence Feingold

I. Lawrence Feingold Lecture on Merit (November 2, 2011)

The subject of merit is a point of dispute between Protestants and Catholics. Protestants tend to think that the Catholic view of merit is Pelagian. (1′)

What do we mean by ‘merit’? (1′)

Here we are speaking of good works done in a state of grace, in the context of a covenant. (2′)

Biblical Texts on Merit (2′)
Old Testament

Ezekiel 18
Conversion cannot be merited (7′)
Meritorious work is what is done out of agape by one having sanctifying grace; it merits more grace. (8′)
St. Paul on works of the law (9′)

New Testament (10′)

Matthew 25
Rev. 20:13 (25′)

This present life as a trial (26′)

Wisdom 3:1-6 (26′)
Rev. 21:7 (27′)
2 Tim. 4:8 (27′)
Gen. 22:16 (31′)

Theological Reflection on these Texts (32′)

Two kinds of good works: natural good works, and works done in agape (36)
[For the distinction between natural and supernatural, see here.]
Why natural good works (purely human works) cannot merit; the error of Pelagianism.
Protestant’s rejection of merit is an overreaction to Pelagianism.

Why faith alone is not enough, because “if I have all faith … but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13:2) (38′)
The source of merit (39′)

St. Thomas Aquinas addresses this: (41′)

Man without grace may be looked at in two states, as was said above (Question 109, Article 2): the first, a state of perfect nature, in which Adam was before his sin; the second, a state of corrupt nature, in which we are before being restored by grace. Therefore, if we speak of man in the first state, there is only one reason why man cannot merit eternal life without grace, by his purely natural endowments, viz. because man’s merit depends on the Divine pre-ordination. Now no act of anything whatsoever is divinely ordained to anything exceeding the proportion of the powers which are the principles of its act; for it is a law of Divine providence that nothing shall act beyond its powers. Now everlasting life is a good exceeding the proportion of created nature; since it exceeds its knowledge and desire, according to 1 Corinthians 2:9: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man.” And hence it is that no created nature is a sufficient principle of an act meritorious of eternal life, unless there is added a supernatural gift, which we call grace. But if we speak of man as existing in sin, a second reason is added to this, viz. the impediment of sin. For since sin is an offense against God, excluding us from eternal life, as is clear from what has been said above (q. 71, a. 6; q. 113, a. 2), no one existing in a state of mortal sin can merit eternal life unless first he be reconciled to God, through his sin being forgiven, which is brought about by grace. (Summa Theologica I-II q.114 a.2.)

Question: Without the sacrament of confession, how do Protestants receive grace after sin? (42′)(63′)
Baptism of desire

Two kinds of merit: condign and congruous (47′)

Cornelius (50′)
Prayers for others (51′)

St. Thomas explains how man, in a state of grace, can merit eternal life:

Man’s meritorious work may be considered in two ways: first, as it proceeds from free-will; secondly, as it proceeds from the grace of the Holy Ghost. If it is considered as regards the substance of the work, and inasmuch as it springs from the free-will, there can be no condignity because of the very great inequality. But there is congruity, on account of an equality of proportion: for it would seem congruous that, if a man does what he can, God should reward him according to the excellence of his power. If, however, we speak of a meritorious work, inasmuch as it proceeds from the grace of the Holy Ghost moving us to life everlasting, it is meritorious of life everlasting condignly. For thus the value of its merit depends upon the power of the Holy Ghost moving us to life everlasting according to John 4:14: “Shall become in him a fount of water springing up into life everlasting.” And the worth of the work depends on the dignity of grace, whereby a man, being made a partaker of the Divine Nature, is adopted as a son of God, to whom the inheritance is due by right of adoption, according to Romans 8:17: “If sons, heirs also.” (Summa Theologica I-II q.114 a.3)

Sanctifying grace gives a supernatural dignity to those who have it, giving supernatural worth to the acts that flow from grace and charity. (53′)
God crowns His own gifts (54′)

Council of Trent (54′)

Therefore, to men justified in this manner, whether they have preserved uninterruptedly the grace received or recovered it when lost, are to be pointed out the words of the Apostle: Abound in every good work, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. For God is not unjust, that he should forget your work, and the love which you have shown in his name; and, Do not lose your confidence, which hath a great reward. Hence, to those who work well unto the end and trust in God, eternal life is to be offered, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Christ Jesus, and as a reward promised by God himself, to be faithfully given to their good works and merits.

For this is the crown of justice which after his fight and course the Apostle declared was laid up for him, to be rendered to him by the just judge, and not only to him, but also to all that love his coming. For since Christ Jesus Himself, as the head into the members and the vine into the branches, continually infuses strength into those justified, which strength always precedes, accompanies and follows their good works, and without which they could not in any manner be pleasing and meritorious before God, we must believe that nothing further is wanting to those justified to prevent them from being considered to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained in its [due] time, provided they depart [this life] in grace, since Christ our Savior says: If anyone shall drink of the water that I will give him, he shall not thirst forever; but it shall become in him a fountain of water springing up into life everlasting.

Thus, neither is our own justice established as our own from ourselves, nor is the justice of God ignored or repudiated, for that justice which is called ours, because we are justified by its inherence in us, that same is [the justice] of God, because it is infused into us by God through the merit of Christ. Nor must this be omitted, that although in the sacred writings so much is attributed to good works, that even he that shall give a drink of cold water to one of his least ones, Christ promises, shall not lose his reward; and the Apostle testifies that, That which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation, worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory; nevertheless, far be it that a Christian should either trust or glory in himself and not in the Lord, whose bounty toward all men is so great that He wishes the things that are His gifts to be their merits.

And since in many things we all offend, each one ought to have before his eyes not only the mercy and goodness but also the severity and judgment [of God]; neither ought anyone to judge himself, even though he be not conscious to himself of anything; because the whole life of man is to be examined and judged not by the judgment of man but of God, who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts, and then shall every man have praise from God, who, as it is written, will render to every man according to his works. (Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 16)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: (55′)

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. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the 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)

Operative grace [see here] is the principle of all merit, but is not in itself meritorious (56′)

Charity is the Principle of Merit (57′)

St. Thomas writes:

For we must bear in mind that everlasting life consists in the enjoyment of God. Now the human mind’s movement to the fruition of the Divine good is the proper act of charity, whereby all the acts of the other virtues are ordained to this end, since all the other virtues are commanded by charity. Hence the merit of life everlasting pertains first to charity, and secondly, to the other virtues, inasmuch as their acts are commanded by charity. (Summa Theologica I-II q. 114 a.4.)

Growth and Loss of Merit (60′)

Does every good act done in a state of grace, motivated by charity, merit? (64′)
Does it merit an increase in sanctifying grace, an increase in the theological virtues, and eternal life?
Are all meritorious acts equal? (67′)
Can we merit for others? (72′)

The Protestant Rejection of the Possibility of Merit (72′)

Council of Trent (78′)

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. (Council of Trent, Session 6, Canon 32)

II. Questions and Answers

(1) Did Christ have infinite grace; how is it that Christ could merit for us and for all men? What kind of grace did He have in His soul? (1′)

(2) How does one know that one is in a state of grace? (2′)

(3) Why did the Jews confuse the works of the law with the double commandment of love? Is it like today bad catechesis? (10′)

(4) I can’t seem to remember, but did St. Thérèse say there was merit in picking up a pen off the floor if done out of love for God? (14′)

(5) Why has God made salvation a game of musical chairs? A person who is in a state of grace most of his life can be damned for the unlucky timing of his last sin. (15′)

(6) An important versed used by Protestants regarding merit is “For it is by grace you are saved through faith … not by works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:8-9) How do Catholics understand this verse, and why can’t Catholics boast? (18′)

(7) Why exactly is merit not communicable, and why is Christ’s merit able to be communicated to all men? (29′)

(8) Why is it right to say that those in sanctifying grace merit eternal life if being in a state of grace they already have eternal life? In other words, what is the significance of the distinction between meriting eternal life, and meriting the attainment of eternal life? (32′)

(9) What exactly does it mean to make an “intense act”? Does it mean to work up one’s passions? (35′)

III. John Calvin on Merit

In light of Prof. Feingold’s lecture on the subject of merit, it would be helpful to consider whether John Calvin’s position was in keeping with the teaching of the Church Fathers, because most Protestants have followed Calvin on this question. On the subject of merit Calvin wrote:

First, I say, that the best thing which can be produced by them [i.e. believers] is always tainted and corrupted by the impurity of the flesh, and has, as it were, some mixture of dross in it. Let the holy servant of God, I say, select from the whole course of his life the action which he deems most excellent, and let him ponder it in all its parts; he will doubtless find in it something that savors of the rottenness of the flesh, since our alacrity in well-doing is never what it ought to be, but our course is always retarded by much weakness. Although we see that the stains that bespatter the works of the saints are plainly visible, though we admit that they are only the slightest spots, will they not offend God’s eyes, before which even the stars are not clean? We thus see, that even saints cannot perform one work which, if judged on its own merits, is not deserving of condemnation. (Institutes III.14.9)

From Calvin’s point of view, every act by a believer is impure, because it is never done out of entirely pure motives, or with the highest degree of alacrity possible. Even if these deficiencies are “the slightest spots,” they are enough, claims Calvin, to make every ‘good’ work of every believer worthy of damnation, and therefore in no way meritorious for any heavenly reward. In that same chapter he writes:

We must strongly insist on these two things: That no believer ever performed one work which, if tested by the strict judgment of God, could escape condemnation; and, moreover, that were this granted to be possible (though it is not), yet the act being vitiated and polluted by the sins of which it is certain that the author of it is guilty, it is deprived of its merit. (Institutes III.14.11)

So Calvin entirely denies merit. He affirms that God gives different ‘rewards’ to different individuals. But these ‘rewards’ are not merits, not only because for Calvin whatever the believer does is polluted with mixed motives, and thus damnable, but also because whatever good is in the act is only worked by God, not by the believer. And therefore, the ‘rewards’ God gives for the good works of the believer are in no way merited by the believer. Hence Calvin writes:

Accordingly, in the passage already quoted from the Apostle Paul, he attributes the whole operation to God, “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure,” (Phil. 2:13). The first part of a good work is the will, the second is vigorous effort in the doing of it. God is the author of both. It is, therefore, robbery from God to arrogate anything to ourselves, either in the will or the act. Were it said that God gives assistance to a weak will, something might be left us; but when it is said that he makes the will, every thing good in it is placed without us. Moreover, since even a good will is still weighed down by the burden of the flesh, and prevented from rising, it is added, that, to meet the difficulties of the contest, God supplies the persevering effort until the effect is obtained. (Institutes II.3.9.)

Regarding that same verse (Phil. 2:13) he writes also:

For, after saying, “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do,” he [i.e. St. Paul] immediately adds, “of his good pleasure,” (Phil. 2:13); indicating by this expression, that the blessing is gratuitous. As to the common saying, that after we have given admission to the first grace, our efforts co-operate with subsequent grace, this is my answer: — If it is meant that after we are once subdued by the power of the Lord to the obedience of righteousness, we proceed voluntarily, and are inclined to follow the movement of grace, I have nothing to object. For it is most certain, that where the grace of God reigns, there is also this readiness to obey. And whence this readiness, but just that the Spirit of God being everywhere consistent with himself, after first begetting a principle of obedience, cherishes and strengthens it for perseverance? If, again, it is meant that man is able of himself to be a fellow-labourer with the grace of God, I hold it to be a most pestilential delusion. (Institutes II.3.11.)

Calvin treats whatever is good in the believer’s good work as done only by God. He attributes the “whole operation” to God. Because the believer contributes nothing at all, or only something impure and therefore damnable, the believer merits no heavenly reward when he does any good works. This creates a very strange kind of notion, as though when God is at work in the believer, the believer becomes something like a zombie, entirely passive, not freely willing the good, but having his will moved entirely by someone else, such that he is entirely not responsible for what he does, and therefore he in no way merits any reward. For Calvin, to claim that man in grace merits a heavenly reward would be to rob God of the credit. Calvin’s only way of conceiving divine-human synergism is in terms of parts; any part contributed by one takes away the part contributed by the other. Therefore the notion that man is a “fellow-labourer with the grace of God” is, for Calvin, a “most pestilential delusion.” In his view, when God ‘rewards’ us, He treats what was entirely His doing as though it was our doing:

And yet those good works which the Lord has bestowed upon us he counts [as] ours also, and declares, that they are not only acceptable to him, but that he will recompense them. … There cannot be a doubt, that every thing in our works which deserves praise is owing to divine grace, and that there is not a particle of it which we can properly ascribe to ourselves. If we truly and seriously acknowledge this, not only confidence, but every idea of merit vanishes. I say we do not, like the Sophists share the praise of works between God and man, but we keep it entire and unimpaired for the Lord. All we assign to man is that, by his impurity he pollutes and contaminates the very works which were good. The most perfect thing which proceeds from man is always polluted by some stain. Should the Lord, therefore, bring to judgment the best of human works, he would indeed behold his own righteousness in them; but he would also behold man’s dishonor and disgrace. Thus good works please God, and are not without fruit to their authors, since, by way of recompense, they obtain more ample blessings from God, not because they so deserve, but because the divine benignity is pleased of itself to set this value upon them. (Institutes III.15.3)

Calvin seems to shift between two different opinions: either (a) God working through the believer makes the believer’s good works not only entirely God’s and truly good, but God then counts them as the believer’s even though the believer contributed nothing to them, or (b) despite the believer’s good works each being utterly damnable, God is pleased to set value on them on account of His utterly gratuitous favor. Either way, the implication of Calvin’s position is that there are neither merits nor rewards for believers; there are only gifts that are designed to seem like rewards, but are not rewards for the believer’s good works. First God gives the gift of doing many good works through the believer (the believer himself contributing nothing, or nothing good, in the doing of these good works); then God ‘rewards’ the believer for those goods works, as though they were rewards for the good works that the believer did, even though the believer himself did not do them, instead God did these good works through him.

Calvin takes St. Augustine’s “what else but His gifts does God crown when He crowns our merits?” and uses it to justify the claim that God alone is the agent in our good works. But that was not St. Augustine’s position. As I will show below, for St. Augustine and the Church Fathers, the believer’s capacity to merit is itself a gracious gift from God through infused grace elevating the believer to the supernatural order, and God moves the believer by actual grace. But nevertheless the good work done in grace is still also truly the work of the believer, who freely wills the good work and who thereby merits the supernatural reward to which that work is ordered. But it is not as though God does some percentage of the work, and the believer does the remaining percentage; rather, God works through the believer while the believer retains his full natural functional and causal integrity, though now elevated by grace to participate in the divine movement ordered toward the beatific vision. In this way it is simultaneously true that in crowning the believer’s good works God crowns His own gifts, and that in crowning the believer’s good works God justly crowns the believer’s good works with a reward his free choices truly merited.

Regarding Luke 17:7-10, Calvin writes:

With respect to merit, we must remove the difficulty by which many are perplexed; for Scripture so frequently promises a reward to our works, that they think it allows them some merit. The reply is easy. A reward is promised, not as a debt, but from the mere good pleasure of God. It is a great mistake to suppose that there is a mutual relation between Reward and Merit; for it is by his own undeserved favor, and not by the value of our works, that God is induced to reward them. By the engagements of the Law , I readily acknowledge, God is bound to men, if they were to discharge fully all that is required from them; but still, as this is a voluntary obligation, it remains a fixed principle, that man can demand nothing from God, as if he had merited any thing. And thus the arrogance of the flesh falls to the ground; for, granting that any man fulfilled the Law, he cannot plead that he has any claims on God, having done no more than he was bound to do. When he says that we are unprofitable servants, his meaning is, that God receives from us nothing beyond what is justly due but only collects the lawful revenues of his dominion.

There are two principles, therefore, that must be maintained: first, that God naturally owes us nothing, and that all the services which we render to him are not worth a single straw; secondly, that, according to the engagements of the Law, a reward is attached to works, not on account of their value, but because God is graciously pleased to become our debtor. It would evince intolerable ingratitude, if on such a ground any person should indulge in proud vaunting. The kindness and liberality which God exercises towards us are so far from giving us a right to swell with foolish confidence, that we are only laid under deeper obligations to Him. Whenever we meet with the word reward, or whenever it occurs to our recollection, let us look upon this as the crowning act of the goodness of God to us, that, though we are completely in his debt, he condescends to enter into a bargain with us. So much the more detestable is the invention of the Sophists, who have had the effrontery to forge a kind of merit, which professes to be founded on a just claim. The word merit, taken by itself, was sufficiently profane and inconsistent with the standard of piety; but to intoxicate men with diabolical pride, as if they could merit any thing by a just claim, is far worse.

We have done what we were bound to do. That is, “we have brought nothing of our own, but have only done what we were bound by the law to do ” Christ speaks here of an entire observance of the law, which is nowhere to be found; for the most perfect of all men is still at a great distance from that righteousness which the law demands. The present question is not, Are we justified by works? but, Is the observance of the law meritorious of any reward from God? This latter question is answered in the negative; for God holds us for his slaves, and therefore reckons all that can proceed from us to be his just right. Nay, though it were true, that a reward is due to the observance of the law in respect of merit, it will not therefore follow that any man is justified by the merits of works; for we all fail: and not only is our obedience imperfect, but there is not a single part of it that corresponds exactly to the judgment of God. (Calvin’s commentary on Luke 17:7-10)

John Calvin

Calvin claims that our good works done in grace do not deserve the reward of heaven. God is induced to ‘reward’ the good works of the saints not because those have any value, but simply because of His undeserved favor. For Calvin, all a believer’s good works are “not worth a single straw.” So according to Calvin’s theology the ‘rewards’ God gives the saints are no rewards at all, but merely gifts made to look like rewards, even while all parties know (on this theory) that these ‘rewards’ are not rewards at all, but only gifts made to look like rewards. Calvin thinks that believers in a state of grace cannot merit anything from God because he thinks that to do so would require perfect law-keeping. But Calvin seems not to have understood that love fulfills the law, and that love cannot itself be reduced to a law.1

The possibility of loving more does not entail that one does not have love, or that one’s love is imperfect or incomplete. That is because our capacity to love can grow. By infusion, our love can truly be God’s love; the Apostle John teaches, “because as He is, so also are we in this world.” (1 John 4:17) The love that the Holy Spirit graciously pours out into our hearts (Rom 5:5) is the love by which we are sons and daughters of God, and truly merit a greater share in the love which is His eternal life. Also Calvin treats the presence of concupiscence in the lower appetites as imperfect love, but love for God is essentially in the will, and therefore can be truly present even when concupiscence is present in the lower appetites.2

Of course we cannot boast; hence the saint will see himself as only doing his duty, not merely doing his duty according to the law, but doing his duty on account of love. Hence while Calvin thinks of the believer as a mere slave of God, Jesus teaches the disciples that they are His friends. (John 15:15) See Question 6 in the Q&A following the lecture above.

Calvin’s position concerning merit turns rewards into a farce, by depicting God’s ‘rewarding’ the believer’s good works the way a small child might reward its dolls for activities the dolls did by the hands of the child. In this way he turns God into someone who by imputation not only calls believers perfectly righteousness while in fact knowing that they are unrighteous, but gives believers what He calls rewards, even while knowing that their good works either deserve no reward at all, or were done entirely by Him and not also done by the believers. Either way, God is doubly made out to be a liar.3

What is missing from the picture in Calvin’s theology of merit is an understanding of the role of sanctifying grace, and agape as an infused virtue by which our good actions (still truly ours) are supernaturally ordered toward our supernatural end, and by actual grace are a genuine participation (i.e. κοινωνίᾳ), not monergism, in God’s own work of moving us to that supernatural end. Calvin’s notion of union with God is that God monergistically does everything good that comes out of the believer. In Calvin’s account of the believer’s good works, the believer does not participate in the life and agape of God.

According to Catholic doctrine, by contrast, the believer’s good works are by participation both the action of God and the action of the believer, not 50/50, but 100/100, because grace builds on nature and does not squelch or obliterate it. When God works through and in the believer, the believer truly and freely acts as a rational agent. God does not merely make use of his body like a machine; God moves us according to our nature, that is, in a way that preserves and upholds the nature He gave us. And the nature He gave us is human nature, which includes the power of free choice. So God moves us by actual grace to a supernatural end, and by this elevation grants us a participation in Him, all while preserving our nature and our natural operation. In this way, the good works that we do in grace and agape are both from Him, and ordered to Him, but also truly done by us, out of our love for Him, a love (apape) that is supernatural and infused, but is by that infusion truly made to be ours, and not merely existing inside of us. That is the very difference between sanctifying grace and actual grace.4

IV. The Church Fathers on Merit

Does Calvin’s view of merit comport with that of the Church Fathers? The teaching of the Church Fathers on the subject of merit is summarized well in the teaching of the Council of Orange (AD 529):

The reward given for good works is not won by reason of actions which precede grace, but grace, which is unmerited, precedes actions in order that they may be accomplished meritoriously.

In other words, according to the Council of Orange, Semipelagianism is false, because those not having sanctifying grace cannot merit sanctifying grace. But those who have received sanctifying grace can thereby merit rewards through their good works done in a state of grace.

Here are some relevant passages from Church Fathers and early Church teachers, roughly in chronological order:

St. Ignatius of Antioch

Let yours works be deposits, so that you may receive the sum that is due to you. (Letter to Polycarp, 6)

“Due to you” does not fit with Calvin’s position.

St. Justin Martyr

We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Since if it be not so, but all things happen by fate, neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it be fated that this man, e.g., be good, and this other evil, neither is the former meritorious nor the latter to be blamed. And again, unless the human race have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions, of whatever kind they be. But that it is by free choice they both walk uprightly and stumble, we thus demonstrate. (First Apology, 43)

St. Justin’s claim that good rewards are rendered “according to the merit of each man’s actions” is contrary to Calvin’s position.

St. Theophilus of Antioch

But do you also, if you please, give reverential attention to the prophetic Scriptures, and they will make your way plainer for escaping the eternal punishments, and obtaining the eternal prizes of God. For He who gave the mouth for speech, and formed the ear to hear, and made the eye to see, will examine all things, and will judge [with] righteous judgment, rendering merited awards to each. To those who by patient continuance in well-doing Romans 2:7 seek immortality, He will give life everlasting, joy, peace, rest, and abundance of good things, which neither has eye seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man to conceive. (To Autolycus, I.14)

St. Theophilus’ claim that God will judge with righteous [i.e. just] judgment, rendering merited awards to each, does not fit with Calvin’s position. The Fathers commonly speak of God’s righteous (or just) judgment, in giving both rewards and punishments. But if God gave to the saints rewards for what they did not do, this would not be just. In the Catholic doctrine found throughout the Church Fathers, God’s grace does not merely give gifts, it also gives by infusion the power and dignity of being able truly to merit those heavenly gifts, such that God does not have His fingers crossed behind His back when He says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

St. Irenaeus

We deem the crown precious, namely, that which is acquired by our struggle, but which does not encircle us of its own accord. And the harder we strive, so much is it the more valuable; while so much the more valuable it is, so much the more should we esteem it. (Against Heresies, IV.37)

“Acquired by our struggle” again does not fit with Calvin’s notion of merit.


A good deed has God as its debtor, just as an evil has too; for a judge is a rewarder of every cause. (On penance, 2)

The notion that a good deed has God as its debtor is incompatible with Calvin’s position. If the early Church were Calvinist, Tertullian and the Fathers would not have said these things.

St. Hippolytus

For all, the righteous and the unrighteous alike, shall be brought before God the Word. For the Father has committed all judgment to Him; and in fulfilment of the Father’s counsel, He comes as Judge whom we call Christ. For it is not Minos and Rhadamanthys that are to judge (the world), as you fancy, O Greeks, but He whom God the Father has glorified, of whom we have spoken elsewhere more in particular, for the profit of those who seek the truth. He, in administering the righteous judgment of the Father to all, assigns to each what is righteous according to his works. And being present at His judicial decision, all, both men and angels and demons, shall utter one voice, saying, Righteous is Your judgment. Of which voice the justification will be seen in the awarding to each that which is just; since to those who have done well shall be assigned righteously eternal bliss, and to the lovers of iniquity shall be given eternal punishment. And the fire which is un-quenchable and without end awaits these latter, and a certain fiery worm which dies not, and which does not waste the body, but continues bursting forth from the body with unending pain. No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no voice of interceding friends will profit them. For neither are the righteous seen by them any longer, nor are they worthy of remembrance. But the righteous will remember only the righteous deeds by which they reached the heavenly kingdom…. (Against the Greeks, 3)

In the Judgment, Christ assigns to each what is righteous (i.e. just) according to his works. Eternal bliss is “righteously” (i.e. justly) assigned to those who have done well. This reward is the just due for those good works. Again, this is incompatible with Calvin’s position.

St. Cyprian

Listen to the voice of your Lord in the Apocalypse, rebuking men of your stamp with righteous reproaches: You say, says He, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and know not that you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that you may be rich; and white raiment, that you may be clothed, and that the shame of your nakedness may not appear in you; and anoint your eyes with eye-salve, that you may see. Revelation 3:17-18 You therefore, who are rich and wealthy, buy for yourself of Christ gold tried by fire; that you may be pure gold, with your filth burnt out as if by fire, if you are purged by almsgiving and righteous works. Buy for yourself white raiment, that you who had been naked according to Adam, and were before frightful and unseemly, may be clothed with the white garment of Christ. And you who are a wealthy and rich matron in Christ’s Church, anoint your eyes, not with the collyrium of the devil, but with Christ’s eye-salve, that you may be able to attain to see God, by deserving well of God, both by good works and character.

You promise eternal life to those who labour for You; … although they are honoured by You with divine wages and heavenly rewards.

Let us give to Christ earthly garments, that we may receive heavenly raiment; let us give food and drink of this world, that we may come with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob to the heavenly banquet. That we may not reap little, let us sow abundantly.

What, dearest brethren, will be that glory of those who labour charitably— how great and high the joy when the Lord begins to number His people, and, distributing to our merits and good works the promised rewards, to give heavenly things for earthly, eternal things for temporal, great things for small; to present us to the Father, to whom He has restored us by His sanctification;… An illustrious and divine thing, dearest brethren, is the saving labour of charity; … assisted by which the Christian accomplishes spiritual grace, deserves well of Christ the Judge, accounts God his debtor. For this palm of works of salvation let us gladly and readily strive; let us all, in the struggle of righteousness, run with God and Christ looking on; and let us who have already begun to be greater than this life and the world, slacken our course by no desire of this life and of this world. If the day shall find us, whether it be the day of reward or of persecution, furnished, if swift, if running in this contest of charity, the Lord will never fail of giving a reward for our merits: in peace He will give to us who conquer, a white crown for our labours; in persecution, He will accompany it with a purple one for our passion. (On Works and Alms, 14,22,24,26)

St. Cyprian urges Christians to “buy” for themselves gold tried by fire and white raiment, in order to attain “to see God” (i.e. the beatific vision) by “deserving well of God, both by good works and character.” That is directly contrary to Calvin’s position. St. Cyprian notes that not only are those who labor for Christ promised eternal life, but they are honored by Christ with divine wages and heavenly rewards for those labors. Again, that is contrary to Calvin’s position. St. Cyprian sees almsgiving as a way of storing up treasure in heaven, meriting the “heavenly raiment.” On that Day there will be great joy when Christ distributes “to our merits and good works” the promised rewards (heavenly things), for these good works. By doing good deeds in grace and love, the Christian “deserves well of Christ the Judge and makes God his debtor.” St. Cyprian assures us that Christ “will never fail of giving a reward for our merits.” Again, this is incompatible with Calvin’s position.

St. Ambrose

All men rise again, but let no one lose heart, and let not the just grieve at the common lot of rising again, since he awaits the chief fruit of his virtue. All indeed shall rise again, 1 Corinthians 15:23 but, as says the Apostle, each in his own order. The fruit of the Divine Mercy is common to all, but the order of merit differs. (On the Death of Satyrus, II.)

According to St. Ambrose, all Christians who die in a state of grace receive eternal life and the resurrection of the body, but each according to the order corresponding to his merit. Calvin’s position is not compatible with the differences in the orders of the saints being due to merit.

St. Jerome

And at the same time regard must be had to the sense of Scripture: I might tell you, He says, that I go to prepare a place for you, if there were not many mansions in my Father’s house (John 14:2), that is to say, if each individual did not prepare for himself a mansion through his own works rather than receive it through the bounty of God. The preparation is therefore not mine, but yours. This view is supported by the fact that it profited Judas nothing to have a place prepared, since he lost it by his own fault. And we must interpret in the same way what our Lord says to the sons of Zebedee, one of whom wished to sit on His left hand, the other on His right: (Matthew 20:23) My cup indeed you shall drink: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left hand, is not mine to give, but it is for them for whom it has been prepared of my Father. It is not the Son’s to give; how then is it the Father’s to prepare? There are, He says, prepared in heaven, many different mansions, destined for many different virtues, and they will be awarded not to persons, but to persons’ works. In vain therefore do you ask of me what rests with yourselves, a reward which my Father has prepared for those whose virtues will entitle them to rise to such dignity. Again when He says: (John 14:3) I will come again, and will receive you unto myself: that where I am, there ye may be also, He is speaking especially to the apostles, concerning whom it is elsewhere written, That as I and thou, Father, are one, so they also may be one in us, inasmuch as they have believed, have been perfected, and can say, the Lord is my portion. … Now our work is, according to our different virtues, to prepare for ourselves a different future. . . . If we are all to be equal in heaven, in vain do we humble ourselves here that we may be greater there. . . Why do virgins persevere? widows toil? Why do married women practise continence? Let us all sin, and when once we have repented, we shall be on the same footing as the apostles. (Against Jovinianus, II.28,32)

In explaining the many mansions, and who gets to sit at Christ’s right hand, St. Jerome says that it is vain to request this of Christ, because it “rests with yourselves,” being “a reward which My Father has prepared for those whose virtues will entitle them to rise to such dignity.” Calvin would not have said that it rests on our good works, or that these good works would entitle believers to rise to such dignity. Likewise, St. Jerome’s argument at the end of this quotation would make no sense if he were a Calvinist. Why do virgins persevere? widows toil? married women practice continence? Why toil and suffer and beat our bodies, rather than just eat, drink and be merry? The Calvinist answer is that it does not depend on the believer at all, but only on God who moves (or doesn’t move) the believer to do (or not do) good works. But St. Jerome’s line of argument shows that for St. Jerome, it also depends on us. If we choose to struggle and suffer, and obey, we will be rewarded, and the reward will both rightly due to us, and at the same time the result of God’s gracious work in us and through us. But if we choose not to labor and struggle and suffer in this present life, our eternal reward will be diminished.

What is diminished is our participation in the Life of God. As St. Jerome wrote, “The Lord is my portion.” The Church Fathers do not teach that the heavenly rewards for Christians are created things. Believers want more of God, who is Eternal Life, and this is why they give up money, houses, wives, and so many other created things. It would be absurd therefore, for God to reward the saints with more created things. The martyrs did not endure all the sufferings and tortures they endured, just to get a bigger mansion made of gold or precious stones. To interpret it that way is to misunderstand what heaven is all about.

Christ explains the parable of the talents, saying, “he who has, more will be given to him.” (Matt 25:29) Our rewards are not creatures. Our reward is a greater participation in what we already have been given: grace (i.e. participation in the eternal Life of God). Our heavenly rewards for loving obedience are a greater share in the Life of God. No one in heaven has a longer life than another. But we should not conflate eternal life with everlasting life. There are different ‘mansions’ in the Father’s house, because there will be different degrees of participation in the Life of God, depending (in part) on what we do in this present life with the grace we have been given. The notion that there is not any more eternal life to be merited either reduces eternal life to everlasting existence, or it treats our rewards as created things, i.e. mere creatures, rather than a greater share in God Himself. That is the Muslim and Mormon way of thinking about heavenly rewards, e.g. seventy virgins and/or a whole planet for oneself.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine writes:

Gracious and upright is the Lord (Ps 24:8). The Lord is gracious, since even sinners and the ungodly He so pitied, as to forgive all that is past; but the Lord is upright too, who after the mercy of vocation and pardon, which is of grace without merit, will require merits meet for the last judgment. (Exposition on Psalm 25.)

St. Augustine taught the position that was later affirmed by the Council of Orange, quoted above. According to St. Augustine, man cannot merit apart from grace, but for those in grace, God will require from believers merits meet [fit] for the last Judgment. For Calvin, the believer is incapable of producing merits meet for the last Judgment.

St. Augustine writes:

Now there would be no great merit and glorious blessedness in believing, if the Lord had always appeared in His Risen Body to the eyes of men. The Holy Ghost then has brought this great gift to them that should believe, that Him whom they should not see with the eyes of flesh, they might with a mind sobered from carnal desires, and inebriated with spiritual longings, sigh after. (Sermon 93.3)

For St. Augustine, the act of [living] faith is meritorious for eternal life. Calvin directly denies this.

In his work On Patience St. Augustine writes:

But, moreover, grace not only assists the just, but also justifies the ungodly. And therefore even when it does aid the just and seems to be rendered to his merits, not even then does it cease to be grace, because that which it aids it did itself bestow. (On Patience)

St. Augustine explains that grace is that by which we do good works, and grace is also merited by those good works. But these works are nevertheless still truly ours, even though made possible by grace. And therefore they are truly meritorious. Calvin mistakenly thought that if God is working in the believer to assist the just, then the believer cannot do anything truly meritorious. Calvin therefore seems to have not been able to conceive that God could aid the believer so as to make the believer capable of meritorious good works.

In his Exposition on Psalm 43, St. Augustine writes:

If you give your bread reluctantly, you have lost both the bread, and the merit of the action. Do it then from the heart: that He who sees in secret, Matthew 6:6 may say, while you are yet speaking, Here I am. (Exposition on Psalm 43)

For Calvin, if you give your bread reluctantly, you don’t lose any merit, because even if you give your bread cheerfully, there is no merit.

Elsewhere St. Augustine writes:

What merit, then, has man before grace which could make it possible for him to receive grace, when nothing but grace produces good merit in us; and what else but His gifts does God crown when He crowns our merits? For, just as in the beginning we obtained the mercy of faith, not because we were faithful but that we might become so, in like manner He will crown us at the end with eternal life, as it says, ‘with mercy and compassion.’ Not in vain, therefore, do we sing to God: ‘His mercy shall prevent me,’ and ‘His mercy shall follow me.’ Consequently, eternal life itself, which will certainly be possessed at the end without end, is in a sense awarded to antecedent merits, yet, because the same merits for which it is awarded are not effected by us through our sufficiency, but are effected in us by grace, even this very grace is so called for no other reason than that it is given freely; not, indeed, that it is not given for merit, but because the merits themselves are given for which it is given. …

After he had said: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), anyone would have agreed that he could have made a most consistent and logical conclusion if he had said: “But the wages of justice is eternal life.” And it is true, because eternal life is awarded as if it were the wages which justice deserves, just as death is the wages which sin deserves. …

That to which eternal life is owed is true justice, but if it is true justice, it does not originate in you, ‘it is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.’ In order to have it, if you do have it, you must have received it, for ‘what good hast thou that thou hast not received?’ Therefore, O man, if you are to receive eternal life, it is indeed the wages of justice, but for you it is a grace just as justice itself is a grace. It would be paid as something due to you if the justice to which it is due had its origin in you. But now, ‘of his fulness we have received,’ not only the grace by which we now live uprightly and in labors unto the end, but also ‘grace for this grace,’ that afterward we may live in repose forever. (Letters, 194)

St. Augustine

Here a simplistic reading might take “nothing but grace produces good merit in us” as meaning that nothing but grace is operative and therefore there is no actual merit. But by carefully studying the context (including his other writings) we see that St. Augustine means just what all the other Church Fathers teach concerning merit, namely, that only by grace is merit made possible. St. Augustine is not teaching that only God is operative when believers do good works in a state of grace, or that the works of the believers done in grace are not meritorious. St. Augustine holds a middle position between Pelagianism, which would treat merit as possible without grace, and Calvinism, which would treat merit as impossible even with grace. So for St. Augustine, the believer does not merit eternal life without grace, but God has made it possible by grace for the believer in unmerited grace truly to merit eternal life by grace. By a grace that did not originate in the believer, the believer is able to merit eternal life. St. Augustine summarizes it by saying, “[eternal life] is indeed the wages of justice, but for you it is a grace just as justice itself is a grace.” By “justice itself is a grace” he means that being made just (through sanctifying grace) is an unmerited grace. Therefore, while the believer is able in justice to merit eternal life, that is only because the believer was made just by sanctifying grace, and was first enabled to merit at all by an elevation to the supernatural order by unmerited grace.

In his Tractates on the Gospel of John, St. Augustine writes:

But having obtained that grace of faith, you shall be just by faith (for the just lives by faith); and you will obtain favor of God by living by faith. And having obtained favor from God by living by faith you will receive immortality as a reward, and life eternal. And that is grace. For because of what merit do you receive life eternal? Because of grace. (Tractates on the Gospel of John 3.9)

Believers already in a state of grace then “obtain favor of God” by living in faith, receiving two things as a reward for their lived faithfulness: immortality and eternal life. Grace makes possible the merit through good works by which the believer receives the rewards of immortality and eternal life. This is incompatible with Calvin’s position. In another Tractate, St. Augustine writes:

[B]ut when they now hear, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you,” they are revived from their trouble, made certain and confident that after all the perils of temptations they shall dwell with Christ in the presence of God. For, albeit one is stronger than another, one wiser than another, one more righteous than another, “in the Father’s house there are many mansions;” none of them shall remain outside that house, where every one, according to his deserts, is to receive a mansion. All alike have that penny, which the householder orders to be given to all that have wrought in the vineyard, making no distinction therein between those who have labored less and those who have labored more: (Matt 20:9) by which penny, of course, is signified eternal life, whereto no one any longer lives to a different length than others, since in eternity life has no diversity in its measure. But the many mansions point to the different grades of merit in that one eternal life. For there is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differs from another star in glory; and so also the resurrection of the dead. The saints, like the stars in the sky, obtain in the kingdom different mansions of diverse degrees of brightness; but on account of that one penny no one is cut off from the kingdom; and God will be all in all in such a way, that, as God is love, (1 John 4:8) love will bring it about that what is possessed by each will be common to all. For in this way every one really possesses it, when he loves to see in another what he has not himself. There will not, therefore, be any envying amid this diversity of brightness, since in all of them will be reigning the unity of love. (Tractates on the Gospel of John, 67.2)

Here St. Augustine teaches that the many mansions signifies that each receives a mansion “according to his deserts.” Each believer (who dies in a state of grace) receives eternal life, and in that sense they all receive the penny, since in eternal life no one lives longer than anyone else who receives eternal life. But the many mansions “point to the different grades of merit in that one eternal life.” And these different grades of merit depend on labor, for some labored less and some labored more. What differs from saint to saint in heaven is not the length of life, but the degree of participation in God who is eternal life and pure happiness. Hence those saints who have merited more are eternally happier than are those saints who have merited less, though each saint is perfectly happy. The greater merit allows for a greater capacity for participation in God, and hence a greater capacity for eternal happiness. In another Tractate St. Augustine writes:

You signified by the preparation of those mansions, that the just ought to live by faith. (Rom 1:17) For he who is sojourning at a distance from the Lord has need to be living by faith, because by this we are prepared for beholding His countenance. (2 Cor 5:6-8) For blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God; (Matt 5:8) and He purifies their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:9) The former we find in the Gospel, the latter in the Acts of the Apostles. But the faith by which those who are yet to see God have their hearts purified, while sojourning at a distance here, believes what it does not see; for if there is sight, there is no longer faith. Merit is accumulating now to the believer, and then the reward is paid into the hand of the beholder. Let the Lord then go and prepare us a place; let Him go, that He may not be seen; and let Him remain concealed, that faith may be exercised. For then is the place preparing, if it is by faith we are living. Let the believing in that place be desired, that the place desired may itself be possessed; the longing of love is the preparation of the mansion. Prepare thus, Lord, what You are preparing; for You are preparing us for Yourself, and Yourself for us, inasmuch as You are preparing a place both for Yourself in us, and for us in You. For You have said, Abide in me, and I in you. As far as each one has been a partaker of You, some less, some more, such will be the diversity of rewards in proportion to the diversity of merits; such will be the multitude of mansions to suit the inequalities among their inmates; but all of them, none the less, eternally living, and endlessly blessed. (Tractates on the Gospel 68.3)

St. Augustine here explains that the reason why Christ had to go away, was to make merit possible. Otherwise, if we were to see Him here, there would be no room for faith, and therefore no possibility of merit. Christ’s preparing a place for us (i.e. many mansions) are different degrees of participation in the beatific vision merited by the greatness of our work in grace in this present life. Merit is now accumulating according to our good works, but then it will be paid in the form of a greater participation in God in the beatific vision. The diversity of the rewards depends on the diversity of our merits, that is, the degree to which each person participated in Christ now, in His suffering and His obedience to the Father in the mission given to Him.

In his work titled “On Grace and Free Will,” St. Augustine writes:

‘There is henceforth laid up for me,’ he says, ‘a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day’ (2 Tim. 4:8). Now, to whom should the righteous Judge award the crown, except to him in whom the merciful Father had bestowed grace? And how could the crown be one ‘of righteousness,’ unless the grace had preceded which ‘justifies the ungodly’? (On Grace and Free Will, 14)

The crown laid up for St. Paul could not be one of justice unless grace had gone ahead and made St. Paul (during his life on earth) worthy to receive that crown in the life to come. St. Augustine in no way shared Calvin’s nominalistic conception of imputation. Later in that same work, St. Augustine explains in more detail:

It is such faith [i.e. faith which works by love] which severs God’s faithful from unclean demons — for even these believe and tremble, (Jam 2:19) as the Apostle James says; but they do not do well. Therefore they possess not the faith by which the just man lives — the faith which works by love in such wise, that God recompenses it according to its works with eternal life. But inasmuch as we have even our good works from God, from whom likewise comes our faith and our love, therefore the selfsame great teacher of the Gentiles has designated eternal life itself as His gracious gift. (Rom 6:23)

And hence there arises no small question, which must be solved by the Lord’s gift. If eternal life is rendered to good works, as the Scripture most openly declares: Then He shall reward every man according to his works (Matt 16:27) how can eternal life be a matter of grace, seeing that grace is not rendered to works, but is given gratuitously, as the apostle himself tells us: To him that works is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt; (Rom 4:4) and again: There is a remnant saved according to the election of grace; with these words immediately subjoined: And if of grace, then is it no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace? (Rom 11:5-6) How, then, is eternal life by grace, when it is received from works? Does the apostle perchance not say that eternal life is a grace? Nay, he has so called it, with a clearness which none can possibly gainsay. It requires no acute intellect, but only an attentive reader, to discover this. For after saying, The wages of sin is death, he at once added, The grace of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 6:23)

This question, then, seems to me to be by no means capable of solution, unless we understand that even those good works of ours, which are recompensed with eternal life, belong to the grace of God, because of what is said by the Lord Jesus: Without me you can do nothing. (John 15:5) And the apostle himself, after saying, By grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast (Eph 2:8-9) saw, of course, the possibility that men would think from this statement that good works are not necessary to those who believe, but that faith alone suffices for them; and again, the possibility of men’s boasting of their good works, as if they were of themselves capable of performing them. To meet, therefore, these opinions on both sides, he immediately added, For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:10) What is the purport of his saying, Not of works, lest any man should boast, while commending the grace of God? And then why does he afterwards, when giving a reason for using such words, say, For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works? Why, therefore, does it run, Not of works, lest any man should boast?

Now, hear and understand. Not of works is spoken of the works which you suppose have their origin in yourself alone; but you have to think of works for which God has moulded (that is, has formed and created) you. For of these he says, We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works. Now he does not here speak of that creation which made us human beings, but of that in reference to which one said who was already in full manhood, Create in me a clean heart, O God; concerning which also the apostle says, Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things have become new. And all things are of God. (2 Cor 5:17-18) We are framed, therefore, that is, formed and created, in the good works which we have not ourselves prepared, but God has before ordained that we should walk in them. It follows, then, dearly beloved, beyond all doubt, that as your good life is nothing else than God’s grace, so also the eternal life which is the recompense of a good life is the grace of God; moreover it is given gratuitously, even as that is given gratuitously to which it is given. But that to which it is given is solely and simply grace; this therefore is also that which is given to it, because it is its reward—grace is for grace, as if remuneration for righteousness; in order that it may be true, because it is true, that God shall reward every man according to his works.

Perhaps you ask whether we ever read in the Sacred Scriptures of grace for grace. Well you possess the Gospel according to John, which is perfectly clear in its very great light. Here John the Baptist says of Christ: Of His fullness have we all received, even grace for grace. (John 1:16) So that out of His fullness we have received, according to our humble measure, our particles of ability as it were for leading good lives — according as God has dealt to every man his measure of faith; (Rom 12:3) because every man has his proper gift of God; one after this manner, and another after that. (1 Cor 7:7) And this is grace. But, over and above this, we shall also receive grace for grace, when we shall have awarded to us eternal life, of which the apostle said: The grace of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, (Rom 6:23) having just said that the wages of sin is death. Deservedly did he call it wages, because everlasting death is awarded as its proper due to diabolical service. Now, when it was in his power to say, and rightly to say: But the wages of righteousness is eternal life, he yet preferred to say: The grace of God is eternal life; in order that we may hence understand that God does not, for any merits of our own, but from His own divine compassion, prolong our existence to everlasting life. Even as the Psalmist says to his soul, Who crowns you with mercy and compassion. Well, now, is not a crown given as the reward of good deeds? It is, however, only because He works good works in good men, of whom it is said, It is God which works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure, (Phil 2:13) that the Psalm has it, as just now quoted: He crowns you with mercy and compassion, since it is through His mercy that we perform the good deeds to which the crown is awarded. It is not, however, to be for a moment supposed, because he said, It is God that works in you both to will and to do of his own good pleasure, that free will is taken away. If this, indeed, had been his meaning, he would not have said just before, Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Phil 2:12) For when the command is given to work, their free will is addressed; and when it is added, with fear and trembling, they are warned against boasting of their good deeds as if they were their own, by attributing to themselves the performance of anything good. It is pretty much as if the apostle had this question put to him: Why did you use the phrase, ‘with fear and trembling’? And as if he answered the inquiry of his examiners by telling them, For it is God which works in you. Because if you fear and tremble, you do not boast of your good works— as if they were your own, since it is God who works within you. (On Grace and Free Will, Chapters 18-21)

First St. Augustine points out that God recompenses with eternal life the [faith that works by love] according to its works. But even these good works are from God, who has given us faith and agape, so that eternal life is at the same time also “His gracious gift.” How can eternal life be both a merited reward and a gracious gift? St. Augustine answers this question by explaining that even our good works, by which eternal life is merited, are themselves a grace. According to St. Augustine, when St. Paul says “not of works,” he is referring to works that “have their origin in yourself alone.” In other words, according to St. Augustine, St. Paul is ruling out Pelagianism, by which human works done apart from grace could merit anything pertaining to heaven. But the works God has prepared for believers are works done in “faith working through love,” and these are supernatural gifts that have come down from heaven through the sacraments Christ has established in His Church as means of grace. In this supernatural faith and agape we live the life of God, He working through us and we participating in Him. In this way, the eternal life which is the “recompense of a good life” is a grace, because that by which it is merited is not from us alone by human nature. Rather, it is from God as grace above human nature, but in which we participate by God’s gratuitious gift. The grace of eternal life is justly rewarded for the grace which is the believer’s meritorious life lived out in the supernatural gifts of faith, hope, and agape.

But there is no pretend here. God does not pretend that the work is ours when it is not, or pretend that the work is meritorious when it is not. The work is truly ours, even though it is first from God who prepared it for us, and graciously aided us in doing it through actual grace, infused grace and supernatural virtues. And the work is truly meritorious of eternal life, because it is supernatural in its principle and end. According to St. Augustine, it is “through His mercy that we perform the good deeds to which the crown is awarded.” Nor must anyone suppose, says St. Augustine, that because God is working in us, that “free will is taken away.” In these good works, which God is working out in the believer, he remains truly free and truly praiseworthy or blameworthy for what he does. Hence the reward of eternal life is not merely feigned, but rightly deserved.

In his work titled “On the Morals of the Catholic Church,” St. Augustine writes:

Let us then, as many as have in view to reach eternal life, love God with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the mind. For eternal life contains the whole reward in the promise of which we rejoice; nor can the reward precede desert, nor be given to a man before he is worthy of it. What can be more unjust than this, and what is more just than God? We should not then demand the reward before we deserve to get it. Here, perhaps, it is not out of place to ask what is eternal life; or rather let us hear the Bestower of it: “This,” He says, “is life eternal, that they should know You, the true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3) So eternal life is the knowledge of the truth. See, then, how perverse and preposterous is the character of those who think that their teaching of the knowledge of God will make us perfect, when this is the reward of those already perfect! What else, then, have we to do but first to love with full affection Him whom we desire to know? Hence arises that principle on which we have all along insisted, that there is nothing more wholesome in the Catholic Church than using authority before argument. (On the Morals of the Catholic Church, I.25)

St. Augustine explains that we must not “demand the reward” of eternal life before we are “worthy” of the reward and “deserve to get it.” And we are made worthy by loving God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. Calvin denies even the possibility of loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Hence, St. Augustine’s words would make no sense according to Calvin’s theology.

In his work titled “On Rebuke and Grace,” St. Augustine writes:

Nevertheless, since even that life eternal itself, which, it is certain, is given as due to good works, is called by so great an apostle the grace of God, although grace is not rendered to works, but is given freely, it must be confessed without any doubt, that eternal life is called grace for the reason that it is rendered to those merits which grace has conferred upon man. Because that saying is rightly understood which in the gospel is read, “grace for grace,” John 1:16 — that is, for those merits which grace has conferred. (On Rebuke and Grace, 41)

St. Augustine here states that though it is “certain” that life eternal is given as “due to good works,” nevertheless it is also a grace of God. Eternal life is called a grace because it is rendered “to those merits which grace has conferred upon man.” Here again we see the same teaching on merit throughout St. Augustine’s works, namely, that eternal life is a reward for good works, but that these good works are given to us as grace, and hence eternal life is both a due reward and a grace that we could never possibly merit on our own.

St. Prosper of Aquitaine

This evidence from Scripture — and we could gather many other texts — demonstrates abundantly, I think, that faith which justifies a sinner cannot be had except for God’s gift, and that it is not a reward for previous merits. Rather is it given that it may be a source of merit. (The Call of All Nations, I.24)

St. Prosper teaches just what we saw in St. Augustine, and just what we see in the Council of Orange, namely, that faith is not a reward for previous merits, but is given by God that it may be a source of merit.

V. Scripture on Merit

Jesus speaks of heavenly rewards in many places in the gospels. The Beatitudes are one example.

Matthew 5:11-12: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

We see this also in Matthew 25, where Jesus shows that heaven and hell are given as rewards for (among other things) the way we treat others. Jesus elsewhere says, “For whosoever shall give you to drink a cup of water in my name, because you belong to Christ, Amen, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.” (Mt. 10:42; Mark 9:41)

The reward given is not a greater share in a creature, but a greater share in the only One who is not a creature, namely, God Himself. So the rewards that Jesus speaks about in the gospels, and which are spoken about throughout the New Testament, are first eternal life (merited by living faith, which is itself a both a gift and a free act), and subsequently greater participations in eternal life.

Matt. 12:36 “And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment.”

Matt. 16:27 “For the Son of man is to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay every man for what he has done.”

Mt. 19:21 “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

Matthew 19:29: “And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.”

Luke 6:35 “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High.”

Luke 6:38: “give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Rom 2:6-7 “For He will render to every man according to his works, to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life.”

1 Corinthians 3:6-9: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

1 Cor 3:14-15 “If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

1 Cor 4:5 “Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.”

If Calvin were right, then when men’s motives were disclosed, no man would receive praise from God, since each man’s motives would be impure, and therefore worthy of damnation.

2 Cor 5:10 “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”

2 Cor. 9:6 “The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”

Gal 6:8-9 “The one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary.”

Ephesians 6:8: “knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.”

Col 3:23-24 “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.”

2 Tim 4:8 “From now on there is laid up for me the crown of justice, which the Lord, the just Judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing.”

Hebrews 6:10 “For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for His sake in serving the saints, as you still do.”

Hebrews 10:35-36 “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.”

Jas. 1:12 “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love Him.”

1 Peter 1:17 “And if you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each man’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay upon earth.”

2 John 8 “Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward.”

Rev. 2:10 “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Rev 2:23 “And I will kill her children with pestilence; and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds.”

Rev 3:11-12 “Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. He who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God.”

Rev 22:11-12 “[L]et the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and let the one who is holy, still keep himself holy. Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.”

VI. Catholic Teaching on Merit

Fourth Lateran Council, AD 1215

But the sacrament of baptism (which at the invocation of God and the indivisible Trinity, namely, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, is solemnized in water) rightly conferred by anyone in the form of the Church is useful unto salvation for little ones and for adults. And if, after the reception of baptism, anyone shall have lapsed into sin, through true penance he can always be restored. Moreover, not only virgins and the continent but also married persons pleasing to God through right faith and good work merit to arrive at a blessed eternity. (Fourth Lateran Council, AD 1215)

St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Doctor of the Church, followed what Scripture, the Church Fathers, the Council of Orange, and the Fourth Lateran Council had taught before him. He did not hold Calvin’s monergistic conception of works done in the state of grace. His teaching on merit can be found in Question 114 of Summa Theologica I-II. Because of time limitations, I will not go through that Question in this post. But fundamentally, according to St. Thomas, God uses intermediate causes in order to communicate to His creatures the dignity of causality, and thereby to bring to Himself greater glory. St. Thomas writes:

In this way God is helped by us; inasmuch as we execute His orders, according to 1 Corinthians 3:9: “We are God’s co-workers.” Nor is this on account of any defect in the power of God, but because He employs intermediary causes, in order that the beauty of order may be preserved in the universe; and also that He may communicate to creatures the dignity of causality [ut etiam creaturis dignitatem causalitatis communicet].” (Summa Theologica I Q.23 a.8 ad.2.)

Notice that St. Thomas Aquinas quotes St. Paul’s statement that [the Apostles] are God’s “co-workers.” In the Greek this reads: θεοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν συνεργοί. “For we are God’s co-workers.” Of course St. Paul is speaking about the work of preaching the gospel and building up the Church through prayer and teaching and service. But, if man may be a co-worker with God in the salvation of others, then it would be ad hoc to claim that man may not in principle be a co-worker in his own salvation. St. Paul implies as much when he states explicitly to the Philippians that they should “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling” [μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου τὴν ἑαυτῶν σωτηρίαν κατεργάζεσθε]. (Phil 2:12)

This is a primary difference between Calvin and St. Thomas. Calvin views participation on the part of the creature as detracting from God’s glory. St. Thomas teaches that participation on the part of the creature glorifies God still more than if God were to do it all Himself. This is why St. Thomas explains that man in grace can merit eternal life condignly. (cf. Summa Theologica I-II Q. 114 a.3) This condign merit for heaven as our supernatural end is based on commutative justice, but made possible only by the infusion of sanctifying grace. Without the infusion of grace, there could be no merit for eternal life. Even the incarnate Christ Himself, without the infusion of grace, could not have merited eternal life in His human nature.5

Either our will is both free and able to choose to do righteous acts, or our righteous acts are due to God in Christ, “predisposed” through the Holy Spirit. As my previous posts would indicate, I am in the latter camp. It cannot be “God’s will AND my will”. My will is predisposed to sin. Paul said, “There is none righteous, not even one.” My righteousness can only come from God. As I have mentioned several times, even Jesus Himself denied that his human will had any power for righteousness. He said things like, “I have not come to do My will, but the will of the Father who sent Me”, and praying in the garden He said to the Father, “Not My will, but Thy will”. He did not align His will to the will of God, rather, He prayed that the will of God would replace His will. ))

The Council of Trent likewise addresses Calvin’s notion that the just man only merits damnation, declaring:

[T]hose are opposed to the orthodox doctrine of religion, who assert that the just man sins, venially at least, in every good work; or, which is yet more insupportable, that he merits eternal punishments; as also those who state, that the just sin in all their works, if, in those works, they, together with this aim principally that God may be gloried, have in view also the eternal reward, in order to excite their sloth, and to encourage themselves to run in the course: whereas it is written, I have inclined my heart to do all thy justifications for the reward: and, concerning Moses, the Apostle saith, that he looked unto the reward. (Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 11)

Those who claim that the just man sins (either venially or merits eternal punishment) in every good work are opposed to the orthodox doctrine of the Christian religion. Those also are in error, according to Trent, who claim that the just sin in all their good works if these just persons do these good works while having the eternal reward in view.

I quoted the entirety of Chapter 16 of Session Six of the Council of Trent in the body of Prof. Feingold’s lecture above. In that chapter the Council teaches:

Hence, to those who work well unto the end (Mt 10:22) and trust in God, eternal life is to be offered, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Christ Jesus, and as a reward promised by God himself, to be faithfully given to their good works and merits (Rom 6:22).

Notice that eternal life is both a gift and a reward. It is not either/or. Eternal life is a gift, because without grace, we could never attain it. But it is also a reward because, by grace, it is also a reward for works done in grace. This is the same teaching that all the Church Fathers taught, that the Council of Orange taught, that the Fourth Lateran Taught, and that St. Thomas taught. This shows that Luther and Calvin were the ones who deviated from the Tradition. The only alternative hypothesis is the ecclesial deism by which one dismisses the entirety of the prior Tradition, by claiming that “Catholic heresy” immediately took over the Church.

The relevant canons of the Council of Trent are:

Canon 26. If anyone says that the just ought not for the good works done in God to expect and hope for an eternal reward from God through His mercy and the merit of Jesus Christ, if by doing well and by keeping the divine commandments they persevere to the end, let him be anathema.

Canon 31. If anyone says that the one justified sins when he performs good works with a view to an eternal reward, let him be anathema.

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.

Canon 26 simply repeats what Scripture and the Fathers taught, namely, that for their good works done in grace, the just ought to expect and hope for an eternal reward from God through His mercy and the merit of Christ, by which sanctifying grace was won for us. Canon 31 denies that it is sinful to perform good works with a view to an eternal reward. St. Paul himself worked with a view toward an eternal reward, as shown in the passages of Scripture above. And Canon 32 denies the false dichotomy which claims that good works are either gifts of God’s grace and therefore not meritorious acts by the one justified, or they are mere human acts.

Throughout her history, when the Church speaks of merit toward heaven, she is referring to what the second Council of Orange says: recompense due (by justice) to good works if they are performed in grace. Apart from grace, we cannot merit anything pertaining to heaven, because heaven is supernatural, and our merit would at most be at the level of nature. But if a person is in a state of grace, then because his action is moved by actual grace and flows from a soul infused with sanctifying grace and agape, his action is ordered toward a supernatural end, and thereby merits a supernatural end, namely, the beatific vision. When the action flows from these supernatural principles within the soul, the action is meritorious for heaven, because in this way it is Christ who is working in and through us, by His Spirit, so that the action is supernatural, and yet at the same time the action is truly that of the human person, such that he is justly rewarded for the action. Yet also at the same time, his capacity to merit is due to God’s grace.

Absolutely speaking, no man can make a debtor out of God, because every good thing we have has come from Him as a gift. Because God has given us everything we have, we therefore stand in a relation of obligation to Him, by way of justice, even if we can never give back all that we have been given. That is all true even apart from grace. But God, by a free and tremendous gift of grace, elevates us by a participation in His divine nature such that by this grace we are proportionate to Him as our supernatural end, and thus capable of meriting that supernatural end by way of a divine covenant. By the infusion of sanctifying grace, and thus by our participation in the divine operation in us oriented toward God as our supernatural end, the very works which we do in God, fully satisfy the divine law of love and truly merit eternal life.

The key to understanding how the believer’s acts can be truly meritorious for salvation (i.e. eternal life) is found in the three word phrase “done in God.” Without grace, our acts can be more or less meritorious or demeritorious, not for heaven (which is supernatural) but for our degree of punishment and reward in a state of separation from God. Without grace, none of our acts would be “done in God,” and hence none of our acts could be meritorious for heaven, because of the infinite gap between God and what can be done in the power of our own finite nature as creatures. But by the infusion of sanctifying grace and agape (not just a co-spatial indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but an actual infusion such that we are truly made partakers in the divine nature) Christ works in and through us, and our acts done out of agape are not just ordered to God as our Creator and natural end, but to God as our Father and supernatural end. That is, by infused grace our acts done out of agape take on a supernatural character, directed toward heaven as our supernatural end. And this explains .16, what underlies those three words “done in God.”

VII. Conclusion

What do Calvinists lose by not believing in the possibility of merit? They lose merit, since by not believing that they can merit, they do not strive to merit. So what? They still can possibly go to heaven if they die as Calvinists in invincible ignorance of the truth of the Catholic Church and the necessity of entering into full communion with her, so what does it really matter?

Satan does everything he can to rob God of glory, and he does this in many ways. If he cannot lead a soul away from faith in Christ, he robs God of glory by robbing Christ’s saints of glory, by deceiving them into denying the doctrine of merit. And the consequence of this deception is that these believers are eternally robbed of merit they otherwise would have attained, had they believed the orthodox teaching of Scripture and the Church concerning merit. In this way, they are eternally robbed of the eternal happiness and joy they could have had, and would have had, had they lived a more righteous and holy life in love for God. If merit did not eternally matter, God would not have given us this time of probation. So every loss of possible merit eternally matters. The Christian whose works are burned up, and yet is saved, though he could have done many good or great works for Christ, suffers a great loss because he suffers an eternal loss. The Church thereby suffers an eternal loss. And most of all, the glory of God suffers an eternal loss, for if our obedience, sacrifice, and suffering for His sake is for the greater glory of God, then our laziness, apathy, and dissipation detracts from His glory.

Pride is rightly noted as the chief of the seven deadly sins. We are most effectively tempted to pride when it is covered in self-deprecation. And what could be more self-deprecating than claiming to give all the glory to God by denying that believers can merit anything from God? But such a denial, by going against the teaching of the Church Fathers and the Magisterium Christ established for His Church, exalts one’s own interpretation Scripture over that of the Church, and therefore over Christ Himself. By such pride, Satan seeks ever to rob God of eternal glory. But we must resist him, and humble ourselves like children, to trust Christ by trusting His Church over our own judgments. Only by such humility is faith possible.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

  1. See “Why Calvin did not Recognize the Distinction Between Mortal and Venial Sin,” where I explain why conceiving righteousness in terms of law-keeping is a deficient way of understanding righteousness. []
  2. See “Protestant Objections to the Catholic Doctrines of Original Justice and Original Sin.” []
  3. See “A Parable for Philosophers.” []
  4. See “Lawrence Feingold on Sanctifying Grace and Actual Grace. []
  5. One consequence of the Protestant rejection of the sixth ecumenical council is the implicit or practical (if not explicit) denial among some Protestants that Christ had two wills: the divine will, and a human will. It is a kind of practical, if not explicit, monothelitism. In practice this leads to the notion among some Protestants that in regeneration and sanctification the human will is replaced by the divine will. But what we see in the Garden of Gethsemane is Christ preserving the conformity of His human will with His divine will. The notion that the divine will replaced Christ’s human will (or that Christ never received a human will when He became incarnate) is a form of the Apollinarian heresy, which is a heresy because by denying that Christ acquired (or retained) a human will it denies that Christ became fully human. It turns Christ into a zombie, by claiming that God took on a human body, but not a human intellect and will. In orthodox Catholic Christology, by contrast, Christ’s conformity of his human will with His divine will is the exemplar for all Christians of the cooperation of the divine and the human will unto merit. []

Leave a comment »

  1. One consequence of the Reformed denial of merit is what I have described elsewhere as “temporal nihilism,” the loss of meaning to life once one has been justified. As I explained in “The Gospel and the Meaning of Life,” the gospel by way of the doctrine of merit provides the basis for the meaningfulness of our life and choices after we have come to faith. In every area of life to which the Christian might be called, he has been “born for combat” in a spiritual conflict in which our choices truly make a difference and matter for all eternity, both for ourselves and for the Kingdom of Heaven. In 1890, Pope Leo XIII wrote:

    [N]ot those only who are invested with power of rule are bound to safeguard the integrity of faith, but, as St. Thomas maintains: “Each one is under obligation to show forth his faith, either to instruct and encourage others of the faithful, or to repel the attacks of unbelievers.” To recoil before an enemy, or to keep silence when from all sides such clamors are raised against truth, is the part of a man either devoid of character or who entertains doubt as to the truth of what he professes to believe. In both cases such mode of behaving is base and is insulting to God, and both are incompatible with the salvation of mankind. This kind of conduct is profitable only to the enemies of the faith, for nothing emboldens the wicked so greatly as the lack of courage on the part of the good. Moreover, want of vigor on the part of Christians is so much the more blameworthy, as not seldom little would be needed on their part to bring to naught false charges and refute erroneous opinions, and by always exerting themselves more strenuously they might reckon upon being successful. After all, no one can be prevented from putting forth that strength of soul which is the characteristic of true Christians, and very frequently by such display of courage our enemies lose heart and their designs are thwarted. Christians are, moreover, born for combat, whereof the greater the vehemence, the more assured, God aiding, the triumph: “Have confidence; I have overcome the world.” Nor is there any ground for alleging that Jesus Christ, the Guardian and Champion of the Church, needs not in any manner the help of men. Power certainly is not wanting to Him, but in His loving kindness He would assign to us a share in obtaining and applying the fruits of salvation procured through His grace.

    The chief elements of this duty consist in professing openly and unflinchingly the Catholic doctrine, and in propagating it to the utmost of our power. For, as is often said, with the greatest truth, there is nothing so hurtful to Christian wisdom as that it should not be known, since it possesses, when loyally received, inherent power to drive away error. (Sapientiae Christianae, 14-15)

  2. Here are some other New Testament passages that teach that, by performing good works “in Christ” (in a state of sanctifying grace and out of charity), we grow in our participation in divine life and in charity and consequently will be rewarded a greater degree of glory in Heaven.

    First two exhortations from Jesus:

    “Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.” (Lk 12:33)

    “There is still one thing left for you: sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Lk 18:22)

    From Paul, first this exhortation to Timothy, which is an exact echo of the two exhortations from Jesus quoted above:

    Tell them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Tim 6:18-19)

    While sometimes, as in 1 Cor 3:10-15 partially quoted by Dr Cross, Paul uses the metaphor of a temple, which God builds with our cooperation, other times he uses the metaphor of a body, which God makes grow with our cooperation. Sometimes both are used simultaneously, as in Ef 4:11-16, from which I quote:

    Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love. (Ef 4:15-16)

    And again about growing:

    we do not cease praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding to live in a manner worthy of the Lord, so as to be fully pleasing, in every good work bearing fruit and growing in the knowledge of God, (Col 1:9-10)

    To note, the “knowledge of God” mentioned above is clearly not just intellectual knowledge but supernatural living knowledge, i.e. our participation in divine life, as made clear by Jesus Himself in his priestly prayer:

    “Now this is eternal life, that they should know You, the only true God, and the One whom you sent, Jesus Christ.” (Jn 17:3)

  3. Good a discussion about merit. Ok, I have several questions so let’s start with them one at a time. First off, how much merit do I need to get to heaven? Since even though Christ died for me (my gift), I still need to earn my way into heaven (my reward), now much is needed? How do you quantify it? How much is sweeping the church steps worth vs. convincing some wayward Protestant to return to Mother Church? And I guess this is related, but how much do I need to keep from going to purgatory since I can end up there on the way to heaven? How do I skip purgatory? Exactly how does merit work in all of this?

  4. Steve (re: #3)

    You wrote:

    First off, how much merit do I need to get to heaven?

    One upright act in a state of grace, done out of love for God, merits heaven. But as I explained in the post, a person who is not in a state of grace cannot merit heaven; that would be Pelagianism. Concerning the reward for even the smallest act, done in grace out of love, Jesus said, “For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward.” (Mk 9:41) The reward is heaven because the act is done out of love of Christ (i.e. “because of your name as followers of Christ”).

    Since even though Christ died for me (my gift), I still need to earn my way into heaven (my reward), now much is needed?

    As explained in the post, you can’t earn your way to heaven from (i.e. while within) a state of mortal sin; that would be Pelagianism. But once in a state of grace, Christ has given us the opportunity to merit a greater share in heaven, i.e. in the Beatific Vision.

    How do you quantify it? How much is sweeping the church steps worth vs. convincing some wayward Protestant to return to Mother Church?

    We do not quantify it, in part because the merit of an act depends upon the level of holiness and charity of the one performing the act, and God alone truly sees the heart. All will be brought to light on that Day, when the Lord will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God. (1 Cor. 4:5) Those who have loved God more in this present life, will receive a greater eternal share in the eternal life which is God Himself.

    And I guess this is related, but how much do I need to keep from going to purgatory since I can end up there on the way to heaven? How do I skip purgatory? Exactly how does merit work in all of this?

    Purgatory can be avoided by making sufficient satisfaction for temporal punishment (i.e. the punishment due to offenses against creatures). Merit is distinct from (but related to) satisfaction for temporal punishment, since merit is acquiring by God’s promise a heavenly reward of a greater share in God, while temporal satisfaction is making due recompense for injustices against fellow creatures. No mere man could make sufficient satisfaction for eternal punishment (i.e. the punishment due to offenses against God). Christ alone could do this for us. I explained the distinction between eternal punishment and temporal punishment in this section of the post titled “St. Thomas Aquinas on Penance.”

    Temporal satisfaction must be made for all injustices one has committed against creatures. If we do not make satisfaction in this present life for the injustices we have committed against others, we will have to make satisfaction in purgatory before we can see God in the Beatific Vision, since only the pure in heart see God (Mt 5:8), and no one who having a debt of injustice toward his neighbor has an absolutely pure heart — this is why Jesus requires reconciliation prior to worship (Mt. 5:23-24). That debt against one’s neighbor has to be paid, and we won’t be released from purgatory until we have paid the last penny (Mt. 5:26, Lk 12:59).

    We are able to make satisfaction in this present life, in three ways: through penance imposed by a priest following the sacrament of penance, through penances that we do voluntarily (i.e. fasting, alms-giving, prayers), and through patiently bearing sufferings and trials sent by God. If you want to skip purgatory, then live a life of mortification: praying, fasting, and giving-alms, and patiently bearing sufferings that God in His providence sends to you. But also pursue sanctification, so that you will not add more injustices against your fellow creatures. That is best aided by receiving the Eucharist regularly.

    Also, Christ has made possible a way for the saints to assist us in avoiding purgatory, by allowing their satisfactions and sufferings to pay our debt of temporal punishment. That’s just what an indulgence is. So, never pass an opportunity to attain an indulgence. See my post titled “Indulgences, the Treasury of Merit, and the Communion of Saints.” But all this does no good if one does not die in a state of grace. So, pray for the gift of perseverance, and strive to remain in a state of grace always, even to your dying breath.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  5. […]… […]

  6. […] Him and our neighbor by the Spirit, we grow in the gift of righteousness He has given us, and He rewards us with the gift of eternal life. He is our great reward. As members of His Body we all play a part […]

  7. Hi Bryan,

    I’ve always been curious on the Catechism’s citation of St. Therese in its section on merit:

    2011 The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.

    ‘After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone. . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.’

    Obviously Therese was no Protestant but that citation does sound very sympathetic towards Protestant sensibilities (“do not want to lay up merits”, don’t “count my works”, “empty hands”, “our justice is blemished”, “clothed in your own justice”). Is this a case of personal piety outrunning formal theology, or how do you view it and integrate it with your perspective on merit and infusion?

  8. JD (re: #7)

    Thanks for your comment. I had this discussion with Chris Castaldo last year in the combox of one of his posts titled “The Disputable Indisputable Fact.” (He is another gracious Protestant interlocutor.) So instead of re-typing what I wrote there, I’ll direct you there if you wish to read my answer to your question.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  9. Hi Bryan,

    Feingold is a great communicator – I see he’s in St. Louis so if you ever run into him tell him his lectures and substantive q&a’s are much appreciated.

    Did have a question I would have asked him if I was in this audience that maybe you can help answer. He mentioned when explaining the notion of meriting “eternal life” that this would have to be true, because if we never did a single act of charity (merit) after regeneration, we would necessarily be guilty of sins of omission and merit damnation. Makes sense. But my question concerns the notion of supererogation and the counsels of perfection – we cannot boast as Feingold talked about since everything, including our ability to participate, is of grace, but if I resist the cooperative grace of an act of supererogation, I am not sinning (as I do when I resist cooperative grace of non-supererogatory acts of charity) either venially or obviously mortally, but if that’s the case, why can I not boast when cooperating with it and performing the act?

    Of course humility would demand I never boast (“we are unprofitable servants”) but the fact that we can go “above and beyond our duty” in supererogation seems unsettling to the pious mind and to the general tone of Scripture and humility (although I will admit it makes sense in terms of grace building upon nature – we see such distinction in natural acts of virtue all the time – war heroes/emergency workers/etc). Thoughts?

  10. Dear Bryan,

    Do you think that the doctrine of extrinsic imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ is a legal fiction?


  11. Christie (re: #10),

    Yes. I’ve explained why at the links available within comment #429 in the “Imputation and Paradigms” thread.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  12. Bryan,

    What, in your view, would be the best Roman Catholic response to the following argument by the 17th century Anglican theologian James Ussher against the Catholic doctrine of merit:

    “When sin is once done, it is impossible to be undone again. With a holy reverence be it spoken, that which is once done, and ill done, God cannot make it be undone again; being evil done, it always continues so, an evil act.”
    — Sermon 2 on John 8:32


  13. Keith, (re: #12)

    The Catholic doctrine of merit is fully compatible with it being impossible for it to become true of an action that was done that it was not done, or that it become true of an intrinsically evil past action that it is no longer intrinsically evil. The Catholic doctrine of merit does not require that God change the past. So insofar as the objection presupposes that the Catholic doctrine of merit is incompatible with having engaged in sinful actions in the past, the objection attacks a straw man. To avoid this mistake, the objection would need to show how having committed sin makes merit impossible.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  14. Bryan, (re: #13)

    Thank you for the thoughtful reply.

    I think the following is helpful. Speaking of the “guilt” of a past act, Louis Berkhof writes,

    “Guilt is [first meaning:] the state of deserving condemnation or [second meaning:] of being liable to punishment for the violation of a law or a moral requirement. . . . the word has a twofold meaning. [First meaning:] It may denote an inherent quality of the sinner, namely, his demerit, ill-desert, or guiltiness, which
    renders him worthy of punishment. . . . It is inseparable from sin, is never found in one who is not personally a sinner, and is permanent, so that once established, it cannot be removed by pardon. [Second meaning:] But it may also denote the obligation to satisfy justice, to pay the penalty of sin”
    –*Systematic Theology*, p. 232

    The argument would be that presence of demerit makes merit impossible.


  15. Keith, (re: #14)

    If one simply stipulates that guilt “is permanent,” then of course merit would be impossible. But that would just beg the question, i.e. presuppose precisely what is in question between the two paradigms. (It also presupposes that guilt is the same as the fact of having previously sinned.) Stipulation is not argumentation.

    In the Catholic paradigm, which is not nominalistic, guilt is “an intrinsic disorder of the will” (as I’ve explained in comment #192 of the Atonement thread). Therefore, guilt can be removed, because that intrinsic disorder in the will can be removed, by grace. And when that guilt is removed (at the moment of justification), there is no longer demerit for the sinful act by which the will became disordered (i.e. by which the person acquired guilt).

    The reatus poena (i.e. debt of punishment), which is not the same as guilt, can be forgiven or paid. (Again see comment #192 linked just above.) In our case, the debt of eternal punishment is paid by Christ’s sacrificial gift to the Father, as I explain in the post at that link.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  16. Bryan, (re: #15)

    Since Berkhof’s words express the standard Lutheran-Reformed view of “guilt,” it is clear that we are considering a crucial difference between the Tridentine and Reformational paradigms. Thus, I appreciate your willingness to discuss it.

    The Reformational position is that guilt (in order to keep the discussion simple, I am referring to mortal sin such as murder) consists firstly of the demerit of the act itself as distinguished from the continuation afterward of the disorder of the will entailed in the act. (This continuation of the disorder of the will, this continuing sinful attitude (as I would express it), has its own demerit, of course.) The act of premeditated murder, for example, itself deserves hell. Rather, since the murderous act is nothing else but the murderer acting, the *person* thereby comes to merit hell and continues to merit this punishment as long as he is the person who committed the act.

    On this matter, the Lutheran and Reformed claim the support of reason (which is reflected in dictionary definitions of “guilt” that amount to “the fact or state of having committed a crime or offense”).

    We also find support in the words of an important Eastern Orthodox confessional document:

    “having *once* transgressed the command of the infinite and eternal Being, man *thereby* became
    ever afterwards a perpetual and *everlasting* transgressor”
    — *The Great Catechism of the Holy Catholic, Apostolic, and Orthodox Church* (emphases mine)

    But more importantly, we see support for our position in the words of the Apostle, who emphatically states, “I am” the “first” of “sinners” simply on account of his past, repented-of career as a persecutor (cf. I Timothy 1:13-15).


  17. Keith, (re: #16)

    The Reformational position is that guilt (in order to keep the discussion simple, I am referring to mortal sin such as murder) consists firstly of the demerit of the act itself as distinguished from the continuation afterward of the disorder of the will entailed in the act. (This continuation of the disorder of the will, this continuing sinful attitude (as I would express it), has its own demerit, of course.) The act of premeditated murder, for example, itself deserves hell. Rather, since the murderous act is nothing else but the murderer acting, the *person* thereby comes to merit hell and continues to merit this punishment as long as he is the person who committed the act.

    That’s not the Catholic position. In the Catholic paradigm, demerit is not guilt, just as merit is not virtue. Nor in the Catholic position is it true that the person who committed a mortal sin continues to merit punishment for this sin so long as he is the same person who committed the act even if he has been transformed by grace, for the reasons I explained at the link in my previous comment.

    On this matter, the Lutheran and Reformed claim the support of reason (which is reflected in dictionary definitions of “guilt” that amount to “the fact or state of having committed a crime or offense”).

    The notion that theological questions or theological disagreements can be answered by appealing to a dictionary is itself not a philosophically or theologically neutral notion. It conflates the distinction between real definitions and nominal definitions. (Imagine someone attempting to resolve the marriage debate question in the future by appealing to a dictionary in which the term ‘marriage’ is defined as a bond of romantic love between two persons of any sex.) It also presupposes that the authors of dictionaries have greater theological authority than does the Church, as I’ve explained in the “The Tradition and the Lexicon.” It thus begs the question in both ways, against those who affirm the distinction between real and nominal definitions, and who affirm that the Church has more authority than authors of dictionaries regarding theological matters. And begging the question in adjudicating between two positions is contrary to reason.

    We also find support in the words of an important Eastern Orthodox confessional document: “having *once* transgressed the command of the infinite and eternal Being, man *thereby* became ever afterwards a perpetual and *everlasting* transgressor” — *The Great Catechism of the Holy Catholic, Apostolic, and Orthodox Church* (emphases mine)

    The meaning here contains an implicitly understood qualification: “apart from grace.” Neither the Catholic nor Orthodox theological traditions hold that the saints in heaven remain transgressors or sinners, even though it remains true of them in heaven that they once were transgressors or sinners. So this statement you’ve excerpted does not actually support the thesis that grace cannot remove guilt.

    But more importantly, we see support for our position in the words of the Apostle, who emphatically states, “I am” the “first” of “sinners” simply on account of his past, repented-of career as a persecutor (cf. I Timothy 1:13-15).

    That claim presupposes a particular interpretation of the verse, according to which the verse is referring to a present truth about the present St. Paul’s present guilt, rather than to a present truth about the present St. Paul’s previous sinful actions and previous guilt. And in the Catholic tradition, the verse is understood in the latter sense, not the former sense. Therefore appealing to the former interpretation as evidence against the Catholic position simply begs the question, i.e. presupposes precisely what is in question between the two traditions. Moreover, the passages quoted from St. Paul in the post at the top of this page, along with the Church Fathers, show that neither he nor they believed that past sin makes merit impossible.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    Solemnity of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven

  18. Keith, (re: #14,16)

    In #14 you quoted Berkhof as stating that guilt was an unerasable past act which deserves demerit. In #16 you further developed this saying,

    [S]ince the murderous act is nothing else but the murderer acting, the *person* thereby comes to merit hell and continues to merit this punishment as long as he is the person who committed the act.

    In addition to agreeing with Bryan’s responses, I have the following to add.

    I start by assuming your definition. For clarity, I write it as, Guilt is having committed an immoral act. Once the act is committed, it can never be undone. It persists and is attached to the human person committing the act as long as that person persists.

    Under this definition, if I sin by stealing, then once the theft has occurred, I am guilty. If I recognize my guilt and return the stolen property, add interest and penalty, reimburse for any legal fees the victim may have incurred as well as reimburse for any increase in insurance premium; then it is possible for me to make reparation to my victim, satisfying the cost of my sin. But since I continue to persist even after the reparation, I continue to be guilty. The same applies if I cannot pay the cost of my action, but instead have a rich uncle who pays for me. While the victim is completely repaid, I remain guilty.

    This means that under the penal substitution theory, guilt is not remitted. I persist; the past act is not erased; therefore guilt persists and is attached to me.

    Under this definition of guilt, the Catholic concept of Infused Righteousness would also have to be rejected. When Christ’s Righteousness is infused in the believer, the believing person continues to persist, but the guilt is no longer associated with him. This violates the definition, so it must be rejected (assuming the definition of guilt is being retained).

    But what about Imputed Righteousness? Like you, I wish to keep it simple. I hope this does not oversimplify. When talking about Imputed Righteousness, Catholics often label this along the lines of a “legal fiction.” They say the believer never truly becomes righteous, but are merely covered in Christ’s Righteousness; and that it is ad hoc to say this condition changes at the moment of death and entry into Heaven. The standard Protestant answer is that while it is a forensic righteousness, God declares it to be the believer’s, so there is some means by which Imputed Righteousness is truly the believer’s as well. But this response must be also be rejected. When the believer is declared righteous, the guilt becomes disassociated with him, even though he continues as a Human Being.

    Thus, either Imputed Righteousness is false, or the Catholic claims about it are validated and guilt persists in the person even when they are covered by Christ’s Righteousness.

    This means that under Penal Substitution or Imputed Righteousness (or both combined) that the purity of Heaven includes the impurity of guilt when believers — who persist after death — are brought there. This is an incompatible situation as the impurity of guilt is not compatible with the purity of Heaven. Thus, the definition of guilt (used above) must be rejected.

  19. Bryan, (re: #17)

    I appreciate your thoughtful response because I believe that this topic deserves considerably more attention than it currently receives in Protestant-Catholic interactions. At the heart of the Reformation-Rome split there was and is an important disagreement concerning demerit as well as merit. I believe that it is important, in the interest of truth, that this difference become more widely known.

    The Lutheran-Reformed position is that, since murder is contrary to the will of an infinitely holy God, the act itself has an intrinsic grievousness to God that is in a sense infinite. And this grievousness, or demerit, is logically attributed to the author of the act even after any subsequent transformation of his heart. This is viewed as a truth of reason, a necessary truth, which can be transcended but not contradicted by the heavenly truths concerning redemption.

    I believe that in the following statements Aquinas recognizes and attempts to deal with this reality of the demerit contained in the act itself:

    “Grace removes the stain* and the debt of eternal punishment [of mortal sin] simply; but it *covers* the past sinful acts, lest, on their account, God deprive man of grace, and judge him deserving of eternal punishment; and what grace has once done, endures for ever.”
    — *Summa*, 3:88:1 (Reply to Objection 4)
    * I think that, by “stain,” he means “the [consequential] aversion of the mind from God.”

    “the stain* of the past act of sin . . . is not taken away, because it is not given to the sinner that he did not commit the act. The gift rather is that its guilt is not imputed—reckoned—to him. Instead it is *covered*.”
    — *Commentary on the Psalms*, commenting on 32:1
    * Here the “stain” consists, I believe, in the act itself, as the rest of the citation shows

    “the fact that the disordered deed has been done and cannot be said not to have occurred, once it has been perpetrated; but it is *covered over* by the hand of God’s mercy and is held as if not committed.”
    — *Commentary on Romans*, commenting on 4:7
    (Emphases mine in each quote.)

    In each of these three statements, Aquinas clearly affirms that each past act of moral sin, as distinct from the continuation of the mortally sinful attitude contained in the act, itself entails demerit and accordingly needs as its remedy a distinct gracious act of God that he calls “cover[ing]”–which he does not explicitly define as far as I know.

    Regarding my citation from the *The Great Catechism of the Holy Catholic, Apostolic, and Orthodox Church*, if I might, I wish to place it in some context:

    “None other could undertake this mediation for the reconciling of man with God–a work so great and
    sublime–but one only, the Son of God; for, having once transgressed the command of the infinite and eternal Being, man thereby became ever afterwards a perpetual and everlasting transgressor; whence it
    was necessary that the Being who was to take away the sin of man, and as man reconcile man with God, should be Himself . . . eternal: for a . . . creature . . .cannot by any means . . . propitiate to all eternity that God whom it has offended. Neither can any other creature . . .eternally establish our atonement with God . . . or assure us of his perfect and everlasting mediation with God: none can do this but the Son of God alone, who, being eternal God, and having become perfect Man, exercises an unceasing mediation; and it is through his mediation that we receive the complete and everlasting forgiveness of our sins.”

    It is evident, I am convinced, that this confessional document here affirms that the demerit of sin is everlasting and accordingly requires as its solution an atonement which is “everlasting[ly]” and “unceasing[ly]” efficacious.

    Regarding the interpretation of I Timothy 1:13-15 as affirming the continuance of the demerit of past sin, if I might, I simply wish to add, that this is the plain, literal understanding of the Apostle’s explicit, emphatic words “I am” (Greek: “eimi ego”)– and also “sinner.”

    And there is considerably more clear scriptural evidence that the shame of past sins is not *absolutely* annihilated. For example, these words of God to which the Apostle alludes twice:

    “Then you shall know that I am the Lord, that you may remember and be ashamed, and never open your mouth anymore because of your shame, when I provide you an atonement for all you have done”
    –– Ezekiel 16:62-63

    “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.”
    –- Romans 3:19

    “What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed?”
    — Romans 6:21

    At this point I must personally rejoice in the overwhelming work of the God-man, an atonement which includes the qualitative outweighing of my sins (as well as the payment of their penalty) and thus is forever efficacious.

    Warm regards,

  20. Keith, (re: #19)

    Regarding St. Thomas on the stain of sin, I’ve explained that in “Aquinas and Trent: Part 4.” As I show there, St. Thomas very clearly shows that the stain of sin is removed by grace. The stain of sin is not the sinful act. And the covering is the removal of the guilt and debt, without removing the past act (i.e. making the past to never have happened), as I’ve explained in comment #121 of the “Justification: The Catholic Church and the Judaizers in St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians” thread, and in comment #69 under the “Holy Church” article. As for “covering,” St. Thomas does explain this in his commentary on St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in which St. Thomas writes, “For sins are said to be covered from the divine gaze, inasmuch as he does not look upon them to be punished.” (336) Covered sins are not looked upon to be punished, because their guilt and debt have been removed.

    As for the Great Catechism, every statement you cited from it is fully compatible with the truth of what I have already said. The everlasting and unceasing character of Christ’s mediation does not mean or entail that guilt remains in the saints. It means rather that the guilt is permanently vanquished.

    Regarding your appeal to “the plain, literal understanding,” that just begs the question (i.e. presupposes precisely what is in question between the two traditions) for reasons I’ve explained in “The Tradition and the Lexicon.”

    As for the other passages you cited, they are each fully compatible with the truth of the Catholic paradigm. Shame is not the same thing as guilt.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  21. Bryan, (#20)

    I think that anyone who is trying to make an informed choice between Rome and the Reformation should consider this conversation of significant value because the weightiness of the topic.

    And here is a small part of the evidence for its historic importance:

    The problem of the continuing demerit of past sins was very closely connected with Martin Luther’s “evangelical breakthrough.” In his Lectures on Romans (1515-1516), Luther expresses a key element of his previous guilt-problem: “because of *sins that were past*, which they [’the scholastic theologians’] say must be remembered (and here they speak the truth but not strongly enough), *I still had to consider myself a sinner* . . . [and] I felt that these past sins had not been forgiven”
    — *Works*, 25:261, commenting on Romans 4:7

    Also: “through Christ . . . we have an eternal deliverance from *eternal sin*, death, and hell.”
    — Luther, “Selected Psalms,” Works, 13:372.

    If I might, I wish to expand upon my citation of Ezekiel 16:62-63, Romans 3:19 (note: “guilty”), and 6:21 (which, I believe, are part of the broader context of I Timothy 1:13-15) in my previous posting. Since the following texts are closely related to Ezekiel 16:62-63, which is alluded to in Romans 3:19, we see that the demerit-guilt that remains after redemption includes loathsomeness, or odiousness, as well as shame:

    “I will leave a remnant, so that you may have some who escape the sword . . . Then those of you who escape will remember Me . . . I was crushed by their adulterous heart which has departed from Me . . . they will *loathe themselves* for the evils which they committed in all their abominations.”
    — Ezekiel 6:8, 9

    “I will accept you as a sweet aroma when I bring you out from the peoples . . . [and] you shall remember your ways and all your doings with which you were defiled; and you shall *loathe yourselves* in your own sight because of all the evils that you have committed.”
    – Ezekiel 20:41, 43

    “‘*I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you*; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. . . . Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good; and you will *loathe yourselves* in your own sight, for your iniquities and your abominations.'”
    — Ezekiel 36:26-27, 31

    The last selection has particular importance since it speaks of loathsomeness after regeneration. Regeneration (and its fruits) is affirmed to be a contrary-to-(permanent)demerit gift. Therefore, it is a qualitative understatement to say that supernatural charity is merely unmerited.

    Now, let us consider this in the light of Romans 11:35-36: “Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him. For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” If a personal creature possesses the virtue of love as an undeserved gift from the Creator, who is as such the Author of all good, then he owes God thanks for this virtue and therefore deserves no permanent reward from God for it. (This is the case even if the person is guiltless.)

    And this argument increases qualitatively in weight when we add the fact that the virtuous love is given by grace that is contrary-to-loathsomeness, divine favor that is extended to the person in spite of his odiousness-demerit. This additional factor increases qualitatively his indebtedness, his obligation to thankfulness for the gift received. Thus, it is doubly clear that such love cannot have condign merit before God, intrinsic value that has any proportionality to an eternal reward.

    Your response to my citations of Aquinas and interpretation of them is well taken. I think that you are probably correct and I mistaken. Your citation from his comments on Romans 4:7 was apt and quite persuasive. It does indeed seem to me now that his view is that for God to “cover” sins is simply for Him to not “look upon them to be punished.” However, I have some remaining doubts based on these words of his on the same text: “in sin [there is] . . . offense against God. In regard to this he says, ‘blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven,’ the way man is said to remit an offense committed against him.” Perhaps here Aquinas is recognizing that there is a continuing problem of the demerit of past sins which is solved by the past sins being “forgiven.” Perhaps not. I’m not sure.


  22. Jamie, (re: #18)

    I wish to belatedly thank you for your thought-provoking contribution to this most significant discussion.

    I have been carefully mulling over the points you made since I first read it.

    Your words apparently reflect some serious thought on the topic.

    I hope to respond soon.


  23. Keith, (re: #21)

    we see that the demerit-guilt that remains after redemption …

    That’s the very point in question.

    Regarding Ezekiel 6:8-9, and Ezekiel 20:41,43, the shame described in these verses, over past sins, is not the same as guilt. Shame is remorse, and is good. But guilt is, well, I’ve already explained all this in my previous comments. See comment #15 above.

    If a personal creature possesses the virtue of love as an undeserved gift from the Creator, who is as such the Author of all good, then he owes God thanks for this virtue and therefore deserves no permanent reward from God for it.

    The first conclusion follows from the premises, but not the second conclusion. Being given the gift of grace, and thus being put in a state in which one can merit, is entirely gratuitous, and is not something meritorious on the part of the recipient. But it does not thereby follow that the recipient can therefore subsequently not merit. For example, the fact that my parents gave me life does not mean or entail that I cannot subsequently merit something from them. (Otherwise, a father could never in justice owe wages to his son who works for him.)

    And this argument increases qualitatively in weight when we add the fact that the virtuous love is given by grace that is contrary-to-loathsomeness, …

    The second conclusion is still a non sequitur (i.e. does not follow from the premises), even if the person sins.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  24. Jamie, (re: #18)

    I apologize for the delay and thank you for your patience.

    Regarding the example of theft, I think it falls short as an analogy of guilt before God. In the fleshing out of it, theft is being treated more as a tort than as a crime since it is spoken of as something resulting in a financial liability rather than a criminal liability, or obligation to punishment. And even if theft from a fellow human is viewed as a crime against him and a human legal system, it is nonetheless a finite reality whereas a mortal sin creates the liability to a punishment that is everlasting and thus is in this sense infinite. I think that a better analogy of the guilt of mortal sin against God would be first degree murder as a crime against a human being and a human legal system, but even this would be merely an analogy.

    Concerning whether the permanence of demerit is consistent with penal substitution, I refer you to my quotation from a standard Reformed theology textbook in #14. If Louis Berkhof’s distinction between guilt as demerit and guilt as liability to punishment is valid (as I am convinced it is), then there is no contradiction. Penal substitution only annihilates the sinner’s obligation to punishment.

    I completely agree with you when you assert that “Under this definition of guilt, the Catholic concept of Infused Righteousness would also have to be rejected.” If the demerit of a particular mortal sin is permanent, then such righteousness is impossible because it entails merit.

    However, I am convinced that this doctrine of permanent demerit is consistent with that of *imputed* righteousness which Luther proclaimed as a result of his “evangelical breakthrough.” Luther taught that, even though guilt as demerit persists, it is “covered” by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in this specific sense: it is *infinitely and qualitatively outweighed* by the divinity of the righteousness of the God-man. In the cross, divine righteousness transcends and trumps human guilt. Therefore, in Luther’s words, all past sins are in this sense “no sins” even though the past is not annihilated.

    Regarding whether the permanence of demerit is consistent with the purity of heaven, I concede that there is a mystery here. However, let me present another difficulty that is in my view at least as great: the presence of an effect of sin, not merely in heaven, but in the God-man Himself. Evidently referring to the scars of His crucifixion, Revelation 5:6 speaks of “a Lamb standing, as having been slain.” The Greek word underlying “having been slain” is a perfect participle, which designates a past action resulting in a present condition. (A perfect participle is also found in “[as] having been crucified” in I Corinthians 2:2 and Galatians 3:1.) An important truth concerning the crucifixion of Christ is that it was caused by sin and this would include the marks that remain in His body. They have been made primarily trophies of His victory, but in themselves they will always be the effects of sin. Therefore, I do not see the persistence of demerit in persons who are infinitely and qualitatively less than God to be an insurmountable problem. It is simply a conquered enemy which, as it were, lives on in a state of utter humiliation–which actually (like the marks in Christ’s body) contributes to the everlasting glory of Jesus’ redemptive conquest.


  25. Byran (re: #20, 23)

    I believe that it is becoming increasingly evident from our present discussion that a central difference between Rome and the Reformation consists in two essentially different definitions of “reatus culpae” as it pertains to mortal sin. For Lutheran and Reformed theologians, the meaning of the term corresponds to Louis Berkhof’s definition of demerit (as distinguished from obligation to punishment) found in my quotation of him in #14.

    Berkhof also writes, “‘reatus culpae’ . . . is the intrinsic moral ill-desert of an act or state. This is of the essence of sin and is an inseparable part of its sinfulness. It attaches only to those who have themselves committed sinful deeds, and attaches to them permanently. It cannot be removed by forgiveness”
    — *Systematic Theology*, p. 245

    Charles Hodge, defining “reatus culpae” as “guilt in the form of inherent ill-desert,” writes, “When the believer is justified, his guilt, but not his demerit, is removed. He remains in fact, and in his own eyes, the same unworthy, hell-deserving creature, in himself considered, that he was before.”
    — *Systematic Theology*, 2:2, pp. 188-189

    These words agree with Luther’s affirmation of “an eternal deliverance from eternal sin” (#21) and the following words of respected Luther scholar Paul Althaus:

    “[According to Luther] God judges man not only in terms of his [present] moral being, but also and primarily in terms of his guilt. And that guilt is not changed by his future [subsequent] righteousness.”
    — *The Theology of Martin Luther*, p. 242 []: mine

    In contrast, the position of Rome as you have explained it (and please correct any error of mine here) , is that “reatus culpa” is the *disorder of the will* in which the mortal sin is committed and which continues after the sin until such time as the will is transformed in absolution. I do not see in this definition any assertion that the person continues to deserve punishment for the mortal sin itself after the sin is committed (even though the obligation to punishment that he deserved, or earned, while committing it continues).

    With regard to the “shame” of God’s people after the atonement is applied to them in Ezekiel 16:62-63 (#19), if this shame is a *good* sentiment (and you are obviously right in pointing out that it is), then it must be based on truth. Therefore, their condition of having committed sins must be one of objective shamefulness, or disgrace. And, the holy “loath[ing]” of *themselves* by God’s people after their salvation in the three passages from Ezekiel that I cited in #21, if truthful, must imply that they are presently (even while they are loathing themselves) objectively loathsome, this loathsomeness consisting of sins committed prior to salvation.

    These texts from Ezekiel are closely related to the following selections from the Psalms:

    “O Lord, Your tender mercies and Your lovingkindnesses . . . are from of old. . . . Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions . . . forgive all my sins.”
    — 25:6-7, 18

    “blot out my transgressions. . . . I acknowledge my transgressions . . . Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin my mother conceived me. . . . Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities.”
    — 51:1, 3, 5, 9

    These selections are contained within confessions of sin. In both of them, David confesses and asks forgiveness for old sins that have previously been forgiven by God. Even if what is asked for might be expressed as preservation in forgiveness, the petitions would be quite meaningless if the demerit of these sins was not a present reality as David prays.

    Harmonious with David’s words are these of the Apostle:

    “concerning zeal, persecuting the church . . . But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss on account of Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss on account of the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I . . . count them as rubbish”
    — Philippians 3:6-8

    Here Paul’s holy and truthful counting of his past career as a persecutor to be “rubbish” and a “loss,” or a present liability, is closely connected with the aforementioned (#16) confession that he *is* (as he writes I Timothy) the “first” of “sinners.”

    At this point, if I might, I wish to ask whether the following words of mine fairly and accurately express Roman Catholic teaching:

    The loathsomeness of the mortal sin itself in the sight of God (including the disorder of the will involved in it but not the continuance afterward of this disorder) attaches to the sinner as part of his identity only while he is committing it. Thus, “I am committing murder” affirms a present loathsome fact about the speaker, but “I committed murder” in itself does not.

    Finally, I think it might be helpful for me to provide some context for my quotation of Anglican bishop James Ussher (#12) which initiated our present discussion:

    “Our justification must stand in imputation. Nothing else can do it. Why? When sin is once done, it is impossible to be undone again. With a holy reverence be it spoken, that which is once done, and ill done, God cannot make it be undone again; being evil done, it always continues so, an evil act. . . . Hence, therefore, comes our freedom, that though that, which is done, and ill done, cannot be undone; yet that that . . . God will pass by, and not impute it. That is, give unto us a righteousness without [outside] ourselves, which brings us to a wonderful liberty: yea (I may affirm) working hereby a perpetual miracle for us; which is wonderful indeed”
    — Sermon 2 on John 8:32 []: mine

    I appreciate this discussion, not only because of the importance of the topic, but also because I believe that we are both aiming for maximum clarity in our statements concerning it.


  26. Keith (re: #25)

    And, the holy “loath[ing]” of *themselves* by God’s people after their salvation in the three passages from Ezekiel that I cited in #21, if truthful, must imply that they are presently (even while they are loathing themselves) objectively loathsome, ….

    Loathing for past sins does not entail that one’s present condition as such is loathsome, but is consistent with it being true that one’s past, which is the past of the present person, is loathsome. It is better to have repented than to still be in a state of mortal sin. But it is better still to have never sinned. That does not entail that a person who has once sinned can never be righteous. It is important not to conflate the distinction I described in the last paragraph of comment #17 above. Being righteousness is not the same as it being true of a person that he has never sinned and has always only obeyed. Being righteous has to do with the present disposition of the will, whether loving God above all else, or loving something other than God above all else. And both a person who has never sinned and always obeyed, *and* a person who has repented, are righteous in that sense.

    David confesses and asks forgiveness for old sins that have previously been forgiven by God

    That’s an assumption on your part. It assumes that the sins he is asking forgiveness for are sins God had previously forgiven.

    is closely connected with the aforementioned (#16) confession that he *is* (as he writes I Timothy) the “first” of “sinners.”

    Again, I already addressed this very passage, in comment #17 above.

    The loathsomeness of the mortal sin itself in the sight of God (including the disorder of the will involved in it but not the continuance afterward of this disorder) attaches to the sinner as part of his identity only while he is committing it.

    The loathsomeness of sin is never part of our identity. But the guilt of mortal sin remains until repentance, because the disorder of the will remains until repentance.

    Thus, “I am committing murder” affirms a present loathsome fact about the speaker, but “I committed murder” in itself does not.

    The latter does not entail present guilt, not because the action is in the past, but because the person may have subsequently repented and be in a state of grace.

    The Ussher quotation makes the same mistake of conflating the distinction I described in the last paragraph of comment #17, i.e. conflating the present truth about a present person’s past act with a present truth about a present person’s present state. Of course if one conflates that distinction, then infusion of righteousness will seem impossible because the past cannot be changed.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  27. Bryan (re: #26)

    Thank you for your thoughtful response.

    After mulling over your words, “The loathsomeness of sin is never part of our identity,” I have concluded that the term I used, “identity,” might be unintentionally ambiguous or misleading, since it might be reasonably understood as denoting one’s essence. Thus, in the interest of greater clarity, please allow me to submit a better-formulated question.

    I wish to ask whether the following statement fairly and accurately expresses Roman Catholic teaching:

    The loathsomeness of a mortal sin itself (including the disorder of the will involved in it but not the continuance afterward of this disorder) attaches to the sinner as a (contingent, not necessary or essential) quality that he has before God while he is committing it.


  28. Bryan (re: #27)

    Concerning the question I posed, I wish to ask whether you are aware of a published (traditionally or online) philosophical discussion of this topic in defense of the Roman Catholic position?


  29. Bryan (re: #27)

    I believe that Scripture confirms sound reason in implicitly affirming the statement at the end of #27.

    The person who commits a murder is by that very fact a murderer:

    “if he strikes him with an iron implement, so that he dies, he is a murderer . . . if he strikes him with a stone in the hand, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer . . . if he strikes him with a wooden hand weapon, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer . . . If he pushes him out of hatred or, while lying in wait, hurls something at him so that he dies, or in enmity he strikes him with his hand so that he dies . . . He is a murderer. . . . Whoever kills a person, [i.e.] the murderer”
    — Numbers 35:16, 17, 18, 20-21, 30

    The doer of an abominable act is ipso facto abominable since the abominable act is nothing other than the agent of the act as committing it:

    “all who do so are an abomination to the Lord your God.”
    — Deuteronomy 22:5

    “He who chooses you is an abomination.”
    — Isaiah 41:24

    “They became an abomination”
    – Hosea 9:10

    “man, who is abominable and filthy, who drinks iniquity like water!”
    — Job 15:16

    “being abominable, disobedient”
    — Titus 1:16

    “abominable, murderers”
    — Revelation 21:8


  30. Keith (re: #29)

    All those Scriptural statements are fully compatible with everything I’ve said above being true.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, 2015

  31. Bryan (re: #27)

    “Freedom makes man *responsible* for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary. . . . Every act directly willed is imputable to its author”
    — *Catechism of the Catholic Church*, 1734 and 1736, 3:1:1:3

    Do you believe that these words logically imply the truth of the statement at the end of #27?


  32. Keith, (re: #31)

    No, I don’t. The CCC statement does not logically entail the other statement. But this continued interrogation seems off the topic of the post above. Thanks.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  33. Bryan, (re: #32)

    I wish to belatedly thank you for thoughtfully interacting with me here regarding the subject of demerit.


Leave Comment

Subscribe without commenting