Did Trent Teach that Christ’s Merits Are Not Sufficient for Salvation?

Jun 13th, 2012 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Reformed theologian Michael Horton recently claimed that “Trent said in no uncertain terms that Christ’s merits are not sufficient for salvation.” Whether or not that claim sounds suspicious to you, and it did to me, remember one of the cardinal rules in ecumenical inquiry: Don’t get your Catholic theology from Protestant hearsay–and vice versa. Go to the source, if you want to learn the truth.

I certainly could not find the aforementioned “no uncertain terms” while perusing the teaching of the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent. My guess is that Horton must have meant to indicate that the Catholic Church condemned the opinion that justification consists in the sole imputation of Christ’s merits. This is true. Trent taught that justification is by infusion of grace and charity and that once received, the increase in justification includes the believer’s actual participation in the merits of Christ. But this does not entail that Christ’s merits are not sufficient for salvation (quite the opposite). It appears that Horton is assuming a “zero-sum” understanding of merits, such that the works done by persons in a state of grace are “added to” the merits of Christ, thus “equaling” enough merits to be saved. But Catholic soteriology does not employee a zero-sum model of merit; rather, our merits spring from our participation in the life of Christ, even as the fruit of the branches depends upon their union with the vine. [1]

Whatever Horton might have meant, we can employee our cardinal rule and look at what the Tridentine Fathers actually taught concerning Christ’s merits, our merits, and salvation. This is what we find:

The causes of this justification are:

the final cause is the glory of God and of Christ and life everlasting; the efficient cause is the merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance, the meritorious cause is His most beloved only begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited for us justification by His most holy passion on the wood of the cross and made satisfaction for us to God the Father…

For though no one can be just except he to whom the merits of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ are communicated, yet this takes place in that justification of the sinner, when by the merit of the most holy passion, the charity of God is poured forth by the Holy Ghost in the hearts of those who are justified and inheres in them; whence man through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives in that justification, together with the remission of sins, all these infused at the same time, namely, faith, hope and charity. (The Council of Trent, Session VI, Chapter VII.)

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. (Ibid., Chapter XVI.)

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. (Ibid., Canon 32.)

From here, I will leave it to the reader to decide how this teaching sits vis-a-vis Horton’s claim that “Trent said in no uncertain terms that Christ’s merits are not sufficient for salvation.” The comment box is open for discussion.

_________

[1] On merit see “The Doctrine of Merit: Feingold, Calvin, and the Church Fathers.” The notion that justification is by an extra nos imputation is a sixteenth century novelty. None of the Church Fathers taught it. St. Augustine, for example, expresses the patristic notion of justification as the infusion of agape, the writing of the law on the heart “so that they might be justified” (On the Spirit and the Letter, 29), and again, “See how he [i.e. St. Paul] shows that the one is written without [i.e. outside of] man, that it may alarm him from without; the other within man himself, that it may justify him from within.” (On the Spirit and the Letter, 30) And a bit later, “For this writing in the heart is effected by renovation, although it had not been completely blotted out by the old nature. For just as that image of God is renewed in the mind of believers by the new testament, which impiety had not quite abolished (for there had remained undoubtedly that which the soul of man cannot be except it be rational), so also the law of God, which had not been wholly blotted out there by unrighteousness, is certainly written thereon, renewed by grace. Now in the Jews the law which was written on tables could not effect this new inscription, which is justification, but only transgression.” (On the Spirit and the Letter, 48) There St. Augustine explicitly states that justification is the writing of the law on the heart, i.e. the infusion of agape. There are many other such examples (see, for example, “St. Augustine on Law and Grace“). Justification, for St. Augustine and the Fathers is not by extra nos imputation, but by the infusion of grace and agape, which infusion is the writing of the law on the heart. God, who is the Truth, counts us righteous only if we are, by this supernatural gift of grace and agape poured out into our hearts, truly righteous within, and thus have “real righteousness.” This understanding of justification as the infusion of grace and agape into the heart is what we find throughout the Fathers. It is also what we find in Scripture; see “Does the Bible Teach Sola Fide?

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  1. Andrew,

    Thanks for this post. I had noticed Horton’s claim as well, and I was flabbergasted by it. I was also troubled by the line that follows, where he contrasts the Catholic and Reformed understanding of grace, and characterizes the Catholic view as “God’s medicine infused to help us cooperate.” That phrasing seems unnecessarily and misleadingly to suggest that Catholics think grace is some “stuff”, some substance that God injects, and that it is to be understood in purely utilitarian rather than relational terms.

    John

  2. Great post Andrew, thank you for writing this.

    When I was in seminary at RTS a Church History Professor once said that Augustine would have “horrified” by Luther’s doctrine of justification. Then, once I began to understand that the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas was necessary to understand Trent, and subsequently that Aquinas understood himself as deeply indebted to Augustine, I began to see that Trent stood in continuity with what the Church had always understood concerning justification while the Reformers had radically departed.

  3. Thanks for this Andrew. In my view, and along the lines of your embedded advice to readers, Horton would do better to explicitly signal to his audience when he is deploying “such-and-such ‘amounts to’ such-and-such from the Reformed perspective” rhetoric. What I mean is that Horton sometimes speaks with the tone and authority of a trained historical theologian, describing the position of some person or party, while at the same time writing things that couldn’t be considered anything but gross misrepresentation, and wouldn’t pass the first round of peer review at any credible professional journal of historical theology. I remember being “flabbergasted” as well, when he described “Catholic soteriology” as conceptualizing divine grace in the economy of salvation as a kind of “power bar,” which gives sinners a helpful little boost toward accomplishing a task (“saving themselves”) that they could anyway accomplish without it. Similarly here, with respect to the “no uncertain terms” remark. In these cases, it seems that Horton is telling his readers what he thinks Catholic theology “really amounts to” or what it “in effect really means;” but, unhelpfully, he does so in such a way that it sounds like he’s straightforwardly relaying the Catholic formulations themselves, as opposed to what his Reformed scruples tell him those positions must “really be saying.”

    From the vantage point of historical theology and especially from the perspective of Augustinians like me, it is distressing that Horton would speak so incautiously and loosely about such historically and theoretically important theological formulations while donning the professorial cap.

    PS: John S., right. Your remarks and Andrew’s footnote remind me of the little Augustinian tidbit I mentioned in the thread to Andrew’s Gift of Salvation.

  4. Thanks for this post, Andrew. Recently I was beginning to seriously consider departing from my exploration of Catholicism, which I’ve been doing for about a month and a half now. My reasons for getting discouraged were that I’ve come across the Catholic teaching of making satisfaction for sins in order to merit heaven (my words, more or less). I saw this on a sign containing a prayer outside a Catholic church yesterday (the beginning of the Stations of the Cross) and also, I believe, in the Catholic Catechism regarding confession and penance. The idea of making expiation or satisfaction for sins by one’s own acts of penance is something I struggle with. Not surprisingly, I was beginning to conclude just as Michael Horton did, i.e., that Catholicism teaches that salvation consists of one’s own works plus Christ’s. Reading your post, however, has encouraged me to keep exploring this issue of justification, which for me is the most crucial issue regarding Catholicism.

  5. Hello Jeremy (re: #4),

    You might also wish to take a look at a post I wrote a few years ago, titled “St. Thomas Aquinas on Penance.”

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  6. Jeremy,

    I highly recommend reading the documents of the Council of Trent, and the Catechism of the Council of Trent. I had always heard of these, and just sort of assumed that they were hard, calculating, severe statements of Catholicism versus Protestantism (and Gospel, etc.). But imagine my surprise when I found them to be rich statements of the doctrines of salvation, full of biblical language and imagery (especially the Session on Justification) and pastoral wisdom! See, for example, the section on penance in the Catechism of the Council of Trent. It is wonderful. Here is an inexpensive and highly readable, easily navigable kindle edition of the Catechism, and here is a free, but less readable, online edition.

    Andrew

  7. Hello Bryan and Andrew,

    Thanks for your recommendations. I have, in fact, been reading parts of the Council of Trent and continue to read more. It’s actually a fascinating read. I recently bought a hard copy of the Catechism, which I have been reading. Thanks for your post recommendation, Bryan. I’ll check it out. Any cogent explanations of these issues from the Catholic perspective are most welcome. Although I used to be against the Catholic Church, I am now actually for it. I actually *want* to determine that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded, yet I am slow to reach any final conclusions because the hot-button issues of justification and making satisfaction for sin are not as simple as they might appear to be. At this point, I see both the Protestant and Catholic views on these issues to have merit. In fact, it seems that both sides have valid concerns and emphasize those aspects of the issue that reflect those specific concerns. Catholics, for example, concerned about the necessity for a changed life, emphasize works in justification. Protestants, on the other hand, concerned about ensuring that Christ’s work on the cross be seen as the sole payment for our sins, emphasize faith in justification. It’s as if each side emphasizes just one side of the coin. As a result, I find myself going back and forth between the two positions, first thinking one is right and the other wrong, and then thinking the reverse.

    Jeremy

  8. Dear Jeremy,

    I’m encouraged to hear that you’re continuing to study. One thing that helped me, in my studies on the same issue, was the Catechism’s explanation of what is meant by penance, satisfaction, and related locutions, and also the teachings on this issue by the two most recent popes (JP2 and B16).

    In particular, it was helpful to learn that, according to Catholic theology, sin has a “double consequence.” One consequence of sin is called the “eternal punishment” due to sin. Since sin involves a turning away from God and an inordinate turning toward created goods, in the act of sin we separate ourselves from the Lord and, being finite and undeserving, we can’t work ourselves back into favor with God, or overcome the chasm our sin has introduced. So, if it is helpful, you can think of this “eternal punishment” of sin as corresponding to the “legal debt” we owe to God; and, as St Anselm insisted in Cur Deus Homo, only a person who is both God and Man could make a satisfaction acceptable to divine justice. It follows that we ourselves cannot “make satisfaction” or “do enough penance” to overcome the eternal punishment of sin: we’re Hell-bound, and there’s nothing we ourselves can do about it; only Jesus can fix that problem.

    But there is another consequence of sin (or another aspect of the “double consequence”), and this is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. This is not so much a legal penalty attaching to sin, which God imposes from “outside of us,” and for which we need to “make satisfaction,” in the sense of paying God back or paying off our debts. Rather, it is the consequence, or impact, or effect, that sinning itself has upon me as an individual. (Note, sometimes temporal punishments will involve such “paybacks,” as when, for example, I have stolen something belonging to you, and justice demands not only that I give it back, but that I do something more to make restitution or say I’m sorry. That’s okay: we’re still in the sphere of temporal punishments of sin here, since my making restitution to you does not obviate the need for the satisfaction for eternal punishment, which only Christ can provide.)

    Here is an analogy: suppose I play the prodigal, running away from home, and I get myself addicted to meth or to smack or something. Then imagine I have a moment of clarity and come back to my parents’ home, begging forgiveness, and that they truly forgive me, no strings attached. Great; that means (in our analogy) that the “eternal punishment” for sin is now taken care of: I truly am forgiven, full stop. But — and here’s the rub — I still have an addiction to deal with. I have still harmed by body and soul by my behavior, and now I need to go through a course of rehabilitation in order to fight against that addiction, to quell and subdue it, to recover my psychological and physical health. Being forgiven by my parents is wonderful and needful, but it does not automatically “undo” all of the natural consequences that come about through my sinful behavior. It is not as though my parents are, externally, inflicting these punishments on me, so that I’ll learn my lesson. It isn’t as though I’m currying forgiveness from them by suffering through these urges and withdrawal symptoms, because I’ve brought these upon myself through my own behavior. Suffering through these consequences is fully consistent with having been completely absolved, forgiven, for the sins that brought them on. And what Catholic theology says is that these consequences are real, and that the antidote or fix for them is to engage in “acts of penance,” making “satisfaction” for those sins, with the aim of growing in our personal sanctification.

    Here are some passages from the Catechism for comparison:

    #1472:

    To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church [purgatory], it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin.

    Importantly, the notion that the “temporal punishment” or second consequence of sin is some sort of “backward looking” retribution God extracts from individuals in view of their “past failures” is explicitly repudiated, since the punishment in question “must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin” (#1472). And it follows from the nature of sin because sin doesn’t only harm the person against whom it is perpetrated or amass a whole ton of debt before God or whatever, it “also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor” (#1459), because it “creates a proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts [and] results in perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil,” which in turn explains why “sin tends to reproduce itself and reinforce itself” (#1865).

    Thus although “Absolution takes away sin” – i.e. although it removes the “eternal punishment” and secures our forgiveness – receiving this forgiveness “does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused” – i.e. it doesn’t automatically eliminate the strength of the urge to sin in those particular ways, nor does it necessarily remove all the consequences that naturally follow from sinning. Consequently, once he has been “Raised up from sin [i.e. forgiven], the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins,” an activity which “is also called ‘penance’” (#1459).

    So, although the terms sound foreign and suspicious to Reformed ears, things like “satisfaction” and “expiation” and “suffering” and “penance” and the like do not refer to the poor soul’s attempt to appease the fury of God by offering itself up as an object of divine vengeance; these activities are aimed precisely at the “forward looking” goal of the transformation of the “old man” into the “new man,” according to Catholic teaching:

    #1473

    The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the “new man.”

    And this is why, finally, the kind of “conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain,” since such a comprehensive and profound perfection of the entire life’s effort toward conversio, or reorientation toward God and away from sin, signals the end “of the struggle … directed toward holiness and eternal life” whereby the Christian “seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of God’s grace” (#1426, #1474). I.e. “temporal punishment” and “penance/expiation” and the like are, in this context, directed at what Protestants call “progressive sanctification.”

    I hope that these remarks were helpful, and that I haven’t been too longwinded. As I said, I was bothered by precisely the same concerns when I was on the road toward the Catholic Church; but I must admit that when I made a serious study of them, not only were my concerns addressed, but I discovered a theological and psychological depth and richness to Catholic teaching on these matters which I had been entirely unaware of before. If you’d like to discuss these and related matters more, feel free to contact me.

    Peace,

    Neal

  9. If a baby who has been baptized dies, he/she will go to heaven. A baby hasn’t done anything good (or bad) for his/her salvation. So Christ’s merits are obviously enough for a person to be saved, even if the person does nothing.

  10. Actually not only for babies, but for all men, it is Christ’s merit that suffice and enables transformation.
    It is by Christ’s merit sins are forgiven.
    It is by Christ’s merit also, transformation (perhaps using “old language”: expiation of temporal punishment) is made possible.
    It is because of Christ’s merit also, the doctrine of Purgatory exists. It is His merit that make us possible to become “perfect as the Father is perfect” and purified the person to be able to see God face to face. Thus Purgatory is no other than grace, it is God’s love that burns out all imperfections.

    It is all about Christ’s merit.
    In Catholic vs Protestant debate, what I often see is different understanding on how this merit work in life of the faithful. Protestants often claim that the Catholic Church is taking away the centrality of Christ’s merit. On the other hand the Catholic Church said those teachings only possible because of Christ’s merit.

  11. Alfonus, I agree. I’m just pointing out that it seems to me that the fact Catholics baptize babies shows that Catholics believe that Christ’s merits, by themselves, are sufficient for salvation.

  12. I stopped reading the Tridentine canons years ago; it’s far easier to take aim at opposing theologies on the basis of what the people I agree with say about it.

    Seriously though, some time ago, when reading Tom Wright on this and other soteriological issues, I think he rightly challenged the notion of the medieval concept of merit ever really having a place at the table of this (justification) discussion. Nevertheless, following the trajectory laid out in this post, I think Bishop Wright added a helpful Augustinian (Calvinian?) caveat: Those works that are done in God and fully satisfy the divine law necessarily follow from the declaration of God’s justification in Christ. There’s little doubt that the justified will “depart [this life] in grace,” precisely because “them he justified, them he also glorified.” This is not to remove the threat of apostasy so much as it is to provide the grace of assurance available to all those who by baptism have been united to Christ Jesus.

    I wrote about this in more detail (as it relates to Tom Wright) here.

  13. Chris,

    I don’t think that Augustine would agree that those works necessarily follow justification. He held that the set of those who have been justified is larger than the set of the elect / those who will ultimately be glorified. But yes, I remember reading something like what you say in N.T. Wright’s book on justification. I remember thinking that, coupled with what he says elsewhere about baptism, this seems to entail that all the baptized will persevere to the end.

    The connection between justification and glorification in Romans 8 is perfectly compatible, I think, with St. Augustine’s position, which is the Catholic position. Based on the dynamics of sonship / adoption, heirship, and inheritance in the Bible, it seems to me that although all the baptized (adopted sons) are heirs of eternal glory, not all of these heirs ultimately receive the inheritance. So, the justified have been glorified, as in having been prepared for eternal glory (made heirs). St. Paul does not, in that verse, explicitly state whether it is possible for these justified sons to forfeit their inheritance, but elsewhere he and other NT writers, drawing upon the OT concepts of sonship and inheritance, do indicate that such is the case.

    I’m looking forward to reading what you wrote about this … as soon as I brew some coffee.

    Andrew

  14. Neal, #8

    Thank you for this – you said what I wanted to say and much better than I could have said it. As a (Reformed->Anglican->Catholic) convert I still remember being overwhelmed by the beauty of the Catholic teaching on merit/Purgatory etc. when it was first explained to me as I was receiving instruction prior to full reception into the Church. I still am overwhelmed, and I am still growing in my understanding of this teaching. One thing I will add is that I continue to be amazed and edified by the intricate web of connections between various Church teachings, which weren’t (for me anyway) obvious, nor do I think they would be to most other Protestant converts, except in retrospect. In this case I would point to a wonderful little blessing which is the concluding part of the Traditional (EF) formula for Absolution:

    May the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ,
    The merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of all the Saints,
    Whatever good you do, and whatever evil you suffer,
    Be to you for the remission of sins, the increase of grace,
    And the reward of eternal life. Amen.

    And, parenthetically, it should be noted that even though most Latin-rite priests today use the OF, nevertheless the theology found in this blessing is still the theology of the Church, and therefore must be seen as at least implicit in the graces conferred by Absolution.

    What strikes me here is the wonderfully ennobling link or connection to the Church’s teaching on Suffering. Because once one understands what Neal has explained in #8 and begins to reflect on how this relates not only to the Church’s teaching on Purgatory, but also the Church’s teaching on Suffering in general, and one realizes that a blessing like this gives so much power and meaning to the daily struggle we have against sin, in the midst of trials, temptations, and suffering.

    Note that the blessing quoted above does not specify (though it does not thereby exclude) *my* sins, grace for *me*, and eternal life for *me*. The beauty of the Catholic doctrine of Suffering is that I am enjoined to offer up my suffering (always in union with Christ’s offering of his Passion) to God not just for *my own* sins, negligences, and ignorances, in expiation for the temporal punishments due, but I am specifically enjoined to offer up my suffering for OTHERS – (just as Jesus did) in reparation for the sins of OTHERS, and for the increase of grace in OTHERS, and for the reward of eternal life (through the gifts of the grace of Faith, Hope, and Charity) for OTHERS.

    This, by the way, is also entirely biblical, because (for e.g.) Paul doesn’t say “All things work together for good to YOU who love God and are called according to his purpose.” No, he says “to THEM that love God and are called according to his purpose.” now that “THEM” does not necessarily *exclude* me, but it is inclusive of much MORE than just me. And it is often the case, that through this act of charity of offering up my suffering for the good of another member of the body, that the “good to them that love God” is made manifest, whereas if I look at this verse as only speaking to me in my own isolated existence, and not as a member of the Body of Christ bound to the Head and to the other Members by the bond of Charity, then, quite often, this verse really doesn’t make sense.

    Quite often it seems that All things DON’T work together *for me as an individual* thus isolated from the Body. Often things seem (to me thus isolated) to be definitely NOT “for *my* good”! But when understood in it’s proper Catholic context, this teaching is very beautiful and it also then helps to support the Catholic pro-life teaching as well. Because you can therefore see that even the lives of those who suffer greatly, have immense value and meaning and importance for the Life and well-being of the Church as a whole, when those who thus suffer are able to offer up their suffering, in union with Christ’s Passion, and in the bond of charity, for the needs of the Church – and ultimately, as Jesus did, for the Life of the World. Such teaching gives even the most wretched (by human standards) life a great mission and purpose – for we are not put here, after all, to simply to “bear” such suffering as God chooses to send our way, but rather to actively “offer up” that suffering for others, as Christ did, and in doing so, we not only show the love of God at work in our lives, but we also thereby fulfill our own vocation by becoming more “Christ-like”.

    Hopefully this comment is not too far afield from the context of the discussion, but it is sometimes helpful to see that the Catholic teaching on merit is something which (as I can attest) is often seen by Protestants – even Protestants who are seriously considering the claims of the Church – in far too individualistic a sense, and this can easily result in missing the full beauty and power of the Church’s teaching.

    Pax Christi,
    Jeff H.

  15. Hi, Could somebody address whether purgatory is a purgation of the attachments to sin or remnants of sin in the sinner or whether it satisfies divine judgement for venial sins not sufficiently repented of? We know that all merit ends at death so the soul does not grow in grace in purgatory. Is purgatory directed toward God or toward the soul? We don’t grow in charity in purgatory, do we? Feedback please.

  16. Jim,

    Thanks for the comment. The best answer that I can give is to note that each of your questions is addressed in the Catholic Encyclopedia article on purgatory.

    Andrew

  17. Dear Jeff,

    Thanks for explicitly drawing these connections. You betcha they’re there; otherwise, prayer, works and suffering for others (to say nothing of indulgences) wouldn’t really coherently attach to the whole in the way that they do. This is one area, though, where moderns like us (especially those with Prot backgrounds) really do need to slow down, try to get the hostility under control, and just think hard about the “package” as understood and taught by the Church.

    Neal

  18. Jeff H. – Beautifully said! One of the things I love most about being Catholic is the doctrine of redemptive suffering. I had never specifically thought about the THEM vs. YOU idea, but of course it fits in perfectly.

    Thank you!

  19. A few weeks ago, Michael Horton repeated the accusation that, according to the Catholic Church, “the merits of Christ are not sufficient for salvation.” Here is the quote:

    Condemning the doctrine of justification as taught by the apostles, Rome just as explicitly affirms justification by our meritorious obedience as we cooperate with enabling grace. The merits of Christ are not sufficient for our salvation. This is not an inference, but the clear and consistent teaching of Rome’s magisterium to the present day. Rome is therefore not a true church.

    The problem is, for this claim not to be an inference, or simply a bald assertion, Horton would need to provide a quotation from Trent or some other authoritative source of Catholic doctrine that explicitly says that Christ’s merits are not sufficient for salvation. He does not do this. Therefore, Horton is either concealing his Catholic source(s) for this putative “clear and consistent teaching,” or his accusation is simply a bald assertion, something that he fabricated for polemical purposes, or it is in fact an inference from the proposition (which is taught by the Catholic Church) that “by our meritorious obedience we cooperate with … grace.” But the insufficiency of Christ’s merits does not follow from our cooperation with grace, as briefly explained in the second paragraph of the above post.

    Catholic Answers provides a brief description of the Catholic understanding of merit. The entry on “Merit” in the Catholic Encyclopedia is also helpful, and goes into much more detail. This section, in particular, is relevant to Horton’s claim:

    Christian faith teaches us that the Incarnate Son of God by His death on the cross has in our stead fully satisfied God’s anger at our sins, and thereby effected a reconciliation between the world and its Creator. Not, however, as though nothing were now left to be done by man, or as though he were now restored to the state of original innocence, whether he wills it or not; on the contrary, God and Christ demand of him that he make the fruits of the Sacrifice of the Cross his own by personal exertion and co-operation with grace, by justifying faith and the reception of baptism. It is a defined article of the Catholic Faith that man before, in, and after justification derives his whole capability of meriting and satisfying, as well as his actual merits and satisfactions, solely from the infinite treasure of merits which Christ gained for us on the Cross (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. VI, cap. xvi; Sess. XIV, cap. viii).

    It is precisely because Christ’s merits are sufficient for our salvation that the Church teaches “that man before, in, and after justification derives his whole capability of meriting and satisfying, as well as his actual merits and satisfactions, solely from the infinite treasure of merits which Christ gained for us on the Cross” (emphasis added).

    Clearly, an infinite treasure of merits (“which Christ gained for us on the Cross”) is a sufficient treasure of merits. One cannot go beyond infinity. But one can, through living faith and the sacraments, participate in the infinite merits of Christ. And that is the clear and consistent teaching of the Catholic magisterium (both ordinary and extraordinary), from St. Peter to the present day.

  20. Andrew (#19),

    Remember, though, that St. Paul said that “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions…” (Col 1:24), so I’m sure he, too, was accused of something similar to what Horton claims. In other words, were in good company. : )

  21. Rather than the zero-sum, either/or viewpoint so characteristic of Reformed Theology, once again in this area the Church provides a richer, deeper, both/and teaching on this matter.

    In § 1476 the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting from the Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 01/01/1967 at §5, states, “…’the ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy,” which certainly poses no conflict with the Protestant point of view of the merits of Christ’s Passion and Death.

    However, that is not the end of the story. Continuing the quotation from Indulgentiarum Doctrina, CCC § 1477 states, “This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.”

    Remarkably, the Church is saying that prayer and meritorious sacrifices offered by her children are added to the infinite merits of Christ, which really is the only way Col. 1:24 makes sense. Those who have some mathematical acumen will immediately object that one cannot add to infinity. Well, that’s certainly true for mortal math, but in this context the Father honors our merits, while literally infinitesimal, with participation in Christ’s saving mission. As in salvation, for which the Church is bound by the means Christ has provided, God is not bound, in this context by the constructs of human math (as they have been developed so far in our history). This also explains why invoking the intercession of Our Lady and the Saints is such a “force multiplier”, to use a particularly apt military term.

    Andrew has given us the poignant figure of a man accepting the “help” of his small child in rolling a boulder up a hill. A similar example was offered by Mother Miriam of the Lamb of God (née Rosalind Moss) who likened this principle to a mother permitting her small child to “help” her bake a cake. Both these examples vividly demonstrate that while God has no need of our prayers for Himself in His infinite glory, we need to offer them, and not only does God receive these prayers, he values them much more highly than we likely suspect.

    Should I persevere to the Beatific Vision, I should not at all be surprised to find that contrary to the utilitarian viewpoint so prevalent in our secular culture, the most productive people in history will have been those who prayed the most, not only cloistered nuns (have you noticed the inverse relation of the number of nuns praying to the morality of the culture?), but people we never notice who quietly offer up their prayers and sufferings in great generosity to those who most need them.

    Now, under which model does God truly appear more glorious? Those on the journey will see this phenomenon repeated over and over again.

  22. One other point to add to the post above: While we see that the prayer and sacrifices of the Saints add to the infinite merits of Christ in the Treasury of the Church, they are applied differently. Bryan Cross explains this in his consistently thorough manner in his this post: http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2011/01/indulgences-the-treasury-of-merit-and-the-communion-of-saints/ .
    In fine, only the Atonement won for us by Jesus satisfies our debt of eternal punishment, while the merits obtained by the prayer and sacrifices of the Saints may be applied by the Church to our temporal debt, which is what an indulgence is. This is also explains why our prayers for the Poor Souls in Purgatory are efficacious. One of the unfortunate legacies of the Reformation is that generations of our ancestors have had no one pray for them in particular, so offering prayers for them is a worthy act for those called to communion.

    Thanks to all who post on this site, which presents penetrating analysis in clear exposition with remarkably gracious courtesy. God Bless!

  23. Hello David Paggi,
    And the merits/satisfactions of Mary? Unlike the ( other ) saints, she participated in the objective redemption on Calvary. I have never seen the distinction you make and would be interested in learning more. Doesn’t the Atonement won by Christ also satisfy temporal debt? I am thinking of Baptism in which the merits of the saints play no part ( that I am aware of ). I am not asking a “gotcha’ question”. I am seriously interested in learning more. Thanks

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