Did Trent Teach that Christ’s Merits Are Not Sufficient for Salvation?Jun 13th, 2012 | By Andrew Preslar | 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. 
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.
 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?“