Roman Catholic Merit

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I was talking with a philosopher friend of mine who is Roman Catholic about the differences between Catholic and Protestant views on salvation and justification, and he said something that I'd never heard before. If he's right, this should make the Catholic view much more palatable to Protestants. He explained the Catholic view as follows. Salvation is initiated by a work of God's grace, an unearned, unmerited favor of God. Then we are brought to what Protestants typically call sanctification over the rest of our lives in this world, and at the end God judges the works that his grace produced in our lives to be meritorious. We actually earn our salvation. This comes only through the work of God in our lives, and thus this is what Reformed theologians tend to call monergistic. God does all the work, and we do it only because he is doing it in us. But that doesn't mean we aren't doing it. This involves compatibilism about human freedom and divine sovereignty. Synergism would mean God does part of the work, while we do the rest. That's not the Catholic view. The Catholic position is that God does all of it, and we also do all of it. In other words, the Catholic position on that is the same as that of Reformed Protestants. The only difference is that Catholics think that should count as enough to say we merit or deserve reward.

None of this was new to me, since I've written a great deal on this before. But I was pressing him on why he thought that should count as merit. His answer made a great deal of sense. When God promises something, he bestows on us a right that we wouldn't otherwise have. We now are owed something. He makes it the case that we deserve something. When he says that we will have a reward for doing something, and we do that thing, then he owes us that thing. He gives us the right to it. He makes it such that anyone who fulfills the command in question has earned the reward in question. It's conditional merit, since what makes it merit is that God promised something. It wouldn't be merit without that promise, and God had no obligation to promise it. But given that God promised it, God has an obligation to follow through on that promise and treat the actions in question as meriting the reward in question. Now maybe my friend completely misunderstands the Catholic view, but he's a pretty smart guy with a lot of philosophical training to make careful distinctions, and this is how he understands the Catholic view after having investigated it very carefully. If he's right, I'm not sure Protestants have anywhere near as serious an objection as we might otherwise have thought.


Council of Trent: CANON XXIV.-If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.

If you ask a Roman Catholic "what do you have to do to have eternal life?" your answers will vary.

Ellen, I'm not talking about the ordinary Catholic's perceptions of the official teaching. I'm talking about the official view. If it's indeed what my friend says, I don't find that all that problematic.

They pronounced recently that Trent condemned a view that turns out not to be Luther's view, by the way. Whatever they meant by that line in Trent, the official view now is that it does not apply to Luther.

It sounds like your friend may have been talking about condign vs. congruous merit: condign merit is merit due to justice (it would be unjust, not right, not to reward someone who has merited condignly); congruous merit is weaker (it is merely fitting given some prior condition). So, for instance, if I work, I merit wages condignly; but if I am given 'Employee of the Month' because I do good work, I merited the distinction congruously. No injustice is committed if I am not given Employee of the Month, however good I am; unless it's in the contract, the employer isn't even required to name anyone Employee of the Month ever. But given that the employer has decided to award that distinction, and given that by his good judgment I'm the most appropriate choice for it, it is right for me to be given it. There's a sense in which the employer gives not only the reward, but the right to receive it at the same time; and there's clearly a sense in which, given these relevant conditions, I merited the reward. And while there's quite a bit of variation as to details, it's a fairly standard Catholic view to say that nothing of our salvation, at all, is merited condignly by us (although, of course, it is merited condignly by Christ and the Holy Spirit working in us) -- we don't earn it like wages; it's just merited congruously because of the economy of salvation -- we earn it like a noncontractual, nonobligatory reward.

Canon XXIV of the Declaration on Justification from the Council of Trent has to be understood in the context of Chapter X of the same Declaration, which identifies good works with the acts of faith, hope, and charity that are caused by the Holy Spirit; what the canon is protesting is the idea that good works are merely indications of grace, rather than also being a way in which God increases our righteousness -- or, in other words, the view that our good works are just things done by us on our own given that God has given us grace, rather than also being acts of God Himself.

The accord with the Lutherans said the justification in Canon XXIV is read as making just rather than declaring just, which I think is equivalent with what you say.

FWIW, I have heard catholics specifically affirm synergism, though I would not be sure they define it as you did in your post (though I don't know how exactly it is usually defined by those who claim it).

Al Kimel's blog, Pontifications, has had a lot of very good discussions of catholic theology issues, if you care to peruse his archives. Al is a fairly recent convert to catholicism after being in ministry in the epicopal church for many years.

I wish I had the time and inclination to sit down and read through the latest Catechism book (the catholic one), but the few quotations I've heard from it on how grace "works" have sounded pretty well stated to me.


RC Sproul makes a similar yet different point/argument in his book What Is Reformed Theology? and in his audio tapes on the same theme. The nearnesses seemingly accomplished by Evangelicals and Catholics Together emphasize the numerous overlaps of Reformed/Evangelicals and Catholics in official doctrine. (We're only concerned with official teaching here.) Sproul points out and emphasizes that the alleged compromises of the two camps were *never in dispute*! The ONLY difference in principle is salvation by grace by faith alone, prior to works, apart from works. The similarities you point out here, Jeremy, are water under the bridge for the astute reader (as you notice, at the top of the second paragraph).

A concern that the subsequent explanation brings is the idea that God becomes in some way our debtor. From my time under Faith/Confession teachers, I understood that when God gives us His word on something, anything in the Bible, He becomes obligated to that thing as a contractor to a covenant. So we can press our covenantal claims to the God of Covenant. In a short phrase, He owes us! Slightly longer: Write it down, speak it out, it will surely come about. To deny this seems to deny God's covenant making and covenant keeping ability, except for putting God to the test (DON'T do that) and seemingly making God our debtor (a serious mistake in its own right).

How we are to go to having expectant faith from any of these other positions is kind of a mystery to me. I'm sure it's possible to have saving faith in spite of bad theology (we're saved by Christ, by the means of a faith informed by a minimally informed understanding). But there's a lot here I don't understand.

In the Reformed view in which I stand, we contribute nothing--coming or going--to our salvation; and being saved/regenerated, our works are then entirely by God and entirely by us, contributing nothing to our acceptance by God/justification but accruing to our account before God vis a vis our sanctification and the reward for our works. Which is why it makes sense for people who are saved by grace plus nothing should sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom to come.

This is interesting Jeremy. If he's right re: the official teaching it does move things. It is not what many Catholics believe - yes, I note the distinction here - you are discussing the official teaching.
It is in a way a glass half full approach.
But then there is the glass half empty. i.e. purgatory. If you didn't do what you were supposed to do...
Any thoughts on that?

Sproul points out and emphasizes that the alleged compromises of the two camps were *never in dispute*! The ONLY difference in principle is salvation by grace by faith alone, prior to works, apart from works.

Yes and no. They were in dispute in the sense that they were using terms like 'justification' so differently that they were declaring each other heretics. The Catholic view now is that the Lutherans they were declaring heretics never held the view they thought they were holding. People like Sproul are unwilling to concede the same thing about the Catholic view, which I think is a mistake. As my previous posts argued, the Catholic view doesn't clearly commit the Galatian heresy even if it's a view that Protestants should recognize as false and dangerous in many ways (at least if it's intended monergistically, as I think the official view is). It can filter down to the masses in a way that might constitute heresy, but I don't think Sproul's view is correct on this.

Your second paragraph is an important issue. It's for reasons like this that I don't want to think of God even having obligations. It's not that it would be wrong for a being to do the sorts of things that God doesn't do, but a perfect being cannot do those things, and obligations sound as if they require the ability not to meet those obligations. At the very least, when we speak of God having obligations or moral responsibilities, we don't mean it in the same way we do when we are speaking of some external standard being imposed on an imperfect being like us.

I think what my friend would say ultimately is that God can choose to make himself obligated to something, and his promise to reward people for certain behavior is what obligates him to treat works as meriting reward. It's not the works themselves that do so. I think that's the right thing for someone holding his view to say, anyway, and I think it does pretty much remove anything objectionable that you're raising related to God's obligations.

I find your last paragraph to be very interesting, not just because I largely agree with it, but because once you say "our works are then entirely by God and entirely by us" you open up the door to what my friend is saying. It's not that our works on their own earn anything, he says. It's that, given God's grace that allows us to do anything at all, we did do the works (and so did God) and thus we accrue the reward God has deemed for doing so (which God didn't have to do, and we wouldn't have been able to do without 100% grace from God). Isn't this just the compatibilist view of divine providence and human freedom? There's nothing especially Catholic about it. It seems to me to be even what Calvin would say. He just wouldn't like anyone to speak unqualifiedly about it, which Catholics seem to do all the time if my friend is right that their official view is this thing he's saying.

Catez, purgatory is something I wanted to get around to in my previous series that I never got around to. I don't see anything especially objectionable about purgatory in itself, depending on how it's viewed. I don't see any biblical warrant for it. In fact, I think the biblical statements on the afterlife count very much against it. But one way of thinking about purgatory seems to me not to constitute heresy, even if I think it's ultimately not correct:

Some people think of purgatory as a sort of extended earthlike time. I guess the idea is that God wants to purify us more fully before accepting us into the fully perfect kingdom. The Bible does say that this will happen, and most Protestants just take it to be instantaneous upon death or upon resurrection (depending on whether they believe in an intermediate state of full consciousness). But is it a denial of the gospel to think that an intermediate state involves a time of becoming more righteous while consciously living in a way that we are serving God in a realm where other people are also doing the same? I don't see how it is.

If this is God's method of making people more righteous before bringing them into the new heaven and new earth, then it doesn't seem to me to be doctrinally objectionable in the way that it would if the view were saying that the time in purgatory is supposed to make us better, and our being better earns our salvation in the sense that I was originally thinking (rather than the sense my friend was thinking). If purgatory is a problem, then I think it would be a problem with meriting salvation by works and by becoming more righteous. It wouldn't be a problem by tacking it on to the view that I've just explained unless that view is already problematic. The same problems would arise on earth with the meriting of salvation.

Since I'm not convinced that those are real problems, I remain unconvinced that it's problematic to speak of meriting salvation in this extremely qualified way, since it's entirely consistent with what Protestants mean when we say that we don't earn our salvation.

Jeremy, your last paragraph raises an important question: what do you do with Romans 9…specifically verses 10-13 and 21-24? I could mention John 3, 10:25-30. Galatians, etc., but Romans 9 seems to me to be akin to first principles.

I would argue that any degree of merit is too much, where salvation is concerned. They way one gets to meritorious salvation, in most cases, is to ignore or down-play Romans 9, because it’s “too difficult” or some such.

Robert, I would do with those verses exactly what most any other Calvinist would do with them. Rom 9:10-13,21-24 are about God's choice of Jacob and Esau (or of the clay) before they had done anything in a way that his purpose was not caused by what they would do. Since both views I'm discussing (mine and my friend's) are fully compatibilist about human freedom and God's absolute sovereignty, this doesn't seem to me to be a problem for either view. No one could do anything unless God's purpose had chosen it beforehand.

I'm not sure what part of John 3 you're getting at. If genuine belief leads to works, as any good Calvinist will admit, then the set of people who genuinely belief and the set of people whose lives produce good works of the sort that indicate the saving work of the Holy Spirit are the same set of people. So whoever believes is saved on my friend's view. Also, being born from above is required for God's grace to work these works out in someone's life. I'm not sure I see anything in John 3 besides those two elements that you might be referring to.

John 10:25-30 seems completely irrelevant to this issue. It says that those who are genuinely his know his voice, and no one can snatch them from his hand. How is either view I'm discussing threatened by that? Both affirm it fully, as far as I can tell.

For Galatians, see the previous posts for my argument that Roman Catholicism does not commit the Galatian heresy. The short version is that the Galatian heresy places a precondition on salvation, something without which you cannot attain salvation. The Roman Catholic view does not do that. Salvation is purely by grace, a gift of God. It's just that they add this extra element about what happens later, that grace produces works that God views as meritorious but that could not be done without 100% grace (and thus is monergistic). So Galatians doesn't seem to be addressing this kind of view, since its basis is the gospel and God's grace rather than initially earning a place in God's kingdom with works. That's not what the Catholic view says.

I agree with you that any degree of merit is too much where salvation is concerned, to be consistent with the way scipture speaks. What I'm not convinced of is that the allowance of merit in the place where Catholics put it is heresy, even if I'm convinced it's wrong, for the reasons I just gave.

What I'm now (because of the conversation that spawned this post) becoming less sure of is that the Catholic view should even count as merit to begin with. They call it that, but what they mean by it is not what Protestants are really denying to begin with. so it's not a matter of greater or lesser degrees of merit. It's a matter of whether it ought to be called merit to begin with. If you're thinking of merit the way Paul does, there's none, but the kind of merit my friend explained seems to me to be consistent with saying what Paul says about what he means by merit.

Jeremy, I mentioned those passages because they all speak of God’s sovereign role in salvation. In John 3, Jesus speaks of the spiritual nature of regeneration, not the physical, i.e., works; and in John 10:26, Jesus told the Pharisees: “you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep”. So, I don’t see where there is room for merit, however subtle.

The idea that works (even those produced by grace) are somehow meritorious flies in the face of Ephesians 2:8-10. That is, humans are naturally inclined to boast about most everything; but certainly, if Romans 9 isn’t clear enough, Roman 7:19 ought to dispel any notion of meritorious works on our part.

As I said, the view my friend was outlining has as strong a view of God's sovereignty in salvation as any Calvinist view. If you want to say that that leaves no room for merit, then what you are doing is disagreeing with how Catholics are using the word 'merit'. But that's a linguistic disagreement. Their view has as strong a view of God's role in salvation as Calvinism does.

Romans 7:19 is just about how we sometimes have conflicted desires. I'm not sure I see anything there about merit or lack of merit. What brings us to do something and how we get evaluated may end up being connected because of some truths on the level of ethical theory, but those truths aren't in the text.

I do think Ephesians 2:8-10 is a good reason not to use language the way the Roman Catholic view does, according to my friend. I don't think it shows that the view is heresy, at least if the view uses language the way my friend is saying it does. The view he was outlining is perfectly consistent with Ephesians 2:8-10, and all it takes to show that is to lay out carefully what he means by saying we merit or deserve reward and then contrasting it with what Paul means by such terms. The way Paul uses the terms, we don't merit anything, and the way my friend does we do.

Pointing out that the Bible uses language differently might be an argument for using language the way the Bible does, but that's all it shows. If we're going to take that seriously, though, there are a lot of ways evangelicals use language that don't fit with how the Bible does. We'd have to stop speaking of individual callings toward particular occupations. In the New Testament, the only things we are called to are what every believer is called to. We'd have to use other language for what we often call callings. We'd have to speak of sanctification primarily as something fully achieved at our conversion and not as a process, using other terms for that instead. We'd have to stop speaking of church leaders as pastors, as if that word refers to an office, using the word only to refer to spiritual giftings that anyone gifting toward shepherding displays. Church leaders would be called overseers or elders.

Examples abound. My point is not that we shouldn't seek to use biblical language. It's that if we are to do so we should be consistent in doing so, and we should recognize that when others don't use language the way we see the Bible doing so we need to extend charitable interpretations toward them. Their views themselves are far more important than how they frame them. It surely can be misleading to say things the way the Catholic church says them, and that can create real problems if people misinterpret them. I'm not downplaying that. What I'm saying is that the official view may not at all be what you're taking it to be. When you hear something about desert or merit, you hear it the way Protestants typically use such terms. If my friend is right, that's not even close to what Catholics mean by it (officially, anyway).

Once all the proper distinctions are made, I don't think my friend's view is all that different from mine except on the matter of how he defines words like 'merit' and 'deserving'. He does give a philosophical argument for why it's ok to use the words in those ways, an argument that makes sense to me. It shows that it's not a mangling of the English language to do so, even if the biblical use of merit language takes them to mean something very different. I don't elevate that debate to the level of the gospel, even if it's a debate about language that gets used in presenting the gospel. Linguistic issues are not gospel issues, especially if you're willing to engage in more careful formulations when those who disagree ask questions.

Happy All Souls' Day from The Emerson Avenger.

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