A WORM IN THE APPLE
How the Merit Principle Compromises Covenant Theology
By Max H. Sotak, Th.D.
The genius of covenant theology is the insight that God relates to us according to the principle of promise. Promise must be the operative principle of the covenant because of the nature of the relationship God has established with his people. The covenant does not merely establish an agreement between God and man; it establishes a bond as intimate as marriage and sonship. The intimacy of marriage and sonship can only be realized in the context of mutual love and faithfulness. Such love cannot be compelled or earned; it must be freely given. This is why the blessings of the covenant must also be based on promise. Promise alone expresses the grace, love, and intimacy of our relationship to God.
It was this understanding that should have led the Reformers to reject the Roman Catholic principle of merit. Reasoning from the covenant, they could have challenged Rome to explain how a relationship based on mutual love could possibly include merit. Instead, they challenged Rome to explain how a sinner could perform meritorious works. As important as this question is, it does not touch the principle of merit. Unfortunately, the history of the Reformationís theology up to the present day shows that it was never the purpose of Protestantism to challenge the merit principle. Thus, the most important implication of covenant theology has never been recognized by its champions.
Had a full covenantal consciousness developed among the Reformers, they would have rejected merit in the believerís works and in the work of Christ. They would have rejected merit in the believerís works because the covenant makes a meritorious work impossible, not just because of sin. From there they would have logically excluded merit from Jesus relationship with the Father. The net result would have been a challenge to Rome that may have completely transformed Christendom by attacking the very root of Romeís error concerning the gospel of Christ. By failing to see that the merit principle was the worm in the apple of biblical soteriology, the Reformers perpetuated the greatest theological oversight in history.
The word merit has an established meaning in the history of theology. The Catholic theologian, Ludwig Ott, gives an accurate and concise definition of the word:
By merit is understood a work completed for the benefit of another on whom it establishes a claim for reward, or the claim for rewards founded on the work. (Ott, 189)
In Christian theology, merit is a work that establishes a claim on God for a reward. Ott emphasizes that the claim is founded on the work. The problem is not with our having a claim on God for a reward; everyone agrees that the Bible teaches us that we do. The problem is with a good work serving as the basis of that claim. As we will see, both Protestant and Catholic theology employ this concept, the only difference being that Catholics apply it more consistently. In the end it should be evident that any use of the concept is simply incompatible with the Christian religion in general and covenant theology especially. Before doing so, it will be helpful to understand how both Reformed theology and Roman Catholicism have understood the idea.
The Merit Principle in Reformed Theology
Most Protestants overlook the principle of merit in their theology because the Reformers rejected the Catholic doctrine of meritorious works as an instrument of the believerís justification. Luther and Calvin insisted against Rome that the believerís good works are an expression and evidence of saving faith, but they have no merit to be placed along side the work of Christ to complete our salvation. "Jesus paid it all," which makes it impossible for the believer to contribute to the purchase of salvation by his own good works. After all, if justification comes by law-works, as Paul says in Galatians 3:18, then it cannot come by promise:
For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.
According to Paul, the principle of promise contradicts the principle of meritorious work. While not recognizing the full implications of this, the Reformers understood that sinners could not possibly perform meritorious works, and therefore they must receive salvation by promise. Norman Shepherd explains the Reformersí view:
They denied that believers could perform meritorious works, but not because the principle was wrong. The reason was sin, and the fact that all our works are tainted with sin. For that reason they cannot be meritorious. The difference with Christ is that being sinless, he could and did perform meritorious works not only for himself but also for all whom he represented. (Letter to the author, 30 Sept. 1997)
As Shepherd points out, in condemning merit in the believerís works, the Reformers did not go on to condemn merit in the work of Christ. On the contrary, the work of Christ had to be meritorious so that the believerís works would not have to be. Reaffirming the standard Reformed position, Louis Berkhof wrote:
Christ as Mediator entered the federal relation in which Adam stood in the state of integrity, in order to merit eternal life for the sinner. This constitutes the active obedience of Christ, consisting in all that Christ did to observe the law in its federal aspect, as the condition for obtaining eternal life. (Berkhof, 380)
The point of contact between the principle of merit and the covenant is found in these words. Berkhof mentions "the federal relation in which Adam stood in the state of integrity." The idea of merit assumes a specific relationship to God on the part of Adam before the fall. In its most basic sense, the covenant idea concerns our relationship to God. For most in the Reformed tradition, this relationship was first defined as a covenant of works in which Adam would be rewarded with eternal life in exchange for his obedience to the Word of God. In essence, Adam would merit eternal life because the reward would be founded on his work. Since Adam failed, the second Adam, Jesus Christ, would "observe the law in its federal aspect," thus obtaining for us what Adam failed to obtain by works. In this scheme, meritorious works are at the heart of salvation, and grace is a post-fall mechanism to give sinners access to the supply of merit. In other words, grace is merely a component of salvation, not its primary working principle:
The way of grace as it is commonly understood is only an application of the way of merit since it is founded on the "meritorious" work of Christ. (Shepherd)
There are many who would reject the idea of the covenant of works who nevertheless believe that the work of Christ is meritorious. Many would object to the idea that Adam was being rewarded with eternal life for the merit of his works. Since he was created in covenant with God, he was already a partaker of the life of the covenant. Therefore, covenant keeping was only necessary to receive immortality, not to earn it (Pr. 12:28). Rejecting the covenant of works, however, does not change the fact that Christ had to keep the law perfectly on our behalf, a requirement that presumably implies merit. The Bible also speaks of Christís death as a ransom or payment for our sins (Ac. 20:28; 1 Co. 6:20; Heb. 9:15). The idea of a payment for sins seems to imply for many that the death of Christ had to be meritorious.
The Merit Principle in Roman Catholic Theology
Roman Catholic theology is more consistent in its use of the merit principle. Rather than applying the concept to the work of Christ alone, the believerís works are also meritorious. Protestants have often overgeneralized the Catholic view and failed to understand exactly how it works. There are a number of reasons why Catholics believe that the merit principle extends to the works of believers as well as to the work of Christ. By understanding the Catholic view, Protestants would gain a better understanding of why the merit principle needs to be rejected in whole and not just in part.
There is no need to recap the rationale for understanding Christís work as meritorious since Catholics understand this in the same way Protestants do. It is the merit of the believerís works and its connection to the merit of Christís work that reveals the merit principle in its fullness. Catholic theologians are careful to point out that the believerís works are not meritorious by themselves: "As Godís grace is the presupposition and foundation of (supernatural) good works, by which man merits eternal life, so salutary works are, at the same time gifts of God and meritorious acts of man." (Ott, 264) Even more surprising to some Protestants are statements like the following:
Merit is dependent on the free ordinance of God to reward with everlasting bliss the good works performed by His grace. On account of the infinite distance between Creator and creature, man cannot of himself make God his debtor, if God does not do so by his own free ordinance. That God has made such an ordinance, is clear from His promise of eternal reward. (Ott, 267)
This is an interesting admission because it leads us to wonder why the principle of merit is necessary at all if God may reward good works merely on the basis of his promise to do so. Why not scrap merit altogether and view all rewards as Godís response to his promises? The answer to this question by Catholics constitutes, in my opinion, the greatest theological mistake in history: While good works are not possible without grace, they do have intrinsic merit. Ott explains:
According to the better founded Thomistic view, the ground of the meritoriousness lies also in the intrinsic value of good works performed in the state of grace. The state of grace effects an inner equivalence (meritum de condigno) between the good actions and the eternal reward. (Ott, 267)
What is the biblical basis for this idea? Ott again explains:
In Christís discourses the reward motive frequently recurs. Cf. Mt. 19, 29; 25, 21; Luke 6, 38. St. Paul, who stresses grace so much, also emphasizes on the other hand, the meritorious nature of good works performed with grace, by teaching that the reward is in proportion to the works: "He will render to every man according to his works" (Rom. 2, 6). "Every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor" (1 Cor. 3,8). Cf. Col. 3, 24; Hebr. 10, 35; 11, 6. When he characterizes the eternal reward as "the crown of justice which the Lord, the just judge, will render (2 Tim. 4, 8), he thereby shows that the good works of the just establish a legal claim (meritum de condigno) to reward on God. Cf. Hebr. 6, 10. (Ott, 265)
In simplest terms, Roman Catholics believe that justice requires God to reward our good works, not the promise of reward alone. Ottís reference to Hebrews 6:10 is meant to indicate this: "God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them." That rewards are proportional to the good works done is considered another proof that good works are intrinsically valuable and hence meritorious.
The Merit Principle in Covenant Theology
The evidence cited by both Protestants and Catholics in favor of the merit principle seems on the surface to carry considerable weight. For both groups the biblical material implies that the value of a work may create a claim on God for a reward. We may summarize the evidence above in terms of four implications:
1. Since God required perfect obedience from Adam, this implies that his works were meritorious; the same would also apply to Christ and his work because he is the second Adam.
2. Since the death of Christ is a payment or ransom for sin, this implies that his work is meritorious.
3. Since the Bible teaches that God would be unjust if he did not reward us for our good works, this implies that works are meritorious.
4. Since God promises rewards in proportion to our good works, this implies that works are meritorious.
In stating the basis for the belief in the merit principle, I have intentionally stressed the word implies. Biblical implications are tricky things. People often draw implications from the Bible that the Bible itself does not allow. The implications above are neither necessary nor adequate to explain what the Bible says about the value of Christís death or the value of the believerís works. In particular, the value of Christís work and ours need not be understood as meritorious, as establishing a claim on God for a reward. The promise of God alone can account for the evidence above, and the doctrine of the covenant will explain why.
The heart of the covenant idea in Scripture is summarized in the words of Revelation 12:3:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God."
Put simply, the covenant is a relationship with God in which we live together with him as his people. The ideas of presence ("God himself will be with them") and possession ("They will be his people...and [he will] be their God") explain why God refers to his people as his household (Eph. 2:19). To these general ideas of relationship, God adds two specific ideas that tell us what kind of members of Godís household we are. We are not just servants in Godís house--we are his wife and children:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. (Rev. 21:2)
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. (Jn. 1:12-13)
The analogies of marriage and sonship that define Godís covenant are what make the principle of merit impossible to harmonize with covenant theology. Husbands do not relate to their wives or children on the merit principle. Husbands give rewards as gifts to their wives, not because their wives earn those gifts by the worthiness of their works. Similarly, children do not earn rewards from parents, but instead they receive gifts as gratuities of love.
I pointed out earlier that God can reward the works of his children purely on the basis of his promise to do so. While the Bible speaks often of the worthiness of the believerís life, it does not imply that worthiness is the basis of Godís reward. Consider these two passages together:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. (Ep. 4:1)
So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty." (Lk. 17:10)
These verses make two important points: (1) The believerís works can have value or worthiness; (2) Even a worthy life cannot lay claim to a reward from God because good works are due to our Creator. In essence, says Jesus, even a worthy life is unworthy because obedience is a duty we owe to God. Applied to the analogies of the covenant, these same principles apply. A wifeís faithfulness does not give her a right to a reward from her husband because her faithfulness is her husbandís entitlement by covenant. Similarly, a childís obedience does not confer a right to reward because sonship mandates obedience from the child as an automatic responsibility of the relationship. This is why all rewards in the family must be gratuities: obedience and faithfulness are due and therefore may only be rewarded according to the principle of grace.
We express our common understanding of these principles every time we go to a restaurant. We customarily give a "gratuity," but the term itself implies that the waiter does not have a claim on us for a tip just because he renders a service. When we give a tip, we generally do so according to the worthiness of the server, but we are never compelled to do so on that basis. Often we give a better tip than the waiter deserves just because we want to be gracious. Occasionally we give a lesser tip than is deserved, but because we are giving a gratuity, we are within our rights to do so. We are not cheating the server or stealing from him because the tipping arrangement is understood by everyone as a non-meritorious relationship. While a waiter may call you stingy for leaving a small tip or no tip at all, he cannot call you a thief. If he understands his relationship to you clearly in this regard, he will not even call you stingy, since he knows that you are not obligated to leave a tip in the first place.
From these principles it is easy to see why the Catholic arguments for meritorious works by the believer should be unconvincing to the covenantal Christian. In a non-merit system the justice of God only requires that he keep his promises. If God promises to reward our good works out of his own grace, then he would truly be unjust if he did not do so. Unfortunately, Catholics overlook Godís justice in keeping his word of promise in their interpretation of Hebrews 6:10 and other passages like it. Hebrews 6:10 does not prove "that the good works of the just establish a legal claim to reward on God;" it proves instead that the promises of God establish a legal claim to reward on God. Again, there is no question that we have a claim on God for a reward; what we are disputing is the basis of that claim--works or promise. The promise of God alone establishes a claim on God for a reward so that the reward may be truly gracious.
But what of the argument that a reward proportional to the good work implies that the work is meritorious? The answer to this was given in the example of tipping referred to above. The Bible simply says that when God tips, he does so according to the good works we have done. Although he is within his rights to give more or less, he promises to reward us according to the worthiness of our works. Catholics are habituated in thinking about the value of a work as necessarily implying merit. This is a bad habit that is contradicted by the principles of the covenant. Also, Catholics should look at their own behavior in rewarding their spouses and children. What husband or parent does not look at the worthiness or value of the works performed by a wife or child? The worthiness of the works does not create an obligation to reward accordingly, for the works are what is due. Because of love, however, the husband and parent wants to give a suitable reward, even though it is not required. In the same way, when God rewards our works, he is expressing his love and grace by giving us something for a work we actually owe to him. Parents often give their children an allowance for doing chores, realizing that the chores should be done regardless of payment. By assuming that works imply merit, we are really denying that good works are our obligation to God. Even worse, we are denying the gospel itself (cf. Ga. 5:4).
What, then, does the covenant say about good works? It says that they are valuable or worthy, but they do not create an obligation in and of themselves. Keeping this in mind, we may finally consider the question of whether or not the work of Christ should be considered meritorious.
The covenant also proves that the work of Christ should not be spoken of as meritorious. In saying this, we are not saying that the work of Christ is not valuable. We are only saying that his work in and of itself does not create an obligation on Godís part to save the elect. This should have been obvious to Reformed Christians given the language of the covenant, but it has been largely overlooked due to the traditional commitment to merit. We must remember that the covenant relationship that we enjoy is patterned on the relations within the Trinity itself. Jesus is the Son of his Father. Their relationship is not a labor contract; it is of the same nature as that of the believer, except that Jesus is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. He is the unique Son of God because he is God (Jn. 1:1; 3:16). We must be careful not to violate the covenantal relations of the first two persons of the Godhead in thinking about the salvation of the elect. It is very easy to distort their relationship into an employer-employee arrangement just because the Bible speaks of Jesusí death as a payment for sin. In fact, the Bible teaches that the elect are a grace gift to Christ:
"I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill." I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, "You are my Son ; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. (Ps. 2:6-8)
This messianic psalm speaks of the salvation of the nations as a gift of the Father in response to the request or prayer of the Son (cf. Jn. 17). It is noteworthy that the promise of the heathen nations as an inheritance is given after the declaration of the familial relations of Jesus and the Father. This is again the language of promise, and so it should be because Jesus is the Son of God. He is the Fatherís servant as a dutiful Son who comes into the world to do his Fatherís will (Jn. 8:29). Because the Father loves the Son, he promises to reward him by saving the heathen nations.
Is the language of promise consistent with the language of payment and ransom when speaking of the work of Christ? Based on what has already been said, it certainly is. By saying that the work of Christ is not meritorious, we are not saying that it is without value. If even the believerís works are spoken of as worthy; how much more the work of the Son of God who is completely worthy and offers a perfect sacrifice for sinners? Christís death is necessary if sinners are to be saved because the justice of God must be satisfied on their behalf. Rendering the payment on behalf of sinners, however, was also the will of the Father for his own Son. Like all dutiful sons, the Son of God came in obedience to the Father to die for the sins of his people. By obeying his Father, he performed a work that made the salvation of the elect possible, but the work should not be viewed as meritorious because the obedience of Christ was due to the Father. In response to the work of Christ and in keeping with his promise, the Father then accepted the sacrifice of Christ and graciously gives him the heathen for an inheritance. The very fact that the salvation of the nations is referred to as an inheritance clearly shows that it is a gratuity from the Father.
This explanation shows that the merit principle is simply not necessary to describe what Christ did. The death of Christ was necessary to save sinners and had the power to do so. In affirming this, however, we are not saying it was meritorious because it did not in and of itself require the father to save. Instead, the death of Christ was part of a plan based on the Fatherís promise. Jesus, the second Adam, did not have to merit eternal life for the elect because even the first Adam did not merit eternal life by his obedience. Prior to the fall, Adam already possessed the covenant life; the life he enjoyed and the eternal life to come were the gracious provisions of his Father. Meritorious works never were part of the plan of redemption; the plan is based on promise alone.
Unless covenant theology is based on promise from beginning to end, from Christís work to the believers works, it will never transform Christendom. Protestants who accept the merit principle are covenantally inconsistent. While there are other inconsistencies in covenant theology today, none is as damaging as the mixture of merit and promise. Protestants should remember that the Roman Catholic Church has never denied the principle of promise as a fundamental part of a biblical theology. Even the believerís rewards are rendered partly on the basis of promise. For them, the plan of salvation is part promise and part meritorious work. The work of Christ is part promise and part merit; the believerís works are part promise and part merit. The Protestant position is really just a variation of the Roman Catholic position, the only difference being that the believerís works lack merit. It is no wonder then that the Reformation did not challenge Rome effectively since the central error of the Roman Church is retained by Protestants. Without a consistent covenantalism, the work of the Reformation will not be completed, and the power of covenant theology will not be realized in the Church.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1941.
Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.
Shepherd, Norman. Letter to the author. 30 Sept. 1997.