Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Grace and Merit – Later Reformed Orthodoxy

In the previous post, we saw that John Calvin deplored the term “merit” and generally preferred not to use it because he believed it implied that creatures can do good works independently of their Creator. But, later Reformed theologians were not so reluctant. The concept of merit is expressed in Romans 4:4, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” Scripture also teaches that good works in justification would be meritorious: “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about” (Rom 4:2). Abraham would be able to “boast,” if justification was his “due,” that is, if he “merited” his justification by "works."

So, what of Calvin's contention that providentially determined good works cannot be “meritorious” because they are gifts of God? Compatibilism is the doctrine that providentially determined works are “compatible” with moral blameworthiness and praiseworthiness. In other words, though God's providence determines the works of human beings (whether good or bad), human beings are responsible for their works and either merit reward or de-merit penalty. So, contrary to Calvin's belief that a creature's dependence on God eliminates the possibility of merit, the opposite is actually true. It is precisely because God the Lawgiver determines the acts of His moral agents that they are held responsible (blameworthy or praiseworthy) for what they do. For an excellent treatment of compatibilism, see Jonathan Edwards's Freedom of the Will.

Let's apply compatibilism to Adam in the garden-covenant of works. All of Adam's works were providentially determined by God, and yet, all of Adam's works in the garden were responsible, such that he would deserve condemnation for sin and reward for obedience. Some don't like the idea that Adam could deserve a reward from God because they think it allows the creature to obligate or coerce the Creator. But, God *wants* to delight in and reward that which is good and penalize that which is bad. It is God's nature to love good and hate evil. To assert that He must do so does not trap God in His own creation or make Him dependent on men. Rather, it is simply to insist that God must be God.

Now, apply compatibilism to Christ in His obedience to the covenant of redemption. Where Adam failed in God's providence, Christ succeeded in God's providence. Though the acts of Christ's human nature were providentially determined, He was responsible for what He did. Christ's good works (in life and unto death) pleased a good God and merited the reward for all who are in Him. God "had to" reward Christ for His goodness, but He "had to" because He "wanted to" because He is good.

So, what of the rest of fallen humankind? The actions of fallen human beings in Adam are providentially determined (Prov 16:9; 21:1; Jer 10:23; Eph 1:11). But, they don't merit anything from God because they don't do anything good: “There is none who does good” (Rom 3:12). Instead, their providentially determined sinful actions can only de-merit the penalty of death: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).

What, then, of the providentially determined actions of believers in Christ? The providentially determined sins of those in Christ cannot de-merit condemnation because Christ paid the penalty for their de-merit (Rom 8:1). But, Christ's merits also purchased good works to be produced within those who are in Him. So, are the providentially determined good works of those in Christ meritorious? Absolutely not! Christ has already “filled-up” divine justice with His merit; so, there is no room for any more merit. Those in Christ are “under” Christ's perfect merit, and the good works in them simply flow from Christ's already perfect merit. Therefore, the good works of those in Christ are not in themselves meritorious but are gifts of God's grace, which are free to us, but meritoriously costly to Christ.

So, here we see that in later Reformed orthodoxy, grace is built upon merit. Providentially determined merit is the foundation of providentially determined grace. God's providential determination is not only the foundation of grace. It is also the foundation of both merit and de-merit, which are more fundamental than grace.

This means that grace does not flow to us directly from the divine decree and through divine providence. Rather, grace flows to us through the merits of Jesus Christ.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Grace and Merit – John Calvin

The Reformed tradition does not agree on how to understand the relationship between “grace” and “merit.” Merit is about the value of actions. A meritorious action is an act to which God owes a reward. More precisely, a meritorious human action is a good work that justly requires a holy God to reward it. Conversely, “grace” is a reward God gives to someone who has not merited it. It is a gift God freely gives to someone who not deserve it.

Calvin deplored the term “merit” because he believed it an unnecessary philosophical addition to the teaching of Scripture. He abhorred the idea that a creature could merit anything from God because that would imply that the creature is independent of the Creator. The good works of human beings do not originate from themselves. Rather, the good works human beings do are themselves grace gifts of God. Therefore, human beings can never be said to merit anything by their good works. The rewards God gives to good works are, to borrow a phrase from Augustine, “grace upon grace.”

One interesting implication of Calvin's denial of merit is that there is no reason to exclude human works from justification. Now, Calvin did clearly exclude human works from justification and affirmed imputed righteousness along with its corollary: faith alone. But, if good works are gifts of God's grace and have no merit in themselves, then it is not necessary to exclude them from justification in order to retain the gracious character of justification. Perhaps this is why Calvin didn't fault Augustine too much for holding exactly that viewpoint. What Calvin opposed was the Roman Catholic notion of meritorious human works in justification, which human beings independently added to God's grace.

But, there are a few questions that emerge from Calvin's view. First, if human beings cannot merit anything before God, then should we also deny that the human nature of Christ merited eternal life by His righteousness? Second, if human beings cannot merit anything before God by their good works, then why is it important to deny a place to good works in justification? Third, if the good works of human beings cannot merit reward from God, then why should we affirm that the sins of human beings de-merit a penalty from God? This third question leads to some controversial matters, but Calvin taught that the creature is never independent of the Creator, even when the creature sins. And, if the creature is dependent upon the Creator, even when he sins, then how can the creature de-merit a penalty from God as if his sins originated independently of God?

In another post, we'll examine some developments in later Reformed Orthodoxy that sought to answer the questions above.