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.


  1. I greatly enjoy your teaching me Brother in your posts. You share the same gift as John MacArthur, being both a Shepherd and a teacher. That is why I learn so much from both of you.

  2. Tom,
    Just a thought - It might be nice to provide a full critique of the Roman Catholic donum superadditum at some point as you talk about grace and merit.