Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Musings on Merit

So, I've been sick, and yesterday I read Peter Leithart's post titled, What Does Christ Merit? in which he sounds a bit like Karl Barth, Dan Fuller, and others, who claimed that Roman Catholics and Protestants both whiffed it when it comes to the doctrine of merit. Since I have had some time on my hands, and since I couldn't sleep last night, here are a few of my musings on merit. Leithart finds a couple of texts that some people might misunderstand to say that Christ merited something for people, and then he explains why those texts don't say that at all. The problem, according to Leithart, is that both Protestants and Catholics think that sinners need merit to be accepted before God. I would humbly suggest that there's some misunderstanding afoot here, but it's not within historic theology. In the following post, I'll interact with Leithart, but I'll also briefly sketch the contours of biblical merit theology, since most of the confusion is apparently with that.

What is “merit?”

In the Bible's theology, the term “merit” simply means “what one justly deserves.” The Bible often talks about what people “deserve” for their just deeds or unjust deeds. For example, Deut 19:6 says, “the man did not deserve to die,” Deut 25:2 says, “the guilty man deserves to be beaten,” Jdgs 9:16 says you “have done to him as his deeds deserved,” Matt 10:10, “the laborer deserves his food,” and Lk 10:7, “the laborer deserves his wages.” In each of these instances, the person in question “justly deserves” or does “not justly deserve” something based on his works. That's merit.

To drill down a bit deeper, merit, or “just deserts,” is rooted in the biblical idea of “righteousness,” which simply means “justice” or “lawfulness.”  Righteousness or lawfulness is the basis or ground of merit, or "just deserts."  The unlawful (or unrighteous) “merit” or “deserve” the law's penalty. The lawful (or righteous) “merit” or “deserve” the law's reward. Sometimes the law's reward is simply freedom from the law's penalty. For example, if a citizen refrains from murder, then he is free from the penalty of death for murder, and thus deserves the reward of life. To understand “righteousness” in the Bible, it may be helpful to approach this from the perspective of three categories of God's "righteousness."

1. The Bible speaks of God's own “rectoral righteousness.” This is God's rectitude as a judge. He is an incorruptible judge who always upholds the law, never relaxes it, or bends it for personal reasons. The law is a necessary reflection of His own character; so, He would never want to violate the law. Psalm 99:3-4 says, “Holy is he! The King in his might loves justice. You have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness.”

2. The Bible speaks of God's “retributive righteousness.” This means that God condemns and punishes the unlawful (or unrighteous) according to the law's penalty. “Retribution” means that one “deserves” or “merits” the law's penalty. At the end of a frightening description of human depravity in Romans 1, Paul declares, “those who practice such [unlawful] things deserve to die” (Rom 1:32). Those who break the law deserve, or merit, death.

3. The Bible speaks of God's “remunerative righteousness.” This means that God justifies and rewards the lawful (righteous) according to the law's reward. “Remuneration” means that one “deserves” or “merits” the law's rewards. Psalm 58:11 says, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.” And Isaiah 3:10, “Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them, for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds.”  Now redeemed sinners cannot merit reward (Lk 17:10); rather, as Augustine said, the rewards God gives to the good works of His people are God "crowing His own graces." Their works and their rewards, however, were merited by Christ's perfect obedience to the law.  Christ kept the law and deserves, or merits, life.

So the concept of “merit” seems fairly evident and pervasive in Scripture. People who break the law deserve its penalty. People who keep the law deserve its reward. This isn't too complicated.

As an aside, the Medieval theologians debated about realism (typically joined with an intellectualist doctrine of the divine will), which said that good works are intrinsically meritorious, and nominalism (often connected with a voluntarist doctrine of the divine will), which said that good works are meritorious because God says they are, not because they have inherent value. Without landing that particular beach, I'll just say this. Human beings cannot possibly “merit” or “deserve” anything from God outside of a covenant relationship. But given the fact that God created human beings in His own image and made them for relationship with Him, it is only consistent with God's holy character that He condescended and created them in covenant with Himself. Thus, its right to see human beings as “deserving” of penalty or reward within the context of a divinely established covenant relationship.

Is “merit” necessary for acceptance before God?

The main point of Leithart's article seems to be that he opposes any notion that “merit” has to do with our acceptance before God. He says that the New Testament provides no evidence for that. But if we understand that "merit" means “just deserts,” then biblical evidence appears everywhere. Even in Leithart's own examples.

Leithart mentions Romans 5:18 (wrongly cited as Romans 5:21-21): “righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” Leithart announces that Paul never connects Christ's obedience to worth (or merit). But it's clear from what we saw above that “righteousness” or “justification” (dikaiosune), is a law word. And people are declared “righteous” (or lawful) when they have kept the law, and if they have kept the law, then they deserve the law's reward. Thus, if we read the term “righteousness” biblically, we see that it contains within it the idea of legal worth, merit, or just deserts. It turns out that “merit talk” isn't so foreign to the Bible after all. Scripture is full of statements about righteousness, justice, and justification, which are about whether one deserves the law's penalty or reward.

Is Leithart right, then, to object to the Roman Catholic and Protestant insistence that “merit” has to do with a sinner's acceptance before God? I've never read anyone to say that “merit” alone is sufficient for a sinner's acceptance before God. Sinners need many other things for God's acceptance, including God's eternal decree, His creation of mankind as relational beings, His love and gracious purpose, and all of His covenantal dealings with them in Christ. But certainly, merit is one of the preconditions of a relationship with God. This is clear if we just imagine the opposite.

Does God “accept” lawbreakers who deserve condemnation and death? Would we dare say that God the Father would “accept” God the Son, if God the Son were not perfectly lawful? Surely we would not. That would be blasphemy. God accepts the Son because He is the Son, eternally generated by the Father, but the Father also accepts the Son because the Son is perfectly lawful. So, since God does not accept lawbreakers, but only accepts those who are free from lawbreaking, and are thus law-keepers, then it seems we must say that God only accepts those who deserve, or merit, the law's blessing. Of course, it would be wrong to say that merit alone secures or earns a relationship with God. We've already seen that many gifts are needed to have a relationship with God: the decree, creation, God's grace, and covenant. But merit is one of those things. God hates the wicked, and He is “of purer eyes than to see evil, and cannot look at wrong” (Heb 1:13). Merit is necessary (but not sufficient) for acceptance before God.

Why does Peter Leithart seem so opposed to the doctrine of “merit?” Opposing God's holy justice seems like a very strange thing for a theologian to do. Why would a theologian want to say that God isn't interested in immutably enforcing His own holy law, which is rooted in His holy character, by way of judicial actions that are consistent with His holiness? I can't say for sure, but I've thought of a few reasons.  

1. Such a theologian may simply be opposed to the idea that it's possible to “buy” a relationship with God. If that's what "merit theology" is, then I join him in opposing it. The discussion is over, and we can all go home. But such a characterization of “merit theology” would be a straw man. What classic Reformed theologian ever taught that anyone could “buy” a relationship with God? 

2. With Karl Barth, he may object to the idea that a creature could ever bind or obligate the Creator. Some say that as Creator, God has the right to do as He pleases, no matter what His creatures may do. On this objection, no creature could possibly “deserve” anything from its Creator or require Him to act. But this objection falls, when we observe that from His own character, God freely created Adam as a moral agent in covenant with Himself. As a moral agent, Adam had the natural ability to do good or evil. And because God covenanted with Adam, had Adam kept the law, he would have deserved to live on the terms of the covenant. But since Adam broke the law, he deserved to die on the terms of the covenant. The possibility of Adam's “merit” was grounded in God's original freely formed design. Adam's merit is based on two things. First, God created Adam as a moral agent in His image. Second, God created His image in covenant. Thus, the creature can't obligate the Creator, unless the Creator makes it possible for him to do so.

3. He may object to the doctrine of merit because he thinks of merit like “brownie points.” Some people think of merit as some sort of valuable “stuff” that accumulates over time. When you do good, you get a merit point, and when you have enough points, you get a prize. While the Roman Catholic idea of merit may have some affinities with this concept (though this is a crass characterization, even for them), that is not what Protestant theology ever taught. In biblical Protestant theology, merits cannot accumulate, and it is not a substance of any kind. One has either kept God's holy law and deserves its reward, or one has not, and so deserves its penalty.

4. He may object to the notion of merit because he's a determinist. That is to say, he might deny that merit is possible because God graciously gives good works to men. These graciously-given works, therefore, can't possibly be meritorious. They all come from God, which means people can't deserve anything for them. But this kind of thinking proves too much and too little. It proves too much because if it's true, then it applies equally to sin. God sovereignly determines that people sin (Lk 22:22; Rev 17:17, for example), yet surely we want to say with the Scriptures that those God determines to sin deserve, or merit, death (Rom 1:32). God's determination of moral actions in no way eliminates the moral agent's “just deserts.” It also proves too little because the Scriptures teach that God's sovereign determination is exactly what makes a person morally praiseworthy (deserving of reward) or blameworthy (deserving of penalty). This is called compatibilism. God's determination of human actions is compatible both with human freedom and human responsibility in meriting both penalties and rewards.

In good Reformed theology, determinism alone (the fact that God gives us, or works in us, the works we do) isn't the only reason our works aren't meritorious. Rather, the good works we do as believers aren't meritorious because Jesus has already satisfied the demands of the law by His life and death. Jesus has met the requirements of justice. That means justice cannot require good works from us to be satisfied, since justice is already satisfied.  So, since God's justice does not require our good works, there is no room for them at all in our justification (the declaration of our "justness"). That's why our good works are not meritorious – the law's requirements have been met, and justice is satisfied. God does, however, require good works from His children, but not as a Judge, and not in justification. God requires believers to do good works, and our good works please God as our Father. God graciously accepts our good works as the efforts of His beloved children to please Him. Of course, God's Fatherly acceptance of our works is only possible because Christ has already cleared up our legal problems and satisfied God as Judge. So, the believer's good works are not meritorious, but they are necessary, and they are pleasing to God.

One more note about good works. They are necessary for our final salvation (Mk 13:13). But it's very important to understand why they're necessary. They aren't necessary under the category of “justice.” That category has been satisfied. But they are necessary for two other reasons. First, they're necessary to “vindicate” us and to “acquit” us of all the charges of Satan, the adversary and accuser, in the sight of God and in the sight of men and the holy angels. So, our good works are necessary as legal evidence that Christ's righteousness has already been imputed. Our good works do not satisfy justice; they prove that justice has already been satisfied. Second, the believer's good works are necessary to make us naturally fitted for heaven. God's children must be holy, if they are to enjoy their relationship with their Father. This isn't a matter of justice; it's a matter of relational communion. Our minds, hearts, and behaviors have to be changed, if we're to enjoy our Father in this world, but also so that we can enjoy Him in heaven when we get there. Heaven would be a miserable place, if we were not holy. The Bible says to “pursue holiness without which none will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).

I can't help but notice there are some reasons Leithart and others may find it helpful to deny the category of merit.

1. Denying merit makes justification by “gracious” works possible. If a theologian wanted to say that God's justice requires people to work for justification, but at the same time that theologian wanted to deny that people can merit their justification, then one option available is to deny the category of merit altogether. If we say (with a wave of the hand) “there is no merit,” then we can teach people to work for their justification non-meritoriously. If anyone objects, “But that's works salvation!,” then the theologian can simply reply, “But the works aren't meritorious” (these aren't the droids you're looking for).

2. Denying merit makes it possible to lose justification. If justification is “deserved” by Christ, and if His “deserving” obedience is imputed to His people, then it's not possible to lose justification (Rom 5:1-2, 21; 8:30). That's because God treats those who are justified like they deserve eternal life, not because they do, but because Christ does. And if God treats them like they deserve eternal life, then justice requires that He must do everything necessary to keep them alive in Christ, and take them all the way to heaven. If, however, Christ's obedience does not strictly deserve justification and eternal life, then God can justly treat those in Christ like they don't deserve eternal life either. In such a system, God determines that some who were justified will fall away from faith. God will justly revoke their justified status, because Christ did not deserve (merit) His justification and eternal life; so, justice doesn't require God to treat those in Christ like they deserve justification and eternal life either.

3. Denying merit makes it easier to have “corporate justification.” This is really not a different insight from the previous two.  Leithart wants to view the individual almost exclusively through the lens of the visible corporate body of the church. Corresponding to that, he has a program of corporatizing every aspect of soteriology, while virtually altogether neglecting the individual in my estimation. With merit (and so justice) out of the way, Leithart is free to think of justification as a corporate declaration of who is “in” the covenant. Those who keep the soft laws of the covenant stay justified by their faithfulness. Those who apostatize fall out of the covenant and lose their justification. Of course, the price of this theology is high. It throws God's holiness and justice under the bus, and it does so under the guise of opposing an antiquated “merit theology,” which needs to be scrapped.

Thus, contra Leithart, the Bible does seem to speak quite clearly to the question of merit, and in light of what Scripture teaches, it seems that the Protestants were right that merit has to do with the sinner's acceptance before God. Merit, if defined as “just deserts,” is related to God's glorious justice, which is the application of His holy character. Merit, so defined, is one of the pillars of a gracious justification in Christ, of certain assurance of final salvation, of grateful worship, and of strength to persevere to the end, even in the midst of terrible sufferings.

Jesus had to come because our sin merited/deserved death. His death merited/deserved His resurrection to eternal life. And all of the elect are united to Him on the ground of His life-merits, and in Him, they are treated like they deserve all that Christ deserves, which means that God treats them like they deserve eternal life, and so He makes certain, by the Spirit, that they get and keep every blessing of life, including regeneration (a living heart), faith and repentance (a living disposition), justification (the verdict of life), sanctification (a transformed life) and glorification (the fulness of eternal life). And so our song shall ever be. SDG


  1. The problem with Protestant theology in general is that they misinterpreted some of the statements of Paul - in many cases when he speaks of "works of the law" he is talking about the Jewish Mosaic rituals, not good works. Thus the massive confusion. Problem is he uses the word interchangeably.

    In the Orthodox understanding of why Jesus had to come save humanity, was that so he could conquer hell by resisting sin in the body he inherited from his human mother. Eventually he conquered when his body was glorified. Now he helps us to do the same when he works within us. Do that which is good, but acknowledge all good is from God.

    1. Thanks for the reply Doug. It seems to me that Paul always has more in mind than Jewish rituals when he speaks of "works of the law," though they're always included. Cornelius Venema has a good popular level critique of the NPP idea of "works of the law" in his book, Getting the Gospel Right. Stephen Westerholm's book, Justification Reconsidered, also has a scholarly critique of the same.

      The way you presented Orthodoxy seems true but truncated. It appears to overlook the substitutionary and mediatorial work of Christ, while focusing only on His example and work within us.