Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Merits of Merit: Meritum De Congruo vs. "Suing God"

Moving from exegetical to more systematic issues in our ongoing discussion of Sola Fide, it is high time we discuss the merits of merit.

It is here especially that we must pay close attention to precision of language and definition. In order to properly represent the Catholic position and compare and contrast it with the Reformed view, therefore, we must turn to our respective Catechism and Confession.

With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2007).

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him, as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant (Westminster Confession of Faith VII.1).

With the exception of the mention of “covenant,” both of these expressions are quite similar in their disallowance of any talk of “strict merit” (meritum adÅ“quatum sive de condigno) with respect to man’s relationship with his Creator. Catholicism’s “covenantal” context for merit is seen in CCC 2008, which says that “The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace.” It continues:

… the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.
Now the temptation for the Protestant when we hear the phrase “the merit of good works” is to say, “Aha! So you Catholics do believe that you earn your salvation!” Not so fast, though:

Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God’s gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us “co-heirs” with Christ and worthy of obtaining “the promised inheritance of eternal life” (CCC 2009).
“Merit” for the Catholic appears to be similar to what we Protestants might call a “claim” upon God, one that is rooted in our status as adopted sons of God the Father. In Reformed language we might say, as the Puritans often did, that we ought to “sue God” in order to claim his covenant promises for ourselves. Furthermore, we confess that our works will be tried and (graciously) rewarded on the last Day (Westminster Confession XXXIII.1).

The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace (CCC 2011).
My question for you readers, then, is this: What is the difference between the Catholic saying the believer earns congruent merit, and the Protestant saying that God can be taken to court and convinced to pay up?