New Articles | The Marketing of Merit in the Roman Catholic Religion

By: Rob Zins

In the October 1995 issue of This Rock magazine, the feature article was devoted to a Catholic exposition on the meaning of "merit" in the Roman Catholic religion. The author, a free-lance writer named Mark P. Shea, is a former "evangelical" converted to the Roman Catholic religion in l987. The title of Mr. Shea's article is: "The Meaning of Merit." This article is meaningful to us because it shows the depth a Roman apologist will go to make palatable his religion in the hopes of marketing it as Christianity.

The essence of Mr. Shea's article is an explanation of the meaning of Canon 32 of the Council of Trent. Canon 32 is one of 33 Canons following 16 chapters on the subject of Justification in the 6th Session of Trent (January, 1547). We produce the entirety of Canon 32 for the reader.
"If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory, let him be anathema."1
Mr. Shea has felt the sting of rebuke from the evangelical community which has cited this Canon as proof that Rome teaches a meritorious salvation. Mr. Shea, however, believes that evangelicals not only misunderstand Trent, but basically teach the same thing using different words. So sure is Mr. Shea that he is willing to say:
"It appears to many Christians that this teaching of Trent says, 'We get our salvation the old fashioned way: we earn it.' If it does, then, as a Christian, I quite agree with them that Trent falls under the curse spoken by Paul against 'anyone, even an angel' who preaches a gospel other than the one the Apostles preached."2
If Mr. Shea has any integrity, we suggest that he call his local Bible church and ask them to get the Baptismal font ready for a repentant sinner who is now ready to come to Christ on the basis of a full confession of error.

Let us examine the language of Trent and proceed to analyze Mr. Shea's attempts to re-define vocabulary in his hopes of vindicating Romanism.

Trent grants that the good works of the one justified are, in fact, the gifts of God. This is worded in this way to protect Rome from the Pelagian heresy that man can merit his salvation unaided by the grace of God. Trent teaches that all good works of man are from God since God first gives grace for their accomplishment. However, Trent goes on to say that these good works are "the good merits of him justified" and that "the good works truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life..."etc. (emphasis mine).

Christian theology has long balked at this terminology because it compresses together the words "merit" and "grace." R.C. Sproul explains:
"Rome's view of merit and grace contains an unresolved paradox. On the one hand Rome insists on speaking of merit, while on the other she insists that this merit is rooted in grace. The Germans expressed this paradox by coining the term Gnadenlohn, 'gracious merit.'"3
So committed is Rome to the notion that merit is real and is man's share in his own salvation that they have devised a two-tiered level of merit. On the one level is congruous merit. This kind of merit evokes God's reward to natural man alone apart from prevenient grace. Congruous merit is said to be "fitting merit" for those who, apart from the grace of God, do good works to the best of their ability. Congruous merit is a reward given by God as is fitting to the one who works according to his own power. On the second tier is condign merit. The word condign means "worthy" or "deserved." Condign merit is not merely suitable, but actually a reward deserved. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains for us the difference between condign merit and congruous merit:
"From an ethical point of view the difference practically amounts to this, that, if the reward due to condign merit be withheld, there is a violation of right and justice and the consequent obligation in conscience to make restitution, while, in the case of congruous merit, to withhold the reward involves no violation of right and no obligation to restore, it being merely an offense against what is fitting or a matter of personal discrimination (acceptio personarum)."4
R.C. Sproul gives us confirmation of the Roman Catholic understanding of condign (deserved) and congruous (fitting) merit by citing Thomas Aquinas.
"A man's meritorious work may be considered in two ways; in so far as it proceeds from his own free will, and in so far as it proceeds from the grace of the Holy Spirit. There cannot be condignity [deserved merit] if a meritorious work is considered as it is in its own substance, and as the outcome of man's own free will, since there is then extreme inequality. There is, however, congruity [fitting merit], since there is a certain relative equality. For it seems congruous that if a man works according to his own power, God should reward him according to the excellence of his power. But if we are speaking of a meritorious work as proceeding from the grace of the Holy Spirit, it merits eternal life."5
Clearly the Roman Catholic religion teaches a two-tiered level of meritorious actions performed by man. One is worthy of eternal life since it proceeds from the grace of the Holy Spirit. The other is fitting of honor but not demanding of honor. To withhold a reward for condign merit would be unjust. To withhold a reward for congruous merit would be only an offense against what is fitting.

Roman Catholic theology is unabashed in its insistence that God has obligated Himself to reward condign merit with eternal life. Trent is adamant about this:
"Hence, to those who work well unto the end and trust in God, eternal life is to be offered, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Christ Jesus, and as a reward promised by God himself, to be faithfully given to their good works and merits."6
We notice that the language here, as well as in the 32nd Canon of the 6th session of the Council of Trent, is explicit: "the good works of the one justified, the good merits of the one justified, or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God, truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life" (Canon 32).

No one can deny with integrity the fact that Rome teaches that those who work will receive a reward of eternal life to be given faithfully to their good works and merits. Also, according to Rome, good works truly merit an increase of grace.

How then does Mr. Shea avoid all of this in hopes of convincing us that Rome means what she says but still is Christian? Mr. Shea has two methods of affirming the teaching of his newly found religion. He first erects some straw men and burns them down by telling us what the term "merit" does not mean coming from the Council of Trent.
"On the lips of the Council of Trent, merit does not mean 'earned grace' or 'do-it-yourself salvation,' nor does it mean 'good deeds to supplement Jesus' inadequate saving work.'"7
The problem here is that no one is accusing Trent of these odd definitions of merit8. Merit at Trent and everywhere else in Roman Catholic theology means something deserved by virtue of fulfilling a condition, or by virtue of performing an act. The Roman Catholic Almanac is sufficiently clear on this point.
"Merit: In religion, the right to a supernatural reward for good works freely done for a supernatural motive by a person in the state of and with the assistance of grace. The right to such reward is from God, who binds himself to give it. Accordingly, good works, as described above, are meritorious for salvation."9
Mr. Shea seeks to divert attention away from the fact that merit means "the right to a supernatural reward for good works freely done in a state of grace and with the assistance of grace."10 In order to soften the value of merit, he falls back on the old Romanist position that eternal life is all of grace, since man is rewarded for his works that could not have come about apart from grace. We keep in mind that Rome sees real merit to good works but calls these "works of grace" because God starts these works with grace. The apostle Paul did not have such a high view of works, and neither did he wish to polish up works by saying they must be "of grace" since God starts everything by His grace! Paul did not rely on abstract philosophical contortions to try to prove that, after all, everything is really of grace. Paul was blunt and to the point:
"And if by grace, then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it be of works, then it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work" (Romans 11:6).
Since Mr. Shea is fully aware that the Roman Catholic religion teaches that all good works of merit (condign merit) have their starting point with the grace of God, he is free to be clever in the mixing and matching of his terms. This is his second method of convincing us to swallow Rome's teaching on merit salvation. Mr. Shea wishes to bring the word "merit" up to its 20th century meaning. He wants to change the word "merit" to the word "fruitfulness," and then thinks he can find common ground with the gospel by triumphantly announcing that meritorious works are nothing more than God-produced fruit. This fruit is then what matters to God in the final analysis of salvation:
"Essentially Trent is saying that grace, incarnate in us, has tangible and eternal effects on us and our relationship with God according to our cooperation with it. If we freely respond to grace and do good, this changes us and makes us able to respond to more grace, which God seeks to give. We indeed bear fruit for eternal life. We indeed are rewarded for what we do. Yet it is all the works of grace."11
The fly in the ointment of all of this is the fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ and the testimony of Scripture do not make justification dependent upon our good works or our merit. It is the common Roman Catholic position (dressed up by Mr. Shea) that good works done in faith, as prompted by the grace of God, are the ground of our justification. But the Reformers knew full well that the only ground of justification was the righteousness of Christ imputed to the poor sinner (Romans 5). They also knew that this imputation of Christ's righteousness was given through faith alone (Romans 4). They saw that circumcision was a gift of God to His people but even so, they could not rename this "work" as grace and demand it for justification (Acts 15). They saw the Law of Moses as a gift of God to His people but they could not redress and market it as grace to those who wished for salvation in Christ alone (Galatians 5). The Reformers viewed correctly the Pharisaic mindset that clung to "good works" done in faith as a guarantee that God would accept them (Luke 18). They could not fit the new wine of the gospel into the dead wineskin of the self-righteous. The Reformers, in the light of Titus 3, correctly exposed the arrogance of Rome which boasted that meritorious (or, for Mark Shea, "fruitful") works done under grace "truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life...and the attainment of eternal life...and the attainment of eternal life itself." (Council of Trent, page 46 Schroeder). Seeing that Rome had seized upon the ethical teaching of Jesus to construct a system of personal merit through surrender to a man-made system of grace, the Reformers preached the righteousness of Christ alone for justification. They dismantled the Romish system of sacramental grace dispensing and indulgences, and replaced it with the righteousness of Christ. Mr. Shea has attempted to avert our eyes away from Christ alone for justification. He instead wishes to hold forth the "fruit" of grace as the ground of our justification. He does so to the ancient drum beat of a dead religion. It is the "same old same old," albeit dressed in 20th century terminology. But whether it be the articulate and careful garb of the Council of Trent, or the witty, whimsical attire of 20th- and 21st century pop theologians, the finery of Rome is as filthy rags compared to the garment of holiness in Christ alone.

Mr. Shea closes his article with this dreadful conclusion:
"Under the guidance of the Spirit it is really possible for Catholics and Evangelicals to say, concerning faith and merit, 'How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity.'"12
We respond by encouraging the reader to take careful note that Mr. Shea is in fact teaching the same old heresies when it comes to salvation. The Romanist religion has always wished to make the "fruit" of justification the cause of justification. The Roman Catholic religion has always accused the Reformers of merely satisfying the Law of God in the verdict of justification. (In reality, the Reformers knew that satisfaction of God's law was at the heart of justification, and no amount of good works done in faith could satisfy the holiness of God and His unrelenting law.) The Romanist religion has, likewise, accused Christians of paying scant attention to the value of good works. They say we should elevate them where they belong as the ground of our salvation. They say it is our cooperation with the grace of God in producing these good works that merits our justification. We answer "No, not now and not ever!" The Bible is clear that justification is a free gift of God and not dependent upon good works done in righteousness (Titus 3:5). The Bible is equally clear that regenerative grace, given freely by God to His own, will not fail to produce that fruit of sanctification without which no man shall see God. But to put the fruit produced by the graciousness of God as the cause of that graciousness, robs God of His glory, reduces salvation to the "cooperation" of man, and diminishes Christ's mighty atonement by sharing it with the goodness of man. Or worse yet, Rome wishes to make God's salvation contingent on the willingness of man to let God make him good, or "fruitful." This pollution can only be purified by the strong rivers of the Word of God.
"Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness" (Romans 4:4,5).
It is said, "A rose by any other name will smell as sweet" (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet). So it is with Rome. Her odious fragrance will be the same when called by any other name. Christians cannot bear the illicit religion of Rome. In the final analysis,
"What concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols" (2 Corinthians 6:14).
In the insightful words of John Murray, former chair of theology at Westminster Seminary, we conclude:
"We thus see if we are to find the righteousness which supplies the basis of the full and perfect justification which God bestows upon the ungodly we cannot find it in anything that resides in us, nor in anything which God does in us, nor in anything which we do. We must look away from ourselves to something which is of an entirely different sort in an entirely different direction."13
It is in Christ from beginning to end that we are justified on the sole ground of His righteousness given to us as the gift of God's grace that justifies eternally the ungodly.
1The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, H.J. Schroeder, page 46

2This Rock Magazine , October 1995, page 25

3Faith Alone, R.C. Sproul, Baker Books, 1995 page 148

4The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 10, page 203

5Faith Alone, R.C. Sproul, page 150

6The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Schroeder, page 41

7This Rock, page 25

8While the term "merit" does not mean "to earn grace" it is merit, in fact, which is rewarded with grace in the Romish system.

9Catholic Almanac, 1994, page 317

10It remains for another article to explore how one does something "freely" while in need of being in a "state of grace" as well as in "need of grace" before it can be done! How much of condign merit is reserved to the cooperation of man? The Catholic Encyclopedia gives us seven conditions for condign merit, four with respect to the work, two with respect to the agent doing the work, and one with respect to God.

11This Rock, page 28

12This Rock , page 28

13Redemption Accomplished and Applied, John Murray, page 126

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