The first time I read The Imitation of Christ was while I was in seminary. As much as I enjoyed reading it my Protestant feathers were ruffled from time to time by some of the Catholic theology it contained. One of the statements which bothered me most was this one: “Keep yourself a stranger and pilgrim upon earth, to whom the affairs of this world are of no concern. Keep your heart free and lifted up to God, for here you have no abiding city. Daily direct your prayers and longing to Heaven, that at your death your soul may merit to pass joyfully into the presence of God.” (Book one chapter twenty-three)
The idea that we could somehow “merit” salvation went against everything I was taught. Our salvation is by grace alone through faith and not based on any works of our own. As it turns out I had a very bad understanding of the concept of “merit” in Catholic theology. Philosopher Robert Koons helped me the most in understanding this in his lengthy essay “A Lutheran’s Case for Roman Catholicism.” He notes that this is a common misunderstanding and writes, “This is a point on which the otherwise very reliable Geisler and MacKenzie fall into error. They consistently interpret ‘merit’ as meaning ‘partially earns’, without providing any evidence for the correctness of this interpretation.” (12n12) I quote him here at length.
On the Roman view, by cooperating with God’s grace, we can “merit” a further increase in that grace. This seems to be a flat-out self-contradiction: how can we merit an increase in unmerited help? If help is provided on the basis of merit, then it is not by grace.
The Roman language of ‘merit’certainly lends itself to confusion here. Roman theologians distinguish two kinds of ‘merit’: condign, and congruous. There is, theoretically, a third kind of merit, which I will call “absolute” or “strict” merit. “Absolute” merit would be the kind of righteousness that would compel God, by virtue of strict justice and apart from any economy of gracious promises, to accept us as worthy of eternal life. Roman theologians, following Aquinas, simply deny that human creatures can claim any such absolute merit (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2007). As absolutely sovereign, God cannot be bound in strict justice to any of His creatures: so no one can claim absolute merit before God. For this reason, they do not speak of our “earning” our salvation, and they can agree with Paul that salvation cannot be thought of as wages earned by work done: “for the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due” (Romans 4:4).
Condign merit presupposes the order of grace but implies, within that order, a kind of fit between the quality possessed or the work done and the reward received, due to God’s explicit promise. Congruous merit refers to a kind of value that God freely chooses to reward, apart from any promise to do so. (In fact, different Roman theologians have drawn this distinction differently, but I think that, in the final analysis, the distinction has little to do with the issue at hand.)
Correcting the errors of some of the nominalists (like Ockham and Biel) to whom the Reformers had rightly objected, the Council of Trent clearly denied that human beings are able to merit, either condignly or congruously, their own conversion to faith (the so called “first justification”).23 According to Trent, we are able (after regeneration) to merit further increases in grace, and ultimately eternal life itself, condignly. However, the equality between merit and reward depends ultimately on the fact that we are cooperating with God’s own grace, so that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) As Augustine put it, God is simply crowning His own gifts to us.
For Aquinas and scholastic theologians in general, ‘merit’ comes to have a primarily causal, rather than judicial, meaning. That is, a condition “merits” an increase in grace just in case it satisfies a causally necessary precondition for that increase in grace. Understood in this way, the Thomistic concept of merit approximates the Lutheran notion of a ‘means’ of grace. For Lutherans, there are activities that we can participate in (namely, baptism, hearing and reading the Word, holy communion, confession and absolution) by which we have access to God’s grace. In Thomistic terms, these activities “merit” an increase in grace, not in the sense that the grace is earned or deserved by them, but simply in the sense that God has promised to reward them with an increase in grace.
This is not to deny that there is a difference between the two perspectives at this point: first, the different understandings of ‘grace’ (forgiveness and imputed righteousness only, versus regeneration and the infusion of Christ’s righteousness), and, second, a difference in the scope of activities that “merit” or serve as “means” of grace (the Catholic view including many things, like prayer and almsgiving, that Lutherans would exclude). (28-29)
My point in this post is not to persude anyone of the validity of this concept of merit but rather to bring into focus a better understanding of merit as it is understood in Catholic theology. Before anyone should attempt to correct or refute a doctrine it is of first importance that they have properly understood it.