What does it mean to “merit” something? What is desert? Let’s discuss what it means within the context of a Christian worldview, how it relates to how we understand who and what we are, particularly in relation to other and to God.
Traditional Reformed theology, as dogmatically enshrined in the Westminster Confession, has posited the existence of a prelapsarian covenant of works “wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (WCF VII.2). By contrast, when man fell into sin by his primal apostasy, God entered into a second covenant with his people. “Man, by his fall, having made himself uncapable of life by that [first] covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace” (WCF VII.3). Covenant theology, thus classically conceived, sees an antithetical contrast between these two covenants, whose very names indicate that the distinction is fundamentally that of works versus grace(Irons, 1).
Some theologians have taken issue with such terminology during the 20th and 21st cetury, arguing that the principle of grace was itself operative before Adam fell. Is this so? Why are they arguing this?Closely related tothis is the question of whether or not “the obedience which God demanded of Adam in the covenant of works may in any sense be regarded as the meritorious ground of the offered reward”(Irons, 2). It has ebcome inreasingly common among Reformed thoelogians to deny this. Adam was simply obligated to do this. Adam could not by his obedience have put God into debt as though he would have deserved somereward. God would have been perfectly just in not bestowing any gift upon Adam since Adam was by nature required to perform this.
One of the primary arguments against this position is that this, if true, destroys the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. We are referring to the historic Protestant position according to which Christ became incarnate by the Virgin Mary and lived a life of perfect obedience only to be punished as though a sinner on the cross, in order that his perfect righteousness might be credited to us legally as though we had performed such obedience perfectly in our own person.
This is the doctrine of double imputation and is perhaps best summed up in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “he who knew no sin became sin on our behalf in order that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ himself had never sinned, yet was punished for our sins in order that we who deserve such punishment have his perfect obedience credited to us when we are placed in legal and covenantal union with him. He is our surety, the one who discharges the debt we owe to God. The wages of sin is death, that is, the penalty of sin is condemnation and God must punish sin, which Christ underwent for us. If it is impossible for humans to merit reward by obedience, then if we consistently apply this principle, it is impossible for Christ to merit a positive righteousness that could be imputed to us. Irons aptly summarizes the issue and what is at stake:
If the notion of a pre-redemptive covenant of works must be overhauled beyond recognition by adding an element of grace and faith where it does not belong, the law-gospel contrast championed by Paul, Luther and Calvin is reduced to a Tridentine mush of salvation by faith-works, or by “the obedience of faith” (to use Paul’s term in a non-Pauline sense).7 The Pauline antithesis between the law and the gospel is the ground of the federal scheme which is based on the two covenantswith two opposed principles of inheritance (Rom. 4:13-16; 10:4-11; 2 Cor. 3:6-18; Gal. 3:10-12, 18; 4:21-31). Therefore, to inject grace into the covenant of works is to soften the law-gospel contrast and replace it with a continuum. Once this is done, one can no longer make a clear-cut distinction between faith and works with respect to the justification of sinners(Irons, 4-5).
Thus, what is at stake is the Gospel of grace itself. If we can no longer distinguish Law from Grace by means of fundamental principle rather than continuum, the doctrine of salvation by God’s grace alone is fundamentally compromised. According to the historic Protestant doctrine, the very reason we are saved only by faith is because Christ merited a righteousness only by Law. That is, he met God’s conditions of merit for us so that we wouldn’t have to. But if such a distinction is fundamentally obscured, Christ could not have done that, we do not have Christ’s imputed righteousness and our doctrine is fundamentally compromised. This has led to doctrines of salvation which end up blending faith and works in such a way that makes salvation conditional upon our obedience: The very principle upon which the Reformation was founded, making us more similar to Roman Catholics than historic Protestants when it comes to our doctrine of justification:
“All qualifications and denials of the covenant of works, while apparently laudable in their concern to safeguard “grace,” have turned out on the contrary to be the proverbial grass concealing the poisonous viper of the old medieval synthesis of faith and works”(Irons, 5).
in the dialectical give-and-take involved in this debate several ancillary questions have emerged that must be answered if covenant theology is to remain intact as a bulwark preserving the gospel of justification by faith alone. Those questions involve the entire range of issues surrounding the notion of merit and meritoriousness. Is human merit before God possible? If so, on what basis? What is the relationship between merit and covenant? What is the relationship between merit and divine justice? In order to attempt to shed some light on this bundle of interrelated questions, it will be useful to get our historical bearings to see how theologians in the past have attempted to unravel these issues(Irons, 5).
Abstract though this and its many related issues may seem, it is difficult to overstate the concrete, practical and existential consequences our answers to such questions have for us. Our understanding of the question of whether the distinction between Law and Grace is that of contrast or continuum is the difference of whether I am rejoicing every Sunday in Church as I sing the Psalms, to the glory of the one whose perfect righteousness is unconditionally credited to my account, freeing me from fear of having to live up to impossible, perfect standards of which I daily fall short despite my greatest efforts, or whether I hang myself in the garage out of consciousness that I cannot possibly live up to such perfect standards. Unfortunately, as Irons points out, rather than defending merit in the name of Christ’s imputed righteousness to the believer’s account, medieval theologians of the Roman Catholic Church defended the possibility of merit in order to defend the possibility of earning salvation with God, thus making one’s salvation ultimately conditional upon our obedience.
While some medieval theologians rejected the notion that it was possible to merit anything with God, most of them did hold to some sort of possibility of human merit with God(Irons, 6).
In any case, the medieval debate became a question of the basis upon which God rewards human merit(if he can be said to do so at all). The two camps in this debate were:
Thomistic “intellectualists” – Merit is rewarded based on the “intrinsic moral value” of the deed committed(Irons, 6). Aquinas was an example of such an intellectualist. He argued that God took note of the intrinsic moral worth of a deed and recorded it to the human’s accout. God’s intellectual cognizance of the intrinsic moral worth of the individual’s act was why these thinkers were referred to as “intellectualists.”
The relationship between merit and its accompanying reward is one of proportionality and comparability. The rewarded moral quality or deed is worthy of and proportionate to the reward. It is this supposed ontological equality of the value of the merit and the value of the reward that preserves the justice of God in rewarding meritorious acts(Irons, 7).
As we mentioned earlier, this emphasis on theo intrinsic, ontological worth of a moral act ended up leading to a Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation according to which salvation was based upon one’s obedience rather than God’s grace(Roman Catholics will undoubtedly take issue with such a characterization, but this is what I take to be the basically correct Protestant position):
This intellectualist view of merit is precisely the root of the Thomistic error regarding justification by infused habits of grace. If God’s granting the reward of eternal life to a sinner is to be in accordance with his justice, the sinner must actually be righteous. This is accomplished by a supernatural, monergistic infusion of a created, supernatural habit of righteousness. God sovereignly creates righteousness in the soul (the Aquinas of the Summa was a thorough-going Augustinian predestinarian). God then takes note of this new-found righteousness, registers it in his heavenly court, and accepts it as meritorious because it is in fact worthy of such acceptance. On the basis of his intellectualist view of merit, Aquinas logically concludes that this habit of grace created in the soul by God is necessary. God could not have arranged a different method of justification without doing violence to his justice(Irons, 7).
Franciscan “voluntarists” – With Aquinas and his followers representing the intellectualist position, it was Duns Scotus and his followers who represented the voluntarist tradition. Rather than seeing God’s registry of human merit as proportionate with the intrinsic moral worth of the latter’s acts, Scotus argued that God was entirely free to bestow any amount of merit on any act whatsoever(Irons, 8). One might also summarize this position as teaching that, regardless of the intrinsic moral value of one’s act, God was not bound by this value in according it a specific meritorious value(Irons, 8). The problems associated with such a problem are obvious:
The voluntarist position logically led many in the high middle ages to assert some rather strange doctrines. If merit is totally severed from any objective standard of justice but finds its definition solely in the arbitrary will of God, a number of startling conclusions follow. Some voluntarists, such as Ockham, taught in all candor that God could have assumed the nature of a stone or a donkey (or even a beetle or a cucumber!) and this act of obedience could have been accepted as sufficiently meritorious for the salvation of mankind(Irons, 8).
Irons notes that the context of this medieval debate was centered around the redemptive order of man. That is to say, it was centered around how God would save sinners. It was not concerned with the pre-redemptive order. That is, it was not concerned with the nature and relation of grace and law to God’s relationship with Adam prior to the latter’s fall. This medieval debate, however, would largely influence the tenor of the debate among post-Reformation Protestants regarding this issue. Irons argues that these Protestants were inordinately influenced by Scotist voluntarism and that a new, more biblical understanding of the relation of human merit to law and grace needs to be formulated. In any case, it is within the context of this debate that there developed a distinction between condign merit and congruous merit
Condign Merit – merit accorded to someone for a moral act because it is performed in a state of grace. That is to say, such a reward was given by virtue of that person being in covenant relation with God and thus already in God’s favor and already working for him, so to speak. It is by virtue of performing such an act while, by virtue of a covenant relationship, being one of God’s employees. Such reward is based upon justice(which in this case refers to the proportionality of the intrinsic moral worth of an act with how God registers it).
Congruous Merit – merit accorded to someone purely upon God’s grace. Those who accepted this distinction argued that God freely infused grace into someone on account of moral acts they performed outside of a state of grace. That is, such reward was purely gracious rather than just, i.e., not according to any fixed or objective standard of justice, but entirely according to his arbitrary, sovereign will, according to which he could have just as easily withheld such reward.
Irons summarizes: “If condign merit meets the standard of God’s justice, congruous merit meets the standard of God’s generosity”(Irons, 9). The notion of congruous merit was perfecty at home within the voluntarist camp. While condign merit, and thus, “just” divine reward of intrinsically moral human behavior did not become operative under the human came to exist within covenant relation with God through baptism,
by virtue of the gracious pactum[covenant] God has established with sinners, he freely binds himself to accept their unregenerate acts (fear of God’s wrath, beginning to love God, hatred and detestation of sin, repentance, and finally resolve to receive baptism) and to reward these feeble efforts with justifying grace — the infusion of righteousness in the baptismal act and its consequent remission of sins(Irons, 10).
The concept of condign merit developed for pastoral reasons(Irons, 10). According to this doctrine, sinners could be confident that their inadequate attempts at reform would be rewarded in spite of their feebleness and by virtue of God’s free grace, according to which he would gift humans (a great deal) more than they deserved. What does this have to do with the understanding of the nature and/or relation of law and grace within doctrine of Adam’s pre-fall covenant with God among post-Reformation Calvinists?:
the voluntarist school of thought had a significant impact on Reformed formulations of covenant theology. Scholars suggest that Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin and others in the first generation of Reformed theologians to develop the rudiments of what we now know as covenant theology derived much of their impetus and inspiration for covenantal thinking from the voluntarist wing of medieval theology(Irons, 11).
The reappropriation of what was in many respects the more biblical voluntarist doctrine among Reformation and post-Reformation Calvinists was integral to understanding the salvation of humans as a result of covenantally imputed righteousness rather than ontologically imparted righteousness(Irons, 12). That is to say, the Protestants departed in many respects from the Thomist intellectualist tendency and leaned more toward the Scotist/Ockhamist nominalist-voluntarist tradition(Irons, 12), according to which salvation is not granted to us based on what we have done in our own person, but based entirely upon God’s arbitrary will and sovereign grace:
It was left to the Reformation to take the fundamental covenantal insights put forward by the via moderna and develop them several steps further. Justification was now by the imputation of the righteousness of another — a purely covenantal act with no ontological aspects. Original sin inherited from Adam was further developed and refined to become an immediate imputation of the guilt of Adam’s covenant breach instead of an Augustinian realist participation of the human race in Adam’s sin. The ontological elements in the medieval view of the sacraments were removed, so that they became signs and seals of the covenant rather than rites which ex opere operato infused the divine nature into the soul. All of these developments flow from the nominalistic development of the notion of pactum. And, therefore, to a certain extent we in the Reformed camp today are all the theological heirs of the via moderna(Irons, 12).
According to Irons, the voluntarist tendency to conceive of God’s reward of humans in terms of pure gracious that obscured or did not do justice to God’s justice made its way into the Westminster Confession and into post-Reformation Calvinists in general:
But have we carried the covenantal revolution to its logical conclusion? or does our system still perpetuate remnants of an ontologically-based notion of merit and justice? Unfortunately, the answer is all too clear. While unequivocally rejecting the notion of congruous merit in the operations of God’s gracious restoration of fallen man, covenant theologians did not scruple to smuggle this concept right back into their system, but this time in the pre-fall situation(Irons, 12-13).
Thus what Irons considers the “fundamentally voluntarist reasoning of the Westminster Confession’s opening statement on the covenants”(Irons, 13):
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 (WCF VII.1).
It is the notion of a covenant being used to bridge the vast distance between man and God which Irons believes reeks of voluntarism(Irons, 14). The covenant becomes an infinite God’s means of communing with finite man. Nothing in his nature or character, according to the WCF, obligated God to do this(Irons, 14):
Is there not a hidden premise that human works, if viewed according to the strict standard of an ontologically-defined justice, are intrinsically disproportionate to the prospect of enjoying God in eternal blessedness? It seems that the covenant is being introduced to overcome the awesome metaphysical chasm between God and the creature in order to make possible that which would otherwise be impossible — man putting an infinite, a se God in debt by a finite obedience. It presupposes an ontological scheme of moral valuation which places God and the creature on opposite ends of the scale of being. This supposed ontological disproportion is what accounts for the inherent inability of the creature to do anything meritorious apart from a covenantal “condescension” on God’s part. But once the covenant is superimposed upon the created order, then the creature can produce obedience and expect a reward in return. But this obedience is necessarily congruous merit, merit that has been freely and graciously accepted by God [“only” or “merely] by virtue of his self-commitment to the terms of the covenant(Irons, 14).
The problem Irons sees with this is that God’s covenantal condescension to man is entirely free and arbitrary rather than proceeding necessarily from his nature of character(Irons, 14).
Irons’ suggestionfor our revision of the relation between grace and law within the context of covenant theology follows in the footsteps of his mentor Meredith Kline. On the one hand, Kline and Irons reject the intellectualist belief that justice is defined by the relation of the intrinsic moral worth of an act to the reward it merits(Irons, 16). However, he also rejects the voluntarist notion that God, out of his free and arbitary grace, makes himself a debtor to our works(Irons, 14).
Kline notes that the voluntarist position actually draws to some degree upon the intellectualist understandingo f merit insofar asit grants a distinctionbetween condign and congruous merit. This is because the notion of condign merit presupposes the notion of the intrinsic moral worth of an act, and accepts that God, once he graciously condescends to make himself a debtor and within this covenantal context, binds himself to quid pro quo compensatory justice(Irons, 17). The voluntarist tradition, within the context of its development of a pastoral covenantal theology, presupposes certain crucial and even fundamental intellectualist distinctions. Kline’s alternative formulation of the relation of grace and justice to covenant theology involves the initially voluntaristic-sounding notion that justice is defined by what God defines within the context of the covenant(Irons, 17-18):
At times one may think that he agrees with the voluntarist position that all merit is defined by the covenant. But his understanding of that covenant is different. It is not a voluntary condescension of divine grace but a revelation of divine justice. Upon hearing this, one may then jump to the conclusion that Kline is an intellectualist, looking for an abstract definition of justice not based on God’s will as revealed in covenant. But this too turns out to be a false lead, for Kline rejects any ontological definition of merit that looks for a proportionality of intrinsic value between the deed and the reward. Again, merit is defined by God’s covenantal revelation. Divine justice cannot be deduced by ontological or metaphysical valuations, but can only be discerned through the spectacles of the covenant. Condign merit by definition does not, indeed, cannot exist. It is an abstraction(Irons, 18).
That is to say, while Kline, along with the voluntarist position, both argue that justice is stipulated within the context of the covenant, the voluntarists believe that God’s stipulation of this very covenant is itself God’s gracious condescension to man rather than justice. Kline, on the other hand, argues that God’s covenanting with man is a question of justice and not grace. This is essentially what Irons sees as the error of the voluntarist position. According to Kline and Irons, God’s covenanting with man is not an entirely voluntary, gracious act subsequent to God’s creation of man. Rather, God’s creation of man presupposes the notion of covenant.
God is in covenant with man at the very notion of man’s creation. Irons argues that the voluntarists, and after them, the Reformation theologians and Puritans, made this error, because the nominalistic notion was smuggled into the Calvinistic understanding of God’s covenant relation with man during the prelapsarian notion. According to this nominalistic understanding of God, all of God’s acts were entirely arbitrary and he was not bound even by his own attributes. It was believed, for example, that he could even send an innocent person to hell. But we reject such a notion of God, arguing that it compromises certain essential attributes of justice and goodness:
God does not act arbitrarily, for all his actions are expressive of and delimited by his attributes. The law of contradiction is not the only limitation upon God’s power. If it were, then God could justly send an innocent creature to hell, as some of the more nominalist Reformed theologians taught.25 Our intuitive abhorrence of the proposition that the only reason God does not send innocent creatures to hell is his own free and voluntary agreement not to, is in fact informed by an objective consideration of the divine justice. The order that God has established with the created realm cannot be regarded as so utterly contingent that it could have been arranged in a manner radically discontinuous with its present disposition. Calvin denied that we are competent judges to pronounce what God could have done if he had chosen otherwise. The notion of God’s absolute power seemed to him to posit an unpredictable freedom in a God unfettered even by his own justice(Irons, 22).
Rather than seeing God’s covenanting with man as a contingent decision, it proceeded from his essential attributes of goodness and justice:
The covenant of works will of necessity now be viewed not as an additional structure superimposed upon the created order, a created order that could very well have existed apart from a covenant relationship with the Creator, but as an essential part of God’s creating man after his own image. The very act of endowing a rational creature with the divine image and thus placing within the very constitution of his being a God-created desire for eternal fellowship and communion with God is an act laden with covenantal overtones(Irons, 23).
Irons argues that the Westminster is inconsistent in that the nominalistic-voluntaristic language and conceptual furniture is smuggled into Puritan theology, evidence for their covenantal understanding of creation exists within the Westminster Confession:
…although the Westminster Confession’s opening statement on the covenant employs the language of the via moderna, we believe that the Confession’s overall system of doctrine supports the covenantal nature of creation. The Confession speaks of the eternal moral law, which reflects “the holy nature and will of God,” as a covenant of works (WCF XIX.1-3; WLC # 93, 95). Furthermore, the Confession, when dealing with the imago Dei, states that Adam and Eve had “the law of God written in their hearts” (WCF IV.2), thus strongly suggesting that man was constituted in a covenantal relationship with God as he was created. This is further supported by the fact that the opening question of both the Larger and Shorter Catechism states that man was created to enjoy God. These statements stand in apparent tension with the nominalistic notion that man “could never have any fruition,” that is, enjoyment of God, apart from his “voluntary condescension” to enter into a covenant of works. If man’s constitution in the imago Dei means (1) that his teleological end is to glorify and enjoy God eternally and (2) that the law was written on his heart as a covenant of works that held out the way of attaining that eternal enjoyment of God, then the covenant of works cannot be viewed as a superadded, voluntary condescension in addition to creation, but must be inherent in the very fact that man was made in the divine image(Irons, 25).
God, in creating man in his own image, must have necessarily created man in such a wayw that he would strive to pursue enjoyment of God in the form of eternal communion with him. How could a just God create a creature in his own image who is hardwired to pursue communion with him without providing a way of attaining such beatitude? Since we all agree that all of God’s interaction with man is inherently covenantal, it follows that God’s enabling of man to pursue such ends must have been covenantal, and, in light of our understanding of God’s attributes, this proceeded from God’s justice and righteousness rather than totally arbitrary grace. God covenanted with man because he is good and righteous and just, not because he just felt like it for absolutely no reason and could have just as easily left Adam there to himself or sent him to hell, like the more nominalistic of some of the Reformed theologians believed:
It is therefore incorrect to speak of God voluntarily condescending to the creature to make a covenant. For the very fact of creation itself has already constituted man in a covenant relationship with his Creator. This formulation of the mutual reciprocity of creation and covenant shows more clearly than ever that the covenant of works is not a matter of grace but simple justice toward the creature made in God’s image(Irons, 26).
Irons argues that while the voluntarists had a good understanding of God’s justice as whatever proceedsform his sovereign will, it must be circumscribed within the horizon of his attributes rather than God being an entirely arbitrary law unto himself. Moreover, it must be qualified within his covenant with man rather than ex pacto, as the nominalistic voluntarists thought. It is not until formulated within such a paradigm that the initially promising voluntaristic notion of righteousness makes sense. How does Irons define the relation between justice and grace within the covenant?:
(1) Rather than an ontological state intellectually registered in the divine mind, merit is constituted only by fulfillment of the stipulations of a divinely-sanctioned covenant.
(2) The measure of merit is defined by the terms of the covenant, which itself is the only possible revelation and definition of divine justice. There is no such thing as non-covenantal, condign merit because merit is by definition constituted by fulfilling what is stipulated in the covenant. And there is no such thing as congruous merit which, since it is covenantal, is supposedly not based on strict justice, because the covenant is by definition the revelation of God’s justice. Neither merit nor justice exists apart from covenant(Irons, 27).
Justice and merit are defined by and within the covenant. Voluntaristic Reformed theologians can no longer argue that the notion o Adam being confirmed in his eschatology by virtue of his obedience must be defined as gracious because his obedience is disproportionate to the reward given, since what constitutes justice is defined by the covenant, while being limited by his attributes.
Irons, Lee. “Redefining Merit: An Examination of Medieval Presuppositions in Covenant Theology.” http://www.upper-register.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2012. <www.upper-register.com/papers/redefining_merit.pdf>.