Righteousness and Merit
by James Akin
I. WORDS AND WORD-FIGHTS
Two Catholic doctrines which are phenomenally confusing to Protestants are the Catholic understandings of righteousness and merit. The key reason for this--in fact, virtually the only reason for this--is the different ways in which the two key terms "righteousness" and "merit" are used in the two communities.
Often a given theological term may be used in several different technical senses, and when one sense is common in one community and another sense is common in a different community, terrible confusion and hostility can result.
For example, it is vitally important to distinguish the different senses in which the Greek term theos is used. For example, the term can refer to: (a) an idol, (b) one of the pagan gods, (c) the Christian God (that is, the Being who is three Persons in one Being), or (d) the Person of God the Father.
Now let us consider the statement in Greek, iesous estin theos, which we would normally translate in English as "Jesus is God"--a perfectly ordinary statement of Trinitarian faith. However, this reading of it presupposes that the term theos is being taken in the third sense mentioned above--that is, as a designation for the one Being we call God. If the term were taken in any of the other senses, disastrous understandings would result. Jesus would alternately be declared to be an idol, one of the pagan gods, or God the Father himself (i.e., Sabellianism).
Now imagine two communities of Christians, one of which had developed in such a way that it used the term theos exclusively as a reference to the one Being we call God and one of which had developed so that it used theos exclusively as a Personal name for the Father. If these two communities came into contact with each other, even though they both believed in the doctrine of the Trinity, would immediately be at each others throats, with one declaring "Jesus is God!" (meaning, "Jesus is the Being we call God") and the other declaring "Jesus is not God!" (meaning, "Jesus is not the Person we call the Father"). Both statements would be equally orthodox in meaning, though not equally orthodox in expression.
In order to prevent this kind of misunderstanding from happening, the Church must prohibit certain expressions from being used (such as "Jesus is not God") even though they can be given an orthodox reading.
This happened in the 1500s when the Protestant Reformers began to use the term "faith" in a novel way and began preaching salvation by "faith alone." Throughout Church history the term "faith" has normally been used to mean "intellectual assent to the teachings of Christ" (hence the infidels are those who do not accept the teachings of Christ--Muslims, Jews, etc.).
When the Protestants appeared proclaiming that "man is justified by faith alone" this would instantly be read by the ordinary man in the street as "man is justified by intellectual assent alone"--a position known as easy believism or antinomianism, which even (the good kind of) Protestants themselves reject (since they define faith in such a way that it includes the virtues of hope -- trust in God for salvation -- and charity -- the principle which produces good works in the life of the justified Christian).
The Church was left with no choice but to prohibit the use of the phrase "faith alone." It would have been grossly misunderstood by the common man (as the fact Protestantism has been plagued since its inception with a battle against internal antinomian factions). And, in fact, the formula "faith alone" is against the language used in the Bible, for while we regularly read in Scripture of justification "by faith", the only time the phrase "faith alone" appears in Scripture it is explicitly rejected as a means of justification (Jas. 2:24). Even if Protestants can give this text a meaning which does not contradict their doctrine, this does nothing to change the fact that the formula faith alone goes directly against the language of Scripture, even if not against the doctrine of Scripture.
Once two sides of an argument perceive that the other side is using an unorthodox term in an orthodox sense, Scripture prohibits us from fighting about it. Paul orders Timothy concerning his flock: "Remind them of this, and charge them before the Lord to avoid disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers" (2 Timothy 2:14).
And Paul describes the person who is quarrelsome about words, saying: "[H]e is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain" (1 Timothy 6:4-5).
However, while Paul is adamant that we are not to engage in quarrels about words (so long as our meanings are the same), he equally insists that the community has a right to retain a normative use for given terms. In fact, he prefaces his description of the man obsessed with words by saying, "If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit, etc." (1 Timothy 6:3-4a).
With this as background on the necessity of distinguishing the different senses in which terms can be taken and on the necessity of a community having fixed meanings for the terms it uses, we can proceed to look at the confusion that exists in Protestant minds concerning the Catholic view of righteousness and merit.
One often hears Protestant apologists saying things like, "Catholics do not recognize justification as an event which happens to a person when he first comes to Christ because they confuse sanctification with justification." This is false on two fronts.
To begin with, Catholics do not confuse the two, thinking there is only one phenomenon when there are really two. Catholics do use the terms "justification" and "sanctification" interchangeably, but they distinguish two (actually, more than two) senses in which these joint-terms can be applied.
First, they recognize what is called "initial justification," which is a single event that happens to a person once, at the beginning of the Christian life and by which one is given righteous before God. Second, they recognize what is called "progressive justification," which occurs over the course of the Christian life and by which one grows in righteousness.
The Protestant apologist, out of lack of familiarity with the Catholic position, usually jumps on this second phenomenon--progressive justification--and says, "Aha! You see! That's sanctification! Catholics confuse justification with sanctification!"
But in fact no confusion is going on. Catholics recognize that there are two phenomena; that is why they have given them two different names -- initial versus progressive justification. They are not confusing the two events, one instantaneous and one stretched out over time, nor are they confusing the terms; they use the terms consistently, one name for one event, another name for the other. They are simply using the terms differently than Protestants, but it is a logical fallacy of the first caliber to confusing a difference in the use of terms with a confusion in the use of terms.
But there is a second reason why the Protestant apologist's assertion is false, and this one again springs from a lack of familiarity with the Catholic position, and it concerns the different senses in which the term "righteousness" can be used. Even the Protestants who get past the initial versus progressive issue tend to wrongly assume that what Catholics mean when they talk about progressive justification is what Protestants mean when they talk about sanctification. It isn't, and the difference between the two turns on the meaning of the term "righteousness."
For Protestants, the term "righteousness" tends to be used in one of two senses--legal and behavioral. Although they do not always express it in this manner, Protestants will say that in justification one is made legally righteous (i.e., is given legal righteousness by God), but in sanctification one is made behaviorally righteous (i.e., is given behavioral righteousness by God, so that one behaves more righteously than one did before).
The misunderstanding Protestants get into when they look at the Catholic doctrines of initial justification(/sanctification) and progressive justification(/sanctification) is caused by the assumption that Catholic thought on these issues is dominated by the same legal vs. behavioral understanding of righteousness that Protestant thought is dominated by.
Thus the Protestant apologist often reasons to himself like this:
"Catholics believe we are made righteous when we are initially justified, but they do not believe we are made legally righteous, so they must mean that we are made behaviorally righteous at initial justification. They also believe that we grow in righteousness during progressive justification. This has to be growth in behavioral righteousness, because legal righteousness before God cannot grow; you are either legally righteous or you are not. Thus Catholics must mean by 'progressive justification' what I mean by 'sanctification'--that is, growth in behavioral righteousness. However, if it is possible to grow in behavioral righteousness after initial justification, that must mean the Catholic does not believe he was made completely righteous in initial justification. Thus Catholics must believe they are made partially behaviorally righteous during initial justification and then they grow in righteousness during progressive justification, which I call sanctification. Thus they confuse justification and sanctification."
This is an elegant piece of reasoning, and except for a couple of qualifiers I would want thrown in, I would not fault it as a piece of logic. However, like all pieces of logic, its soundness is contingent on the truth of its premises, and the Protestant apologist's piece of logic is based on a hugely, whoppingly false premise--the idea that Catholics are talking about legal and behavioral justification when they are talking about initial and progressive justification.
Because the Protestant's thought world is dominated--so far as the idea of righteousness goes--by the concepts of legal and behavioral righteousness, he naturally assumes that when Catholic theologians are thinking about righteousness in the same sort of way. This is the false premise the cases the entire argument to go askew. Catholic thought in connection with the terms "justification" and "sanctification" is not dominated by the ideas of legal and behavioral righteousness. Instead, it focuses on a third kind of righteousness which may be called ontological or real righteousness.
Ontological or real righteousness is the quality which adheres to the soul when one does righteous acts. Its opposite, ontological or real unrighteousness, is the quality which adheres to the soul when one does unrighteous acts. Catholics conceive of guilt and innocence as objectively real properties which cling to our souls just like colors cling to the surface of objects. When we sin, we become guilty and our souls grow dark and dirty before God. But when we are justified, God purifies us and our souls become brilliant and clean before him. Guilt and innocence, righteousness and unrighteousness, are therefore conceived of as properties of our souls
Even though Protestants do not normally use this language to talk about justification, there is no reason why they cannot. In fact, the Catholic will point out that there are very good reasons for Protestants to accept the claim that when we are justified God removes one objectively real property of our souls and replaces it with another.
First, moral realism demands it. Protestants are firm believers in moral realism. Our actions are either right or wrong, good or bad, and they are that way objectively, regardless of how we feel about it. Protestants are the first to agree that moral relativism is a crock. If you commit a homosexual act, it is simply wrong and perverted, no matter what you think about it. It's just wrong. Wrongness is an objectively real moral property that attaches itself to certain actions.
But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you intentionally commit a objectively wrong act, then you become objectively guilty. Guilt is therefore an objectively real moral property as well. The same goes for positive moral properties, like righteousness. If you intentionally perform an objectively righteous act then you become objectively righteous. Righteousness, like guilt, is an objective property just as guilt is, and it clings to your soul just in the same way that guilt does.
So moral realism
Another reason why Protestants need to accept the language of objective guilt and innocence is that the Bible itself uses this kind of language. It often speaks of guilt and innocence in terms of objective properties, such as colors or cleanliness. Scripture speaks of our sins being "crimson like scarlet" (Isaiah 1:18), and the Psalmist says "wash me with hyssop and I shall be whiter than snow." (Psalm 51:7). It is also the kind of righteousness Scripture has in mind when it talks about our sins making us "unclean" or "filthy" and our forgiveness making us "pure" and "clean" before God. In these passages, guilt and innocence are conceived of as objectively real properties that cling to us just like colors and cleanliness.
So there is no reason why Protestants need to object to the metaphysical understanding of righteousness that Catholics use. In fact, many Protestants are uncomfortable with using purely legal language for justification and state quite adamantly that justification is not just a legal fiction. That God actually "constitutes" us in righteousness. The only difference on this point is that they do not use the metaphysical understanding of righteousness in order to explain what constituting in righteousness means. But there is no reason why they cannot do so and, as we have seen, there are positive reasons why they should. Thus for example Protestant authors such as Norman Geisler, who are more familiar with the principles of ontology, are willing to talk about actual righteousness being given in justification. Geisler, for example, uses the helpful terminology of speaking of legal righteousness as "extrinsic" righteousness and actual righteousness as "intrinsic righteousness."
Catholics, for their part, have no trouble saying that a person is legally righteous before God when they are justified. If God constitutes a person in righteousness
Furthermore, Catholics don't need to have any problem with saying that our righteousness is brought about by a decree of God. The Catholic can be perfectly happy saying that when we are justified God declares us righteous and his declaration bring about what it says. He declares us righteous, and so our guilt is taken away and our righteousness is restored.
This is something for which there is good Biblical support for. God's word is efficacious. It accomplishes what it says. In Genesis 1 God spoke and his word brought about the things that he spoke. He said, "Let there be light," and there was light. He said, "Let the waters be divided from each other so that dry land may appear," and they did. He said, "Let the waters teem with living creatures," and they did. Furthermore, in Isaiah 55:11, God said, "[S]o shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it" (RSV).
God may sometimes choose to give graces which are incomplete, which do not of themselves bring about their target goal (see the essay, "Resisting and Cooperating With God"), but when God declares something to be so, it is so. God's word is efficacious; it brings about what it says. So when God declares us righteous, we actually become righteous: we have our guilt taken away and our purity before God restored. This is true even if the righteousness that is being restored is the original righteousness which Adam lost for the whole human race.
Thus in Catholic theology the term "justification" is used to refer to the event by which we are given ontological or real righteousness. Coextensive with this, of course, is legal righteousness, for God will not treat anyone as unrighteous who is really righteous. Similarly, God will not treat as righteous anyone who is really unrighteous. As God declares in Scripture, 'I will not justify the wicked" (Ex. 23:7) -- his holiness prevents it. Thus for God to make someone legally righteous, he also must make them actually righteous; he must constitute them in righteousness. And for God to make someone actually righteous, he must correspondingly make them legally righteous.
So a Catholic need have no problems with the forensic/declaratory aspects of justification. God does indeed declare us righteous, and that is nothing with which a Catholic needs to quarrel. A Catholic also does not need to quarrel about which kind of righteousness is the cause and which is the effect, whether God declares a person legally righteous and that, by the miraculous creative power of his word, makes the person actually righteous, or whether God makes the person actually righteous and therefore declares the person legally righteous. This is a matter of indifference in Catholic theology.
Furthermore, when Catholics talk about progressive justification/sanctification, they are again thinking of God making us ontologically righteous. This is almost totally missed by Protestants when they compare the Catholic view of progressive justification to the Protestant idea of sanctification, which is in turn part of the basis on which they say Catholics confuse justification with sanctification. No, Catholics don't. They recognize that growth in personal holiness (behavioral righteousness) is a separate and subsequent event to initial justification. The confusion is on the part of the Protestant who thinks Catholics are talking about growth in behavioral righteousness when they talk about progressive justification/sanctification. They aren't. They're talking about growth in actual righteousness.
This is sometimes a difficult concept for Protestants to grasp since they have heard so many sermons about righteousness being an all or nothing thing that they have trouble understanding the concept of how righteousness can grow. This is one of the things that keeps them boxed into a two-fold understanding of righteousness. However, the problem is solved when one grasps the concept of actual righteousness, which is not a one-dimensional but a two-dimensional concept.
The first dimension of actual righteousness is its level of purity, which we might refer to as the quality of the righteousness. When one becomes a Christian and is justified, one receives totally pure actual righteousness. There is no admixture of sin or unrighteousness in the righteousness God gives one. Thus in this sense one is made just as righteous as Christ, because the level of purity in Christ's righteousness and ours is the same.
However, from this point of initial justification one's righteousness begins to grow during the course of the Christian life. This is the hard part for Protestants to understand since they will ask, "But if we are already made totally pure, how can our righteousness grow from there?" The answer is where the second dimension of actual righteousness comes in. Righteousness does not continue to grow in the first dimension; once total purity has been received, it is not possible for righteousness to grow in that dimension. One cannot go beyond total purity in the quality of righteousness, so righteousness grows in its second dimension -- its quantity.
Even though when we first came to God we were made totally righteous in the sense that we became totally pure, we have not yet done any good works, for these are made possible only by God's grace after justification. The righteousness God have given us may be totally perfect in quality but it is not yet totally perfect in quantity. We may be just as righteous as Christ in the sense that the righteousness God has given us is just as pure as Christ's, but it is not as extensive as Christ's because we have not done as many good works as Christ. The tiny little good works we do in our lives -- works wrought only by the grace God himself gives us -- in no way compare to the huge, overwhelming, infinite good works of Christ, such as his death on the cross. So while we may have just as much righteousness as Christ in terms of its quality (total purity, by God's grace), we do not have just as much righteousness as Christ in terms of its quantity.
It is in terms of the quantity of righteousness that rewards are given in heaven, and thus because Christ has a greater quantity of righteousness than we do, he also has a correspondingly greater reward. As Paul says: "[B]eing found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death -- even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Philippians 2:8-10). And as the book of Hebrews declares: "Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, . . . for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2). And so "in everything he [has] the supremacy" (Col. 1:18).
This understanding of the three kinds of righteousness -- legal, actual, and behavioral -- enables us to look back at the reasoning of the Protestant apologist we mentioned earlier and see where it goes wrong. One will recall that the apologist reasoned:
"Catholics believe we are made righteous when we are initially justified, but they do not believe we are made legally righteous, so they must mean that we are made behaviorally righteous at initial justification."
Obviously this is false since the Catholic is not boxed into a two-fold view of righteousness. It is natural for the Protestant to think this, since his own thoughts on righteousness are normally limited to legal and behavioral, but in fact that Catholic believes that in justification we are given actual righteousness (and in conjunction with it, legal righteousness, for the two are co-extensive, as well as being given the first stirrings of behavioral righteousness through regeneration). The apologist then reasoned:
"They also believe that we grow in righteousness during progressive justification. This has to be growth in behavioral righteousness, because legal righteousness before God cannot grow; you are either legally righteous or you are not. Thus Catholics must mean by 'progressive justification' what I mean by 'sanctification'--that is, growth in behavioral righteousness."
This is also false because in progressive justification Catholics are again talking about actual righteousness, and actual righteousness does grow in quantity though not in quality.
"However, if it is possible to grow in behavioral righteousness after initial justification, that must mean the Catholic does not believe he was made completely righteous in initial justification."
This is false because the Catholic does believe we are made completely righteous in terms of the quality of our righteousness (both actually and, consequently, legally) at justification. The growth that occurs later is a growth of quantity, not quality.
"Thus Catholics must believe they are made partially behaviorally righteous during initial justification and then they grow in righteousness during progressive justification, which I call sanctification. Thus they confuse justification and sanctification."
If Catholics did believe initial justification is to be identified as the event where we are made partially behaviorally righteous, followed by later growth in behavioral righteousness, then they would indeed be confusing justification with the sanctification (as Protestants use the term "sanctification"), because this would merely make justification the first stage of behavioral sanctification. However, while there is a gift of partial behavioral righteousness at the time of justification (because of regeneration, which makes us spiritually alive and no longer dead in our sins, so that the power of sin is broken in our lives and we are no longer enslaved to it, though we do still have to battle it, cf. Romans 6), this gift of partial behavioral righteousness is not what justification consists in. In Catholic language, justification consists in God making us actually righteous (and 100% righteous in terms of quality), which is either brought about by God's declaring us legally righteous or which brings about this legal declaration.
The confusion is thus not on the part of the Catholic. The Catholic is not confusing justification with sanctification -- not confusing our initial reception by God and the growth in behavioral righteousness which follows -- the confusion is on the part of the Protestant apologist who has not studied Catholic theology properly (and who probably has never read Catholic sources or has only scanned them looking for "ammo" to use against Catholics, rather than trying to enter into the Catholic thought-world and understand what Catholics really mean rather than what he has been told in sermons and lectures and radio program they mean), and who has thus confused his own understanding of sanctification with the Catholic understanding of both justification and sanctification.
Unfortunately, the misunderstanding the Protestant apologist has concerning these matters leads him into other confusions as well. For example, I have talked to, debated, and read numerous Protestant apologists who, because they are confused about the growth of righteousness, ask questions like, "If Catholics believe we are only made partially righteous in justification and you do good works after this to make this righteousness grow, how do you know when you have done enough good works to go to heaven? How many good works do you have to do?"
Protestants who say this at least have a leg up on those who think Catholics believe we must do good works in order to become justified -- a position which was explicitly condemned at Trent, which taught "nothing that precedes justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace of justification" (Decree on Justification 8).Catholic theology teaches we do not do good works in order to be justified, but that we are justified in order to do good works, as Paul says: "[W]e are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). Justification is the cause, not the consequence, of good works.
However, these Protestants are still confused about the fact that Catholics do not teach we are made only partially righteous in justification. The Church teaches that we are made totally righteous -- we receive 100% pure righteousness -- in justification. Thus Trent declares:
"[I]n those who are born again God hates nothing, because there is no condemnation to those who are truly buried together with Christ by baptism unto death . . . but, putting off the old man and putting on the new one who is created according to God, are made innocent, immaculate, pure, guiltless and beloved of God, heirs indeed of God, joint heirs with Christ; so that there is nothing whatever to hinder their entrance into heaven" (Decree on Original Sin 5).
This one quote alone, even without the surrounding infrastructure of Catholic theology, from which the same thing could be deduced, shows how false, foolish, based on inadequate research, and motivated by a lack of comprehension of basic Catholic theological reasons is the whole, "How can you know when you have done enough?" line of argument. Nothing beyond one's initial justification and regeneration is needed in order to go to heaven. In fact, this is one of the arguments in the Catholic case for infant baptism. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
"Since the earliest times, baptism has been administered to children, for it is a grace and a gift of God that does not presuppose any human merit; children are baptized in the faith of the Church. Entry into Christian life gives access to true freedom" (CCC 1282).
"Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God . . . [And thus] The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant baptism" (CCC 1250).
You don't have to do a diddly-do-da thing after being justified by God in baptism in order to go to heaven. There is no magic level of works one needs to achieve in order to go to heaven. One is saved the moment one is initially justified. The only things one then does is good works because one loves God (the only kind which receive rewards) and not choose to cast out God's grace by mortal sin. And even if one does cast it out by mortal sin, the only thing needed to get it back was the same thing needed to get it in the first place -- repentance, faith, and sacrament, except the sacrament in this case is confession rather than baptism.
People try to make the Catholic message sound complex, but it's really simple: "Repent, believe and be baptized; then if you commit mortal sin, repent, believe, and confess. Period." -- even a five year old child can understand that. All the exegesis and infrastructure of catholic soteriology I am giving in this work is strictly not necessary, any more than the exegesis and infrastructure found in Protestant soteriology books is either. From a Catholic perspective, repentance, faith, and baptism are just as easy to get across in an evangelistic appeal as they are for Protestants; in fact, they are easier since one doesn't have to explain, "Okay, repentance and faith are necessary, but baptism isn't, but it's still really important, and so you need to do it, okay?" On the Catholic view, the message of the elements we have to preach is much simpler: Repent, believe, and in the saving waters, receive the righteousness of God.
A subject which is misunderstood by Protestant apologists just as much as the Catholic view of righteousness is the Catholic view of merit. A lot of this is due to the connotations the term "merit" has in Protestant minds. Normally this is taken to be a synonym in Protestant vocabulary for "earn," however as we will see this is nothing like what the term means in Catholic theology.
In fact, it has never been what the term meant. It has only gained that connotation from its usage in post-Reformation anti-Catholic polemics. From the very beginning the term was used differently. Thus in the second century the Latin term meritum was introduced as a translation of the Greek term for "reward." In fact, it was picked over another term (merces) precisely because it lacked the legalistic connotations of meritum. Thus a document released by the German conferences of Catholic and Lutheran bishops states:
"[T]he dispute about merit also rests largely on a misunderstanding. The Tridentine fathers ask: How can anyone have doubts about the concept of merit, when Jesus himself talks about 'reward' and when, moreover, it is only a question here of acts that a Christian performs as member of Christ? . . . Many antitheses could be overcome if the misleading word 'merit' were simply to be viewed and thought about in connection with the true sense of the biblical term 'wage' or reward (cf., among other passages, Matt. 20:1-16; 5:12; John 4:36; 1 Cor. 3:8, 14; Col. 3:24). There are strong indications, incidentally--and a linguistic analysis could provide the evidence--that the language of the liturgy does not merely reflect the true meaning of the concept of merit stressed here, but--quite contrary to the Reformers' fears--prefers to explain what was meant through the word meritum rather than through the term merces (reward), for the very reason that merit sounds less 'materialistic' than reward."
The term merces does in fact have very materialistic connotations. In fact, there is a joke among Latinists concerning Jesus' statements in the Vulgate of Matthew 6, Receperunt mercedem suam which is jokingly translated "They have received their Mercedes"--the car brand name "Mercedes" being derived from merces.
Because meritum is simply the Latin translation of the theological term "reward," this reveals to us a fundamental unity of the doctrine of merit and the doctrine of reward, a doctrine which even (most) Protestants acknowledge since the Bible uses the term. In fact, the Bible uses very "materialistic" terms in this regard. The three key terms for reward the New Testament uses -- misthos, apodidomai, andmisthapodosia mean respectively "wages," "to deliver or pay off," "payment of wages due." It kind of puts a new feel on things when one brings this forward into English and one sees Jesus saying:
"Rejoice and be glad, for your wages are great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:12).
"He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet's wage, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's wage" (Matthew 10:41).
"But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your wage will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish" (Luke 6:35).
This kind of puts a different slant on it, and the New Testament is chocked full of this kind of "profit motive" language (see C.S. Lewis's excellent essay, The Weight of Glory for a Protestant exposition of this point), though translations often obscure the fact. In fact, one may note that Protestant translations tend to translate misthos inconsistently, as "wage" whenever the context is worldly-economic and "reward" whenever it is something promised to believers by God.
Nevertheless, though the New Testament uses highly economic language in speaking of the believer's rewards (e.g., "He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor," 1Co. 3:8; "The Lord will repay everyone accord to his works," Rom. 2:6), it does not in any way intend this language to be taken to mean that Christians earn their place before God.
Thus in Catholic theology, merit is in no way earning, but identical with the concept of reward. Brought about by God's grace, acts which please God are done by Christians (Phil. 4:18, Col. 1:9-10, 1Th. 4:1, Heb. 13:16, 13:20-21) and God chooses to reward them (Rom. 2:6, 1 Cor. 3:8, 4:6, 2 Cor. 5:10, Gal. 6:6-10, Rev. 2:23, 22:12). These elements, God's grace, the acts pleasing to God that they bring about, and the reward God chooses to give, are the key elements in the Catholic theology of merit, as we shall see.
The doctrine of merit is thus the same as the doctrine of rewards. To help Protestant readers grasp this and cut through the linguistic confusion experienced on this point because of the associations of the term "merit" in the Protestant vocabulary, they should try substituting "reward" or "rewardable action" or "to perform a rewardable action" for "merit" in what follows. This should cut through the confusion.
In the previous section, we discussed three senses of righteousness -- legal, actual, behavioral. In this section we will look at three forms of merit, which we will call congruous, condign, and strict.
In all three forms, there is a similarity between the action and the reward, and it is this similarity which makes it fitting for the reward to be given for that work, which is why the term "merit" is applied. In all cases of merit, an action merits its reward in the sense that the action is similar to the reward in a certain way and thus makes it fitting that the reward be given. The difference between the kinds of merit depends on the kind of similarity between the action and the reward and, correspondingly, it depends on the kind of fittingness there is that the action be given the reward.
Before looking at the three kinds of merit we are concerned with (congruent, condign, and strict), it is helpful to note two kinds that we are not concerned with.
The first of these is natural merit. Natural merit occurs when a person does an action that has natural value but not supernatural value, and which consequently deserves a natural reward. For example, if I do natural labor for an employer, that merits the paycheck I receive in return. Because I am only doing something with natural value (natural labor), the act deserves only a natural reward, such as money, not a supernatural reward, such as glory in heaven.
The only way for a natural task such as doing one's job becomes supernaturally meritorious (and consequently receiving a supernatural reward), is if one does the natural task at least partly on the basis of the virtue of charity, or supernatural love. Charity is the principle of all supernatural merit, and the only thing God chooses to supernaturally reward. Thus if you give a cup of cold water to a thirsty person for a natural motive, such as to get him off your back or to assuage your guilt, then this will get no reward from God. However, if you perform the natural act partly from a supernatural motive, such as giving the thirsty person a cup of cold water because you supernaturally love him as a creature of God and wish to help him, then this is supernaturally meritorious and will receive a reward from God.
This principle lies behind Jesus' statement in the Sermon on the Mount:
"I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matthew 5:44-47)
Even the unregenerate (tax collectors and heathen) have natural love for those who do good to them, and so if we have only natural love for others, we will receive no reward from God (" . . . what reward have you"). God's love is different, it is supernatural and embraces all people, regardless of whether they do good or not. Thus he sends rain and sun (blessings in an agricultural society) on both the righteous and the wicked, on both his friends and his enemies. Jesus tells us that to be sons of our Father (i.e., to behave as Christians), we must display this same supernatural love that the Father does, and that when we do this we will receive a reward from him.
The same principle lies behind Jesus' statements in Matthew 6 concerning doing acts of righteousness in front of men. If we do an act of righteousness in front of men, we may be tempted to do it for purely natural motives (i.e., so they will praise us or think well of us), and thus it will receive no reward. The only way for the act to be rewarded is if it is done for supernatural motives -- to please God out of love for him -- and thus Jesus instructs us (using typical Hebrew hyperbolic language) that if we are going to be tempted to do acts of righteousness for natural motives we should avoid the temptation by doing them in such a way that only God will know about them.
In any event, natural merit is not of interest to us at present because it gains no supernatural reward. Only supernatural merit is of concern here.
The second kind of merit we are not concerned about in this paper is demerit -- that is, the kind of merit which is accrued when an action has a negative value and so it is fitting for it to receive a negative reward. This can happen in both natural and supernatural merit, and thus it can be fitting for one to be punished naturally (by being put in jail, fined, spanked or whipped or caned, etc.), as well as being punished supernaturally (by losing the joy of fellowship with God, being denied the sacraments, being tortured in spirit in this life, or going to hell in the next). Demerit is not also not of interest here because we are concerned with the sense in which the term "merit" is objected to by Protestants.
Having said that, let us now look at the three forms of merit in which we are interested -- congruent, condign, and strict.
Since we are here talking about supernatural merit, the most basic sort of similarity between the action and the reward is that it is a supernatural action and so makes fitting a supernatural reward. As we said before, the only kind of actions which God supernaturally rewards are those which have a supernatural motive -- the virtue of charity, which God implants in our hearts and which it is completely impossible for us to produce ourselves. In fact, according to Catholic theology each new supernaturally motivated act we do requires God to give us a special, new grace (called an "actual grace") in order to do it. The denial of this was the position known as semi-Pelagianism, which claimed that God gave us all the grace we need at the beginning of the Christian life and that we do not need to be sustained in salvation by new grace, a position which was infallibly condemned by the Church. Thus when supernatural merit occurs, God gives us the supernatural motive to perform the supernatural act to which he then gives a supernatural reward.
This is the principle behind Augustine's statement:
"What merit, then, does a man have before grace, by which he might receive grace? -- when our every good merit is produced in us only by grace and when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but his own gifts to us" (Letters 194:5:19).
The basic principle of supernatural merit, therefore, the thing that makes it supernatural, is the grace which God gives to enable there to be a supernatural act in the first place, the only kind of act for which a supernatural reward is fitting.
But in some cases God has not promised a reward. A reward might be fitting, but it may not have been promised. To give a human analogy, if someone holds the door open for me while I have a load of books in my arms (a common event for me), it is fitting that I hold the door for them next time. However, I have not promised to do so, and all things being equal I am not strictly bound to do so. Thus it is fitting for me to hold the door for this person, but there is no strict obligation involved. This is, on a natural human level, what Catholics would call congruent merit.
Congruent merit occurs with respect to God when a person under the influence of actual grace does an action which pleases God but which he has not promised to reward. Some times God chooses to reward the act, sometimes not. For example, if we obey Jesus' instruction to supernaturally love our enemies and pray for them; however, God has not promised that he will answer our prayers concerning them, and although he is pleased with the prayers we are offering out of supernatural love for them, he may not give them the blessing we are asking for them. It may simply not be God's will for that to happen. The same is true of prayers for ourselves; even when we pray from supernatural charity we are likely only congruently meriting the thing we are asking for since God has not promised to give it.
The obvious next higher form of merit is one in which God has promised to reward the action. In this case when a person under the influence of actual graces performs the supernatural act, God is not only pleased by the act but he is guaranteed to reward it because he has promised to do so. This kind of merit is known in Catholic theology as condign merit.
One thing it is important to realize about condign merit is that, even though God has promised to reward the at, that does not mean that the act has an intrinsic value equal to the reward it is receiving. If I perform an act of charity and God gives me a heavenly reward in the next life by giving me an additional level of supernatural beatitude, the value of the act I perform in no way equals the value of the beatitude. There may be a proportionality that can be drawn between the amount of charity God's grace has led me to exercise in this life and the amount of beatitude I get in the next life, but there is no equality between the two values.
The reasons that there is no equality and thus the intrinsic value of God's rewards always immeasurably exceeds the intrinsic value of our merits is that, as Anselm pointed out in his Cur Deus Homo, the value of an act is proportional to the value of the person making it. Thus I, as a finite being, could never make the infinite atonement Christ did on the Cross (even if I was sinless and always had been). It took a Person of infinite value -- the Son of God -- to make an infinite satisfaction. Similarly, I, a finite creature, can never merit anything of infinite value, but the beatitude which God bestows upon us in the afterlife is of infinite value because it will be enjoyed for all eternity.
Thus the fundamental basis for all condign merit is God's promise, not the intrinsic value of the human act, even when it is brought about by God's grace. Without God's promise we would have no claim on the beatitude God offers; however, under God's grace we do indeed claim the promises of God, even though what he promises always infinitely outweighs what we have done by his grace.
If our actions were equal in value to his reward then what would have occurred would be referred to in modern Catholic parlance as strict merit. Strict merit is what would occur when someone gives to God something of equal intrinsic value to the reward he has promised to give. The trick is, only Christ is capable of doing this since only Christ is capable of doing things of infinite value for God. Other humans are totally incapable of this because we lack the infinite dignity of the Godhead supervening on our actions.
Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
"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" (CCC 2007).
The same themes have been stressed by Catholic theologians for ages, not only by St. Augustine and his famous axiom "when you crown our merits, you crown your own gifts," but by theologians ever since.
In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:
"[W]here there is no simple right [to a thing], but only relative, there is no character of merit simply, but only relative . . . [as when] the child merits something from his father and the slave from his lord. Now it is clear that between God and man there is the greatest inequality, for they are infinitely apart, and all man's good is from God. Hence there can be no justice of absolute equality between man and God, but only of a certain proportion, inasmuch as both operate after their own manner. Hence man's merit with God only exists on the presupposition of the divine ordination" (Summa Theologiae Ia:114:1).
At the Council of Trent, when the mutual hostilities with Protestants were greatest, the Council fathers wrote:
"Christ Jesus himself, as the head into the members [cf. Eph. 4:5] and as the vine into the branches [cf. John 15:5], continually infuses his virtue into the said justified [people], a virtue which always precedes their good works and which accompanies and follows them, and without which they could in no wise be pleasing or meritorious before God . . . [F]ar be it that a Christian should either trust or glory in himself and not in the Lord, whose bounty toward all amen is so great that He wishes the things that are His gifts to be their merits. And since in many things we all offend, each one of us ought to have before his eyes not only the mercy and goodness but also the severity and judgment [of God]; neither ought anyone to judge himself, even though he be not conscious of anything [1 Cor. 4:3-4]; because the whole life is to be examined and judged not by the judgment of man but of God, who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts and then shall every man have praise from God . . . " (Decree on Justification 16).
In the twentieth century, theologian Michael Schmaus writes,
"In this connection, it must be remembered that man cannot make any valid claim on God. Since the 'reward' give by God always infinitely exceeds what is due man, the word 'merit' can only be used analogously. Because of God's transcendence and the resultant inequality between God and man, merit in the strict sense of the word cannot occur in the relationship between God and man."
"We would not dare to hope that God would reward the actions of the justified man if he had not promised it; our hope is based on his word. At the same time, the reward is a grace . . . . What is meant [by merit and reward] is not an extrinsic, material repayment for the pain and trouble endured in the accomplishment of good works; it is rather the intrinsic fruit of the action itself."
"All of this does not, of course, mean that like all good things, the promise of a reward from God cannot be misunderstood and misused. There is a danger that the ill-instructed Christian may hope to gather merit as a basis for bargaining with God, to use his good works as a kind of pledge which God must at once redeem. Needless to say, notions of this sort are very far from the meaning of the scriptural texts and the Church's teaching" . . . . [That God rewards our merits] "rests on his free decision: he has promised that he will do so, and he keeps his word. Except for this divine promise, no one could flatter himself that his good works would have such an effect."
And twentieth century theologian Ludwig Ott writes:
"Merit is dependent on the free ordinance of God to reward with everlasting bliss the good works performed by His grace. On account of the infinite distance between Creator and creature, man cannot of himself make God his debtor, if God does not do so by His own free ordinance. That God has made such an ordinance, is clearly from His promise of eternal reward . . . . St. Augustine says: 'The Lord has made Himself a debtor, not by receiving, but by promising. Man cannot say to Him, 'give back what thou hast received' but only, 'Give what thou has promised'" (Enarr. in Ps. 83, 15).
These quotes, stretching throughout history as they do, from Augustine through Aquinas and Trent and twentieth century theologians into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, show how false and foolish the idea is that the Catholic Church teaches that we earn our place before God. Only Christ as the infinite God-man, whose infinite dignity gives his every action infinite weight, is capable of earning anything before God. So while God's grace does bring about in Christians actions which please God and which he chooses or even promises to reward, only Christ is capable of doing before God what Protestants mean by the term "merit." Catholics only say Christians do what God rewards.
 Infidels are those who have never embraced the Christian faith, as opposed to schismatics, who accept the teachings of Christ but have broken from union with the Church, and as opposed to heretics, who accept some but not all of the teachings of Christ, and as opposed to apostates who have once accepted the Christian faith and then totally repudiated their profession of faith.
 One might also call behavioral righteousness "dispositional righteousness" since it is the change in dispositions that God gives one which produces the change in behavior.
 Such as a clarification of the sense in which one is either legally righteous or not-righteous before God, for Hitler was less legally righteous in front of God than the average sinner in the sense that Hitler had racked up more legal/moral crimes before God. However both Hitler and the average sinner are equally legally unrighteous before God in the sense that they lack the total legal righteousness of Christ. They are both equally lawbreakers, but they have not broken the law equally.
 There is also a fourth kind of righteousness, historical righteousness, which is one's track-record in terms of righteousness through history. Once historical righteousness has been lost through sin, it cannot be regained since God does not change history when he justifies us. This is something both Protestants and Catholics agree upon, and so this kind of righteousness we do not need to go into in this paper.
 Actual may be taken as the middle term between legal and behavioral, since behavioral unrighteous leads to actual unrighteousness, which leads to legal unrighteousness. Similarly, increased behavioral righteousness leads to increased actual righteousness, which leads to increased legal righteous (in the forensic recognition of the quantity of righteousness, though the quality of one's legal righteousness remains unchanged).
 Alister McGrath, Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 70.
 The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide? Justification III.7.
 Schmaus, Dogma 6:138.
 ibid., 142.
 ibid., 143-4.
 Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 4th. ed., 1960, (Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1974), 247.