To most of my Evangelical family of faith (I am an Evangelical who entered the Roman communion in 1987), the word "merit" as a theological term is as sinister as it is (to most lay Catholics) unintelligible and disused. At best, Evangelicals sense an uneasy truce with Catholic belief since it appears to them that merit "went out with Vatican II" and is therefore no longer taught by the Church, a misperception abetted by lay Catholic ignorance of the faith.
But the truce is uneasy. That merit was ever taught at all by the Church is a cause of misgiving and suspicion, and the sickening revelation that merit is still taught by the Church can cause an Evangelical with a guilty attraction to Rome to bolt, telling himself as he runs that he has had a narrow escape.
A Catholic apologist, speaking to Evangelicals, ought to be aware that any discussion of the Church's claim to teach salvation by grace through faith will run into an objection from someone concerning merit.
If the objector is friendly, he will assert generously that, once upon a time and not so long ago, the Catholic Church taught salvation by works (meaning merit) but has, under the lash of Protestant criticism, recently returned to its senses-though it must abandon its claim to infallibility on the ash heap of repentance.
If the objector is not so friendly, he will point out that the Church, still teaching merit as it in fact does, is stiff-necked and apostate since it preaches a gospel of works righteousness specifically cursed by Paul (Gal. 1:8).
I know these objections personally, and, now that I am a Catholic, I still encounter this deep suspicion of merit among my Evangelical friends, most recently on the Internet. There I was, having a fine discussion with someone about the Church's insistence on the necessity of God's grace for salvation (I was arguing contra Pelagianism). I had written, "I certainly do not believe that we earn grace by having faith or doing nice things," when suddenly a fellow netter (we'll call him Martin) replied with what he took to be a zinger from the Council of Trent:
"Canon 32. 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."
Martin concluded, "It appears that those justified get ('merit an increase of') grace for doing nice things."
This deserves a straight reply since it touches on the nerve of the most important question in the world: What must I do to be saved?
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.
But . . . does "merit" mean "earned grace"?
In answering such a question, we must remember that, if we are to use words properly, we must know what the speaker means by them; we must not react viscerally or interpret anachronistically. Words change in meaning. A man announcing (in the 1890s) "I am gay!" did not mean what a man making the same announcement today would mean.
Likewise, we must remember that "merit" has changed in meaning from the way medieval theology understood it. 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."
So what does the word "merit" mean in 1990s terminology? In the words of one of the foremost Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, the best modern equivalent for what the medieval and Church meant by merit is "fruitfulness," a term Evangelicals are abundantly familiar with from John 15 and other verses.
"Fruitfulness," as all Evangelicals know, refers to the outworking of God's grace in our lives, both in changing us into the image of Christ and in "bearing fruit for the Kingdom" by, say, winning hearts for Christ, feeding the hungry, and caring for the needy.
None of this, as I learned long ago in Evangelicaldom, is "works salvation," but is simply the way in which we participate in the divine life, go "from glory to glory," and cooperate with the sanctifying power of Christ. With that in mind, let's now look at the Trent quotation above and see what we can make of it.
The Council says that "the gifts of God are also the good merits of him justified." Is this saying "salvation means God does half and we do half?" No. It is saying something far more radical. It is saying that God does it all and we do it all.
Following Paul (who urged the Philippians to "work our your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose"), the Council asserts that the fruit borne by the believer is real fruit that is really given by God and therefore really a part of the believer's life. Instead of seeing salvation in Luther's idea of "snow on a dunghill" (a mere legal decree of righteousness that gets us to heaven yet leaves us unchanged in our inner being), the Council sees salvation as a process that changes us in our inner being and conforms us to the image of Christ.
So who could disagree with that? Well, nobody-in practice-least of all Evangelicals who are quite enthusiastic about the inner transformation that the Holy Spirit is working in us and that we work out by our active cooperation. Yet, curiously, I have talked to numerous Evangelicals who speak as though some sort of inner theological switch is thrown in their brain when the Catholicese topic of merit and our good works is raised.
Then, as in the case of my Evangelical friend Ted, the belief suddenly reverts to saying, in his words, "Grace is alone and apart from our deeds by definition-see Romans 4:4-6," this in flat contradiction to James 2:24, which says that faith, by which we apprehend grace, is dead apart from deeds. What is the confusion here?
I believe the confusion is that, though Evangelicals understand it at an experiential level, there is nonetheless a wide failure to g.asp the meaning of the Incarnation at a theological level. Ted's statement (and countless others I have heard from well-intended Evangelicals) speak as though the Incarnation is for all practical purposes non-existent when we are discussing theology. In saying "Grace is alone" (contrary to the Catholic demand for deeds), many Evangelical believers end up speaking of the new life of Christ as though it were a sort of Bic lighter that was flicked in the soul at one instant in a believer's life and that now burns eternally in a perfect and immortal bubble somewhere deep inside.
Nothing else matters. What you do doesn't matter. Whether it has any effect on the rest of your being doesn't matter. Whether you cooperate with the transforming grace of God doesn't matter. Oh sure, you should cooperate, and any Evangelical worth his salt does (often with a zeal that should shame Catholics). Despite this wisdom of the heart, the theological head says that if you don't incarnate grace, you're still, in some Pickwickian sense, "saved."
Such a non-Incarnational view of the faith has consequences-particularly for Evangelicals trying to form a coherent theology. Thus, Ted goes on to say, "According to Roman Catholic Catholic doctrine, grace is apportioned to us through the seven sacraments, whereas the Protestant position flows from Galatians 5:5, which states that 'we await this justification we hope for and only faith can yield it.'"
In other words, for Ted and thousands like him, "faith" and "grace" and all other "truly spiritual" things are, intellectually at least, pitted against "unspiritual," physical things, such as like sacraments and human beings and human good deeds.
Contrary to popular myth, it is not Christianity but gnosticism that slices the universe up in the categories "spiritual= disembodied = good" and "unspiritual = physical = bad." Ted nevertheless holds that the words "only faith" imply that human good deeds, whether receiving sacraments or helping little old ladies across the road, necessarily oppose the gift of faith, since these deeds add a physical embodiment to the "spiritual" (read: "disembodied") faith he gnostically equates with purity.
In reply the Church points out that following this wrongheaded division between physical and spiritual to its logical conclusion pits Ted against the Incarnation itself. Catholic theology sees God continually manifesting grace through his creatures, and that is because the purest and most fundamental expression of grace is Jesus of Nazareth, the spiritual Word made very physical flesh.
Following this spectacular display of spiritual grace in physical form, the Church, in obedience to Christ, has seen grace embodied, love enacted, faith incarnate in deeds. Like the great Protestant writer C. S. Lewis, Rome believes that separating faith and works and pitting them against each other is like asking which blade on the scissors does the cutting. As Ted believes, so also does Rome believe that "all is grace." But grace is and must be made flesh.
Trent insists that salvation is incarnational. Just as the Word is made flesh, so in us grace is enfleshed in real, solid, tangible change and the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). The essence of the saving gospel is that it is to bear fruit in our lives and become kneaded into our full humanity. What the Council means is that our good fruits (or merits in sixteenth-century-speak) are ours as well as God's great gift. When we, under grace, do a good thing, it is really we who do it, because God willed that we do it-a truth my Evangelical friends believe as much as Trent, when they are not arguing against Rome.
The Council goes on to teach 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, truly merits 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." This is the core of Evangelical worries, especially the bit about "meriting an increase of grace." Let's unpack this dense language for a moment.
The Council teaches plainly that every good work done is performed "by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he [the Christian] is." The basic conclusion to which guys like Martin and Ted jump is "Merit = justification by works apart from grace," yet this is Pelagianism, a position repeatedly condemned as heresy by the Catholic Church.
The Second Council of Orange said, "As often as we do good God operates in us and with us, so that we may operate" (canon 9), and "Man does no good except that which God brings about and man performs" (canon 20). In other words, the Church affirms as strongly as Luther, Calvin, and my Evangelical pastor that God's grace is always prior to our good works (or "prevenient," to use theological technobabble).
For Trent, as for Evangelicals, fruit (or its Catholicese equivalent "merit") is always the result, not the initiator, of grace. As Paul said, "We are God's workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works" (Eph. 2:10), or, as our Lord said, "If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
But what happens when we bear much fruit? It is to this question that Trent addresses itself in the passage Martin quoted. 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. As in the parable of the sower, the seed of the word bears fruit depending on the kind of reception we give 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. (Repeat steps 1 and 2 as necessary till sinner is perfected and glorified.) We indeed bear fruit for eternal life. We indeed are rewarded for what we do. Yet it is all the work of grace.
So far from being a mere "Romish dogma," this phenomenon of grace, cooperation, growth, and further grace is also a fact many great Protestant writers have long recognized. It was Lewis again, not Rome, who taught me one of the cardinal principles of discipleship: "Virtue, even attempted virtue, brings light. Indulgence [of sinful inclinations] brings fog." This statement from one of the greatest Protestant writers of our century is at bottom indistinguishable from the sixteenth-century teaching of Trent.
Lewis says, just like Trent, that grace-induced meritorious actions (there are no other kinds of meritorious actions) lead to an increase of grace, and this fits the biblical witness. It thoroughly illuminates all the biblical language about God's rewards for our good deeds (consider the parables of the talents and of the sheep and the goats), yet it leads us a million miles away from the Pelagian notion that we can put God in our debt. Both Lewis and Rome say (to paraphrase Pascal), "God has instituted not only prayer, but all good deeds in order to lend his creatures the dignity of being causes."
Evangelicals, when they aren't worrying about Catholic doctrine, are perfectly at home with all this as a matter of lived experience. That's why countless Evangelicals write books with titles like Faith is a Verbor admonish us to remember, as I was told in dozens of sermons, that "Faith is a muscle." Classic Evangelical practiceis essentially Catholic on this point, for it operates on the truth that your relationship with God, like a muscle, gets stronger as you exercise your faith in real and practical ways.
Following John, both Catholics and Evangelicals believe that love, to be real, must be lived (1 John 4:20). Both, when they are not engaged in debate with each other, believe, as did James, that faith without real deeds of love is dead (Jas. 2:24-26). And both believe, following the parable of the talents and Paul, that the more you live out the grace of faith, the deeper and more vibrant it becomes (Matt. 25:21, 23; 2 Cor. 3:18).
That, and nothing else, is what Trent means when it says that meritorious (or fruitful) works done under grace "truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and . . . the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory."
This is simply a fancy and nuanced Latin way of saying what Paul said in a simple Hebraic way: Sow to the Spirit, reap of the Spirit. Do good, reap good. Sow little, reap little. (Gal. 6:7-9, 2 Cor. 9:6). As Jesus said, we will be rewarded according to what we have done. Our actions will have real and eternal effects on us and others (Matt. 25:31-46).
Evangelicals, to judge them by their actions, as Jesus told us to do (Matt. 7:20), again believe likewise-which, in the end, is cause for great hope and celebration. When Catholics take the time to offer a translation of their terminology, when they articulate in Evangelicalese the significance of the Incarnational Principle, when they make clear that separating faith and meritorious works springs from the sort of mentality that wants to split Jesus into the "spiritual" part and the "merely human" part, when they make clear that separating "purely spiritual" faith from the "flesh" of our actions is gnostic, not biblical-then Evangelicals usually drop their quarrel with Rome and say, as many people on the Internet have said to me, "Hey! That makes sense!"
And that is good news. It means that it is not necessary for Catholics to be ashamed of the supposedly sinister or embarrassing implications of Trent's teaching on merit, nor is it necessary for Catholics to concede a failure of the Church's charism of infallibility or some sort of Vatican II "backpedaling" on the matter. What the Church taught at Trent it teaches still (though not as polemically).
Happily, on the Evangelical side, it not necessary for our separated brothers and sisters to give up much in the way of their traditional teaching and practice and this point, for Trent is simply using three-dollar words to say pretty much the same sort of stuff I learned from my Protestant mentors about faith as a muscle, virtue bringing light, and reaping what you sow.
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."