Biblical Grounds for the Catholic Doctrine of Merit?
Next week Protestants will celebrate the quincentennial anniversary of the Reformation and the rallying cry that emerged from it: Justification by grace through faith alone.
Yet, is there room for merit in God’s economy of salvation? Luther said “No way!” Levering says, “Not so fast!”
In his new book Was the Reformation a Mistake? Catholic theologian Matthew Levering offers some biblical grounds for the Catholic doctrine of merit as it relates to justification. He also clarifies what Catholic doctrine actually teaches:
The Catholic Church recognizes that no one can ever merit the utterly free gift of justification, and the Catholic Church also affirms that believers’ final perseverance unto eternal life is God’s free gift, to which the appropriate response will be gratitude to God for his mercy. (122)
Two questions need to be addressed:
- Are sinners so transformed through justification that they are righteous, or is such righteousness merely ascribed to us?
- After we’re justified and receive the Holy Spirit, can we cooperate with grace to perform works of love that “merit” a divine reward?
These two questions sit at the heart of an important chapter in Levering’s book. We want to engage one aspect of it: Does anything change in us when we are justified by faith, so that we can perform works of merit?
Luther said No, Levering says Yes.
Luther and the Imputed Righteousness of Christ
What’s at issue in the above question is whether a sinner is actually made righteous through justifying faith in Christ, or whether they are attributed to be righteous on account of Christ’s righteousness. Luther insisted the latter.
When we have faith, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, rather than imputing our sins. This befits Christ’s role as the sole ‘mediator and high priest’ but whose ‘merit…we attain the remission of sins and righteousness.’ (Commentary on Galatians, 111)
As Levering explains, “Luther observes that by faith ‘we lay hold upon Christ’ so that we come to posses ‘a quality and a formal righteousness in the heart.’…We need solely to rely upon Christ’s perfectly congruent merit, since he alone is righteous and worthy of the reward that he receives for our sake.” (126, 127).
He goes on to ask an important question: “How is it, though, that faith gives us a real share in these congruent merits, since we are and remain sinners?” (127). As Luther said above, Christ’s merit is imputed to us, so that we are associated with Christ’s own fulfillment of the law; “God accounts us righteous through Christ’s merit” (127).
Levering explains two reasons Luther gave for why this imputation is necessary:
- No matter how good we are, we’re never perfectly righteous despite the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work
- Sometimes we fall into explicit sin, which mean we can never rely upon our works but only upon faith
He points out that Luther “hammers home his post” by drawing attention to the church’s key error under the pope: “claiming for ourselves what belongs only to Christ. The gift of righteousness and righteousness in and of itself belong to Christ.” This is contra the pope, who insisted, according to Luther, “that we are able to obtain these things apart from Christ by the merits of congruence and worthiness.”
But was the pope wrong?
Catholic Doctrine and the Infused Righteousness of Christ
Levering provides a robust reflection on some of the biblical grounds for Catholic reasoning on our actual transformation and the possibility of meritorious works.
“Among the first Christians,” he explains, “we see a strong connection between faith, justification, and interior transformation of the heart” (134). Early Christians followed the cues Scripture itself gave regarding our being actually made righteous:
- Jesus indicates in the Sermon on the Mount that “justification brings about interior transformation, with the result that justified believers perform works of love” (135)
- Similarly, James links “the transformation of the heart so that we do acts of love,” and insists “We cannot be justified–in right relationship to God–if we lack the Spirit’s promised transformation of our hearts” (137–138)
- “Jesus teaches that if we endure reviling and persecution for his name’s sake, our ‘reward’ will be ‘great in heaven’ (Matt 5:12)” (139)
- Paul “envisions ‘wages’ given to those who labor for Christ, in proportion to their labor” (139)
Levering argues such works aren’t actually our own, but God’s: “When we have justifying faith in Christ, the indwelling Spirit is a principle (or cause) of our actions, although our will also remains a principle of our actions” (138). Therefore, two principles are at work: God graces our human actions.
He concludes: “due to the indwelling Spirit of Christ, Paul can merit eternal life, not as a reward corresponding to merely human acts but as a reward corresponding to the Spirit’s action in and through the believer who is being configured to Christ. In the body of Christ, God crowns his own gifts: all gratitude and praise are owed to God” (140).
Next week, watch out for a response from “mere protestant” Kevin Vanhoozer.
Was the Reformation a Mistake? surveys nine key themes of Catholic doctrine, clarifying it and helping you understand why it is not unbiblical. Engage his book yourself to better understand the Reformation.
Professors, this is an irenic conversation between a Catholic and a Protestant and clearly conveys a biblical rationale for Catholic doctrine. If you are interested in considering this for a text for a class, you can request a free exam copy here.