Monday, February 15, 2021

Do We Merit Grace?

"Not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:9).

Ephesians 2:8–10 says that our salvation is entirely due to the grace of God and is received by faith alone. The good works that we do as believers do not merit or earn us anything, so that we cannot “boast” in them. When we have done all that is commanded, we are still “unprofitable servants,” and our reward is wholly of grace alone.

At the time of the Protestant Reformation, this clear teaching had been obscured by an overlay of error that had accumulated in the church during the preceding centuries, and in some places, the truth of free grace had been eclipsed altogether. A doctrine of human merit had evolved, a doctrine that suggested that sinners contribute to their own salvation.

The papal theology made a distinction between two kinds of merit: condign merit and congruous merit. Condign merit is merit of such a degree that it imposes an obligation on a just Lord to render a reward. Condign merit actually earns a reward, and it would be unjust if the Lord did not reward it. Jesus’ works earned condign merit. Congruous merit is a lower kind of merit. A good deed of congruous merit does not actually obligate God to reward it, but it is sufficiently meritorious that it becomes fitting or appropriate (congruous) for God to reward it.

At the time of the Reformation, the papal sacrament of penance was understood this way: You confessed your sins to the priest, and he declared that God would forgive you if you did certain works of satisfaction. These works were particularly needed if you had committed a mortal sin, because mortal sins caused you to lose your salvation. When you did the works of satisfaction, you were earning congruous merit, which God would be pleased to reward by restoring your salvation.

The Reformers responded by pointing out that the Bible does not teach this. Yes, God is pleased to reward the good works of believers, even though He is not obligated to do so. But, our salvation is in no way based on good works. Salvation is received by faith alone as a free gift. We bring no merit to our salvation; it is all of grace alone.

The doctrine of “works of satisfaction” causes people to look to their own activities as a way of earning favor with God instead of acting out of gratitude for what God has already done for us. In this way, it tends to reduce the Christian life to bondage. Be certain you understand the difference.