The spark of the Reformation is undoubtedly the issue of indulgences. Indulgences, however, only point to the bigger issue of the Reformation, namely: The abandonment by the Roman Church of the catholic doctrine of the work of Christ. But two late medieval innovations must be considered before any evaluation of the Roman Church’s lack of congruence with tradition may be made: penance and merit.
Penance itself was not a new theological concept. The concept would even live on in Reformation traditions. The Eastern Orthodox believed in penance as an instrument of maintaining the seriousness of sin. The late medieval Latin church, however, described the parts and efficacy of penance in a novel way in the time of Duns Scotus. Penance now had three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. One must feel guilt for their sin, confess the sin, and then make restitution for their sin.
The final stage of the Latin doctrine of penance, satisfaction, led to another novel doctrine. Satisfaction had been explored in Anselm before, and as he explained it, satisfaction rests on the basic and reasonable idea that any wrong requires an act of restitution to the wronged party. After Anselm died, later medievals began applying satisfaction to the work of penance: man was able by his own actions to merit grace from God. The best short summary of this belief was stated by theologian Gabriel Biel: “When people do their best (Quid in se est), God infallibly gives grace.” This was because, “by virtue of contrition our sins are forgiven.” [John Fisher]
The problem with this formulation of satisfaction in penance and merit lies in its novelty.
The gospel the early church found in Scripture did not look for the salvation of man in men’s own works or man’s merit but Christ. The Athanasian Creed identifies Christ as He “Who suffered for our salvation.” The Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed presents the work of Christ in suffering, dying, and rising again as all, “for us and our salvation.” The Definition of Chalcedon also presents the purpose of Christ’s incarnation as “for us men and for our salvation.” The satisfaction Anselm wrote of in “Why God Became Man,” was the satisfaction of God’s wrath accomplished by God Himself in Christ.
Some late medieval theologians tried to reconcile this contradiction with an explanation of merit as gracious receiving or a distinction between two types of merit (condign and congruent). Man’s merit was merely a lesser merit, in response to grace; a means of acquiring Christ’s “first meriting.” Obviously, Men could not merit all that was needed for salvation. One approach, mostly by the volunteerists, could be seen as a marketplace where a customer might want a product of $100 value, but only possesses $50, or even less, perhaps $10. The merchant graciously sets the condition so that he may give a product worth $100 for the $10 on his voluntary decree beforehand (in actu secundo). [and Protestants are accused of legal fiction!] Others (the more sacramentalist leaning) employed different models, instead putting the customer in need of extra merit so to his own merit would be added what the Church was able to distribute from the “treasury of merits” that Christ and the saints had left over from their good deeds. Men could then merit Christ’s merit. Satisfaction was worked out in an imparted grace in man, where he perfected the grace given him in good works.
Yet, even these were pitiful attempts to harmonize these innovations with tradition and Scripture, because both Scripture and the testimony of the church was to the gospel through the merit of Christ. This is the merit I believe in, Christ's merit won on my behalf. I can do no other from the testimony of Scripture where men’s “wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 6:23) I can do nothing else from tradition where Augustine, commenting on Romans 6:23 wrote, “[Paul] preferred to say ‘the gift of God is eternal life,’ in order that we might understand that God leads us to eternal life for His mercy’s sake, not for the sake of our merits.”
The formulation of penance made by some late medievals violates the catholic faith. Athanasius in On the Incarnation stated: “But [mere] repentance would, firstly, fail to guard the just claim of God.”[sec 7]
No act of repentance or penance by itself can answer God’s demand for justice in man's violation of His infinitely great law. Athanasius argues man was the offender, but man was incapable of atoning for his own sins. God was the only party that had the ability, but was not man in order to make atonement. Thus, God must become man to be our substitute:
“It belonged to none other to bring man back from the corruption which had begun, than the Word of God [Jesus].” [sec 10] “The common savior of all has died on our behalf, we, the faithful in Christ, no longer die the death as before.” [sec 21]
True merit is found only in the passion of Christ, not in the works wrought by people. The true strange work of salvation is not accomplished in reconciling God to man inside man, but “alien” to man (Isaiah 28:21) Righteousness is not found coming from man, but “the Lord is our righteousness” (Jer 23:6)
There could hardly be stronger words in Scripture for the uselessness of our deeds before God. We have nothing of value to exchange, indeed what we have is of anti-value. Our reading of Isaiah 64:6 is sanitized in our translations because we do not want to offend people at church. But when our righteousness is called “filthy rags” the translation is inaccurate. The proper meaning of the words translated “filthy rags” is actually “soiled menstrual rags.” There are few ways to more emphatically stress the anti-value of works than calling them bloody tampons. They have no value and are negative in value. If you try to sell them, people may pay you to get the menstrual rags away from them, but not give them a positive value higher than their already positive value. Any talk of our relative merit is mere sophistry. As Paul tells us:
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. (Rom 4:2-4)
That is why Paul said, God is the “one--who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” The gospel tells us “It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (Rom 4:24-25)
The work of Christ is the ground of justification, not works or merit. Christ is the satisfaction and propitiation of God’s wrath, not our dirty menstrual rags, for as much as we think our filth is worthy, God does not want to touch them, and cannot be near our most holy deeds for they are all tainted with the stench of sin. As Clement of Rome so aptly put it, we “are not justified by…works which we have wrought in holiness of heart.” The catholic faith is in the God who justifies the ungodly, who Himself must merit our salvation if we are to have any hope of salvation. I hope all who read will realize that there is no other refuge except when “your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Pet 1:21)