"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Monday, September 01, 2008

Why I Cannot be a Roman Catholic (Part 3): I Believe in Merit

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)


Andrew said...

First of all, I must say that this post is very good, I agree with alot of what you write, however, there are a few differences here I'd like to point out.

Catholicism teaches that Christ's work is the reason we are justified, however it is not how Christ won our salvation, but how it is APPLIED to us that we disagree upon.

You quote Rom 6:23 but what about Rom 6:22: " you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is SANCTIFICATION. The end is eternal life." St. Paul clearly says sanctification is necessary and indistinguishable from justification. Thus the good works we do are the gifts of the Father, but they still hold merit, but only because they are done IN Christ.

You are right in sayiing - as Isaiah does - that our good works are filthy rags, but Apart from Christ. Why else would Christ say he would judge us by works (Mt 25, Rev 20) unless they held some purpose? Why else did Paul and John write that we will be crowned for our good works.

So the 'sophistry of relative merit' is not the work of late theologians, but the apostles. It is true that our works are little indeed and that their only value is that they are the good works God predestined us to do (Eph 2:10), however they still have merit, as Augustine taught in "Grace and Merit" and as the Roman Missal states: "in crowning their [the elect's] merits you are crowning your own [Christ's] gifts"

It is not whether or not Christ's sacrifice and work was enough, it is whether Sola Fide is enough to apply those benefits to us.

You close with 1 Pet 1:20, how about 1 Pet 1:16-17 "it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear"

In my opinion, your interpretation doesn't seem to fit with these other verses.

Though all in all you provide great reasons for why you believe, and I'm sure you'll destroy all of my critiques, which are just age old polemics and a poor understanding of theology.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Hi Andrew,

If I may respond to you comment, you wrote:

Catholicism teaches that Christ's work is the reason we are justified, however it is not how Christ won our salvation, but how it is APPLIED to us that we disagree upon.

Exactly. This is the fundamental soteriological difference.

Reformed protestants believe that the Holy Spirit works along with with God's inscripturated word to apply the redemption Christ purchased for his elect at the cross. He does that by changing a sinner's heart from being inclined away from God to being inclined toward God in faith (i.e. trusting in the finished work of Christ alone) and love (i.e. being joyful in knowing the beautiful triune God and grateful for the redemption God has graciously provided).

Roman Catholicism believes that God grants authority to the Son, who in turn grants the Spirit to the Pope, who in turn grants saving grace through the rest of the magisterium, which in turn grants saving grace through the sacraments, a grace that was merited by Christ, Mary, and other saints (the supererogatory type) and stored in a treasury of merit for, ultimately, the pope's dispensing.

St. Paul clearly says sanctification is necessary and indistinguishable from justification.

Necessary yes; indistinguishable, no.

Forensic justification and progressive sanctification must be distinguished, otherwise Paul could not speak of justification in the past tense. This sanctification remains imperfect in this life, since we remain sinners (1 John 1:8-10), but our justification is spoken of as being complete, finished (Romans 5:1).

Thus the good works we do are the gifts of the Father, but they still hold merit, but only because they are done IN Christ.

This statement does not contradict the Reformed protestant understanding of good works, as long as you are not referring to meriting pardon of sin or eternal life or some sort of supererogation of merit for whatever use by the pope.

The Westminster Confession of Faith says this in chapter 16 "Of Good Works" article 6:

"Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreproveable in God's sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections."

So the 'sophistry of relative merit' is not the work of late theologians, but the apostles.

It is the work of Medieval theologians if we are talking about meriting the pardon of sin and eternal life, which is the Roman Catholic dogma.

It is not whether or not Christ's sacrifice and work was enough, it is whether Sola Fide is enough to apply those benefits to us.

Not quite. No one should debating the sufficiency of Christ's work. There is no difference in the Roman Catholic and Reformed Catholic positions on that point.

The question has to do with the application of Christ's work on our behalf, as you wrote earlier. Roman Catholicism teaches that Christ's work is dispensed on earth by the pope. Thus Reformed Catholicism rightly calls the pope anti-Christ, meaning "instead of Christ", since he has assumed Christ's rightful place as the sole mediator between God and man the true High Priest and head of the church. The Reformed understand that God the Father dispenses the benefits of Christ's work through the mediation of the Son and the immediate work of the Holy Spirit working through the word to change the hearts of men. All is by faith (instrumental cause) because all is of God.

In my opinion, your interpretation doesn't seem to fit with these other verses.

Again, with respect to those verses Roman Catholicism is left with a significant problem, by claiming that humanity can in any way merit pardon of sin and eternal life it undermines the uniqueness and value of the work of Christ. It tries to compensate through it's "condign" and "congruent" categories, but ultimately it teaches that one receives the benefits of Christ's work as one tries his best to cooperate with the grace of God which is dispensed by the pope.

Reformed Catholicism, on the other hand, has no problem with those verses. God saves sinners through the work of Christ, which is complete and cannot be added to or merited in any way. Therefore, we should in joy and gratitude desire to be like the one we love so much, striving to be holy as he is holy, putting sin to death and living unto God.

Will we be judged according to our works in the end?

There is a sense in which the Bible speaks of that, Matthew 25 for instance. But in every instance it is in the context of contrasting true from false religion, sincere faith from hypocrisy. In such a context we should understand that our works our spoken of in terms of evidence. They demonstrate a sincere faith.

On Revelation 20, it is interesting that there are two types books. There are books and then there is the book of life. Why is that?

Well, to have one's name written in the book of life is the work of God alone. If one's name is found there, then he will be saved from the final judgment. Whereas, those who do not have their names written in the book of life will not escape the final judgment. They will be judged according to their deeds, which are written down in the other books.

No doubt all people, both believers and unbelivers, are judged according to their deeds (God is just). But only believers will stand in the judgment. Why? Because God has written their name in the book of life (an idiom for unconditional election). When believing sinners stand before the judgment, they will know without a doubt that they stand condemned according to their works. But it is against the foil of deserved condemnation that they will come to know without a doubt the rich mercy of God in saving them by the work of Christ alone.

Andrew said...

Jay, very good response and very good understanding of the Roman Catholic position which I still agree with (that the Pope 'usurps' the place Christ gave him...). I however still can't see how one advocates the view that 'salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, because of Christ alone' and yet claim that sanctification is necessary. How does this work? I really don't understand.

Regarding the book of life: "Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books."- Revelation 20:12

It says right here that their works are recorded in these books. For a list of other passages like this I wrote this blog: http://theologyofandrew.blogspot.com/2008/08/works-righteousness.html which may not be worth your time to read.

In regards to the WCF quote I agree with it, however I still retain the Catholic view that it adds to Christ's sacrifice as per Col 1:24.

clearly the scriptures also say: "Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous" - 1 John 3:7. So it is not as though we cannot please God (while empowered by the Spirit).

But you have a well-reasoned understanding and I respect that greatly.

Wesley said...

Hmm.. I think I would stand on the Protestant side on this one, just with a strong Lutheran-esqe sacramental leaning for how the grace actually is applied to the person. Justification by faith alone, yes, but also Baptismal regeneration and a Eucharist that forgives sins (both like Luther and Lutheranism). My only cravat would be that after Justification I would hold to infused grace, where Christians, as they are transformed back into the image of God lost at the fall, truly do perform righteous acts. They can’t “merit” ultimate salvation in any sense, as perfection is “par” for the course, but they are truly my good works. Which I am able do to now because through the Spirit's power in the Church, Scripture and Sacraments my inner being has been undergoing ontological transformation.

So, except for being obviously not “Reformed” (and maybe being more Orthodox/Sacramental), I’m with you on this one :)

M. Jay Bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M. Jay Bennett said...


Thanks for your kind remarks. I know how difficult it can be to think through theological nuance, and Christian theology can be quite nuanced at points.

I however still can't see how one advocates the view that 'salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, because of Christ alone' and yet claim that sanctification is necessary. How does this work? I really don't understand.

This is a tension that all theologies face. At one end of the continuum is legalism, on the other is licentiousness. It's the old law-grace paradigm.

Many groups by confession tend more sharply in the direction of licentiousness, others in the direction of legalism. The Roman confession tends towards legalism. There is a lot of emphasis in RC soteriology on what you must do, rather than what Christ has done.

This is a point where I think the Reformed confessions strike an ideal, indeed biblical, balance. Certainly our works are very very important. That is beyond dispute. The question is why? To what end are our works important?

The Roman confession answers: Works are important because by them we merit the merit necessary for continued forgiveness and justification thereby achieving eternal life. In other words, we work in order to gain what we do not have.

Reformed confessions answer: Works are important because by them we demonstrate that Christ alone has merited our forgiveness and justification, freely giving us eternal life. In other words, we work because of what we have gained in Christ. We work because we love him so deeply not because we think we might gain something more from him.

My point about the books in Revelation 20 was just to point out that multiple books are opened. That raises an important question: What's the difference?

I think the difference is that our works are written in some, but not in the book of life. The book of life is mentioned earlier in Revelation 3:5 where Jesus says to the church at Sardis: "The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels." Let's try to understand the way Jesus is using the concept "book of life."

It seems from this verse that the book of life is something other than a record of our works. If it was a record of our works, why would Jesus threaten to blot out one's name? It would seem that he would instead say something like: "Your bad deeds will be recorded in the book of life and you will be judged according to them." But he doesn't say that. Instead he threatens to blot them out with the result that they will not have him as their advocate before God and the angels in the final judgment. So, everyone who is ever conceived has there name in some book that is recording all his deeds, but not the book of life. It is reserved for some other purpose. But what?

The only thing I can think of is it is the special covenant purpose of God. It seems that one's name gets written in the book of life if one is a covenant member (i.e. either a professed believer or the child of a professed believer). In other words to have one's name written in the book of life is equivalent to being a member of the visible church, which explains why in Jesus' admonition to the church at Sardis he is able to simply assume that all their names are written in it. So what about the threat to have one's name blotted out of the cook of life?

Well, we understand that there is a distinction between the visible and invisible church. Some among the visible church are elect (i.e. the invisible church), they will be drawn to Christ and saved by grace through faith. These are those who will "overcome," as Jesus says in Revelation 3:5.

But some visible church members are not elect. They will not be drawn to Christ and saved by grace through faith. They will not overcome, but will ultimately fall away and have there names blotted out of the book of life.

In this way, we see that although at the final judgment all the works of all men will be disclosed, this does not mean that some will be judged worthy of salvation according to their works (whether God inspired works or not). It means that all will stand condemned, but the elect (i.e. the invisible church) will be saved. They will have overcome according to the finished work of Christ on their behalf so that, when their sinful works are exposed, Christ will step forward as their advocate before God and the angels as he promises the visible church at Sardis and us as well in Rev. 3:5.

On Col. 1:24, I have to say this is one of the weakest of all Roman proof-texts for an ongoing sacrifice for sin. I encourage you to explore this verse carefully and understand it in the context of the epistle.

In context it is evident that Paul is not referring to being a sacrifice for sin at this point. He is referring to his sacrificial work as an Apostle in fulfilling the mission he was given by Christ to establish his church in the world through the preaching of the gospel.

I hope this is helpful for you. Please feel free to ask any more questions you have. I am happy to help you in any way I can.

Andrew, ultimately you will have to answer this question: "How can I be assured of my salvation?" Rome's answer is "Trust the church (or the pope)." The Reformed answer is "Trust Christ." He did it all, there is nothing else for you to do, except worship him in word and deed from a deep sense of abiding love and joy.