Lesson 12: Merit - God Works with Us

Read: Summa Theologiae, I-II, 114

Catechism of the Catholic Church nn. 2006-2011.

Perhaps no idea in the whole tract on grace has caused more difficulty than that of merit. For many, the term suggests that man can claim something in justice before God. A recent document of agreement between Catholic and Lutheran theologians states that if the term "merit" were only changed to "reward" or "wages" that this would go a long way to resolving the difficulty. After all, Scripture is clear that one receives one's reward by doing things to the least of the brethren. Christ separates the just from the wicked in the Last Judgement on this basis (Matthew 25:31-46).

The term merit has been used by Catholic theology to express the second great effect of grace, which is cooperating grace. All this term seeks to express is that when God gives a participation in his supernatural life, He gives it so that it will bear fruit. The fruits are the good works of infused virtues given by God in baptism. To experience these good fruits man must cooperate from his free will in the gifts given by God, a cooperation which God initiates with sanctifying grace and sustains with actual grace. This allows man to actively participate in his own salvation.

To understand merit, then, one must understand exactly which is meant by the term in theology because it is an analogous term. Merit is a kind of reward and normally it means something given in strict equivalence to someone for something he has done according to the virtue of justice. A contractor builds a house and merits a certain payment based on the contract and the work performed. If the one who contracted the work does not pay, then he is guilty of injustice. This is called condign merit, which is merit in strict equality. This is the normal experience of human reward in human affairs.

There can be no such merit in divine affairs. For one thing there is only the strictest inequality between God and the human person. God is infinitely distant from all his creatures. No one merits the first grace from God. No one can merit justification. Yet, in light of justification, God who acts according to his wisdom in all his creation never acts against the nature that he himself has created. In the case of man, this means that any effect of God's in which man must morally participate demands his action according to his free will if that is possible. God inspires the good work in us by both his gift of sanctifying grace and by actual grace. Man so inspired acts according to the lights God has given him. This means that in every Christian work, whether it be a cup of water to a child, writing a symphony, or suffering an insult with a hidden act of patience, if done from charity or from the motive of the love of God, both God and the Christian work. Each works according to his own mode of action. By God's will, God has determined that the salvation of the human being will be given not only according to God's part in the action, but will also proportionately correspond to man's part. Each person received the reward of heaven according to a proportionate equality the proportion in which he acts from his part in his free will under the inspiration of grace. This is called congruent merit. By God's wisdom and will, man is rewarded proportionately according to his own participation in the work.

So, the foundation and initiation of all human merit is justification and the first grace given by God alone. No one merits grace or justification; but they merit the reward for a life lived in freedom as a result of being changed continuously by divine love: heaven.

Man in the state of integral nature could not merit heaven without grace because this is a supernatural effect. No human nature has any principle or power in it sufficient to merit heaven. In fallen nature there is a second reason for the necessity of grace in merit. There is an impediment to grace in fallen nature -- sin. Grace is necessary to merit for a second reason for man in fallen nature, because sin must be forgiven in order for man to merit heaven.

In every meritorious work, there are two factors which must be considered. The first is the act of the free will of man. From this point of view there is no condign merit possible before God, but only congruent merit. But the Holy Spirit is also present working in each of these acts. From the Holy Spirit's action, God rewards the work condignly. He rewards his own gifts. "I will make in him a fountain of living water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:14). So there are two participants in every meritorious act: God and the Christian. God rewards his own part condignly and he rewards the proportionate participation of the individual Christian congruently.

One's enjoyment of God in heaven is determined by congruent merit which is different for each person. Since merit is a loving cooperation between God and the soul, each person's place in the hierarchy of heaven is determined by that cooperation which is an expression of charity. One knows God more in heaven depending on how much one has loved him on earth. This love begins in practical works of charity according to the duties of one's ordinary state.

God gives these gifts freely. This is the meaning of parable of the 11th hour when all work differently but receive the same reward. All merit in this sense is repugnant to grace. "If from works, then not from grace" (Romans 11:6). Also, as to the nature of the work itself, no one can merit who does not already have grace. This is because God completely exceeds the proportion of our nature and also because in fallen nature, the impediment of sin must be removed.

Christ, a divine person with a human nature, merits the first grace for us by condign merit because He is the Word made flesh. But for all human persons, merit involves two things: the movement of God and human cooperation by free will. By congruent merit, one can merit the first grace of conversion for another. This is because God loves his special friends. Friendship is a union of love. Because of the union of love, which God has with his friends, He wants to love those men as they love them. God fulfills the will of man as to the salvation of another if we pray and work for them, provided they are not completely disposed against it by lack of preparation. There are several classic examples of this in history: the conversion of St. Paul, which is attributed to the prayer of Stephen, the conversion of St. Augustine, which he always attributed to the prayers and tears of mother, and the conversion of the murderer of Maria Goretti which, he attributed to the prayers of forgiveness of Maria Goretti as she lay dying.

As to perseverance in grace, one must also make a distinction. Since the reward of heaven is a result of the prior grace given to man, one can merit the continual perseverance in grace when one is in heaven by congruent merit. One cannot merit the grace of final perseverance here on earth, though. This is why one must continue to pray for final perseverance every day and watch unceasingly for the final coming of Christ, first in one's own death and then in glory at the end of time.

"You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts" (Preface I for Holy Men and Women, quoted in CCC n. 2006).

Assignment Four 

Write a three page paper applying the Catholic doctrine of justification and merit to the clear teaching of the Church expressed especially in Vatican II that there are not two different holinesses in the Church, but that everyone is called to the same holiness.


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