Recently I had a rather lengthy discussion with a “Fallen Away” Catholic over grace. She said that one reason she left the Catholic Church is that It teaches we earn God’s grace. This, the woman claimed, contradicted Scripture, which says God’s grace is free. I have written on the topic of merit before. I wish to approach it again, perhaps a little differently.
In Catholic theology, grace and merit are closely related. It is not accurate, however, to say that the Catholic Church teaches that grace must be earned. Technically-speaking, grace can not be earned. God is the Creator and Sustainer of all life. As such, He owes us nothing. Yet, it can not be ignored that God has attached the promise of eternal life to certain actions. Other actions please God, and while they have no promise attached to them, God may choose to reward us for them.
Let me be clear here. I am not saying good works alone will get you into Heaven. Faith and love are also necessary. Neither am I saying that one action alone will get us into Heaven regardless of our lack of faith, or otherwise sin-filled lives. I am simply saying that God did attach the promise of salvation to certain actions, and certain other actions please Him; and these, coupled with a “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6), can warrant Heaven.
An example of a work with the promise of eternal life attached to it is found in John 6. Here, Jesus promises eternal life to those who receive Him in Holy Communion. Does this mean we can receive Holy Communion, and then go out and commit all the sins we want? No, because Jesus is clear in other places that we must always be striving to do the will of God. Not to mention what St. Paul says about receiving Holy Communion unworthily in 1 Corinthians 11. Other good works are necessary, but they must be done through a loving faith in God.
Now, you might argue here that this belief is a “works righteousness” teaching. After all, we are saying that certain actions warrant grace. What one must remember, however, is that God attached the promise of grace to certain actions. He was not required to do this. He did this freely. Once God made the promise, however, He was bound to it. God bound Himself by His own word. A perfect being can not renege on a promise. Such would be either admitting to a mistake, or changing one’s mind. God can do neither. He is perfect, therefore, He can neither make a mistake, nor change His mind. God is unchanging. So He is bound to honor His promise of eternal life attached to those works; but only if they are done through a “faith working through love”.
Fasting is a great example of a good work which pleases God, but which has no promise attached to it. Such an act is a pious act. It pleases God, but He is not required to reward it.
Essentially, as I mentioned before, Catholicism recognizes three different kinds of merit. This belief is based on what is said in Scripture. Jesus died for us on the cross. Though this has redeemed all mankind, we must express our willingness to unite ourselves to Christ’s sacrifice. We do this through our “faith working through love”. Allow me to elaborate.
Jesus repaired the damage done to our relationship with God by our sins through His Passion.This we call the redemption. Redemption has nothing to do with us. It is completely an action of God. Only He could initiate the reparation. Though all mankind is redeemed solely through an act of God, not all mankind is saved. Man must unite Himself with Christ’s reparative act. God never imposes His will on us. He wants all to enjoy Heaven. Yet, He gives us the choice to either accept His offer, or reject it. St. Paul is clear on this point in Colossians 1:24. God initiates, but we must answer the call.
Based on this biblically sound view, one can see three types of merit. The first is called “strict merit”. Strict merit is any action which, of itself, warrants reward from God. Humans can not perform any act ofstrict merit. Only Jesus can do this, because God can not be compelled to reward. As God the Son, Jesus’ acts would all warrant reward, because all of His acts would have their source in the divine nature. God can not refuse to recognize His own acts.
The second type of merit is called “condine merit”. These are acts which humans may perform that warrant reward from God simply due to the fact that God Himself promised such. As one can see, acts of condine merit are still based on the strict merit of Jesus Christ. Also, we reiterate that the reward is freely given, because God is only required to dispense His grace in cases of condine merit due to His freely bestowed promise.
The third type of merit is called “congruent merit”. These are acts which are pious acts. This means they are acts which please God, but which have no promise of reward attached to them. In other words, God may choose to reward them, but there is no guarantee.
As I said earlier, all meritorious acts must be performed with a “faith working through love”. Love is the most important element. After all, 1 Corinthians 13:13 places love as the greatest of all virtues. God gives us His grace freely, but He has also made clear that we do play a part in earning it. True, we can not earn God’s grace in a strict sense. Yet we have His promise that He will bestow His graces on us if we perform certain actions with the right disposition. This is the “faith working through live” spoken of by St. Paul.
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity.