by Wes White
This article was originally posted atJohannes Weslianus, the former site of PCA Pastor Wes White. Reprinted with permission]
In his little book, The Call of Grace, Norman Shepherd makes the astonishing claim that the root of the “problem” of evangelical Protestantism is that they have not “always rejected the very idea of merit itself” (p. 61). Consequently, he claims, they have never been able “to challenge the Romanist doctrine of salvation at its very root” (pp. 61-62).
Is this the answer for Reformed Protestantism? Does Shepherd’s suggestion merit our consideration?
In order to answer that question, we should first ask, “What is merit?” The English word “merit” is taken from the Latin. The verb mereri (to merit) means to earn something, to deserve something, to gain something, or to be due a reward.
When we speak of this word in theology, we are referring to the value of moral actions. Now, the question is: do moral actions deserve anything? Are they worthy of any reward? Is there any response that is due from God or other humans that is proportional to the moral action?
We would like to consider these questions in light of pre-fall Adam, sinful men, Jesus Christ, and those who are saved.
Norman Shepherd describes his view of those who believe that Adam could merit eternal life as this, “It is a matter of simple justice to reward perfect obedience with eternal life” (CG, p. 26). He admits that “different theologians describe the covenant of works with a variety of nuances that we cannot go into here” (Ibid.).
Whatever different nuances Reformed theologians might have had on this point, to my knowledge, no Reformed theologian of the 16th-18th century would have said that this was a matter of simple justice. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith says that man “could never have any fruition of [God] as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension” (7:1). The Formula Consensus Helvetica said that God “in this Covenant freely promised [Adam] communion with God, favor, and life, if indeed he acted in obedience to his will” (Emphasis mine, Canon 7). Whatever “different theologians” might have said, they agreed that this reward of eternal life was not a matter of simple justice or the mere nature of things. By setting up a straw man, Shepherd makes you believe that he is creating a third way different from the covenant of works and covenant of grace. This is a trick to give the rest of his arguments more plausibility.
On the other hand, we must say that if Adam obeyed God perfectly, then he would have merited justification before God. That is, Adam would have merited being declared righteous on the basis of his own righteousness. The question is, what would have been adjudicated to him on the basis of that declaration? The Reformed theologians unanimously stated that it was life (whether eternal in heaven or in paradise). The promise to give Adam life on the basis of Adam’s inherent righteousness was free. God’s justification of Adam on the basis of perfect obedience was not.
Perfect obedience does merit justification by simple justice. In other words, God could not not declare Adam righteous if Adam obeyed Him perfectly. He would certainly merit justification on the basis of his obedience or works. Since God freely promised to reward such righteousness with life, we can also say that loosely speaking, Adam would have merited life.
This is why Reformed theologians have spoken of Adam as meriting life by a covenant. That is, God freely added a promise to adjudicate to man eternal life based on the obedience that Adam already owed him. Calvin explains this well in his discussion of Ezekiel , “But the solution is at hand, that we deserve nothing, but God graciously binds himself to us by this promise.” The promise of eternal life is summarized in the language “Do this and live” (Lev. 18:5, Ez. , Mt. , Gal. , etc.).
If we reject the idea of “merit itself,” then we must say that perfect obedience did not merit justification. Does that mean that Adam could sin and still be justified? Or was his justification related in any way to his obedience? If justification is unrelated to perfect obedience, then the relation between Christ’s obedience and our justification is called into question. This is also important because we must carefully distinguish the way of justification before the fall and the way of justification after the fall. The law describes the way of justification before the fall, “Do this and live.” The Gospel describes the way of justification after the fall, “Believe in Jesus Christ.” By denying merit altogether, this all important distinction will readily be confused (and is in fact as I have demonstrated here). [editor's note: this link is no longer active]
Man in Sin
It is important to understand that if we “reject the very idea of merit itself,” then we would have to reject the idea that sin merits hell. Merit refers not simply to a positive reward but also to a negative one. We can merit punishment or reward.
The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death.” If we reject the idea of merit itself, then what do we make of this statement?
On the contrary, Christians do say that sin merits death, but in what sense? Even though God gave Adam the commandment, “The day you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17), we would not say that the penalty of death is simply the result of God’s covenant. Sin does not merit hell by covenant.
Rather, sin merits hell by condign or strict merit. Sin merits hell by simple justice. It is inherently worthy of hell. Otherwise, why would God send people there? Sin is an infinite offense because it is against the “infinite majesty of God.” Therefore, it merits eternal hell.
Now, if we reject the concept of merit itself, then we are left with some very strange results. Does God send people to hell who haven’t merited it? Could God send someone to hell who has not sinned? You might say, “But they don’t deserve it.” But if we deny the concept of merit itself, then how can we use the word “deserved”?
On the other side, on the basis of the denial of merit, we could go in the other direction and say that no one will be sent to hell. We might say that no one goes to hell. We might say that Adam could sin and then still inherent eternal life. If we deny the concept of “deserving (meriting) hell,” then how are we immune to any of these questions?
This is all the more serious because Jesus came to save us from our sins. What does His satisfaction mean if sin does not merit punishment?
Did Jesus Christ merit for and on behalf of His people? We would certainly want to say that Christ merited for us. The Belgic Confession says that we “embrace Jesus Christ with all His merits” (Art. 22). Jesus obeyed for us (Heb. 10:9-10), and by that obedience, we are made perfect forever (Heb. , 14).
Moreover, while we do not deny that there was a covenant between the Father and the Son that He would redeem a people for Himself, it was not simply on the basis of this covenant that He merited for His people. Rather, He merited because His obedience and sufferings for us were inherently meritorious. The whole point of Hebrews 7-10 is that, as opposed to the Levitical sacrifices, what He does is inherently able to redeem transgressions and secure the eternal inheritance (Heb. 9:15). Here we have the example of condign merit par excellence.
But what if we deny the concept of merit itself? Then, we must say that Christ did not redeem us by an obedience and sacrifice that earned for His people a right to life and forgiveness of sins.
But let us take this further. Shepherd does admit that “the ground of justification—the basis on which forgiveness is possible—is the suffering and death of our Lord.” (Backbone of the Bible, p. 89). But why is this possible? Did Christ’s suffering and death merit the forgiveness of sins? If we deny the concept of merit itself, then we cannot say that Christ merited the forgiveness of sins. We may say that it is the reason why sins are forgiven, but we cannot say that this atonement merited, earned, or deserved the forgiveness of sins.
Again, this is the consequence of a denial of merit itself. If we reject the concept of merit itself, then we cannot say that Christ merited for us either eternal life or the forgiveness of sins on the basis of His obedience or sufferings.
The Salvation of Sinners
The place where Reformed theologians have historically denied merit altogether is simply in this: we cannot perform any work that in any way merits salvation or justification before God. As the Belgic Confession says, in justification we must come to God “without presuming to trust in any thing in ourselves, or in any merit of ours” (Art. 23). They certainly did not deny the concept of merit itself, but they did deny, in contrast to
Rome, that a sinner
could merit anything at all from God.
This is where the helpful distinctions of merit into condign, congruent, and covenant merit can help us understand this even more clearly. We do not have condign or congruent merit in our salvation because even pre-fall Adam could not have that. We also do not have merit by the covenant because even covenant merit is not based on God merely arbitrarily rewarding eternal life to something that had no merit at all. The adjudication of eternal life would have been founded upon Adam’s own inherent righteousness, which was inherently worthy of justification before God. Such a situation could never take place in fallen man, and thus fallen man can in no way be said to merit life by the covenant.
This is all the more true because the meriting cause of justification and life for sinners is not their own righteousness but the righteousness of Jesus Christ. In the covenant of works, perfect obedience would merit eternal life. In the covenant of grace, God gives forgiveness and eternal life through the merits of Jesus Christ alone. Of course, this does not mean that there are no rewards whatsoever, but, as we see again in the Belgic Confession, “it is through His grace that He crowns gifts.” That is, He gives us one gift and then another gift that follows it.
Now, if we deny the concept of merit altogether, then we can say that we do not merit our salvation. But we also lose the distinction between Adam’s merit and ours. Thus, Shepherd can easily say, “the method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall: ‘The righteous will live by faith’ (Rom. 1:17)” (Reformation and Revival 14/1, p. 76). See my critique of this idea here. [editor's note: this link is no longer active]
Furthermore, we could not say that we must not “presume in any merit of ours” because there is no such thing as merit. Consequently, we can just as easily bring works back into our justification because merit itself is denied. Hence, it is not surprising to find Shepherd claiming that the works that Paul excluded from the justification of a sinner “were not good works” (Backbone, 99). While attempting to exclude merit itself from our salvation, Shepherd has brought good works back into our justification.
Someone might object here that Shepherd does not draw all the consequences that we draw here. This is true. We are simply deducing what it would mean to deny the “concept of merit itself.” Remember. He is the one who said that we should deny the very idea of merit itself. We have simply shown what the logical consequences of such a denial entail.
Even if Shepherd drew none of the consequences that we have mentioned here (but he does draw some of them), it is completely irresponsible for a teacher and professor of theology to make such a radical claim that can create such complete confusion in theology. But this is all the more true when he makes this unqualified statement in the context of correcting the entire evangelical Church and being able to bring a reconciliation about between Rome and Protestantism, “Is there any hope for common understanding between Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism regarding the way of salvation? May I suggest that there is at least a glimmer of hope if both sides are willing to embrace a covenantal understanding of the way of salvation” (Call of Grace, p. 59).
On the contrary, the denial of the concept of merit itself is dangerous. It leads to absurd consequences, overturns the entire moral order, introduces all sorts of bizarre paradoxes into theology, and ultimately overturns our salvation in Christ. A denial of merit itself would mean that Christ did not merit salvation, sin does not merit hell, Adam could not merit life, and Christ’s death did not merit the forgiveness of sins. Even if Shepherd is not consistent with his own demand to deny merit itself, we must respond to his call to deny merit itself with an emphatic “Nein!”
The great theologians of the Reformed Church did not deny merit but rather carefully distinguished the merit of pre-fall Adam, Christ, and sinful man. Even in the heat of the battle with Rome, they did not deny merit altogether because they realized that such a denial would bring in utter nonsense.