Because the popular rhetoric in evangelical and even in confessional Protestant circles has frequently been that the medieval (or the Roman communion) taught justification by works and the Reformers taught justification by grace well-meaning but misguided Christians sometimes conclude that so long as, in justification, we assign everything to grace all is well. This is a significant mistake. All is not well. The medieval church and Roman communion following that tradition just salvation and justification by grace and cooperation with grace. In most cases (as represented by Thomas’ account of the sixfold division of grace) supernatural (operating) grace is said to begin the process of sanctification/justification and supernatural (cooperating) grace is said to facilitate its progressive work within us toward sanctification and eventual justification. In Anselm, Bernard, and Thomas, and ultimately in Trent, however, there is an essential component that we must provide: the exercise of the free choice in cooperation with prevenient and assisting grace. We must cooperate. We must do our part.
The magisterial Reformation theologians (Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger, Calvin et al) and their ecclesiastical communions rejected this scheme, soaked in grace as it was, for a variety of reasons. The medievals regarded grace as a medicinal substance with which we are infused (in the sacraments) and which was said to create in us a habitus (habit) and a disposition toward sanctification, obedience, virtue, and condign (inherently worthy) merit unto sanctification and eventual justification. The rejected this scheme because it located the ground of justification within us, because it confused justification and sanctification. They found in Scripture that justification is a definitive act, God’s declaration that a sinner is just. They rejected the doctrine that justification is a process. They found that the ground of justification is located outside of us, in Christ, and that his righteousness is imputed to us and received through faith alone (sola fide). The Protestants concluded that, even though the medieval and Tridentine Roman doctrine talked much of grace, the medieval and Roman doctrine rested on works in two ways. The medieval and Roman view made our cooperation part of the ground and instrument of justification thereby contradicting the biblical teaching that salvation and justification are by grace alone, through faith alone and the works are nothing more or less than the fruit and evidence of salvation and justification.
It was commonly admitted by the medievals that there were two kinds (or in some cases) two aspects of merit. In much popular evangelical Protestant rhetoric this distinction is not known or made. They distinguished between condign merit, that merit formed in us by the action of the grace of the Holy Spirit (and cooperation with grace) such that it meets the terms of justice:
Properly speaking a merit is an action on account of which it is just that the agent should be given something (ST, Supplement, 14.4, resp. dic.)
To the degree, however, that there is, as the Summa says a “duty in the giver” and to the degree an act lacks the perfection or inherent, intrinsic justice but insofar as rewarding it is “fitting” (he cites Anselm) an act has congruent merit (ibid). In the 15th century Gabriel Biel would posit that God had made a covenant: “To those who do what lies within them, God denies not grace.” In either case, however, we were said to be compiling merit (either condign or congruent) and our cooperation with grace (there were different definitions) was of the essence.
Just before the Heidelberg Catechism was published the Protestant consensus, reflected in Augsburg Confession art. 4, was rocked by a series of controversies several of which had to do with the place of works in justification. Just as we are discussing today there was worry then that teaching justification by unconditional divine favor alone, earned for us by Christ alone, and received through faith (trusting) alone would lead to impiety. So some, e.g., George Major, proposed in the 1550s good works were necessary for retaining salvation. This provoked a reaction in the opposite direction tending to antinomianism.
It was against these backgrounds that the Reformed churches confessed in Heidelberg Catechism 62:
62. But why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our righteousness before God?
Because the righteousness which can stand before the judgment-seat of God, must be perfect throughout and wholly conformable to the divine law; but even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.
The Protestants rejected the doctrine of congruent merit for justification.1 They held that Jesus had merited condignly our justification. They rejected any notion that we have either congruent or condign merit. Christ’s obedience, we confessed is perfect. His merit, his obedience, is active and suffering righteousness (i.e., his whole obedience) is imputed to us. The ground of our acceptance with God as righteousness is wholly outside of us. We also rejected George Major’s attempt to wedge works into the doctrine of justification. Major, of course, had anticipated the “in by grace, stay in by works” formula of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” and the self-described Federal Vision theology.
Our cooperation is of no account in our justification either as the ground or the instrument. Christ’s obedience is the ground and faith is the sole instrument because our works are defiled and imperfect. After all, Holy Scripture says:
Cursed is everyone who does not continue to everything in the book of the law (Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10).
The doctrine of congruent merit says that God grades on a curve. He does not. Uzzah did what lay within him (2 Sam 6) and he died. Isaiah 64:6 says that all our works are as filthy rags. There is no condignity (intrinsic worth) to them. We were born in sin (Ps 51:5). We are dead in sins and trespasses (Eph 2:1–4). Our best works are like dung (Phil 3:8). Grace is not a medicinal substance with which we are infused. That is superstition. Grace is God’s free (to us) favor earned for us by Christ. Yes, the Holy Spirit works in us. Yes, we are united to Christ but only as justified sinners, by grace alone, through faith alone. The Spirit works in us, to sanctify us, as a consequence of our free justification. Yes, we do cooperate with grace in sanctification. Yes, we do good works, we obey, as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 3:12) because we are justified.
It’s not enough to speak of grace. We must define grace as Scripture does. Rome makes much of grace and faith but she does not define them as Scripture does. Grace is not a medicinal substance with which we are infused in the sacraments. Faith is not a meritorious, saving virtue wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace. Justification is not the result of sanctification. Our good works have no merit of any kind in justification or sanctification but Christ’s do. He condignly merited our standing before God and his merits have been freely imputed to us. That is why we should trust and not doubt that we, who, by grace alone, through faith alone trust Christ alone for our righteousness with God, are fully justified now, fully accepted now. Our good works do not even form faith, i.e., they do not make faith a saving virtue in us. No, Christ is the object of faith. Christ’s obedience makes faith powerful. That is why we speak of sola fide.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.
1. This is not to say that the idea of congruent merit has no use in Reformed theology. It has been used to explain Israel’s land tenure and national status functioned under a typological republication of the covenant of works. In this case, however, this merit had nothing to either with salvation or justification but only with their national status. In the contemporary controversy failure to recognize the distinction between condign and congruent merit has hindered the discussion.