When the medieval church thought about rewards, it thought about merit. They distinguished between two kinds or aspects of merit. That which we most frequently discuss was called “condign merit” (meritum de condigno). Condign merit is intrinsically worthy. The second category was “congruent merit” (meritum de congruo). We might call this merit covenantal insofar as the merit is not inherently worthy of recognition but God has promised or covenanted to recognize it .
For the medieval (and later the Roman) church, the two were intimately bound up with one another. Thomas (Aquinas) in his Summa theologica begins to address the question of “whether a man may merit anything from God” (ST 1a2ae 1.114.1). He defined merit briefly as “the effect of cooperating grace” (see 1a2ae 111) . The first objection will seem familiar to many since it is widely held today: “it would seem that a man can merit nothing from God. For no one, it would seem, merits by giving another his due.” Indeed several of the objections to the very existence of merit sound familiar since they are echoed in contemporary Reformed and evangelical discussions, e.g., objection 3: “…whoever merits anything from another makes his debtor…now since God is no one’s debtor…[h]ence no one can merit anything from God. Thomas replied (sed contra)
On the contrary, It is written (Jer. 31:16): There is a reward for thy work. Now a reward means something bestowed by reason of merit. Hence it would seem that a man may merit from God.
For Thomas rewards are by their nature merited. He explains (respdeo dicendum), “merit and reward refer to the same, for a reward means something given anyone in return for work or toil, as a price for it. Hence, as it is an act of justice to give a just price for anything received from another, so also it is an act of justice to make a return for work or toil.”
Thomas recognized that there is disproportionality between God and man. “They are infinitely apart” he wrote, so the “there can be no justice of absolute equality between man and God, but only of a certain proportion.” By casting merit this way, Thomas blurred the distinction between condign and congruent merit. The same act can be said to have condign merit, insofar as it is wrought by cooperating grace and congruent merit insofar as our cooperation is in view (1a2ae 114.3. resp. dicen).
Nevertheless, he insisted that men can merit eternal life condignly (ST 1a2ae 114.3). He anticipates what would become a Protestant objection to humans earning condign merit, i.e., “man in grace cannot merit eternal life condignly because ‘the sufferings of this time are not worthy (condignae) to be compared with the glory to come….’ But of all meritorious works, the sufferings of the saints would seem to be most meritorious. Therefore no works of men are meritorious of eternal life condignly.”
He replied that eternal life is granted “in accordance with a judgment of justice.” He cited 2 Timothy 4:8 and concluded that man merits eternal life condignly. The nature of grace and the movement of the Holy Spirit in us is such that the effect is condignly meritorious. As he says later, insofar as the Spirit produces merit in us, it is condign. Insofar as it is we are coopering willingly an act has congruent merit (1a2ae 114.6, resp. dicen).
Thomas worked out his view of merit in the context of a strong realism, i.e., a very close connection between the relationship between signs and things signified, and against an intellectualist background whereby the human intellect was said to be able to abstract universals (the one) from particulars (the many) and thereby come into contact with the divine intellect. In the centuries that followed there would be strong turn among a number of theologians to views that emphasized the divine will over the divine intellect and that sometimes divorced signs from things signified (nominalism). In the early 16th century, however, Thomas’s theology was making something of a comeback. When Trent reached for a theology to respond to the Reformation, they reached for Thomas’ theology.
It was against this background, resuscitated Thomism, against the background of condign and congruent merit, that the Reformed rejected any notion that we sinners can merit justification or salvation from God condignly or congruently. Relative to righteousness with God or salvation from the wrath to come, the Reformed Churches rejected utterly both our condign and congruent merit. That much is clear from the Reformed confessions. They did not, however, reject the doctrine of merit altogether. Because they were Augustinians (and not Pelagians), they drew the lines between Adam, Christ, and us sinners very carefully. Whereas the Pelagians moved from Adam to us relative to salvation and justification (that’s always a symptom of Pelagianism) and made Jesus the first believer (as if he were in a covenant of grace) and an example for us to follow in order to be justified and saved, the Augustinians had always connected Adam to us relative to sin and corruption. They drew a line between Christ and us for salvation. They made Christ the Savior more than the example. So Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1290–1349) reacted to the Pelagianizing theology of Ockham (d. 1347) and others by re-asserting a strongly Augustinian theology.
This is not to say that the notions of condign and congruent merit could not be put to use in redemptive history. As indicated above, the Reformed repeatedly affirmed that our Lord Jesus condignly merited our justification and our salvation even as they rejected the notion that we could condignly merit them. They rejected utterly the existence of an alleged covenant (proposed by Gabriel Biel, d. 1495) in which, “to those who do what lies within them, God denies not grace” (facientibus quod in se est, Deus non denigat gratiam). Martin Luther said that anyone who thinks that he can “do what lies within him” commits mortal sin. They rejected the underlying anthropology, i.e., the collapsing of nature into grace so that God was said to have endowed humans with antecedent properties with which God was “prepared to cooperate.” In short, Biel et al were proposing that God helps those who help themselves. The Protestants, beginning with Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin and the Reformed churches rejected that whole scheme as nothing less than a return to Pelagianism. Jesus, they taught and confessed, did not die to make justification and salvation possible or available for those who do their part. Rather, they taught and confessed, Jesus came as the Last Adam to fulfill righteousness and that righteousness is condignly meritorious and is imputed to all who believe.
Thus, when the Reformed churches affirm the existence of rewards and deny that they are merited they are distinguishing between Christ the meritorious Savior, who was, as Turretin and Witsius taught, merited our justification and salvation and us sinners who are saved and justified not by “anything done by us or wrought in us” (WCF 11) but only for the sake of Christ’s condign merits imputed to us and received through faith resting and receiving.
63. Do our good works merit nothing, even though it is God’s will to reward them in this life and in that which is to come?
The reward comes not of merit, but of grace (Heidelberg Catechism).
There are heavenly rewards. They are vastly disproportionate to anything done in us or done by us in the life. To set up some sort of correlation between our sanctity or our obedience and future rewards is to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. The catechism is clear: we are in a covenant of grace. God is pleased graciously to reward our good works. That the reward is by grace breaks the correlation. In its nature grace is a gift. Grace is unexpected. Grace cannot be demanded or required. That which is demanded or required is just payment and, in that case, we’re back to the covenant of works again.
The good news is that Christ has condignly merited both our justification and our salvation. Christ’s benefits were earned for us by his works. They are given freely to us who believe. It was works for the Christ and it is grace for us Christians.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.