Heidelberg 63: Rewards Merited For Us By Christ And Given Freely To Believers

Legion of MeritWhen 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.

6 comments

  1. Scott,

    When you say that to set up some sort of correlation between obedience/good works and rewards is to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works, I assume you mean a meritorious correlation. After all, to affirm that it is God’s will to graciously reward good works is to establish a correlation between good works and rewards. The catechism is not saying that God graciously rewards his people irrespective of good works (no correlation at all) but that God rewards our good works.

    • Patrick,

      It’s difficult for me to see how one can establish a correlation between our good words and the rewards given without turning the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. It’s worth noting that in his remarks on number 63 Ursinus did not even address the question of eternal rewards. Instead he only defended the doctrine of free, unconditional (to us) justification and salvation by grace alone, through faith alone against various Romanists objections. In other words, the point of this q/a is to reiterate what has already been taught about free justification and salvation and not to open a backdoor to a works principle in the covenant of grace via proportion. I checked Ursinus’ Larger Catechism (Summa) and he says the same thing there as here.

      WCF 16.6 says:

      6. Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.

      There is no notion of proportionality of rewards there. It sounds the same notes as the Heidelberg. Belgic 24 only says:

      Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works—but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts.

      The Second Helvetic Confession (ch 16) says:

      GOD GIVES A REWARD FOR GOOD WORKS. For we teach that God gives a rich reward to those who do good works, according to that saying of the prophet: “keep your voice from weeping,…for your work shall be rewarded” (Jer. 31:16; Isa., ch. 4). The Lord also said in the Gospel: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:12), and, “Whoever gives to one of these my little ones a cup of cold water, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (ch. 10:42). However, we do not ascribe this reward, which the Lord gives, to the merit of the man who receives it, but to the goodness, generosity and truthfulness of God who promises and gives it, and who, although he owes nothing to anyone, nevertheless promises that he will give a reward to his faithful worshippers; meanwhile he also gives them that they may honor him. Moreover, in the works even of the saints there is much that is unworthy of God and very much that is imperfect. But because God receives into favor and embraces those who do works for Christ’s sake, he grants to them the promised reward. For in other respects our righteousnesses are compared to a filthy wrap (Isa. 64:6). And the Lord says in the Gospel: “When you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Like 17:10).

      Again, no discussion of proportionality.

      Calvin’s (2nd) catechism says virtually the same thing as the others about rewards. No discussion of proportionality.

      Berkhof (p. 737) says:

      Our good works will be the measure of our gracious reward, though they do not merit it. Notwithstanding this, however, the joy of each individual will be perfect and full. (L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 737).

      Hodge says:

      But although Protestants deny the merit of good works, and teach that salvation is entirely gratuitous, that the remission of sins, adoption into the family of God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit are granted to the believer, as well as admission into heaven, solely on the ground of the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ; they nevertheless teach that God does reward his people for their works. Having graciously promised for Christ’s sake to overlook the imperfection of their best services, they have the assurance founded on that promise that he who gives to a disciple even a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, shall in no wise lose his reward. The Scriptures also teach that the happiness or blessedness of believers in a future life, will be greater or less in proportion to their devotion to the service of Christ in this life. Those who love little, do little; and those who do little, enjoy less. What a man sows that shall he also reap. As the rewards of heaven are given on the ground of the merits of Christ, and as He has a right to do what He will with his own, there, would be no injustice were the thief saved on the cross as highly exalted as the Apostle Paul. But the general drift of Scripture is in favour of the doctrine that a man shall reap what he sows; that God will reward every one according to, although not on account of his works. (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 244–45).

      These comments come just after the section where he acknowledges that what he wants to say on this topic is not what “the older Protestant divines” said on it. I.e., he recognized that he was departing from them in teaching proportionality between good works and rewards and he labors to try to show that he isn’t turning the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. I don’t think he succeeded.

      I’m satisfied with “the older Protestant divines” and the confessions on this question.

  2. Amen! Thanks for another great post.
    “I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great Savior.” John Newton

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