Rev José Mario O Mandía
Can we claim a reward for a good deed? Can we merit anything with our works? Or is it God’s grace and mercy alone that saves us?
Jesus, however, talks about rewards for doing good (Matthew 5:12,46; 6:1,2,4-6,16,17;10:41-42; Mark 9:41; Luke 6:23,35).
The CCCC (No. 426) explains: “In general, merit refers to the right to recompense for a good deed.” Strictly speaking, one can ask for a just recompense when it is between equals, like a laborer who is demanding that his employer pay him his monthly salary after performing his part of the contract. But God is not our equal. “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator” (CCC No. 2007).
“However, God gives us the possibility of acquiring merit through union with the love of Christ, who is the source of our merits before God. The merits for good works, therefore, must be attributed in the first place to the grace of God and then to the free will of man” (CCCC No. 426).
Theologians usually distinguish between two kinds of merit: (1) condign merit or meritum de condigno and (2) congruous merit or meritum de congruo.
(1) Condign merit: It is God himself who obliges and promises to reward the works of those who have been incorporated into His Beloved Son Jesus Christ through Baptism and are in the state of grace. It is a bit like when our parents promise to pay us for some chore that they want us to do. We can find an explanation of this in the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 20.
(2) Congruent merit: God, out of his mercy and liberality, bestows his merit to those who seek him in faith.
WHAT WE CAN MERIT WITH CONDIGN MERIT
“Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others (1.1) the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. (1.2) Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God’s wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions” (CCC No. 2010).
WHAT WE CANNOT MERIT WITH CONDIGN MERIT
(2.1) The initial grace of justification (the first grace). “Justification ….is the merciful and freely-given act of God which takes away our sins and makes us just and holy in our whole being. It is … given to us in Baptism. Justification is the beginning of the free response of man, that is, faith in Christ and of cooperation with the grace of the Holy Spirit” (CCCC No. 422).
“Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion” (CCC No. 2010).
St Thomas teaches: “No one can merit condignly for another his first grace, save Christ alone … But one may merit the first grace for another congruously; because a man in grace fulfills God’s will, and it is congruous and in harmony with friendship that God should fulfill man’s desire for the salvation of another, although sometimes there may be an impediment on the part of him whose salvation the just man desires” (S Th I-IIae q114 a6).
(2.2) The grace of final perseverance. St Thomas teaches that the “perseverance of the wayfarer does not fall under merit, since it depends solely on the Divine motion, which is the principle of all merit. God freely bestows the good of perseverance, on whomsoever He bestows it” (S Th I-IIae q114 a9). However, the CCC (No. 2016) notes: “The children of our holy mother the Church rightly hope for the grace of final perseverance and the recompense of God their Father for the good works accomplished with his grace in communion with Jesus (cf. Council of Trent (1547): DS 1576).”
CAN MERITS BE LOST?
Yes. All merit is lost when we commit mortal sin. It is the common opinion of theologians that those merits are restored once we repent and are forgiven in Confession. They infer this from the text “For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for his sake” (Hebrew 6:10).
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