No Merit Before God

“There is no merit before God. Nor should there be merit before Him. True community does not count the merits of its members. Merit is a concept rooted in sin, and well disposed of”. 

I posted part of the above quote as my Facebook status a few Sundays ago. This is the trouble I cause when my wife is called to substitute in Primary.

The status and the responses resulted in a response by Eric Nielsen at Small and Simple.

I wanted to follow up on the idea of merit.

This quote is from the 1942 senior thesis of the philosopher John Rawls. It is a theology thesis. His original career plan had been to go into the clergy. Over the next four years, while serving in World War II, he would lose his faith and turn to secular moral philosophy. I am grateful for that turn. His thesis, along with some related essays has recently been published by Harvard University Press.

The thesis is still a senior thesis and no necessarily a great work of theology or philosophy. Yet, it fascinates me because it shows the theological roots of what will later become one of the greatest works in secular moral and political philosophy…A Theory of Justice.

I have long found similarities between Rawls’ treatment of desert (whether deserve and therefore have moral claim on social status) and Hugh Nibley’s view that the lunch is always free because we are not responsible for having lunch…God is. Nibley condemned the dominance of Social Darwinism in our thought and Rawls did the same thing.

For Rawls, the problem mostly arises when we view ourselves as having merit.

“The human person, once perceiving that the Revelation of the Word is a condemnation of the self, casts away all thoughts of his own merit . . . . The more he examines his life, the more he looks into himself with complete honesty, the more clearly he perceives that what he has is a gift. Suppose he was an upright man in the eyes of society, then he will now say to himself: “So you were an educated man, yes, but who paid for your education; so you were a good man and upright, yes, but who taught you your good manners and so provided you with good fortune that you did not need to steal; so you were a man of a loving disposition and not like the hard-hearted, yes, but who raised you in a good family, who showed you care and affection when you were young so that you would grow up to appreciate kindness – must you not admit that what you have, you have received? Then be thankful and cease your boasting”.”

Let’s compare this take on merit with that expresses by Lehi in 2 Nephi Chapter 2:

8. Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.
While we may need to take upon ourselves certain covenants and ordinances, none of this leads to us having merit unto salvation. It is only through the merits of Jesus Christ.

Yet, we want to be deemed with merit ourselves. I must be doing better than others. I am working so hard. I must, therefore, be a more valiant servant.

Now, many are doing good. Many of you are the most loving people I know of. However, we all must rely on His merits for salvation. To recognize this is an important step. The humility which comes from recognizing our nothingness also allows us to follow Him.

Some people equate the nothingness of man with the idea that humans are evil. We can be, that is for sure. But we are naturally good. Yet, we live in a world that entices us to be carnal and greedy. Let us reject that world and seek after Him who is good.

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