From my book, The One-Minute Apologist (2007); but this is my initial draft version: different in several ways from the text of the published book.
The Catholic System of Merit is Contrary to Grace Alone
No one can earn salvation by their own works; it’s impossible
Many non-Catholics dimly understand the Catholic notion of merit. Rightly understood (see Catechism citations below), it is indeed harmonious with Grace Alone.
In the Catholic view, “meritorious actions” must be entirely enabled, caused, preceded by, and “soaked in” God’s grace, without which there is no merit. Merit is God “crowning his own gifts,”as the great Church father St. Augustine put it. The Bible often indicates a reward for our actions (done only in God’s grace). This is what Catholics mean by “merit” (blue-colored emphases added):
Matthew 5:11-12 (RSV): “’Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.’” (cf. Mk. 9:41; Jas. 1:12; Rev. 2:10, 3:11-12)
Matthew 19:29: “’And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.’” (cf. 19:21)
Luke 6:38: “’give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’” (cf. Col. 3:23-24)
1 Corinthians 3:6-9: “I planted, Apol’los watered, but God gave the growth.
So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (cf. 3:14; 2 Cor. 9:6; 2 Tim. 4:8)
Ephesians 6:8: “knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.” (cf. Matt. 16:27)
Hebrews 10:35: “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.” (cf. 6:10; Matt. 20:4; 2 John 8)
Hebrews 11:6: “And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27)
But Catholics often speak in terms of having to “earn” or “merit” heaven. Does this not imply a system of rewards and punishments based on what man does, not what God does in offering us free grace and salvation won by Jesus Christ on the cross?
Reply to Objection
This is a classic case of differing terminology. Words like these must be understood in the larger context of Catholic teaching on the universal necessity of God’s grace for every good action on the part of man. We are only cooperating with God, not originating our own “goodness” or “merit.” They refer not to man’s “earning” heaven as if by right, according to some standard of justice, but by gift, according to the rewards God has promised us — rewards infinitely greater than our token actions deserve.
Many Protestants deride any cooperation with God at all; yet the Bible clearly teaches that we must do so (by His grace) in order to attain final salvation (1 Cor. 3:9 above; also Mk. 16:20: “And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them”). Another verse from St. Paul expresses the thought perfectly:
2 Corinthians 6:1: “Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.”
If God (the Holy Spirit) inspires, prompts, initiates our good works, leading to merit, how then, can it be said that they “originate” with us? Catholics contend that human beings, enabled by grace, can cooperate with God: an explicit, undeniable, biblical, Pauline doctrine. God begins the process, and then we also participate in it.
Catechism of the Catholic Church
2008: “The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.”
2009: “Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God’s gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us ‘co-heirs’ with Christ and worthy of obtaining ‘the promised inheritance of eternal life.’ The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness. ‘Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due. . . . Our merits are God’s gifts.’ [St. Augustine] ”
2011: “The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.”
Meta Description: The Catholic notion of merit, rightly understood, is harmonious with salvation by “grace alone.”
Meta Keywords: appropriation of grace, Catholic soteriology, co-laborers with God, cooperation with God’s grace, Faith Alone, fellow workers, grace, grace alone, heaven, imputed justification, infused justification, Justification, merit, Pelagianism, Philippians 2:12, Salvation, sanctification, semi-Pelagianism, soteriology, synergy, salvation by works