The issue of merit and grace is at the heart of the historic debate between Roman Catholic theology and Protestantism. A major declaration of the Reformation was sola gratia—salvation is by the grace of God alone. Believers bring no merit of their own before the judgment seat of God, but rest solely on God’s mercy and grace.
Merit is defined as that which is earned or deserved. Justice demands that merit be given where it is deserved. Merit is something due a person for a performance. If it is not received, an injustice is committed.
Roman Catholic theology speaks of merit in three distinct ways. It speaks of condign merit, which is so meritorious as to impose an obligation for reward. It also speaks of congruous merit, which, though it is not as high as condign merit, nevertheless is “fitting or congruous” for God to reward it. Congruous merit is achieved by performing good works in conjunction with the sacrament of penance. A third type of merit is supererogatory merit, which is merit above and beyond the call of duty. It is the excess merit achieved by saints. This merit is deposited into the treasury of merit from which the church can draw to apply to the account of those lacking sufficient merit to progress from purgatory to heaven.
Protestant theology denies and “protests” against all three forms of merit, declaring that the only merit we have at our disposal is the merit of Christ. The merit of Christ comes to us by grace through faith. Grace is the unmerited favor of God. It is an action or disposition of God toward us. Grace is not a substance that can inhabit our souls. We grow in grace, not by a quantative measure of some substance in us, but by the merciful assistance of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, acting graciously toward us and upon us. The means of grace God gives to assist us in the Christian life include Scripture, the sacraments, prayer, fellowship, and the nurture of the church.
- Our salvation is sola gratia, by grace alone.
- We have no merit of our own by which God is obligated to save us.
- Roman Catholic theology distinguishes among condign, congruous, and supererogatory merit. All three are rejected by Protestantism.
- Grace is the undeserved favor or mercy of God toward us.