On Protestants

Can We “Earn” Salvation? On Merit and Grace

Hello. This is the Catholic of Honor again. “Honor”—that is a virtue for which I strive rather than one which I perfectly own. I would like to ask you to pray for the healing of my grandmother who currently has cancer and is very sick. I am trying to pray for her to become Catholic as well. She is currently a non-denominational evangelical.

One of the biggest myths about Catholicism is the belief that they can earn salvation. It is evidently bad, as if we could, Christ’s sacrifice would be insufficient. What is generally brought up is the doctrine of merit. Some have argued that Catholics are not Christians on that account (which, quite frankly, I do not understand as the same people usually say that Catholics worship the Blessed Virgin Mary and occasionally statues, the saints, and the Pope, which would be idolatry). I find it interesting that the same Protestants are generally amiable toward Calvinists who profess to believe in Limited Atonement, the doctrine that Christ chose to bear the sins of and die for only the elect rather than for all, if for no other reason that He did not wish to die for all. If Catholics deny the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, Calvinists certainly do. At any rate, if these Protestants who deny that we are Christians are correct, Justin Martyr is burning in hell right now. In the second century, he wrote: “We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Since if it be not so, but all things happen by fate, neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it be fated that this man, e.g., be good, and this other evil, neither is the former meritorious nor the latter to be blamed.” (First Apology 43) Do not trust me on that, but examine it yourself. Recall that this is Justin Martyr, the great ancient Church Father, philosopher, and martyr. I admit that sighting one Church Father does not prove what the Early Church universally taught, but if this is as fundamental as some camps of evangelicalism claim, St. Justin Martyr was an unsaved wretch.

So, first let us consider Pelagianism—the heresy that we can, in fact, earn salvation. Pelagius denied the primitive state in paradise and original sin, taught that concupiscence and the death of the body were natural rather than a result of sin, and ascribed the actual existence and universality of sin to the bad example which Adam set by his first sin. He regarded the moral strength of man’s will, when steeled by self-discipline, as sufficient in itself to desire and to attain the loftiest ideal of virtue. The value of Christ’s redemption was, in his opinion, limited mainly to instruction and example, which our Savior threw into the balance as a counter-weight against Adam’s wicked example, so that nature retains the ability to conquer sin and to gain eternal life even without the aid of grace. St. Augustine famously fought this heresy, but if one believes he was denied the value of merit, he is sorely mistaken. At another time, Augustine wrote: “During the time, moreover, which intervenes between a man’s death and the final resurrection, the soul dwells in a hidden retreat, where it enjoys rest or suffers affliction just in proportion to the merit it has earned by the life which it led on earth. Nor can it be denied that the souls of the dead are benefited by the piety of their living friends, who offer the sacrifice of the Mediator, or give alms in the church on their behalf. But these services are of advantage only to those who during their lives have earned such merit, that services of this kind can help them. For there is a manner of life which is neither so good as not to require these services after death, nor so bad that such services are of no avail after death; there is, on the other hand, a kind of life so good as not to require them; and again, one so bad that when life is over they render no help.” (On Faith, Hope, and Charity 29:109-110) Thus Augustine both professes to believe in Purgatory and admits that our own meritorious actions can help those in Purgatory to get out.

At this point, I should probably explain what it means to “merit” graces. It is actually a misnomer, as grace is the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God. I honestly do not know exactly why the term “merit” was used, but then, no better term comes to mind. Perhaps some term from Greek or Latin could have been coined, such as homoousian or trinity. But I suppose the ancient Christian theologians knew what they were doing, and who am I to change theological terms used for two thousand years?

Now no one can justly merit anything from God. Only Christ can do that. Merit basically means that if a person allows grace to work in his life and uses that grace to perform good works, God will reward us with more grace because He has freely chosen to associate us with His work, the fatherly action being on the initiative. Any Protestants would admit that under the impetus of God’s grace, Christians do perform good works, and one must admit that we have a “reward” to conform ourselves to the words of Scripture. (Romans 2:6, Galatians 6:7-8) If that is correct, Protestants approach very close to Catholic merit. Any complaint would be chiefly linguistic. (2 Timothy 2:14) Our merits are themselves due to God since good actions proceed in Christ, from the assistance given by the Holy Spirit, making merits themselves gifts. Our good works are not our own, as Pelagius falsely taught, but of Christ working through us. As St. Augustine wrote it elsewhere: “It remains, then, that faith itself, from which all justice takes its beginnings, . . . is to be attributed not to human free will which those men extol, nor to any antecedent merits, since whatever good merits there are begin in faith, which we acknowledge as a gratuitous gift of God.” (Letters 194:3:9) And as our Lord said: “He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:41-42, RSV)

No one, of course, can merit the initial grace for justification received at baptism. Once a person is baptized, he has salvation, provided sanctifying grace is not rejected by mortal sin. Orthodox Protestants would agree, at very least, that sanctifying grace can be lost by the mortal sin of apostasy. Some would argue that going to reconciliation to have the sin forgiven is a work, meaning that we can in some way earn salvation. Part of the reason why God requires this is to destroy our pride, but the sacrament is certainly nothing near to full recompense for mortal sin. Actually, sacraments give grace ex opere operato—not as the result of virtue or disposition on the part of the recipient but by the power and promise of God. A proper disposition is, of course, necessary to receive grace in the sacraments. In the case of the reconciliation, the recipient cannot plan on committing another mortal sin in the future, for instance. However, it is not the cause of that grace. Protestants usually agree that we must have faith to be saved. Faith is also a theological virtue and one cannot have it without initial grace, but one must allow that grace to work in his life. A Calvinist would say that grace is irresistible, but even so, a theological virtue is still necessary for salvation. But an Arminianist agrees that we must cooperate with what Christ’s work and grace by belief to be saved (for no one can believe without the grace of God), and a Calvinist still admits that we must have the virtue of faith. After all, Christ died for everyone—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Hindus, Scientologists, Pastafarians, and those who adhere to all other religions. (1 Timothy 2:6, 1 Timothy 4:10, 1 John 2:2) What matters is what we do with the grace that Christ provided. If someone gives a gift, it can be accepted or rejected, but the ability of the receiver to reject the gift makes it no less a gift from the giver. The only way to say that nothing is necessary to be saved is universalism—the believe that all are saved. Catholics believe that charity, agape love, is necessary for salvation, which is another theological virtue. So, if Catholics believe they can earn salvation by charity, one could say that Protestants believe they can earn salvation by faith. The sacraments are necessary for salvation as well, but there is nothing inherently virtuous or vicious about the form and matter in them, save that Christ named them so. Faith is a theological virtue and the sacraments are not.

So the answer is no. Catholics do not believe that they can earn or merit salvation in a true sense, unless Protestants also believe as such. We certainly cannot merit justification. We must cooperate with God by striving to follow his will, but Protestants believe we must cooperate with Him as well by belief at any rate.

Bonum Certamen Certemus

I am the Catholic of Honor

By The Chivalric Catholic

Hello, I am the Chivalric Catholic or the Catholic of Honor. I conform all my beliefs to the Magisterium founded by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit. The short explanation of who I am is a teenager with nostalgia for the Middle Ages. I have a love for apologetics, honor, and literature (especially adventures). I believe it is important and honorable to respect my opponents in this. If anything I write is contrary to the Faith (after all, I have no degrees) please write to me and inform me.

7 replies on “Can We “Earn” Salvation? On Merit and Grace”

When you kindly requested a prayer for your Grandmother, I realized that you are a young person.
It is clear that spiritual maturity is not necessarily linked with chronological age.
You already have amazing spiritual insight.
Thanks. 🌷

Liked by 1 person

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