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"A Reformed Catholic", William Perkins (6), Of Merits

In this next instalment from A Reformed Catholic Perkins comes to the question of merit.

Indeed it was Rome's sale of the 'surplus merits' of the saints from its treasury of merit that triggered the Reformation in the sixteenth century, giving rise to the Protestant maxim- justification by faith alone.

It must be remembered that when the Reformed Church speaks of justification by faith alone it is referring to the justification of a sinner by the righteousness of Christ alone, both his active and positive obedience, which is imputed to our account. We are not therefore saved by the merit of our own works, not by works of righteousness which we have done (Titus 3:5). This is affirmed by Archbishop Ussher in his Irish Articles, “ [we are] accounted righteous for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, applied by faith…” (Art. 34) and the Heidelberg Catechism "only for the sake of Christ's merit" (Question 21). Nor do our works contribute in any way to meeting the demands of God's justice, which doctrine is set forth by the Westminster Assembly: “we cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin” (Westminster Confession of Faith 16.5).

We must remember that Rome does not deny that grace, faith and the righteousness of Christ are necessary for salvation, but rather its error is that this is not by itself sufficient. What else then is required? To this question Rome answers the merit of our own works, or what it terms congruous merit (meaning that God is not obliged to justify on its basis but rather it is fitting for God to reward such works or that God has covenanted to recognise such works as meritorious). The need of adding man's works to the work of Christ is held forth by the Rome at the Council of Trent

Canon XXIV. If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof: let him be anathema.

Canon XXXII. If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified...does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life— if so be, however, that he depart in grace,—and also an increase of glory: let him be anathema.

But as Reformed Catholics we hold to justification by faith alone and look to him who was made sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Cor 5:21).

Now we come to Perkins treatment of the question.


What is Merit?

By merit, we understand any thing or any work, whereby God's favour and life everlasting is procured; and that for the dignity and excellency of the work or thing done: or, a good work done, binding him that receives is to repay the like.

Our Consent with Rome

Touching merits, we consent in two conclusions with them. The first conclusion, that merits are so far necessary, that without them there can be no salvation. The second, that Christ our Mediator and Redeemer, is the root and fountain of all merit.

The dissent or difference with Rome

The popish Church places merits within man, making two sorts thereof: the merit of the person, and the merit of the work. The merit of the person, is a dignity in the person, whereby it is worthy of life everlasting. And this (as they say) is to be found in infants dying after baptism, who though they want good works, yet are they not void of this kind of merit, for which they receive the kingdom of heaven. The merit of the work, is a dignity or excellency in the work, whereby it is made fit and enabled to deserve life everlasting for the doer. And works (as they teach) are meritorious two ways: first, by covenant, because God has made a promise of reward unto them: secondly, by their own dignity, for Christ has merited, that our works might merit. And this is the substance of their doctrine. From it we dissent in these points:

I. We renounce all personal merits, that is, all merits within the person of any mere man.

II. And we renounce all merit of works, that is, all merit of any work done by any mere man whatsoever. And the true merit whereby we look to attain the favour of God, and life everlasting, is to be found in the person of Christ alone: who is the storehouse of all our merits: whose prerogative it is, to be the person alone in whom God is well pleased. God's favour is of infinite dignity, and no creature is able to do a work that may countervail the favour of God, save Christ alone; who by reason of the dignity of his person, being not a mere man but God man, or Man-God, he can do such works as are of endless dignity every way answerable to the favour of God: and therefore sufficient to merit the same for us. And though a merit or meritorious work agree only to the person of Christ, yet is it made ours by imputation. For as his righteousness is made ours, so are his merits depending thereon: but his righteousness is made ours by imputation, as I have shewed. Hence arises another point, namely that as Christ's righteousness is made ours really by imputation to make us righteous: so we by the merit of his righteousness imputed to us, do merit and deserve life everlasting. And this is our doctrine. In a word, the Papist maintains the merits of his own works: but we renounce them all, and rest only on the merit of Christ. And that our doctrine is truth, and theirs falsehood, I will make manifest by sundry reasons; and then answer their arguments to the contrary.

Our Reasons

Reason 1

The first shall be taken from the properties and conditions that must be in a work meritorious, and they are four.

I. A man must do it of himself, and by himself: for if it be done by another, the merit does not properly belong to the doer.

II. A man must do it of his own freewill and pleasure, not of due debt; for when we do that which we are bound to do, we do no more but our duty.

III. The work must be done to the profit of another, who thereupon must be bound to repay the like.

IV. The reward and the work must be in proportion equal, for if the reward be more than the work, it is not a reward of dessert, but a gift of good will.

Hence follows a notable conclusion: That Christ's manhood considered apart from his godhead, cannot merit at God's hand: though it be more excellent every way than all both men and angels. For being thus considered, it does nothing of itself, but by grace received from the godhead; though it also be without measure. Secondly Christ's manhood is a creature, and in that regard bound to do whatsoever it doth. Thirdly, Christ as man cannot give any thing to God, but that which he received from God: therefore cannot the manhood properly by itself merit, but only as it is personally united unto the godhead of the Son. And if this be so, then much less can any mere man, or any angel merit: yea it is a madness to think, that either our actions or persons should be capable of any merit whereby we might attain to life eternal.

Reason 2

Exod. 20. 8. And SHEW MERCY upon thousands in them that love me, and keep my commandments. Hence I reason thus: where reward is given upon mercy, there is no merit: but reward is given of mercy to them that fulfill the law: therefore no merit. What can we any way deserve, when our full recompense must be of mercy? And this appears further by Adam: if he had stood to this day, he could not by his continual and perfect obedience, have procured a further increase of favour at God's hand, but should only have continued that happy estate in which he was first created.

Reason 3

Scripture directly condemns merit of works. Rom. 6. 23. The wages of sin is death: but THE GIFT OF GOD IS eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. The proportion of the argument required that St. Paul should have said: The reward of good works is eternal life, if life everlasting could be deserved, which cannot: because it is a free gift. Again, Tit. 3. 5. We are saved not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us. And Ephes. 2. v. 8, 10. By grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God: not of works which God hath prepared that we should walk in them. If any works be crowned, it is certain that the sufferings of Martyrs shall be rewarded: now of them Paul says, Rom. 8. 18. The sufferings of this life are NOT WORTHY of the glory to come. Where then is the value and dignity of other works? To this purpose Ambrose said, The just man though he be tormented in the brasen bull is still just, because he justifieth God, and saith he suffereth LESS THAN HIS SINS DESERVE.

Reason 4

Whosoever will merit, must fulfill the whole law, but none can keep the whole law: For if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, 1. John. 1. And he that sins against one commandment is guilty of the whole law. And what can he merit, that is guilty of the breach of the whole law?

Reason 5

We are taught to pray on this manner, Give us this day our daily bread. Wherein we acknowledge every morsel of bread to be the mere gift of God without dessert; and therefore must we much more acknowledge life eternal to be every way the gift of God. It must needs therefore be a satanical insolency for any man to imagine, that he can by his works merit eternal life, who cannot merit bread.

Reason 6.

Consent of the ancient Church.


Those which we call our merits, are the way to the kingdom, and not THE CAUSE OF REIGNING.


All my hope is in the death of my Lord. His death is my merit—: my MERIT IS THE PASSION OF THE LORD. I shall not be void of merits, so long as God's mercies are not wanting. (Manu∣ali. cap. 22. )


On Psalm 114. Eternal rest is reserved for them, which have striven lawfully in this life: not FOR THE MERITS of their doings, but upon the grace of the most bountiful God, in which they trusted.

Augustine on Psalm 120 He crowneth thee, because he crowneth his own gifts, not thy merits. And, Psalm 142. Lord thou wilt quicken me in thy justice, not in mine: not because I have deserved it, but because thou hast compassion.

Objections of Papists

Objection 1

In sundry places of Scripture, promise of reward is made to them that believe and do good works: therefore our works do merit; for a reward and merit be relatives.


Reward is twofold: of debt, and of mercy. Life everlasting is not a reward of debt but of mercy, given of the good will of God, without any thing done of man. Secondly, the kingdom of heaven is properly an inheritance given of a father to a child, and therefore it is called a reward not properly, but by a figure or by resemblance. For as a workman having ended his labour, receives his wages; so after men have lead their lives and finished their course in keeping faith and good conscience, as dutiful children; God gives them eternal life. And hereupon it is termed a reward. Thirdly, if I should grant that life everlasting is a deserved reward, it is not for our works, but for Christ's merit imputed to us, causing us thereby to merit: and thus the relation stands directly between the Reward and Christ's Merit applied unto us.

Objection 2

Christ by his death merited that our works should merit life everlasting.


That is false: all we find in Scripture is, that Christ by his merit procured pardon of sin, imputation of righteousness, and life everlasting: and it is no where said in the word of God, that Christ did merit, that our works should merit: it is a dotage of their own devising. He died not for our good works to make them able to satisfy God's anger: but for our sins, that they might be pardoned. Thus much says the Scripture, and no more. And in that Christ did sufficiently merit life eternal for us, by his own death: it is a sufficient proof that he never intended to give us power of meriting the same: unless we suppose that at some time he gives more than is needful. Again, Christ in the office of mediation as he is a King, Priest, and Prophet, admits no deputy or fellow. For he is a most perfect Mediator, doing all things by himself, without the help of any. And the ministers that dispense the word are not his deputies, but reasonable and voluntary instruments, which he uses. But if men by works can merit increase of grace and happiness for themselves, then has Christ partners in the work of redemption: men doing that by him, which he does of himself, in procuring their salvation. Nay, if this might stand, that Christ did merit, that our works should merit, then Christ should merit that our stained righteousness being for this cause not capable of merit, should nevertheless merit. I call it stained; because we are partly flesh and partly spirit: and therefore in ourselves deserving the curse of the law, though we be regenerate. Again, for one good work we do, we have many evil, the offence whereof defaces the merit of our best deeds, and makes them too light in the balance of the law.

Objection 3

Our works merit by bargain or covenant, because God has promised to reward them.


The word of God sets down two covenants: one legal, the other evangelical. In the legal covenant life everlasting is promised to works, for that is the condition of the law; do these things and thou shalt live. But on this manner can no man merit life everlasting, because none is able to do all that the law requires; whether we respect the manner, or the measure of obedience. In the evangelical covenant, the promises that are made are not made to any work or virtue in man, but to the worker: not for any merit of his own person or work, but for the person and merit of Christ. For example, it is a promise of the Gospel, Be faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life. Rev. 2. 10. Here the promise is not made to the virtue of fidelity, but to the faithful person; whose fidelity is but a token that he is in Christ: for the merit of whose obedience God promises the crown of life: and therefore Christ says further: I come quickly and will give to every man according to his works, he saith not to the work or for the work, but to the worker according to his works. And thus the bond of al other promises of the Gospel, in which God willingly binds himself to reward our works, do not directly concern us, but have respect to the person, and obedience of Christ, for whose sake alone God binds himself as debtor unto us, and gives the recompence or reward, according to the measure of our faith testified by our works. And therefore it cannot be truly gathered: that works do merit by any promise or covenant, passed on God's part to man. Some may say, if works merit not why are they mentioned in the promises? I answer, not because they merit, but because they are tokens that the doer of the work is is in Christ, for whose merit the promise shall be accomplished.

Objection 4

Good works are perfect and without fault, for they are the works of the Holy Ghost, who cannot sin: therefore they merit.


If works did proceed only and immediately from the Holy Ghost, there could not be any fault in them: but our works come from the Holy Ghost, in and by the will and understanding of man and by this means they are tainted with sin: as water in the fountain is both clear and sweet, yet the streams there of passing through the filthy channel, are defiled thereby. Again they reason thus; That which we are bound to do has no fault in it; but we are bound to do good works: therefore they are perfect.

The proposition must be expounded: that which we are bound to do, in itself, according to the intention of the commander, has no fault: or, that which we are bound to do according as we are bound to do it, has no fault, yet in regard of the intention of the doer, or in regard of our manner of doing, it may be faulty.

Objection 5

Christ saith Rev. 3. 4. that the faithful in the Church of Sardis shall walk with him in white: for they are worthy: therefore believers merit.


Every believer is worthy to walk with Christ: yet not worthy in himself, but in Christ, to whom he is united, and made bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. And by reason of this conjunction it is, that men are said to be worthy, be∣cause they are enriched with Christ's merits and righteousness.

Objection 6

2. Tim. 4. 8. Everlasting life is termed a crown, and a crown of righteousness to be given of a just judge: therefore man for his part by his works deserves the same.


Everlasting life is called a crown only in resemblance. For as he which runs a race, must continue and run to the end, and then be crowned: even so must we continue to walk in good works unto the end, and then receive eternal life. And it is called a crown of righteousness, not because it belongs to any man by due and dessert; but because God has bound himself by a promise to give it, in performing whereof he is termed just: and by virtue of this promise, it is obtained and no otherwise.

These are the principal objections, by which we may judge what the rest are. And thus we see what is the truth, namely that merit is necessary to salvation; yet neither merit of man's work, or person, but the merit of Christ imputed to us, whereby we being in him do procure and deserve the favour of God and life eternal.


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