Luther and Calvin’s view on reward of good works
How the Reformers view merits from our good works? In the words of John Calvin:
All we assign to man is that, by his impurity he pollutes and contaminates the very works which were good. The most perfect thing which proceeds from man is always polluted by some stain. Should the Lords therefore bring to judgment the best of human works, he would indeed behold his own righteousness in them; but he would also behold man’s dishonour and disgrace.
Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, III.15.3
Calvin’s teaching that our good works are defiled is echoed in Westminster Confession of Faith. Westminster Confession is confession of faith of English-speaking Presbyterians. It was completed in 1646 and approved after some revisions in June 1648.
We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit, and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.
Westminster Confession XVI.5
Martin Luther went even further by declaring that our good works are not only imperfect but are also sinful acts. To the believers in Christ, His perfect righteousness will cover and hide this imperfection. In Luther’s own words:
Thus we sin even when we do good, unless God through Christ covers this imperfection and does not impute it to us. Thus it becomes a venial sin, though the mercy of God, who does not impute it for the sake of faith and the plea on behalf of this imperfection for the sake of Christ. Therefore, he who thinks that he might be regarded as righteous because of his works is very foolish, since if they were offered as a sacrifice to the judgment of God, they still would be found to be sins. . . . . . Therefore iniquity will be found in his righteousness, that is, even his good works will be unrighteous and sinful. This iniquity will not be found in believers and those who cry to Him, because Christ has brought them aid from the fullness of his purity and has hidden the imperfection of theirs.
Luther’s Works, Vol. 25, pages 276-277
What is the position of the Catholic Church on merit of good works? Catholics believe that we do not deserve any reward from our good works because we cannot do it unless we are first moved by God’s Grace. When God rewards us for our good works, which He does (Psalms 18:20, Proverbs 13:13, 25:21-22, Matthew 6:3-6, 2 John 8, Revelation 22:12) – his reward is a gift from him, i.e. it is not something we deserve. Because the reward is a gift then it may come in the form of increase of grace and even eternal life. Scripture testifies that God rewards us with eternal life for our good works (Matthew 25:34-40, John 5:28-29).