Meriting God’s Grace?
One clause of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that often scandalizes Protestants and “Bible only” Christians is:
Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God’s wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.
Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2010
Protestants and “Bible only” Christians will quickly point out: How can we merit increase of grace? Does this contradict the definition of Grace as free and undeserved gift from God (cf. CCC # 1996)? We need to clarify that the above clause talks about meriting Grace in our Sanctification, not before our conversion to Christ – No one can merit the initial Grace, i.e. faith in Christ (cf. CCC # 2010).
One way to explain how works merit God’ Grace is through real example. Consider missionaries who went to other country to evangelize. They had to do some works before and during their missionary works, like learning the language and culture of the local people, meeting and socializing with them. No one can deny that missionaries must work – they are not on long vacation paid by the institution/church that sent them. If through their missionary works some became Christians, then their missionary works merited the grace of God (in this case faith in Christ) for them. In Catholic understanding it was God’s grace that first moved a person to work as missionary; i.e. it did not come from his/her own initiative. Using his/her freedom, he/she cooperated and worked as missionary. As the outcome of his/her missionary works God gave the gift of faith to some of the people he witnessed. Recall that both Catholics and Protestants believe that faith in Christ is God’s free gift – not from works, be it the works of missionaries or that of particular person. Other example is if we pray for something and God answers our prayer. Catholics believe it is God’s Grace that first moves us to pray: Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part (CCC # 2725). Thus our pray (which is a graced work) merits another Grace, be it a conversion of a friend, a healing etc. To summarize again Catholics believe it is God through His Grace who first moved us to do good works be it doing acts of charity, praying, witnessing etc. Without God’s Grace it is impossible for us to do good works – we do not even have the initiative to do it. We choose, using our freedom, to cooperate with this Grace or not. If we cooperate then our merit is a gift from Him, i.e. it is not something we deserve. Because our merit is a gift then it may come in the form of (increase of) grace and even eternal life.