Merits in Catholicism
Catholic teaching on merit is commonly misunderstood by non-Catholics. Many thinks that Catholics believe we must do good works to merit salvation or eternal life, just like a worker must work to merit his/her wages. Catholic teaching that we can merit eternal life and increase of grace  is definitely scandalous to Protestants and “Bible only” Christians – it even fuels their common charge that Catholics believe in salvation by works.
Six clauses of Catechism of the Catholic Church, clause # 2006 to # 2011, deal with Catholic teaching on merits. It first defines merit (# 2006), in general, as recompense owed by a community or a society for the action of one of its members, experienced either as beneficial or harmful, deserving reward or punishment. Merit is relative to the virtue of justice, in conformity with the principle of equality which governs it. Under this general definition a worker merits his wages. It will be injustice if the employer refuses to pay his/her wages. Note that both employer and workers are equal – the employer needs workers to do the work while a worker does the work to earn his/her wages. His/her wages are not gifts from the employer but something he/she deserves.
Does the Catholic Church teach we deserve merits or reward from our good works, just like a worker merits his/her wages? The answer is NO – the Catechism (# 2007) states that with regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. The same clause gives the reason: Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator. Because of this immeasurable inequality we cannot apply the general understanding of merit, described in the previous paragraph, to our merits in relation to our salvation. Unlike our employer, God does not need our works because He can do everything by Himself. He can rain down food from heaven to feed the hungry; He can bring the good news to anybody on earth without the help of any missionary.
The next question is: does Scripture say God rewards us for our good works? The answer is YES – there are ample verses from Scripture, both Old and New Testaments saying that God does reward us for our good works. He who respects the commandment will be rewarded (Proverbs 13:13). The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me [Psalms 18:20]. Look to yourselves that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward [2 John 8]. Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done [Revelation 22:12]. Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven [Luke 6:23]. Does Scripture say the rewards of our good works include eternal life? Again, the answer is YES. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment [John 5:28-29]. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life [Romans 2:6-7].
Thus while we do not deserve any reward from God for doing good works, according to Scripture, He nevertheless still rewards us and His reward even includes eternal life. The Catechism (# 2008) provides explanation: The merit of man before God arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. God chose some of us to be His agents to show love to others like feeding the hungry. He chose others to be His agents to bring good news to mankind etc. It is worth to mention that in Catholicism the initiative of doing such works always comes from God – The same clause says the fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his [man] collaboration . Because of this, the same clause further says that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Men’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit. To be able to do good works, we must connect ourselves to the true vine, Christ, who said apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:1-5).
The next clause (# 2009) explains that our filial adoption [as children of God] can bestow true merit on us as a result of God’s gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17) and worthy of obtaining the promised inheritance of eternal life. This means, as the same clause further says, the merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness. Our merits are God’s gifts. Thus in Catholicism the merits of our good works are not something we deserve (like our wages) but they are gifts from God. The first clause dealing with merit (# 2006) is preceded with a phrase from Augustine (354 to 430 AD):
You [God] are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts.
Clause # 2010 says: Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. We neither have to do good works nor must become good persons to make God take the initiative to move our hearts to have faith in Christ. Faith in Christ is gift from God, irrespective of our past behaviour, whether we were good or evil persons. This is how Catholics understand Ephesians 2:8, the verse mostly quoted by Protestants and “Bible only” Christians to support their belief of by faith alone salvation. Catholics understand the phrase “not by works” in Ephesians 2:8 to mean works before our conversion to Christ, while to Protestants and “Bible only” Christians it means all works, before and after our conversion to Christ.
Since our merits are God’s gifts and are not something we deserve, then they may come in the form of increase of grace and even eternal life. John 1:16 says that through Christ we receive grace upon grace. Thus Clause # 2010 says: 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. Finally, the sixth clause (# 2011) says that the charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merits before God and before men.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2010, Council of Trent: Canon XXXII of the Decree on Justification
- This is known as synergism, also in Clause # 2010. It is not semi-pelagianism who says that the initiative belongs to man.