The Evangelical Universalist Forum

The Catholic Universalist

Today on my blog I have a post up about merit, from that post:

As I’ve written about before, I tend to dissent from or at least quibble with the Protestant rejection of merit. Traditionally, we tend to think of merit as something associated with the teachings of Jesus and the Epistle of James over against Pauline theology and his “justification by faith apart from works.”

But I think this is a misreading of Paul. The full text from Romans is 3.28 is this (emphasis added):

What are these “works of the Law”? If you read Paul and pay attention to the narrative in Acts you come to see that “works of the Law” mainly had to do with submitting to circumcision. This is most clearly seen in Acts 15 and Galatians. Basically, what Paul is saying is that Gentiles who want to be justified before God don’t have to become Jews. Protestants have tended to miss this, missed that Paul’s discussions about faith are about the Jew/Gentile issue rather than about daily moral performance.

Because when we do get to daily moral performance Paul seems to suggest, in a variety of places, that it creates merit. In these locations Paul sounds a lot like Jesus and James. Consider the ending of Galatians, a founding document (along with Romans) of the Reformation’s doctrine of sola fide:

“A man reaps what he sows.”

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

That sounds like merit to me. And it’s a teaching found not with Jesus or James…but in Galatians.

Because I view God’s punishment (the “destruction” mentioned in Gal. 6 above) as God’s refining and purifying fire (the destruction of sins rather than human beings), I tend to have positive views of the Catholic doctrine of merit. As Paul says, we reap what we sow. The love of God graciously gives us consequences–in this life or the next–that move us toward holiness, sanctification and union with God and others. When I describe this view to many Protestants I often get dinged for preaching a “works based righteousness.” But if you are working with Catholic ideas the notion of merit makes that aspect of UR make sense.

What’s also interesting to note is that, as I’ve written about in another thread here, I also find theological resources for UR in the Catholic tradition regarding purgatory.

All that to say, I find a lot of rich theological resources for UR in the Catholic tradition.

The only thing I have against Catholic notions of merit, is the same thing I have against Arminian soteriologies in general: we cannot and don’t have to merit our salvation from sin. Sure we can merit rewards, but God’s persistence at saving us from sin is not a reward for good behavior on our part. God doesn’t have to be convinced to act, or to keep acting, to save us from sin. Someone doesn’t have to sprinkle us when we’re babies to convince God to make sure we’re saved from sin eventually, for example.

We may (and should!) do things which spare us from punishment (and I can see some value in various Roman Catholic notions of purgatory from that direction), but that isn’t a soteriological problem until salvation is primarily regarded as salvation from punishment. And no such things are of any use without repentance (although repentance may be excusably deferred in some cases, due to misunderstandings or emotional problems for example, up until the point of discipline after all relevant preliminary healing has been completed.)

Thanks Jason, I think that is a great clarification. I don’t think the best Catholic theology regarding merit sees merit as tokens that can be exchanged for reward. Any “reward” is experienced as an act of grace. An economy of gifts, on both sides, rather than an economy of equal exchange.

Regardless, the point I’m making is that moral behavior “counts” toward salvation, in an accumulative way, as salvation is operationalized as moral behavior–as sanctification, theosis, divinization, conformity to the image of Christ.

Thanks Richard that’s interesting, although it will take me awhile to think that through - reminds me a bit of George MacDonald’s discussion of obedience.

I certainly agree with

1 Co 3 is another good example I think. Wood, hay, straw, gems, gold, silver.

Thanks Richard for this post. It is a subject I have been thinking a bit about lately. My understanding is that N.T. (Tom) Wright would very much agree with your statement

Like you, Tom also gets "dinged for preaching a ‘works based righteousness’ ".